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The Cloward-Piven Strategy

Strategy for forcing political change through orchestrated crisis.

First proposed in 1966 and named after Columbia University  sociologists Richard Andrew Cloward and his wife Frances Fox Piven — both longtime members of the Democratic Socialists of America, where Piven today is an honorary chair — the “Cloward-Piven Strategy” seeks to hasten the fall of capitalism by overloading the government bureaucracy with a flood of impossible demands, thus pushing society into crisis and economic collapse.

Inspired by the August 1965 riots in the black district of Watts in Los Angeles — which erupted after police used batons to subdue a black man suspected of drunk driving — Cloward and Piven published an article titled “The Weight of the Poor: A Strategy to End Poverty” in the May 2, 1966 issue of The Nation. Following its publication, The Nation sold an unprecedented 30,000 reprints. Activists were abuzz over the so-called “crisis strategy” or “Cloward-Piven Strategy,” as it came to be called. Many were eager to put it into effect.

In their 1966 article, Cloward and Piven charged that the ruling classes used welfare to weaken the poor; that by providing a social safety net, the rich doused the fires of rebellion. Poor people can advance only when “the rest of society is afraid of them,” Cloward told The New York Times on September 27, 1970. Rather than placating the poor with government hand-outs, wrote Cloward and Piven, activists should work to sabotage and destroy the welfare system. The authors also asserted that: (a) the collapse of the welfare state would ignite a political and financial crisis that would rock the country; (b) poor people would rise in revolt; and (c) only then would “the rest of society” accept their demands.

The key to sparking this rebellion would be to expose the inherent inadequacy of the welfare state. In this regard, Cloward-Piven’s early promoters cited radical organizer Saul Alinsky as their inspiration. “Make the enemy live up to their (sic) own book of rules,” Alinsky wrote in his 1971 book Rules for Radicals. When pressed to honor every word of every law and statute, every Judaeo-Christian moral tenet, and every implicit promise of the liberal social contract, human agencies inevitably fall short. The system’s failure to “live up” to its rule book can then be used to discredit it altogether, and to replace the capitalist “rule book” with a socialist one.

Cloward and Piven noted that the number of Americans subsisting on welfare — about 8 million at that time — probably represented less than half the number who were technically eligible for full benefits. Thus the authors proposed a “massive drive to recruit the poor onto the welfare rolls,” calculating that the system would be bankrupted if even a fraction of potential welfare recipients were to demand their entitlements. The result, predicted Cloward and Piven, would be “a profound financial and political crisis” that would unleash “powerful forces … for major economic reform at the national level.”

The Cloward-Piven article called for “cadres of aggressive organizers” to use “demonstrations to create a climate of militancy.” Then, the authors predicted, the following would happen:

  • Politicians, intimidated by threats of black violence, would appeal to the federal government for help.
  • Carefully orchestrated media campaigns, carried out by friendly, leftwing journalists, would float the idea of “a federal program of income redistribution” in the form of a guaranteed living income for all — working and non-working people alike.
  • Local officials would clutch at this idea like drowning men to a lifeline. They would apply pressure on Washington to implement it.
  • With every major city erupting into chaos, Washington would have to act.

The Cloward-Piven Strategy was an example of what are commonly called Trojan Horse initiatives — mass movements whose outward purpose seems to be providing material help to the downtrodden, but whose real objective is to draft poor people into service as revolutionary foot soldiers; to mobilize poor people en masse in an effort to overwhelm government agencies with a flood of demands beyond the capacity of those agencies to meet. Cloward and Piven calculated that the flood of demands which they were recommending would break the budget, jam the bureaucratic gears into gridlock, and bring the system crashing down.

Fear, turmoil, violence and economic collapse would accompany such a breakdown — providing perfect conditions for fostering radical change. That was the theory.

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