REVIEW MUSINGS: Analysing “Poor Peoples’ Movements”

Indonesian politics and Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail by Francis Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward.

To what extent can existing theoretical work in the field of academic political science on mass movements or social movements be useful in the study of these phenomenon in Indonesia? In answering this question, I make the following initial comment. These various theories have had no impact to date on the study of Indonesian politics. There are no existing attempts to apply this theory in any in-depth or sustained manner on Indonesia. Any attempt to apply them would be a pioneering work and one would need to be convinced that it was more worthwhile than using or critiquing the existing and influential modes of analysis. In addition, one would need some confidence that the theoretical models as they had already been applied to other societies showed some efficacy.  Such an assessment would require a separate and substantial research and analysis project looking not only at the theory but its application in regard to other countries – something outside the scope of this essay.

 Jacket

There is a certain issue of sequence here also. The major studies of Indonesia that do exist all ignore or belittle mass movement politics, and therefore, on the whole, have not researched the mass action political activity that has taken place. There is very limited empirical data available in published books that would help the non-Indonesianist political theorist of social movements to begin to apply such theory to Indonesia. More works looking in detail at national mass movement politics, i.e. theoretically driven explanations of historical developments giving a central place to mass action politics, will be necessary before Indonesia can be usefully included in attempts to generalize about mass movements across countries and time periods.

An example: Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail by Francis Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward.

Separate from the issue of sequence, is the question of confidence in the efficacy of existing theories to the extent that one would wish to experiment with them in applying them to Indonesia. One work that does attempt to address the issue of mass movements and which is sometimes cited is Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail by Francis Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward, published by Vintage Books, in 1979. In the “Introduction to the Paperback Edition” they make the intent to focus on mass movements clear:

The left has understood that working class people are a historical force and could become a greater historical force. And the left has understood that the distinctive form in which that force expresses itself is the mass movement.[1]

In the comments below, I provide some initial reflections on Piven and Cloward’s theoretical framework and definitions and then some reflections on the consequent problems that would arise in an attempt to apply that analysis to an objective reality that departs substantially from the reality that would have to be assumed to exist in Indonesia.

It’s theoretical analysis combines a series of assertions, mostly made possible by selective choice of subject matter. It proposed to make general conclusions about the effectiveness or otherwise of protest movements, however, it selects as its examples only movements from the United States – a very specific form of capitalist society, a settler, imperialist society – and even within that framework excludes the largest and most effective protest movement in 20th century U.S. history, the movement against the Vietnam War. It also excludes the 20th century movement for women’s liberation.

With no discussion of how the authors’ conclusions apply or don’t apply to the movement to have U.S. troops withdrawn from Vietnam or for changes in outlook and laws discriminatory towards women, their conclusions remain fundamentally untested.

The work provides no argumentation or justification for the selection of the protest movements it does select. We must infer their justification from the title of the book and from passing remarks in the Introduction. Here, I am referring to their focus – or what they see as their focus – on the “poor”.  Even here they use a very narrow and selective definition referring to “a stratum within the working class that is poor by standards prevailing in society at the time”. They claim that this definition is “consistent with classical Marxist definitions of the working class”. (p. xxiv) In fact, this definition of the “poor” or “the lower class” is irrelevant and unconnected to any kind of Marxist analysis. One can claim it is consistent with Marxist analysis by arguing that within the working class as defined by Marx, i.e. a class alienated from ownership and control of the means of production and dependent therefore on the sale of their labour power  for livelihood, there is a layer that at any particular time is poor by prevailing standards. However, such a claim can be made in reference to any definition of the working class. The definition actually alienates that layer (if indeed such a description is accurate[2]) from its position in social and political relations flowing from the mode of production.

The fundamental problem arises from the fact that having made a very specific and narrow selection of the rebelling subject, they attempt to make general conclusions about the effectiveness of protest, political defiance and movement attempts to achieve change. Thus they exclude the movement against the Vietnam war, for example. The reality of this consistency can also be understood if we look at how they define the opponents of the movements they are attempting to assess. While the movements they assess, they themselves define as a section within the working class, these movements’ antagonists – the oppressing force – are defined as that force which combines monopoly of coercive power and of control over the productive forces. Given that they claim consistency with Marxist analysis, we can assume safely here that they mean the capitalist class.  They present an analysis that makes general conclusions about how protest works against the capitalist class as a whole by assessing the record in relation to protest from what they themselves see as just one stratum within the working class.

An analysis that asked the question: what has been the experience of popular revolt against fundamental policies, decisions and ideological outlooks of the capitalist class in the United States would have included an assessment of the anti-Vietnam war movement and the women’s liberation movement. Both were challenges to high priority U.S. capitalist interests. If they wanted to argue that these are different phenomena, they should have thus argued.

It is curious that the authors wish to claim consistency with Marxist analysis given that their approach is in fact a counter-approach to Marxist analysis, something which is explicitly hinted in their Introduction when they assert that Marx’s description of the proletariat alone as being  “a really revolutionary class” was wrong, claiming that “expanding capitalist production did not create a revolutionary proletariat”.[3] They describe Marx’s description as a “prediction” revealing their misunderstanding of Marx’s analysis. Even in the quote from Marx they use, Marx is using the present tense: “the proletariat alone is a really revolutionary class” not “will be”. Marx’s point was that the proletariat has no interests in the capitalist system being sustained, unlike all other existing classes. It was thus the only class capable of carrying out a revolution. Why then do they, in other contexts, like to claim consistency with Marxist definitions? This appears basically to be an invitation to Marxists to accept the progressive intent of their analysis. Thus they also claim that their book is aimed at providing an analysis that will help social movements of the “poor” be more effective in the future.

Their narrow definition, of course, immediately negates any recognition of the potential power of the working class as a whole: emphasizing welfare levels instead of location in the production process. This underpins the direction of the analysis that protest movements and political defiance have inherent limits. Their definitions also narrow their identification of what they call the “organizers” of the movements to those primarily concerned with domesticating the movements as permanent lobby organisations. They heavily emphasise this point seeing the trend by these “organizers” to build permanent lobbying structures, dependent on the elites that the movements had been challenging, as almost a universal trend. They assert:

In the main the left has held that formal mass-membership organisations are the correct vehicles with which the working class can drive toward power, at least in non-revolutionary situations.[4]

They fail to document and analyse the conflict between the revolutionary left and non-revolutionary left, i.e between those who understood the temporary nature of insurgent uprisings and saw them as opportunities to increase the ideological and political resources of the class as a whole (in the form of the growth of a revolutionary cadre party available to the class) and who were opposed to all attempts to moderate political movements and those who did indeed want to domesticate movements. Major political thinkers of the 1910-1970s period who were influential in the movements, and who wrote about them, such as James P. Cannon, for example, don’t get a serious analysis in their book. Without an in-depth discussion of the important critiques of the lobbying elites strategy that developed inside or around these movements, the authors’ claim that they are providing something new and superior to existing theory is also without basis.

The authors, therefore, define their way to their conclusions and to their selection of data.

It is not surprising then that their Introduction (which is also their Conclusions) basically sets out a list of often flawed assertions. I will list and comment on these, using those assertions of the authors that they put in italics in their Introduction/Conclusion.[5]

(1)

The occasions when protest is possible among the poor, the forms it must take, and the impact it can have are all delimited by the social structure in ways which usually diminish its extent and diminish its force.

At one level this is a common sense statement – how and when a specific form of political activity occurs and its impact depends on the society (social structure) where it happens. However, the proposition becomes a flawed statement when it says that the social structure “usually” “diminishes its extent and diminishes its force”. First of all, by slipping in the word “usually”, but with no discussion of when the proposition does and doesn’t apply, the whole statement becomes useless. We are left with guessing at the odds. In later sections of the Introduction there are attempts to refine this, but they are flawed in the same way, as we shall see.

Their basic assertion that the social structure “usually” acts to diminish force and impact is, by itself also a common sense statement Any protest movement by a section of society with limited resources that rebels against a superior force in terms of resources will face an opposition “from above”. The spirit of this book goes further, however, asserting strongly the limits the effectiveness of political defiance in general. This stems from another kind of definitional stance on the nature of society.  Thus right at the beginning of Chapter 1: The Structuring of Protest, they write:

Those who control the means of physical coercion and those who control the means of producing wealth, have power over those who don’t.[6]

In the next paragraph, they elaborate that this includes control over peoples’ minds, “to control their beliefs”:

What some call superstructure, and what others call culture, includes an elaborate system of beliefs and ritual behavior which defines for people what is right and what is wrong and why; what is possible and what is impossible; and the behavioural imperatives that follow from these beliefs.

The controllers of coercion and wealth production exercise control over the rest’s beliefs and consequent behavior. With such a starting point, it is not surprising that the author’s tends toward a general conclusion that protest movement’s will be “usually” diminished in extent and impact by the social structure. Of course, there can be no disputing that the capitalist class does dominate all well-resourced institutions of ideological reproduction and that it is the ideology of the capitalist class that is the dominant ideology in a capitalist society. However, dominance or hegemony does not mean that no counter-ideologies exist. The bald definitional assertions made by the authors immediately exclude the impact of the experience of the oppressed and exploited classes on their thinking, on the consequence of a divergence between experienced reality and dominant ideology in their thinking. In short, the authors’ approach – contrary to assertions of having a dialectical approach they make in their preface – ignore the possibility – and in fact, the well documented reality – of contradictions of various kinds also constraining the extent and impact of ruling class power. The ignoring of contradictions is the basic reason why “usually”, as an undefined summary qualification can insert itself into their analysis.

(2)

Only under exceptional conditions are the lower classes afforded the socially determined opportunity to press for their own class interests.

Again, at a very superficial level, this is again a common sense statement. If by “press for their own class interests” is meant carry out a major protest campaign, then the statement that major protest campaigns are exceptional, i.e. not the norm, is perhaps true. However, the formulation contains other elements. It appears to assert that “the lower classes” (there appears to be more than one such ‘class’) only press for their own interests under exceptional conditions, in general. Thus the normal activity of unions in collective bargaining, welfare groups in lobbying, civil rights group in advocating is negated. This is, of course, consistent definitionally and in accord with the authors’ stated conclusions that tend to preclude the activities of permanent organized mass membership organisations as being part of protest activity. However the assertion does not state that it is only under exceptional conditions that the lower classes launch major campaigns of protest action, but that this applies in general to all activities in defense of their interests. Of course, the sentiment of this statement accords with the definition of class power that I noted in commenting on the first of the authors’ assertions.

Furthermore, their formulation asserts that the “lower classes” are “afforded the opportunity” to press their claims. Here the authors’ analysis becomes very slippery: afforded by whom? Well, it is a “socially determined” ‘affordation’. What does that mean? Does it mean that the ruling class conceded to them the opportunity to resist? The author’s go on to argue that while the ruling class does not concede such opportunities major social dislocation weakens the ruling classes capacity to regulate their oppression of the lower classes. Greater than usual rapid change, with consequent dislocation, apparently breaks down this capacity. Ironically, the authors’ actual argument in this section of their exposition explains the office. “Sometimes, however, the poor do become defiant”, they state early on in this part of their argument. The dislocation and dissatisfaction attached to the dislocation creates the conditions conducive to the defiance, but the actual process, they assert, is the reduction in the capacity for regulation by the ruling class. What they describe is actually not any inherent decrease in the resources or strengths-in-itself of the ruling power but simply the defiance of the protesting layers, whatever the cost.

This section ends with what we must consider, if accepting the author’s own premises, another italicized common sense:

(3)

Since periods of profound social dislocation are infrequent, so too are periods of protest among the lower classes.

(4)

It is our second general point, then, that the opportunities for defiance are structured by features of institutional life. Simply put, people cannot defy institutions to which they have no access, and to which they make no contribution.

Again at the most superficial level, this is another common sense, summed up when the authors state, immediately preceding sentence: ”most organizing ventures ask that people do what they cannot do, and the result is failure”. When the authors state this and then make their “second general point’, the banality lies in the idea that there are constraints on humans’ actions imposed by objective circumstances. Who can oppose such an idea? The flaw in the banality is to be found in the assessment of what defines the objective conditions, i.e. “institutional life”. The Introduction provides a summary of the material provided in the studies of the four movements in the book, but it is how the authors’ summarise that material that most exposes the weaknesses of their approach. They emphasise two major aspects of the objective conditions: the oppressions they feel in everyday life (which constrain them, allegedly, to oppose immediate oppressions) and the collectivities they might belong to prior to discontent escalating (such as the southern black Church in the case of Negroes migrating north). Out of these two ideas, the author’s decide that political protest movements have no freedom of choice in their strategy and tactics.

I will take up these flaws later together with critiquing the final four italicized assertions.

The next three assertions follow on from the one above:

(5)

The most useful way to think about the effectiveness of protest is to examine the disruptive effects on institutions of different forms of mass defiance, and then to examine the political reverberations of those disruptions.

(6)

People cease to conform to accustomed institutional roles; they withhold their accustomed institutional cooperation, and by doing so, cause institutional disruptions.

(7)

The political impact of institutional disruptions depends on electoral conditions.

Over the pages where these assertions are made, the authors; shift to another institutional focus, elections. In these pages, the authors’ basic argument-cum-assertion is that it is only when protest movement disruption threatens to disrupt electoral processes, that the governments or elites make concessions. This argued also in the later chapters, but as with the summary in the introduction, the argument presented is basically epidemiological. When protest gains moment and the scale becomes larger, concessions are made to divide the movement, excising radicals who are then subject to punitive action and channeling the rest into non-threatening electoral activity, while accepting lesser demands. But why do they do this and why is it that the majority of the ruling class supports the concessions, and not just the ruling faction? What is actually being disrupted that brings about the concessions?

The author’s under-riding sentiment is most brilliantly and aptly summed up in their final italicized assertion:

(8)

That protesters win, if they win at all, what historical circumstances has already been made ready to be conceded.

Here we have the summation of the fatalistic structural analysis deployed by the authors’. One suspects that this was the sentiment that operated as the starting point of their analysis rather than the conclusion as it is upon this sentiment that their definitions are based: the contradiction free control of the ruling class over both behavior and belief of everybody else and the choice of protest agency, the “poor” and “lower classes” defined as a sub-section of the working class, that will be easier to show is weak. It lies behind their conclusions that protest only occurs when the opportunity is “afforded” to the “poor” by society.

The sentiment and its formulation here is typical of left liberal analysis and its tautological politics. As the ruling class is all powerful, any concessions gained buy other classes have not been won or wrenched away from the ruling class but are concessions that “historical circumstances”, i.e. the ruling class, are ready to concede. This going-around-in-circles approach flows from the inability to locate contradiction in their analysis as a central phenomenon, and thereby deprives them of the ability to assess what processes either quantitatively or qualitatively sharpen various contradictions.

The absence of the anti-Vietnam War movement and the issue of class.

In a study that proposes conclusions about the efficacy of protest movements based on examples from the United States, the absence of any in-depth focus on the anti-war movement in the U.S. is highly significant. There is no explanation of this absence and so we must infer that the authors probably exclude it because, in their eyes perhaps, it was not a movement of the “poor” or of the “lower classes”, as they define them. The anti-war movement was not only one of the largest mass movements in 20th U.S. history but one which both achieved its aims – withdrawal of US troops from Vietnam – and enormous ongoing effects in U.S. society. It produced the Vietnam Syndrome, which remained a block of major US overseas wars for 20 years until the 1990s and still has some impact. Moreover, the movement was the cauldron for the growth of other anti-status quo ideas and trends.

The exclusion of the anti-war movement from the authors’ analysis, in the end, must be seen as flowing from the narrow and mechanistic definition of class that they use. Their starting point for defining class, or more “specifically” the ‘lower classes”, is nothing more than the criteria of a standard of living lower than that which generally prevails in society. This is less even than a Weberian definition of class, let alone a Marxist approach which defines class in terms of its relations with other classes (and with the social reality that underpins the formation of classes.)  The anti-war movement in the U.S. was a mass movement and the overwhelming majority of those mobilized were from outside the capitalist class and outside the immediate layers in direct service of the capitalist class (senior managers, bureaucrats and so on). As the movement grew so did the breadth of its mass support, drawing in unionized labour and more and more of the black civil rights movement. However, even before this happened, the very mass character of the movement was only possible because of the support and/or participation of large sections of what Marx would have described as the proletariat, which are not defined in terms of levels of income or welfare but in terms of ownership and control of the means of production.

A Marxist analysis, flowing from analysis of class relations generally and most centrally class struggle for and over state power, would be looking for manifestations of class contradictions in the sphere of power. From this angle, the struggle against the Vietnam War was a major class struggle. The U.S. state’s intervention in Vietnam was a conscious policy of the U.S. capitalist class, almost unanimously supported by that class, which it saw as in its interest, operating as an imperialist class. The war was aimed at crushing a worker-peasant based state and movement in Vietnam driven by anti-capitalist ideology. In the U.S. the capitalist class demanded that the U.S. proletariat both fight and pay for this war. The demands of the movement – U.S. Out Now! – do not immediately manifest class interests when the class is narrowly defined in welfare level terms and the class therefore is defined as being primarily concerned about socio-economic issues, or at best, the immediate formal political rights of thosed with a particular, low level of welfare. However, when the analysis shifts to a framework looking at the policy decisions of the class that owns and controls capital and the resistance to such decisions by those who don’t own and control capital, the class nature of the struggle over Vietnam becomes immediately apparent. The mass nature of the movement, eventually gaining majority support in the USA with very high levels of activist participation, underlines this fact in a more concrete way.

If the antiwar movement had been included in Piven and Cloward’s study, a number of challenges would have arisen to some of their assertions/conclusions.

There is a strong argument that the radicalization associated with the anti-Vietnam War movement challenged existing social limitations and effected an expansion in the ideological space outside the terrain defined by the ruling class and its structures. This is the opposite to the author’s assertions that the social structure limits the extent and impact of protest movements. Of course, at the level of banality, we can assert that everything is contained – as Marx explained men make their own history but using the materials at hand. However, Pove and Cloward’s assertion is not simply that the objective conditions impose a limit, but that the controlling power of the ruling class imposes the limits. In the 60s, on the contrary, existing limits were pushed back. This is difficult to register analytically where the analytical framework does not itself register the existence of contradictions, and this the possibilities and significance of the sharpening, blunting and also the resolution of contradictions.

The proposition that is only under ‘exceptional conditions’, described as major dislocation, where the “lower classes” are afforded the opportunity to protest may come into contradiction with much analysis of the social conditions that precipitated the youth radicalization of the 60s, which was a major part of the development of the anti-war movement as a mass movement. There is a substantial analysis that shows that it was improvements in material conditions, including an expansion in the number of working class families who could afford to send children to university, rather than negative disruption of material conditions which fostered the possibility of rebellion. Of course, “dislocation” could be redefined to include this, but again this would make the formulation even more deeply banal: protest movements, which are abnormal events, occur when normal or pre-existing social conditions are changing. This is a banality which also, if we go beyond the time and place of the 60s or the USA, may also be questionable.

The confusing linking of “institutional life” as defined by day-to-day reality and membership of collectives on the one hand, and with elections on the other would, probably, be able to be applied in some way or other to analysing the effectiveness of the anti-war movement in achieving its aims, and in living an impact which has lasted at least three decades – more if we were to include the legitimacy it (along with civil rights movement) gave to mass action politics generally. However, there would be many challenging questions that it would pose. When demonstrators invaded Chicago for the Democratic Party convention were they showing that they “cannot defy institutions to which they have no access, and to which they make no contribution.”? Was the growth and radicalization of the movement dependent on electoral conditions or did it change electoral conditions?

Piven and Cloward perhaps also exclude the anti-war movement as it would raise very challenging questions about their final assertion: “That protesters win, if they win at all, what historical circumstances has already been made ready to be conceded.” Would they then be arguing that the withdrawal of the U.S. from Vietnam was nothing more than a concession that historical circumstances had already made ready to concede. This would be an argument that the largest and most influential of mass movements in 20th century U.S. history did not itself help make the “historical circumstances”. The same question can be raised about other movements, including the civil rights movement: did they too not help male “historical circumstances”?

The anti-war movement, in so far as that it mobilized sections of the working class other than the segment identified in the book, also raises the issue of how movements expand within the working class, and the relations between youth and students and mass movement mobilisations. This is no doubt relevant to the civil rights movement as well, but would have been more emphasised if the anti-war movement had been included.

It is not the place here, in any case, to delve into the weaknesses of this framework in relation to U.S. politics – that would require a fuller return to the empirical picture of the protest movements, both those selected by the authors as well as others. The point here is to underline some basic flaws at the theoretical level: a certain banality in some of the propositions, and confusions and contradictions in some of the analysis, reflected also in the narrowness of definitions and selectivity of the subjects for study.

The Piven Cloward approach and Indonesia

With the doubts from an initial reading of Poor People’s Movements that I have already identified, it would be an unjustified project to attempt to apply its approach to Indonesia. In addition to these doubts, some flaws of their approach are accentuated when it is applied, even initially, to Indonesia.

Class

 A good starting point in looking at such problems is their handling of the issue of “class”. In fact, if we contemplate their introductory comments on class again, they do not use class as an analytical category at all. They say they define the ”lower classes” as “a stratum within the working class that is poor by standards prevailing in society at the time”.  They offer no analysis of the working class itself, its relationship with capital or the state, but instead identify a “stratum” that they wish to concentrate on. Moreover, this stratum in defined purely in terms of level of welfare: it is “poor by standards prevailing in society at the time”. They propose no relational analysis of this “stratum” to the working class as a whole, only the quantitative definition that it is poorer than everybody else.

The classical Marxist treatment of class starts with a definition that identifies classes in relation to each other via their relationship to the means of production.  Class is defined relationally, not as a “stratum” identified through poverty level. Piven and Cloward may argue that they are not defining class this way but just a section of the class – and identifying sections of classes is totally valid. However, they wrote in their preface:

the left has understood that working class people are a historical force and could become a greater historical force. And the left has understood that the distinctive form in which that force expresses itself is the mass movement.

By talking in terms of “a historical force” that expresses it in the form of “the mass movement” and then providing a study of movements of a “stratum” from within the working class they are working a sleight of hand where the Weberian sounding “stratum” is actually replacing “class” as agency. (In fact, once the authors briefly finish discussing their definition of “the lower classes”, they resume writing as if they were talking about protest movements in general, instead of just the protest movements of the stratum they say they have identified).

To start with, of course, it is a totally arbitrary definition, or selection of agency, for which Piven and Cloward provide no justification. But apart from that, how would it be applied to Indonesia? In terms of “standards prevailing at the time” average per capita income is below $2 per day. Does this mean we should assume that Piven’s and Cloward’s approach should only be applied to movements of people whose income is less than, say, $1 or perhaps 75 cents per day? The arbitrariness of their approach in defining “the lower classes” and the “poor” has even greater consequences in distorting analysis than it does in the United States. In fact, their “stratum” approach becomes immediately useless.

I should emphasise here again that there should be no problem with identifying segments of a class as long as the activities of the segment can be located within a definition and analyse of the class as a whole. For example, in Marxist analysis the working class or proletariat is defined in terms of its alienation from ownership and control of the means of production and the consequent necessity to sell its labour power in order to survive, putting it into an antagonistic relationship with the capitalist class. This antagonism, which in turns produces an historical dynamic of class struggle for state power, frames all the activities of the proletariat (and the capitalist class.) The precise forms of the manifestation of this antagonism are not fixed, except for some general tendencies that will assert themselves, such as the tendency for labour to seek collective action. Where a specific manifestation of class struggle will start, with what section of the proletariat, or in what location, and in what form will vary according to conditions that exist in different times and places.

There is no reason to assume that the initiating agency will be the stratum that Piven and Cloward look at. In Indonesia in the 1990s, as we will see in later chapters, it was an alliance between student and factory workers that was able to initiate and sustain the momentum that relegitimised mass action politics. Students and factory workers in general experienced a level of poverty above not below that prevailing in society. Additionally, the expansion of the mass anti-dictatorship movement after June 1996, and then again in very late 1997 early 1998, saw the initiative shift from factory workers to urban poor – who were poorer than factory workers – then to students and white collar workers, who not poorer. Poven and Cloward’s non-class stratum approach becomes even more problematic.  

A Marxist analysis will immediately focus attention on the history of the struggle between the classes. In the Indonesia case, attention is first drawn to the struggle for state power that developed between 1945 and 1965 between a worker-peasant (including semi-proletariat and pauperised petty bourgeoisie) based mass movement under the shared leadership of Soekarno and the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) and a capitalist class lead by a coalition between various pro-capitalist classes and the Army. How this antagonism was resolved, namely through a savage counter-revolutionary suppression of mass action politics set the framework for the next round of mass action class struggle activity. This developed in the late 1980s and 1990s as a struggle to re-win the right to engage in mass struggle. The Piven and Clovard stratum approach is blind to such dynamics.

The proposition that the masses are “afforded” the opportunity to press for their interests only when periods of large scale social dislocation takes place is also revealed as an inadequate formulation when Indonesia’s experience is considered. In most so-called developing countries, social dislocation is a permanent condition. This is even more the case in a period following violent counter-revolutionary suppression and the opening up of the economy to the large-scale entry of foreign capital, which in turn has a range of dislocatory effects. In the Indonesian experience, the mass movement began in the late 1980s and grew during the 1990s as a result of conscious political activity to stir protest precisely in the absence of spontaneous activity that might have been generated by new dislocation.

In this arena too, the Indonesian experience contradicts Piven and Colvard’s assertions on the role of agency, or leadership (although on suspects this is true of American experience too, if the analysis was not constrained by definitional issues). They write in the short final section entitled “A note on the role of protest leadership’ to their chapter “The Structuring of Protest”: “Protest wells up in response to momentous changes in the institutional order. It is not created by organizers and leaders”. However, in Indonesia between 1989 and 1996 there were no “momentous changes in the institutional order” nor was there any “welling up”. Rather there were a series of large protest mobilisations, first of students and mainly peasants, then students and mainly factory workers, spread out during those years.  These were initiated consciously defying the ban on mass action politics in order to re-win the legitimacy of that mode of activity. No significant spontaneous welling up took place as a precedent to leadership intervening – the opposite happened. This then prepared the way for larger mobilisations with a larger component of spontaneous participation, though not initiation. Truly spontaneous, welling-ups took the form of riots – but here too, even as far back as 1973, the ground was prepared by systematic political organisation beforehand.

(This was most probably also a feature of the building of the anti-war movement in the U.S. and Australia. First, there was no real “momentous dislocation” that preceded the start of antiwar protests. Secondly, there was several years of small-scale protests and political education campaigning – awareness-raising – that preceded the growth of the moment to mass size.)

The process was not intervention of leaderships is a situation of “momentous dislocation” but of intervention in the workings of a contradiction. Political “organizers and leaders” identified points of intervention in existing contradictions. There was a material contradiction between the interests of capital and factory workers. There was another contradiction between the need to be able to struggle and the banning and suppression of struggle. There was a contradiction between the populist  sentiments inherited from earlier periods of struggle and the political culture being imposed from above, without legitimacy. It was possible to widen this contradiction and identify a possible resolution of some aspects: namely, ending dictatorship, as well as proposing more fundamental resolutions in the form of full democratic revolution.

Class can be defined in terms of relations to means of production and the relations between classes than stand upon those production relations. Once formed, however, the particular characteristics of the classes where these relations are manifested will depend on the conditions existing in each situation, including, but not confined, to the historical experience of collective struggle by the working class. In Indonesia’s case both the historical experience of collective struggle of the working class (including its alliance with the peasantry), and suppression of that struggle, gives content to its definition as an alienated and exploited class. In addition, there is its economic history as a class in an underdeveloped economy, where preservation of extremely low levels of productivity, small (even micro) scales of activity, widespread casual employment combined with micro peddler activity, creates an additional cleavage between classes as well as within classes. A relational definition is crucial, as its sets off the search for contradictions and gives that search a compass, but it does not in and of itself provide the content or the material of those contradictions. The content will depend on local conditions and history where variation may be almost infinite. It may be a futile search being conducted by American political science for a pattern that is shared by all social movements, mass movements or protest movements.[7]


[1] Francis Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward, Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail, Vintage, 1979,  p. ix

[2] I am not in a position to assess the empirical material and their analysis of it in their various case studies and therefore able to argue whether definition is valid at a basic empirical level.

[3] P. x

[4] P. xv

[5] The book has no conclusions chapter, so all the conclusions are contained in the Introduction.

[6] P. 1

[7] Apart from the work of Piven and Cloward, there are the works of Charles Tilly and Sydney Tallow that have invented the theoretical arena of “contentious politics”. Their concern too is to identify, across time and space, shared patterns in the developments of mass movements. This work also tends towards a strong epidemiological approach identifying when different variables exist parallel with different patterns of mass movement development. Like epidemiology in medicine, this approach has little explanatory power in relation to cause and effect.

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