Frances Fox Piven, Challenging Authority:  How Ordinary People Change America.  Lanham, Maryland:  Rowman and Littlefield.

Reviewed by
Fred Block


Starting in the 1960’s, Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward elaborated their own powerful and distinctive analysis of political change in the United States.  They began with the protest movements of the 1960’s, and gradually expanded the scope of their argument to encompass much of 20th century U.S. history.  After Richard Cloward’s death in 2001, Frances Fox Piven has carried on this project and in this most recent book, she extends the argument back to the founding of the Republic.

Piven’s previous book, Bringing the War Home (2002),  was a direct response to the Bush Administration’s rush to wage war on Iraq. It offers an astute analysis of the domestic roots of the Iraq War, and it  makes sense of some of the more inexplicable elements of the Bush Presidency.  Her new book pushes forward the line of argument that she developed with Cloward in two important ways.  First, it provides a theoretical foundation for their sustained emphasis on the political uses of disruption by social movements.  Second, it provides a kind of master key for analyzing U.S. politics from the Revolution down to the present.

The master key has two prongs; one explains the logic of reaction and the other the logic of reform over roughly 230 years.  Piven reminds us that U.S. political institutions were, from the outset, structured to favor conservative interests, especially business, over the popular will.  The Founders sought to insulate the Federal Government from the pressures of the mob through separation of powers, the indirect election of Senators, and an independent judiciary with lifelong terms.  While Senators are now elected directly, the original design survives since business interests continue to use the multiple veto points provided by this system to block reforms favored by a diffuse and unorganized electorate.

In this, they have also been aided by something that the founders had not anticipated—a two party system that consistently reproduces non-ideological, catch-all parties, both of which are dependent on business support.  It follows that the default setting of U.S. politics is conservative; significant social reforms or proposals for deepening democracy are consistently defeated by conservative interests—from slaveholders to globalizing corporations—because they exercise privileged levels of influence over both parties and government.
The second, more optimistic prong of Piven’s argument identifies a powerful counter force that lies behind the successful movements of reform in U.S. history.  This force is not popular mobilization in itself.  In fact, Piven does not think that movements achieve their ends by signing petitions, holding rallies, and turning out more voters.  These weapons are not sufficient to overcome the institutionalized power held by the opponents of reform.

But popular movements can exercise what she terms “interdependent power” when they break the rules and disrupt the status quo.  The abolitionist raid on Harpers Ferry, the CIO’s sit-down strikes in the 1930’s, and the ghetto rebellions of the 1960’s are examples of protest movements engaging in disruptive actions that eventually  forced the political system to grant very substantial concessions that would not have otherwise occurred.

During the Revolutionary era, the dynamic was slightly different.  The colonial elite of planters and merchants had no choice but to mobilize the populace in their struggle against the English.  But once mobilized, the people took the democratic rhetoric of the revolution seriously and insisted on the elimination of property restrictions on the suffrage.  Piven writes of the revolutionary era:

          What was remarkable about these events was not only the intelligence and ambition
          of the elites, but that the mob had played a large if convoluted role in the construction
          of a new state with at least some of the elemental features of democracy.

 Piven argues that the capacity to exercise interdependent power is always present in social life.  The society’s ability to function requires that workers do their jobs, students go to classes, tenants pay their rent, and the urban poor meekly acquiesce.  But if people decide to withhold labor, refuse to fight in the military, stop going to classes, engage in rent strikes, lie down on the highways or riot, they can exercise interdependent power.

To be sure, in politics, timing is everything.  Disruptive protests that occur when conservative elites and political leaders are closely aligned are likely to face fierce and overwhelming repression.  This was the recurring fate of the radical labor movement from the end of the Civil War through to the Palmer Raids.   But there are times when the party in power cannot risk repression against a portion of its own political base.  It is in these moments when disruptive action or the threat of such action can overcome conservative resistance and force elites to grant enduring reforms.

Piven also suggests that the actions of insurgent movements can help to create these favorable moments.  In the case of abolitionism, for example, the movement’s powerful moral indictment of slavery and its continuous agitation succeeded in polarizing public opinion.  The resulting divisions broke apart the duopoly of Whigs and Democrats and made possible the rise of the Republican Party.  For one brief moment in U.S. history, a dominant electoral party was organized around an explicit project of reform—the end of slavery.  When this party won the Presidency in 1860, there was no turning back from Civil War and the ultimate emancipation of the slaves.

But in this case, and every other one, the epoch of reform was followed by a period of reaction when conservative elites regained the offensive and reversed earlier concessions.  After Reconstruction, gains were almost completely reversed with Jim Crow and African American disenfranchisement in the South.   Similarly, the New Deal victories of the labor movement were followed by seven decades during which those gains were gradually reversed.  By the current decade, unionization rates had fallen to pre-New Deal levels. 
But while she does not address it explicitly, Piven hints at the argument that gains won in an earlier epoch of reform survive to enhance the capacity for effective mobilization in future rounds.   For example, the Constitutional Amendments adopted in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War proved invaluable for the Civil Rights Movement in the decades after World War II.   Similarly, despite decades of reversals, legal protections won by the labor movement in the 1930’s can still prove strategically valuable in new efforts to exercise interdependent power.

Piven’s message for the future of American politics is very clear.  She does not believe that the rightward march of U.S. politics will be halted by the simple expedient of electing a Democratic President in 2008 or even by intensified mobilization by labor, minorities, or other groups.   Those steps are certainly desirable, but the indispensable element for real change is the exercise of interdependent power.  Given the structural advantages that conservative interests enjoy, significant reforms will only come when social movements are willing to break the rules and engage in disruptive actions.

Moreover, Piven directly challenges those who argue that the globalization of production has fatally weakened the strategic power that social movements can employ.  While acknowledging that some strategic levers might atrophy, new ones are constantly emerging.  She cites the case of Wal-Mart’s supply lines that make this corporate behemoth extremely vulnerable to disruption by a relatively small number of longshore workers, truck drivers, and warehouse employees.

But Piven ends this short book without telling us how we can apply these historical lessons to our own era.  She doesn’t explain, for example, under what conditions long shore and port workers could exercise their interdependent without suffering severe repression.  She doesn’t explore strategies for assuring that elites will be divided when disruptive mobilizations erupt.  Nor does she tell us how social movements can frame the kind of morally resonant arguments that gave these earlier movements considerable political legitimacy.  Nevertheless, she has done an outstanding job of mapping the theoretical and strategic territory that we need to be exploring.  Thomas Pynchon said: “If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don't have to worry about the answers.”   The strength of Frances Fox Piven’s book is that she raises the right questions about how entrenched power can be challenged in the United States.