Book review: "Challenging Authority: How Ordinary People Change America"
FROM A MERE glance at the cover of this book one can see that it intends to question the authority of accepted political thought itself. From the title and the full photo that captures the immensity, power, and anger of an anti-war march, a rarity in a day when, if covered at all by the media, protest is constantly trivialized, it is obvious that this is no ordinary history book.
Frances Fox Piven, the well-published and distinguished professor of political science and sociology at the graduate school of the City University of New York, opens with a quote from Thomas Jefferson:
“A little patience, and we shall see the reign of witches pass over, their spells dissolve, and the people, recovering their true sight, restore their government to its true principles. It is true that in the meantime we are suffering deeply in spirit, and incurring the horrors of a war and long oppressions of enormous public debt…. If the game runs sometimes against us at home we must have patience until luck turns, and then we shall have an opportunity of winning back the principles we have lost, for this is a game where principles are at stake.”
This is her thesis. Piven begins by defining interdependent relationships (capitalist and worker, the traditional husband and wife, civilian and government, etc.) and the power balances within them. Generally we perceive certain sides of these relationships to carry more power because of cultural interpretations about the importance of the roles differing sides play (for example the capitalist is perceived as having more at stake in a company and therefore deservedly more control than the laborers). Disruptive power is used when the underrepresented, oppressed side refuses to cooperate. A strike is a generic example. Such an action forces the capitalist to recognize its dependence on the workers and address their concerns.
Piven argues that only through actions that disrupt the everyday can the ordinary people, or those robbed of control, bring about change and influence their own collective future. She focuses on the interdependent relationship between people and government as she examines more closely the role of the common people (the nonelite) in the Revolutionary War, the abolitionist movement, the labor movements of the 19th and 20th centuries, and the reform movements in the 1930s and 1960s to prove her thesis.
Although corruption and supporting business have been themes throughout American political history, it is as she discusses more recent protest movements that Piven is able to weave the issues of corporate capitalism, globalization, and corruption in American politics together in a way that clarifies their often blurred relationship, demonstrates their combined detrimental economic and political impact on the American public, points to the possible path of contemporary disruptive protest to combat them collectively, and expresses so clearly our current political situation that it is raised to an entirely new level of horror and urgency.
In the process of analyzing history she rethinks the workings of American politics and the potential for ordinary people, through disruptive protest movements, to influence politics and policy. The interpretation she presents is not only encouraging, but is more consistent with fact than traditional interpretations that fail to examine the correlation between movements and policy change and movements and sudden national political shifts. It cannot be mere coincidence.
In the epilogue Piven discusses how the revival of laissez-faire policy has a newfound and immense weight in this era of globalized economics. After having shown through her examples that pro-business government is the “default position in the absence of popular insurgency,” she examines the Bush administration's characterization of overwhelmingly pro-business politics as inevitable and explains the effect of this sense of inevitability among the American public, a population that is becoming more and more disadvantaged by laissez-faire capitalism.
Pro-business policies in government mean the decline of the welfare state as well as a shrinking middle class. The population that relies on welfare increases as its economic plight is exacerbated by dwindling social services and it is politically disempowered by this view of “inevitability.” Without a vision for a new (or an old) system that is not defined by unregulated corporate global business, the people do not fight the injustice they are subjected to because they see it as unavoidable. Fear plays an essential role in this as well — the “foreign threats” that we the people are never fully educated about and thus inclined to believe and keep quiet. This understanding of the effect of fear on popular politics is not new.
Overall, however, Frances Fox Piven's book is refreshingly defiant of normalized perspectives and satisfyingly sensible, well-supported, and well-theorized. She overturns the popular notion that participation in and protection of democracy means merely voting and proves that protest movements, specifically disruptive movements, are essential today and always have been, especially given our particular electoral-representative arrangements and two-party system. She shows that the rights of the people and the previous political gains of the oppressed are infringed upon during the “times-in-between” of dormant popular political activity. This we already know because we are dealing today with the effects of a “time-in-between” and the corporate power boom it triggered.
I took this book as a wake-up call, a reminder that protest movements do make a difference. Today many Americans are engaged in a protest movement (an international one) against corporate globalized business in all its forms: U.S. violent and oppressive involvement in the Middle East, corporate control of the media, anti-union legislation as well as extra-legal, sometimes fatal anti-union actions on the part of big business, American sweatshops overseas, abuse of farm workers in the states, even the prison-complex system.
“Challenging Authority” made me rethink the path this protest movement should take. Writing to our congressmen and submitting a ballot in November is not enough. Even the online activism of petitions and ads are not enough. These do not constitute withdrawal of our cooperation with the government. Disruption is the key word, and it is time our actions truly displayed the extent of our interdependent power as citizens in this democracy.
“CHALLENGING AUTHORITY” at a glance
- Author: Frances Fox Piven
- Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield (1st ed.)
- Publication date: 2006
- Pages: 195
- Summary: Political scientist/sociologist Frances Fox Piven argues that protest isn't frivolous or futile; instead, when ordinary people defy conventional norms and rock the boat, significant political change becomes possible.
— Audio link: Frances Fox Piven discusses “Challenging Authority”