Tag Archives: Frances Fox Piven

Piven and Cloward: Case Studies of Poor People’s Movements

So I outlined Piven and Cloward’s principal arguments found in Poor People’s Movements in the previous post, but in a nutshell they are that mass social movements must always be looked at as separate from social movement organisations. That organization generally tends to tame and reduce the power of mass movement. That the role of organisers should be to maximise disturbance while people remain enthusiastic, to mobilise not organise to push as hard and fast as possible to get everything they can. But the form of that protest and its demands will be found in the structural conjuncture overcoming people’s resistance to uprising and causing this spontaneous rush towards change. Again, organizations don’t cause or shape it, they just slow it down.

So the case studies, I learned a lot despite disagreeing with almost all of the above analysis.

The Unemployed Workers Movement

I like this:

The habit of work, and the wages of work, underpin a way of life. As unemployment continued to grow, and wages of those still employed shrivelled, that way of life crumbled. (47)

I liked too learning more about struggle during the Great Depression, which consisted (among other things) of

  • organized looting of food
  • mass demonstrations of the unemployed
  • rent riots and blockades
  • Unemployed Councils formed

But I read this and it was full of things I felt counteracted Piven & Cloward’s argument because in the background? Activists from the communist party, organizers working with the unemployed councils, creating strategies and acting on them. The Council for Progressive Labor Action formed in May 1929, trade unionists and socialists. A.J. Muste a leading figure after running the Brookwood Labour College. He would go on to lead the Fellowship of Reconciliation FOR, which played such a key role in the civil rights movement. They worked to form Unemployed Leagues. Multiple local groups, Antioch College forming the Mideast Exchange, Inc, to support self-help and barter. United Mine Workers played a key role in local protests in West Virginia and Gallup, NM. People with deeply held larger goals of social change and experience in organising and protest are running around all over this damn scene. Where did they come from, what revolutionary struggles in Europe and elsewhere might they have been trained in? There is no look at legacy here, it’s like they all emerged spontaneously. They might have got some things wrong, but shit, some of this stuff was pretty amazing.

Still, it is interesting to try and understand what they got wrong —

Through 1935, these local movements attempts to create a national movement, and created the Workers’ Alliance of America. This was the big mistake apparently, knocking the heart out of local organising. Piven and Cloward argue that they were slowly bought off by New Deal, moved into administering funds and programs, attempted reform through institutional and electoral pressure, left direct action to one side.

Still, they had never seen anything like the New Deal before. How were they to know, and actually the New Deal transformed our expectations of labour law, introduced welfare and care for the elderly, public housing… I have a big critique, but to win it was something. I don’t blame anyone who thought they would take it, and try to get more.

So this seems an…unkind account. Ungenerous. Piven and Cloward are good enough to include critiques of their account by the leaders involved. They argue that the Alliance did not take advantage of the unrest to increase the turbulence and win more, rather diverted attention into organization, and won less.

‘The tragedy, in sum, is that the alliance did not win as much as it could.’ (92)

I just had to copy one amazing quote from Horace Cayton, eating in a restaurant, joined a long march of black people though he didn’t know where they were going. His description of one ‘rent riot’:

We were met at the street by two squad cars of police who asked us where we were going. The black crowd swarmed around the officers…no one moved. Everyone simply stood and stared at them. One officer lost his head, and drew his gun, levelling it at the crowd…No threats, no murmurs, no disorder; the crowd just looked at him. There the officer stood. Just then a siren was heard–the whisper went around–the riot squad was coming! … four cars full of blue-coated officers and a patrol wagon. They jumped out befor ethe cares came to a stop and charged down upon the crowd. Night sticks and “billies” played a tattoo on black heads. :Hold your places!” shouted the woman. “Act like men!” answered the crowd. They stood like dumb beasts–no one ran, no one fought or offered resistance, just stood, an immovable black mass. (55)

the Industrial Workers’ Movement

The main argument, again:

Their power was not rooted in organization, but in their capacity to disrupt the economy. For the most part strikes, demonstrations, and sit-downs spread during the mid-1930s despite existing unions rather than because of them. (96)

They also argue it was not divisions within the labour force that brought labor down, but that

‘they were smashed by the coercive power of the state’ (98)

They were right about that. You forget just how the state did smash workers, and it’s good that they remind you. They quote numbers like

in the years 1902-1904 alone, 194 persons were killed and 1,986 injured. Overall Taft and Ross were able to identify 160 occasions on which state and federal troops were called out to deal with labor agitation (104).

In a footnote:

By the end of the nineteenth century, the ranks of Pinkerton agents and “reservists” outnumbered the standing army of the nation’ (105, quoting Brecher, p 55)

The violence escalated through the 1930s as workers struck, marched, buried their dead. You see the rise of the sit-down strike:

When they tie the can to a union man, Sit down! Sit down!
When they give him the sack, they’ll take him back.Sit down! Sit down!
When the speed-up comes, just twiddle your thumbs, Sit down! Sit down!
When the boss won’t talk, don’t take a walk, Sit down! Sit down!

Awesome.

Before 1937 was over, nearly 2 million workers had engaged in labor struggles in that year alone (145).

Some of the unions opposed this, sure. Those old, small craft unions.  But many organizers helped make it happen, shaped it? Where did those organizers come from? Unions here are treated as blocks, not as schismed entities containing a multitude of view points. The unions themselves were battlefields for how to organise, and how to win rights for the workers.

That’s not to say I don’t think the wrong side won out most of the time. I like this quote from Len De Caux:

The workers were waiting for CIO, pounding on its doors long before CIO was ready for them. (150)

You had your old members of the IWW, Musteites and Communists. You had amazing organizers alive to racism and sexism like Wyndham Mortimer in the UAW.

John L. Lewis and the Congress of Industrial Organizations did not create the strike movement of industrial workers; it was the strike movement that created the CIO. In the longer run it did this mainly by forcing the federal government to protect unionization by law, and to enforce that protection administratively. (153)

That’s all right though, a union coming into power and driven to the left by the actions of the rank & file — a number of whom belonged themselves to other organisations.

Of course I agree it was problematic that unions clamped down, joined in the red baiting, concentrated on electoral power, and agree there is a critique that:

This dismal overall record in electoral and legislative politics was accomplished by the largest issue-oriented voting bloc in the nation. (170)

But I think this reflects the politics of the faction that took power in the union, and ignores the fact that they were challenged by both organizers and rank and file. Thus it was not a predetermined outcome that

unionization also ritualizes and encapsulates the strike power, thus limiting its disruptive impact on production, and limiting the political reverberations of economic disruptions as well. (174)

Nor that

the unorganized disruptions of industrial workers in the 1930s produced some political gains, but the organized electoral activities of the unions could not sustain them. (175)

From what I have read, where good organisers were in place, they pushed gains further and better consolidated them.

The Civil Rights Movement

They limit this to the South, and after reading both Morris and Cobb, it is hard to give much credence to their arguments, but here they are.

They argue there were two main goals. Formal political rights in the South, especially the franchise, and economic advances. Only political rights were won.

No one much argues that.

The conditions that gave rise to this amazing mass movement?

The alliance of the national government and southern state and local governments was an overwhelming force. It would require some fundamental change, some large transformation, to disrupt this collusion. That transforming force was economic modernization in the South, a force that gradually altered national politics and, by doing so, helped give rise to an insurgent black movement. (189)

Race? They don’t really get it. This becomes even more visible in their next case study, but there’s this

but the deliberate exacerbation of racial competition for jobs was a strategy long used by employers to control labor both in the North and in the South, and was far from being equivalent to a system of caste. As a social system to allocate and control labor, in short, southern caste arrangements were becoming obsolete. (193)

Funny reading now that people could think to argue caste arrangements were obsolete everywhere, apparently, on their way out. There’s a long logical reasoning behind this. Because of course racism is logical.

I hate that this kind of thinking is so ingrained in the left, but this was written some time ago.

Again in these descriptions they mention organisations over and over: SNCC, CORE, SCLC, NAACP, yet they still argue for spontaneous disruption only harmed by organization. Black Power…well, you can imagine they don’t really get that either. They quote Carmichael & Hamilton:

Before a group can enter the open society, it must first close ranks…solidarity is necessary before a group can operate effectively from a bargaining position of strength in a pluralistic society.

Piven and Cloward’s critique?

Defined this way the concept was especially suited to the ideological needs of a black leadership stratum seeking to exploit the new possibilities for electoral and bureaucratic influence (253).

Political gains, Great Society, Model City all swallowed protest up. I just don’t think this analysis gets us much further in understanding what was achieved, how it was achieved, and why the economic demands were not possible to achieve.

National Welfare Rights Movement

This is the campaign Piven and Cloward were themselves involved in, what got them on Fox news and pasted into conservative power points and rants across the country. The strategy they argued for was based on rapidly rising numbers on welfare rolls. They proposed building on this grassroots movement already taking place, focusing work to enroll hundreds of thousands more onto welfare rolls. this would not only improve each family’s quality of life but also

set off fiscal and political crises in the cities, the reverberations of which might lead national political leaders to federalize the relief system and establish a national minimum income standard. (276)

They write, interestingly:

At that particular moment, civil rights activists activists, and especially northern activists, were shifting away from caste problems to economic problems. This, together with the rising insurgency among urban blacks signified by rioting, suggested that a powerful movement directed toward economic gains could be developed. (276-277)

Of course they argued for mass disruption, but in this found opposition from the organizers, who wanted to work to build mass organization: They write

we maintained that political influence by the poor is mobilized, not organized. A disruptive strategy does not require that people affiliate with an organization and participate regularly. (284)

They describe a movement that becomes lots of case work, meetings, institutionalisation, and fairly quickly fades away…

It is hard not to be as equally unkind and ungenerous as I feel they often are in looking back from today’s vantage point. Today when we know this was a key point in electoral politics as white fear skyrocketed at the prospect of losing some privilege. As ‘welfare mother’ became understood as equaling black inner-city mother, as discourse around welfare rights became in the right wing press a racist discourse around race, around scroungers. This seems a bit crazy to have proposed as an open strategy, feeding right wing fears and helping to fan racist flames as well as the great white withdrawal to tax enclaves and suburban safe zones. Of course I blame racist white people not those demanding welfare for this. I do think, though, this wasn’t the best thing to state openly and a better understanding of race in this country would have pointed to that.

I am glad they wrote this, it challenges unquestioned assumptions about organisation, both useful and so so necessary….

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?

Curious.

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