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The importance of making trouble: In conversation with Frances Fox Piven

Social Movements

Photo by Johnny Silvercloud/Flickr

Dr. Cornel West has said, “The future of the United States depends in part on how it responds to the legacy of Frances Fox Piven.” Frances Fox Piven is Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Sociology at the City University of New York Graduate Center and past president of the American Sociological Association. She has co-authored, with her late husband Richard Cloward, classic studies of American politics, social welfare, and social movements, including Regulating the Poor (1971), Poor People’s Movements (1977), and Why Americans Still Don’t Vote (2000). Her most recent book, Who’s Afraid of Frances Fox Piven? (2011), is a collection of her essential writings. Frances Fox Piven spoke to Canadian Dimension from her home in New York City. She discussed the American Left after Sanders, the relationship between social movements and electoral politics, and why activists are wrong to emphasize organizing over mobilizing.

Q: To the dismay of many on the Left, Bernie Sanders has endorsed Hillary Clinton. Sanders supporters now seem divided on where they should go. Some say they will hold their nose and vote for Clinton. Others point to the need to build an independent socialist or social democratic party. Yet others say they will be voting for Green candidate Jill Stein. Where should the US left go after Sanders?

A: It’s clearly a convulsive and fluid moment in American politics. Nobody is very sure of how it’s going to be resolved. The important thing for the Left to recognize is that this is a moment of possibility, and also of danger and threat. But it is a moment of possibility because of the strength of social movements. Over the last eight years or so, beginning with Wisconsin, then going on to Occupy, we have seen movement gains from Fight for 15 to Black Lives Matter to the extraordinary successes of the LGBTQ movement. It is always the case that movements tend to cluster together. Movements tend to occur together because of the constellation of forces which make the movements promising, which nourish the movements in the first instance and give them the opportunity for success, are distinctive and different people in different situations respond to those forces by raising different issues, by announcing different identities, and different aspirations.

You see these movement moments throughout American history: the Revolutionary period is one such moment, the years leading up to the Civil War, the abolition of chattel slavery, and Reconstruction was another. The Populist period of rural farmer insurgency was still another, the 1930s and birth of industrial unionism was another, the Civil Rights’ Movement in the South and Black Freedom Movement in the Northern cities that accompanied it were another. These moments are distinctive, but their similarities have a lot to do with the way electoral politics creates openings for movements. Now, to me, this is very important, because at this particular juncture, people on the Left are very worried about the relationship between electoral politics and movement politics. We’ve all come to recognize the importance of the movements and the fact that it is a movement moment.

But in the midst of this, we have a kind of convulsion in electoral politics, a big challenge within the Democratic Party and there’s the question “what do we do?” Maybe we should move into the Democratic Party. Maybe we should now do “grown up politics”, do electoral politics. And I think that even raising that possibility, even the proposition that movements should move into electoral politics, fundamentally misreads the relationship between movements and electoral politics.

Although they have a lot to do with each other, it isn’t true, as some activists think, that they move on separate tracks—either you’re for the movements or you’re for electoral politics. They don’t move on separate tracks, they constantly interact. Let me try to explain this a little bit. It is true that changes in electoral politics, new kinds of rhetoric coming out of the mouths of ambitious politicians, help to give the movements courage. Why do politicians sometimes name new issues and pay attention to different grievances that they previously ignored? Well it’s because they have potential constituencies that they are trying to enlist, and they are trying to enlist them in the way that ambitious electoral politicians always try, which is by cementing them onto a pre-existing electoral coalition. “We’ll all stand together, and yes, we also include you”. But because there’s a certain amount of discontent that strategic electoral politicians pay attention to, they begin to talk about new issues. They begin to talk about issues that they previously downplayed or ignored because controversial issues are difficult if you’re trying to build a big electoral coalition out of mush, which is what electorates are about. But, just the fact that they begin to name these issues helps to give a little bit of courage to movement activists.

Let’s take the Civil Rights’ Movement, a much-celebrated iconic movement. What helped to give momentum to the Civil Rights’ Movement was because of the upheavals in Southern agriculture, a lot of Blacks were moving to the North. They were in a sense forced to migrate to the North … they left for survival. They moved from the Jim Crow South where they didn’t have the vote into the North where they did have the vote. The migration was large and rapid and their numbers built up in the North and their voting numbers built up in the North, and was not paid too much attention to by Southern movement strategists, but Blacks in the Northern cities became a factor in electoral politics. The Southern movement didn’t have any votes, because Blacks were stripped of the vote, but the Southern movement interacted with this new electoral constituency in the North. In a way, they transmitted their issues. It wasn’t hard, because these people had just come from the South. They were brothers and sisters and cousins. Because Blacks in the North were strategically located in the big industrial States that had large numbers of electoral votes, and the way the American electoral system works is that a small number of marginal voters in these States can tip the electoral votes of the big States, they had a kind of strategic electoral leverage. And beginning in 1956, these Black voters could no longer be taken for granted by Democratic Presidents, they began to tip [party allegiances], stay home. So the Southern movement had a kind of sounding board in the electoral politics of Blacks in the North. And that gave the Southern movement leverage, because the South really was another country and it was a feudal country. But now suddenly there were outside influences that might intervene in the South. It was basically the President of the United States who depended on those Black votes in the big industrial States. So that from the end of the 1950s really through the 1970s, this kind of dance went on. The movement activated the Black vote. The Black vote activated the Presidents. The Presidents reluctantly, first Harry Truman, then Adlai Stephenson, JFK, LBJ, reluctantly they “mouthed” the words and the words gave courage to the movement and then the words were not enough as the movement escalated. The movement was still a Southern movement and ultimately, the Federal Government was forced to send in, first the FBI and the FBI didn’t do very much, the Justice Department, the National Guard, and ultimately they were forced to propose and force through legislation that dismantled the Jim Crow South.

But the movement was not inside electoral politics. The movement was doing movement things. The movement was being disruptive, but that disruption had a big impact on electoral coalitions. So there’s an intimate relationship between electoral politics and movement politics, but it isn’t the relationship of sameness. It doesn’t mean that movements should move inside the Democratic Party. It means rather that movements should use their own distinctive dynamics raising issues that party politicians wish would go away because they are so divisive. Movements raise those issues and they raise them in flamboyant and disruptive ways. That’s what movements do. But what makes it significant is that it has an impact on politicians who need to keep together unwieldy majorities.

Q: Do we consider the mass support that Sanders received as a social movement, and is it going to be a movement that it now folded into the Democratic Party machine or is it going to remain what you say is a trouble-making movement that would then put pressure on a President Clinton?

A: Consider Sanders. The whole escapade of running for President as a Senator from Vermont who calls himself a socialist, and he’s been around forever, was so unlikely. What gave it oomph, energy, momentum was the movements. Sanders would not be anywhere if it hadn’t been for Wisconsin, Occupy, Black Lives Matter, the LBGTQ Movement and so on.That’s what was powering the Sanders campaign. And it gave the Sanders campaign a lot of momentum so that he really was a threat to Hillary Clinton. One kind of opinion that almost always emerges at this sort of juncture between electoral politics and movements is that now we’ll do electoral politics and we’ll not only raise our issues, but we’ll work on reforming electoral procedures, which after all are very distorted, and so on and so on. And every movement has been susceptible to that kind of appeal. As I said earlier, it’s a chance to do grown-up politics, real politics. But I think that’s a mistake. The movements have their impact on electoral politics because they threaten to cause trouble, to cause cleavages, to split apart the coalitions that politicians are trying to glue together and movements can do that well, because the movements are geniuses at communication, they raise hell, they make noise, they dance, and they cause trouble. They block highways and they do more serious things too in their encounters with law enforcement, for example, or the workers’ encounters with bosses. But these are things only movements do. And what makes them effective is that they threaten cleavages that elected politicians are rushing to try to glue together again. We’ve got to take advantage of that kind of dynamic. In the end, each of the great movements in American history, succeeded because it caused cleavages, because it caused divisions, because it made the noise and it made the trouble that caused divisions. Hillary certainly doesn’t want that, but look at far she has gone, at least in her public proclamations, in order to try to heal those divisions. At the bottom of all this is the fact that the movement constituency is really part of the electoral coalition that the politician is trying to bring together and make the basis of her or his victory.

Q: The thread running through your work with Richard Cloward, in Regulating the Poor and Poor People’s Movements, and in your most recent book, Challenging Authority, has been the power of disruptive power. The power that derives from people without traditional power resources, such as wealth or force, withdrawing from relationships of interdependence, whether it is workers going on strike, tenants withholding rent, the urban mob rioting, and so on. Do you think there is a misreading of your work in which some see disruption as being a movement tactic for its own sake, without looking, as you have just put it so clearly, the interaction of movements with electoral regimes? Disruption in a time of a Donald Trump presidency, as you mentioned in a recent forum, could result in him bringing out the troops and crushing those movements.

A: That’s why we don’t want him to be President. If he were President, he could do that. Periods of political volatility and political change are difficult. There are no guarantees. I do think that disruption is the ability to communicate the issues that politicians want to keep under cover and disruption is the primary power that movements have. There are certain kinds of people who will always say, “don’t do that, it’s too dangerous.” But there are also moments where it really does seem to be too dangerous. I don’t actually think that we are in such a moment, because I don’t think Donald Trump is going to get elected. I think the movement should continue and the movement should escalate. They should take advantage of the fact that Hillary Clinton needs social movements. She needs the movement constituency in her constituency and so therefore she’s going to “mouth” movement issues. She’s doing it already. Just think of the way in which her policy positions have changed over the last year. Hillary is a neoliberal Democrat. Now it’s also very true that she is very opportunistic so that she always bends and weaves and bobs, but her instincts are not on the Left … But she’s a greedy, opportunistic politician, so if the movement puts enough pressure on her, she’ll bend. And that’s what the movement has to try and do. There are no guarantees in this kind of game.

Q: Elsewhere, in periods of upsurges in social movement activity, movements have found their expression in new political parties. In the post-2008 period, for example, there is Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, and in Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign in the Labour Party. To what extent has your thinking about the relationship between social movements and electoral regimes been shaped by the constitutional strictures of a two-party system in the US.

A: To a significant extent it has. My argument is about the United States. But I also thought with Syriza for instance, and I think the Syriza radicals also thought, that it was very important for the party not to absorb the movements, but to nourish them. This is the same for Podemos. The movements give life to these parties.

Q: There’s a lot of talk in activist circles about the relationship between organizing and mobilizing. There’s a general view that what we need to do is organize. How do you see this distinction and how it has played out in past social movements in the US.

A: Well, a lot of the words that have been spilled about this debate are words by people who are trying to promote organizing instead of mobilizing. I mean I can’t think of anything that’s been written to celebrate mobilizing instead of organizing, can you? Organizing means different things to different people. To some, it’s sort of an Alinskyite model (editor’s note: “Alinskyite” refers to the organizing praxis of Saul Alinsky and his followers, which has influenced contemporary labour and community organizing, including groups like ACORN) that is flawed by its reliance on strategic formulas. To others, organizing means something that is consistent with the ideology of early Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the early the Civil Rights’ Movement, that is about building relationships of trust among people, identifying the natural leaders in a particular constituency, and then trying to educate them to your politics. I think that a lot about that is appealing, the idea that you try to pay attention to what’s going on, what people really think, who they trust, and who they follow in everyday life etc.

Well, that’s pretty appealing, but there are a couple of things that are wrong with it. One is the assumption that until people who think of themselves as organizers came on the scene, that people never engaged collective action. A lot of history has gone by the boards before you were here, and a lot of that history was marked by collective action and by movements, and organizers tend to be too full of their own importance. And the other part of that I think is a little bizarre is that the dichotomy of either doing organizing or mobilizing. Why? I mean don’t organizers also want to mobilize mass action? And won’t mass actions be sturdier if they’re based on groups that are united by trust.

Q: But wouldn’t the argument be from those who stress the importance of organizing, that if you have a demonstration at City Hall or outside a police station of say 300 people, that it’s only by organizing in the community that you multiply that crowd to 1000 or 2000 and power lies in numbers. So you need to organize to mobilize.

A: Oh, but that can happen without the organizers. If the organizers don’t remember that a lot is going on besides them, they are going to turn out to be ridiculous. I don’t think anybody can make a mass action happen. People and the lives that they live and their own sense of politics make mass action possible. Organizers can help and maybe they can sustain some of the ideas, the inspirations from one event through to another event, but the whole argument of organizing over mobilizing inflates the role of organizers in a way that I think is unreal.

Q: How did it work in the Welfare Rights’ Movement? How did the dynamic between mobilizations—the occupations of welfare offices, the confrontations of caseworkers, and with City Hall—and the welfare rights chapters from which folks went out and tried to organize welfare mothers?

A: Well, a lot was happening that nobody decided to do, that nobody planned out. At the same time the organizers were trying to build an organization, Alinsky style, and to some extent they took advantage of everything that was happening. And they did succeed in building little groups, and ultimately built the National Welfare Rights’ Organization. But the big dynamics that led to poor African American and Hispanic women coming to see that they had rights on welfare…that was a huge ideological transformation. I don’t think organizers did that. That was already happening. That was happening because of politics much larger than them. To some extent, it had to do with the Civil Rights’ Movement and the Black economic rights’ movement in the North. And to some extent it had to do with the conciliatory politics and policies of Democratic Presidents who needed those Black voters.

But take this example. We had a campaign in New York City, a Special Needs Campaign it was called. It was a kind of gimmick that we thought of. We scoured the welfare caseworkers’ handbook and we found that caseworkers were supposed to make sure that families had certain kinds of goods, like blankets, a dish, a soupspoon, etc. It wasn’t a legal document, but the caseworkers’ handbook said you should make sure that your cases have these things. So we distilled this into a checklist of goods and we were going to use it to recruit people, go door to door. The Daily News (editor’s note: one of New York City’s largest daily newspapers) got a hold of our checklist and was outraged. They saw that what we were doing and they had a centrefold of our checklist and the headline was Killing the Goose that Laid the Golden Egg. They argued that by campaigning to get people these things, we were going to eliminate the entitlement. But, the fact of the matter is, that that checklist came to be mimeographed all over the city, and people descended on welfare offices. We didn’t do that! It wasn’t our people who organized it. They descended on welfare offices in large numbers with the checklist. They wanted their stuff. I remember going to several Welfare Centers, one in Harlem, a couple in the Bronx, and asking poor mothers: “How did you get that checklist? What’s going on here?” And I heard these stories. People made up an explanation of why they were going to get this stuff. And the explanation was, at least prevalent in this neighbourhood, that a rich lady had died and left her fortune to these welfare offices, and so they were going to let people have galoshes and blankets for the kids. Nobody planned this. It was consistent with the folklore of America. “A rich lady died and left you something.” There is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Q: If there is one lesson that your work has for today’s social justice activists, whether they be involved in the environmental movement, the LGBTQ movement, or Black Lives Matter or the the labour movement, what is that lesson?

A: That people make gains when they become defiant, disorderly, and unruly. And the gains are crafted to make them orderly again. That’s okay, provided that there is a price, that there are concessions, that there are reforms. That’s how we made some steps forward in American society. We’ve also made a lot of steps backwards, but I think that’s because people haven’t risen up frequently enough, consistently enough. That’s the only way I know to move forward. Do you know another way?

Q: I know that in Canada there are those who belong to or support the New Democratic Party and encourage people to vote for the Party come election time.

A: I say that too. Go vote, pull the lever, and then come back and do some real work.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.


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