Notes on a Theory…

Thoughts on politics, law, & social science

Archive for March 2021

Telling People Things Are Bad Is Not Enough

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I keep referencing this quote from Piven and Cloward’s Poor People’s Movements, so I thought I would put it here and explain why.

It comes in a discussion of those rare but all important moments when people–who always have plenty of reason to resist or rebel–move from quiescence and generally playing the roles they are supposed to play in the institutions in which they are enmeshed, to widespread defiance.

The emergence of a protest movement entails a transformation both of consciousness and of behavior. The change in consciousness has at least three distinct aspects. First, ‘the system’ –or those aspects of the system that people experience and perceive–loses legitimacy. Large numbers of men and women who ordinarily accept the authority of their rulers and the legitimacy of institutional arrangements come to believe in some measure that these rulers and these arrangements are unjust and wrong. Second, people who are ordinarily fatalistic, who believe that existing arrangements are inevitable, begin to assert their ‘rights’ that imply demands for change. Third, there is a new sense of efficacy; people who ordinarily consider themselves helpless come to believe that they have some capacity to alter their lot.

The change in behavior is equally striking, and usually more easily recognized, at least when it takes the form of mass strikes or marches or riots. Such behavior seems to us to involve two distinguishing elements. First, masses of people become defiant; they violate the traditions and laws to which they ordinarily acquiesce, and they flaunt the authorities to whom they ordinarily defer. And second, their defiance is acted out collectively, as members of a group, and not as isolated individuals.

Simply put, a great deal of political energy goes into convincing people of that first step (the illegitimacy of the system) as though that alone will radicalize people. But people often are perfectly willing to conclude that things are bad. This position is often held by people who also hold very naive notions about the automatic impact of public opinion on policy, about the function of government to solve the public’s problems, the virtues and ‘leadership’ of public officials, etc. People often vacillate between the naive idealism and totalizing cynicism. This ensures any outcome is easily explainable, which is often what political language is designed to do (as opposed to helping one act politically, which is what political language ought to do.)

How to break out of this? Piven and Cloward provide some guidance here. The making of demands and efficacy are what is required, and they are only partly linguistic. It is through action that that these notions are instantiated.

Written by David Kaib

March 26, 2021 at 11:07 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Poor People’s Movements and The Movements of 2020

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I organized multiple reading groups of the classic book Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed and How They Fail, by Francis Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, over the past year. The book has perhaps never been more relevant given the the historic protests over police brutality, the coronavirus pandemic, and economic inequality of late. I was recently on Left Anchor and we talked about what lessons might be drawn from the successes and failures of these protests, and how we should think about movement strategy going forward. Check it out.

Written by David Kaib

March 26, 2021 at 10:20 pm

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