11 February 2013

Does a mob bargain? Frances Fox Piven on activism and coercion

What's the difference between liberals and leftists? Maybe this: liberals believe in institutions while leftists distrust them so long as those institutions aren't controlled by them or by "the people." Some leftists distrust institutions under all circumstances, fearing that self-interested institutional mentalities develop inevitably unless institutions are kept under constant vigilance and discipline by the people. This difference in attitude may inform the simmering debate in the broader anti-GOP camp over the relative influence of activists and elected politicians. The debate in its present form goes back to the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries, and the sides might be defined, not as Clintonian and Obamian, but as Clintonian and anti-Clintonian, "Clinton" embodying a certain style of glad-handing, deal-making, horse-trading politics that the family's critics on the left appear to hold in low regard. Advocates and apologists for the Clintons -- Sean Wilentz being the one most often cited here -- resent an apparent contempt for politics (as they define it) among activists who seem, from a hostile perspective, to know how to do nothing but make impossible demands and whine when they're not met. The Clinton/Wilentz/"Neo-Lincolnian" position (the last is my attempted coinage) is that activism, understood primarily as making demands, can only get people so far, while actually accomplishing anything requires skills or behavior repugnant to absolutist activists. The classic modern formulation of this idea was Sen. Clinton's when she credited Lyndon Johnson with first realizing Martin Luther King's activist agenda, noting that "it took a President" to get it done and implying that nothing King himself might have done from outside the zone of political power could get his agenda across the finish line. In the February 18 issue of The Nation, Frances Fox Piven, that female bugbear of Glenn Beck's nightmares, looks at history differently, and indulges in a little film criticism in the process.

There would be no founders to memorialize without the Revolutionary-era mobs who provided the foot soldiers to fight the British; no films about the quandaries of Abe Lincoln during the Civil War without the abolitionists and the thousands of runaway slaves.

Piven rejects what she and many before her see as an "elitist" view of history that gives too much credit to "great men." She apparently takes the view that Sean Wilentz has explicitly rejected, which assumes that politicians are essentially conservative or reactionary and will not take major steps to improve the lives of ordinary people unless those same people prod them into action. Against the contention that activism only takes you so far, Piven insists that "the great movements that changed the course of our history accomplished more than spectacle and communication: they actually exercised power. They forced elites [emphasis mine] to inaugurate reforms that they otherwise would have avoided, as when the writers of the Constitution bent to popular enthusiasm for direct democracy and ceded to voters the right to elect representatives to the lower house, or when the Thirteenth Amendment was passed during the Civil War ending chattel slavery." She traces a history of movement power through the 20th century, climaxing with the movement against the Vietnam War. That may look like a long time ago to some, but Piven believes that movements can still exercise power -- they can still use force.What exactly is their coercive power?

Movements are powerful when they threaten to disrupt major institutions....Most of the time, all of the contributors to these institutions do what they’re supposed to do. But this cooperation does not eliminate the conflict between those who boss and those who (usually) obey, those who get more and those who get less—maybe much less. When institutionalized and cooperative activities become contentious, the basic relationship of cooperation can become the locus of conflict. People can and do withdraw cooperation, or in the formulation of Gene Sharp, they refuse. They refuse, that is, to perform their normal rule-bound roles in institutional life. They strike—against the factories, or the schools, or the traffic system, or the warehouse contractors, or Walmart. It is the actuality or threat of this mass refusal and the disorder it threatens that constitutes the distinctive power of protest movements. 

If anything, this concept seems more relevant, not to mention accurate, now than during the Founding era or the Civil War. Piven promotes a potent idea proposed by the Occupy movement: a strike against debt payments. She admits that deliberate default is a risky, scary idea, but her assumption is that the Powers That Be only do the right thing when they are scared. What the right thing is today remains to be determined, Occupy being notoriously vague on that point, but Piven herself encourages a radical if not utopian vision of social transformation, arguing that an environmental crisis makes such radicalism imperative.

Clearly, Piven sees history differently from many people who may otherwise share many of her goals. Sean Wilentz, for one, might question whether any major political measure for social reform was taken under the sort of threat Piven describes approvingly. More likely still, liberals like Wilentz by definition abhor the sort of tactics Piven privileges, because they recognize as readily as she does how essentially coercive they are. Liberals want coercion to have as little to do with politics as possible. They turn bargaining and horse-trading into heroism because its the only alternative they can see -- or permit -- between the sort of futile rhetorical politics some identify with President Obama and the coercion implicitly or explicitly advocated by those to their and Obama's left.  Liberals are not idealists; in calling Wilentz an "American Machiavel" I acknowledged his own admission that political conflicts can't be resolved simply through a deliberative exchange of ideas. For liberals of his stripe, bargaining is the alternative that keeps liberalism, understood as a refusal of coercion, a viable option, on the understanding that you don't need to change a person's mind to get his vote. Bargaining appeals to liberals because it isn't coercion. It can be argued that the sort of coercive activism Piven proposes is also a form of bargaining, but there's an obvious "or else" aspect to it that rubs liberals the wrong way. It's easy to prefer "horse trading," of course, when you can take for granted that both or all sides have things to trade. Piven more likely writes on the assumption that her people have nothing to bargain with but their compliance, but that point may be lost on anyone who assumes that those people can simply vote for the Democratic party and trust a better world to happen. In any event, if you believe in any kind of compact or contract theory of government, the real questions are whether the terms under which people (or other constituent entities) consent to government, or to perform their roles in society or the "market," are subject to renegotiation, and whether such negotiations always have a fundamental "or else" element to them. How you answer may determine the legitimacy of any of the tactics proposed in this debate.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Personally, I don't object to the horse-trading and deal making. For whatever reason, politicians tend to treat government like a business. It shouldn't be that way, but it is. Fine, I can accept that. What I don't like and I feel is cause for distrust is that it is done in the "back room", out of the public eye and public knowledge. This would imply that they have something to hide, that something is not on the "up-and-up".
That is something that cannot be tolerated by a free and democratic society.