Friday, November 26, 2010


I conclude this mini-series on Saul Alinsky’s 1971 book “Rules for Radicals”* that – I believe – has exerted and continues to exert a substantial and deforming influence on national politics.

I am skipping a couple of smaller chapters and proceeding directly to his concluding chapter entitled: “The Way Ahead” ( pp.184-196).

Bear in mind that he wrote this in 1971, capping off a long career of Old Left (labor and economic issues) activism that spanned the difficult 1920s and 1930s although he and his Approach were around in the Sixties when – as I have been saying – it became an early how-to book for budding identities of the New Left (culture and gender issues much more than bread-and-butter economics).

“Organization for action will now and in the decade ahead center upon America’s white middle class.” (p.184) Purely on the basis of economic issues this would have meant a focus on getting a larger (and in his view a legitimate) slice of the pie, and I don’t disagree with him here.

And in view of the ominous developments in the world’s economic condition, especially as that would bear on American economic matters, this might have been a very worthwhile focus.

But Alinsky’s own Approach (Technique, Method) was taken from the days of labor-organizing and also of the revolutionary agitprop organizing refined (so to speak) by Communist and Nazi (Goebbels’ manipulation of public opinion for political purposes) organizing.

As I have said, that Approach was manipulative and although seeking decently a larger ‘empowerment’ for the workers (the Have-Nots in his schematic) it bore no small danger to a democratic, deliberative politics. It was also purely focused on economic matters as opposed to any Larger vision of America or of any culture and society, or of any Larger or Deeper dynamics.

This did reflect his unstated assumption that ‘economics’ were utterly essential to carrying on a decent life for workers and their families. And especially from the vantage point of American in 2010 I think that is an especially relevant assumption.

But the dynamics to which he did limit himself offered only a limited view of what is genuinely necessary in order to make a culture and society ‘tick’; he drank too deeply from the well of Marxist thought here. While economic empowerment (although that word must be verrry carefully deployed, especially after the past 40 years) is necessary, it is not sufficient to the health of a culture and a society. Engines are vital to a ship, but you also need a sturdy hull to ‘platform’ the motive-power.

An exclusively or predominantly Alinsky-ite approach to culture and society is going to be profoundly inadequate as a frame for reference and action.

So simply taken on its own terms, Alinsky’s Approach is insufficient as a paradigm for effecting ‘change’.

And then, of course, History turns out to be more dynamic and complex than Alinsky’s Approach allows: his attempt to use his technique to organize and empower black and Chicano workers was quickly taken up by all of the other ‘revolutions’ that burst upon the American scene – with the Beltway’s vigorous support – in the later Sixties and since then.

The Boomers in their frothy youth did not simply seek to ‘organize’ the white middle class and its culture and society but rather to overthrow it (including the very productivity that allowed the country to convert its natural resources into actual wealth-assets); the goal for the Hippies and Yippies was some sort of Romantic perfect-society that would somehow ‘naturally’ arise once the oppressing detritus of ‘bourgeois white middle-class grown-up culture’ was swept away.

All of the anti-conformity and ‘gray flannel suit’ concerns raised (and legitimately so) in the 1950s by sociologists such as Riesman pushed the still-adolescent Boomers into a callow and thorough rejection of a culture and society that was not only ‘imperfect’ or ‘incomplete’ (as are all human endeavors, large and small) but in the Boomer view hostile to ‘freedom’ and enslaved to conformist servitude to ‘the Establishment’. The kids would bring creativity and freedom, mostly envisioned in the ways a teen-ager would imagine creativity and freedom: the chance to do what your parents told you you shouldn’t do too much of since you had to eventually get a job and support yourself and your family. ‘Free love’ – sex whenever, wherever, however – figured largely, as did the infatuation with short-cuts to feeling good about yourself, especially those short-cuts offered by various drugs and any state of intoxication that warded off the burdens of conducting your affairs with a mature and – not to put too fine a point on it – sober consciousness.

The Black Power second-phase of the civil-rights movement sought to inflame racial antagonism in order to emphasize the sweeping away not of merely the frakkulent Jim Crow Regime of the pre-1965 South but also the entire edifice of ‘white’ society and culture. The Haves were white; the Have-Nots were black.

The radical-feminists, who were mostly college-educated and read deeply in both Marxist thought and the derivative anti-colonial thought of French academics and intellectuals. The Haves were males and the Have-Nots were females. But this was a concept hugely fraught: rather than the palpable and measurable and very familiar Capitalist-Industrial concerns with economic security, the radical-feminists deployed Alinsky’s Approach in matters far less palpable and far more nebulous: the oppression of patriarchy, the radical individualism not of the worker-and-family but of the individual ‘woman’ – which logically called-for the fracturing of the entire concept of Family (not simply an American or capitalist construct but one that had been evolved by the species since its inception).**

Alinsky would have defined the essential Have-Not ‘unit’ as the worker-and-family; the radical-feminists would take his Approach and deploy it in far more troubled and foggy waters. For them the basic ‘unit’ of society and culture was not the Family, but the individual person (female, especially).

So too as Multiculturalism quickly expanded far beyond the Alinsky-ite concept of providing more economic security for migrant farm laborers toward an equally troubled and foggy waters where ‘American’ culture and society were themselves the Haves and they deserved no support and enjoyed no legitimacy that immigrants needed to respect. Indeed, much the opposite.

So too ‘Youth’ – that demographic eagerly erected by the Dems to bulk up the revolutionary momentum with its tinder-dry flammability, lack of ballasting ‘experience’ of life and events, and self-assurance that only ‘the young’ reely reely discovered the ‘secrets’ of life.

And Alinsky shared with all of them the unstated assumption that American productivity and economic hegemony would continue unabated ad infinitum: American society and culture and the productivity that they sustained were presumed to be a huge and deathless Goose whose Golden Eggs merely needed to be struggled-over in a sempiternal ‘struggle’. That the Eggs would stop, that the Eggs were somehow connected to the Goose … these awesome realities occurred (at least in public) to almost none of them.

The ‘struggle’ would provide that permanent source of Meaning and Purpose that meant any rival Meaning-systems (religion, philosophy) could be dispensed with. And indeed HAD TO BE gotten rid of, since – in best Marxist style – they were merely ‘opiates’ and tools of the Haves. Matters of Larger Meaning and Purpose could be left to private devotion if not, more usefully, completely dispensed with.

Alinsky reveals how much he is a man of the Old Left when he shares his vision of organizing “all of the low-income parts of our population … all the blacks, Mexican-Americans, Puerto Ricans, Appalachian poor whites”. (p.184)

But he has laid the groundwork for subsequent decades by admitting that “if through some genius of organization they were all united in a coalition, it would not be powerful enough to get significant, basic, needed changes”. (p.184) These ‘parts’ would still have to get “allies” because “the pragmatics of power will not allow any alternative”. (p.184) He saw the ‘white middle class’ as the indispensable Ally (although as Haves they are the ‘enemy’ in his schematic, so I can’t see how he planned for any ‘alliance’ to be anything but tactical, in best Leninist style).

He did not envision that in the absence of any possibility of uniting all the disparate Identity Revolutions of the Seventies (and how could you simultaneously ally yourself with a ‘white middle class’ that you were in the process of Deconstructing root and branch, along lines of gender, ethnic diversity, and all the other axes-of-Identity?) the Beltway – the Establishment, the government itself – would engorge itself and step in to be the ‘ally’ of each and every Identity and the guarantor of whatever demands were made.

The government would mutate into the Guarantor of the Golden Eggs, and simultaneously as the Prime (perhaps Only) Ally in the multivalent and polyvalent (and Hydra-headed) campaign to erase the infamy of ‘white middle class society and culture’. With results so inescapably obvious now.

He also errs hugely in equating the Boomery college students with the activist labor radicals of his own salad days: “Activists and radicals, on and off our college campuses – people who are committed to change … are products of and rebels against our middle-class society … “ But the campus radicals were not the gritty labor-organizers of the Old Left seeking a better slicing of the pie for adults who were trying to raise families and conduct life with decent wages.

The ‘radicals’ of the Sixties were precisely seeking to get away from ‘the pie’ altogether, abolish it, in favor of a less messy and more ephemeral ‘diet’ of groove and creativity and total freedom and ‘deep thoughts’ achieved through all manner of short-cuts.

In an America of – say – 1970, facing serious new world-wide challenges to its productive primacy, the campus radicals – demonstrating on their own campuses in a sort of in-house be-in – didn’t want to go out and improve productivity through larger and wider sharing of its fruits with the workers, but rather to do away with the workers and the culture they had built and in which, to wax scriptural for a moment, “they lived, moved, and had their being”.

Which – alas – has rather substantially been accomplished.

“Our rebels have contemptuously rejected the values and way of life of the middle class. They have stigmatized it as materialistic, decadent, bourgeois, degenerate, imperialistic, war-mongering, brutalized, and corrupt. They are right, but we must begin from where we are if we are to build power for change, and the power and the people are in the big middle-class majority.” (p.185)

You can see where Alinsky, in trying to apply his Approach to the emerging New Left, is running off the rails. From the bread-and-butter economic issues of serious adults trying to get better wages to provide for their families against the long-known difficulties with the capitalist-industrial system, the struggle is now transferred to a far more general, amorphous, and in many ways dubious assault on the entire culture and society. And a profound assault it would have to be.

And this is only (1971) in a period when the Sixties ‘student’ revolution and the Black Power revolution are on the field. Once the agendas of radical-feminism and multiculturalism and so on and so forth have joined their own demands to the fray, the assault intensifies exponentially.

And Alinsky is forced into a combination of conceptual incoherence and duplicity: why ‘ally’ with so rotten a bunch as the middle-class? You are, after all, planning to tear them out, root and branch, and all their alleged pomps and all their alleged works.

And surely there is absolutely no space left for a democratic politics. Indeed, a democratic politics would appear to be as debased as the society and culture from which it stems.

And just what ‘change’ can be wrought? What sort of ‘change’ can address ‘decadence’? And how much of all this ‘change’ – or at least the ‘struggle’ for it – can go on simultaneously without wrecking the society and the culture, twisting them to the point where they can no longer support the vital processes of any civilization and civilizing at all?

Worse, Alinsky addresses his organizers as themselves being from the middle-class. (p.185) Thus, while he is tactically crowing that they should use what they know to go after their “own people”, he ignores the probability – inherent in his assessments – that anyone stemming from an American middle-class formative background has to be irretrievably tainted and compromised.

Still a man of the Old Left, though, Alinsky is urging that such an organizer will put away the “infantile dramatics of rejection” (p.185) and instead study the society and culture of his parents with cool analytic detachment, the better to in order to seek “bridges of communication over the gaps, generation, value”. (p.186)

But still Alinsky, he urges this in order to effect this purely tactical bridge-building in order to “radicalize parts of the middle class”.

But why and how turn to your own purposes (radicalization) so thoroughly rotted a class? Alinsky here is no more On The Level than anything else in his darkling world: he is proposing merely temporary measures to manipulate a target class that is essentially rotten to the core – and how Communistical that sounds.

He urges that special attention be given to neutralizing or mollifying “the nature of middle-class behavior with its hang-ups over rudeness or aggressive, insulting, profane actions”. (p.186) After all, aggressive rudeness in the pursuit of ‘change’ is no vice. Come to think of it, NOTHING in the pursuit of ‘change’ is a vice, although this or that manifestation may be a tactical mistake depending on the moment.

But there is no deeper consideration of just why the middle-class might be slow to change. Or dubious of what is being proposed to replace what will be ‘changed’. Or worried that there is really nothing planned to replace what is ‘changed’. In this, Alinsky of the Old Left and the Boomery New Left merge; although Alinsky must betray his Old Left roots to do so – because no serious adult of the 1930s would have embraced the type of ‘revolution’ and ‘change’ demanded by the later 1960s (let alone the 1970s).

But the Boomers knew nothing of the 1930s, when your job suddenly disappeared and there was no way to put food on the table for your family. And they knew nothing of the 1940s, when Americans – especially those overseas – saw what happened when an entire society and culture were deranged and then, along with their supporting infrastructure, destroyed.

The Boomers had grown up with movies and TV and play-dough. And few has the rural farm experience that could have warned them that a dead Goose lays no Eggs, Golden or otherwise.

Perhaps now, in late middle age, the Boomers will come to appreciate the profound reservations that kept the adult generations of their youth from yielding invertebrately to every demand that showed up on the evening news.

But it may be too late – wayyyy too late – to fix things. Or rebuild what has been wrecked.

Alinsky breaks down the middle class into lower, middle, and upper. (p.186ff).

The lowers have never gone beyond high school, live a life that is mostly “unfulfilled dreams”, and are fearful of everything that changes. Queasily, he lists the fear of retirement and old age with Social Security and currency reduced by inflation, unemployment in a slumping economy, the high cost of long-term illness, mortgages outstanding (this is 1971), and the threat of both black competition for jobs and the unsettling difference in “cultures” (neatly ignoring the fact that by 1971 the Black Power movements had introduced an ominous note of an almost primal and persistent and premeditated violence as being representative of or the ideal of overall black culture).

They also dread their property values declining if “non-whites” move into their neighborhoods (again he neatly ignores the consequences that Black Power had on whites or non-blacks generally; were beset by the expenses and taxes of a highly-organized society, and victimized by TV commercials (urging them to a consumerist lifestyle they could hardly afford).

Their few pleasures consist in “gardening a tiny yard behind a small house, bungalow, or ticky-tacky in a monotonous subdivision on the fringe of the suburbs” and Sunday drives to a cheap restaurant dinner at a Howard Johnson’s. In the 1930s this would have been a dream for most Americans.

But Alinsky never looks at ‘both sides’ once he’s locked-on his phasers. In that he is very adolescent indeed, though only a year away from his own death at the age of 63.

Thus this class – to which belong, neatly, “many of the so-called hardhats, police, fire, sanitation workers, schoolteachers and much of the civil service, mechanics, electricians, janitors and semi-skilled workers” , all of whom were the bugbears of the youthy Boomers – “looks at the unemployed poor as parasitical dependents, recipients of a vast variety of massive public programs all paid for by them, ‘the public’”. (p.187)

I don’t trust his analysis here, such as it is, but it’s informative, if unintentionally so. One of the more common negative emotional responses many of that class would feel – I would say – is fear: fear that they too could fall back into the horrors of unemployment ala the 1930s. Because even at that early stage of the late 1960s ominous stress-cracks were beginning to show in the American postwar economy.

And they would certainly not grasp effortlessly the Boomery disdain for social order and predictability and a certain normalcy after what they had seen in the Depression and in so many of the world’s societies after the Second World War.

And yet too, even by 1971 a host of Great Society programs had been showered upon the urban poor (who were poor perhaps as much because businesses and factories had moved to the suburbs as because of some general American ‘racism’). Worse, it appeared that the government was showering these benefits on persons who had actually gone and rioted, and burned down their own neighborhoods to boot. The government seemed to have quietly broken its commitment to the commonly-accepted principle (at that time) that you pulled your weight – or tried your best to – and did what you could. The new approach seemed to be that if you simply issued some demands then, you’d get what you wanted.

But in that canny almost-peasant way, the lower-middle class, living in such ominous proximity to the frontier with the badlands of poverty, sensed that all this money was going to have to come from somewhere – it didn’t just grow on trees. But of course, the more financially well-insulated and well-educated were embracing precisely that fantasy: that ‘the government’ would pay for it all, and keep paying for it ad infinitum. A sturdy anxiety at watching a lethal fantasy (or five) take wide-hold was not quite the same thing as a general, lumpish ‘racism’ or unimaginative hostility to ‘change’.

Nor could you make a sniff-testable case that the lower-middle class were classifiable as Haves in the Alinsky-ite schematics.

All of this may seem clearer in 2010 than it did – or was allowed to – in 1971. And I imagine it will be even more clear in 2011, rounding out the full 40 Biblical years.

And to top it off Alinsky mocks them for their un-accepting attitude toward “the poor demanding welfare as ‘rights’”. (p.188) It may have occurred to more than a few that such a development, on top of the increasing and oddly queasy gyrations of the national economy, betokened the permanent official acceptance of the existence of a non-working (not simply unemployed) underclass, and that ‘full employment’ was being abandoned as a national goal and, on top of that, was being made out to be a good thing. These were developments suspiciously gravid with murky and ominous possibilities. It was hardly small-spirited to be nervous about where things seemed to be going.

And again, all this may seem clearer in 2010 than it did – or was allowed to – in 1971.

These lower middle class types – and Alinsky does keep on about them – “seeking some meaning in life” (which is not a human characteristic he usually pays much attention to) then “”turn to an extreme chauvinism and become defenders of the ‘American’ faith”. (p.188)

Note the shrewd deployment of “extreme” there; perhaps there is an acceptable level of chauvinism? But that would only complicate matters and the good revolutionary likes to keep things simple.

There is, certainly, a knee-jerk jingoist functional idolatry of the nation: you saw it then, and you have seen it as recently as now. Although it is hardly limited to the lower-middle-class any longer, if it ever was.

But it’s not a bad thing at all for Citizens to sorta like their country and be willing to exert themselves to some extent on its behalf (which, really, is also their own behalf – or was). I’m not making excuses here for jingoism or nationalist-idolatry, but those weren’t the only motivations or dynamics or realities in play here and yet, of course, Alinsky reduces densely complex realities to convenient and self-serving simplicities. It’s what revolutions do: cartoonish thinkers are no threat to the state or the regime or the revolution: why do you suppose that Hitler and Stalin both went after the Polish intelligentsia – the military officers, the educated, the priests and nuns? (Over here the intelligentsia and professoriat were not physically done away with – they were simply bought up and bought out by the same Beltway that was seeking to eliminate Poverty without empowering Labor and thereby inhibiting the free-range chicanery of Big Money.)

“Insecure in this fast-changing world, they cling to illusory fixed points – which are very real to them.” (p.188) Paging Dr. Alinsky! Dr. Alinsky to Examining One stat! He assumes that ‘change’ is always and utterly good, considers a fast-paced changing world to be utterly good and always to be preferred to less-change or more slowly-paced change.

Anybody who doesn’t get reely reely good and excited about all that is simply “insecure”. For Alinsky no other assessment of such people is possible; no other assessment will serve his Approach.

Fixed points that are “illusory” … naturally to Alinsky the Change-Minded all steadiness is illusory. Alinsky’s world is one in which a) Nothing Is On The Level and b) one of constant ‘change’. One simply keeps at it, ‘changing’ whatever looks to one as if it needs changing, and that can become a lifelong occupation, a vocation perhaps.

It was a little iffy in itself. When adopted by even more ambitious types (not the Hippies and the Sixties Youth, who never really took the time even to appear to think things through), the organizer-advocate cadres of the Identities of the Seventies, the whole thing mutated and permutated.

The list of ‘fixed points’ that needed to be Deconstructed and done away with grew like kudzu. Americans would be expected to live in a jelly-like world where nothing was solid, anything that was ‘established’ was most likely oppressive, and where all ‘change’ was pure liberation. If you had any doubts, you were merely a ‘backlashing’ Have who didn’t want to share Power.

What humans would become without a solid Trellis to Shape not only the structures and dynamics of society and culture but also the deep reservoir of individual energies would have to be ‘good’, and certainly better than what had been before. If you couldn’t see that, you were simply too far gone and would have to shut up or die off. You certainly didn’t deserve to have your concerns heard in the public forum.

The shift was intended to focus on ‘liberation’ rather than ‘democratic process’; as it had to be, from the revolutionary point of view, because by the very nature of a revolution most people aren’t going to really accept it and will stop it or slow it down if given the chance. They must not be given that chance.

He then continues that the middle-middle and upper-middle merely assume “a liberal, democratic, holier-than-thou position” while “attacking the bigotry of the employed poor”. (p.188) Again Alinsky reveals his Old Left roots – still concerned for the working-folk, those “employed poor” for whom the Old Left sought better pay and conditions so they could raise their families and have a shot at a decent life for themselves and their children.

These are the same “employed poor” – the lower-middle – that he has just finished excoriating , on behalf of his new ‘allies’, the student radicals who found themselves opposed by hard-hats, civil servants, and all the rest.

And already you can see the sneer at the “liberal, democratic” position; his new allies, he seems to grasp, are ‘revolutionaries’ for whom liberal democratic process is merely an obstruction and a tool for the Haves. The Seventies will take this sneer on a long march through and against the institutions of society and culture.

He sees a Senate where “one third are millionaires” – a percentage long since surpassed.

In what must be considered almost schizoid, and an indicator of how tortured his position had become, Alinsky quickly exhorts that the lower-middle class “must be worked with as one would work with the other part of our population – with respect, understanding, and sympathy”. (p.189)

Alinsky’s Approach is demonstrably and almost necessarily manipulative even of those it seeks to help; it makes tactical alliances that are as permanent as paper, and he has assessed the lower-middles as grossly deficient and the rest of the middles as worse.

And while he has not embraced – has not yet seen – the full corrosive consequence of Identity Politics (he still refers to “our population”) yet he has already laid the groundwork for the divisiveness and manipulation and anti-democratic politics that Identity Politics has come to deploy.

“To reject them is to lose them by default. They will not shrivel and disappear.” (p.189) But they were rejected, for all practical purposes. Under the ever-intensifying assaults of ever-increasing demands by this or that Identity, and even more fundamentally by the abandonment of genuine deliberative democratic process and the embrace of revolution by elite imposition.

And in a hell-hot irony, as the dust clouds of the gender-culture wars fogged any long-term vision, the Beltway sought to enhance its own election-accounts by allowing Big Money to do whatever it wanted in exchange for PAC payments , thereby not only undermining Labor and the lower-middles but also – since the problem went unaddressed for so long - the middle-middles and upper-middles as well.

Alinsky saw something of that possible outcome in 1971: “If we don’t win them Wallace or [Agnew or] Nixon will.” (p.189) In a two-party system, and given that the Dems would in 1972 turn themselves over to all the Alinsky-ite advocate-cadres of the Identities, there was no place for the lower-middles to go.

But Alinsky had convinced himself that he offered only a Technique, and not a philosophy of politics or of human beings (formerly called ‘philosophy of man’). That deftly kept him from having to deal with deep and complex matters he preferred to avoid, but the dynamics set in train by those matters continued to operate, now rendered more difficult by the veil of willful ignorance Alinsky had thrown over them.

He hopes that even if the lower-middles (those employed-poor workers of his beloved Old Left days) can’t be completely won over, they could at least remain ‘in communication’ so that they could be persuaded not to offer “hard opposition” (p.189) “as changes take place”.

But since he refused to see just how lethal and fraught the changes of the New Left really were, then he was unable to accurately grasp just how much opposition, and hardly unjustified, those ‘changes’ would ignite. He imagined that the New Left, in cooperation with the Old Left, would merely become a more powerful agent of the type of goals that the Old Left had espoused.

But the Old Left were not revolutionaries and their demands for better pay and working conditions were well within the bounds of what the American system was designed to handle. The New Left, on the other hand, was ‘revolutionary’ in the European sense: it sought not ‘reform’ but erasure, Deconstruction in the service of some cheerible Reconstruction, however much damage had to be imposed to get there.

Indeed, with the assault on the entire concept of Family, the radical –feminist advocate-cadres were demanding an assaultive Deconstruction on one of the fundamental building blocks of Western and even world civilization. THIS was a ‘demand’ that required not only much deliberation but huge prudence, on the part of legislators and Citizenry alike.

In the event, the legislators didn’t want deliberation and prudence, and the Citizenry were deliberately kept in the dark as to just how profoundly fraught the New Order’s prerequisites really were.

Alinsky wanted his organizers to engage in a reformation of people – “people must be reformed” (p.189) – meaning that the organizer had a tactical (if not also a moral) responsibility to give the targeted Have-Nots a working awareness of just what was at stake. His was still an inadequate concept, but compared to the comprehensive deception and destabilizing of the Citizenry’s competence and authority Alinsky seems closer to the Framers than he really is.

Rather than re-forming through persuasion, those who ‘just don’t get it’ will have the New Order imposed on them and they will shut up and like it or … well, there really wasn’t any other alternative. No doubt – as later when the Iraq War was ‘planned’ – it was simply assumed that nobody would stand in the way of elite power.

But humans and their democracies are stubborn things, stubborn as ‘facts’ – or more accurately, stubborn as ‘reality’ – and the elites find themselves now greeted as liberators only by their own choirs and such clients as have had elite bennies ladled upon them by a pandering government.

And the bennie-trough is drying up.

Alinsky makes mention of “the silent majority” – that phrase popularly deployed by Nixon’s administration to give some shape and traction to the vast majority of Americans (who would, 49 States to 1, reject the Dems in the election of 1972).

Americans had enough on their hands trying to keep things together in the Seventies without frightening themselves further by imagining that their own government would embrace a profoundly revolutionary and corrosive and Deconstructive Identity Politics. Who could imagine, after all, that a national government would actually support the Deconstruction of its own society and culture and political ethos? Who could imagine that an American government would do such a thing?

But the Beltway’s gambit – so similar to the latter-day Soviet nomenklatura – was to feather its own nest while pandering to Big Identity for votes and Big Money for cash. The Beltway, in effect, figured that it would survive and could masquerade enough to appear like a government; its members and their clients would carry on, battened on the Golden Eggs that were – witlessly – assumed to be the permanent cosmic birthright of the country.

But masquerading as a government and collecting all the checks accruing thereto wasn’t enough to actually conduct the vital and heavy responsibilities of government. Cartoonish thinking fostered the thought that cartoonish masquerade could be passed off as competent governance, and in that way the skids were greased for a cartoonish fake-government. With consequences that have proven all too real.

Almost pathetically, Alinsky assures the faithful that “the issues of 1972 would be those of 1776, ‘No Taxation Without Representation’”; he wanted to see funds made available so that “members of the lower middle-class can campaign for political office” (p.190). The Dems lost 49 States to 1 in 1972, and even after they got rid of Nixon on a charge that – next to Bush-Cheney – looks like child’s-play, they embraced more and more of the Identities’ Deconstructive agenda in 1976, and the lower middle class so much the concern of Alinsky had by then become the rabid pool of every Identity’s boogeyman: white, male, oppressive, patriarchal, back-lashing, lumpish, bigoted and obstructive to any and all ‘change’.

He spends his last pages taking accurate aim at “the Pentagon”. But in the event, the New Left made common-cause with the Pentagoons (for significant consideration) and by Clinton’s time was eagerly demanding that as the Beltway had imposed ‘change’ on the American population, the military could do so on selected targets among the rest of the world’s populations. A project which the Bush-Cheney Mad Hatters considered a most useful and attractive Tea Party indeed.

On his final page he insists that what he is proposing is merely Part 2 of “the American revolution”. He clearly doesn’t understand the difference between the European approach to revolution (exemplified so luridly by his own Approach with its Marxist-Leninist conceptual heritage) and the American approach to revolution (exemplified by Washington and Franklin and pretty much the same major players who constructed the Constitution to ground the gains of their hard-won independence).

He does this, I think, in order to give his otherwise ‘valueless’ and ‘un-dogmatic’ Technique and Approach the validity and the robust allure of a genuine vocation: “the human cry of the second revolution is for a meaning, a purpose for life … literally a revolution of the soul” (p.196)

As if the first revolution (1776, buttressed by 1787) offered no meaning and purpose; as if all the American generations prior to the New Left had lived their lives and made their achievements – large and small – without a sense of meaning or purpose and without a soul.

This is the type of exaggerated mega-hype that not only deluded the cadres but also demeaned everybody but the Boomers themselves.

And I would say, deluded Alinsky himself.

That concludes my look at him.

Trying to offer his Old Left organizing techniques as ‘relevant’ to the New Left, hoping to sidestep the yawning voids that separated the two Lefts by soft-selling his Approach as merely a Technique with “no dogmatic assumptions”, he embarked on a task that was deceitful and impossible from the get-go. But in stretching as far as his own temperament and imagination could manage, he wound up offering a rich trove of manipulative and deceitful tactical advice to those who were indeed revolutionaries, anti-democratic and illiberal and dismissive of any deliberative political ethos in their arrogant assurance that they ‘got it’ and everybody else in the country ‘just didn’t get it’.

The results are with Us now. And they will remain with Us for a long time to come.

What then are We to do with him now?

He has had such a profound influence on the development and conduct of Identity Politics that he cannot simply be considered as being of ‘historical’ interest. His reductionist and Flat and negative view of humans and human affairs; his dismissal of any reliable efficacy residing in human ideals and the human ability to self-correct through rational means; his consequent dismissal of the dynamics of a genuine deliberative democratic politics; his darkling paradigm of suspicion that leads to a form of nihilism in the context of those politics; the poisonous fruit of his abiding dysphoric suspicion in the eternal ‘war politics’ of Have vs. Have-Not (however the definitions of those terms are expanded); his abiding refusal to look fully and deeply into the motivating dynamics of his Approach nor entertain the hardly negligible consequences of certainties; his cartoonish conception of humans and their strivings and their political affairs … all of these are active today and indeed have contributed to the stunningly incompetent state of American politics.

None of this can be ignored. (Whether the damage to the American Framing Vision and ethos can be sufficiently repaired is another question, no less vital.)

But I think a first step is to open to wide public awareness and discussion the many questions and problems inherent in his Approach and Technique. This was not ever done in the past 40 years, and in fact there are now generations of Citizens and even cadres of Identities who do not realize the full history and implications of his influence decades ago.

If We don’t look more carefully at this still-operative layer of frakkery, We shall be condemned not so much to repeat History (although that will be bad enough) but also to keep repeating and applying Alinsky.

And I don’t think the American polity can take much more of THAT before it mutates beyond any effective deliberative democratic ethos and regresses into something from which, once upon a time, America had been raised up and – in the best sense of the word – saved.


*My copy is the paperback Vintage Books/Random House edition that reprints the original 1971 edition. The ISBN is 0-679-72113-4. All my quotations and page references will be taken from this edition.

**In a hellhot and hugely under-noted irony, the Sixties phase of the feminist programme was given its first entrée into federal law not – wait for it – through any process of extended and careful deliberative legislative (let along public) process, but rather as a shrewd legislative tactic by an elderly but powerful pol in the House, Chairman of the Rules Committee Howard W. Smith, D-VA, who would end his career in 1966.

Although the Civil Rights Act of 1964 reflected the wide-spread public and national attention to the matter of Black (or, then, Negro) civil rights, and although the Bill received much attention in Committee, Smith waited until the Bill was on the floor (therefore before the entire House) where he suddenly introduced the insertion of the word “sex” as a category alongside “race” to which the Bill would apply. Additionally, the vote on the Bill was tallied by teller vote: each Member selected one of 3 colored cards (Yea, Nay, Present) and then the cards were put in separate piles and counted. No names were involved – thus shielding Members from responsibility (and potentially reducing their concern as to what they were voting for).

While there is debate among students of these matters as to Smith’s intentions (to support feminism, to kill the bill, to embarrass Northern Democrats who feared (perhaps prophetically) that such an extension would endanger jobs and reduce productivity, there is no doubt whatsoever that Smith's sly last-minute sleaze provided the launch vehicle by which Sixties-and-subsequent Feminism became a fait accompli in national policy and law with pretty much NO DEMOCRATIC DELIBERATIVE PROCESS WHATSOEVER.

In the Alinsky-ite Approach, although he never considered that high-ranking and powerful legislators would actually out-Alinsky the Alinsky-ite cadres and organizers themselves, the maxim that Nothing Is On The Level received stupendous justification.

In terms of democratic process one of the largest, most dubious or at least questionable, and most potentially consequential changes in national law and policy ever introduced into the polity, was effected by sidestepping substantial deliberative scrutiny by the public or its elected representatives.

At least on that score, Alinsky would be impressed.

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Tuesday, November 16, 2010



I continue this look at Saul Alinsky’s 1971 book “Rules for Radicals”* that – I believe – has exerted and continues to exert a substantial and deforming influence on national politics.

His seventh chapter is entitled “Tactics”.

The historical quotation that leads off is from Hannibal, referring not to some backwoods 19th century American politico but to the Carthaginian general who inflicted upon the Roman Republic its worst-ever defeat at Cannae: “We will either find a way or make one”.

It’s a tad ironic since in actual history, Hannibal did not go on to attack the City of Rome itself, after he had destroyed the legions that stood in his way and had an unopposed path.

Once again, the ‘war’ mentality is evident in Alinsky. And – even if he claims he’s only offering a ‘technique’ here – it’s a technique that will allow no bounds to what it will do to ‘win’. Truth or reality don’t constitute major obstacles; nor, as We saw in his previous chapter, does Respect, even for those who have been selected for the benefit of being ‘organized’.

I also wonder just how much you can construct your daily peace-time life on a war-mentality before you sort of get used to ‘war’ and think it’s just a thang.

He defines ‘tactics’ as “doing what you can with what you have” (p.127) although We have seen that you can also ‘create’ what you don’t have, and that what you don’t have may include some vitally substantial philosophical underpinnings.

His thought here is that “Power is not only what you have but what the enemy thinks you have”. (p.127) Yes, the entire chapter actually does resemble a military manual – in case you still weren’t sure about the ‘war-politics’ point.

All of his advice flows from his conviction that “power has always derived from two main sources: money and people”. (p.127) And since the Haves are the only ones with money, then the Have-Nots have to rely on “people”.

Logical enough on its own terms. But then, since “people” are so important to what you want to accomplish (and the follow-ons to Alinsky in the later-Seventies and since have had a lot that they wanted to ‘accomplish’) then you have to manipulate your ‘people’ since they don’t always know what’s good for them.

And THAT goes double for the larger mass of human beings – not your own ‘people’ but just the Citizenry or The People in general – who for Alinsky are nothing but tools for the Haves. Which thought was then taken over by the radical feminists with their twist: since most people in the country ‘just don’t get it’ then they are part of The Problem (as the radical feminists saw it) and don’t deserve either being informed, talked-with, or even allowed to voice their own opinions (which, since they ‘just don’t get it’ and are mere lumpish tools of the established Haves, are not worth listening to and don’t even deserve a public hearing – so a ‘public hearing’ is reduced to merely an airing of your own views (because you do indeed ‘get it’) with the Citizenry merely looking on like the half-bored bovines in the background of a John Wayne cattle-Western.

He has some “rules of power tactics”.

His first rule of power tactics is to Consider the parts of your face, he instructs. Take the eyes: “if you have organized a vast, mass-based people’s organization, you can parade it visibly before the enemy and openly show your power”. (p.126)

On the other hand, consider the ears: if you don’t really have many folks, then use the example of Gideon: “conceal the members in the dark but raise a din and clamor that will make the listener believe that your organization numbers many more than it does”. (p.126)

I can’t help but think that of the two options, THIS has been the one more often deployed as if it were a form of democratic and deliberative consensus-based politics. And of course, in modern ‘advocacy’ such “din and clamor” consists of shrewdly selected or perhaps manufactured ‘incidents’ of ‘outrage’ and ‘oppression’ and ‘pain’. Rather than get whole bunches of people together demonstrating (since you usually don’t have that many) then you can focus politics instead on the full-face close-up camera shot of this or that (and alleged) ‘victim’. The media can (and do) help by providing the cameras. And in the event that you do scrape up some folks for a demonstration in the bright light of day, the media can (and do) help by not wishing to appear insensitive and actually showing any shots that would reveal the size of your whole (small) set-up. Instead if you have 20 people the camera will tight-focus on that 20 as if it were a shot of merely a fraction of the folks you’d like everybody in the viewing audience to think were really there.

If you think the sentences get convoluted trying to describe that sort of thing, think how politics gets convoluted after years (and decades) of this sort of thing, repeated hundreds and thousands of times over in national and local news. ‘Sensitivity’ and the desire to be part of the ‘progress’ and ‘change’ have led the media to betray the purpose of a “free press” in the Framing Vision, and instead – in that awful synergy of Bernays the ad-man and Goebbels the government manipulator of public opinion – put over on the public what some element WISHES were true rather than what IS true. And again, the politics of ‘appearances’ and – worse – dishonest and deceitful appearances.

After a couple-three decades of this sort of thing, the public isn’t going to be able to distinguish between fact and fiction, truth and falsehood, reality and illusion.**

And finally Alinsky looks at the nose: “If your organization is too tiny even for noise, stink up the place”. (p.126) Which if you think about it must have been the operating principle (though not widely publicized to those who ‘just don’t get it’) for a whole lotta ‘advocacy’ work. And ‘stinking up’ the structures of a society, a culture, a civilization (and somehow, in the end, an economy) seemed the very cutting-edge thing to do and would bring about Alinksy’s totemized ‘change’ and, of course, ‘progress’ and, of course, all of the foregoing without any ill consequences.

Boundaries and consequences, caution and prudence, respect for other humans … all of these were cast as merely the ‘excuses’ that functioned as mere tools of the Oppression by the Haves (which in the case of Youth are the Grown-ups and their ‘world’, in best Holden Caulfield style, and in the accents of James Dean and his character in “Rebel Without A Cause”. Oy.

Perhaps the Bush-Cheney imperium can be seen not simply as the ancient demon Leviathan loosed once again on the world but also as a prime example of how the “youthy” approach to great events (no need to consult previous history and human experience, no need to worry about consequences because everything will work out as fantasized around the table or on the computer screen) can combine with the Deconstructionist phantasmagoria that Whatever Is Deserves To Get Changed and the eternal dangers of Un-boundaried Wealth and Unboundaried Power.

Un-boundaried humans with un-bounded power … a baaad brew, toxic and lethal, to those thus afflicted as well as to those whom – with the most eager and good intentions – they will afflict.

Alinsky’s second rule of power tactics is “Never go outside the experience of your people”. (p.127) Which is shrewd enough. But when applied to Youth, to take one of 1972’s suddenly-‘valorized’ Identities, it means that you stay within the ‘experience’ of a group that pretty much by definition doesn’t have much experience to begin with. Which THEN means that you are reducing your conception and grasp of ‘the world’ and ‘History’ and ‘human events’ to whatever the Youth think it is. Which, upon even modest reflection, doesn’t sound like a promising plan. Certainly not something you want to erect into National Policy. But that was 1972. And it still is.

And all of this on top of the already and ‘classic’ American characteristic that the denizens of this country aren’t really well-versed in the realities of life as the rest of the world’s people have to live it. American Exceptionalism – recently (and accurately) castigated as a tool of the Fundamentalist whackery and the Neocon dampdreams of imperium – was alive and well back in 1972. If American adults were thus afflicted, American Youth were even more afflicted thus.

The whole idea is to expand your experience and deliberate thereupon so you can increase your store of knowledge and even – if you work at it – wisdom.

Alinsky’s third rule of power tactics: “Wherever possible go outside the experience of your enemy”. (p.127) Again with the military and war imagery, where – granted – it is indeed a sage operational maxim.

And nicely, Alinsky uses an extended example from William Tecumseh Sherman’s March Through Georgia.

What attracts him about Sherman’s strategy – and it is an impressive point, from the viewpoint of military thinking – is that Sherman refused to let his force take a Shape: cutting himself off from the classic invading-army Shape that included (vulnerable) supply lines and telegraph lines back to some base camp in Union territory, Sherman simply cut loose and marched along, pursuing a line of march that offered no clue as to his next ‘objective’. The Southern defenders had no way of formulating a defensive response because they really couldn’t figure out what he was up to (his intention, marvelously, was not to fight IN Georgia but to march THROUGH Georgia).

Shapelessness works! IF, however, it is wielded by a tremendously gifted and competent military commander within the context of a much larger Plan and – not to put too fine a point on it – Shape. Temporary and purposeful Shapelessness is what Sherman wielded, and since this was the first time it had been tried in the American setting, it worked that much better. And throughout the whole campaign in Georgia, Sherman’s army itself maintained a superb Shape: as a coherent and cohesive military force and instrument it remained capable and instantly responsive to his commands.

So Alinsky’s insight here is hugely fraught.

He is not conducting – or shouldn’t be – a military operation of deliberate deception in the service of Assault. He is proposing a Method of conducting political activity, and within the context of a deliberative democratic politics (although, of course, he considered such a politics to be Not On The Level).

And you can’t expect to manipulate civilians – and indeed a Citizenry – like a military commander commands and manipulates his army. This is a matter of politics. But then, that’s precisely Lenin’s vision: that he needed an ‘army’ of dedicated vanguard cadres to take his orders and impose Shape on ‘the masses’, who in his vision of the Red Revolution are merely those benighted lumps who never functioned as more than the ‘necessary cattle’ witlessly munching the grass. (And then came Stalin …)

Alinsky adds another example from Patton’s Third Army sweeping around the increasingly decrepit German armies in France, but enough.

His fourth rule of power tactics is to “make them live up to their own rules”. (p.128) “You can kill them with this”, he gloats, “because they no more obey their own rules than the Christian church can live up to Christianity”. (p.128)

Oy and frak.

Who can ever completely live up to their own rules perfectly? What human or human organization? I am NOT here justifying government’s breaking their own laws, but simply pointing out that the unspoken assumption here is that Alinsky’s cadres, cut free from any morality or ethics since they are fighting the genuine Evil of the oppressive Haves, are bound by no rules at all (except his tactical advices).

And note that shrewd elision of a deliberate flouting of one’s own rules, on the one hand, and on the other hand the “Christian church” (he may mean ‘religion’ rather than ‘church’ here) being unable to ever fully fulfill its ideals.

There is, as I have said in previous Posts, that stubborn Incompleteness to all things human: humans are somehow not ‘complete’ in the sense that what they envision as their personal and societal Ideal can never fully be realized; there are failures-to-fulfill and they seem built into the human thing.

Some philosophies – the Eastern ones especially – and even some versions of Christianity – German pietism, for example – respond to this reality by advocating a complete withdrawal from ‘the world’ and from large human affairs.

Other philosophies suggest the imposition of ‘order’ by a government – Hobbes and his Leviathan, for example.

And others suggest that humans must make their best efforts, continuously and deliberately, to try to bring their personal and societal Ideal into actuality – the Framers and the Christian (certainly the Catholic) approach.

But Alinsky chooses the route that winds back at least to Machiavelli and up through the European revolutionary tradition: since nothing can ever be Ideal then there is no Ideal and anything goes. (He makes here the same mistake as the six blind men encountering the elephant in the ancient Eastern story: since there are so many differing and opposed ‘takes’ on the shape of the elephant, then the elephant clearly does not exist. Which is illogical and hugely inaccurate. Or perhaps you can go with the Postmodern Approach: the elephant is merely a ‘text’ for the reader to do with as s/he finds most useful.)

And I can’t ignore the bald and stunning statement “you can kill them with this”. The man is talking about a nation’s politics, for God’s sake.

His fifth rule of power tactics, which he claims is contained within the fourth, is: “Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon”. (p.128) In a politics of Deconstruction – where the cadres of the assorted advocacies are deliberately seeking to ‘de-valorize’ the established truths, Ideals, structures and beliefs of an entire society and culture – this bit of advice takes its toxic place. Generations of Americans have now been raised within a Zeitgeist redolent with the assorted anti-Western, anti-Adult, anti-whatever ridicule of radical feminism (it’s all just patriarchy and sooo ‘male’), multiculturalism (it’s all just ‘white’ and that’s not worth your respect), it’s all just ‘old’ (and therefore must be ‘changed’), and you name it.

AND of course the most potent weapons that America’s culture, ethos, and polity possessed as the hugely dubious demands of the newly-erected Identities and their Identity Politics arose were precisely those that wound up being targeted for such ridicule (abetted by a media slap-happy for ‘confrontation’ and ‘change’ and a Beltway that couldn’t seem to care less): Reason, Tradition, careful and deliberate public analysis and assessment, prudence as to what might be workable as a new approach and what might not be … all of these were ridiculed as ‘oppressive’, ‘patriarchal’, ‘male’, backlashing, mere excuses and foot-dragging, re-victimizing and altogether unworthy of public support (or, neatly, analysis).  
His sixth rule of power tactics is that “a good tactic is one your people enjoy”. (p.128) No reason why you can’t have fun while you’re doing all this. And what folks ‘enjoy’ they won’t bother to question, neatly.
Assaultive deconstruction can be FUN! AND you get to be ‘cutting edge’ and very ‘with it’ and prove that you ‘get it’ by grabbing an axe and having a whack at it yourself. You can’t imagine this stuff – so widely characteristic of the decades of the 70s, 80s, and 90s without queasy recall of Nazi efforts to get the German people to join in the exhilaration of the Regime’s frakkulence, either by joining in or at least by standing by and cheering and Heil-ing as brownshirts and fellow (and sister) citizens descended into animality, barbarism, and Hitler’s nationalistic version of neo-paganism. Such progress.
His seventh rule of power tactics is that “a tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag”. (p.128) Hence the need to be constantly coming up with new tactics, new issues, new ‘outrages’. The frakkulent effects of a society’s being continuously and constantly bombarded with an unending stream of such ‘news’ is bound to become demoralized. And its politics will become demoralized. And folks will simply give up on the society and the culture, hope to make a few bucks, and pull up the drawbridge behind them.

For quite a few years the Beltway was able to feed this dynamic. Starting with Reagan increasingly devious ways were found to come up with ‘wealth’ (mostly in the form of credit) that folks could play with, distracting them from the screaming question as to how an increasingly unproductive economy was coming up with the cash. During the next Administriations there followed a dizzy junk-diet of borrowing, pumping credit, out-sourcing, down-sizing, selling-off, privatizing, and finally Bubbling. But that was then.

What you want to avoid, intones Alinsky, is your organizing and your cause turning into “a ritualistic commitment” (p.128) just like “going to Church on Sunday mornings”.

He’s onto something here. But mostly not. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German theologian and pastor who was executed by the Nazis for leading a theologically-based resistance to their regime, was also opposed to ‘the religious man’, by which he meant a person for whom ‘religion’ had merely become a set of social customs, uninformed and un-Shaped by the Gospel demands of Christ. It was for that reason that Bonhoeffer proposed a “religionless Christianity”, by which he meant only that Christianity must be based in an active faith that engaged the entire life of the believer – the Christian ‘Ideal’ you might say.

Bonhoeffer saw how the truly and genuinely ‘spiritual’ can be lost in the dust and noise of daily events – individually and societally – and thus be reduced to a shell of its true authority and redemptive power. But this has always been the challenge of any belief-system (Alinsky’s included): that its adherents lose their ‘edge’ and become dulled to routines of activity rather than living an active life grounded in belief.

Alinsky chooses – as really he must – to define Christianity (as so many other things as well) by its weakness rather than by its strength and the well-established potential of its approach. Which was a dynamic that dovetailed perfectly with the ‘politics of Deconstruction’ as one after another Identity after 1972 sought to do away with any abiding public sense of the value of Large Things and Unseen Things.

This was a recipe for human catastrophe, because humans need to believe and will raise up (as Moses found with Aaron’s Golden Calf) whatever is available as an object of belief. Hence the need – from Christianity’s point of view – to provide an abiding object of belief that would bring humans to a Larger and more Genuine Sense of itself. Otherwise, anybody enterprising and skilled enough would raise up a Golden Calf and offer it as a compelling object of belief.

Bonhoeffer saw the Nazi State as doing precisely this, as Hitler very much intended and as Mussolini pithily described: “nothing outside the State, nothing above the State, nothing against the State”. Given the government-and-State-dependent polity of the National Nanny State envisioned by the cadres of the assorted Identities here, you can see just how America would start heading down this road, in substance if not in ‘spin’.

Alinsky’s eighth rule of power tactics: “Keep the pressure on, with different tactics and actions, and utilize all events of the period for your purpose”. (p.128) And here you have the unending series of ‘crises’ and ‘outrages’ discussed above, and how – with the help of a shallow media ‘reporting’ – every element of national life is claimed to be either infected or complicit in the great disease of ‘oppression’ and must henceforth be ‘changed’ forthwith.

His ninth rule of power tactics: “The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself”. (p.129) Curiously, he offers no discussion here and moves on directly to number 10. I think I can understand why. What he’s implying here, and doesn’t want to get into, is that a good organizer has to make any instance of his/her selected ‘oppression’ seem as awful and terrible and ominous as possible. Selectivity, exaggeration, illogic, and the indispensable help of a media that doesn’t get beneath the appearances you have cagily manufactured and the ‘scenario’ you have carefully assembled for the cameras … all of this is what he advises.

The consequences of a wide, deep, and unremitting stream of such ‘news’ cannot be good: the Citizenry and thus The People become not only misinformed but also, after a while, incompetent to distinguish reality from ‘spin’, substance from appearance. And on top of that fatal consequence, public policies are erected and imposed – on the authority of The People – that are most surely not in the interest of the common-weal and are indeed not in contact with truth or reality.

And can you say ‘Iraq War’? But as I have been saying, long before the Bush-Cheney neocon imperium deployed this bit of advice, the American people had already been drugged into incompetence by the heady media cocktails of a dozen busy Identities and their advocating cadres.

And in order to maintain the illusion that this or that Advocacy’s Emperor (or Empress) has no clothes on then politics must devolve from The People to this or that ‘base’, which is comprised only of those true believers – those who ‘get it’ – who are sure they can see the ‘clothes’. This is a recipe for a Balkanization and fracturing of American politics, so that now the Beltway finds itself in Marshall Tito’s position in the former Yugoslavia: given irreconcilable differences among the many ‘identities’ that comprised the polity, only force applied by the (increasingly-nominal) central government can hold the polity together. But in this country, with enough of the Constitutional Ethos still intact, the Beltway chose to ‘buy’ the loyalty of its irreconcilable fractals, using huge amounts of ‘wealth’ (a wealth that was itself increasingly illusory).

It is also a recipe for an intensifying civic Incompetence on the part of the Citizenry and The People and of the national politics. Immature and cartoonish thinking, not at all incompatible with an emotion-based, ‘non-male’ mode of ‘sensitive intuition’ and reliance on ‘personal stories’ become the only basis of political action and national policy.
What will happen now that the central government’s supply of usable cash is dwindling and can’t be increased without destabilizing the currency itself (especially in the eyes of the international community of nations) … what will happen to the American polity as the cash dries up is anybody’s guess.

He quickly proceeds to his tenth rule of power tactics: “The major premise for tactics is the development of operations that will maintain a constant pressure upon the opposition”. (p.129) Again, this is a politics of Assault – upon the very competence of the Citizenry to comprehend their own public affairs and to judge what then might be most workable for the common-weal.

Alinsky’s eleventh rule of power tactics is that “if you push a negative hard and deep enough it will break through into its counter-side”. (p.129) Curiously for someone with pretensions to a military-type textbook approach, he offers only a bit of gobbledygook: “this is based on the principle that every positive has its negative”. (p.129)

I think what he means is that if you push hard and deep enough, you will force a reaction that may appear negative to your interests in the beginning (as your ‘enemy’ succeeds in countering you) but that then that reaction may morph into something positive to your interests (as your enemy oversteps himself). Which is neither an inaccurate nor an unheard-of military thought, but hardly prime strategy.

And it’s curious that he doesn’t say what he means more clearly. Perhaps he’s trying to maintain some of the aura of mysticism or profundity. Although if you’re only writing up a ‘technique’, why would you bother with something like that?

And there’s no guarantee that a counter-reaction “will” perform as expected; that’s a best-case scenario.

But I wonder if something like this wasn’t pressed on Beltway pols once those worthies revealed themselves as receptive almost 40 years ago: if you keep trying our plan, no matter how ill-advised or imprudent or whackulous it looks right now, then sooner or later you’re going to break through to the other side and it will all look very good and you pols will look like true visionary leaders and statesmen (or statespersons). It sounds ridiculous, I know – but given what We have seen of the Beltway-advocacies ballet, is it too ridiculous to be possible? I’d say it’s not only a possible explanation but a probable one.

“In a fight”, intones Alinsky, “almost anything goes”. (p.129) Well, maybe so (although look what’s happened in the GWOT and in Iraq and Afghanistan and Abu Ghraib and Gitmo).

But again, this is a democratic deliberative politics, not a military operation.

Nor does it strike me as useful to assert, as some proponents do, that Identity Politics is “merely” the famous age-old human institution of “tribalism” – as if such an ancient pedigree automatically conferred justification. The vision of the Framers was that while such primitive human practices as the aforesaid tribalism were probably ineradicable, yet a deliberative democratic process and polity would be able to temper those regressive and primitive practices.

But then came the Dems in 1972 and eagerly joined in Deconstructing that marvelous vision (just in time for the Bicentennial, as it happened). And with the Framers’ walls down, the old regressive primitivities came trooping back in. And were spun as ‘change’ – which they most surely were – and as ‘progress’ – which they most surely were not.

That American politics is in such a crapulent state of cartoonish decline may be as simply caused as the fact that we have a negative cable wrongly labeled as positive and connected to a positive terminal. Such false labels can wreck much machinery. And so it has in this case.

His twelfth rule of power tactics is that “the price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative”. (p.130) And to explain this Alinsky immediately and simply states that “you cannot risk being trapped by the enemy in his sudden agreement with your demand” and saying to you that you were right and please tell us how to fix this.

And he moves on.

I can’t quite make this out as it is written. As best I can figure, he means that you should have a plan to fix the problem, but then wouldn’t your ‘demand’ have pretty much covered that? Or were you simply going to make a ‘demand’ that was really only a ‘complaint’ and hope that the ‘enemy’ would make a fool of himself trying to come up with a placating ‘solution’ that you could then make fun of or disregard or disparage? Or perhaps by simply complaining loudly enough, the ‘enemy’ (being the Beltway pols - in the very beginning anyway – or the public or some such entity theoretically also a part of the American commonwealth) will be so eager to give in to your ‘demand-complaint’ that he will give you more than you might have dared to ask for yourself.

This then would be a variant of the infantile manipulation whereby you scream long and loud enough and your parents – if they are of that nature – will give you whatever you want and more just for some peace and quiet. (Of course then - and the comparison with Hitler’s Modus Operandi in the mid-late 1930s comes to mind – you have no intention of allowing any such further peace and quiet and after a short interval start right up again in order to collect the next round’s tribute.)

Which has been pretty much the way things have gone in this town for quite some time.

If that’s what Alinsky meant, I can see why he was a little leery of putting it down in plain print.

Yet Alinsky is capable of an attention-getting candor when he feels like it. His thirteenth bit of advice is “Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it”. (p.130) Imagine here that the cadres of Identity Politics and all the other follow-on excitements kept this maxim on a handy wallet-size card. What would ‘politics’ look like after a couple-three decades of THAT?

I can’t not-think of that all-purpose mantra ‘the personal is political’, which apparently would include ‘polarization’ – which, by amazing coincidence, is one of the profound problems that recent commentators are suddenly realizing now bethumps so lethally American politics. We are ‘polarized’. Yes, and it was part of the plan all along. Except that none of the Lefty whiz-kids, those gimlet-eyed cadres of Progress, imagined that anything would go wrong between the conception of their dampdream and its Best-Case-Scenario fulfillment. Sorta like the imperial whiz-kids of the Bush-Cheney imperium as they planned to be “greeted as liberators” in the “cakewalk” that would be the invasion of Iraq.

To the extent that We have been told to greet the cadres of change as liberators, then all of Us are Iraqis now. And have been for quite some time.

But Alinsky is ready to quote some Scripture at you. “He that is not with me is against me” said Jesus. (p.134) True enough, but that was an observation, not the coded Go-Word for a concerted plan of assault. Indeed, the same Person also pointed out that God prefers to let the tares grow up with the wheat until the harvest – and if THAT Scriptural bit is accepted as Gospel (so to speak) then no revolution would ever get off the ground. Imagine the look on Alinsky’s face if you were to propose to him that the Haves must be allowed to grow in the field with the Have-Nots until the Master of the Harvest comes and conducts His own winnowing. Like the devil dropping in on a cogitating Luther, you might find an inkwell thrown at your head.

Alas, Alinsky has been doing some ciphering. A leader struggle with his/her assessment that a “situation” is 52 percent favorable and 48 percent unfavorable, “but once the decision is reached he must assume that his cause is 100 percent positive and the opposition 100 percent negative”. (134)

This is the first time Alinsky used ‘opposition’ instead of ‘enemy’. But that’s small consolation.

This type of math is NOT capable of sustaining a deliberative democratic politics. The whole idea with such a politics is that you try to reach a consensus and that you therefore are open to the complexities among various views and ideas which are built into the whole project of forging a plan that will attract a consensus. Once you have gone to ‘war-mode’ then, as is famously said, truth is going to be the first casualty. Or, as is also famously said, ‘facts don’t matter’. Or, in the old Central European maxim: once the war flag is unfurled, all truth is in the trumpet. Which, come to think of it, is pretty much the theory of ‘revolutionary truth’: once the revolution is on, then ‘the revolution’ is the only arbiter of what is true and what isn’t. As Goering said: “Truth is what the Party decides is good for the German Volk”.  

And with truth goes any sense of reality. And the Shape and boundaries that reality-based thinking imposes. But then Hillary Clinton was disassociating politics from reality-based thinking as early as her 1969 college commencement speech. And she’s never looked back.

And in a bit of advice that surely was not lost on the whiz-kids of the Bush-Cheney neocon imperium, Alinsky then goes on to quote the Bard: that bit of Hamlet’s about “the native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought”. Precisely what the neocons – and the cadres of the Left before them – wanted everybody to think. ‘Thinking’ is masculine, abstract, patriarchal and so ‘feeling’ is better. And only girly-men ‘think’; real men ‘act’ – from the gut (or thereabouts).

Phooey. Phooey and baloney.

Without the competence to deploy a serious and engaged capacity to assess and deliberate – which is the core of genuine ‘thinking’ – no genuine and robust deliberative politics can long survive. And, by amazing coincidence, it hasn’t.

It is “political idiocy”, Alinsky asserts, to come up with a problem and then grant that there is ‘another side’ to it. He’s wrong here: it is not political idiocy, it is idiocy in the eyes of any revolution. It is the essence of a revolution that the only reality and the only truth and the only good is that which furthers the objectives of the revolution. And if not, not.

So while no revolutionary politics can ever truly accept that there is ever ‘another side’ to whatever it wants to get rid of, yet every democratic politics must accept that probability if it is to conduct a legitimate and accurate assessment as to what might be done.

But Alinsky is going to go with deliberate “polarization” – that there is not and cannot be any ‘other side’ once you have committed to your ‘war’.

Alinsky provides, however, a revealing and useful quote: John L. Lewis, the labor leader and union organizer of the early 20th century, said about the relationship between the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company’s management and labor that “labor and capital may be partners in theory, but they are enemies in fact.” (p.135) [italics Alinsky’s]

The assertion has some real validity in the labor-capital forum, especially referring to the era before World War Two. And, by amazing coincidence, now again.

But it cannot be easily or simply transferred to ‘politics’. Try to fit any current ‘Correct’ phrases into the statement today and see what you get: Male and female may be partners in theory but they are enemies in fact; black and white may be partners in theory but they are enemies in fact; disabled and abled may be partners in theory but they are enemies in fact; native-born and foreign-born may be partners in theory but they are enemies in fact … you can see how several things don’t work. Can’t work.

In the first place, in the great capital-labor struggles, both management and labor WERE all (or mostly) American Citizens. But the absolute and desperate need for actual economic security – in fact just economic sufficiency – almost came to override that reality. We came almost to the point of European and Marxist theory: that ‘class’ trumps citizenship every time.

The New Deal went a long way toward rebalancing that so that the primal need for sufficient food and shelter, the essential without which life would revert to the Hobbesian, were met. So that while differences would exist, and would have to be worked through, the web of the Citizenship bond would not be broken by the existence of such dire and fundamental and basic human needs that the ancient and primitive human dynamics were evoked and unleashed.

In the second place, none of the follow-on claims by the assorted Identities approached so profoundly desperate and yet also clear and palpable a level of need as to equal the level of the tensions existing between labor and management in the prewar era. Nor is it sufficient to simply ‘claim’ that they do or to ‘demand’ that they be taken as such. There is no ‘oppression’ currently on offer that comes anywhere near matching the awful pressures labor was under in the prewar era – although the assorted cadres have labored mightily to make it seem otherwise.

In the third place, you can’t introduce into politics and society, widely and broadly and urgently, a multi-headed campaign of unending ‘demands’ which, claiming the mantle of the old capital-labor tensions, logically imply that they are going to reawaken even more widely and deeply and intensely those ancient tensions which almost wrecked the polity back in the days of the labor agitation.

And in the last place, you can’t really expect any polity (or culture or society) to survive if – as Identity Politics demands – your first allegiance is to your Identity for all practical purposes. If, then, you can say “I may be an American but what does that mean, really? I am actually a (fill in the blank) first of all.” And I think that far too many individuals now feel like that. This is the Third Republic in the early 1930s: ‘the trouble isn’t the Nazis across the border; it’s the other French people’. And after a while, in the later 1930s, the widely voiced idea was ‘better the Germans than the Third Republic’.

You can’t expect that numerous replicants or mutants of the original labor-capital tensions which almost wrecked the American polity back then, can be introduced with even greater intensity, and in greater numbers, and with even more ephemeral claims that promise even less ‘fulfillment’ and thus even more wracking political tensions … and THEN not-expect on top of all this that before many years have passed the catastrophe of profound political breakdown( that the country only narrowly avoided in the era of labor-agitation) will probably come to pass under the cumulative weight of all the demands of all the replicants and mutations.

Identity Politics and its associated gambits (Multiculturalism and Political Correctness certainly being two) was a catastrophe waiting to happen, an implosion not so much in slow motion but rather an implosion whose destructive and deconstructive effects have been cushioned in the public mind by liberal doses of Rightist (war and national greatness) or Leftist (change, liberation, and progress) Kool-Aid.

But now no amount of Kool-Aid, no matter how artfully a batch is mixed up, can cushion or obscure the consequences of what has happened.

Sobriety is going to be a very painful thing indeed. But after a binge like Ours over the past 40 years, what else could you expect.

(There will be one more Post in this Alinsky mini-series, on his concluding chapter entitled “The Way Ahead”, wherein he shares his thoughts on what needs to be done starting in 1972.)


*My copy is the paperback Vintage Books/Random House edition that reprints the original 1971 edition. The ISBN is 0-679-72113-4. All my quotations and page references will be taken from this edition.

**In the November 25, 2010 issue of ‘The New York Review of Books’, in an article entitled “Generation Why?” 30-something trendy writer Zadie Smith concludes from her examination of the Facebook Generation (they are Human 2.0; the rest of Us are Human 1.0 – in case you haven’t gotten the Memo) that “you can’t help but feel a little swell of pride in this 2.0 generation” because although “they’ve spent a decade being berated for not making the right sorts of paintings or novels or music or politics” it “turns out that the brightest 2.0 kids have been doing something else extraordinary – they’ve been making a world”.

Any toddler can “make a world” inside his/her head, and does. The dignity of being accorded the phrase “making a world” is grounded in the fact that you have actually constructed a livable and sustainable world out of real materials, a real and actual cultural and societal vessel that can see you through the stormy voyage of human existence on History’s vast ocean. Smith accords this accolade to Facebook-ers whose world – she can’t herself seem to distinguish – is nothing more than a resource-consuming phantasm, both gaga and goo-goo, for indulged kids who have the price of a personal communications device and feel either no need or no hope of coming to grips with the real world (which, around them in their childhood, has gone to hell).

Nor is it consolation that Smith herself seems personally unable to distinguish between a fantasy-world and a (or the) real one. But her own generation, born in the mid-Seventies, was raised with all the totally-plastic and total-autonomy crapulence that has passed for philosophy and political thought among the elites. Herself a woman of color (if I recall the Correct Memo) and college-soused, you can imagine how much of that sort of fatuous claptrap she mastered before being hired on to show that the elites are indeed ‘with it’ and that the generations raised under the tutelage of their worldview are turning out just fine, thank yew.

But her own life history has demonstrated ‘plasticity’ and is remarkably free of the type of applied and long slog up the ladder of Achievement; the magical mystery of youthy success has enveloped her. And you can see in her own history an indication of how the fatuity and ‘freedom’ from reality is now intergenerational and having a predictable echo effect as it is amplified through subsequent generations of youth.

In terms of Identity Politics and Alinsky, this is a vivid – perhaps lurid – example of what has happened since the demographic-desperate Dems (adults themselves in the beginning back in 1972) ‘valorized’ Youth as one of its most-favored Identities. A country that very much faced challenges that promised to give even the most wise, patient, competent and efficacious Adulthood a work-out saw its (then) largest political Party start Deconstructing Adulthood and raising up the inexperience and impatience and callowness of Youth as The Way To Go. Curiously, Alinsky’s maxim that Nothing Is On The Level was – neatly – never applied to Identity Politics. Where, by all means, it should have been.

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Friday, November 12, 2010


I came across this article just today; it’s datelined October 6, 2010.

The author is asking that since all warfare is based on deception, then should “activists” really be so heavily invested in “thinking strategically”?

I’d add here that “thinking strategically” no doubt includes a verrrry heavy dose of Alinsky-ite Technique. And THAT includes a whole lotta manipulation (of the people you’re theoretically helping as well as of the public and the ‘officials’ that you are targeting (who, We recall, are merely and essentially tools of the Haves). You can refresh yourself and read Saul’s own self-satisfied recounting in my immediately prior Post, the 7th in the Alinsky series.

Alinsky, as I say in that series, combines all the best of Lenin, Mao, Goebbels, and the advertising path-breaker Bernays in his Technique and Approach and Method.

Strategy, says this author here, seeks “control” and ultimately “power”. Pure Alinsky.

And in light of the ‘emergency’ of the Haves-vs-the-Have-Nots, and since Nothing Is On The Level and Haves are all sly and evil phonies (my take on it, see the previous Post) then for the sake of making Good happen (i.e. good stuff for the Have-Nots) you as an organizer can do whatever it takes. Evil in the service of Good is somehow magically baptized

Thus, in a hellhot irony, not only does Alinsky channel pure revolutionary thought AND Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand, but also Fundamentalist thought as embraced later by the Bush-Cheney Imperial Neocon Chowder and Marching Band Society.

The author points out that the definition of “strategy” includes heavy heavy doses of planning. And I would add that planning involves deliberation and a great deal of purposeful forethought and, not to put too fine a point on it, ‘calculation’ – or, to use a single word, if I may – ‘premeditation’.

And THIS runs counter to something Alinsky didn’t put much emphasis on but is vitally important to another stream in the American Zeitgeist of the past 40 Biblical years: victimism. The rhetoric of victimism is that of Innocence Aggrieved (or Extorted or Assaulted … it varies with the particular flavor of advocacy you are faced with).

The blending of the two streams – Alinsky’s Technique and Victimism – results in a robust Alinsky-ite calculated premeditation BUT as performed on behalf of the Innocent Victim (which in Alinsky’s own vision is simply the economic Have-Not).

The payoff for ‘advocacy’ (which is what Alinsky’s organizers would be called nowadays) is that it gets to bask in the aura of Innocence as well as Righteousness and Goodness. Which is a handy thing indeed, when you consider that the advocates are going to have to travel Alinsky’s “low road” and go over to, in Cheney’s later pithy phrase, “the dark side”.

Worse, the ‘sheeps-clothing’ of trying to Do A Good Thing also lulls the wider public awareness, which is never a desirable development in a democratic polity: the average Citizen may well presume that ‘advocates’ are simply ‘concerned Citizens’ who have discovered something wrong and are bringing the matter to their fellow Citizens’ attention.

Which is hell-and-gone from what ‘organizing’ and ‘advocacy’ is all about: Alinsky pays no attention to building a democratic consensus or encouraging a wider deliberation. Although he doesn’t deploy the term, he considers the rest of the population as merely those who ‘just don’t get it’ and who may well be nothing more than the tools of the Haves or even closet-Haves themselves. But then of course, ‘democracy’ for Alinsky is no more On The Level than anything else in his darkling, greedy world (and his vision of a darkling, greedy humanity). Citizens are not Citizens to him; they are ‘part of the problem’.

No wonder American democratic politics is in the condition it’s in today: nobody, including the Beltway, believes in it. Nor in the Citizens nor in The People. Neither Left nor Right, neither ‘advocates’ nor elected officials nor the legions of functionaries required for the combined activities of the National Security State and the National Nanny State. (And the media finds ‘confrontation’ and ‘victims’ far more telegenic than boring old democratic deliberation.)

Worse even than all that, though, is that Gandhian ‘non-violence’, which is what so many of the “activists” and advocates claim to be governed by, is narrowly conceived as merely meaning physical non-violence. The violence done to truth (or Truth) is verrry conveniently ignored.

This was not a problem for Alinsky since he considered that Nothing Is On The Level anyway, and that in politics “there is only the Low Road”.

And Alinsky himself was quite violent in his treatment of reality (or Reality) reducing it to merely the dynamics of oppression and extortion. Humanity is just a pool of greedy slimepots taking what isn’t theirs from the extorted Have-Nots (who in their Have-Not incarnation are not apparently given to greed, but who will in their turn, as Alinsky points out, become Haves and will have to, in their turn, become the targets of his ‘organizers’).

But such reductionist violence is what all revolutions have to do – it is perhaps their Original Sin – in order to Make Good Happen (which was Lenin’s claimed strength against Marx’s perceived weakness as merely being a thinker and a Luftmensch). Lenin saw himself as fulfilling the weaker Marx.

This profound conundrum gave Martin Luther King a great deal of moral trouble when he encountered the police tactics of a Southern police chief who, differing from his counterpart in Birmingham, the monstrous Shock-and-Awe Bull Connor, advocated treating ‘demonstrators’ with tact and civility.

What then was King to do when faced with a police force that would not simply hand him the living embodiment of Evil Violence? Was it morally and ethically legitimate to “incite” the police to violence in order to keep up the momentum of the Movement? *

But few of any subsequent organizers and advocates were possessed of the moral depth of King. And, really, revolutionaries do not – cannot – allow themselves such luxuries as deep moral reflection. While Lenin would not consider ‘morality’ in the first place, non-Soviet revolutionaries, especially in the West, and tinged with a bit more of the old-timey religion (whether they know it or not, whether they like it or not) simply presume that since they are seeking to bring about Good, then whatever they have to do ‘justifies’ or baptizes whatever Evil they have to do.

Nicely, the Comments that follow the article clearly indicate the nerve that the author has touched. While a couple of Commenters acknowledge that he’s got an interesting idea here, the majority of the Comments (as of this writing) are angrily dismissive of his insight and his concern. Clearly, to most of the Commenters, the author ‘just doesn’t get it’; they intend to conduct business-as-usual and they don’t appreciate the possibility that they have caused some seriously baaad consequences.

Given that they are all practicing Alinsky-ite Technique whether they know it or not, this isn’t surprising.

So, as has always been true in American society, as well as true for all revolutions**, none of the true believers want to think that they have caused bad consequences (let alone that they have caused more damage than good, and especially if on top of all that, they have failed). In this the Beltway, the Pentagoons, and the ‘advocates’ are all sisters-under-the-skin. Wheeeeee.


*King solved the problem to his sufficient satisfaction by reasoning that since the Jim Crow regime was inherently violent in its essence, and the police – whether they knew it or not – served the Jim Crow regime, then one was not so much ‘inciting’ the police to violence that the Regime would otherwise not engage in, but rather was ‘inviting’ the violence that it most essentially practiced day in and day out. I’ll leave judgment of his assessment to you.

** In a piece published in ‘The London Review of Books’ (issue dated 21 October 2010, pp. 8-9) entitled “Can you give my son a job?” Slavoj Zizek makes the interesting observation that in China the Communist Party has performed the neat trick of putting itself above and beyond the State (and the State’s published laws and strictures) by making itself for all practical purposes invisible.

It is dangerously un-Correct to actually speak about the Party publicly or even make reference to it. And yet its cadres run all of the main elements of the State.

Given the jaw-dropping amount of bleed-over in ideas and method and operating dynamics between the old Second-World Communist Parties and the ‘revolutionary politics’ embraced by the vote-addled Dems in the late Sixties and early Seventies, I can’t help but wonder to what extent the dedicated advocacies and pressure-groups of the ‘liberal’ bases also actually operate on that assumption: that The Party and the Party-Line (as they define it) actually take precedence over the machinery and Ground of the State (here, the Constitutional Vision) since it is only the Party that ‘gets it’ and has thereby the ‘right and authority’ to lead the masses to perfection and fulfillment. It would give ‘Party politics’ a whole new meaning and perhaps provide an acutely useful angle for examining what’s happened to American politics in the past four decades.

While I’m on it, I can’t refrain from sharing Zizek’s delicious bit of Soviet history from the day in February 1956 when Khrushchev denounced Stalin in the inaptly named ‘Secret Speech’ to the senior cadres at the 20th Party Congress. “The speech so undermined the dogma of infallible leadership that the entire nomenklatura sank into temporary paralysis … a dozen or so delegates collapsed during the speech and had to be carried out and given medical help … the hard-line General-Secretary of the Polish Communist Party died of a heart attack … the model Stalinist writer Alexander Fadeyev actually shot himself a few days later.”

After what has been discussed above and the article, you can’t help but wonder what would happen if  somebody were elected who would tell the truth about what has been going on around here for the past few decades.

Although I wonder: how many inside the Beltway would be surprised at a recounting of the ‘revolutionary war politics’ that undermined the Constitution and the democratic ethos? Or at the comprehensive Deconstruction not only of a productive economy and the culture-of-productivity that was indispensable to maintaining it? Or at the Deconstruction of any sort of stable, mature, adult culture – anchored in some working sense of the Beyond and of some system of Ideals? Or at the comprehensive and treacherous deception embodied in ‘spinning’ the whole crapulent programme as merely ‘reform’, ‘change’, ‘progress’, and ‘liberation’? Or at the stifling Correctness, accepted by a ‘free press’ more concerned for easy-come melodramatic agitprop ‘stories’ than for acute reporting?

Ah well … a vision to warm the heart in the gathering cold gloom.


Sunday, November 07, 2010


I continue this look at Saul Alinsky’s 1971 book “Rules for Radicals”* that – I believe – has exerted and continues to exert a substantial and deforming influence on national politics.

His sixth chapter is entitled “In the Beginning” (a nice Biblical flourish).

The incoming organizer, looking to establish his/her creds with the targeted group must not start by declaring his/her “love for people” because nobody is going to believe it (since, of course, Nothing Is On The Level and Nobody Is What They Claim To Be).

Instead, the organizer should immediately start “with a denunciation of exploiting employers, slum landlords, police shakedowns, gouging merchants” and so the organizer will be “inside their experience and they accept him”. (p.98)

In the age-old struggle of Haves vs. Have-Nots the rockhard facts of economic exploitation were the mainstay of the American Old Left (replaced, you recall, by the New Left of the late Sixties and subsequently). And Alinsky’s heart is certainly in the right place with his concern.

But when the New Left adopted his Approach, applying it liberally (as it were) to all manner of far less obvious, far less palpable, and far more dubious and ‘abstract’ issues and outrages and emergencies, the whole thing began to run off the rails. As I have said, Alinsky did not live to see the age of Identity Politics and the New Left’s abandonment of meat-and-potatoes economic issues for all that smorgasbord of New Lefty stuff; and I don’t intend to saddle him with the wrack of the past 40 Biblical years.

But his Approach was adopted by the New Left and he might have seen that coming throughout the late Sixties. And simply taken on its own terms, his Approach was deeply fraught with serious difficulties if it were to be applied within (and against) a democratic polity.

“Love and faith are not common companions. More commonly, power and fear consort with faith.” (p.99) As so often with Alinsky, he takes the reality of an incompleteness in the human project, and in the American Project, and reduces everything to that incompleteness as a sign of definitive and constitutive bad faith.

Surely, the Constitutional Vision expected that there would be changing perceptions and illuminations. The whole machinery of the American Constitutional polity was set up to ensure that the Citizenry would have the political right to exert itself toward a deliberated and consensual response to changing thoughts and priorities.

But Alinsky’s rock-bottom assumption is that Imperfection or Incompleteness Rules, and that the ‘bad’ reality of that situation must be taken as definitive. As must the tendency of all humans – in their way – to try to get what they want and keep it. Given that core ‘reality’ as he defines it, then only the most dedicated but ultimately cynical approach to politics can be ‘realistic’. And so you get Alinsky’s sempiternal war-politics.

Note therefore his easy conflation of Love and Faith with Power and Fear. He presumes that humans cannot change, cannot – either as individuals or as a group or as a polity – make improvements through purposeful deliberation and consensus. Perhaps this is how he himself saw life; but such an assumption certainly serves to ‘justify’ his war-politics. Whether he actually ever gave any serious thought as to whether that war-politics could work for any extended period of time in the American polity without causing fundamental corrosions … I don’t know. Apparently the Beltway – especially after 1972 – preferred not to think too much about such possibilities.

You can also see, I think, where – true to the ‘religious’ nature of his conceptual forebear, Communism – he is staking out a position that will demand a certain dogmatic assumption of certain beliefs … about human beings and about their potential for improving their common life together.

And that’s why I think you see, even more than in Classical Liberalism’s uneasiness with religious belief (manifested in the political sphere of the Citizens’ activity), Communism’s abiding need to discredit religion: it needs to replace religion with its own required dogmatic set of assumptions and beliefs about humans and about the history that they make.

The Christian position is that human beings must profoundly love (I would say ‘respect’) each other’s dignity as God’s created children and then work out among themselves (in a democracy) how that respect for dignity can be incorporated sustainably in the culture and polity for the sake of the common-weal. This position assumes the dignity and rationality of human beings (and the ongoing supportive and illuminating Grace of God, if you wish).

From that it flows that every human being in the polity is responsible for making his/her best efforts to deliberate and work toward a sustainable social reality: Lincoln used the splendid phrase “to achieve a just and a lasting peace, among ourselves and with all nations”.

Since humans are highly social beings, and need to be grounded in a certain structure and deep frame-of-reference to support their need for Meaning and Purpose, then prudence dictates that you effect the changes only after careful and wide deliberation; you can’t take a plane apart in mid-air and you can’t rip out the watertight bulkheads in a ship while it’s at sea, just to better suit your idea of how things should look.

Because human culture is a precarious thing but essential to avoid regression to that Hobbesian state of affairs where nobody can afford to operate at the higher and more ideal levels of human potential since – like some gritty town without a sheriff in the Badlands of a 1970s Western – you’re always trying to simply get through the day in the face of the most life-threatening challenges to your basic animal survival. Human beings have marvelous potentials, but you’re not going to have much chance of reaching them if you’re fighting every day just to survive.

Conceptually Marx saw that Industrial Capitalism was creating essentially Hobbesian conditions for the workers – and he wasn’t too far off the mark there. Lenin ‘organized’ Marx, as it were, honing the Marxist insights into the weapon of a vanguard Party and its elite cadres who could actually and quickly ‘make Marx happen’. Marx was an idea man (and his heart was in the right place); Lenin was an organizer who said he couldn’t afford to have a heart if he was going to get Big Things done.

To Marx ‘the masses’ were suffering human beings; to Lenin they were so much furniture to be re-arranged, or cattle to be moved around although oblivious to what was best for them. (Let’s not even get into Stalin’s vision of human beings.)

Alinsky took Marx’s sentiments – which can well be the sentiments of any decent human being faced with Industrial Capitalism as it existed before the American New Deal – and Lenin’s Methods and then tried to apply them to the American polity. His earliest efforts were before the New Deal, or throughout the difficult 1930s, and those were – I think – his formative experiences which he took with him throughout his life.

But there was, certainly by the postwar era, a functioning democratic polity in America – and not the entrenched Capitalist-Aristocracy combinations that were established in almost all other Western countries. The application of a Method forged in non-democratic polities of the late 19th and early 20th centuries was not, I would say, called for – and indeed there existed huge possibility that the applications of that Method in this American polity would seriously derange it. Which, I think it can be seen by now, is exactly what has happened.

Alinsky continues that the Have-Nots have a limited faith in their own judgments while the Haves have all the ‘established’ truths going for them. (p.99) Thus the Have-Nots must be encouraged to have confidence in their own judgments. This isn’t a bad approach up to this point. The Progressive-era efforts to ensure and support good education for the newly-arrived industrial working populations was precisely aimed at trying to realize the potential of those populations.

BUT the idea back then was to enable and ‘empower’ (to use a more modern term) those populations by educating them so that their judgments would serve them well in the democratic process of standing-up for their situation.

BUT it is precisely at that point that Alinsky – and far more the New Left incarnations of the “Have-Nots” – seeks to shortcut the whole ‘democratic’ thing by declaring that Nothing Is On The Level (including the American Vision) and therefore the Have-Nots must be encouraged simply to get mad and start applying whatever ‘pressure’ can be brought to bear. ‘Judgment’ doesn’t really enter into it.

The ‘revolutionary impatience’ that was so brutally evident in the Soviet approach, and even more relevantly in the ‘revolutionary chinoiserie’ of the New Left gaga-admiration for all things Mao in the late Sixties, had no room for democratic process.

(This hugely unfortunate development operated in synergy with Martin Luther King’s insistence that in the face of Jim Crow in the South ‘patience’ wouldn’t work because the South had specifically and purposely and carefully and deliberately been erected precisely to stymie the American democratic Vision as it applied to blacks in the South and as it had been – theoretically – established through the North’s victory in the Civil War. But Jim Crow was not a ‘normal’ example of how ‘democracy’ worked; it was precisely a regime designed to thwart it fundamentally and thoroughly. The New Left blended Alinsky and MLK to brew a thorough ‘revolutionary’ rejection of the American democratic process altogether – although, shrewdly, and Alinsky would have approve, as a matter of ‘tactics and strategy’ that profound rejection was ‘spun’ as merely ‘reform’ and ‘change’ to improve the democratic reality. Hence radical-feminism, as the most organized example, tried to cast ‘women’ as being in the same – or even worse – situation under the oppression of a gender-based Jim Crow regime that theoretically extended all the way back to the beginning of human history.)

Worse, Alinsky notes – accurately enough – that the Have-Nots will eventually come to have a certain “reverence” (p.99) for the very structures that exploit and extort them.

But this is hardly a sufficient analysis. Human beings come to have a certain ‘reverence’ for the order of their society and culture based on what I would say is a very innate ‘horse-sense’ that without the ‘bridge structure’ of culture then they will be tossed into the foaming river of Hobbesian war-of-all-against-all, into a foaming torrent of aimlessness and meaninglessness.

You can’t easily separate these two motivations for ‘reverence’ except on paper and in your imagination. To build a ‘revolution’ and justify it by claiming that only one of those motivations (the Have-Nots as deluded oppressees) is ‘real’ and everything else is merely the ‘opium’ of the masses and a delusion and backlashing and the obstructionism of the Haves (however defined) is nothing more than sloppy analysis or – worse – deliberate omission of those elements that are not supportive of what you think is the Right Thing to do. (And can you say ‘Iraq War’?)

But Alinsky makes his analysis – such as it is – and thereby wants to ‘deconstruct’ (to use a later term he wouldn’t be too familiar with) any ‘reverence’ by claiming that the whole System (ah, there’s a term that takes me back!) and the whole Establishment (ditto) is Not On The Level and anything or anyone who urges ‘reverence’ is merely a tool of the Haves trying to continue the oppression.

This, of course, is why the New Left and ‘religion’ – crystallized especially in the Catholic Church – haven’t gotten along well and why the New Left has been working its hardest to ‘deconstruct’ that Church from without and within.

But to live a life without ‘reverence’ – especially for some Larger Reality – is, in any human group, a recipe for disaster on many levels.

But Alinsky is a shrewd tactician. In fact he recommends what Civil War military folk would call the ‘defensive offensive’: you go after your enemy by positioning yourself on well-defensible ground that your enemy can’t afford to let you have, and then you will thereby MAKE your enemy attack you, charging uphill into the mouths of your already-dug-in rifles and artillery. Alinsky does this when he says that “the job of the organizer is to maneuver and bait the establishment so that it will publicly attack him [the organizer] as a ‘dangerous enemy’”. (p.100) No West Point textbook of the 19th century could put it more succinctly.

I think a lot of what has become the debased modern American politics of confrontational symbolism has its roots right here. Nobody can recall the late Sixties and Seventies around here without recalling the seemingly endless stream of ‘confrontations’ where seemingly well-rehearsed individuals and groups claimed they were being ‘attacked and oppressed’ and ‘this incident’ proves it, all of it arranged nicely for the cameras. (The tactic spread and now you can see all sorts of demonstrations about this or that in foreign lands where the placards are printed in English (for the cameras and the American viewing audience).

Nice tactic. But in a deliberative democratic polity you can only do so much of this before you derange, debase, corrupt and corrode the whole process of wide public deliberation aimed at achieving a workable new consensus.

But to Alinsky all that takes too much time, given the fact that the Haves (and in the era of the New Left that term was veryyyy broadly defined) will never Be On The Level and the Haves hold all the cards. This is the modus operandi of Identity Politics and the politics of symbolism and appearances.

And when the pols get the idea that this is the way things are going to be from now on, then even among the political class the skills of achieving wide consensus (not to be equated with the ‘politics of the deal’, the old Gilded-Age ‘smoke-filled room’ without the smoke) and even the desire to achieve wide consensus AND EVEN any respect for the democratic process of achieving consensus AND EVEN any foundational respect for the Citizens as being able to deliberate in good faith (most of them ‘just don’t get it’, after all) … when the pols start to conform themselves to this New Order in politics, then political catastrophe looms.

True to Lenin’s vanguard-elite theory Alinsky asserts that “One of the great problems in the beginning of an organization is, often, that the people don’t know what they want”. (p.104) He’s going to try to solve that in a democratic-type fashion by having the organizers ‘educate’ people into what’s good for them and what they need to do and what they want (“consciousness-raising sessions”, a New Left staple, are one of the tried-and-true expressions of this assumption).

But since he’s already undermined the basis for any genuine democratic process by the rock-bottom assertions that Nothing Is On The Level and that the Haves (however your group defines them) Are Never Going To Allow You To Be Free (or get what you want), then Alinsky’s Method is not at all going to strengthen democratic process. How could it? More relevantly, why should it? After all, a whole bunch of your fellow Citizens – and Americans – are nothing but treacherous and purposeful oppressors and extorters. This is the toxic brew bubbling in the Identity Politics pot and has been bubbling there from the get-go.

But he blames this state of affairs on the American democratic polity: “It is the schizophrenia of a free society that we outwardly espouse faith in the people but inwardly have strong doubts whether the people can be trusted”. (p. 104) Which is a pretty accurate summation of his own position. But this is the enabling fantasy that grounds his entire Approach.

The Framers themselves had their doubts: can people be trusted to function as The People? But the entire American system of government and politics is premised on the assumption that in the long run the answer to that Question is Yes. The entire European revolutionary premise is that they cannot and that the answer to that Question is No.

How could anybody imagine that Alinsky could be applied widely and liberally (so to speak) in this country and yet NOT undermine a genuinely democratic politics?

The problem facing organizers (and, amazingly, “missionaries”, he says) is that “if people feel they don’t have the power to change a bad situation, then they do not think about it”. (p.105) But the democratic solution to THAT is – as the original Progressives saw – to educate and encourage people to look at their problem and come up with ways to exercise their voting power collectively to change things.

The big problem among newly-arrived immigrant populations of the industrialized late-19th century American cities was that they were not familiar with the Framing Vision and had no experience of it. Indeed, they came from countries where either the government was not to be trusted to cause them anything but trouble or else the way to get along as a ‘little guy’ was merely to attach yourself to some strong ‘patron’ (the local political machine boss or, after Prohibition, your local ethnic equivalent of Don Corleone). These folks were from a Europe (mostly) that had no conception of people functioning as The People.

In a hellhot irony, Alinsky’s efforts to apply 19th century European revolutionary assumptions and methods to ‘organize’ them into what was best for them functioned precisely to regress them back to the Old World and stifle the possibility that they would learn how to function as Citizens according to the Framing Vision.

Fortunately, back then, there was a strong enough educational system and a general public philosophy of cultural assimilation and over time those immigrant generations caught on.

But nowadays the entire concept of cultural assimilation has been Deconstructed through the efforts of Multiculturalism and Identity Politics. The whole idea now is that ‘America’ is Not On The Level and not worth giving up your native Identity for, so don’t. And simply ‘pressure’ the Beltway for whatever you figure you want or are told by ‘advocates’ (the new ‘organizers’) that you should want.

Here and there some workable and worthwhile gains may be made and with a willing government (cue the Dems in 1972) a whole lotta trendy ‘change’ can be imposed quickly enough. But over the long run a whole lotta unworkable and even conflicting ‘changes’ are going to add up to a colossal mess – and here We are today.

People, Alinsky says, need “to have a reason for knowing”, otherwise they’ll just fuhgeddaboutit (a post-Alinsky phrase that stems, as best I can make out, from New Yorkers who had given up on their City government ever being able to get anything right).

As it stands his statement is true indeed. Human beings were given the ability to Reason and so they have a built-in desire and thirst to know. That’s where the ‘free press’ bits come into the Framing Vision. And the stuff about a solid shared education and a common fund of knowledge necessary for any Citizen to function competently.

But all that Alinsky means by ‘knowing’ is knowing that you are being screwed somehow. It is a politics of suspicion and based on – as the academy would say – a hermeneutics of suspicion.**

This is not only a Flat world. It is a dark and swamp-like world. It will lead to no broad sunlit uplands and anybody residing in it is going to wind up becoming, especially for political purposes, a swamp creature.

The organizer enters a community (obviously not a community of the ‘organized’ but simply a normal community of folks) and s/he does nothing but organize until s/he has built “the mass power base of what he calls the army”. (p.113) In case you didn’t quite the get the idea of a war-politics.

“Power and organization are one and the same.” (p.113) But this is not a community of already-existing Citizens who get themselves together and deliberate and then figure how best to persuade enough other Citizens. This is a ‘community’ that doesn’t exist yet because it doesn’t yet know what’s good for it, and when it IS informed that it is being and probably has long been oppressed and extorted by some form of Have, then it will get really mad and this is what the organizer is looking for.

After that things might get a little sketchy, but ‘getting there’ is half the fun and they’ll work out something as time goes on. If you have nothing then anything you do get is going to be an improvement.

This presumes that you have accurately assessed your situation and – in a democratic polity – you might then start talking up your ideas. All of that is too slow and too weak for the 19th century revolutionary European approach, which is Alinsky’s approach. He might well have said, had he lived long enough to be educated by neoconservatives, that ‘real men go the revolutionary organizing route’ and only girly-men go the ‘democratic process’ route. Ja!

But Alinsky is nothing if not masculine. The organizer’s training of the power-base is like a trainer preparing a prizefighter for a world-class bout. (p.114) Again with the war-politics.

It is revealing to read him as he recounts one episode from his files. (See pp. 114-5 for this story)

There was a neighborhood that had a high infant mortality rate; the neighborhood had had an Infant Welfare medical clinic but a decade before Alinsky’s arrival the clinic had been kicked out because of the neighborhood didn’t like its disseminating birth-control information. (As Alinksy shrewdly tells it, the neighborhood didn’t kick the clinic out, “the churches” did – yet in the next sentence Alinsky says that the neighborhood folks “had forgotten that they themselves had expelled” the clinic.)

Anyhoo, Alinsky checked things out and found that all the neighborhood had to do to get the clinic back was to ask for it. “However, I kept this information to myself.” Instead, he called an “emergency meeting” and got folks whipped up to form a committee that would go down to the Infant Welfare Society’s main offices and DEMAND medical services.

So down they went. Alinsky gloats that “Our strategy was to prevent the officials from saying anything; to start banging on the desk and demanding that we get the services, never permitting them to interrupt us or make any statement. The only time we would let them talk was after we got through”. You start to form a certain impression of the gentleman.

Down they go to the offices of this volunteer clinic society, and there’s this “poor woman” at the desk. Somebody whose volunteer work or job is to get medical care to as many infants as possible.

“With this careful indoctrination we stormed in … and began a tirade consisting of militant demands, refusing to permit her to say anything. All the time the poor woman was desperately trying to say ‘Why of course you can have it – we’ll start immediately’. But she never had the chance to say anything and we ended up in a storm of ‘And we will not take No for an answer!’”.

When the organized had finished their script, Alinsky continues, the woman said ‘Well, I’ve been trying to tell you …’ and I cut in, demanding ‘Is it yes or is it no?’. Naturally, the woman said Yes and then immediately Alinsky brayed “’That all we wanted to know’ and we stormed out of the place”.

Thus Alinsky.

And he’s rather very much pleased with himself.

There’s something deeply disturbing about this story.

It’s repulsive on an individual human level: the neighborhood was purposely deceived; the woman at the desk was put through an unnecessary and unpleasant experience; and the neighborhood committee was then quickly herded out before it might stumble upon the truth of the situation. Even back in the days of Alinsky’s youth this story would repel.

Worse, you get a sense here of how American politics was deranged and debased in the past 40 years as Identity Politics took this basic gambit to stratospheric levels.

And in this sense the ‘neighborhood’ was the American Citizenry, who started off 40 years ago with a decent assumption that if other Citizens were going to bring a problem to public attention (by a ‘free press’ and quite possibly with the backing of an elected official or ten) then they must be on the level and the problem must be real.

BUT AS YOU CAN SEE … none of that applied then or applies at all in Alinsky’s Method.

Forty Biblical years of this scam, amplified by a melodrama-hungry media, backed up by a band of braying or bleating pols … it stuns and it repels.

The ‘script’ has worked its dark magic. American politics is polarized, sensationalized, infantilized, emotionalized, and nothing but a shell of a robust democratic deliberative politics based on even a modest level of communal trust that Citizens all have the common-weal and truth as a shared goal and purpose.

Of course, in the revolutionary universe, where the only truth is the truth of the revolution (or, the only truth is the truth this or that Identity wants you to accept as true), this is a masterful little show.

And it’s bred a class of masterful little pols and ‘advocates’.

But American politics has gotten smaller and smaller, weaker and weaker, and there’s nothing masterful left at all.

Alinsky draws lessons. “Therefore, if your function is to attack apathy and get people to participate it is necessary to attack the prevailing patterns of organized living in the community . The first step in community organization is community disorganization.” (p.116) [italics Alinsky’s]

Once again, I point out how profoundly corrosive this strategy would be in any polity that sought some level of shared identity as a Citizenry. Confronted with this type of ‘balkanization’ assorted strong-men in Europe or Eurasia have imposed commonality by force (Stalin, Tito). The Dems and later the Beltway chose to pander to pressure and to ‘bribe’ with entitlements, thereby – I imagine – hoping to create some modestly reliable electoral viability by gluing together assorted fractious fractals of the Citizenry with cash and bennies and special-treatment. But that, of course, is a strategy that will work only as long as the government’s cash lasts. Which may not be that much longer.

But in a democratic polity such as the United States, the effect of Identity Politics must by its own dynamics fracture any sense of common identity and shared purpose among the Citizenry: if for all practical purposes your primary identity-loyalty is not to your country but to some erected ‘group’ (based on race, gender, preferences as to this or that, level of ability or disability, and on ad infinitum) then the ‘common-weal’ and the ‘commonwealth’ is effectively undermined and it will dissolve into parts along the fracture lines of any group’s self-definition as an ‘Identity’. Balkanization in essence and in effect.

And again, it’s not possible to read Alinsky here without realizing that he really is conceiving of things in terms of ‘attack’ and ‘war-politics’. THAT’S his programme.

And if there is any lingering doubt about ‘culture wars’, once Alinsky was taken up and adopted by the New Left and all of its nascent Identities, each seeking to ‘pressure’ a willing Beltway, and each seeking to undo or Deconstruct the advantages of ‘status’ and ‘establishment’ enjoyed by its declared ‘enemy’, then here’s hoping that doubt is dispelled.

And it cannot be forgotten that some of the agendas required not simply this or that particular ‘reform’ but rather a deep assault on some pretty vital piece of American culture (or Western Civilization). Multiculturalism essentially rejects the worth or validity of any newcomers assimilating to American culture; radical-feminism requires both abortion-on-demand AND the eradication of the Family (not a particularly American invention; it goes back somewhat farther than that).

And, being fractals of Identity Politics, they ALL claim that what they want is either so urgent a correction of some ‘oppression’ or else so obvious a ‘right’ that any delay in giving in to their demands can only be (neatly) obstruction, backlash, or some other form of a Have group oppressing a Have-Not group.

All change means disorganization of the old and the organization of the new.” (p.116) [italics Alinsky’s]

Yes but no. On it’s most basic level it’s so obvious that it’s a truism. But where Alinsky might have meant ‘change’ as the Old Left would have meant it (palpable economic deprivation of Labor in the generally accepted sense of the term, clear to establish and demonstrate), ‘change’ didn’t begin to do justice to the agendas of the New Left. When you are going to insist that a nation and a society had no right to insist that newcomers demonstrate loyalty – or even any sense that their new host was worth the effort to assimilate, then you are demanding a monstrous and uworkable illogicality. When you insist that the way human society has organized itself since the beginning of recorded history (at least) and that you want that changed forthwith, then you are demanding a ‘change’ that no society and no culture and no civilization can accept without at least a whole lotta careful and serious thought.

This was not Alinsky’s way. And that’s OK.

This was not what the respective Identities wanted. And that’s OK – a democratic polity is set up to handle such developments.

BUT when the Dems and then the Beltway figured that their most rewarding course of action would be to put their full weight behind these things without further ado … THEN that was not OK. These demands were hugely dubious in terms of justification; quite possibly unworkable in terms of fulfillment; and in any case were going to require such broad and sweeping change – imposed by an increasingly impositional Beltway – that the entire Framing Vision and the mechanism of a democratic deliberative politics would be not simply temporarily thrown off-balance, but profoundly deranged and perhaps permanently undermined. (And in 2010, does any of that appear NOT to have happened?)

A broad-based, consistent, and profound multivalent campaign of “disorganization” cannot help but – ummmmm – disorganize a society, a culture, a polity, a country and – who knows? – an economy too.

And at some point in there you pass the point of ‘constructive disorganization’ in the service of a reasonable expectation of positive achievement that will strengthen and not weaken the common-weal. At some point you tip over into Deconstruction as a runaway buzzsaw that is simply chewing up and chewing up until there isn’t enough left to hold the whole together.

No one can negotiate without the power to compel negotiation.” (p.119) [italics Alinsky’s] Who can forget the sage insight of that great American businessman and entrepreneur, Alphonse Capone, deceased: “You can get more with a gun and a kind word, than you can with just a kind word”. That’s an excellent maxim for conducting a Mob racket. But it’s hardly the type of advice likely to sustain a democratic politics.

Notice that We seem to have been frog-marched right past deliberation and persuasion. Alinsky is good at that sort of thing – recall his bravura performance in the matter of the children’s medical clinic.

Do you want to help a “low-income” community (Alinsky’s example here, p. 119) to see that they have a “bad scene” and then help them to see that it’s an “issue” that can be addressed? Sure. So long as you respect them as Citizens and give them good and accurate and worthwhile information and teach them genuine skills and don’t simply manipulate them so they can be herded around like a portable stampede that will do its thing on cue.

And introduce them to the democratic process and see where things go – that’s how a democracy changes without ripping itself apart.

But noooooo. That’s not the revolutionary way. And at this point, of course, there are many New Left thinkers who have gotten around that problem by claiming that in matters where ‘minority’ ‘rights’ are being denied then it’s a matter of ‘rights’ and must be resolved in their favor immediately and not deliberated, discussed, debated, questioned, Tire-Kicked, or anything else, because the ‘rights’ are not challengeable by a ‘majority’ democracy.

But then, neatly, they claim – if you tally up all the fractals – what is in effect a democracy where almost 70 percent of the Citizens are and have been ‘oppressed’ by the remaining 30 percent. Which, they quickly insist, simply goes to show how big the ‘emergency’ is. To ask if such a scenario is even possible or how it could sustain itself over centuries is considered thinking-too-much and ‘backlashing’. Neat.

But as is finally becoming clear, you can only play word-games for just so long and then reality (or Reality) is going to catch up and reassert itself. Consequences - unintended, unforeseen, or just plain ignored – become so advanced that they can no longer be ‘spun’. As in the Iraq and Afghan wars. Or ‘bubbles’. (Referring not to the late Mr. Capone’s girlfriend, sister of the minor chanteuse Peaches, but rather to the economic kind.)

“Organizations must be based on many issues … organizations need action as an individual needs oxygen.” (p. 120) But once you’ve started what must now be an endless series of emergencies and outrages and assorted confrontative manipulations, then any hope of a deliberative and serious democratic politics is thoroughly undermined.

After a while the Citizenry is simply bombarded with a steady stream of crises and outrages and emergencies until finally it is impossible to process them all, the government or the relevant elite ‘experts’ are left to do what they will, and folks – maybe even upon Presidential advice – just go shopping. (Ooops, that’s not going to work any longer, either.)

“Many issues mean many members.” (p.120) Yes, and it’s the same principle as the old MIRV-ed rockets: you can stuff many warheads into one rocket nose-cone, and the more the merrier. It was a neat trick back in the Cold War but you can’t really call it progress.

And ‘many issues’ also means many fracture-lines, along which, with the application of enough pressure, the crystal will shatter. And then what?

An organizer must understand that “in a highly mobile society the word ‘community’ means community of interests, not physical community”. (p.120) NOW you are really getting into some dark and tricky waters: it is possible, but by no means established, that a democratic politics will function beyond a certain level of complexity and Citizen familiarity: in that sense, all politics is local, as Tip O’Neill said.

BUT it is largely probable that a polity is not going to function well – if at all – when the ‘community’ is scattered all over the country and is united only by an ‘interest’ which – in the Identity Politics era – may or may not be an exaggerated and manipulated ‘emergency’ or ‘outrage’.

And if the organizers are always going to have to be stoking the fires, coming up with more and more ‘instances’ and more expansive definitions of what the ‘emergency’ is, then this is going to turn into the type of defense-contractor tailspin where you make expensive military hardware, sell it to other countries as well as the US, and then claim that the US now has to pay you to develop even more ‘advanced’ weapons to counter what your company has scattered far and wide to other countries.

Not an actual ‘community’, and perhaps not an actual ‘issue’ – but still you want to sustain a reality-based politics? Did anybody in the Beltway think this thing through before they bought into this thing?

Alinsky concludes his chapter with a revealing bit of High Thought: the organizer must learn that “when we respect the dignity of the people, they cannot be denied the elementary right to participate fully in the solutions to their own problems”. (p.123)

True indeed.

But how can he really believe this? After what he pulled, and proudly so, at the headquarters of the infant medical clinic?

The dignity of The People is the Ground of the Constitutional Vision: so much so that it is they who get to deliberate about what should be done and then respectfully if urgently seek to persuade the Citizen compatriots. And thus “participate fully in the solution to their own problems”.

But Alinsky is using code here. ‘Participating fully’ means that they get to say what the bureaucrats are going to do – which can work for a while or occasionally, but can’t become the default position of daily politics. They can use the vote, although – in the balancing mechanism of a democracy – this or that demand or wish may not be workable.

But there’s no other way to handle this sort of thing without manipulating people and relying on the government to impose the resultant ‘deal’ rather than build a broad consensus of support.

And in the long run you can’t sustain a robust and healthy democratic politics that way. And I’d say 40 years is wayyy too long a run.

But then, at the end, Alinsky demonstrates just how Old Left he is: “Self-respect arises only out of people who play an active role in solving their own crises and who are not helpless, passive, puppet-like recipients of private or public services”. (p.123)

In the modern American politics that has developed in the decades since his death, victimism and the client-politics of official preference and the assorted consequences of political pandering and the requirements of securing client-demographics upon whose electoral support a pol can rely … all have worked toward deploying Alinsky’s Methods and incorporating his presumptions into national policy and even law, BUT all the while creating not a more robust and productive Citizenry but a far less competent and far more dependent Citizenry.

This emphasis of Alinsky’s on the dignity of people is sincerely felt, I am sure. But it is impossible to reconcile it with his Methods and it is even less possible to accept what has happened now that his Method has mutated under the influences of assorted elements of the Identity Politics phenomenon.


*My copy is the paperback Vintage Books/Random House edition that reprints the original 1971 edition. The ISBN is 0-679-72113-4. All my quotations and page references will be taken from this edition.

**The underlying principles of a methodical approach to understanding some topic. In this case, the underlying principle is that if you Suspect You Are Being Screwed and that a major chunk of your fellow Citizens Are Screwing You And Intend To Continue Doing So Until You Forcibly Stop Them then you are perfectly well –equipped to assess any public matter. For quite a while over the past decades, I would say, the Beltway fostered this so as to distract folks: people constantly agitated over suspicion of this that or the other group of other Citizens wouldn’t have time to suspect the government of anything at all. And here We are today – the failing wars, the economy a train-wreck, and a politics reduced to cartoonish levels of symbolism and appearances.

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