76: Piven & Cloward’s Poor People’s Movements

In Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail, Piven and Cloward study four American social movements, two from the 1930s and two from the 1960s, to identify patterns in protester behavior, political and social context, and state responses that might inform lower-class political movements in the future.  And they determine that in any social social movement (and all social movements, for their purposes, come from the working classes), “whatever the people won was a response to their turbulence and not to their organized numbers.”  In other words, uncontrollable mass insurgency, not SMOs, are what cause changes in society and win more rights for oppressed groups.

The reason SMOs kill a social movement instead of fueling it is that organizational development involves creating a disciplined, orderly membership and on getting resources, usually from elites, to sustain the organization.  Elites are more than happy to help fund these organizations, because they’re a way of calming down angry people and bringing them into orderly obedience again – or at least a way of distracting them from their revolutionary goals.  “Organizations endure, in short, by abandoning their revolutionary politics, and therefore SMOs kill social movements.

If working-class organizers really want to foster social change, they need to watch for working class frustration and anger and foster it, so that it spills over out of the confines set by elites and levels the playing field for a new social order.  Because the working class is oppressed, silenced, and divested of resources, the only political tool they have is protest and mass defiance.  And the forms this protest takes are determined by the organization of production, which conditions the everyday lives of the people.  (This explains, for instance, why people riot in their own neighborhoods.)  The key is to foster this turbulence so that it becomes a threat to the existing social order, which will wrest concessions from elites.  Because Piven and Cloward believe in structural determination, those concessions that remain after the protest has subsided are those that support the existing social order – but even gaining those makes the movement a success, because without the protest the working classes likely wouldn’t even have gotten that far.

Structural determinism aside, the idea that turbulence and chaos and disruption of the system has more power than working within the system has profound implications for social movements.  It can also be seen playing out across the world, particularly in Egypt, Syria, and other Arab Spring nations.  Also, even this structural determinism has a dialectical component: the poor move the system forward to a new synthesis through protest; depending on your point of view, this can either mean that we are stuck inside capitalism or that we are slowly pushing our way out.

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