Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Serious Politics: So What Is Frances Fox Piven Thinking About These Days?

Following up on June 15's repost of 1966's Richard Cloward and Frances Fox Piven: "The Weight of the Poor: A Strategy to End Poverty"
and January 20, 2017's Frances Fox Piven On President Trump: "Throw Sand In the Gears of Everything"
From Organizing Upgrade, April 28:

The Unemployed Fight Back: An Interview with Frances Fox Piven
On April 23th, 2020, some 26.5 million Americans were unemployed, and the St. Louis Fed has estimated that 47 million people may be unemployed by the end of June, with unemployment reaching 32%. The Congressional Budget Office expects at least a 9% unemployment rate through 2021 and perhaps beyond. Tens of millions more will have exhausted their savings, facing mounting debt, evictions, foreclosures. All this on top of the existing problems of neoliberalism’s economy of precarity. As is usual, the crisis will hit the working poor, people of color, and youth the hardest.
What strategies and tactics can organizers and working people more broadly draw on today, in order to build social and political power in this crisis? Historically, the unemployed have organized themselves into networks of mutual aid in moments of crisis, but also to make transformative political demands, often with direct action as a central tool. Marc Kagan talked to Frances Fox Piven, author of Poor People’s Movements, about past efforts, and current possibilities. Fox Piven is a prolific writer, a long-time practitioner of the unruly, disruptive behavior she so often advocates, and even an effective lobbyist—she is credited with playing a central role in the 1993 “Motor Voter” Act. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Marc Kagan: Tell me about previous efforts of the unemployed and their advocates during economic crises? Are there commonalities that we should be looking to now?
Frances Fox Piven: Of course there are. When large numbers of people are unemployed they become desperate. Just the fact of unemployment and need and starvation is not exactly what drives people to protest, but if they also think that they have some rights that are being violated in this time of disaster, they are very likely to protest.

Long before there was anything you could call capitalism, there were food riots, for example, at times when harvests failed, people would protest; they would commandeer food supplies that they did not own, and often distributed them according to what they considered to be a just and fair system. A food riot was premised on the idea that people have a right to live, and there was a reciprocity implicit in a community and in a society, which helped to account for why people acquired the anger and the courage to commandeer food supplies.

Although that should not leave one to think that they always protest when they’re in need; if people think that the scarcity that they are enduring is inevitable and justified they will starve quietly too; that happens as well.

So they have to think it’s not inevitable and they have to think that it’s not justified, and they have to think they can do something about it. The last belief, that they can do something about it, is very important. During times of depression, or times when the harvests failed, the protestors included many of the people who were poor and hungry before the harvest failed, but the fact that there are large numbers of people who are in the same straits gives courage to the perennially poor or starving people in a community.

So mass unemployment changes the ideology that unemployment and poverty in general are personal failings?
Yes, it usually has that effect if it is widespread, if the economic collapse affects many people, and if major institutions that are considered substantial and solid also grind to a halt. It was important in the 1930s that the banks closed their doors; that was a kind of symbol of the crisis that US capitalism confronted.

In what ways does it matter when the middle class and, in this case, small businesses and contractors are swept up in what is normally poor people’s despair? How does it change the response?
I think it helps to give courage to people who are on the edge of protest, because these are the people who ordinarily scorn the poor, who ordinarily have contempt for the hungry and [now] they also are in dire straits; so yes, it can help. And, after all, in the world of the urban or rural poor, the people we call middle class are models; and if the model, if the exemplary citizen, is also in dire straits that makes it clearer that the problem is not a problem of “me,” and it’s not a problem of my family or my immediate community, but it’s a problem with the system.

Does it affect things, though, that those groups come in with a different ideology about the government or how people should act in crisis? 
There are all sorts of ideological dispositions that are at work in times of disaster and upheaval. Ideas of the middle class are always there, and people are always being preached to by middle class leaders, by their pastors, or priests, or rabbis, or the bank vice president or the editor of the local newspaper. They’re always being scolded, and talked to about the values that lead to success in a capitalist society.

What happened in the Great Depression is that there were other kinds of leaders that appeared. The American communists were very important in the mass protests. They announced the slogans that denounced unemployment and said that we should get wages even if we didn’t work. They led the rent strikes that swept through New York and other major cities. They put the furniture back in the apartments when the police or the sheriff emptied the apartments. But it wasn’t only communists; local religious leaders often became leaders of the unemployed, or leaders of the rural people who gathered to resist foreclosures of farms and who threatened whoever was holding the auction, so that the farm was sold back to the owner for a piddling amount.

The point being that people do have a capacity to advance and to adopt the ideas that justify their resistance, no matter that the middle class or clergy or teachers have been scolding them for all of their lives about the importance of thrift and obedience.

Direct Action of the Unemployed
One form of response during the Great Depression was direct action; another was petitioning or advocacy to the government for social programs or relief. Could you tell us what you see as the advantages or flaws of each form?....

The community organizers and students of political science among our readers will recognize the 'ol Action directe, perhaps accompanied by a bit of Thomas Carlyle’s whiff of grapeshot describing the end of the French Revolution, this time round.
As noted in the introduction to June 8's "Capital Markets: All Is Unfolding According To Plan":
...It's probably time to brush up on the Jacobins and the Committee of Public Safety.
Maybe the history of the XMI on October 20, 1987 as well.
More to come as the summer progresses....
Back in 2007 I was poking a bit of gentle fun at the Marxist-Leninists-Trots:
 "International Day of Direct Action Against Climate Change and the G8":

Oh happy day!
I haven't heard this kind of lingo in a while: "The 8th of June International Day of Action Against Climate Change and the G8 has been called by the International Rising Tide Network. This is a call for autonomous, decentralized actions appropriate for your town, city, or local area. Use this international day of action to support local struggles against oil refineries, gas pipelines, strip mines and coal-fired power plants. Disrupt the financial backers of the fossil fuel industry. Organise workshops to spread sustainable post-petroleum living skills. Find a weak point in the infrastructure of resource exploitation and throw a literal or symbolic wrench in the works. It’s time to visit your local polluters and give 'em hell!" From

From the 70's Australian broadsheet Direct Action.

From the French version of Wikipedia: Action directe (AD) est un groupe clandestin (aux influences anarchistes et communistes...)

From Wikipedia: Action Directe was a French Maoist/Marxist-Leninist militant group which committed a series of assassinations and violent attacks in France between 1979 and 1987.

I knew something was up when Desmogblog linked to " Thought Online" for the story "Talking about a revolution: Calls for action on global warming, inequality",
which was originally posted at Peoples Weekly World.

I've missed PWW's take on local self-determination such as this story from Estonia, "Estonian gov’t desecrates anti-fascist history"--"On April 27, the Estonian government removed a monument honoring the 270,000 Red Army soldiers who gave their lives in the fight against Nazism in Estonia from a central square in Tallinn, the country’s capital, and moved it to a cemetery two miles away."

Time to brush up on the Dialectical Materialism (nobody told you this was going to be easy):

Lenin's elements of dialectics

Lenin made some brief notes outlining three "elements" of logic after reading Hegel's Science of Logic in 1914. They are:
1) The determination of the concept out of itself [the thing itself must be considered in its relations and in its development]; 2) the contradictory nature of the thing itself (the other of itself), the contradictory forces and tendencies in each phenomenon;
3) the union of analysis and synthesis.
Such apparently are the elements of dialectics.

— Lenin, Summary of dialectics
Lenin develops these in a further series of notes, and appears to argue that "the transition of quantity into quality and vice versa" is an example of the unity and opposition of opposites expressed tentatively as "not only the unity of opposites, but the transitions of every determination, quality, feature, side, property into every other [into its opposite?]."
Even Wikipedia gets a little confused as to what Lenin is saying, whereas Lenin seems to nail Hegel (which ain't always easy).

"There's battle lines bein' drawn..."
See you June 8th.