Review: Challenging Authority

Frances Fox Piven’s book Challenging Authority is about how social movements are the pivotal force of social, economic, and political change in the U.S. By rising up in defiance of mundane rules that govern their social behavior and disrupting important institutions, Piven argues, ordinary people are able to wield extraordinary political power. Often through a combination of strikes, sit-ins, boycotts, marches, and riots, the oppressed force government officials to alleviate their grievances as a way to restore a sense of normalcy. 

Piven explains in the book’s opening chapter the inherently contentious nature of organized human societies. These societies are comprised of what she calls “networks of cooperation and interdependence,” which “inevitably give rise to contention, to conflict, as people bound together by social life try to use each other to further their often distinctive interests and outlooks.” Each of these networks garner disproportionate degrees of power. 

An advantage to working class people in advanced societies is that they wield considerable power, sometimes more—a lot more—than they think they do. The leverage they have can be activated “by the withdrawal of contributions to social cooperation.” This activation is defined by Piven as disruption. It is this force that makes social movements significant. 

Piven’s thesis is grounded in the realization that the political infrastructure in the U.S. was designed in such a way as to disempower the average citizen. Since its very inception, the U.S. government has hardly ever given a voice to the population at large. Instead, it has been consistently dominated and controlled by the wealthy, who use the apparatus of the state to pass and enforce laws that are conducive to a capitalist environment. Or, as Piven puts it, “the rules are fashioned to reflect prevailing patterns of domination made possible by concentrated wealth, force, and institutional position.” Logically, in order to have any control over their lives the poor would have to effect change outside the modality of institutionalized social relations. 

Piven examines four times in the last two centuries where Americans collectively defied laws, rules, and social norms on a massive scale. The first of these occurred around the time of the American Revolution. Then there was the abolitionist movement, the labor movement of the 1930s, and finally the civil rights and other movements of the 1960s. What do all of these movements have in common? They all coincide with every major reform our country has ever adopted. To Piven, this is no coincidence. 

In all four cases, movements were able to disrupt society to the point where the power elites felt so threatened that they had little choice but to capitulate. In order to avert revolution and prevent electoral fragmentation, political parties grudgingly made some concessions to the discontented. At the peak of the civil rights movement, for example, the poll tax in federal elections was outlawed with the passage of the Twenty- Fourth Amendment. In addition, the poor also received benefits in the form of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Equal Opportunity Act of 1964. 

To further substantiate her theory, Piven then directs our attention to periods between the “big bangs,” a term she uses to describe the mass movements previously mentioned. “If analysis of the moments of reform in American history reveals the important role of disruptive protest movements,” she writes, “so does the analysis of the periods in which these reforms are whittled back reveal the weakness of electoral arrangements as an avenue for democratic reform in the absence of disruptive protest.” 

What is unique about Piven’s method is that it attempts to explain the relationship between protests and government policy, which very few social scientists do. By analyzing the effects that disruptive protest movements have on political policies, she disproves the popular sentiment that protesting is ineffective. Consequently, she places ordinary Americans in their rightful and dignified place in American history as the central agents of change.  

The message in Challenging Authority is clear: in order to create change, social movements must be disruptive. The strength of this book is in Piven’s flawless analysis and persuasive arguments. At a time when protests in America seem to be increasingly conventional and therefore ineffective, this book becomes ever more relevant. If only social activists would read it. 


Edgey Wildchild is the author of Fighting for Freedom (Planting Seeds Press), a devoted blues musician, and a social organizer/agitator from New York.