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”.
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)
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.