Francis Fox Piven, author of Poor People's Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail among many other titles, has an important article in the latest issu of The Nation entitled "Obama Needs a Protest Movement."
Her arguments starts with a much needed splash of cold water:
Let's face it: Barack Obama is not a visionary or even a movement leader. He became the nominee of the Democratic Party, and then went on to win the general election, because he is a skillful politician. That means he will calculate whom he has to conciliate and whom he can ignore in realms dominated by big-money contributors from Wall Street, powerful business lobbyists and a Congress that includes conservative Blue Dog and Wall Street-oriented Democrats. I don't say this to disparage Obama. It is simply the way it is, and if Obama was not the centrist and conciliator he is, he would not have come this far this fast, and he would not be the president-elect.
more beneath the fold
Piven argues that what influences elected officials can change and that what is most promising about Obama's election is that it has filled the disenfranchised with hope and that hope can fuel the sorts of social movements that bring about real change:
The parallels between the election of 2008 and the election of 1932 are often invoked, with good reason. It is not just that Obama's oratory is reminiscent of FDR's oratory, or that both men were brought into office as a result of big electoral shifts, or that both took power at a moment of economic catastrophe. All this is true, of course. But I want to make a different point: FDR became a great president because the mass protests among the unemployed, the aged, farmers and workers forced him to make choices he would otherwise have avoided. He did not set out to initiate big new policies. The Democratic platform of 1932 was not much different from that of 1924 or 1928. But the rise of protest movements forced the new president and the Democratic Congress to become bold reformers.
The movements of the 1930s were often set in motion by radical agitators--Communists, Socialists, Musteites--but they were fueled by desperation and economic calamity. Unemployment demonstrations, usually (and often not without reason) labeled riots by the press, began in 1929 and 1930, as crowds assembled, raised demands for "bread or wages," and then marched on City Hall or local relief offices. In some places, "bread riots" broke out as crowds of the unemployed marched on storekeepers to demand food, or simply to take it.
Piven vividly describes the rising tide of protests that preceded FDR's election but notes the essential conservatism of the FDR administration until things threatened to really get out of control:
The unruly protests continued, and in many places they were crucial in pressuring reluctant state and local officials to implement the federally initiated aid programs. Then, beginning in 1933, industrial workers inspired by the rhetorical promises of the new administration began to demand the right to organize. By the mid-1930s, mass strikes were a threat to economic recovery and to the Democratic voting majorities that had put FDR in office. A pro-union labor policy was far from Roosevelt's mind when he took office in 1933. But by 1935, with strikes escalating and the election of 1936 approaching, he was ready to sign the National Labor Relations Act.
The argument here is a simple enough one, but also a real challenge to the thinking of many Kossacks who imagine that electoral campaigns are at the heart of progressive social change. Elections are just one of many arenas in which we have to fight, and not neccesarily the most important one. And certainly not the most favorable one.
The real power of ordinary people in this society is not in which corporate pre-approved candidates we elect to national office, but
in our capacity to threaten the process of profit-making by interfering with business as usual, whether that takes the form of strikes, sit-ins, riots, or mass marches. Elections can effect the terrain on which these struggles occur for better or for worse, but it is precisely these sorts of movements, and not who is sitting in office, that is the most important determinant of progressive social change. Abe Lincoln would not have been Abe Lincoln without John Brown and the Abolitionists. FDR would not have been FDR without the industrial unions and unemployed councils built by socialists and communists. And LBJ's Great Society would never have been if not for the Civil Rights and Black Power movements and the other movements (student, anti-war, GI, womens liberation, environmental, gay and lesbian) that they inspired.
The past eight years saw an iviscerataion of what was once a much more vibrant protest culture in the US. Some of this came off of the effects of the stolen election of 2000 which led many progressives to think that major party electoral politics was the ONLY arena that mattered. This simplistic reading of the 2000 elections was compounded by the generally chilling effects on dissent in general coming off the post-9-11 USA Patriot Act, Guantanamo and the apparent willingness of the government to spy on and even disappear its own citizens. In spite of all this, several of the biggest demonstrations in US history (some of the major anti-war demos and then the immigrant rights marches) occurred in the past five years.
Hopefully, the election of Obama will put wind back into the sails of peoples movemenst of the sort that can deliver REAL change we can believe in. And in that spirit, a couple songs: