excerpted from the book
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
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
-- 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 ...