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.