Protest Politics 101: An Interview with Frances Fox-Piven


6-28=05, 9:55 am

Editor's note: Frances Fox Piven is Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Sociology at the City University of New York. She is author of a number of books on class, including Regulating the Poor, Poor Peoples’ Movements, and The New Class.

PA: At the recent Left Forum in New York City you spoke of organizing centers of resistance against the policies of the Bush administration. What are presently the most important issues in the fight and the most important centers of organization?

FFP: I think the Iraq war is a very important issue. A strategy that could create trouble for Bush’s war effort is the call for counter recruiting. Counter recruiting can take many forms. In NYC for example, many teachers are already involved in counter-recruiting efforts. What makes this so important is that it intersects with a number of the Bush administration’s vulnerabilities. They are having great difficulty in keeping the different branches of the military service up to quota. One of the reasons, of course, is that news is getting out about the war and how terrible the conditions are for the American troops in Iraq. Another reason is the ambivalence Americans have about the war. Everyone supports our troops, but that’s a little bit different than supporting the invasion in the first place.

If the administration is unable to keep up the numbers in the armed forces’ needs with volunteers, they will have to begin to talk about a draft. If they begin to talk about a draft, I think the costs of the war would begin to come home to many more Americans than are now aware of them.

I think we also ought to do the kind of organizing that shows the relationship between $500 billion a year in military costs and cuts in domestic programs. Of course, the enormous tax cuts pushed through by the Bush administration are also forcing cuts in social spending. We ought to talk about the connection between these different aspects of Bush’s policies in our organizing work.

PA: Do you see these main issues as defensive or do you see any possibility for going on the offensive against the right and the Bush administration?
FFP: It’s hard to tell until you try. There are a lot of people in the social sciences who study social movements. I don’t think any one of them would claim credit for ever having predicted an uprising. Most organizers keep trying: they keep testing the waters.

The communists who organized the unemployed in the early 1930s began trying to do that kind of organizing in 1921. And they just kept trying and then in 1930, people suddenly responded. One could say the same thing about the civil rights movement. People were always trying to mobilize Blacks to demand the rights that they had in fact formally won after the Civil War in the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. Then suddenly in the 1950s it became possible.

In retrospect we can say that conditions changed. Many more Blacks were now wage workers living in the cities of the South. They had the advantage of concentrated numbers in the ghettos of those cities and were liberated from the overwhelming power of the planters. But at the time nobody quite read those signs in that way. It was only through trial and error that organizers tapped into the current of both hope and indignation that undergirded the Civil Rights movement.

PA: On the role of the left in today’s context, some don’t regard electoral or legislative strategies as effective or useful. How would you respond to that?

FFP: I’m inclined to agree that if we restrict ourselves to electoral strategies, we are not going to win. After the 2004 election for example, many people who had worked on that election, sat back and said, 'In order for such an effort to be really successful, we need some very substantial reforms of our electoral process.' They talked about a national voter registration system because now every state, country and local election board really makes the decision about whether to accept a voter registration application or not. And we need the right to vote to be guaranteed nationally because now you can’t litigate against practices that disenfranchise people on the state and county level. Election Day should be a holiday so that working people are not so pressed for time when they go to vote. It should not be the case that election officials are partisan and have positions, as they did in 2000 and 2004, in the Bush campaign. On computer voting, for example, we should have voter verified paper trails and open source codes. It’s a long list. But we are not going to win any of those things until we win an election. And so we are in a conundrum.

This doesn’t mean that I don’t think electoral politics are important. It’s just that if we restrict ourselves to electoral politics we are never going to break out of the box. American history has experienced upsurges of protest from below that have sometimes shattered the constraints under which we operate. That was true in the American Revolution itself and it was true in decades leading to the Civil War and the emancipation of Blacks. The abolitionist movement, Black and white, was critical to that achievement.

It was certainly true of the labor movement, the poverty movements of the 1960s and the civil rights movement. None of those movements were primarily electoral efforts – they were effective because they threatened to fragment electoral coalitions. They were able to do that because movements have a kind of communicative and disruptive power that leaps over the propaganda machines that the two parties control and have controlled for a long time. Protest movements are able to raise issues that are not dictated by party operatives and their fat cat contributors. Those issues are in a sense communicated more widely when the movements are disruptive. Moreover, the disruption itself has an impact: if you shut factories down, you are going to get a lot of people angry and you are also going to attract a lot of allies. Similarly, if you shut down the schools. The universities today, for example, have more people as employees and students than the mass production industries. So there are many sites for this kind of movement mobilization. But what’s important about them is that they don’t rely on resources and channels that are controlled from the top and they are therefore able to raise new issues in dramatic ways and reach new people. We probably can reach more people with social protest than we can reach with get-out-the-vote campaigns.

PA: At the Left Forum there was a number of workshops on the subject of imagining a new society ranging from the 'Soul of Socialism' to 'What would a new socialist USA' look like. What value would this kind of discussion or freedom dreaming have. And how do you see us getting there?

FFP: I don’t think we are very clear about how to get there. But I do think it’s important to keep raising the possibility of an alternative kind of society. Otherwise we get overwhelmed; it’s both intellectually and culturally overwhelming, by the 'There’s No Alterative' (TINA) idea. That is the argument of the right: the business right and its populist allies: that this is the only way. It isn’t and we know it. We have little glimmers about how it’s not the only way because our society has been different in the past under the pressure of mass uprisings in the ‘30s and the ‘60s and also because European societies are not just like the US. They are not as bound by the dictates of capital; they moderate those dictates. Maybe we can and maybe we can’t have an entirely different society, but if we don’t struggle for one, then it’s going to be pretty barbaric. And in order to struggle for one we have to believe in the possibility of other institutional arrangements than the kinds of arrangements that are dictated by contemporary American capitalism linked to this political/religious theocracy that we have today.