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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