Born in Alberta, Canada in 1932, Frances Fox Piven earned a B.A. in 1953, an MA in city planning in 1956, and a Ph.D. in social science in 1962 — all from the University of Chicago. She has served as a professor of political science at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York since 1982; since 1988, she also has taught sociology. For a detailed list of Piven’s additional professional credentials, see Footnote #1 below.
Piven and her late husband, Columbia social-work professor Richard Cloward, are best known for having outlined, in 1966, the so-called Cloward-Piven Strategy – a tactic that seeks to hasten the fall of capitalism by overloading government bureaucracies with a flood of impossible demands, thus pushing society into “a profound financial and political crisis” that would unleash “powerful forces … for major economic reform at the national level.”
In 1966 Piven was a panel member at a Socialist Scholars Conference in New York. There, she and her husband presented a paper proposing that the poor should engage in “irregular and disruptive tactics” designed to overburden city and state governments with demands for welfare money – the ultimate objective being to force those governments to turn to the federal government for assistance. Such “disruption of the system,” said Piven, would result in a situation where:
“Welfare rolls will begin to go up; welfare payments will begin to go up – the impact will be very, very sharp. The mounting welfare budget will increase taxes, force cities to turn to the federal government. We have to help people to make claims; for this they will organize and act.”
In their 1977 book, Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail, Piven and Cloward reemphasized that because the poor and unemployed were politically powerless in America, they would be well advised to withhold “quiescence in civil life: they can riot.” The authors stated, approvingly, that in the 1930s, violent disruptions such as “mob looting” and “rent riots” – fomented by leftist and Communist Party organizers – had enabled the first great expansion of the welfare state to take place. Likewise, Cloward and Piven credited the urban riots of the 1960s for helping to further grow the welfare state by forcing changes in traditional procedures for investigating and verifying applicants’ eligibility for welfare benefits. As best-selling author Stanley Kurtz writes:
“For Cloward and Piven, the core strategic lesson of their activism is that, rather than channeling poor people’s anger into conventional political activity, community organizers ought instead to ‘escalate the momentum and impact of disruptive protest at each stage in its emergence and evolution.’ At one point in Poor People’s Movements (p. 306), in the course of providing an historical example of her preferred strategy, Piven presents the case of a community organizer who was arrested for inciting to riot. Readers are invited to judge this passage for themselves, but my own take is that Piven clearly approves.”
In 1979-80, Piven served as a “lecturer on U. S. political activities” with the Institute for Policy Studies. In October 1983 she was a New York delegate to a conference of the newly formed Democratic Socialists of America. In subsequent years, she served on DSA’s Feminist Commission. After years of service as a vice chair of DSA, Piven in 2003 was elevated to the status of honorary vice chair, a prestigious designation reserved only for the most highly regarded, longest-serving loyalists. She held that title until August 2017, at which time the organization discontinued its practice of naming honorary chairs.
In 1983 Piven and Cloward co-founded Human SERVE, an organization that sought to register voters at social-service agencies and Departments of Motor Vehicles — thereby foreshadowing the so-called “motor voter” law of 1993, which would prove to be a breeding ground for election fraud. Piven’s hope was that federal and state governments would eventually try to rein in the efforts of politicized welfare workers who were registering new voters, and that this, in turn, would cause welfare recipients to rise up in a massive protest movement — rendering society “disrupted and transformed.”
Also in 1983, Piven delivered the opening remarks at the Socialist Scholars Conference (SSC) in New York City, an event that commemorated the 100-year anniversary of Karl Marx’s death and was likely attended by a young Barack Obama. In her talk, Piven described Marx as the man whose ideas had enabled “common people” around the globe to become “historical actors.” She urged her listeners to “stand within the intellectual and political tradition Marx bequeathed,” treating it not as a “dead inheritance” but rather as a “living tradition—the creation of thinking, active people.” In subsequent years, Piven would appear at numerous additional SSCs.
In January 2002, Piven endorsed the founding of War Times, a national anti-Iraq War newspaper established by a group of San Francisco leftists affiliated with such organizations as the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, and STORM. Among the more prominent founders of the publication was Van Jones.
During an interview in the early 2000s, Piven praised socialism as a movement founded on “the values of equality and fraternity and democracy.” “That tradition has a future,” she added. “It’s the only future that’s possible.” By Piven’s reckoning, however, socialism would be instituded in the U.S. by means of an incremental rather than a revolutionary process:
“I don’t believe in a revolutionary transformation. But I have another set of beliefs which I think many people share, which is that each step forward, each step to reduce the cruelty and the punitiveness that contemporary elites are imposing on other people takes enormous struggle. But each step is worth that struggle because we make our communities a little bit more humane and because we also, through those struggles, learn that it’s our world, too, and we can contribute to its future shape.”
During 2006-07, Piven served as president of the American Sociological Association.
On December 22, 2010, Piven published an article in The Nation titled “Mobilizing the Jobless,” where, after noting that some 15 million Americans were unemployed, she asked: “So where are the angry crowds, the demonstrations, sit-ins and unruly mobs?” Admonishing the Left not to wait patiently for “the end of the American empire and even the end of neoliberal capitalism,” she called for active measures to bring about “big new [government] initiatives in infrastructure and green energy.” Such measures, she explained, should take the form of “mass protests” that could pressure President Obama “hard from his base.” Piven urged that the disruptions begin on the local and state levels, where governments that were “strapped for funds” would look, by necessity, for “federal action” to help them. Wrote Piven:
“An effective movement of the unemployed will have to look something like the strikes and riots that have spread across Greece in response to the austerity measures forced on the Greek government by the European Union, or like the student protests that recently spread with lightning speed across England in response to the prospect of greatly increased school fees.”
Before the unemployed or any other disadvantaged group “can mobilize for collective action,” added Piven, “they have to develop a proud and angry identity and a set of claims that go with that identity. They have to go from being hurt and ashamed to being angry and indignant … [at] the bureaucrats or the politicians who are in fact responsible.”
“Local protests,” Piven wrote, “have to accumulate and spread—and become more disruptive—to create pressures on national politicians. An effective movement of the unemployed will have to look something like the strikes and riots that have spread across Greece….” As author Stanley Kurtz observes, “Given Piven’s strategic stance, it’s clear that she and The Nation are in fact calling for violence.”
In the fall of 2011, Piven was among the high-profile personalities who made personal appearances in support of anti-capitalism rallies which were staged in New York City by Occupy Wall Street (OWS) and such activist groups as the Adbusters Media Foundation, Anonymous, Take the Square, and USDayOfRage. In an address to the OWS protesters, Piven referred to “greedy” bankers as “thieves,“ ”cannibals,“ and the ”big problem.” For a list of additional OWS supporters, click here.
In a March 2012 lecture at the University of Connecticut, Piven stated:
“It may well be that the Occupy movement is now in its second phase, in the phase where it makes trouble, in the phase where it threatens to shut down institutions. The Occupy movement has moved into the neighborhoods of our cities, it has moved into the schools…. This spring, we’ll see action against the banks, against the corporations…. It is going to be a spring with lots of protests that take different forms and engage lots of people.”
“In the absence of movements from below, of real trouble from below, in the absence of protest, American politics, electoral politics — despite the fact that so many people go out to vote — reverts to a position where big money is the dominating force. And when big money is the dominating force, regulations of business become impossible, or they are ignored, and that of course is what happened in the current period…. It’s been time for another surge from the bottom for quite a while [since the 1970s], and some of us have been waiting.”
For more information on Frances Fox Piven, click here.