Boston Univ. political scientist Piven and co-author Cloward, a Columbia Univ. social work professor, argued in their...


THE NEW CLASS WAR: Reagan's Attack on the Welfare State and Its Consequences

Boston Univ. political scientist Piven and co-author Cloward, a Columbia Univ. social work professor, argued in their previous books (Regulating the Poor, The Politics of Turmoil, Poor People's Movements) that whatever benefits the poor got out of the government came as a result of rioting and social upheaval, and were susceptible to being withdrawn once things settled down. They have now moved away from this cyclical model and think that the Reagan administration's policies on social programs mark a crossroads rather than a downward swing in the cycle. The old tradeoff of inflation for employment ceased to make sense for the economic powers, they argue, once unions became strong enough to have cost of living increases built into their contracts, bringing the wage bill up with the inflation. (Before that, they could pass inflation along in price hikes; now the price hikes come back as wage increase.) So capitalists have turned to the state to facilitate a policy of forced unemployment and labor discipline. To Piven and Cloward, the Reagan administration's elimination of social programs is intended to revive the fear of unemployment, thus rendering the labor movement docile and more productive. (The UAW's renegotiated contract with Ford, which occurred after this text was written, falls in line with their expectations.) This is part of an overall assault by business that includes redistribution of wealth upward--through regressive tax cuts and increased military spending (which aids capital-intensive industry)--and devolution of welfare programs to the states, which are much more susceptible to business pressures (cut taxes and services or we'll move to another state). But despite the early successes of this strategy, Piven and Cloward think that it will ultimately fail--a faith they rest on their historical view of the gradual widening of the conception of economic rights. The working class and the poor have been able to obtain economic rights by taking their battle to the national state, where the business counter-offensive has now struck; and they argue that these rights have become so firmly identified with the popular notion of democracy that the workers and poor will no longer accept their old status as legally equal but economically impotent. A fundamental part of their hope, however, rests on a faith in labor's ability to recognize that its own well-being depends on the well-being of those below--and ultimately on the security the poor gain from not fearing absolute destitution. There's little sign at present, though, that such recognition is widespread. As an analysis of what's going on, this has much to commend it--the brevity is admirable, and the historical recapitulation of the state's role in capitalism is excellent; as prognostication, it's perhaps too rosy.

Pub Date: May 26, 1982


Page Count: -

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 1982