In their book on Poor People's Movements, Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward theorize a strategic difference in social justice movements that for them determines the successes and failures (never wholly separable) of such movements. (1) The dichotomy they develop is between organizing mass mobilizations and building permanent organizations. They look at the histories of civil rights, industrial unions, and the welfare rights movement of the mid-60s to 70s (in which they were personally involved), and they suggest that, in each case, the potential mass power of the movement was derailed or dissipated by focusing on organizational forms whose purpose was ironically to give that power permanence (PPM,307).
For instance, when the welfare rights movement won concessions from state and federal governments in terms of benefits for economically displaced persons and changes in how welfare was dispensed (which often involved the humiliation of the recipient), it was through mass mobilizations at the welfare centers (PPM,275ff). It was these mass mobilizations that produced a social recognition that recipients were real people living in real oppressive conditions, while providing them with avenues for social and political participation in their lives. When the movement leadership decided to consolidate this militancy in the form of political organizations that could influence political parties and negotiate from strength with legislators, its abandonment of mass mobilizations eroded the participation that was needed to provide cohesion and strength for just such organization. For Piven and Cloward, the difference in focus between mobilization and organization marked the axis along which a movement succeeded or failed (PPM, 278).
This paradox, wherein a movement can put an end to itself by the very means with which it seeks to guarantee its survival, has been noticed by others. In his book, Doing Democracy, Bill Moyer attempts to give it a positive spin. (2) He provides a map of movement stages by which activists and organizers can judge where they are in the movement-building process, so that set-backs and erosions can be seen as natural phases and transcended. For him, as for Piven and Cloward, a movement's purpose is to influence political structures, and win concessions from the institutions they confront. In Moyer's schema, movements begin outside institutions in order to eventually "use institutional channels to bring about change" (DD,112). Where he differs from Piven and Cloward is in focusing on the consciousness of activist organizers as central to building a movement, while the latter see social conditions as determining the involvement of poor or dispossessed people. (3)
For both, however, the movement is an instrumentality, something to be molded by activists or leaders for the purpose of correcting the abrogations of social institutions in the interests of the material needs of people. They do not ask what it really means that a social justice movement exists. Their concern is with the dynamics of how a movement counterposes itself to institutionality and wins influence. This implies assuming that society is democratic, and that the political expression of people's needs will have a place at the table, even if people have to fight their way in.
Yet something lurks in the background that disturbs this assumption. In describing the birth of movements, Piven and Cloward say, "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" (PPM,4). It is a collective defiance, by which people wrench themselves free from tradition, and transform their entire being, their very sense of themselves, both emotionally and rationally (my thanks to Mohammad Tamdgidi for emphasizing this in his presentations and communications). In other words, more is at stake than can be subsumed by demands for benefits or recognitions. …