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October 11, 2017 - The Graduate Center, CUNY

Photo: Francis Fox Piven at "Mapping Socialist Strategies", RLS-NYC

The Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung—New York Office supports the CUNY Graduate Center’s “Insurgency from Below and the Future of American Democracy”, a conference dedicated to the work of Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward.

The election of Donald J. Trump, an inexperienced and unpredictable billionaire real estate mogul endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan, stunned the world. Within hours of Hillary Clinton conceding the election to Trump, thousands took to the streets in protest against the victory of a candidate who lost the popular vote by the largest margin of an Electoral College winner in the nation’s history – nearly three million votes. Trump is a right-wing populist whose message against trade deals that have hurt American workers strongly resonated in white communities where the declining power of trade unions has left people vulnerable to his bigoted and xenophobic appeals. The complex dynamics of our social movement and populist era, the intricate (and poorly understood) connections between movements and electoral politics, and what the Trump presidency means for American democracy are the themes of our conference.

Admission is free, but you must register for the conference; please visit:


Conference Panels 
9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.: Elebash Recital Hall

8:45 – 9:15​ Continental Breakfast

9:20 – 9:30 ​Welcome from Professor Don Robotham, Director of the Advanced Research Collaborative

9:30 – 10:45​ Disruptive Power in an Age of Precarity
The power of workers in their age-old struggles with employers has always ultimately depended on their ability to disrupt economic activity or, in other words, on their ability to strike.  But the effective exercise of the strike power in turn depends on the need for work and workers, on worker (and community) solidarities, on legal protections which limit state interference, on the reverberations of disruptions through chains of production and exchange, and so on.  It follows that worker power, the structural leverage that workers can exert, is closely influenced by the organization of work itself.  How, then, have new conditions of more precarious employment, from part-time work to “independent” contracting, to mass unemployment, affected the strike power and other forms of disruptive dissent?

Moderator: Ruth Milkman, Distinguished Professor of Sociology, CUNY Graduate Center
James Gray Pope, Professor of Law and Sidney Reitman Scholar, Rutgers Law School
​Mae Ngai, Professor of History and Lung Family Professor of Asian American Studies, Columbia University ​ ​
Stephen K. Lerner, Fellow, Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor, Georgetown University

10:45 – 11:00 ​Break

11:00 – 12:45 Regulating the Poor and Regulating Society
Much of our attention to poverty policies focuses on the impact of policy on poverty, however defined.  Piven and Cloward suggested that the main drivers of these policies were not the relief of the condition of the poor, but the dual and sometimes conflicting imperatives of maintaining social order and enforcing low wage work.  To accomplish these ends, relief policies were expanded to deal with riotous collective behavior by the poor, but were then contracted to meet the dictum of “less eligibility” when order was more or less restored.  An important instrument of the “less eligibility” regime has always been the theatrical degradation of those who remain on the dole.  Have globalization and automation altered the imperatives that drove poverty policy in the past?  And even if they have, how will the translation of these new conditions into policy be shaped by the right-wing populist appeals of a Make America Great Again regime?

Moderator: Sanford Schram, Professor of Political Science, Hunter College/CUNY
​Bryan Palmer, Professor of Canadian Studies and Canada Research Chair, Trent  ​​​University
Donna Murch, Associate Professor of History, Rutgers University
​Alice Kessler-Harris, Professor Emerita of History, Columbia University ​ ​Fred Block, Research Professor in Sociology, University of California at Davis ​

1:40 – 1:45 ​Welcome from Provost Joy Connolly

1:45 – 3:00​ The Fraught Struggle for Electoral Democracy in the Trump Era
The confidence we have in electoral-representative democracy has rested on faith in more or less unimpeded competition by politicians for the support of widely enfranchised voters.  If voter majorities deliver state power, then politicians ambitious for state power will pay heed to voter preferences, and also work to enlist more voters in the electoral process.  Piven and Cloward argued that this rosy view ignores the ability of politicians, even competing politicians, to win elections not by mobilizing voter majorities but by demobilizing voter blocs that are “discordant” or unreliable.   This strategy has only recently attracted the attention it deserves from pundits and academics, and in combination with the racist and xenophobic appeals of the populist Right, it is undermining our already flawed electoral democracy.  What can be done?

Moderator: Dan Cantor, Executive Director, Working Families Party
Mike Slater, Consultant and former President, Project Vote
Hon. Gustavo Rivera, New York State Senator (33rd District/Bronx)
Joel Rogers, Sewell-Bascom Professor of Law, Political Science, Public Affairs and Sociology, University of Wisconsin-Madison

3:00 – 3:15 ​Break

3:15 – 5:00​ Rightwing Populism in the U.S. and Europe
Until very recently, the study of social movements in the United States has leaned heavily toward the movements we love, from the abolitionists, to labor, to the black freedom movement, to the women’s movements and the struggles for LGBT rights.  The rise of an insurgent right, drawing on the discontents of the petit-bourgeoisie and some sectors of the white working class, argues for more attention to the dynamics of the right wing proto-fascist movements that have figured importantly in modern European history, and are alive and kicking today.  Are there lessons from our study of movements on the Left to help us understand the rise of the movement on the Right?

Moderator: Stephen Eric Bronner, Professor of Political Science, Rutgers University
​Linda Gordon, Professor of History, New York University
Marco D’Eramo, Journalist
Leo Panitch, Distinguished Research Professor of Political Science and Canada Research Chair in Comparative Political Economy, York University, Emeritus

Closing Plenary
6:30 p.m. to 8:00 p.m.: Proshansky Auditorium

Welcome from President Chase Robinson, Professor Alyson Cole, Executive Officer of Political Science, and Professor Lorraine Minnite (GC Ph.D., 2000) Rutgers University

Activism in the Trump Era: Prospects for Social Justice Movements
The election of Donald J. Trump to the U.S. presidency in 2016, calls for a new analysis of American politics.  Trump, a billionaire, used bigoted and xenophobic appeals to build his rightwing populist base.  His ‘Make America Great’ message resonated with conservative whites and elements of the white working class where the shrinking influence of organized labor left people hurting and vulnerable.  At the same time, we have also witnessed far-reaching resistance to Trump and his roll-back initiatives.  What are the prospects for social justice movements in the new Trump era?

Moderator: Laura Flanders, Journalist

Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, Professor of Law, Columbia Law School and UCLA School of Law
Barbara Ehrenreich, Writer and Activist
Ai-jen Poo, Director, National Domestic Workers Alliance
Frances Fox Piven, Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Sociology, CUNY Graduate Center, Emerita

Closing Remarks by Frances Fox Piven

Organized by the M.A./Ph.D. Program in Political Science, with support from the M.A./Ph.D. Program in Sociology, The Advanced Research Collaborative, The Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung—New York Office, The Graduate Center Provost’s Office, The Murphy Institute, The New Press, and the JCF/Helenia Fund. Special thanks to Mr. Earl Fleary, APO in Political Science, for all of his assistance.


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