Disruption of the status quo in the US by interrupting economic affairs can wield significant leverage, force new ideas into political discussion, and eventually significant legislative concessions. The lack of disruption over years inevitably leads to rollback of previous gains.
People have natural antiauthoritarian impulses that are trained out of them within an authoritarian society but are always just beneath the surface. Given the change to organize on their own, people will revert to more democratic and anarchic forms of social interaction and demonstrate the superfluousness of the state. There’s no need to wait for revolution to associate in democratic manner and through forms of reciprocal equality.
We have to aim to expand the floor of the cage, meaning to enable a better struggle by demanding and gaining better minimum standards. The state is a friend when it protects the weak from predators and enforces minimum standards of decency; an enemy when it is a constraint on liberty and self-organization and worker-control over production.
Everything we ever got in the US, from the Bill of Rights to the New Deal to the Civil Rights era was a concession from government to the unruly, disruptive, self-activating mob. When the disruptions cease and the mob is lulled into ceasing demands or integrating into politics, the rollbacks on recent gains begins.
The struggle is unpredictable and multifarious; it has many levels and many faces that flow into each other and reinforce each other from different sides and directions in unpredictable ways.
The short-sighted intellectual student movement thinks that we’ll walk in the streets a couple times and then be in the middle of a revolution. But struggles are uneven and hard to predict and are more like a long-distance run than any single sprint, and each one enables the next possibility, and the point is to keep struggling. Also, intellectuals like to see themselves as the ones who know, the ones who understand, the ones who should lead, and of course the ones who should wield power. If they feel any responsibility though, the meaningful thing is to engage in concrete struggle alongside those who are disempowered and victims of the system, to work with them and to learn from them and to help them.
[Piven] Ordinary people exercise power in American politics mainly at those extraordinary moments when they rise up in anger and hope, defy the rules that ordinarily govern their daily lives, and, by doing so, disrupt the workings of the institutions in which they are enmeshed. The drama of such events, combined with the disorder that results, propels new issues to the center of political debate, issues that were previously suppressed by the managers of political parties that depend on welding together majorities. When the new issues fracture or threaten to fracture electoral coalitions, political leaders try to restore order and stem voter defections by proffering reforms. These are the conditions that produce the democratic moments in American political development. (1-2) ::: The leverage inherent in interdependencies is potentially widespread, especially in a densely interconnected society where the division of labor is far advanced. […] I call the activation of interdependent power disruption, and I think protest movements are significant because they mobilize disruptive power. […] the leverage that results from the breakdown of institutionally regulated cooperation, as in strikes […] where people withdraw their labor and shut down production or the provision of services, or student strikes where young people withdraw from the classroom and close down the university; or as in boycotts[…] or by the women “hysterics” of the late nineteenth century who refused their role as sexual partners and service providers, or by farmers who refuse to bring their mild to market; or as in riots, where crowds break with the compact that usually governs civic life. […] ::: power consists in their ability to disrupt a pattern of ongoing and institutionalized cooperation […] ::: The great moments of equalizing reform in American political history have been responses to the threatened or actual exercise of this disruptive power.[…] ::: Actual power relations are, of course, as tangled and intricate as social life itself. Urban democratic, and capitalist societies generate multiple and crosscutting forms of interdependency. (20-21). ::: [Disruption refers to] a power strategy that rests on withdrawing cooperation in social relations. […] A disruptive power strategy may be noisy, of course, and it may be disorderly or violent, but whether the withdrawal of cooperation takes these forms is entirely contingent.[…] ::: Much of the violence associated with collective protest is the violence of authorities deploying force to restore normal institutional routines. […] ::: The claim to nonviolence serves the more obvious strategic purpose. […] [The] use of nonviolence was strategic. [The purpose was to] avoid the moral censure that violence would permit the factory owners to heap upon the strikers, moral censure that is typically used to excuse the violence of owners and the authorities. Just as nonviolence an be strategic, so can violence be used strategically, and often defensively, to permit the disruptive action, the withdrawal of cooperation, to continue. ::: Local activists in the South armed themselves to defend the nonviolent disruption of the civil rights movement. […] in these instances, protestors turn to violence to defend their ability to withdraw contributions to interdependent relations.
[Kropotkin] The State has been in the past a historical necessity which grew out of the authority won by the religious castes. But its complete extinction is now, in its turn, a historical necessity because the State represents the negation of liberty and spoils even what it undertakes to do for the sake of general well-being. All legislation made within the State, even when it issues from the so-called universal suffrage, has to be repudiated because it always has been made with regard to the interests of the privileged classes. (165) […] ::: What formerly belonged without a shadow of doubt to the functions of the State, or the church, enters now into the domain of free organization. [The tendency to organize freely outside of the state] develops with a striking rapidity under our very eyes. It was sufficient that a breath of emancipation should have slightly limited the powers of church and State in their never-satisfied tendency towards further extension – and voluntary organizations have already germinated by the thousand. And we may be sure that every new limitation that may be imposed upon State and church – the two inveterate enemies of freedom – will still further widen the sphere of action of the free organizations.
[Chomsky] […] [in Brazil] quite apart from the Workers Party and the urban unions, there’s also a very lively rural workers organization. Millions of workers have become organized into rural unions which are very rarely discussed. One of the slogans that they use which is relevant here, is that we should “expand the floor of the cage.” We know we’re in a cage. We know we’re trapped. We’re going to expand the floor, meaning we will extend to the limits what the cage will allow. And we intend to destroy the cage. But not by attacking the cage when we’re vulnerable, so they’ll murder us. That’s completely correct. You have to protect the cage when it’s under attack from even worse predators from outside, like private power. And you have to expand the floor of the cage, recognizing that it’s a cage. These are all preliminaries to dismantling it. Unless people are willing to tolerate that level of complexity, they’re going to be of no use to people who are suffering and who need help, or, for that matter, to themselves. […] ::: You learn by trying. New ways of thinking about the next step. You can’t start now, with current understandings, and say, Okay, let’s design a libertarian society. You have to create the understanding and gain the insight that allows you to move step by step toward that end. Just like in any other aspect of life, or science, for that matter, the strategy is to do more and learn more and find out the answers and find out ways of associating with other people and create the institutions. Out of them come new problems, new methods, new strategies. If somebody can come up with a general all-purpose strategy, everybody will be delighted. It hasn’t happened in the last couple thousand years. So if you look at Marxist literature, it doesn’t offer any such strategies. If, say, Marx had been asked, What’s the strategy for overthrowing capitalism? he would have laughed. Even somebody who is overwhelmingly a tactician, like Lenin, didn’t have such comprehensive strategies. His general strategy was, Follow me. That’s a kind of strategy, I suppose. But Lenin, Trotsky, and others just adapted strategies to particular situations, circumstances, looking for their own goal: taking state power. I don’t think that should be our goal. But a general strategy for overcoming authoritarian institutions, how could there be an answer to that question? There isn’t any. In fact, I think those questions are mostly asked by people who don’t want to become engaged. If you want to become engaged and do it, there are plenty of problems around that you can work on, whether it’s what you started with, hungry children, or the destruction of the environment, the breakdown of security in the workplace, public subsidy to huge transnationals, we can go on and on. But it’s not going to happen by pushing a button. It’s going to happen by dedicated, concentrated work which will slowly build up the understanding, the relationships among people, the perceptions, the support systems, the alternative institutions and so on. Then something can happen. But there’s no general all-purpose strategy for that. […] ::: it was very striking in the 1960s in parts of the student movement. It was in a way coming out of nowhere. There wasn’t an organized, well-established popular-based left that it could join. So the leadership was sometimes taken in the hands of very young people, often very nice, decent people who were then going to do something. It was striking what they wanted to do. I don’t know how much of this you were a part of. The perception was often quite short-range. I remember at the time of the Columbia University strike their conception was, for many of them, not all of them, We’ll strike at Columbia, close down the buildings for a couple of weeks. After that we’ll have a revolution. A lot of the spirit of 1968 was like that. That’s not the way things work. It was a disaster for the people involved. It left a sad legacy. You have to build slowly and ensure that the next step comes out of a basis that’s already established in people’s understanding and their perceptions and their attitudes towards one another, their conception of what they want to attain and the circumstances in which you can attain it. For example, it makes absolutely no sense to expose yourself and others to destruction when you don’t have a social base in which you can protect the gains that you’ve made. That has been found over and over again in guerrilla movements, in popular movements and elsewhere. You get cut off by the powerful. […] ::: Was there any choice other than the vital center? As far as I know Clinton and Dole are moderate Republicans, more or less interchangeable representatives of the business community, old-time government insiders. Maybe there were personality differences. They have somewhat different constituencies. They behave slightly differently. I think the election was not a vote for the vital center, it was just a vote against. Both candidates were unpopular. Very few people expected anything from either of them. Voting was at a historic low. I think it reflected the general sense that the political system isn’t functioning.
[Piven] Government must respond to these disruption in the first instance because state authority and power ultimately depend on the relatively smooth functioning of societal patterns of cooperation. […] In other words, government, especially modern government, is locked into complex societal systems of cooperation and interdependency. (39) [Even in peasant societies] people without wealth or control of force were granted some rights because their quiescence and cooperation could not always be taken for granted. […] ::: Protest movements raise the conflictual issues that party leaders avoid, and temporarily shatter the conservative tendencies of two-party politics. Indeed, conflict is the very heartbeat of social movements. […] ::: At least for a brief time, marches and rallies, strikes and shutdowns, can break the monopoly on political discourse otherwise held by politicians and the mass media. […] ::: By raising new and divisive issues, movements galvanize groups of voters, some in support, others in opposition. […] It is in order to avoid the ensuing defections, or to win back the defectors, that politicians initiate new public policies. The prospect or reality of voter dissensus is the main source of movement influence on public policy. […] ::: By the time FDR took office, escalating insurgency among the unemployed, along with the pleas of alarm from frightened mayors and local elites exposed to their protests, brought relief to the top of Roosevelt’s policy agenda. (104-105) […]::: Disruptive movements are relatively short-lived. They burst forth, often quite suddenly and surprisingly, and after a few years, they subside. Ruling groups are at first unsure that the crisis has passed and they only slowly reconnoiter. When the path seems clear, they begin to mount the political initiatives that lead to the rollback of at least some of the gains yielded by protest. The stunning reforms won by the abolitionists, culminating in the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitutions, were eviscerated by the new state constitutions that stripped blacks of the vote, by state legislation that institutionalized a system of apartheid, and by state and local regimes that relied on mob terror to enforce the near-total social and economic subordination of blacks. […]The social welfare programs begun in the 1930s languished after the Depression until a new period of protest forced their expansion in the 1960s. Within a decade, the rollback of those social programs became the aim of Republican and business crusaders who first targeted the Great Society programs and welfare, and then turned their sights on Social Security. (109) […] ::: Why, then, would not partial victory embolden and energize the disruptors? The answer is that concessions are rarely unencumbered. They are usually accompanied by measures to reintegrate the movement or its leaders into normal politics, as leading abolitionists were absorbed into the Republican Party; as labor leaders and their organizations became tethered to relationships with factory management and the Democratic Party. […] ::: Moreover, the movement wins what it wins because it threatens to create or widen the divisions in electoral coalitions, because it makes enemies, and activates allies.
[Chomsky] If it is plausible that ideology will in general serve as a mask for self-interest, then it is a natural presumption that intellectuals, in interpreting history or formulating policy, will tend to adopt an elitist position, condemning popular movements and mass participation in decision making, and emphasizing rather the necessity for supervision by those who possess the knowledge and understanding that is required (so they claim) to manage society and control social change.
[Luxemburg] The mass strike is such as changeable phenomenon that it reflects in itself all phases of political and economic struggle […] Its applicability, its effectiveness, and the moments of its origin change continually. It suddenly opens new, broad perspectives of revolution just where it seemed to have come to a narrow pass; and it disappoints where on thought he could reckon on it in full certitude. Now it flows like a broad billow over the whole land, now it divides itself into a gigantic net of thin streams; now it bubbles forth from under the ground like a fresh spring, now it trickles flat along the ground […] All [forms of popular struggle] run through one another, next to each other, across one another, flow in and over one another; it is an eternal, moving, changing sea of appearances.
[Chomsky] Grassroots propaganda is aimed at the vulgar masses, to keep them distracted and out of our hair, and to make sure they don’t interfere in the public arena, where they don’t belong. (45) […] ::: The same was true of kings and princes – they made plenty of concessions when they weren’t able to control their subjects. The same was true of slave owners. Small concessions are all to the good. People in the Third World may suffer a little less, and people here may see that activism can work, which will inspire them to push farther. Both are good outcomes. Eventually you get to the point where you start asking, Why should we be asking them to make concessions? Why are they in power in the first place? What do we need the king for? […] ::: were asking for about 150 years ago. They weren’t saying, “Be a little more benevolent. Give us a few scraps.” They were saying, “You have no right to rule. We should own the factories. The people who work in the mills ought to own them.” Many people today just want business to be a bit nicer, for there to be a little less corporate welfare and a little more welfare capitalism. But other would like to see more radical changes; we don’t know how many, because the polls don’t ask about radical alternatives,a dn they aren’t readily available for people to think about. People are tremendously cynical about institutions. […] ::: and the amount of propaganda and manipulation is so enormous that most people don’t see alternatives, but the attitudes […] of alternatives are just below the surface. (62) ::: […] People who write about the responsibility of the intellectuals should assume that responsibility and go out and work with the people, provide them with whatever help you can, learn from them. (154)