Disruptive social movements are what we need

Frances Fox Piven, Challenging Authority: How Ordinary People Change America, 2006 (click image to see it on Amazon)

Piven asks, “given the power inequalities of American life and the extent to which electoral-representative arrangements are twisted by those inequalities, how does egalitarian reform ever occur in the United States?” The answer, she suggests, is that “the rare intervals of nonincremental democratic reforms are responses to the rise of disruptive protest movements, and the distinctive kind of power that those movements wield.” (18) Regular people, she concludes, “exercise power…mainly [and later she leans toward
only] at those extraordinary moments when they rise up in anger and hope, defy the rules that ordinarily govern their daily lives, and…disrupt the workings of the institutions in which they are enmeshed.” (1) The “electoral norms” and institutions of American government have developed layers “walling off…crucial parts of government from exposure to the electorate.” So it is “precisely at the moments when people act outside of the electoral norms that electoral-representative procedures are more likely to realize their democratic potential.” (2)

This seems like an elaborate and excessively-hedged way of saying that American politics is designed for the benefit of elites, and that under normal operations, what we think of as democracy actually tends to erode the rights and privileges of the working and middle classes, for the benefit of the rich. In fact, she argues in chapter six that “the slow and steady workings of normal politics are more likely to wear away the reforms won during those moments of crisis than they are to enlarge upon them.” (18) That’s a provocative, interesting argument: that we don’t really have a democracy — we have a plutocracy that is regularly attacked by the underclasses and forced to make concessions in order to get them to go back to work, keep spending, etc. So why am I not happier with this book?

Maybe because, once she articulates this idea [albeit more tentatively than I summarized it], Piven misses the opportunity to give us some really stirring history to back it up. The history she does provide is mechanical and almost entirely based on secondary sources. But who cares about the opinions of the Tillys, or even E.P. Thompson, on these issues? For example, she quotes Edmund Morgan’s conclusion that “It seems unlikely that the political, social, and cultural changes wrought in the name of equality since 1776 could have occurred under British rule. It was the founders that made them possible by defying the king and creating a republic.” (54) But in this context, Morgan’s statement seems like little more than standard American exceptionalism, when Piven’s thesis might actually be used to suggest that once the dust settled [had the dust been allowed to settle] on colonial complaints, the “standard” operations of our social and political institutions would probably have resulted in just the tame and watered-down democracy we ultimately got. Although maybe with less imperialism and manifest destiny, like Canada.

The thesis
is interesting, though — and especially so at a time when the Wall Street occupiers are being thrown out of the park. It would be really interesting to look at the development of American institutions in this light (which of course, some historians have been doing for decades) in a survey class, where we could look at Federalist #10 with these questions in mind. We could even frame the issue in a discussion about why she wrote the book in 2006 and whether the Bush-era rhetoric holds up under Obama. What was it he campaigned on? Oh yeah: Change.