04 January 2011

The Piven Strategy: You've got to get mad!

Richard Cloward is dead, but Frances Fox Piven still survives and so does the "Cloward Piven Strategy" conspiracy theory. As some readers will recall, right-wingers have traced the "strategy" to a 1966 Nation magazine article in which the sociologists appeared to argue that people eligible for government aid should swamp the system with demands in order to expose the inadequacy of current services and make the case for radical change. Piven has been accused of restating the strategy in an item that appeared in The Nation's newest issue, but is available online for subscribers only. This time the author expresses her impatience with the failure of "angry crowds...demonstrations, sit-ins and angry mobs" to protest continued high unemployed and contemplated cuts to social programs. "Shouldn't the unemployed be on the march?" she asks, "Why aren't they demanding enhanced safety net protections and big initiatives to generate jobs?"

Regarding the current President as a modern-day Herbert Hoover, Piven suggests that "Mass protests might change the president's posture if they succeeded in pressing him hard from his base, something that hasn't happened so far in this administration." She notes, however, that "there are obstructions to mobilizing the unemployed that would have to be overcome." Among these is the logistic challenge of gathering a protest army of unemployed in one place, but perhaps more important is the challenge of overcoming decades of demoralization in the face of relentless Republican propaganda.

Before people can mobilize for collective action, they have to develop a proud and angry identity and a set of claims that go with that identity. They have to go from being hurt and ashamed to being angry and indignant....So, a kind of psychological transformation has to take place; the out-of-work have to stop blaming themselves for their hard times and turn their anger on the bosses, the bureaucrats or the politicians who are in fact responsible.

The problem with this recommendation is that many Americans, including many unemployed, already blame bureaucrats and politicians, but for the wrong reasons. Republicans are happy to have people blame those two groups as long as they are blamed for taxing and regulating jobs out of existence according to the GOP narrative. Piven needs to clarify the narrative necessary to explain exactly what the politicians and bureaucrats, as well as the bosses, did to leave so many people jobless. Piven seems too interested in cultivating anger and not interested enough in cultivating pride. She may take people's entitlement to jobs and other necessities of civilized citizenship for granted, but activists will have to teach people entitlement over again to get them motivated enough -- and angry enough -- to participate in the "more disruptive" protests she deems necessary to prod the federal government into taking positive action to create public work. Republicans reject the idea of entitlement as a demand of "something for nothing" or a claim of Paul's right to rob Peter. Activists should hope that empowering people to demand their due will religitimize entitlement, but it won't hurt to have arguments ready to answer skeptics.

Piven doesn't build confidence in her recommendations by calling for actions that "will have to look something like the strikes and riots that have spread across Greece...or like the student protests that recently spread with lightning speed across England." Not only do these examples lead critics to accuse her of advocating violence ("disruptive" is as close as she actually gets), but they are also examples of futility. Greek austerity and higher English school fees are accomplished facts. Without results, all the protests against these measures amount to nothing more than tantrums, at least in the short term. Piven's desire to see a tantrum is a kind of tantrum in print form. Mobs may be morale builders for some on the left, but it might be better to take a deep breath, count to ten and then concentrate on strategies for success rather than mere demonstrations of outrage.


Anonymous said...

I'm really not sure how the unemployed - or the rest of us - can logically blame politicians for unemployment. Except, of course, for the loss of government jobs due to budget cuts.

The fault lies squarely with the private sector for not replacing jobs they outsourced. That is completely because of greed. Unless you can get the masses to understand that greed - and the exploitation it allows - is WRONG, you'll have a hard pitch to sell them the rest of the goods.

Samuel Wilson said...

Not every job lost can be traced to outsourcing. Some are eliminated simply to cut corners and impress stockholders, while mergers usually mean layoffs in the name of efficiency. Meanwhile, business lobbies and their allies in office complain incessantly that "job killing" taxes and regulations make it too expensive to do business in any given community. At bottom, bosses will remind you that they don't owe jobs to anyone. The question then becomes why anyone prefers to depend on bosses for their livelihood.