Image: Frances Fox Piven speaking at Columbia University in 2012. Behind her, a gathering of unemployed workers at the Communist Party offices in Washington, DC in 1930. (Credit: Columbia GSAPP and Washington Area Spark.)
by Marc Kagan
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 New Deal bureaucrats, the people brought to Washington by FDR, didn’t need to hear from the grassroots protestors that they needed cash assistance or that they needed a moratorium on evictions. That was totally obvious, and there were in any case social programs in other countries, particularly in Europe. So they had models for what to do in a dire emergency like the Great Depression. The question wasn’t so much what to do; the question was “Would they do it? Would they be forced to do it?” And it was direct action that forced them to do it.
You don’t think they would have done those things otherwise?
I don’t think they would have done them on the scale that they did them. They would have done something. I mean, even Hoover did something. There were all sorts of things going on; but they were not on the scale like the massive emergency relief program that FDR inaugurated in 1933. It was important to get that money out to preserve order in the cities. We have archival records of local officials writing to congressional committees saying, “Send money now or troops later.”
We saw a milder form of this distress during the so-called Great Recession. What can we learn from the political response in Washington and the popular response in the form of Occupy?
I think that there wasn’t much of a protest response to the Great Recession, the 2008 downturn. I think that what Occupy responded to was not mainly distress and poverty, [but] extreme inequality: that’s what the slogans about the 99% were focused on; extreme wealth compared to widespread penury and distress. Occupy was a very successful movement, but it was not the kind of movement that provoked the initiative of the New Deal, of the 1930s. It was a movement that was very skilled at communications, and had a major effect on American political discourse. Before Occupy, extreme inequality was not an issue that was regularly part of American political argument. Occupy made it an issue, and it has remained an issue, and we ought to be very appreciative of what they did.
Disruption Gets the Goods
For the kind of models that we’re talking about, for dealing with an economic crisis, we really have to go back almost a hundred years?
No, I don’t think so. I think that what political movements from below do that allows them to have a major impact on the institutions of the society are they cause trouble, they defy, they break rules, they disrupt regular institutional processes. And we see lots of that, not only with regard to economic distress.
The civil rights movement was not primarily focused on economic distress, although there was a lot of economic distress in the modernizing agricultural south, but on their lack of political rights and especially voting rights. They caused trouble; they had protests, they stopped things, they occupied things, they sat down. And because they did, they could not be ignored. That is the way in which protests from the bottom get a kind of hearing in the larger society, and the black freedom movement was exemplary in that regard.
But other movements too: look at Act-Up. Act-Up forced the health establishment in the United States to pay attention to AIDS. And they did it again with talent, humor, wit, and enormous emotional reservoirs. This is what movements do. Without movements, and without the kind of passionate emotion on the one hand, but also the disruption that they cause, I don’t think we would have had any of the major advances that have occurred in American history.
Elections & Movements
During the past year we saw tens of thousands, especially of younger people, who have been so badly served by neoliberalism, swept up in the Sanders campaign. Now, with his campaign over, and in the midst of this crisis, which is further destroying their life prospects, what advice do you have for them, and working people in general?
Band together with other people who share their outlook and their grievances and raise hell, shut things down. Now, I was very much in favor of also doing electoral politics. I have never agreed with the dichotomy that movement people sometimes point to between movement politics and electoral politics. I think that you need a kind of electoral foothold in order for movements to be as effective as they can be.
So, I’m hopeful that Biden will retain at least the major planks of the Sanders campaign. I was a Sanders supporter, of course, but we are where we are, and I think what we have to now concentrate on is strengthening the protest movements that are inevitably going to well up as things get worse in the United States.
The level of unemployment that we now confront is a Great Depression level; that is where we are. So we have to begin to think about rent strikes, for example, massive rent strikes, where if people don’t have the money to pay the rent, then help them to justify not paying the rent, and defend their residences against eviction; that’s the kind of things movement people should be doing now.
At the start of this conversation you said that movements aren’t always inevitable, that they come out of certain mindsets or certain factors. Do you think that certain conditions have to arise for this crisis to birth a movement response?
I think we will get a movement response not only because movements are in general inevitable – you can’t repress people forever – but because the Trump administration is so patently, obviously corrupt and incompetent. This regime has very little legitimacy among the American people. People may go along with things when they’re doing well, but as they begin to suffer the consequences of the incompetence of this regime, I think that movements are indeed inevitable. Can you imagine – this administration is about to be accused by the American people of the coronavirus pandemic; and why? Because they are responsible. This has never happened to my knowledge; this is incredible.
And I think we should be prepared for incredible waves of mass protest.