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
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
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 (email@example.com) 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.