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. Continue reading The Unemployed Fight Back: An Interview with Frances Fox Piven→
SLU professor Frances Fox Piven has been no stranger to press in her 86 years — many of which have been spent as a rabble-rousing leftist activist and respected leftist intellectual. Last week, Prof. Piven got yet one more feature to add to the list: a NYTimes profile by Alex Traub that describes her role in an evolving left, and the leadership she’s providing to a new generation of activists:
“She’s someone whose body of work shows that you don’t have to drift off into this La-La Land of intellectualism,” [Jacobin editor Micah] Uetricht said. “People should be going on strike. People should be withdrawing their labor power or causing chaos in society. That’s where their power comes from.”
Probably the most influential vector for Ms. Piven’s ideas is the social-justice incubator Momentum, a training program for progressives that formed in 2014.
Trainees include members of the Sunrise Movement, whose occupation of Ms. Pelosi’s office with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez sparked conversation about the Green New Deal. It was just the sort of disruption Ms. Piven advocates.
“What tactics we use is exactly the question that Piven is addressing,” said Lissy Romanow, 35, Momentum’s executive director. Part of Ms. Piven’s appeal, she said, came from her view that social movements are required for big left-wing victories — a perspective suited to a generation disillusioned with liberal business as usual.
The Times article focuses on Dr. Piven’s reverential status among labor organizers and activists, and how she has influenced the current progressive movement — which it says is “full of Pivenites.” In July, she will be headlining the Socialism2019 Conference “No Borders, No Bosses, No Binaries”, to be held in Chicago.
Thursday, March 23 | 6pm-8pm Murphy Institute 25 W. 43 Street, 18th Floor New York, NY
Can’t make it in person? Watch the livestream here:
Across the country, people are organizing in growing numbers. Who is participating? What kind of organizing is happening? Is this resistance different than what the world has seen before? What are the prospects of sustained resistance?
Join us for a discussion on the resistance with internationally renowned social scientist, scholar, and activist, Frances Fox Piven. She is a Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Sociology, CUNY Graduate School, and Distinguished Lecturer in Labor Studies at the Murphy Institute, author and co-author of more than 200 articles published in academic journals, books, popular publications and journals of opinion since 1965. Her most recent book is Who’s Afraid of Frances Fox Piven? The Essential Writings of the Professor Glenn Beck Loves to Hate. Read more.
The Murphy Institute is known for its public programming, bringing thinkers, leaders and policymakers together to discuss the issues vital to making change in our city and our world.
Watch Frances Fox Piven, Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the CUNY Graduate Center discussing the history of Organized Labor and whether it can return to its roots of fighting for the poor.