Francis Fox Piven conceives of "disruptive power" as that form of usually implicit power that people have as a result of the interdependencies that social organization gives rise to:
"All societies organize social life through networks of specialized and interdependent activities, and the more complex the society, the more elaborate these interdependent relations. Networks of cooperation and interdependence 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. And the networks of interdependence that bind people together also generate widespread power capacities to act on these distinctive interests and outlooks. Agricultural workers depend on landowners, but landowners also depend on agricultural workers, just as industrial capitalists depend on workers, the prince depends in some measure on the urban crowd, merchants depend on customers, husbands depend on wives, masters depend on slaves, landlords depend on tenants, and governing elites in the modern state depend on the acquiescence if not the approval of enfranchised publics.
"Unlike wealth and force, which are concentrated at the top of social hierarchies, the leverage inherent in interdependencies is potentially widespread, especially in a densely interconnected society where the division of labor is far advanced. This leverage can in principle be activated by all parties to social relations, and it can also be activated from below, by the withdrawal of contributions to social cooperation by people at the lower end of hierarchical social relations. I call the activation of interdependent power disruption, and I think protest movements are significant because they mobilize disruptive power." (Frances Fox Piven, Challenging Authority: How Ordinary People Change America, Rowman & Littlefield, 2006, p. 20)
This analysis is consistent with many theoretical perspectives, and the concept of disruptive power certainly has an affinity with the marxist conception of class capacities, or more broadly, structural capacities. It follows from this that disruptive power is not a particular tactic. Disruptive power may be violent, depending on the context of the struggle that activates it, but it is not necessarily so. It may be noisy, or carnivalesque - but again, not necessarily. The presumption in social movement literature is, says Piven, against violence and in favour of spectacle; but this dual presumption is based on a misunderstanding of protest movements, conceiving them as essentially a form of communication intended to win the support of wider audiences, whereas this is not always the case. In fact, the exercise of disruptive power is mainly about leverage.
We understand the sheepishness about speaking of violence in social movements. It is not a comforting or politically sympathetic thought that popular violence has been productive; that without it, unjust systems would not have been overturned. Yet, aside from the fact that the automatic assumption against violence is actually an assumption against popular violence, the intriguing thing is how easily it shades into an assumption against disruption as such. For example, following a recent direct action at UC Berkeley, the Chancellor complained: "It is unfortunate that some protesters chose to obstruct the police by linking arms and forming a human chain to prevent the police from gaining access to the tents. This is not non-violent civil disobedience." In fact, linking arms and obstructing police is precisely an example of non-violent civil disobedience. If there was a textbook, this would be in it. The elite arbiters of protest ethics, who are always assuring us of our right to peaceful protest, conveniently forget what "civil disobedience" actually is. At the same time, what is often truly regrettable about what is called violence (usually small scale property damage) is its tactical implications. Sure, there is a moral case against anticapitalist protesters spraypainting graffiti or breaking windows. One could certainly apply similar standards retrospectively to striking miners and steelworkers who made US history in frequently violent struggles that went well beyond property damage. However, as someone once said, every morality presupposes a sociology, and in this case the moral argument implies the point of view of the ruling class. The point of the exercise of disruptive power is not to empathise with the ruling class, but to gain leverage over the ruling class. This brings us to the next point.
Disruptive power is distributed widely, but that doesn't mean it is easy to actualise. Piven cites six difficulties that obstruct this: first is the problem of getting people to recognise the relation of interdependence that endows them with disruptive power; the second difficulty is that the exercise of disruptive power requires people to break rules, defying institutional mechanisms that enshrine the cooperative (if fundamentally exploitative and oppressive) relations that sustain daily life, with the resulting risk of repression; third, this disruptive power has to be coordinated across many different groups and individuals who contribute to the reproduction of the dominant social relations, in order to be effective - "the classical problem of solidarity"; fourth, the people exercising disruptive power are enmeshed in a network of relations with multiple others who may attempt to restrain this disruption (church, family, etc); fifth, those involved have to find ways to endure the suspension of the normal cooperative relations that allow them to effectively reproduce themselves in their normal condition - strikers need to eat, occupiers need tents, etc.; and finally, those engaging in disruption have to consider the threat of exit by those from whom they have withdrawn cooperation - the rich taking off with their capital, partners leaving relationships, etc. The means to overcome these obstacles "are not solved anew with each challenge", but rather enter the "language of resistance", and "become a repertoire" (pp. 21-32)
This will do as an interpretive grid for understanding what the Occupy movements in the US are going through at this moment. Their challenges are all comprehensible as those arising from the exercise of disruptive power: how to attack the dominant ideology, coordinate heterogenous groups, sustain their own 'rule-breaking' and support others in their 'rule-breaking', and resist repression. It is through the prism of the latter question that I want to assess the current state of the Occupy movement in the US. The recent wave of renewed police assaults, some of them apparently co-ordinated across eighteen cities by both Democratic and Republican administrations, has been severe. From pepper-spraying the elderly to macing students, the intention has been to physically atomise these collective enterprises. It is tempting to say that such an over-reaction indicates the degree of apprehension on the part of the ruling class. In fact, however, apprehension has been far more apparent in their hesitations, retreats and fumbling attempts at co-optation, than in the resort to brutality. The latter is their default: far from being a panic reaction, it is how the US ruling class does business. As far as cops are concerned, it is "fairly standard police procedure". Their reliance on such methods may in fact reflect an underlying lack of concern, an insouciance, a feeling that this movement is a nuisance, but ultimately a brittle, shallow affair. To deviate from such methods would show that state planners are concerned that this is a movement which cannot be managed by escalating the costs of participation.
For the sake of argument, anyway, let me assume that the police actions in Portland, Seattle, Oakland, New York, UC Davis, and elsewhere, all reflect a consensus among ruling elites that a sufficient show of force will produce a collapse in confidence among the occupiers, deter their supporters, disorganise their alliances and leave them reduced to a hardcore of easily contained and potentially vilified activists. The timing would support this, as city managers would expect winter to start thinning the numbers anyway. A disorienting attack, a forcible shutdown, before the occupiers have had the chance to fully conceive and implement strategies for managing the cold months ahead, would be tactically intelligible in this context. Yet, although the police offensives have had some of the sought effects, forcing the occupiers onto the back foot, depriving many of them of their secured bedrock, they have nonetheless failed to thwart the momentum. The scale of the mobilisation in New York last Thursday, where an estimated 32,000 people took part in a day of action to shut down parts of the city, followed an ostensible victory on the part of city authorities three days earlier. This was when the police attacked the camp at 2am, and the mayor obtained a court ruling denying occupiers the right to camp in Liberty Square - though the city could not stop protesters from actually gathering there. The evictions demanded a bigger response from the occupiers and their periphery of active support, and Thursday provided it. Liberty Square is still occupied every day; it is still a meeting place, a pedagogical forum, and a launch pad for further action. So, the initiative remains in the hands of the protesters; not the state.
There are a number of reasons for this. First, this is a movement that is still in its upswing. A full-frontal attack on a movement which is still growing, and still popular, can be a dangerous mistake to make. The problem for the authorities is that such an assault isn't a technical operation but a political wager. As technically proficient as a repressive manouevre may be, the political effects aren't easily calculable: the same tactic that kills a movement today may consolidate it tomorrow. Second, as the statement from Occupy Wall Street following the eviction notes, the movement is serious. This seems nebulous, moralising even, but it has a precise political meaning: most of those joining the movement fully expected repression, and were mentally prepared for it. There are arguments that the police are just blue collar workers who should be on the side of the 99% - though, when former NYPD police capitain Ray Lewis asserts that his ex-colleagues are "workers for the 1%" and "mercenaries for Wall Street", one can safely say that such arguments are losing traction. But the occupation in Wall Street came to national prominence following a particularly brutal NYPD assault. It is a simple but reasonable inference that those who joined OWS and embarked on similar projects after this, knew that repression was a risk. So, the movement is far less brittle in this respect than its opponents perhaps estimated.
Third, as a former head of the CBI has pointed out, the ideology of free market capitalism has lost a significant part of its material basis: it cannot as easily claim to be more efficient than rival forms of organisation, or delivery greater prosperity for the majority over the long run. The increasing sympathy for socialism and communism among Americans has something to do with this disintegration of capitalist ideology. There is enormous sympathy for this left-populist movement, and those deemed complicit in its repression run the risk of being publicly shamed and of losing allies rapidly. Fourth, and relatedly, the repressive response from the ruling class may be coordinated and bipartisan, but it is far from unanimous. Some elements of the ruling class have preferred to try and co-opt the movement rather than simply attack it. This is most visible in the liberal segments of the capitalist media. From the very early days, it was obvious that the New York Times and perhaps also MSNBC favoured co-option rather than simple coercion. The fear of the banking industry, as their professional lobbyists have summarised it, is that this strategic fracturing of US ruling class opinion may be disadvantageous to their position. As they are not their own best advocates, they require public advocates - and the fear is that politicians under pressure to respond to such a movement will consider it imprudent to publicly defend financial capital. But the more the repressive option fails, the more the emphasis will fall on co-option. Finally, the occupiers have worked hard to build alliances with groups who already know how to wield disruptive power and have their own sets of repertoires. The response to the first attempted assault on Occupy Wall Street was based on an alliance with unions; the response to the first assault on Occupy Oakland, a city-wide 'general strike', was based on an alliance with the unions too. Of course, one must be wary of what Glenn Greenwald detects is an effort by pro-Obama union leaders to direct the movement into the Democratic fold. And solidarity work has taken other forms, such as the attempt to obstruct foreclosures. But there is a genuine convergence of interests between organised labor and the heterogenous groups assembled at OWS - whether debt-shackled students, workers, the unemployed, or dissident former soldiers. The union leadership knows it, especially after the defeat of the union-bashers in Ohio. The alliance between these groups has to be negotiated and constructed. But the material basis for it, which the slogan 'we are the 99%' communicates, is a shared class interest. This shared interest, at a time of sharpening class antagonisms, is making solidarity easier to achieve, and is laying the basis for a new Left.