The Obama-Piven Strategy

We are in the middle of an epochal struggle over the direction of American economic policy.

The Democrats, who are currently in charge, want to follow a Keynesian model, which entails massive government spending — with its attendant tax increases and soaring deficit — to jump-start the economy.


The Republicans think the solution to our economic doldrums is to lower taxes and decrease spending, to stimulate business activity and help the nation climb out of its crippling debt.

And then there’s Barack Obama….

You might think he would be the natural spokesman for the Democratic strategy. And when the cameras are turned on, he is. But under the surface he’s also an advocate for a third economic policy, one that isn’t spoken of in polite company: The Cloward-Piven Strategy.

Problem is, the Cloward-Piven Strategy is not simply some alternate theory about the best way to rescue the American economy. Quite the opposite, in fact. Its goal is to intentionally ruin the economy, so as to arouse popular outcry for a revolutionary and fundamental change in our economic system.

I propose that President Obama is simultaneously trying to rescue the economy using the Keynesian/Democratic model while at the same time also trying to destroy the economy through the Cloward-Piven Strategy. His two mutually contradictory plans cancel each other out, rendering all his efforts self-negating, and this explains why the American economy has stalled.

I dub this the Obama-Piven Strategy. And it’s the reason why we remain mired in a deep recession. We are neither recovering, as the Keynesian model predicts, nor is capitalism collapsing, as the revolutionaries hope; the Obama-Piven strategy ensures that we remain in suspended animation between the two extremes.

(No offense to Cloward, it’s just that the “Obama-Piven Strategy” rolls off the tongue more easily than the “Cloward-Obama Strategy.”)

The Basics

The Cloward-Piven Strategy, for those of you unfamiliar with it, was named after its formulators, two Columbia University sociologists named Richard Cloward and Frances Fox Piven. In an influential 1966 essay published in The Nation magazine, they outlined a strategy through which every American would receive a nationwide “guaranteed annual income.” To bring this about, they essentially recommended that as many people as possible should be enrolled in government welfare programs so as to intentionally bankrupt the system; our elected officials would then feel politically compelled to create an overarching permanent drastic solution to the welfare problem, restructuring our free-market economy along socialistic lines — what the authors described as “the outright redistribution of income.”


Now, I’m not here to assess the wisdom or likelihood of the Cloward-Piven Strategy. I’m only pointing out that its intent, unlike those of traditional economic theories, is to wreak havoc on and eventually destroy the American economy, as part of a larger political goal. And that its proposed mechanism for destroying the economy is to maximize the number of people receiving government benefits.

Handy Charts

The following four color-coded charts summarize the four economic theories competing for dominance in contemporary America.

We’ll start with the Republican Strategy, since for the purposes of this article it is (temporarily, at least) an outlier:

The 2010 Republican Economic Strategy
Reduce taxes and decrease spending
Goal: To improve the economy in the long run by stimulating business activity and lowering the deficit
Free market / small government fiscal theory

Note that this is actually the Tea Party strategy; it has only recently been adopted (in theory, at least) by the Republican Party, which formerly had not been very strict about minimizing the deficit.

Next, the Democrats:

The 2010 Democratic Economic Strategy
Raise taxes and increase spending
Goal: To improve the economy in the short run by taking in higher revenue and distributing cash to stimulate consumption
Keynesian economics

In a sane world, those would be the only two charts we’d need. But tucked away in our new president’s ideological baggage was yet a third strategy, which is not exactly equivalent to the other two:

The 2010 Cloward-Piven Economic Strategy
Increase government programs, welfare demands, handouts and benefits to as many people as possible
Goal: To destroy the economy as a necessary precursor to a more drastic redistributionist/socialist makeover of society
Intentionally bankrupting the capitalist system to initiate revolutionary change

Now, if you were to combine the two strategies above, you’d get the actual current winner in the Battle of the Economic Theories, the self-defeating combo-strategy confusingly championed by the leader of our nation:

The 2010 Obama-Piven Economic Strategy
Increase government programs, handouts, benefits, taxes and spending as rapidly and drastically as possible
Goal: To simultaneously destroy and improve the economy
A muddled combination of the Democratic Strategy and the Cloward-Piven Strategy

A Generalized Term

As originally formulated in their Nation essay, Cloward’s and Piven’s recommendations were highly specific to the 1966 political climate. They discuss at length the alliances of the mid-’60s Democratic Party, and derive their theories from the assumption that welfare programs are operated mostly at the state and local level (as many were, in those days). Consequently, 21st-century progressives seeking to quash discussion of Cloward-Piven often dismiss it as anachronistic and not relevant to the modern world, and point to the theory’s now-outdated specifics as proof that it’s no longer worth getting worked up over.

But when we speak of “The Cloward-Piven Strategy” in 2010, we are speaking of the generalized form of the theory. This often happens with political ideas: They emerge in a highly specific historical context, but later become universalized. For example, “fascism” no longer refers in common parlance to a bunch of Italian nationalists running around in black shirts, but rather has been generalized over the decades to describe any totalitarian attitude. Even Marxism, in its original formulation, concerned itself with Industrial-Revolution-era class distinctions which by now no longer even exist, yet we can still speak of Marxism in the modern era because we are referring to the principles underlying Marxism, not the idiosyncratic details spelled out in the mid-19th century.

And so, in a similar vein, when I discuss the “Cloward-Piven Strategy” in this essay, I’m speaking of the generalized principle behind the strategy, rather than the era-specific details about “Dixiecrats” and “the ghetto vote” mentioned in the Nation article.

In modern terms, the “Cloward-Piven Strategy” refers to the goal of bringing about a stealth economic revolution by intentionally overburdening the capitalist system with welfare demands until the economy collapses, necessitating a fundamental social restructuring.

Feature or Bug?

There is a stubborn whisper among the crowds at Tea Parties: that the ruinous “side-effects” of Obama’s economic measures and social programs are a feature, not a bug. In other words, despite a fawning media which strives to portray Obama as having only the best of intentions, many Americans suspect that Obama isn’t trying to rescue the economy at all, but instead is purposely trying to ruin America’s fiscal health not just currently but also for generations into the future. And that the ultimate purpose of this seemingly irrational agenda is to end capitalism as we know it and usher in a socialist economic system.


The Cloward-Piven Strategy is fairly well-known among the Tea Party cognoscenti and pro-capitalism pundits, but it remains obscure to the general populace. And while certain elements of the old-school far left openly embrace the notion behind the Cloward-Piven Strategy, many left-wing commentators heap scorn and mockery on any conservative who dares to mention it — and the very same progressives who struggle fiercely to enact the Cloward-Piven Strategy will simultaneously deride the “conspiracy thinking” of Republicans who point out the true goal of the progressive agenda.

Cloward-Piven: Playing by the Rules to Break the System

The federal government has all sorts of laws and regulations on the books that are not actively enforced — the most famous among these being laws against foreign citizens entering and remaining in the country illegally, which the federal authorities under Obama not only ignore but even vigorously oppose when any state (such as Arizona) attempts to enforce the feds’ own statutes.

Similarly, over the decades there have accumulated dozens of federal and state welfare programs, benefits, handouts, class-action suits, unending “emergency” loans and bailouts, scholarships and guarantees which have never been fully exploited by the eligible recipients. On this point, Cloward and Piven were entirely correct. They showed in their paper how the number of people eligible for welfare benefits far exceeded the number of people actually receiving them. For whatever reason — pride, ignorance, self-reliance, you-name-it — a significant number of people do not sign up for government handouts potentially due them. One can see a prototypical example of this happening on a micro-scale in San Francisco, when city-sponsored activists occasionally fan out on the streets to offer S.F.’s legions of homeless people free housing, food, job training and more — all just for the asking. The response? Often as not, the long-term homeless will turn down the offers, saying they would prefer to sleep in the park than in a shelter, would prefer to eat foraged food than at a soup kitchen, would prefer to remain defiantly self-reliant bums than become comfortable vassals of the welfare system.

Such an attitude is mystifying and infuriating to activists like Cloward and Piven, who see the poor as shock troops whose very poverty can be leveraged to topple the entire capitalist system. To discourage any sparks of self-reliance or proud independence amongst the poor, the left invented a profession called “community organizer,” whose very purpose is get the underclass addicted to government handouts — an essential component needed for the Cloward-Piven Strategy to work. What did you think “community organizers” do when they organize communities? Ever seen ACORN at work? “Community organizing” groups such as ACORN are in fact the physical embodiment of the Cloward-Piven Strategy. They exist to encourage as many people as possible to sign up for all the benefits, welfare programs and handouts for which they could conceivably be eligible (and, as various investigations have revealed, many benefits for which they aren’t).


Is it therefore any surprise that Barack Obama described himself as a community organizer and once worked with ACORN? With that sort of track record — not to mention that he also went to school at Columbia, where both Cloward and Piven taught and where their strategy was born, and that he himself said he hung out with “Marxist professors” in college — there’s no question that Obama must be intimately familiar with the Cloward-Piven Strategy and the principles behind it.

A Fiscal Pushmi-Pullyu

A fiscal pushmi-pullyu cozying up to a Keynesian donkey

Remember, I’m not claiming that Obama is waging all-out war on our economy, purposely trying to undermine it. The paradox of the Obama-Piven Strategy is that it goes in both directions simultaneously, like a fiscal Pushmi-Pullyu (that two-headed creature in Dr. Dolittle). On one hand, Obama is a radicalized community organizer trying to bring down the capitalist system with an endless parade of demands and handouts. But on the other hand, he’s a mainstream Democrat cooperating with and promoting a widely respected economic theory — big-government Keynesianism — to save the capitalist system. Which is it, Mr. President? Are you with us, or against us? It seems, amazingly, that the answer is both: half the time he’s working to salvage the economy, and the other half he’s purposely trying to savage it.

How could this be? A growing number of Americans suspect that he’s not really conflicted at all, that he merely pretends to be a mainstream liberal trying in his clumsy way to rescue the economy, as a façade — but that his real sympathies lie with the far-far-left radicals who want to use Cloward-Piven to destroy capitalism now and forever.

Me, I have a different explanation. I think it’s unconscious. I think Obama is on auto-pilot and never really sat down and pondered the distinction between trying, on one hand, to save the economy with government spending and, on the other hand, to ruin the economy with…government spending. It all blurs together after a while, doesn’t it?


That’s because there is a bit of Cloward-Piven inherent in Keynesian theory itself. When Nancy Pelosi in all seriousness announces (as she did) that indefinitely extended unemployment benefits are a great way to stimulate the economy, then we’ve seemingly crossed the frontier into Cloud-Cuckoo-Land. Or have we? The original goal of Cloward-Piven, after all, was to bring about a “guaranteed annual income” for all Americans, and wouldn’t the arrival of permanent unemployment benefits for everyone essentially bring us to the same station, albeit by a different track?


Cloward-Piven’s idea rested on the old Marxist notion that in order to have a revolutionary change in the economic order, you first need to precipitate a major social or bureaucratic crisis which the populace will then demand be solved by junking the old system in toto and ushering in an entirely new structure. But the modern Democrat version of progressive economics seems to dispense with the need for a revolution altogether: Once you’re in power, with a cooperative media, you can simply declare that you already have the overwhelming popular mandate needed to bring about by legislative fiat the universal income distribution that those naive old Marxists thought could only be achieved by actual popular demand. Why waste time with a messy and unnecessary revolution when you can attain the same thing incrementally? If you control all branches of government and the media, who’s to stop you or argue?

Well, Tea Party activists and 40 filibustering Republican senators, that’s who. The Pelosi/Reid Incremental Cloward-Pivenistas marched up and down the field practically unopposed for over a year and were on the verge of sealing a permanent legislative victory when the fiscal conservatives suddenly began putting up a stubborn goal-line stand. A palpable sea-change in the electorate’s mood gave the Republicans the courage to become “The Party of No,” since it became self-evident in 2010 that a majority of Americans wanted someone to stop the Democratic plan of revolutionizing America without actually having a revolution.

Cloward and Piven stated that in order to usher in a socialistic system, we first must intentionally ruin the capitalist economy. Pelosi and Harry Reid are trying to achieve the same end goal but do so while capitalism is still healthy enough to fend for itself. Perhaps after all it is Pelosi and Reid and the Democrats who are naive: What 2010 has shown us is that Americans will not consent to smiley-face socialism. Maybe those old Marxists were right — you do need to have a total social and economic meltdown as a necessary precursor for revolution. And it hasn’t happened here yet.

You’ve Had Your Fun, Mr. President

Which half of our Jekyll-and-Hyde president will emerge dominant? Will he abandon his youthful dreams of a revolutionized America and age gracefully into a standard run-of-the-mill Keynesian liberal? Or will he drop the mask and go the full Cloward-Piven on us?


I say let’s take the choice out of his hands. If enough small-government fiscal conservatives win office this November, it won’t matter which side of his schizoid economic policy the president chooses. Instead, the Obama-Piven Strategy will mercifully be forever consigned to the dustbin of history.


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