Should the Poor Organize?

Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail

by Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward
Pantheon, 381 pp., $12.95

Once upon a time, say from the middle of the nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth, the movements of the left—whether they called themselves socialist, communist, or syndicalist—like everybody else who believed in progress, knew just where they wanted to go and just what, with the help of history, strategy, and effort, they ought or needed to do to get there. Now they no longer do. In this respect they do not, of course, stand alone. Capitalists are just as much at a loss as socialists to understand their future, and just as puzzled by the failure of their theorists and prophets. Liberals incline toward apocalyptic forecasts. The Catholic Church, which held the nineteenth century at bay with surprising success, is visibly succumbing to the late twentieth. At the end of the most extraordinary period of transformation in human affairs, old landmarks have disappeared, new ones are not yet recognized as such, and intellectual navigation across the suddenly estranged landscapes of human society becomes unusually puzzling for everybody.

Neither the practice nor the theory of the left, the latter pouring out in a record-breaking flow of print, can be properly understood without an appreciation of this secular crisis, which, more often than not, is reflected only obliquely in recent commentary: through the discussion of theories and strategies in general, rather than of the changes in reality which have thrown doubt on both. Piven and Cloward’s remarkably interesting book, which belongs firmly in the left-wing tradition, is almost exclusively concerned with the strategies of “poor people’s movements.” It makes a general analysis of such movements and considers the experience of four of them in the US during the 1930s and 1960s: that of the unemployed workers during the Depression years; of the industrial workers who formed the CIO; of the civil rights activists centered around Martin Luther King; and of those who made up the National Welfare Rights Organization in the 1960s. Piven and Cloward argue that all leaders of such movements have been on the wrong track throughout, in trying to organize them. Building an organization is not merely futile but dangerous:

During those brief periods in which people are roused to indignation, when they are prepared to defy the authorities to whom they ordinarily defer,…those who call themselves leaders do not usually escalate the momentum of the people’s protests. They do not because they are preoccupied with trying to build and sustain embryonic formal organizations in the sure conviction that these organizations will enlarge and become powerful.

This proposition could be discussed on its merits, and indeed has to be. Yet it cannot be adequately discussed, or indeed even understood, outside the historical context which encourages the authors to formulate it. For whatever their theory, virtually all who have had anything to do with modern labor and socialist movements (except the anarchists) have hitherto taken it for granted that the way to the future, whatever it might be, led through organization: through associations, leagues, unions, and parties, the more comprehensive the better.

That this must be the case seemed so evident and so clearly proved in practice that the belief itself was hardly ever investigated seriously. Historically, for instance, the debate on organization within the labor movement has been primarily about its scale, pausing only occasionally to consider problems of flexibility and internal democracy. The left stood for national unions against local or regional ones; for industrial against craft associations, for big against little unions—perhaps even for the One Big Union which was, for the syndicalists, the estuary through which the river of the movement reached the sea of socialism. The working ideal of the labor movement has been a disciplined and mobile army, though a civilian and democratic one; as witness the widespread, unconscious, and insufficiently investigated popularity of military metaphors in its language. “The ever expanding union of the workers” of the Communist Manifesto, which could “centralize the numerous local struggles into one national struggle between classes,” implied organization. What is more, the purely pragmatic arguments for organization have appeared so convincing that the organizers have overwhelmingly prevailed over the anti-organizers for the past century and a half.

It is true that opponents of organization, in one form or another, have surfaced from time to time. Generally this has occurred in one of three situations: when the movement has been broken and weak; when it was becalmed; or—a somewhat different situation—in preindustrial communities. In the first case occasional mass mobilization by small groups of activists, or comparable techniques, were not adopted as an alternative to organization but as a poor substitute for it. If the Lawrence, Massachusetts, textile workers could have been organized during 1912 by an effective union, as Lancashire cotton operatives were, they would not have had to rely on heroic raids by the IWW. The third case does not concern us here. For what made modern mass organization apparently irrelevant to, say, Andalusian anarchist pueblos or highly skilled pre-industrial craftsmen was the informally or traditionally structured cohesion of their communities or occupations, and their (increasingly unreal) belief that the decisions which determined their lives were either cosmic or purely local. The former being a matter for hope or millennial convulsion, only the latter were of practical everyday concern.

The second case is the one which has traditionally stimulated a systematic critique of organization, because it seemed that radical movements which were not getting anywhere tended to substitute their organizational growth for real achievement, and, conversely, that the concentration on the organization and its activities as such made them into participants in the system, led them to miss—or even worse to dismiss—various opportunities for struggle, and produced various kinds of bureaucratic and oligarchic ossification. The mass socialist parties before 1914, especially the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), were rightly criticized on those grounds by a variety of rebels, revolutionaries, and militants as well as by disappointed intellectuals (e.g., Robert Michels). The 1960s stimulated analogous criticisms of established mass labor and socialist organizations in another period of apparently stable and flourishing capitalism. Piven and Cloward are part of such a wave critical of organization, though, unlike most familiar critics of this kind—anarchists, followers of Rosa Luxemburg, etc.—they are not primarily concerned with the long-term dangers of bureaucratic or totalitarian transformations of organization but almost entirely with its inadequacies as a means of mobilizing mass movements here and now.

The periodic fashions for anti-organization did not and could not last. Either they collapsed more or less rapidly, like the student movements of the 1960s, or they themselves tried, often rather ineffectively, to transform themselves into something like permanent mass organizations, as the “anarcho-syndicalism” of the CNT in Spain tried to substitute itself for pure anarchism. The heirs of the pre-1914 anti-organizational rebels were to be the super-organizations of the communist parties. The vast transfer of formerly anarchist support in Barcelona to the communists is a belated example of this phenomenon. What else could be expected? In the broadest and most general sense, to quote Robert Michels (no friendly witness), “democracy is unthinkable without organization. Only organization gives consistency to the masses.” In the narrower sense it pays off in everyday experience. If industrial workers have the choice between even a corrupt and racketeering union and no union at all, few would hesitate before making their choice.

The situation which encourages a policy opposed to organization is thus historically specific; which does not, of course, necessarily invalidate the criticisms of organization. They reflect a sense of failure, and perhaps even more, a crisis of confidence. In Piven and Cloward’s case, part of this disappointment derives from the particular experiences of the left in the US during the 1960s, the specific problems of trying to mobilize extremely unstructured groups of “the poor” (e.g., blacks on relief), and the disillusion of the authors with the campaigns with which they have been actively associated, and on which they speak with first-hand authority, such as the “welfare rights” movements of the 1960s.

Whatever the gains of the black movements of the 1960s, which Piven and Cloward are far from denying, one of the most obvious results has been to absorb “much of the leadership of the black movement…into electoral politics, into government bureaucracy, into the universities, and into business and industry,” leaving the masses as leaderless as before; perhaps, for the time being, more so than before. However, both their argument and their air of disenchantment with the established model of past movements are more general. Of the four movements they have chosen, two are indeed marginal. The object of the unemployed in the 1930s and the welfare rights protests of the 1960s was relief. But the other two were central. Unionization in the 1930s and the civil rights movement in the 1960s were not only intended to change the situation of all workers and blacks (and not only a section of the working population), but capable of doing so; and they were able as well to change the structure of industrial relations and national politics.

The lengthy and well-documented chapters on these four movements may be read simply as fascinating and intelligent analytical surveys of chapters in recent American history; but for the authors they are primarily illustrations of their central thesis. The curve of all of them, as Piven and Cloward see it, was similar, though the incubating period of the civil rights movement was both longer and less dramatically sudden than that of the other three: the Great Slump and the political events of the 1960s, including the civil rights breakthrough. A phase of unarticulated discontent (“Folks are restless” as a senator they quote put it) is followed by a cluster of local eruptions, led (if at all) by relatively tiny cadre-groups. Conflicts escalate in a political situation which has become uncertain. The authorities make concessions—and the activist movements stop the pace of disruption and choose instead to exercise further pressure through mass organization and to use both the new machinery for concession and the apparently promising and welcoming old machinery of established politics, with varying results.

And so, as Piven and Cloward see it, the unemployed groups of the 1930s “had become entangled in bureaucratic procedures and were declining.” The industrial unions “had become over time less and less dependent on the workers and more and more dependent on the regular relations established with management.” As for black leaders, most “depend on the Democratic Party and its continued ability to command a majority of the electorate,” which is not black. The National Welfare Rights Organization “had relatively little influence in the lobbying process” to which it progressively devoted its (therefore) inevitably declining years. After the bang, the whimper.

The air of pessimism which pervades Poor People’s Movements thus expresses more than the disappointment of the hopes of the 1960s. The fundamental proposition on which Piven and Cloward build their strategic recommendations is the impotence of the poor. “The poor can create crises but cannot control the response to them.” They can merely get a slightly better or a slightly worse deal within quite narrow margins, largely predetermined. “Protestors win, if at all, what historic circumstance has already made ready to be conceded.” Even if the workers in the 1930s “had demanded public ownership of factories, they would probably have still gotten unionism, if they got anything at all; and if impoverished southern blacks had demanded land reform, they would probably still have gotten the vote.” It is not negligible, but it is not what we wanted, and neither are the results. Capitalism inevitably reintegrated poor people’s protests.

What lies behind this sense of disenchantment? Not he failure to achieve any results, which has dogged some movements of the left, such as the anarchists, since the movements Piven and Cloward discuss had distinct successes, even disproportionate ones, considering their actual strength. Certainly what disorients the left is not that the case against capitalism seems less convincing than it used to, or less easy to make (unless we insist on denying that capitalism has changed since the days of Marx and Lenin). Indeed, it is rather easier today to predict a dark future for humanity under capitalism than it has been for a generation. Admittedly the experience of both Western industrial societies and socialist regimes has shown the inadequacy of the traditional conception of socialism, which was usually, and simply, defined by its opposite; or defined even more naïvely as what capitalism at any given time did not provide.

The realization that the critique of capitalism does not automatically tell us much about socialism has certainly been traumatic. It is now clear that the “expropriation of the expropriators” by itself may produce a noncapitalist society, but not necessarily a desirable one. It is also clear that capitalist evolution has provided much that older socialists thought impossible, and that this fore-taste of what used to be utopia is not very desirable either. We now have much of what a Spanish anarchist congress in 1898 forecast as the glorious future of man after the revolution, namely a world of high-rise buildings full of elevators, electricity, and automatic rubbish disposal, and inhabited by supervisors of automated machinery. This, as we know, is as far from utopia as the abolition of the distinction between town and country by means of radio, television, and the internal combustion engine. Still, if the left may have to think more seriously about the new society, that does not make it any the less desirable or necessary, or the case against the present one any less compelling.

But what radicals and socialists no longer know is how to get from the old to the new. Neither capitalism nor its designated gravediggers are any longer what they were in 1914 or even in 1939. The historical forces and mechanisms on which socialists relied to produce an increasingly militant proletariat and increasingly vulnerable capitalist ruling class are not working as they were supposed to. The great armies of labor are no longer marching forward, as they once seemed to, growing, increasingly united, and carrying the future with them. It is significant that Piven and Cloward’s social movements are, as the title of their book indicates, not “the workers” (whose disintegration as a class or “balkanization” they note in passing) but “poor people,” a heterogeneous body whose sections have nothing in common but relative poverty and the fact of discontent. The content of their movements, as shown by the title of their first chapter, is merely “protest.”

The strategists of the left are at a loss. How much more modest are the actual aspirations of the great socialist mass-parties (where they still exist in Europe) than in the days of Bebel, Adler, and Jaurès, as well as the hopes—and this at a time of global capitalist crisis—of the communist parties than when their leaders were young! Few who lead substantial and politically effective parties of the left in the Western world any longer believe in victory by frontal offensive, whether peaceful or not. But neither are they at all clear about the alternative prospect of the Gramscian “war of position” in which they are involved, or even about precisely who this war is against. A cautious and complex strategy may eventually transform capitalism into socialism, but it is fair to say that at present nobody has a clear idea how, let alone when.

Emotionally, the responses to this frustration may range from the rejection of the reality that has not lived up to the theory, to the rejection of the gods and theories that have failed—often, as with the current ex-Maoist, anti-Marxist “new philosophers” of Paris, by the same people. Intellectually, the range of choices is considerably wider and its results more interesting. They include systematic efforts to rethink both the theories and traditions of socialism and the history of popular and labor movements; for it is characteristic of the present crisis that it has not, on the whole, produced a contraction, but a striking expansion of the European intellectual left, though of a rather puzzled left. Politically, the choices have become increasingly restricted by the dramatic failures and disappointments of the 1960s and 1970s.

Yet one modest and uncontroversial task remains unaffected by failures: getting the best deal for the poor here and now. New societies may not be on the immediate agenda, but getting more people jobs, or on relief, is. The poor can’t achieve much anyway, and they can’t control their destiny. Let them at least bargain from strength on the rare occasions when they have some strength to bargain with. This is the task on which Piven and Cloward concentrate, and it is perhaps natural that a book such as theirs should come out of the problem-solving US, in which the prospect of a fundamental social transformation never looked particularly imminent.

Their analysis therefore deliberately keeps its nose to the ground. It rests on the correct assumption that poor people do not usually find ways of expressing their discontents effectively or at all, mainly because a stable social order makes them docile and keeps them so by the knowledge of their political weakness. They are only likely to “break the bonds of conformity enforced by work, by family, by community, by every strand of institutional life,” and by the moral hold (“legitimacy”) which people at the top usually exercise over people at the bottom, during periodic dislocations of the social order.

The Great Slump was plainly such a dislocation. In the relations between white and black, the 1960s saw the accumulated tensions arising out of the transformation of the South and the emigration to the Northern ghettoes reach their breaking-point. Piven and Cloward argue that the part of the structure of rule most sensitive to pressure at such moments in the US was politics. For it is during such dislocations that people in a voting society show signs of “a sharp shift in traditional voting patterns,” which is thus “one of the first signs of popular discontent.” The shift toward the Democrats in the 1930s, the shift away from the Democrats in the South and the competition for what (they argue) was regarded as a potentially movable black vote in the 1950s and 1960s were thus not only signs of crisis, and recognized as such, but also means for disposing politicians to make concessions.

Thus such dislocations will disorient or divide the elites—some of whom may actually appeal to the poor at such times—while simultaneously weakening the structure of power, which thus becomes more vulnerable than usual to pressures from those it can normally neglect. This analysis is similar to the classic one of “revolutionary situations,” though Piven and Cloward are interested in less spectacular crises.

We are not here concerned with the authors’ specific analysis of the “dislocations” of the 1930s and 1960s, which may be less comparable than they suggest. In spite of the significance of FDR’s Wagner Act, it seems likely that the black movements of the 1960s were much less the power which forced the government’s hand, and much more the—unpredictably escalating—response to what looked like encouragement from above, than had been the case in the 1930s. The major point of Piven and Cloward, I take it, is to identify situations which make the system sensitive to pressure from below.

However, the pressure of “the poor” itself is institutionally determined by what the system establishes as legitimate protest (for instance, in parliamentary-democratic states, voting) and, when it goes outside the permitted forms, by what the actual situation of the protesters urges and permits them to do. What it urges them to do is to aim protests about specific grievances at specific targets. Piven and Cloward have clearly grasped a point which often eludes ideological analysts, namely that workers “do not experience monopoly capitalism” but the factory, the assembly line, the foreman, the paycheck, and the employer; and people on relief “do not experience American welfare policy” but shabby waiting rooms, overseers, case workers, and the dole.

On the other hand, what the situation permits protesters to do depends on how the protesting groups have organized everyday lives and their labor. Most of the protesting poor, unlike factory workers, are relatively unstructured. Nevertheless, what they can always do, if there is any possibility of action at all, is to rebel “against the rules and authorities associated with their everyday activities,” i.e., to withdraw collaboration. The most original contribution of Piven and Cloward to the subject is their argument that this local rebellion is actually the most effective form of action open to them. If protesters did anything else they would be less effective, since “people cannot defy institutions to which they have no access, and to which they make no contribution”—such as Congress. A crowd of welfare clients outside a state capitol or in Washington is more easily ignored than the same crowd breaking up a relief office, especially if a lot of crowds break up such offices. Similarly, Piven and Cloward argue, the anti-Vietnam students were strategically right to demonstrate in the universities, though administrators and faculty probably shared their views of the war. In short, for Piven and Cloward there are times when the man who has been robbed by a big man and beats up a little one instead, because it is easier, can make a rational political case for himself.

What the poor can do is to disrupt and rely on the political reverberations of their disruption, which will be considerable in times when the social and political system is dislocated, which are precisely the times when the poor can be moved to disruption. This does not give them much leverage, and their action cannot be effectively planned or its results controlled. The results will be controlled by those who make concessions from above, but concessions will be made. At such times “a defiant poor may make gains.” Yet the very process of concession from above which gives them these gains is also one which attempts to reintegrate protest into “more legitimate and less disruptive forms of political behavior,” e.g., by coopting its leaders. When protest is thus swallowed by the institutions, the poor give up the one thing which actually extorts improvements: their refusal to play the established game. They are once again disarmed. But a movement which instead of escalating disruption concentrates on transforming it into permanent organization helps to reinstitutionalize and therefore to dismantle it. The poor, even if they do not lose all their gains, are once again forced to wait for the next crisis.

This argument is unsatisfactory, but its main point is not to be dismissed. For “organization” undoubtedly needs to be realistically analyzed. It can readily be shown that the immediate successes of popular movements are not proportionate to their degree of organization. Mass union organization, in the US of the 1930s as in all analogous “explosions” of labor unionism with which I am familiar, was the result of worker mobilization and not its cause. Such mobilization requires stimulation and leadership, but it is an error to suppose that these are inseparable from mass organization. In the extreme case of revolution the divergence is even more spectacular. As distinct from coups, launched from positions of established power, successful revolutions are hardly ever planned, in spite of the efforts to do so. They happen, sometimes—though today not usually—in the actual absence of organized revolutionaries.

It is equally evident that the attempts to build permanent mass organizations out of unorganized constituencies (“the unemployed,” draft resisters, consumers, or even such more existentially cohesive groups like blacks and women) have almost universally failed. Such organizations, generally feeble and fluctuating, are either groups of leaders whose aim is to mobilize essentially unorganized masses for action, or more likely stage armies marching about making a noise like real armies and, with luck, being accepted as the representatives and interlocutors of their constituencies, because under certain circumstances the institutional system requires someone to fill this role. But, as Piven and Cloward clearly recognize, the strength of such stage armies depends not on the few people they can actually put into uniform, but on the need to consider the unorganized masses who don’t. The National Welfare Rights Organization, with a few thousand dues-paying members, gained money and official recognition because it “could present itself as the representative of the welfare poor.” And since the “political influence of the poor is mobilized, not organized,” organization which gets in the way of mobilization is self-defeating.

Thirdly, it is sometimes even true that firmly structured and organized movements are less effective at mobilizing mass discontent than loose and unstructured ones. These may not last, but while they do they can be unusually formidable, precisely by virtue of their capacity to catch and propagate a mood at a crucial moment, to discover and secure that spontaneous consensus among militants and masses which produces massive action. The student movements of the 1960s are textbook illustrations of this. Nobody could have planned them. Nobody will underestimate their scale, scope, and impact at the time. But it must be admitted their limitations were equally spectacular.

Piven and Cloward’s powerful contribution to the cause of realism is therefore welcome. They may (as they themselves recognize) no longer surprise many historians of social movements, but their book will clear the minds of politicians, for a lot of politics still takes place in those thick clouds of ideological myth, traditional folk wisdom, and self-delusion which this activity generates around itself, especially when nobody quite knows what is happening. Moreover, it is important to demystify specific concepts such as “mass movement” and “mass organization” and to see what precisely they mean in practice. For these reasons their book is enormously instructive.

However, it is also inadequate, because its field of vision is excessively restricted. Or rather, the authors take too much for granted. Thus in the narrowest sense their criticism of organization in specific movements assumes the existence of organization as an essential factor in situations where such “protests” arise. Any historian of past social movements is familiar with episodes which conform exactly to the Piven-Cloward formula of escalated defiance wining concessions undisturbed by the desire to collect dues, draft constitutions, and organize congresses. But only historians are familiar with them, since, in the absence of organization, they disappear rapidly, leaving nothing behind. What the mobilization of American workers in the 1930s won was not entirely lost because it produced permanent mass unionism; but the laborers’ insurrection in the Peruvian highlands which briefly forced collective contracts on the great estates in 1948 came, went, and was forgotten.

In a wider sense “the poor,” or indeed any subaltern group, become a subject rather than an object of history only through formalized collectivities, however structured. Everybody always has families, social relations, attitudes toward sexuality, childhood, and death, and all the other things that keep social historians usefully employed. But, until the past two centuries, as traditional historiography shows, “the poor” could be neglected most of the time by their “betters,” and therefore remained largely invisible to them, precisely because their active impact on events was occasional, scattered, and impermanent. If this has not been so since the end of the eighteenth century, it is because they have become an institutionally organized force. Even the most dictatorial regimes today learn sooner or later what ancient rulers knew, how to make concessions to unorganized and spontaneous pressure from the masses, if necessarily underlining their continued authority by face-saving punishment for “agitators.” It is organized popular action they seek to prevent. What is lacking in Brazil today is not popular unrest but organizations that could mobilize that unrest.

Of course this poses a double dilemma for populists, democrats, and the left in general. Organizations, which give reality to “the people,” class or group, are by definition superimposed on them, and tend to substitute themselves for their members and constituents, subject to various limitations, generally inadequate. More to Piven and Cloward’s point, their very strength—permanence, planning, long-term perspectives—may get in the way on days of battle. Militants blamed the French Communist Party on these grounds both in 1936 and 1968. For paradoxically, even if they are devoted to revolution, revolt is not the forte of organizations. Nonrevolutionary grassroots insurrections, which are what Piven and Cloward write about, do not find organizations at their best. It is not on the first day of battle that organizations come into their own but from the second day on.

But then they become indispensable, even—perhaps especially—for movements which conform to the Piven-Cloward formula, which is “to escalate the momentum and impact of disruptive protest at each stage of its emergence and evolution.” For the authors are not blind utopian sluggers, for whom escalation is an end in itself (“soyons réalistes, demandons l’impossible!“), but are concerned about what more could have been got for the poor out of the New Deal and the “Great Society.” But to call for escalation in itself is merely to press for as much as possible, without any mechanism for deciding not only how much is possible, but how much of what. If no one else formulates the content of the concessions, it can only be done by the ruling elites themselves, to suit themselves. The movement remains, in the authors’ own words, one of “protest,” which is by definition the reaction of the subalterns. The organizations of the left may at such times be blamed for recommending the wrong policies, but right or wrong they are the only bodies which can formulate policies for the poor and, with luck, make them effective. They are essential for those who want to improve society, because for them the problem is not to get more or less of the same, but something different.

Of course, Piven and Cloward are pessimistic about the chances of achieving such results. The poor, they say, can only “create crises.” They cannot “control the response to them.” Yet the pessimism which overshadows such books as theirs should be evenly distributed. The other face of the disorientation of the left today is the disorientation of capitalism. Non-socialists are also rudderless, in spite of a large expenditure on futurology, a pseudo discipline invented for this reason. Quite apart from the present global economic crisis, the foundations on which the stability and progress of “bourgeois society” were built are also visibly crumbling: the work ethic, the family, established relations between sexes and age groups, the acceptance of social norms (“law and order”), even the long-accepted framework and function of its basic political unit, the medium-sized or large nation state. Moreover, “the system” cannot always absorb or even afford the concessions—quantitative or qualitative—forced upon it from below. There are countries, such as Britain and Italy, in which this poses major economic and political problems at this moment.

In fact, the mid-nineteenth-century liberals’ suspicion that democracy would prove incompatible with a market economy may well prove as justified in the late twentieth century as some other long-dismissed predictions of the time, such as the disappearance of the peasantry. In short, if the masses are incapable of controlling, or even predicting, their destiny, neither at present are the elites. A lot of them would pay good money to know whom, if anybody, the mechanisms of history are working for as the year 2000 approaches.

That is why the Piven-Cloward formula for action, which is to wait for a propitious moment, push hard, and see what happens, is a peculiarly uncertain as well as limited guide. It assumes that the qualitative response to “protest” is already structured. The political system will always know what to concede, though it can always afford, if pressed, to give a little more. Its concessions will bring “the poor” some gains, but at the price of reabsorbing protest into the system, until the cycle is broken by another crisis permitting another mobilization of mass discontent, which will have the same results.

But this is no longer so. The role of “poor people’s movements” is no longer simply to push and receive, for its demands, which can no longer be necessarily integrated into the operations of the system, help to change and shape it. It is characteristic of the present state of the world that nobody can be quite sure “what historical circumstance has made ready to be conceded,” or what the consequences of concessions will be for the poor or for the system. The only thing certain is that, short perhaps of military dictatorship and terror, nobody controls the response to crises unilaterally, and even dictatorship cannot control their consequences. In short, what “the poor” do matters. They need, more than ever, not only a strategy of effective pressure but policies—and bodies capable of carrying out policies. They are not outside the system, battering, but inside, potentially able to transform it.

Here lies the essential weakness of the strategies of blind militancy of which Piven and Cloward provide us with one version. It is not enough to push and see what will happen. The apparently dramatic changes in the university system made as a concession to the European and American student insurrections neither achieved what the students wanted (if they knew), nor have they worked to the evident advantage of either students or the system. It is not enough to tell them (or any other body of potential insurrectionaries) that, next time they have the opportunity, they can get more.