Poor People’s Movements: Piven and Cloward

Poor People's Movements: Piven and ClowardPoor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail (1978) by Piven and Cloward has become a classic of social movement theory, and one I find quite fascinating even though I disagree with almost all of it.

I read this years ago as an organiser and remember being both impressed, and a little struck by their lack of generosity to people in the movement.

What I love is that these are engaged scholars, part of the struggle for change — to the extent that they became known as communists and radical figures to the national press. They are also firm in where they stand — with the poor and the vulnerable and the dispossessed. They try and write from a position of respect and understanding for people’s daily lives, and in some ways they have tried to create a radical theoretical framework that is responsive to how things have actually played out.

Yet in other ways, their framework is astoundingly rigid, and I would argue brittle. It ignores how histories and traditions of struggle are preserved and passed down, particularly among the oppressed.

Where we agree? Organizers do not create the conditions for mass movements. Piven and Cloward go on to argue that when these conditions are right, possibilities for change may be limited but the impetus of mass movement needs to be pushed forward as quickly and as far as possible to obtain what gains are possible.

I agree with that, and also that social movement organizations can sometimes act as an unwelcome break on people’s demands. But that this obliterates the need for organization at all? That such mass movements spring up from nothing and take their direction only from the objective circumstances of that particular capitalist moment?

No. I think Aldon Morris’s detailed work on the Civil Rights Movement shows just how important organization can be, particularly those that facilitate critical thinking and preserve historical memory that can be respectfully passed along to new leaders without dampening their creativity or innovation. Freire and Horton, as well as my own experience, point to how the practice of working collectively, direct democracy, research and strategy are all learned skills, and without them things fall apart pretty fast. But I’ll come back to them in later posts.

Developing Formal Organization:

So. The model they are critiquing:

But whatever their overarching ideology, activists have concentrated their efforts on developing formally structured organizations with a mass membership drawn from the lower classes. What underlies such efforts is the conviction that formal organization is a vehicle of power.

This is based on three assumptions:

1. formal organization allows coordination of economic & political resources of lots of poorly resourced people

2. these resources can be used strategically

3. allows the continuity of political mobilization over time (xx)

They think that they have proved the opposite — I think if you go through their case studies they certainly fail to do this, they are littered with the appearance of, and leadership from, organizations of different kinds. Still they argue:

The model has not succeeded in practice, as the studies in this book reveal…The flaw is, quite simply, that it is not possible to compel concessions from elites that can be used as resources to sustain oppositional organizations over time. (xxi)

This, of course, has always been an issue, but organizations like the Fellowship of Reconciliation and Highlander (and a host of other grassroots organisations) prove otherwise I think.  Organizers are of course attracted to the possibilities of organizing through extraordinary times of upheaval, but it is partly true that:

Organizers do not create such moments… Insurgency is always short-lived. Once it subsides and people leave the streets, most of the organizations which it temporarily threw up and which elites helped to nurture simply fade away…

Sometimes, but not necessarily true that

Organizations endure …by abandoning their oppositional politics. (xxi)

Sometimes, but not necessarily true that

Organizers not only failed to seize the opportunity presented by the rise of unrest, they typically acted in ways that blunted or curbed the disruptive force which lower-class people were sometimes able to mobilize. (xxii)

The question is how to ensure that this blunting of force, weakening of demands, and calcification or bureaucratization of organisations does not happen — and I think here that this is also where key figures play a role, who do not necessarily remain with one group but remain involved in the movement. People can be wise and giving rather than autocratic and smothering, and key people reappear over and over again, though generally in the background.

So, key arguments:

On power

Their opening sentence is:

Common sense and historical experience combine to suggest a simple but compelling view of the roots of power in any society. crudely but clearly stated, those who control the means of physical coercion, and those who control the means of producing wealth, have power over those who do not… Common sense and historical experience also combine to suggest that these sources of power are protected and enlarged by the use of that power not only to control the actions of men and women, but also to control their beliefs. (1)

Power is rooted in the control of coercive force and in the control of  means of production. However, in capitalist societies this reality is not legitimated by rendering the powerful divine, but by obscuring their existence. (2)

The role of structural limits

I am the last person to discount the importance of structural limits, but I think there is a more complex relationship than this:

…the forces which structure mass insurgency also define the boundaries within which organizers and leaders act…It is our belief that many past organizing efforts foundered because they failed to take account of the profound ways in which the social structure restricts the forms of political action in which the lower classes can engage, and having failed to recognize these limitation, organizers and leaders also failed to exploit the opportunities afforded by lower-class mobilizations when they did occur. (xxiii)

The occasions when protest is possible among the poor, the forms that it must take, and the impact it can have are all delimited by the social structure in ways which usually diminish its extent and diminish its force. (3)

I utterly disagree with the bit about ‘the forms it must take’, just as I would about demands and organisation. These are what emerge from local culture and histories of oppression and resistance, from the beliefs and practices of key organisations, from the supporting infrastructures in place to help grow movement or whose absence ensures it remains fragmented. The militant nonviolence of the civil rights movement was nothing natural or spontaneous, as Morris and Cobb show so convincingly.

The definition of mass movement

Lofland spends a lot of time on definitions, and chooses to focus on social movement organizations, whereas Piven and Cloward spend their time separating movement entirely from organization, and define the two quite separately. They argue for a broader notion of mass movement:

Prevailing definitions by stressing articulated social change goals as the defining feature of social movements, have had the effect of denying political meaning to many forms of protest. (4)

In some ways works for me. Yet there are many forms of protest that I think could be seen as social movement, but not mass movement. I think mass movement is quite rare. But back to them resolutely separating movement from organization:

The stress on conscious intentions in these usages reflects a confusion in the literature between the mass movement on the one hand, and the formalized organizations which tend to emerge on the crest of the movement on the other hand — two intertwined but distinct phenomena. (5)

Whatever the intellectual sources of error, the effect of equating movements with movement organizations — and thus requiring that protests have a leader, a constitution, a legislative program, or at least a banner before they are recognized as such–is to divert attention from many forms of political unrest and to consign them by definition to the more shadowy realms of social problems and deviant behavior. (5)

I think attention was diverted this way, but for ideological reasons and not really as a result of definitions. I like thinking about the complexity of protest, but that’s not what they’re doing here.

The rise of protest

So, this I think is true:

The emergence of a protest movement entails a transformation both of consciousness and behavior.

They argue it has 3 distinct aspects, which are interesting to think about, though Morris challenges these as well.

  1. The system loses legitimacy

  2. people normally fatalistic begin to assert ‘rights’

  3. new sense of efficacy, people believe they can change something

The change in behavior that occurs during a mass movement is twofold:

  1. masses of people become defiant

  2. defiance acted out collectively

I agree that these are indeed exceptional periods, and I like the respect they show in laying out just what poor people face when they begin to stand up and fight:

masses of the poor were somehow able, if only briefly, to overcome the shame bred by a culture which blames them for their plight; somehow they were able to break the bonds of conformity enforced by work, by family, but community, by every strand of institutional life; somehow they were able to overcome the fears induced by police, by militia, by company guards.

As they argue it,

The emergence of popular uprisings reflects profound changes in the larger society.

…only under exceptional conditions will the lower classes become defiant–and thus, in our terms, only under exceptional conditions are the lower classes afforded the socially determined opportunity to press for their own class interests. (7)

I really hate the use of the term ‘socially determined opportunity’. It’s like they jettisoned some of the Leninist dogma but kept some of the bits of Marxism I hate most, while losing the more flexible dialectic that I love. What do they argue are characteristic of these times of opportunity? Economic and structural change is not enough to explain it, because that’s a usual rather than extraordinary state of affairs under capitalism (I do like that point), nor is it just when social institutions break down, but when both happen together.

…when the structures of daily life weaken, the regulatory capacities of these structures, too, are weakened. ‘A revolution takes place,” says Lefebvre, “when and only when, in such a society, people can no longer lead their everyday lives; so long as they can live their ordinary lives relations are constantly reestablished.” (11)

And I do like the point that people have to believe their actions can achieve something, and the times when apathy can reasonably become hope are also rare.

For a protest movement to arise out of these traumas of daily life, people have to perceive the deprivation and disorganization they experience as both wrong, and subject to redress (12)

extraordinary disturbances in society are required to move poor ‘from apathy to hope’, these are rare, so too are rare the poor’s chances to effect real change. (14)

They do a lot of work to lay out the circumstances under which these conditions arise, but very little on the form insurgency then takes — nor do they actually address concretely why it doesn’t happen all the damn time. Piven and Cloward argue it is when:

— deprivation experienced in concrete setting — this shapes specific grievances and targets

— ‘institutional patterns shape mass movements by shaping the collectivity out of which protest can arise.’

— institutional roles determine the strategic opportunities for defiance, for it is typically by rebelling against the rules and authorities associated with everyday activities that people protest. (21)

Concrete conditions determine the time and shape of movement. Not intellectuals or practitioners.

Opportunities for defiance are not created by analyses of power structures… It is our second general point…that the opportunities for defiance are structured by features of institutional life. Simply put, people cannot defy institutions to which they have no access, and to which they make no contributions. (23)

This is basic to organising, right? You start where people are…but you sure don’t have to stay there. You collectively ask some questions, find some answers, craft strategy. Defiance can choose a number of targets, strategies, conditions, goals.

The kinds of response you get — and this assumes that government is the target, which I suppose in mass movement terms it usually is.

When government is unable to ignore the insurgents, and is unwilling to risk the uncertain repercussions of the use of force, it will make efforts to conciliate and disarm the protestors. (29)

  1. offer concessions.

  2. try to channel energies and angers into ‘more legitimate and less disruptive forms of political behavior.’

  3. undermine sympathy group able to command from wider public (31)

  4. employ repressive measures after above have worked (32)

Off course, much depends then on the political moment — who is in power, who their main constituency is, and yes, often the point in the electoral cycle is important, but always?

The main point, however, is simply that the political impact of institutional disruptions depends upon electoral conditions. (31)

Organizers and leaders cannot prevent the ebbing of protest, nor the erosion of whatever influence protest yielded the lower class. they can only try to win whatever can be won while it can be won.

In these major ways protest movements are shaped by institutional conditions, and not by the purposive efforts of leaders and organizers. The limitations are large and unyielding. Yet within the boundaries created by these limitations, some latitude for purposive effort remains. (37)

So win what you can before it all slips away and you just have to sit around waiting for the next wave?


On to the case studies in the next post because this is already stupidly long.

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