Social mobilization vs. the power of disruption

Interesting debates on what makes social movements successful: their capacity to mobilize resources vs. the power to disrupt.

Excerpted from Mark Engler and Paul Engler:

“Today social movement theory is a well-established area of focus within sociology and political science. In the 1970s, however, it was just barely gaining a foothold in the academy. Stanford professor Doug McAdam tells the story of how, as a student activist in the late 1960s, he sought out classes on social movements at his university, searching the catalogue of the political science department. None were listed. When he finally did find discussion of movement activism, it took place in a very different setting than he had expected: namely, in a course on Abnormal Psychology.

At the time, McAdam writes, “movement participation was seen not as a form of rational political behavior but a reflection of aberrant personality types and irrational forms of ‘crowd behavior.’” Post-World War II theorists, adherents of the “pluralist” and “collective behavior” schools, believed that the U.S. political system was at least reasonably responsive to all groups with grievances to voice. Thus, any sensible person could advance their interests through the “proper channels” of representative politics. Most influential academics, McAdam explains, regarded outside movements as “typically unnecessary and generally ineffective;” when protests did appear, they represented “dysfunctional responses to the breakdown of social order.” As Piven and Cloward put it in a 1991 essay, movements were seen “as mindless eruptions lacking either coherence or continuity with organized social life.”

In the 1970s, this view began losing its hold. Graduate schools became infused with a generation of New Left scholars who had direct ties to civil rights, antiwar and women’s liberation movements. Coming from a more sympathetic standpoint, they sought to explain social movements as rational forms of collective action. Protests would now be seen as politics by other means for people who had been shut out of the system. A leading strain of thought that emerged in this milieu was known as resource mobilization theory.
Scholars in the resource mobilization school put social movement organizations at the center of their understanding of how protest groups affect change. As McAdam and W. Richard Scott write, resource mobilization theorists “stressed that movements, if they are to be sustained for any length of time, require some form of organization: leadership, administrative structure, incentives for participation, and a means for acquiring resources and support.” This view synced with the experience of organizers outside the university. In many respects, resource mobilization served as an academic analog to Alinsky’s vision of building power through the steady, persistent creation of community organization. It was also consistent with the structure-based organizing of the labor movement.

With their newly established approach, resource mobilization scholars produced compelling research, for example, into how Southern churches provided a vital infrastructure for the civil rights movement. Their viewpoint gradually gained ground. By the early 1980s, “resource mobilization had become a dominant background paradigm for sociologists studying social movements,” writes political scientist Sidney Tarrow. Although other theories have since come into favor, McAdam and Hilary Schaffer Boudet argue that the biases and emphases of resource mobilization still guide “the lion’s share of work in the field.”

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When Piven and Cloward published Poor People’s Movements in 1977, its ideas about disruptive power — which were not rooted in formal social movement organizations — represented a direct challenge to leading strains of academic theory. More than that, they also clashed with much of the actual organizing taking place in the country. As the authors wrote in an introduction to their 1979 paperback edition, the book’s “critique of organizational efforts offended central tenets of left doctrine.”

Piven and Cloward mounted their heterodox assault by means of four detailed case studies. These involved some of the more significant protest movements in 20th century America: the movement of unemployed workers early in the Great Depression, the industrial strikes that gave rise to the CIO later in the 1930s, the civil rights movement in the South in the 1950s and 60s, and the activism of the National Welfare Rights Organization in the 1960s and 70s. As Piven would later summarize their conclusions, the experience of these revolts “showed that poor people could achieve little through the routines of conventional electoral and interest group politics.” Therefore, what was left to them as their key tool “was what we called disruption, the breakdowns that resulted when people defied the rules and institutional routines that ordinarily governed life.”

A structure-based organizer such as Saul Alinsky would not disagree with the idea of using boisterous action to make a stink. After all, he was a great showman and tactician of disorderly troublemaking. But Alinsky would have sharply parted ways with Piven and Cloward on the need for organization to support change. Poor People’s Movements irked both resource mobilization theorists and on-the-ground activists by contending that not only did formal structures fail to produce disruptive outbreaks, but that these structures actually detracted from mass protest when it did occur.

Piven and Cloward’s case studies offered a take on past movements that was very different than standard accounts. Of the labor activism that exploded during the Great Depression, they write that, contrary to the most cherished beliefs of union organizers, “For the most part strikes, demonstrations, and sit-downs spread during the mid-1930s despite existing unions rather than because of them.” Their studies showed that “with virtually no exceptions, the union leaders worked to limit strikes, not to escalate them.” Likewise, in the civil rights movement, “defiant blacks forced concessions as a result of the disruptive effects of mass civil disobedience” — not through formal organization.

Piven and Cloward acknowledged that such conclusions failed “to conform to doctrinal prescriptions regarding constituencies, strategies and demands.” Nevertheless, they wrote, no doubt aware they were picking a fight, that “popular insurgency does not proceed by someone else’s rules or hopes; it has its own logic and direction.”

Poor People’s Movements offered a variety of reasons why, when people were roused to indignation and moved to defy authority, “Organizers not only failed to seize the opportunity presented by the rise of unrest, they typically acted in ways that blunted or curbed the disruptive force which lower-class people were sometimes able to mobilize.” Most centrally, the organizers in their case studies opted against escalating the mass protests “because they [were] preoccupied with trying to build and sustain embryonic formal organizations in the sure conviction that these organizations [would] enlarge and become powerful.”

Across the four different movements that Piven and Cloward examined, organizers showed similar instincts — and these instincts betrayed them. The organizers viewed formal structures as essential, seeing them as necessary for marshaling collective resources, enabling strategic decision-making and ensuring institutional continuity. But what the organizers did not appreciate was that, while bureaucratic institutions may have positives, they also bring constraints. Because organizations have to worry about self-preservation, they become adverse to risk-taking. Because they enjoy some access to formal avenues of power, they tend to overestimate what they can accomplish from inside the system. As a result, they forget the disruptive energy that propelled them to power to begin with, and so they often end up playing a counter-productive role. As Piven says of the labor movement, “Mass strikes lead to unions. But unions are not the big generators of mass strikes.”

Poor People’s Movements also made an argument about the pace of change, challenging the idea that gains for the poor were won through steady, incremental effort. Piven and Cloward emphasized that, whatever course of action they take, the ability of organizers to shape history is limited. Adopting a type of neo-Marxist structuralism common in the period — one that looked to find economic and political causes underlying social phenomena — they argued that popular uprising “flows from historically specific circumstances.” The routines of daily life, the habits of obedience people develop, and the threat of reprisals against those who act out all function to keep disruptive potentials in check most of the time.

Periods when the poor do become defiant are exceptional, but they also have a defining impact. Piven and Cloward saw history as being punctuated by disruptive outbreaks. Instead of change occurring gradually, they believed, it came in bursts — through “Big Bang” moments, as Piven calls them in her 2006 book, Challenging Authority. Such a period can erupt quickly, but then fade just as rapidly. While its reverberations within the political system have lasting significance, “insurgency is always short-lived,” Piven and Cloward explain. “Once it subsides and the people leave the streets, most of the organizations which it temporarily threw up… simply fade away.”

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