Frances Fox Piven’s “Challenging Authority”

Frances Fox Piven is a Canadian-born Professor of Political Science and Sociology at The Graduate Center, City University of New York (CUNY). Her career is long and distinguished. She’s the recipient of numerous awards, has combined scholarship with activism, and is the author of many important books. Most notable is her 1971 classic "Regulating the Poor: The Functions of Public Welfare." It’s a landmark historical and theoretical analysis of how welfare policy is used to control the poor and working class.


A more recent book is her 2006-published "Challenging Authority" and subject of this review. It’s about how social movements can be pivotal forces for change because ordinary people in enough numbers have enormous political clout. Abolitionists, labor movements and civil rights activists proved it. Piven examines their collective actions plus one other in the four examples she chose – the American Revolution.


Piven’s book is succinct and masterful. Howard Zinn calls it a "brilliant analysis of the interplay between popular protest and electoral politics." Canadian Professor Leo Panitch says the book is "theoretically profound, yet immensely readable," and sociologist and social movements expert Susan Eckstein describes the book as "quintessentially Piven-esque." It "eloquently (shows) how ordinary people….have taken it upon themselves to correct injustices."


Piven’s theme is powerfully relevant at a perilous time in our history. The nation is at war on two fronts, a third one looms, constitutional protections have eroded, social services erased, the country is militarized, dissent repressed, and the government is empowered to crush freedom and defend privilege at the expense of beneficial social change it won’t tolerate.




In light of the current situation, Piven’s introductory Thomas Jefferson quote is relevant. It was his response to the repressive 1798 Alien and Sedition Acts. He wrote: "A little patience, and we shall see the reign of witches pass over, their spells dissolve, and the people, recovering their true sight, restore their government to its true principles." Disruptive social actions have done it in the past, and Piven puts it this way: "ordinary people (have) power….when they rise up in anger and hope, defy the rules….disrupt (state) institutions….propel new issues to the center of political debate….(and force) political leaders (to) stem voter defections by proferring reforms. These are the conditions that produce (America’s) democratic moments."


Electoral participation alone won’t do it. "In the real American political world, numerous obstacles" remain – structural, legal and practical. Despite liberalization of the process through the years, "large numbers of ostensibly eligible voters" are effectively disenfranchised. Former restrictive laws are gone, but new schemes replaced them – intimidation, misinformation, electoral fraud, and the corrupting power of money in a nation beholden to capital at the expense of the greater good.


Piven cites more as well:


– the power of incumbency,


– the two-party system that shuts out independent and minority interests,


– the construct of the law that empowers the powerful,


– the revolving door between business and government,


 – the corrupted dominant media,


– the lack of accountability to voters,


– arbitrary redistricting for political advantage,


– believing markets work best so let them,


– disdaining the harm they cause,


– feeling interfering with market excess is "moral trespass,"


– sacrificing democracy in the pursuit of profit,


Leave a comment