by Frances Fox Piven and Richard A Cloward
New Internationalist magazine, June 2000
Mass protests are inevitably noisy and cacophonous affairs,
as different voices raise issues in different ways. But through
the cacophony of the Seattle protests, certain strong and historically
resonant themes emerge. For the protesters the inscrutable officials
of the WTO with their extraordinary powers are usurpers of democratic
rights. The charge strikes to the heart, and could well continue
to galvanize protests around the globe.
Elites have always understood the threat of democracy. Writing
in the wake of the passage of the Third Reform Bill which extended
the franchise in nineteenth-century England, the historian JA
Froude explained the dangers: 'It is one man, one vote. And as
the poor and the ignorant are the majority, I think it is perfectly
certain... that those who have the power will we it to bring about
what they consider to be a more equitable distribution of the
good things of this world.'
In the US democratic arrangements were the price paid for
popular support in a successful colonial war against the mother
country. Colonial elites were impatient with the commercial constraints
imposed by ties with Britain. They raised the rallying cry of
democracy to recruit an army of farmers, artisans and the urban
poor. 'Faith ran high,' says Gary Wills, 'that a better world
than | any that had ever been known could be built where authority
was distrusted and held in constant scrutiny. 'When the war ended,
these men were still fired up by the idea of democracy, and still
armed. Under such conditions, the basic features of electoral
representation were conceded early.
But they were hedged in - at first by limitations on the franchise
such as property or racial or literacy or gender qualifications,
and later by procedural obstructions, such as onerous voter registration
systems and bans on threatening forms of political speech and
Nineteenth-century electoral representative arrangements were
quickly corrupted by clientelist relations which traded votes
for personal favors - then, in the twentieth century, as radical
protests by farmers and workers began to penetrate the political
parties, by the steadily growing influence on electoral campaigns
of big money and mass propaganda techniques. There is a vast literature
exploring the mysteries of American exceptionalism, of its failure
to develop a labor party and its late and limited welfare-state
Maybe the simplest explanation is that democratic rights were
in fact sharply limited.
But perhaps the largest inhibition on popular influence through
democratic institutions in the US was the vigour of laissez-faire
ideology- the doctrine that the economic relationships of capitalism
are the product of 'nature' rather than a result of human design.
As nature is governed by inviolable laws, so too, it is argued,
are economic activities governed by market laws. Such natural
laws brook no interference by government. The penalty for inhibiting
the market processes that generate wealth is the risk of economic
disaster. the economic grievances that fired popular aspirations
for democracy were seen as beyond the reach of the democratic
majorities that influenced government.
Why was laissez faire so exceptionally vigorous in the US?
As elsewhere, the economy was in fact closely dependent on government
policies which established the framework of currency, tariff,
contract, labor and property law. Government deployed the military
forces that were used to break strikes at home and protect imperial
interests abroad. Government also subsidized the infrastructure
of transportation and communication without which a modern economy
could not exist.
However, the reality of the state's role in the economy remained
obscure, in part as a result of the organization of government
itself. Important economic policies were embedded in the constitution,
or were the province of a national government which until the
twentieth century was largely remote from popular politics.
When property and labor rights were disputed, decisions were
relegated to courts whose judges were not exposed to electoral
scrutiny and who justified their opinions as the mystical but
seemingly indisputable requirements of constitutional and common
law. Or critical economic policies were delegated to inscrutable
and unelected bureaucracies, such as the Federal Reserve Bank.
Meanwhile, there was a realm in which a kind of democracy seemed
to flourish, largely in local government, where popular enthusiasms
surged in fierce political contests over the distribution of patronage
and ethnic honors, or over the management of the schools and garbage
In other words, the distinctive organization of American government
did indeed create realms in which politics flourished, and those
realms seemed to operate apart from the economy.
The ideological separation of economy and polity began to
break down in the twentieth century. Government intervention to
aid a burgeoning industrial economy became ever more transparent.
This rapid economic growth produced new hardships spurring waves
of protest by farmers and workers. The contrived insulation of
the economy from democratic politics weakened. Political rights
became an instrument for popular influence on economic issues.
New policies were inaugurated in the pre-World War One US to break
up the trusts and to regulate the railroads. The Great Depression
of the 1930s sparked another surge of protest, with the national
government belatedly granting unions some legal rights. The 1930s
also saw the inauguration of the basic programs of a limited welfare
state in the US. Then, three decades later, the protests of the
1960s led by the civil-rights movement forced the expansion of
these regulatory and economic security programs.
These victories were also limited and in some cases were won
only to be lost, at least until the next surge of protest. But
even partial victories represented elements of a new compact won
through the flawed American democracy, setting at least some limits
on business power.
There are no permanent victories in politics. In the early
1970s American corporations, goaded on by the pressures exerted
on their profits by international competition and rising commodity
prices, mobilized to take back much of what had been won. They
launched a concerted mobilization against unions, and job security
and other workplace protections were rolled back. Wages fell.
But US business wanted more than they could win in the workplace
alone. They wanted a reversal of the social compact, a rollback
of business regulation, of welfare-state spending and of taxes.
To win such policies they also needed to roll back the influence
of ordinary people over government. They needed to roll back democracy.
Corporate America mobilized for politics by turning to the
tried and true of US political history. Big money poured into
the parties, especially but not only the Republican Party. Media
techniques of persuasion and manipulation turned campaigns into
frenzied advertising spectacles. Political duplicity in legislating
business giveaways reached new heights. This much is obvious -
as is the invasion of US-style of money-and-media elections spreading
to Europe, particularly to Britain.
Less obvious is the revival of the doctrine of laissez-faire,
this time conceived as natural laws enveloping the planet. National
governments whose policies violated these new 'natural' laws would
be punished by floods of imports that undercut domestic producers,
or by currency markets, or by investors circling the globe in
search of cheaper labor or better tax deals. There is no room
for democracy in this new ideology because democracy is exercised
as influence over national governments. If governments are helpless
in global markets, then so too are democratic publics.
No wonder there is a collapse of popular political morale
in the US. There is a startling rise in the number of citizens
who tell survey takers of their cynicism and disaffection with
government and politics. No wonder the turn in US politics is
towards 'family values' and to candidates who are said to exemplify
strength and personal morality. The politics of institutional
reform is forced into the shadows in favor of a fundamentalist
politics of personal moral rejuvenation.
There is of course some short-term truth in this neo-liberal
doctrine. What it ignores is that national governments have themselves
created the framework of currency, trade and tax policies in which
global markets are flourishing, as well as the supra-national
organizations which promote and enforce these policies. A politics
dominated by business has created the institutions which make
business domination seem inevitable.
Almost inevitable. The spreading protests against the WTO,
the IMF, the World Bank, suggest the veil of doctrine is lifting.
The protesters make familiar demands for democratic scrutiny and
public accountability. Also familiar, they see their antagonists
as the international corporations, the new men of property. But
something is new as well - the protests are squarely aimed at
institutions constructed precisely to evade democratic accountability.
Francis Fox Piven and Richard Cloward have written many books
on US politics including Why Americans Don't Vote.