Frances Fox Piven recently addressed the plight of the long-term unemployed and, perhaps more strongly than she intended, linked it to President Obama’s failure to act as a forceful advocate for jobs creation.
Piven cited Obama’s lukewarm efforts to persuade corporate executives to use some of the cash they’re hoarding for new hiring and concluded that “pressing [Obama] hard from his base” is the only tactic that might provoke him to take serious action on behalf of the unemployed.
But she stopped short of addressing the obvious need for an alternative to Obama. Real change always happens spontaneously, she argued, and it happens at the grassroots level, through some catalyst that’s hard to identify:
… Before people can mobilize for collective action, 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… Losing a job is bruising; even when many other people are out of work, most people are still working. So, a kind of psychological transformation has to take place; the out-of-work have to stop blaming themselves for their hard times and turn their anger on the bosses, the bureaucrats or the politicians who are in fact responsible…
There is no science that predicts eruption of protest movements. Who expected the angry street mobs in Athens or the protests by British students? Who indeed predicted the strike movement that began in the United States in 1934, or the civil rights demonstrations that spread across the South in the early 1960s? We should hope for another American social movement from the bottom—and then join it.
I don’t buy this sort of magical thinking. I’m all for taking grievances to the street, but attention will not be paid to the long-term unemployed or the working poor until progressives rally behind a viable Democratic or third-party candidate for president — someone who will, at the very least, scare or shame Obama into addressing the problems of the working class as a Democrat should.
The transformation Piven urged must start with the understanding that most D.C. Dems, under existing conditions, will do nothing to narrow the great divide that separates the wealthy from the barely-scraping-by.
People aren’t transformed spontaneously, or as soon as they stop blaming themselves — it only looks that way afterward. Transformation happens when people organize behind leaders who not only inspire them to believe their goals are achievable, as Obama did in 2008, but who also fight for those goals, as Obama failed to do once elected.