April 24, 2020


The Weight of Movements

Few theorists of social movements are able to shape the events that they analyze. Frances Fox Piven, Professor of Political Science and Sociology at the City University of New York and one of these few, has studied and agitated within American social movements since the 1960s.

In 1966, Piven and Richard Cloward published “The Weight of the Poor” in the Nation magazine. The essay elaborates what has since been dubbed the “Cloward-Piven Strategy”: the mass enrollment of the poor onto welfare rolls. If all who were entitled to government benefits claimed them, they argued, the system would buckle, exposing the magnitude of American poverty and the inadequacy of its safety net. The ensuing political crisis would provide an opening in which to enact broad and lasting anti-poverty policy. Cloward and Piven published the article in the midst of an intense period of grassroots activity among welfare recipients. That same year, anti-poverty groups around the country formed a broad coalition that became the National Welfare Rights Organization, of which Piven was a founding member. The rank-and-file membership of the NWRO grew dramatically through the late-60s, reaching over 20,000 dues paying members and 540 grassroots groups by the end of the decade, and gaining influence over national welfare politics.

As the NWRO grew, in 1971, Cloward and Piven published Regulating the Poor, a historical and sociological account of twentieth century welfare movements in the United States. The book sought to explain the feebleness of American social provisioning, and argued that US welfare was cyclical: it expanded to deal with social disorder amidst mass unemployment, and contracted while retaining the features necessary to enforce employment. Six years later, and after the dissolution of the NWRO, Piven and Cloward’s Poor People’s Movements examined poor peoples movements from the Great Depression to the post-war years “to understand the features of the American political economy which explain why these eruptions occurred when they did, why the eruptions took the forms they did, and why elites responded to them as they did.” Their argument, controversial not only among the organizations under their analysis, held that disruption, and not mass organization, has been the chief mechanism by which social movements have won gains in American history.

We spoke with Piven over the phone this winter.

Jack Gross: Regulating the Poor develops a theoretical framework for the function of welfare in the United States—how did you develop this approach to American welfare, and how did you apply this framework to the case studies in Poor People’s Movements?

Frances Fox Piven: At the heart of our argument in both books was the threat of disorder: the power of collective rule breaking. We argued that when people rose up and broke the rules which normally governed their behavior—like paying rent, or submitting to welfare conditions—they could impact social policy. When we first made this argument in the 1960s, it had an apparent truth to it: no matter where you looked, people were marching, rioting, and interrupting the system in which they were involved. It was a kind of strike writ large, and here I mean strike in the broadest sense. Even people who didn’t have steady jobs, who couldn’t do what we ordinarily think of as a labor strike, were able to sit in at the welfare office and organize mass claims for welfare benefits. They were equally capable of clogging the system.

Maya Adereth: One of the distinctive things about your book still is the use of poor people as a political agent, rather than the working class. What motivated the shift in emphasis?

ffp: I think severe poverty, and the degradation that can come with it, is a social crime. The suffering that people experience when they’re pushed down and pushed out beyond the margins of society is criminal. And in the 1960s, many people felt this way, including, of course, the poor themselves. There were proliferating forms of collective protest, particularly in big cities, and particularly among people of color. It was a widely held moral outrage at the mass poverty imposed by a rich society on some of its members.

I was closely related to a group of women on the Lower East Side and in Harlem who were on welfare, and who were organizing resistance to the welfare department in New York City. I had been having increasingly direct lived experience of collective action by poor people who were the victims of a prosperous American society.

jg: In “The Weight of the Poor,” a striking element of the infamous Cloward-Piven strategy is your theory of coalition. You link crisis—in this case the manufactured crisis of overloaded welfare systems—to periods of realignment, and you draw on the Great Depression and the Civil Rights movements as examples. What is the relationship between crisis and coalition, and what does it mean for the strategy of social movements today?

ffp: The strategy that we proposed in that essay, and that we’ve proposed in many other contexts, as in rent strikes, for example, is one of disruption. To understand its relevance today, you have to step back and look broadly at social life: at the complex system of cooperation and rule abiding behavior that underpins key social functions. Society is a scheme of cooperation—but that means that nearly everybody has to play their role, not only in factories, but in our schools, our healthcare, and our housing systems. Conversely, everyone has the power to withdraw their cooperation. Protest is effective when people recognize that they play a crucial role in larger social patterns and institutions. I think that remains very much relevant today.

One of the ways that people, poor people, have been silenced in contemporary American society is through systematic humiliation by American political leaders. That has of course been true since long before the 1970s, but can’t last forever. At a certain point, people come to realize that their role can become a lever through which they can shape public policy.

ma: Some of your writing emphasizes withdrawl. But another aspect emphasizes increased participation—mass welfare enrollment plays on both, but voter registration more clearly the latter. Are there times when one of these approaches is more effective than the other?

ffp: I think that protest is more likely to arise in an electoral situation, in which elected leaders are worried about the allegiance of large numbers of people at the bottom. For a long time, there has been a tendency by activists to think that electoral work precludes protest. But really, in American history, protest itself has been much more likely when we’ve had some sort of foothold in the electoral system by the same groups that are the potential constituents of the movement.

I think it’s therefore more accurate and illuminating to think about the ways that protest and electoral politics build off of one another. Protest is more likely to be successful when at least some elected officials express sympathy for the plight of the discontented and the disenfranchised. If they’re ignored, or spat upon, or insulted, that is likely to subdue them and crush their aspirations. I think you can see that in the Civil Rights movement, for example, and you can see it in the labor movement. The Civil Rights Movement had elected allies in Washington DC, senators and congressmen who were responsible to voter constituencies that were Black or Hispanic. So there is a complimentary relationship between electoral power and protest power.

jg: Given that kind of complimentary power, I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the Workers Alliance of America and the National Welfare Rights Organization, and the relative gains or weaknesses of those organizations.

ffp: Even when protest movements succeed, they succeed partially. The labor movement of the 1930s didn’t achieve a utopia for working people in the United States, they won some rights for organized labor. We always win some things, and then we have to go back and fight.

The Workers Alliance of America was a communist organization in the 1930s that tried to reach out to recipients of poor relief. In our writing about the WAA in Poor People’s Movements, we were critical of their organizers because they sought to craft a highly articulated formal organization out of the discontent of poor people in the 1930s. We thought that the mobs, the riots, and the protests that were occurring were more effective than the clubs organized by the Workers Alliance of America. And in a similar vein, we thought that in the 1960s the organizers of welfare recipients who were determined to build a formal organization ended up ignoring the protests that were disruptive to city politics and the irregular organization that already existed. In Regulating the Poor, we criticized the organizing model of the NWRO in the 1960s, although we were among the organizers.

ma: You argue that hierarchical organizations are less effective because they are more easily infiltrated and coopted. In the absence of such an organization, how do you conceive of a long term political strategy?

ffp: It’s through repeated mobilizations that we build long term change. When we mobilize repeatedly, we benefit from the experience of earlier mobilizations. We gain an understanding of the incentives of elites, and the potential for elites to co-opt or suppress the discontent that’s emerged.

When we build organizations that cooperate with local governments, we also position ourselves to lose the momentum and the consciousness of our role in the greater system. But we find it again—politics goes on, and the relationship between dominant and subordinate groups continues to develop. People rediscover again and again their power of disruption.

jg: Several decades removed from Regulating the Poor, how do you theorize the situation of welfare in the United States, relative to the rest of the global north?

ffp: We used to think that the situation in the United States was different than that in Europe, where a comprehensive welfare state was presented as a class compromise. We didn’t have that here, and in the 1960s the sort of movements rising up were not necessarily those of the organized working class as much as those of racial minorities and the poor. There was just clearly a different composition to our movements, which weren’t able to fit neatly into the European welfare state model.

ma: We’ve experienced for several decades now a process of deindustrialization, and declining union density around the world. How does this changing composition of the labor market impact welfare politics? How does it impact, for example, the relative importance of demands made on employers versus those made directly on the state?

ffp: There is no way to generalize. Each group will have leverage in different social sectors. When you think of a particular social group, you have to ask yourself: Which social institutions do they have the capacity to disrupt?

One thing that has fundamentally changed the landscape of social action in the present period is that we can no longer talk about institutional disruption without thinking about climate change. In order to have public policies that effectively control the behavior of those actors who are destroying our climate, we depend on the state. We need strong, centralized state power on the side of the movement. The crisis is just too big. Defeating the fossil fuel industry will require the support of local and federal state authorities.

jg: There’s an ongoing debate about the merits of a jobs guarantee versus universal cash transfer schemes. What do you make of this debate, and the resurgence of interest in guaranteed income coming from a political perspective quite different from you and the NWRO?

ffp: One way to describe the classic goal of the left is full employment at decent wages. The problem with that is that it falls completely flat when it comes to the kinds of policies we need to avert climate change. That goal was premised on the idea that the economy could grow endlessly, but today we don’t need more growth—we instead need to be thinking about the relationship between production and pollution.

So the idea of everyone working 40 hours a week and the machines humming and more and more stuff is getting produced is a very limited utopia. We ought to be envisioning new ways of living the good life, which don’t involve the production of automobiles, the use of fossil fuels, the dirtying up of the planet, and so on.

ma: Where do you see movement coming from in the years ahead? What do you feel hopeful about?

ffp: There are many hopeful things happening. For instance, in the service sector, or what we now call the caring sector, there have been incredibly successful mobilizations among teachers, nurses, and retail workers. These are people who do things that everyone can see and appreciate. There is no mystery about whether we need them. To the extend that we think of labor as a force for change, we ought to be thinking about care workers and what they can do.

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