excerpted from the book

Challenging Authority

by Frances Fox Piven


Disruptive movements are short-lived. After a few years they pass as politicians mount rollback initiatives when the pressure is off and they're able to do it. New state constitutions stripped away hard-won abolitionist reforms. Labor rights underwent a gradual erosion after peaking in the 1930s. Union membership declined from a post-war 34.7% high. It was 16.8% after the Reagan era and is currently around 12% overall today but only 7.4% in the private sector.

Social gains have also eroded, and now have Democrats as much against them as Republicans. Why so is the question? It's because protest movements lose their energy when the reasons causing them subside. Further, it's because internal movement dynamics are hard to sustain. They wane from exhaustion. Exhilaration can't last forever. In addition, defiance entails costs and sacrifice. Strikers lose wages. Workers get fired. Plants relocate, and governments support business and sometimes with force.

Protests also fade when gains are won. They always fall short and yet fail to embolden more action. Movement leaders also get co-opted, become more conciliatory to management, get more enmeshed in party politics, and sometimes run for office at federal, state or local levels. Dissensus has its limits. Inevitably, gains come at the expense of concessions, the movement runs out of energy, disruption ebbs, and hard-won reforms get rolled back. Nonetheless, these are glorious times in our history, momentous advances get achieved, and the lesson is that at other times for other reasons it can happen again.

People in large numbers and with enough will have enormous power provided they use it. Nonetheless, it's disconcerting that the Constitution was designed as a conservative document to protect what Michael Parenti calls "a rising bourgeoisie('s)" freedom to "invest, speculate, trade, and accumulate," and to assure that (as John Jay believed) "The people who own the country (ought) to run it."

After Reconstruction, Abolitionists lost out as well. Southern states regrouped, enacted new laws, and curbed the rights of newly freed blacks. The old planter class was gone but not its mentality. A new capitalist planter class replaced it, many from the North, and it proved easy for them to devise new ways to exploit cheap, vulnerable black labor.

The Supreme Court went along much the way it does today. In a number of decisions, it rolled back civil rights gains, including enough of the Fourteenth Amendment to restore near-total white supremacy in the South. Its 1896 "separate but equal" Plessy ruling added insult to its 1857 Dred Scott support for slavery.

Post-war, blacks were nominally free but light years from equality, and southern states intended to keep it that way. Property tests, poll taxes and literacy qualifications were imposed to enforce disenfranchisement. Jim Crow laws multiplied and lynchings became a way of life. Washington was dismissive.

Labor also lost out in the post-New Deal years. What the NLRA gave, Taft-Hartley and other regressive laws took back. Labor got progressively weaker, its leadership became part of the problem, while business ascended to omnipotence with plenty of friendly governments on its side. Early on, workers hoped the Democrat Party would represent them. How could it in the conservative (anti-labor) South and, in the North, where big city bosses ran things. Over time, business took over and effectively created a one-party state with "two right wings," as Gore Vidal explains.

Post-WW II, Piven notes that America's economic dominance was unchallenged for 25 years, so business opposition to New Deal gains was largely muted. But once Europe and Japan recovered, they became formidable competitors, profit margins got squeezed, and a conservative counterassault gained momentum to roll back earlier social gains. Piven cites four ways:

-- a "war of ideas" beginning in the early 1970s with the formation of a right wing "message machine" - corporate-funded think tanks like Cato, Hoover, Heritage and AEI; they preached cutting social programs, weakening unions, ending costly regulations, military spending, tough law enforcement, privatizing everything, and using the dominant media for propaganda;

-- building up a business lobbying capacity; "K Street" became a household term, and so is the "revolving door" arrangement between business and government;

-- the growth of right wing populism, "rooted in fundamentalist churches" as part of the powerful Christian Right; also pro-life, defense-of-marriage and gun groups, along with others opposed to progressive ideas, racial and sexual liberalism, and the notion that public welfare is a good thing and government ought to provide it; in their best of all possible worlds, markets work best so let them, and democracy is only for the priviliged; and

-- the effective merging of Republicans and Democrats into one pro-business party with each pretty much vying to outdo or outfox the other; it took Democrat Bill Clinton to "end welfare as we know it," continue shifting more of the tax burden from the rich to workers, enact tough law enforcement measures, offer big giveaways to business, cut social benefits as much as Republicans, and pretty much make the 1990s a new golden age for Wall Street and the privileged. James Petras calls the decade "the golden age of pillage."

George Bush then took over and went Clinton whole new measures better - declaring open warfare on workers, waging real wars on the world, enacting repressive police state laws, surrendering unconditionally to business, smashing every social service in sight, desecrating the environment, pretty much acting as despotic and vicious as the worst third world dictators, and getting away with it.

Since the early 1970s, and especially since Ronald Reagan, most notable in Piven's mind is "the striking rise in wealth and income inequality" that economist Paul Krugman calls "unprecedented." Moreover, "as wealth concentration grows, so does the arrogance and power that it yields to the wealth-holders to continue to bend government policies to their own interests."

With business so omnipotent, government as its handmaiden, the scale of corruption extreme, the electoral process so flawed, it makes the task of redressing social gains lost formidable ...

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