Wreck the System: Social Movements in Context

The political strategies laid out by activists Francis Fox Piven and Richard Cloward in Challenging Authority: How Ordinary People Change America revolve around two central themes, Dissensus Politics and the Big Bangs which, ever so often, produce social movements that initiate fundamental change.

Big Bangs     

For Francis Fox Piven, the “big bangs” are moments in history when key issues took center-stage in American politics. These moments of egalitarian reform are historical occasions in which workers, peasants, or rioters exercise power and compel a growth, sometimes temporary, in democracy and political consciousness. The electoral-legislative dynamic of democratic governance often seeks consensus, leaving key issues to simmer. In these rare big bang moments, the issue, whether its slavery or segregation, takes center stage and disrupts the institutional normative of everyday consensus i.e. insubstantial politics. Rapid reform takes place in response to these big bangs, and often, when the challenge of lower-stratum social groups recedes, these reforms are whittled away as well, and politics as usual returns to its working order.

Dissensus Politics

Frances Fox Piven will argue in Challenging Authority: How Ordinary People Change America that collective defiance leads to institutional disruptions. Political leaders are tasked with fostering mass political parties to gain electoral support and intermediate between society and government. “Dissensus politics” does not rely on creating majorities to create political change, but on a minority with the ability to disrupt political elites ability to mobilize majorities for electoral-legislative victory. Coalitions of mass parties are susceptible to fragmentation when an issue cuts across the party, activating support and opposition. Piven uses the example of civil rights and segregation in the 1960’s to point out that The Democratic Party, made up of northern liberals but also a minority southern wing, had to choose or rather was forced by the disruptive challenge of a growing concentrations of black voters in the north and their supporters, to sacrifice the mass parties southern support and move forward with the north’s political demands for ending Jim-Crow limits on the black vote. This brought in new supporters for the Democrats to maintain their mass party status, and gained new rights for those supporters.

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