Millions of Americans and others demonstrated against the invasion of Iraq in the last months before it occurred, 10 million around the world on one particular day, in what dissident intellectual Noam Chomsky described as the most significant showing of opposition to war at such an early stage in living memory. Yet all that failed to stop the war or even produce a bona fide antiwar candidate for president, at least not a major party nominee. This has discouraged many protestors, particularly among the impressive proportions of first- timers. When, they ask, will we ever have a better chance to win? If we couldn’t stop this one, what’s the use of even trying? But award-winning sociologist and activist Francis Fox Piven says the antiwar movement may have expected too much for too little. “War-making is never determined by anything like a democratic process,” she says. “War is something that governing elites undertake, and they don’t undertake it in response to popular opinion. If that were the case, we would probably never go to war, because ordinary people pay for war with blood and with their wealth.”
“One kind of evidence for that is that candidates never campaign as war candidates. Lyndon Baynes Johnson, who kept us in Vietnam, promised not to go to war in Vietnam. You can see that again and again. Candidates always campaign as peace candidates.
“Another kind of evidence is that antiwar movements — popular opinion against wars expressed in marches and demonstrations — has rarely succeeded at the outset.
It’s as the war grinds on and people become more and more angry and disillusioned with the war that popular opinion, popular resistance to the war begins to take its toll on the capacity of government to make war. So in a way the antiwar movement is being too impatient.
They expect to win too easily.”
So do we just keep doing what we are doing and look forward with bated breath for that fateful day? Hardly. What the current antiwar movement has done so far, she says, is express opinion. “They marched in large numbers, they rallied, and it was a kind of voting, voting in the streets. I think a successful antiwar movement has to act in ways that throw sand in the gears of the war machine. Resistance has to be more serious.”
Sand in the Gears
What Piven means by “more serious” we can see in some of her published research with political scientist Richard A. Cloward, especially The Politics of Turmoil and Poor People’s Movements, with its subtitle “How They Succeed, Why They Fail.”
“There are always lessons for movements in the history of movements,” says Piven. “And the most important lessons have to do with the conditions under which movements exert leverage, exert power. This is not a question that is directly asked in most of the literature on movements.” but Piven and Cloward do address it.
In every case they examine, movements found their concerns fell on deaf ears until they directly disrupted ‘business as usual’ either in government or business operations, and then they made significant gains. When unemployed workers sat in at relief offices, for example, local officials somehow found the money to pay them benefits. Also when participants created chaos on the local level, officials noticed at the state and federal levels and began to make concessions and even to advocate for the protestors’ causes.
Furthermore, and contrary to conventional wisdom, these efforts lost ground quickly as soon as they changed their methods to more acceptable means to achieve their
ends: negotiating through representatives, working with candidates, helping them get elected, lobbying and so on. The first signs of popular discontent had been seen at the polls, Piven and Cloward point out, but the candidates elected as a result only paid lip service to movement sympathies. Once in office, their actions fell well short of needed reforms. This was true both before and after disobedient groups created crises in which they would be heard.
It remains to be seen what effect popular dissatisfaction with the war will have at the polls, but it should be abundantly clear by now that the work of the antiwar movement will not be over with this election, no matter who wins. And if history is any guide, it seems, things may have to get ugly.
“There are numerous ways in which popular resistance could express itself,” Piven says. “You know, all the war material has to be shipped overseas. And it’s working people everywhere who have to do the shipping, who have to do the hauling.” Such methods involve great personal and political risk, as Piven acknowledges, but a “serious” antiwar movement must look at what works and what doesn’t work.
Get Out the Vote
Nor is the lesson here that we should ignore elections. At times when voting was much more restricted, a direct challenge to authority could easily result in massacre, lynching or other violent or dismissive responses. But when poor and working class people are allowed to vote and do mobilize around their concerns and turn out to vote, Piven and Cloward found, governments were much more responsive to social movements.
And under the present circumstances, Piven thinks a Kerry administration would be, too. She points out the recent surge in voter registration in communities of color, poor neighborhoods and among students. “Of course it could end up that we’ll get a surge of several percentage points, Kerry will be elected, and if he disappoints these people by his policies, then the surge will recede and we’ll go back to our fifty percent turnout rate.”
Or the antiwar movement, along with the movements for healthcare, living wage and others, could raise the stakes and seize the opportunity to pressure the new administration into making real progress. With this in mind, she says, “I think we should work to get Kerry and Edwards elected, and after that, if Kerry and Edwards are elected, we should raise hell.”
Ricky Baldwin (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an activist, organizer, writer and father of twins in Urbana, IL. His articles have appeared in Dollars & Sense, Z Magazine, In These Times, Extra!, and Labor Notes.