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Five Things Frances Fox Piven Says Occupiers Need to Do

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"Movements are a part of electoral politics and electoral politics shape movements," said in a recent Philadelphia speech.

CREDIT: Flickr / Zach D Roberts

“The banks can eat it,” a gruff voice grumbled happily as renowned activist and author Frances Fox Piven moved to the front of Temple University’s Barton lecture hall for a speech on Tuesday. The event, sponsored by the campus chapter of the Young Democratic Socialists of America, thronged with attendees who surely agreed with the sentiment.

The event and Piven’s later speech in front of Philadelphia’s City Hall—home of the city’s occupiers—happened to coincide with an Election Day that went exceedingly well for progressives.

The election results, and Piven’s message, serve as a useful reminder for a movement that contains factions that refuse to utilize their vote, or see a difference between the two parties. A recent thread on Occupy Philly’s website—entitled “You Can’t Elect Change”—included such statements as “I’d rather see revolution than the old shell game,” though a large majority of responders rejected the anti-electoral message.

(On CampusProgress.org: Frances Fox Piven Talks Tea Party Politics)

Piven’s speech to the audience spilling out of the doors of the 180-person lecture hall featured a general history of the last 80 years of politics in the Western world, from social democracy’s depression-era and postwar victories to the conservative assault that began in the 1970s, and labor’s related decline.

Piven argued that right-wing attacks on social programs, responsible taxation, environmental and safety regulations, and workers rights have resulted in widespread poverty, stagnating wages, and massive inequality.

“This has become a different country, a worse country,” Piven said.

But these changes have been gradual, people have been surviving, and America’s wealth, and ballooning personal debt spending, cushioned a majority of the population, she noted. But the collapse of 2008 and the audacity of financial elites who refused to negotiate on certain matters threw everything into focus, resulting in the current uprising.

Here are the top five takeaway messages from Piven’s visit to Philly, pulled from her two speeches, Q&A sessions, and a one-on-one interview with Campus Progress.

1. Electoral Politics Aren’t Everything

Piven certainly didn’t endorse the anti-voting position (after all she did co-author a book entitled: Why Americans Still Don't Vote: And Why Politicians Want It That Way). But she also made clear that the corruption and ineptitude of our electoral and political systems is largely responsible for such sentiments.

“American electoral politics don’t work very well,” Piven said to the student-crammed room. “On the one hand you are right to be discouraged.” But she encouraged attendees to discount the “false dichotomy between movement and electoral politics.”

“On the other hand, movements improve the quality of electoral politics; all this action has an impact on public opinion, agendas,” she said. “We are changing electoral politics.”

But Piven then argued that the Occupiers’ time would be better spent organizing actions and escalating the movement’s activities rather than door knocking for politicians. That isn’t a movement’s principal job.

And whether you think the lesser-evil policy outcomes of recent years are the result of one party corporate-rule, or the political system’s inherent conservative tendencies, the fact is that our political elites have failed us. Occupy Wall Street and its offshoots need to demonstrate that fact through mass defiance.

2. Don’t Spurn Electoral Politics

Piven firmly rejected any kind of non-electoral politics, opening her Temple speech with the assertion that progressive change must be “based firmly on a belief in democracy.”

Later, she concluded that: “There is no way of making long term change without working with the electoral system,” and argued for a synthesis: “movements are a part of electoral politics and electoral politics shape movements.”

In short, you can’t have movement politics without also engaging in electoral politics. The atmosphere of unrest and revolt that pervaded the 1930s certainly spurred FDR to action, as many historians have noted.

In a nation as large and complex as America, there’s no entity besides the federal government that can effectively organize and deliver food assistance, old age pensions, unemployment insurance, health care, or other social services to hundreds of millions of people. It is also the only entity large enough to regulate finance and industry.

Clearly, there are some political actors who want to reduce the public sector’s ability to deliver these essential protections to the public. And there are others who want to maintain and expand these programs. Piven says the movement’s job is to diminish the first group, empower the second, and make the system responsive to the needs of, well, the 99 percent.

As Martin Luther King said in regards to his Poor People’s Campaign: “Only the federal Congress and administration can decide to use the billions of dollars we need for a real war on poverty.”

3. Escalate

But to make political and policy elites respond, the movement needs to escalate.

Piven celebrated the Occupiers wins thus far, but warned her listeners that actual policy concessions will be harder. 

“You’ve made income inequality a major issue, something we’ve been trying to accomplish for decades,” Piven said to the Temple students. “When will [we] win something? Changing the discourse isn’t everything.”

She told her City Hall audience that the occupation tactic was innovative and central to the movement’s success.

“I think this is a major advance in how we do social movements,” she said. “[It demonstrates that] we’re not going away, we’re staying, and it gave the press time to react. A single march, rally, or demonstration is fun, but everyone knows it’s going to be over soon.”

But Piven’s central message is that the movement needs to escalate beyond the occupations. This theme has been echoed in progressive circles recently, where many fear that the movement will stagnate in its camps if more dynamic tactics aren’t employed.

Piven said she hopes that winter’s coming will precipitate occupations of indoor areas, which are sure to be more contentious and disruptive. But she argued against the angry confrontations favored by the Tea Party.

“Screaming and spitballs is not what I would recommend,” Piven told Campus Progress.

“Sit-down strikes have always been the best tactic for a workers movement,” Piven told the lecture hall. “Think of all the things we do in our everyday lives that we could refuse to do. The opportunities are myriad.”

And she argued strongly for more widespread action, perhaps modeled on the activities of protestors in Spain and Boston who have prevented the police from throwing foreclosed families out on the street.

“The most important question we have to face,” she told the City Hall audience. “Move from the city center to the houses that are being foreclosed on.”

Organizers are advocating moves beyond the occupations too.

In Philadelphia, on Dec. 1, the radical bookstore the Wooden Shoe is hosting a meeting to strategize about what happens next.

“One of the most exciting parts of all this has been the opportunity to create groups, meet people, and build alliances beyond the occupation,” says Matt Dineen, a staff member at the Wooden Shoe and a regular occupier.

4. Drive A Hard Bargain

The Occupy movement has frequently been targeted with accusations that it has no coherent demands, or that it doesn’t have any concrete proposals. Piven simply blew off these criticisms.

“[To] those who criticize us for not making policy proposals: it’s not reasonable to [ask a mass movement to craft detailed public policy],” Piven said. “It isn’t as though [political elites] don’t know what to do; they don’t simply need our suggestions. Let them come to us with proposals to address extreme inequality, proposals to regulate finance. We don’t have to tell them, we have to make them.”

Most people aren’t policy literate and they shouldn’t have to be, she said. Irate citizens shouldn’t be expected to present intricately detailed policy demands, framed in legalese or coached in the latest think tank findings.

That, after all, is what we hire politicians to do.

Political elites haven’t been responsive to our needs, but Piven doesn’t believe the Occupy movement is powerful enough (yet) to force a reckoning.

“We have to get bigger, tougher, stronger before they’ll want to negotiate with us,” she said. And once they do, “You don’t want to give in on the first deal, but take the second, then demand more.”

In short, don’t be satisfied with the success of the big bank-to-credit union cash transfer, or the bank’s decision to cancel its debit card fees, or the demonstrable change in our public discourse. There is no indication that there is any danger of occupiers falling pray to easy concessions.

As the planned nationwide day of action on Nov. 17 shows, there’s plenty of energy and enthusiasm left.

5. Co-Option is Inevitable

“I don’t think [Occupy Wall Street] leaves space for a third party, which is where people always try to take these things,” Piven told Campus Progress after the Temple lecture. “It’s hard to do without being absorbed at some time; it’s so tempting to say that real politics is different from the movement. It’s hard to stay independent. Co-option will always be with us, [the trick is to try and get] the best bargain.”

As some have argued, including Peter Dreier, a noted expert on social movements, co-option isn’t necessarily a bad thing for radical or reformist movements.

The populists, the progressives, the labor movement, the Civil Rights movement, environmentalists, feminists and many others have seen their policies absorbed by the major parties after fierce pressure was brought to bear on them by these outside forces.

But all those movements succeeded in changing the policies of the parties because they became too powerful to ignore. That’s the 99 Percent Movement’s next challenge— building power and escalating.

Jake Blumgart is a freelance reporter-researcher living in Philadelphia and a former Campus Progress staff writer. His work has been published by the American Prospect, Alternet, the Philadelphia Inquirer, The Stranger, and the New York Daily News. Follow him on Twitter @jblumgart.

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