December 30, 2010
by Ronald Radosh
Writing in The Nation magazine on May 2, 1966, sociologists Richard Cloward and his wife Frances Fox Piven published what was to become in later years one of the most famous and influential of leftist articles. Titled “The Weight of the Poor: A Strategy to End Poverty,” the two socialist intellectuals developed a new so-called “crisis strategy” — that of trying to use the existing welfare system to create chaos that would weaken the corporate capitalist state and eventually foment revolution. “Discover the Networks” has a good summary of their thesis.
The two became the ideologists of a group formed to implement their strategy, called “The National Welfare Rights Organization,” or NWRO. As Stanley Kurtz explains in Radical-in-Chief: “the idea was to flood state and local welfare systems with more applicants than they could possibly afford to carry. Cloward and Piven believed that this ‘break the bank’ strategy would force President [Lyndon B.] Johnson and a liberal Democratic Congress to bail out overburdened state welfare systems with a federally guaranteed annual income.” This experience of activism by the poor would create a new anti-capitalist sentiment, and would stoke the poors’ “sense of entitlement and rage.” Later, the group’s mission would be carried on by ACORN, whose leaders endorsed and built upon Cloward and Piven’s strategy.
The idea was to consciously create a fiscal crisis of the state. ACORN’s chief strategist, Peter Dreier, explained this in an article, “The Case for Transitional Reform,” which appeared in the journal Social Policy in February 1979. Dreier called for injecting “unmanageable strains into the capitalist system, strains that precipitate an economic and/or political crisis,” producing a “revolution of rising entitlements” that “cannot be abandoned without undermining the legitimacy of the capitalist class.” Once a “fiscal crisis in the public sector” occurred, the movement could push for creation of “socialist norms” being advanced as the only possible solution.
A few decades have passed since this strategy was first announced. They had great hopes that when Bill Clinton became president, they could implement their strategy. But the Clinton administration — once seen potentially by the Left as a vehicle for fulfillment of its dreams — worked with Republicans in Clinton’s second term to pass meaningful and successful welfare reform. This was precisely the opposite of what the Left wanted and hoped for.
Now, as President Barack Obama is beginning the mid-point of his first and possibly only term in office, the Left is again trying to advance a new form of the old strategy. And the author of the new program is none other than Frances Fox Piven, the co-author with her late husband of the original 1966 article. Clearly, Piven looks back fondly with memories of what NWRO did in the 1970s. The New York Times reported on their tactics on September 22, 1970:
There have been sit-ins in legislative chambers, including a United States Senate committee hearing, mass demonstrations of several thousand welfare recipients, school boycotts, picket lines, mounted police, tear gas, arrests — and, on occasion, rock-throwing, smashed glass doors, overturned desks, scattered papers and ripped-out phones.
My friend Sol Stern, now with City Journal and the Manhattan Institute, explained how successful they were:
The flooding succeeded beyond Wiley’s wildest dreams. From 1965 to 1974, the number of households on welfare soared from 4.3 million to 10.8 million, despite mostly flush economic times. By the early 1970s, one person was on the welfare rolls in New York City for every two working in the city’s private economy.
Under the liberal administration of Mayor John Lindsay, welfare spending more than doubled, from $400 million to $1 billion a year. Money for the poor was now 28 per cent of the city’s budget, and New York almost collapsed as a result — precisely the hope of Cloward, Piven and George Wiley.
Now, as our national economy and many state and city budgets again are at the breaking point, Frances Fox Piven has issued a new call to repeat and build upon the ruinous strategies that she and her late husband advanced decades ago. And as in 1966, her vehicle is The Nation, the flagship magazine of the Left which today has a huge circulation and much greater influence than it had in the 1960s.
Writing in the current issue, Piven presents a clarion call for a new mass movement, one that the magazine publishes as an editorial statement representing its editors. (It is currently under the magazine’s firewall.) She begins by noting that nothing is taking place to deal with ending what she claims is an unemployment rate of 15 million people. To regain the 5 percent rate of 2007, she estimates there would have to be 300,000 jobs created each month for several years, something that is next to impossible.
Thus Piven asks a question: “So where are the angry crowds, the demonstrations, sit-ins and unruly mobs?” In other words, the kind of action her protégé George Wiley fomented in the 70s with the NWRO. She admonishes the Left not to wait for “the end of the American empire and even the end of neoliberal capitalism,” but to up the ante at present to pressure for “big new [government] initiatives in infrastructure and green energy” that could “ward off the darkness.” Her fear is that the new Congress, instead of moving in the direction she and the Left favors, will concentrate on “deficit reduction by means of tax cuts and spending cuts.” As for President Obama, she sees him as a new version of Herbert Hoover, who foolishly meets with corporate executives and seeks to placate them.
What is needed, she suggests, are “mass protests” that might influence Obama and press “him hard from his base.” To do that, however, she notes that they have to get past the many obstructions to mobilize the unemployed. This is especially the case that the unions today “do little for their unemployed,” who don’t pay dues and “are likely to be malcontents.”
Piven argues that their task is harder than it was in the past, because the unemployed are diverse, are not in one area of the country and have no common institutional setting. It is hard to bring people together, even in welfare and unemployment centers, she complains, since often administrators try to avoid long lines and crowded waiting areas, where organizers could proselytize and inflame the dissatisfied applicants.
But most important, she writes, “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 (my emphasis) …Losing a job is bruising; even when many other people are out of work, most people are still working. 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.”
They also need targets, which she sees as “the most difficult of the strategy problems.” Since she knows well that “local and state governments are strapped for funds,” the poor and the unemployed must demand “federal action.” It is, in other words, another “fiscal crisis of the state” that, as in the past, can be used to advance the radical goal. There first have to be local protests that have to “accumulate and spread,” then “become more disruptive” (my emphasis) in order to pressure our national political leaders. What does Piven mean when she calls for disruption? She is clear and up front about her intent:
An effective movement of the unemployed will have to look something like the strikes and riots that have spread across Greece in response to the austerity measures forced on the Greek government by the European Union, or like the student protests that recently spread with lightning speed across England in response to the prospect of greatly increased school fees. (my emphasis.)
What she is calling for is nothing less than the chaos and violence engulfing Europe. Disgruntled leftist unionists, students who expect an education without cost, and citizens of social-democratic states cannot accept that the old terms of the social contract they thought would last forever have worn out their welcome. The European welfare-state governments can no longer function with the kind of social programs that now far exceed their nation’s budgets and hence are moving their countries to the precipice of total collapse.
So Piven hopes that in our own country, “a loose and spontaneous movement of this sort could emerge,” spurred on, no doubt, by ideologues like Piven and the encouragement of the New York City leftists who run The Nation magazine. Perhaps on their next Carribbean cruise they can talk about it some more. Hence Piven hopes that young workers and students, “who face a future of joblessness, just might become large enough and disruptive enough to have an impact in Washington.”
Will it happen here? There is no exact science of protest movements, she notes. But who, she asks, “expected the angry street mobs in Athens or the protests by British students?” Living in the past, she looks hopefully at the strikes in 1934, and the civil rights movement of the1960s. Clearly no student of history, Piven fails to comprehend the very different circumstances that made these social movements have legs. All she can do is issue her hope that another “American social movement from the bottom” will emerge, and then the organized Nation left can “join it.”
This time, however, ACORN is collapsing, and no George Wiley and NWRO even exists to implement her strategy. Somehow, I doubt whether the current Nation readers will even pause to leave their cruise ship to try and organize the social base she thinks is the movement’s hope. It’s far easier to issue flaming declarations in the magazine’s pages and hope that someone will take her up on it. Doesn’t she remember her Karl Marx?
Ronald Radosh is an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute; Prof. Emeritus of History at the City University of New York, and the author of many books, including "The Rosenberg File;" "Divided They Fell: The Demise of the Democratic Party, 1964-1996," and most recently, "Commies: A Journey Through the Old Left, the New Left and the Leftover Left."
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