The ongoing war of words between Glenn Beck and Frances Fox Piven over the prospect of workers rioting in the streets isn’t just a two-way dance. Stanley Kurtz has provided insight into Piven’s work over the years in his book, Radical-in-Chief, and a prominent figure of the left, Barbara Ehrenreich, has fired back. In an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, Ehrenreich said that the reaction to Piven’s writings shows that America is “no longer a democracy but a tyranny of the heavily armed.”
Ehrenreich’s position contains a kernel of truth, but the real armed tyranny is the one Piven seeks to impose.
We have a window into Ehrenreich’s thoughts on violent struggle from her book on the subject, Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War. I attended a presentation Ehrenreich gave during my senior year of college precisely because of the contrast it might provide to my own views. Ehrenreich was a pacifist seeking to understand the passions that drive war so that they might be stifled or stamped out, while I was about to take a commission in the Army and head off to Infantry Officer Basic Course and Ranger School.
Ehrenreich traces man’s capacity for conflict back to the time when he was not at the top of the food chain. Early man’s violent instinct grew out of necessity; the need to build primitive weapons and fight in groups to kill natural predators, primarily lions and other big cats.
A rallying instinct lies at the heart of a successful hunt. Members of a hunting party must be willing to lay down their lives for each other, facing a beast with speed and natural weapons that would overwhelm each man individually. The bond produced by this group experience surpasses anything that develops on the football field. Indeed, combat is the only place where the phenomenon exists today.
In Ehrenreich’s view, this rallying instinct made the move from a hunter-gatherer society possible, but it also facilitated conflict between tribes and nations. Tribes rallied around the skin of an impressive kill or a totem symbolizing their most-feared predator when in conflict over land and natural resources.
As we began to aggregate our self-interests into larger groups, the totem became a flag, and the rallying instinct became nationalism or patriotism. The political class, the villains in Ehrenreich’s telling of the tale, could then use patriotism to manipulate the masses toward war.
While Ehrenreich takes a few feminist detours along the way, her theory on the origin of a rallying instinct I understood – patriotism – rang true. Ehrenreich’s assertion that we all have a remnant of this tribal instinct is consistent with thinkers across the spectrum. Blood Rites may make an appropriate companion to Victor Davis Hanson’s The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern.
Ehrenreich admitted defeat at the end of the presentation. She noted that while some of the best of man’s nature is brought forth by war – think of a grunt throwing himself on a grenade to save his brothers in arms – she saw no way to turn these selfless instincts against war itself.
This is why Ehrenreich’s defense of Piven is a bit disappointing (though not surprising – both are Honorary Chairs at the Democratic Socialists of America). Piven’s citation of the riots in Greece as an example for American workers to follow is hardly an example of non-violence in action.
More disturbing is Ehrenreich’s blindness to – or obfuscation of – the fact that government is organized violence, and a push for government to do more is not a pacifistic stance. The rule of law is the threshold at which the government will spill blood and confiscate treasure. Changing the rule of law to guarantee equality of outcomes, not simply equality of opportunity, is a proposal for violence.
Government enforcement of a redistributive policy – taxes to support more handouts have to come from somewhere – is done with at least the implicit threat of violence sanctioned by the state. Try and resist and at some point men with guns – the police, IRS, or Marshals – get involved. SEIU President Andy Stern put this option on the table, explaining that his organization was using the “power of persuasion” before getting government to use the “persuasion of power.”
Ehrenreich talks a good game about seeking peace, but in the end she’s simply cheerleading from the other side of the battlefield. But this battlefield should remain rhetorical. The threats against Piven are inexcusable. We should oppose redistributive instincts – peacefully – now, not after the coercion of government takes the field in support of progressive efforts to “spread the wealth around.”