On March 6th, 2017 Cecilia Gingerich of the Next System Project talked with renowned activist and professor Frances Fox Piven by phone about a variety of topics—from her theory on social movements and disruptive tactics, to the growing movement for women’s rights, electoral politics, the Trump administration’s immigration policies, and the importance of resistance at the current moment. The transcript below has been edited for clarity.
Cecilia Gingerich, The Next System Project: I wanted to get started by talking a bit about your theory of protest disruption. For decades, you’ve argued that it’s when social movements are disruptive that they are effective, and in a recent Nation article you write that “people in motion, in movements, can throw sand in the gears of the institutions that depend on their cooperation.” So, in other words, that it’s disruption—or non-cooperation—that drives social change.
We’ve seen a major increase of in social movements and non-cooperation since Donald Trump’s inauguration (boycotts on businesses, large protests in the streets and at airports, etc.). What do you make of this recent increase in disruptive action? It seems like what you’ve been calling for for many years. Do you think it’s working?
Frances Fox Piven: Not everything that social movements do is aimed at having an impact. A lot of what goes on in social movements has to do with a kind of self organization, so that from the very day of the election—or the day after the election, at least—we saw a lot of the gathering of people and a lot of expressive yelling, which I think movements always do. These are part of the process through which people develop a sense of their own power, and a sense of who they are, a sense of their identity and their solidarity. That is a little bit different from what movements also try to do when they activate the kind of power that is rooted in the fact that societies are complex systems of cooperation.
Almost everybody is a contributor to those systems of cooperation—sometimes we call them institutions. If people withdraw that cooperation, they can cause a breakdown in the system or breakdown in the institution. That I think is the spearhead of social movements. In order to do that they have to go though the other process, which is a process through which they recognize who they are, who’s on their side, and they develop a kind of morale that has to do with showing themselves to each other. So both kinds of things go on in social movements.
Cecilia Gingerich: Do you think we’ve been seeing some of both of those in the past few weeks, since the inauguration?
Frances Fox Piven: Yes, both are going on, but I think over time, we may well see more of the disruptive actions—that are more strategic, in a way—that are aimed at targets, at groups of people, at elites who the movements consider to be responsible for their grievances.
Cecilia Gingerich: In some instances we’re also seeing harsher punishments for protesters, including the over 200 people who were charged with felony riot for protesting Trump’s inauguration.
Frances Fox Piven: Yes, that’s a very worrisome development and it is likely to spread through the state legislatures, because after all, more than half the states are controlled by Republicans.
But not the biggest states. We’re all watching state legislatures and the governors who are going to have to approve of their action. If you look at where the population is concentrated, where economic activity is concentrated, then of course you are more likely to look to the coasts and to huge cities like Chicago, and those cities are enormously important in the system of cooperation. They may not be as important in the Electoral College, but in the functioning of the society, they are very, very important.
Cecilia Gingerich: Yeah—with the new immigration policies we’ve seen New York City and some other cities saying that they won’t comply with the executive orders, which I think is a very significant development. Do you think that’s been a strong enough response from them?
Frances Fox Piven: Well, it’s going to be hard to follow through on that, and we can’t rely just on the mayors, on city governments, to have a spine. In order for them to follow through on their own commitments, the movement is going to have to put pressure on city governments, and on state governments. In states like California and New York—only two states, but two states that have an enormous share of the population of the country—in those states, the governors are likely to respond to movement pressure.
They’re trying to respond. Andrew Cuomo is trying to do so rhetorically by talking about tuition-free college, one of the favorite demands of the movement. But in order to follow through on that without also cutting college budgets—because that’s what he always tries to do—we have to have movement pressure.
Cecilia Gingerich: What are some of the things that you could see movements doing? Do you see the massive numbers of people we’ve been seeing in the streets as enough?
Frances Fox Piven: No, that’s not enough. The massive display of people in the street is wonderful. We all—everybody on my side of the political spectrum—love that, and it really makes us proud, and gives us courage. It’s part of the way we develop our own capacity, but to act on that capacity is a somewhat different thing.
Then we have to become much more disruptive. Then we have to engage in the politics of disobedience, of refusal. That’s where we have an effect on elites, rather than just an effect on ourselves.
Cecilia Gingerich: I think that ties in well with what we’ve been seeing with the women’s rights/feminist movement since the inauguration. We saw hundreds of thousands of people come out on the 21st of January. Do you think this is an encouraging development?
Frances Fox Piven: Yes, I do. Although I also think we need to think through the strategic lines of movement action, which are likely to have a big effect on the Trump regime and his many partners. Notice how many partners he’s acquired since he first became the Republican nominee. Everybody started moving to his camp, and by everybody, I mean powerful interest groups like the Koch brothers, and the banks—two of the most powerful economic sectors in the United States, and the world.
Who would have thought a year, a year and a half ago, that those dignified economic titans would become part of the Trump regime? But once he gained power, they did.
Cecilia Gingerich: Yes, they’re definitely a formidable force, which it can be difficult to know how to resist. In the case of the women’s movement, do you think that it’s important that that movement articulate their goals clearly, or is it enough just to resist the erosion of rights?
Frances Fox Piven: The women’s movement, which has been really staunch and well organized—or I should say well mobilized, because people are always confusing the kind of organization that movements do with the kind of organization that NGOs do—the women’s movement has been really on a tear, and they’ve been doing very well. But I think that as that movement develops, it has some work to do because the women’s movement that we inherited from the 1970s really did fail to enlist working class and poor women. It was a movement of women who were poised to enter the professions.
The women’s organizations, the NGOs that developed in the wake of that movement, pursued limited goals. As a result, educated women have made a lot of advances for themselves, but at the same time, they have not included, embraced, and stood with working class and poor women. All women now are workers, though of course you could argue they always were, but they were not doing wage work. But those women were not really embraced by the feminist movement of the 1970s, and that’s why we have to transform the women’s movement: it has to be much more inclusive and much more oriented to those who are worst off in American society.
Cecilia Gingerich: Do you think that since the movement has such mass mobilization and support now, it may link up with other movements, like that for queer rights or the Movement for Black Lives?
Frances Fox Piven: Yeah, well you know movements can support each other, cooperate with each other, without going through the kind of aggravation that is always involved in trying to actually organizationally unify movements. That, it seems to me, is a recipe for disputes, for discouragement, for endless bickering.
It’s much better when each movement in a way develops its own identity, its own demands, acts on those demands, and also shows fellowship, sisterhood with other movements. It doesn’t have to become organizationally linked to those movements.
Cecilia Gingerich: In your recent Nation piece you also mention that resistance and non-compliance in the military was important to ending the Vietnam War. In the current context, when many are concerned with the growing power of the military, do you think we should be advocating for similar non-cooperation in the military—or should we not rely on the military in any way?
Frances Fox Piven: I think we have to wait and see how things unfold. Certainly the Trump administration is trying to gather attention and momentum, as it constantly does, by talking about boosting the military budget. Yeah, that’s an issue that I think all groups in the movement—or the different movements, however you want to define them—could find unity on.
And with that, taxes on the affluent are going to be cut even more. They’ve already been substantially reduced over the last 30 or 40 years. Taxes will be cut, and more money will be put into the military. That’s going to be at the expense of the policies that the groups in the movement are invested in. What’s most important about this development is that it paves the way for a Paul Ryan legislative agenda, which will attack the social programs that still exist. Programs like Medicaid, food stamps, are going to be under the gun. It’s still another reason why it’s so important that we have a much more inclusionary women’s movement that fastens not only on the issues that have to do with the advancement of educated women, but fastens on the issues that affect all women.
Cecilia Gingerich: That reminds me a bit of what some call the “Cloward-Piven Strategy”—a strategy which you have been writing about for a long time—which argues that increasing demands on the welfare system can be an anti-systemic force, and could eventually collapse the financial system and clear a path for more reforms. I believe a guaranteed basic income is often mentioned as one such reform. That theory seems to hinge on there being at least some progressive politicians in power to put pressure on.
Now that the federal government is controlled by the Republican Party, do you think people should still be putting pressure on the Democratic Party, and particularly elected officials at the state and local levels? Or should people start to look outside of the Democratic Party?
Frances Fox Piven: I don’t think people have any choice. For one thing, movements are very much also electoral animals. There’s a kind of mantra that I think is mistaken that we’ve inherited from the last couple of decades of movement activism. That mantra treats movement politics and electoral politics as very distinctive strategies. They are on two different tracks, and they have nothing to do with each other. That’s ridiculous.
Movements gain a lot of their courage from developments in electoral politics. When elected politicians, even when they have no intention of acting on their rhetoric, when they nevertheless mouth rhetoric intended to speak to the movements’ issues and grievances, that gives movements courage. You can see that in the history of the labor movement, in the history of the civil rights movement, in the history of the women’s movement.
It’s also true as the movement escalates. How is its pressure, its momentum realized in policy and practice? Well, it’s through electoral politics. The movement is effective to the extent that it has an impact on electoral politics, and that’s also why it’s a mistake to think of the movement constituency as distinct, entirely cut off from electoral constituencies. They’re intermingled. When the movement succeeds in encouraging, arousing, a movement constituency, that’s going to be transmitted into electoral politics, and it’s going to force the hand of politicians who generally—even when they’re Democrats—prefer not to do very much.
Cecilia Gingerich: At the Next System Project, we focus on the need to change the system, and also on building the pathways to a new system. What do you think is the relationship between the disruptive actions and strategy we’ve just been talking about—including electoral politics—in building alternatives and getting to something better?
Frances Fox Piven: I think that what we have to guard against is the illusion that just thinking of solutions and writing about them, writing about a freedom budget or writing about the cooperative organization of the economy, the illusion that just the idea that there is a solution, is itself a political force. It isn’t. We’ve been writing freedom budgets ever since I was a small child.
Nevertheless, I do think that it matters when people have aspirations that they think can be realized, so that there’s nothing inherently destructive about proposing solutions. In fact, it can contribute to a movement’s morale. Still, I think it’s bad when we confuse the design of solutions with the design of a political movement.
But, look. Imagine—though you don’t have to imagine, just look around—people are angry. People are in motion. I don’t want to take that anger, to take that dynamism, to take that energy and direct it into designing the ideal community. I really don’t want to do that, because that’s a process that can go on forever, and it deludes people into thinking that they’re contributing to the realization of that ideal. They may be in some way, but probably not.
Way, way back in the 1960s, I was a city planner. I did a lot of work in low income communities, in black communities. And a lot of my colleagues who were also city planners were entranced by something called “advocate planning.” What advocate planners did was they went into these communities that were seething with energy and anger, and they organized little groups to design a better physical community: a better street layout, a better housing plan.
Sometimes they published those alternate plans. There’s something called, the “alternate plan for Cooper Square,” for example, which among planners has a kind of legendary status. The alternate plan for Cooper Square was not realized. 1 All those endless meetings, what did they do? They had the effect of drawing leadership in the community away from the direct action, which might’ve had an impact, for example, on housing subsidies, drawing them away from that into making blueprints for a better community. That’s a very delicate problem and I think we have to be aware of it.
Right now I think the resistance is the important movement. I don’t think anybody is particularly in a mood to design an ideal welfare system because we’re going to lose what little social welfare we have. We have to try to prevent that. We have to try to block that. That’s part of what we feel around us, a kind of agreement that what’s important now is resistance.
Cecilia Gingerich: I think we’re all thinking about and re-assessing strategies, and how we deal with the new order of things, and I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with us and share your insights. Is there anything else you’d like to add? Any other thoughts since the inauguration?
Frances Fox Piven: Just that there’s a lot we don’t know about what’s going on. Gradually, little pieces of the new power structure are becoming revealed, but we have to be very flexible and pay a lot of attention. All the while, I think we have to try to contribute to the resistance.
- 1. While the full alternate plan was not realized, a half century of organizing by the Cooper Square Committee has resulted in the creation of limited amounts of permanently affordable housing on the Lower East Side. See here and the forthcoming documentary It Took Fifty Years for more information. —The Next System Project