Can Frances Fox Piven’s theory of disruptive power create the next Occupy?

Social movements can be fast, and they can be slow.

Mostly, the work of social change is a slow process. It involves patiently building movement institutions, cultivating leadership, organizing campaigns and leveraging power to secure small gains. If you want to see your efforts produce results, it helps to have a long-term commitment.

And yet, sometimes things move more quickly. Every once in a while we see outbreaks of mass protest, periods of peak activity when the accepted rules of political affairs seem to be suspended. As one sociologist writes, these are extraordinary moments when ordinary people “rise up in anger and hope, defy the rules that ordinarily govern their lives, and, by doing so, disrupt the workings of the institutions in which they are enmeshed.” The impact of these uprisings can be profound. “The drama of such events, combined with the disorder that results, propels new issues to the center of political debate” and drives forward reforms as panicked “political leaders try to restore order.”

These are the words of Frances Fox Piven, the 81-year-old Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Sociology at the City University of New York Graduate Center. As co-author, with Richard Cloward, of the classic 1977 treatise, Poor People’s Movements, Piven has made landmark contributions to the study of how people who lack both financial resources and influence in conventional politics can nevertheless create momentous revolts. Few scholars have done as much to describe how widespread disruptive action can change history, and few have offered more provocative suggestions about the times when movements — instead of crawling forward with incremental demands — can break into full sprint.

In recent years, Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring have created renewed interest in such moments of unusual activity. These uprisings have spawned discussion about how activists might provoke and guide other periods of intensive unrest, and also how these mobilizations can complement longer-term organizing. Those coming out of traditions of strategic nonviolence and “civil resistance,” in particular, can find striking parallels between their methods for sparking insurgency and Piven’s theory of disruptive power.

Zuccotti Park is now quiet. The small, sanitized plaza in lower Manhattan has long since returned to being a place where a few employees in the financial district take their lunch. But when it was the home of the founding Occupy encampment, Poor People’s Movements was one of the most fitting titles to be found on the shelves of its free library. And for those interested in refilling America’s public plazas with defiant citizens, the book continues to offer insights difficult to find elsewhere in the literature on social movements.

In 2010, when Fox News host Glenn Beck revealed to America what he imagined was a vast left-wing conspiracy to take over the nation, he identified a few select individuals as presenting particularly grave threats to faith, family and fatherland. At the root of the “tree of radicalism and revolution” that Beck unveiled for viewers, he placed Saul Alinsky, the godfather of modern community organizing. The trunk of the tree, meanwhile, he labeled with two names: Piven and Cloward. From there, the tree branched off in several directions. Out of Piven and Cloward’s ideas, according to Beck, grew such sinister offshoots as ACORN, ex-Weatherman Bill Ayers, and even the radical-in-chief himself, Barack Obama. Although Piven was in her late 70s at the time, Beck argued that she was not merely “an enemy of the Constitution,” but one of the “nine most dangerous people in the world.”


Glenn Beck’s “Tree of Revolution.” (The Glenn Beck Show)

Beck’s theories about the left, of course, contained too many errors and unfounded leaps to easily enumerate. Nevertheless, he was correct to identify both Alinsky and Piven as groundbreaking social movement thinkers. Where he went wrong was in concluding that they were part of a unified and malevolent scheme. In truth, while Piven and Alinsky have similar commitments to radical democracy, they represent opposite ends of a spectrum of beliefs about how grassroots advocates create change.

Alinsky was a guru in the art of the slow, incremental building of community groups. Piven, in contrast, has become a leading defender of unruly mass protest, undertaken outside the structure of any formal organization.

Piven’s ideas were influenced by her early organizing experiences. She grew up in the 1930s in Jackson Heights, Queens, a child of working-class parents who had emigrated from Belarus and who struggled to adjust to life in America. As a precocious 15-year-old, she earned a scholarship to attend the University of Chicago. But, by her own account, Piven was not a serious student at that point, avoiding reading and relying on multiple choice to pass courses. She spent most of her time waitressing at late-night restaurants such as Hobby House and Stouffer’s, hustling to cover the living expenses not provided for in her tuition scholarship.

In the early 1960s Piven moved back to New York City. It was only after working as a researcher and helping to support rent strikes with the Mobilization for Youth, an early anti-poverty group on the Lower East Side, that she was ultimately hired to teach at Columbia University’s school of social work. At the Mobilization for Youth she also met sociologist Richard Cloward, who became her husband and lifelong collaborator. (Cloward passed away in 2001.)

In one of their first major articles together, written in 1963, Piven and Cloward made an argument that reflected what they had observed at the Mobilization. They contended that, since “the poor have few resources for regular political influence,” their ability to create social change depends on the disruptive power of tactics such as “militant boycotts, sit-ins, traffic tie-ups, and rent strikes.” Protest movements, they explained, gain real leverage only by causing “commotion among bureaucrats, excitement in the media, dismay among influential segments of the community, and strain for political leaders.”

Piven has been refining and elaborating this thesis ever since. Indeed, it was only after a decade and a half of further work that the argument would make its most controversial appearance, in 1977′s Poor People’s Movements. In the still-young world of academic social movement theory, this book would be recognized as a daring and original intervention — and also, in many ways, as a heresy.

Today social movement theory is a well-established area of focus within sociology and political science. In the 1970s, however, it was just barely gaining a foothold in the academy. Stanford professor Doug McAdam tells the story of how, as a student activist in the late 1960s, he sought out classes on social movements at his university, searching the catalogue of the political science department. None were listed. When he finally did find discussion of movement activism, it took place in a very different setting than he had expected: namely, in a course on Abnormal Psychology.

At the time, McAdam writes, “movement participation was seen not as a form of rational political behavior but a reflection of aberrant personality types and irrational forms of ‘crowd behavior.’” Post-World War II theorists, adherents of the “pluralist” and “collective behavior” schools, believed that the U.S. political system was at least reasonably responsive to all groups with grievances to voice. Thus, any sensible person could advance their interests through the “proper channels” of representative politics. Most influential academics, McAdam explains, regarded outside movements as “typically unnecessary and generally ineffective;” when protests did appear, they represented “dysfunctional responses to the breakdown of social order.” As Piven and Cloward put it in a 1991 essay, movements were seen “as mindless eruptions lacking either coherence or continuity with organized social life.”

In the 1970s, this view began losing its hold. Graduate schools became infused with a generation of New Left scholars who had direct ties to civil rights, antiwar and women’s liberation movements. Coming from a more sympathetic standpoint, they sought to explain social movements as rational forms of collective action. Protests would now be seen as politics by other means for people who had been shut out of the system. A leading strain of thought that emerged in this milieu was known as resource mobilization theory.

Scholars in the resource mobilization school put social movement organizations at the center of their understanding of how protest groups affect change. As McAdam and W. Richard Scott write, resource mobilization theorists “stressed that movements, if they are to be sustained for any length of time, require some form of organization: leadership, administrative structure, incentives for participation, and a means for acquiring resources and support.” This view synced with the experience of organizers outside the university. In many respects, resource mobilization served as an academic analog to Alinsky’s vision of building power through the steady, persistent creation of community organization. It was also consistent with the structure-based organizing of the labor movement.

With their newly established approach, resource mobilization scholars produced compelling research, for example, into how Southern churches provided a vital infrastructure for the civil rights movement. Their viewpoint gradually gained ground. By the early 1980s, “resource mobilization had become a dominant background paradigm for sociologists studying social movements,” writes political scientist Sidney Tarrow. Although other theories have since come into favor, McAdam and Hilary Schaffer Boudet argue that the biases and emphases of resource mobilization still guide “the lion’s share of work in the field.”

When Piven and Cloward published Poor People’s Movements in 1977, its ideas about disruptive power — which were not rooted in formal social movement organizations — represented a direct challenge to leading strains of academic theory. More than that, they also clashed with much of the actual organizing taking place in the country. As the authors wrote in an introduction to their 1979 paperback edition, the book’s “critique of organizational efforts offended central tenets of left doctrine.”


Piven and Cloward mounted their heterodox assault by means of four detailed case studies. These involved some of the more significant protest movements in 20th century America: the movement of unemployed workers early in the Great Depression, the industrial strikes that gave rise to the CIO later in the 1930s, the civil rights movement in the South in the 1950s and 60s, and the activism of the National Welfare Rights Organization in the 1960s and 70s. As Piven would later summarize their conclusions, the experience of these revolts “showed that poor people could achieve little through the routines of conventional electoral and interest group politics.” Therefore, what was left to them as their key tool “was what we called disruption, the breakdowns that resulted when people defied the rules and institutional routines that ordinarily governed life.”

A structure-based organizer such as Saul Alinsky would not disagree with the idea of using boisterous action to make a stink. After all, he was a great showman and tactician of disorderly troublemaking. But Alinsky would have sharply parted ways with Piven and Cloward on the need for organization to support change. Poor People’s Movements irked both resource mobilization theorists and on-the-ground activists by contending that not only did formal structures fail to produce disruptive outbreaks, but that these structures actually detracted from mass protest when it did occur.

Piven and Cloward’s case studies offered a take on past movements that was very different than standard accounts. Of the labor activism that exploded during the Great Depression, they write that, contrary to the most cherished beliefs of union organizers, “For the most part strikes, demonstrations, and sit-downs spread during the mid-1930s despite existing unions rather than because of them.” Their studies showed that “with virtually no exceptions, the union leaders worked to limit strikes, not to escalate them.” Likewise, in the civil rights movement, “defiant blacks forced concessions as a result of the disruptive effects of mass civil disobedience” — not through formal organization.

Piven and Cloward acknowledged that such conclusions failed “to conform to doctrinal prescriptions regarding constituencies, strategies and demands.” Nevertheless, they wrote, no doubt aware they were picking a fight, that “popular insurgency does not proceed by someone else’s rules or hopes; it has its own logic and direction.”

Poor People’s Movements offered a variety of reasons why, when people were roused to indignation and moved to defy authority, “Organizers not only failed to seize the opportunity presented by the rise of unrest, they typically acted in ways that blunted or curbed the disruptive force which lower-class people were sometimes able to mobilize.” Most centrally, the organizers in their case studies opted against escalating the mass protests “because they [were] preoccupied with trying to build and sustain embryonic formal organizations in the sure conviction that these organizations [would] enlarge and become powerful.”

Across the four different movements that Piven and Cloward examined, organizers showed similar instincts — and these instincts betrayed them. The organizers viewed formal structures as essential, seeing them as necessary for marshaling collective resources, enabling strategic decision-making and ensuring institutional continuity. But what the organizers did not appreciate was that, while bureaucratic institutions may have positives, they also bring constraints. Because organizations have to worry about self-preservation, they become adverse to risk-taking. Because they enjoy some access to formal avenues of power, they tend to overestimate what they can accomplish from inside the system. As a result, they forget the disruptive energy that propelled them to power to begin with, and so they often end up playing a counter-productive role. As Piven says of the labor movement, “Mass strikes lead to unions. But unions are not the big generators of mass strikes.”

Poor People’s Movements also made an argument about the pace of change, challenging the idea that gains for the poor were won through steady, incremental effort. Piven and Cloward emphasized that, whatever course of action they take, the ability of organizers to shape history is limited. Adopting a type of neo-Marxist structuralism common in the period — one that looked to find economic and political causes underlying social phenomena — they argued that popular uprising “flows from historically specific circumstances.” The routines of daily life, the habits of obedience people develop, and the threat of reprisals against those who act out all function to keep disruptive potentials in check most of the time.

Periods when the poor do become defiant are exceptional, but they also have a defining impact. Piven and Cloward saw history as being punctuated by disruptive outbreaks. Instead of change occurring gradually, they believed, it came in bursts — through “Big Bang” moments, as Piven calls them in her 2006 book, Challenging Authority. Such a period can erupt quickly, but then fade just as rapidly. While its reverberations within the political system have lasting significance, “insurgency is always short-lived,” Piven and Cloward explain. “Once it subsides and the people leave the streets, most of the organizations which it temporarily threw up… simply fade away.”

Frances Fox Piven in 1979. (Smith College/Gil Vasquez)

Frances Fox Piven in 1979. (Smith College/Gil Vasquez)

There are not many books written in 1977 that feel more resonant when read in the wake of Occupy and the Arab Spring than Poor People’s Movements. The book is visionary in recognizing the explosive potential of bottom-up defiance, and, at times, seems almost prophetic in anticipating the course of the new millennium’s early uprisings. In recent years, we have witnessed live case studies of disruptive power in action, and they have produced reverberations large and small throughout different parts of the world.

But while, on one hand, Poor People’s Movements appears to encourage such mass mobilization, it stubbornly refuses, on the other, to serve as a guidebook for future action. In fact, in asserting that even activists’ best-laid plans — more often than not — are doomed to failure, it threatens to rob people of their agency altogether.

If, as Piven and Cloward argue, “protest wells up in response to momentous changes in the institutional order” and “is not created by organizers or leaders,” what are those seeking social change to do with themselves?

While Poor People’s Movements was quickly recognized as a milestone in its field, the book also provoked some strongly negative reactions. One review dubbed it an “anti-organizational philippic;” another denounced the volume as a call for “blind militancy,” hardly better than the Abnormal Psychology it aimed to replace. Even readers who read with a more sympathetic eye were left to wonder how activists could act on its insights.

Looking at Piven’s wider career helps to give context to this issue — and also stakes out some middle ground. Even as Poor People’s Movements, full of polemical contentions, makes momentum-driven mobilizing and long-term structure building seem more mutually exclusive than they need to be, the scholar’s life as a politically engaged citizen has exhibited considerably more nuance.

First, it is worth noting that, at the time that Piven and Cloward were researching Poor People’s Movements, the U.S. labor movement was as large and bureaucratic as at any time in its history. Unions were major supporters of U.S. Cold War foreign policy, putting them at odds with the New Left. Criticism of the ossifying character of big labor was hardly rare in progressive writing of the period. Yet even then, Poor People’s Movements acknowledges the importance of unions in defending against the erosion of gains won by protest movements during moments of peak mobilization. Over the past decades, Piven has been a consistent supporter of labor’s more scrappy and militant organizing factions.

Piven and Cloward were themselves involved in significant organizational advocacy. In the 1980s, the two formed an organization called Human SERVE (Human Service Employees Registration and Voters Education) to promote mass voter registration in low-income communities. Their work was instrumental in securing passage of the Voter Registration Act of 1993, also known as the “Motor Voter Act,” which allowed people to register to vote in welfare agencies and when getting drivers’ licenses. When President Clinton signed the bill into law, Piven spoke at the White House ceremony.

She has also had warm relations with Alinskyite groups. In 1984, Cloward and Piven wrote the foreword to Roots of Power: A Manual for Grassroots Organizing by veteran activist Lee Staples, praising the work as “an exemplary exposition of the knowledge and skills that grow out of community organizing.” More recently, Piven celebrated ACORN as “the largest and most effective representative of poor and minority people in this country” lamenting that the right’s successful attacks against the organization produced an immense loss.

All of these things suggest that, even in Piven’s view, movement organizations can make important contributions. That these contributions are distinct from the type of mass uprisings that exert disruptive power only means that different groups of movement participants might specialize in different types of dissident activity.

Although it does not emphasize the point, Poor People’s Movements makes a telling distinction between “mobilizing” and “organizing.” Piven and Cloward write, “disruptive strategy does not require that people affiliate with an organization and participate regularly. Rather, it requires that masses of people be mobilized to engage in disruptive action.” While such mobilizing may take place outside the bounds of mass membership groups, it need not be regarded as spontaneous. Instead, skilled practitioners can have a hand a making it happen — provided that these mobilizers understand their role differently than structure-based organizers.

Piven and Cloward point to Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Council, or SCLC, as an example of a group that carried out this type of mobilizing work. Critics have long argued that the SCLC — by moving from city to city, producing media frenzies, and leaving locals to clean up the mess they left behind — did not do enough to cultivate lasting indigenous leadership. Piven and Cloward defend King on this point. They acknowledge that the SCLC “did not build local organizations to obtain local victories,” but they argue that this was intentional. The group’s method was different, and not without its strengths. King and his lieutenants “clearly attempted to create a series of disruptions to which the federal government would have to respond,” Piven and Cloward explain. “And that strategy succeeded” — creating pressure for national legislation such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 more effectively than could local organization alone.

In its conclusion, Poor People’s Movements offers a qualified call to arms: “One can never predict with certainty when the ‘heavings and rumblings of the social foundations’ will force up large-scale defiance,” Piven and Cloward write. “But if organizers and leaders want to help those movements emerge, they must always proceed as if protest were possible. They may fail. The time may not be right. But then, they may sometimes succeed.”

This is a reasonably hopeful note upon which to end. Still, activists can be forgiven if they find Poor People’s Movement‘s advice to be frustratingly vague. In a later essay, Piven and Cloward note: “Saul Alinsky said organizers must rub raw the sores of discontent, but that does not tell us which sores, or whose sores, or how to inflame them, or what to suggest people should do when they are ready to move into action.” This is well put. And yet, most often, Piven and Cloward are even one step further removed from any direct guidance of social movements.

Because of this, it has been left to others to provide more practical insights into how to orchestrate disruptive protest. Fortunately, the world of social movement thinking is now experiencing a renaissance on this front.

Activists reared in the school of strategic nonviolence, or “civil resistance” — a lineage which grows from the work of Gene Sharp — represent one leading group that is taking up questions of how disruptive outbursts can be sparked and guided. Their tradition recognizes both conditions and skills as relevant in shaping mass mobilization. These practitioners would acknowledge, as Piven writes, that there are “major ways protest movements are shaped by institutional conditions,” and that the effectiveness of organizers is often “circumscribed by forces they [do] not control.” However, this only makes it more important that activists refine their skills for addressing the aspects of mobilization they can influence. These skills include the ability to recognize when the terrain for protest is fertile, the talent for staging creative and provocative acts of civil disobedience, and the capacity for intelligently escalating once a mobilization is underway.

A rich field of study is emerging to explore these issues. Piven’s work offers something valuable to it: a bridge between emerging ideas about civil resistance and more established currents of social movement theory.

Others, including people from Alinskyite schools who have been inspired by the mass mobilizations of recent years, are also considering how traditional community organizing models can be expanded. They are demonstrating that the study of momentum-driven mobilization does not rule out appreciation of what can be accomplished through building institutional structures. Moreover, a focus on disruption does not require that activists wait around until the next “Big Bang” moment in world history arrives before endeavoring to take action. Even smaller-scale disruptions — mobilizations at the level of one city or one campus — can have significant impact.

The lasting legacy of Poor People’s Movements is that, in providing a counter-balance to traditional ideas about organizing, it opens the door for more inventive analysis of movement strategies. Recognition of mobilizing and organizing as two distinct forms of action allows for dialogue between different schools of thought — and it ultimately creates the possibility of synthesis. For veterans of Occupy and the Arab Spring, the topic of how explosive short-term mobilization might be combined with long-term organizing that can institutionalize gains and make movements more sustainable is an exciting one. Indeed, many believe that discussion of it is essential for future social movements.

Their hope is in the possibility of integration — between momentum and structure, between fast and slow.

Follow us

We are here to bring the world of ecosocialism to life.

Like Us On Facebook

Facebook Pagelike Widget
What Might An Ecosocialist Society Look Like?
On Sept 19, 2023 ahead of the Climate Ambition Summit in New York City, climate activists gathered for a rally and civil disobedience outside Bank of America Tower in Midtown Manhattan as part of the March to End Fossil Fuels wave of actions resulting in multiple arrests. Activists demand Bank of America to “Defund Climate Chaos and Defend Human Rights” Photo: Erik McGregor (CC BY-NC 2.0 Deed)

Let’s Save Each Other

Let’s Save Each Other

Illustration by Stephanie McMillan. Used with permission