Disruptive Power

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Mark Engler and Paul Engler:

"When Piven and Cloward published Poor People’s Movements in 1977, its ideas about disruptive power — which were not rooted in formal social movement organizations — represented a direct challenge to leading strains of academic theory. More than that, they also clashed with much of the actual organizing taking place in the country. As the authors wrote in an introduction to their 1979 paperback edition, the book’s “critique of organizational efforts offended central tenets of left doctrine.”

Piven and Cloward mounted their heterodox assault by means of four detailed case studies. These involved some of the more significant protest movements in 20th century America: the movement of unemployed workers early in the Great Depression, the industrial strikes that gave rise to the CIO later in the 1930s, the civil rights movement in the South in the 1950s and 60s, and the activism of the National Welfare Rights Organization in the 1960s and 70s. As Piven would later summarize their conclusions, the experience of these revolts “showed that poor people could achieve little through the routines of conventional electoral and interest group politics.” Therefore, what was left to them as their key tool “was what we called disruption, the breakdowns that resulted when people defied the rules and institutional routines that ordinarily governed life.”

A structure-based organizer such as Saul Alinsky would not disagree with the idea of using boisterous action to make a stink. After all, he was a great showman and tactician of disorderly troublemaking. But Alinsky would have sharply parted ways with Piven and Cloward on the need for organization to support change. Poor People’s Movements irked both resource mobilization theorists and on-the-ground activists by contending that not only did formal structures fail to produce disruptive outbreaks, but that these structures actually detracted from mass protest when it did occur.

Piven and Cloward’s case studies offered a take on past movements that was very different than standard accounts. Of the labor activism that exploded during the Great Depression, they write that, contrary to the most cherished beliefs of union organizers, “For the most part strikes, demonstrations, and sit-downs spread during the mid-1930s despite existing unions rather than because of them.” Their studies showed that “with virtually no exceptions, the union leaders worked to limit strikes, not to escalate them.” Likewise, in the civil rights movement, “defiant blacks forced concessions as a result of the disruptive effects of mass civil disobedience” — not through formal organization.

Piven and Cloward acknowledged that such conclusions failed “to conform to doctrinal prescriptions regarding constituencies, strategies and demands.” Nevertheless, they wrote, no doubt aware they were picking a fight, that “popular insurgency does not proceed by someone else’s rules or hopes; it has its own logic and direction.”

Poor People’s Movements offered a variety of reasons why, when people were roused to indignation and moved to defy authority, “Organizers not only failed to seize the opportunity presented by the rise of unrest, they typically acted in ways that blunted or curbed the disruptive force which lower-class people were sometimes able to mobilize.” Most centrally, the organizers in their case studies opted against escalating the mass protests “because they [were] preoccupied with trying to build and sustain embryonic formal organizations in the sure conviction that these organizations [would] enlarge and become powerful.”

Across the four different movements that Piven and Cloward examined, organizers showed similar instincts — and these instincts betrayed them. The organizers viewed formal structures as essential, seeing them as necessary for marshaling collective resources, enabling strategic decision-making and ensuring institutional continuity. But what the organizers did not appreciate was that, while bureaucratic institutions may have positives, they also bring constraints. Because organizations have to worry about self-preservation, they become adverse to risk-taking. Because they enjoy some access to formal avenues of power, they tend to overestimate what they can accomplish from inside the system. As a result, they forget the disruptive energy that propelled them to power to begin with, and so they often end up playing a counter-productive role. As Piven says of the labor movement, “Mass strikes lead to unions. But unions are not the big generators of mass strikes.”

Poor People’s Movements also made an argument about the pace of change, challenging the idea that gains for the poor were won through steady, incremental effort. Piven and Cloward emphasized that, whatever course of action they take, the ability of organizers to shape history is limited. Adopting a type of neo-Marxist structuralism common in the period — one that looked to find economic and political causes underlying social phenomena — they argued that popular uprising “flows from historically specific circumstances.” The routines of daily life, the habits of obedience people develop, and the threat of reprisals against those who act out all function to keep disruptive potentials in check most of the time.

Periods when the poor do become defiant are exceptional, but they also have a defining impact. Piven and Cloward saw history as being punctuated by disruptive outbreaks. Instead of change occurring gradually, they believed, it came in bursts — through “Big Bang” moments, as Piven calls them in her 2006 book, Challenging Authority. Such a period can erupt quickly, but then fade just as rapidly. While its reverberations within the political system have lasting significance, “insurgency is always short-lived,” Piven and Cloward explain. “Once it subsides and the people leave the streets, most of the organizations which it temporarily threw up… simply fade away.” (http://www.democracyuprising.com/2014/05/can-frances-fox-pivens-theory-of-disruptive-power-create-the-next-occupy/)