Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Reading :: Rules for Radicals

Rules for Radicals
By Saul Alinsky

Saul Alinsky tells this story about organizing the African-American community against Kodak, which at that time dominated Rochester, NY. What tactics could they use?
I suggested that we might buy one hundred seats for one of Rochester's symphony concerts. We would select a concert in which the music was relatively quiet. The hundred blacks who would be given the tickets would first be treated to a pre-concert dinner in the community, in which they would be fed nothing but baked beans, and lots of them; then the people would go to the symphony hall - with obvious consequences. Imagine the scene when the action began! The concert would be over before the first movement! (If this be a Freudian slip - so be it!) (p.139)
Alinsky reasoned that (a) the protest would ridicule the "prize cultural jewel" of the establishment; (b) it would be entirely legal, so "the law would be completely paralyzed" (p.139); (c) the protesters would enjoy the tactic (p.140).

But he also reasoned that the tactic was proof against the protesters getting cold feet: "But we knew that the baked beans would compel them physically to go through with the tactic regardless of how they felt" (p.141). And here's the striking contradiction in Alinsky's book: yes, its advice involves manipulating the establishment and public opinion, but it also involves manipulating the communities Alinsky organizes. It's a rather pragmatic book, ostensibly bent toward empowering the "Have-Nots," but in implementation it involves empowering the community organizer the most, leading eventually to his or her relinquishment of the reins to the movement leaders.

Rules for Radicals has been in the news a bit lately. Alinsky has been credited as an influence on Barack Obama, who served as a community organizer himself and later wrote a chapter in the edited collection After Alinsky. More recently, freelance investigators on the right have adopted Alinsky's tactics, bringing heat on the organization ACORN. So my interest was piqued, apparently along with everyone else's: I had to wait a while for UT's library to free up a copy.

The book is interesting and provocative, beginning with the dedication: "an over-the-shoulder acknowledgement to the very first radical ... Lucifer." Later, Alinsky compares the book to Machiavelli's The Prince, arguing that while that book was written for those in power, this book "is written for the Have-Nots on how to take [power] away" (p.3). Specifically, the problem is
how to create mass organizations to seize power and give it to the people; to realize the democratic dream of equality, justice, peace, cooperation, equal and full opportunities for education, full and useful employment, health, and the creation of those circumstances in which man can have the chance to live by values that give meaning to life. (p.3)
This is not an ideological book, he argues (p.4) (and perhaps Breitbart's Big Government is a testament to how the book's tactics can be applied by different ideologies). Indeed, Alinsky seems to assume that transferring power to the Haves is a context-free plus, and he frames the struggle as a simple contest between Haves (and their allies, the Have-a-Little-Want-Mores) and the Have-Nots. In this way, Alinsky is a more limited thinker than Machiavelli, who addressed multiple power centers with competing interests and alliances. Alinsky also sweeps under the rug the obvious next question, which is what to do when the Have-Nots are successful in taking power away - becoming the Haves - or when evenly matched groups take each other on.

In fact, Alinsky's musings on the nature of power itself are unfocused, making a hash out of the term, eventually exclaiming that "life without power is death; a world without power would be a ghostly wasteland, a dead planet!" (p.53). These musings are hardly great philosophy, but that's all right: Alinsky's genius is not in philosophy nor in ideology, but in amoral bare-knuckle political tactics.

Although the "rules" that have been popularly cited reside in the chapter "Tactics," let's start with the earlier rules of Means and Ends in the chapter "Means and Ends." These rules purport to be descriptive of all conflict rather than prescriptive, and they include the following:
  1. "one's concern with the ethics of means and ends varies inversely with one's personal interest in the issue" and "varies inversely with one's distance from the scene of the conflict" (p.26)
  2. "the judgment of the ethics of means is dependent upon the political position of those sitting in judgment" (p.26)
  3. "in war the end justifies almost any means" (p.29)
  4. "judgment must be made in the context of the times in which the action occurred and not from any other chronological vantage point" (p.30)
  5. "concern with ethics increases with the number of means available and vice versa" (p.32). Side note: here, he tells a story in which he had the chance to "out" a gay opponent, and he refused to do so - but he declares that if that had been the only tactic he could have used, he would have done so "unreservedly" (p.33)
  6. "the less important the end to be desired, the more one can afford to engage in ethical evaluations of means" (p.34)
  7. "generally success and failure is a mighty determinant of ethics" (p.34)
  8. "the morality of a means depends upon whether the means is being employed at a time of imminent defeat or imminent victory (p.34; Alinsky points to dropping the A-Bomb on Japan)
  9. "any effective means is automatically judged by the opposition to be unethical" (p.35)
  10. "do what you can with what you have and clothe it with moral garments" (p.36; he argues that Machiavelli's greatest weakness is his blindness to the necessity of moral garments, p.43)
Given these rules, which are taken as givens that all parties will follow and rationalize, Alinsky wants to put aside any pretense of strict ethics or morality and build strong organizations that will win. The name of the game is building a large organization - and here, Alinsky's approach is more like Maoist guerilla warfare than asymmetrical warfare. It shows its roots in the 1960s and 1970s (the book was written in 1973 and is sprinkled with slang of the time: "Who's the cat?" "What's his bag?" (p.98)). Alinsky argues strongly that single-issue organizations are by their nature small and transient, too small and transient to do much good; rather, community organizers should concentrate on building multi-issue organizations in which people support each others' goals (p.77). So the emphasis is on establishing the organizer as a feared adversary of the establishment (p.100), then crystallizing a core group that accumulates members through defining grievances and mutually supporting redress of those grievances (p.105). The only issue at the beginning of the movement is to bring in more recruits (p.113).

Alinsky warns that community organization is always preceded by community disorganization: attacking the prevailing patterns of organized living in the community (p.116). The function of the community organizer is to compel negotiation. "In the beginning the organizer's first job is to create the issues or problems," Alinsky tells us, clarifying that everyone has a plight, but "what the organizer does is to convert the plight into a problem," which is "something you can do something about" (p.119). And he acknowledges here that "in a highly mobile, urbanized society the word 'community' means community of interests, not physical community" (p.120). So the community organizer creates a problem, identifies or creates a community that shares it, crystallizes and organizes that community by disorganizing the current patterns governing the actors' relations, then grows the organization in a way that it learns - because "without the learning process, the building of an organization becomes simply the substitution of one power group for another" (p.125). In other words, Alinsky is describing something that sounds a lot like interessement.

A side note. Alinsky valorizes the community organizer considerably, and himself in particular. He tells a number of stories that follow this pattern: Alinsky meets with representatives of a community that are suspicious of him (Mexican-Americans in California, First Nation in Canada); he gratuitously insults them; they respect him because they believe he is treating them as equals rather than patronizing them. He exhorts would-be community organizers to do the same. And here's a key similarity that Rules for Radicals shares with The Prince: so much of this advice boils down to "it depends." How do you gratuitously insult your hosts while conveying that you are doing it because they are your equals? How do you apply tactics in a particular situation? Like Machiavelli, Alinsky puts forth a number of working principles, but doesn't - can't - provide hard guidance on how to implement them (see p.138).

And that brings us to the famous chapter on Tactics. "Tactics means doing what you can with what you have," Alinsky declares (p.127), and lists the now-famous rules:
  1. "Power is not only what you have but what the enemy thinks you have" (p.128)
  2. "Never go outside the experience of your people" (p.128)
  3. "Whenever possible go outside of the experience of your enemy" (p.128)
  4. "Make the enemy live up to their own book of rules" (p.128)
  5. "Ridicule is man's most potent weapon" (p.128)
  6. "A good tactic is one that your people enjoy" (p.128)
  7. "A tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag" (p.128)
  8. "Keep the pressure on" (p.128)
  9. "The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself" (p.129)
  10. "The major premise for tactics is the development of operations that will maintain a constant pressure upon the opposition" (p.129)
  11. "If you push a negative hard and deep enough it will break through into its counterside" (p.129; example: passive resistance)
  12. "The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative" (p.130)
  13. "Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it" (p.130)
Here, sounding like George W. Bush, he quotes Christ: "He that is not with me is against me" (p.134). And he offers these points:
  • "The real action is in the enemy's reaction." (p.136)
  • "The enemy properly goaded and guided in his reaction will be your major strength" (p.136)
  • "Tactics, like organization, like life, require that you move with the action" (p.136)
The chapter winds down with miscellaneous advice. For instance, he advises that the organization should always have two or three stool pigeons for controlled leaks (p.147) and he encourages organizers to induce cannibalism among the Haves, since they will fight for power among themselves when the status quo is destabilized (p.149). He also encourages every organizer to do a stint in jail so that they can engage in reflection, synthesis, and philosophy - like a prophet in the wilderness (p.156). He confesses here that without such periods of isolation, he would not have been able to write a book.

Moving on, Alinsky comes to a new tactic about which he is rather excited. In "The Genesis of Tactic Proxy," he describes how he "[asked] Eastman Kodak stockholders to assign their proxies to the Rochester black organization or come to the stockholders' meeting and vote in favor of FIGHT [a relevant community organization]" (p.172). This tactic snowballed and became successful, not just for community organizations, but because it
showed a way for the middle class to organize. These people, the vast majority of Americans, who feel helpless in the corporate economy, who don't know which way to turn, have begun to turn away from America, to abdicate as citizens. They rationalize their action by saying that, after all, the experts and the government will take care of it all. They are like the Have-Nots who, when unorganized and powerless, simply resign themselves to a sad scene. Proxies can be the mechanism by which these people can organize, and once they are organized they will re-enter the life of politics. (p.178)
And Alinsky looks ahead to making this tactic work. "What will be required is a computerized operation that will quickly give (1) a breakdown of the holdings of any corporation, (2) a breakdown of holdings of other corporations that own shares in the target corporation, and (3) a breakdown of individual stock proxies in the target corporation and in the corporations" (p.180).

In sum, the book was fascinating. It has a lot of flaws, of course. For instance, its means-justifies-the-ends approach assumes a bipolar world in which the Have-Nots should always triumph - and it doesn't describe how to wind down a conflict or call a truce, how to compromise outside the organization, or how to develop a lasting settlement among competing organizations. Finally, its assumption that organizations must be big and multi-issue to make a difference is dated: the Zapatista netwar is one example of how many single-issue organizations can be temporarily networked to have a much bigger impact than they could have individually, but that didn't involve creating an umbrella organization, it involved leveraging communication technologies. Yet, like The Prince, this book provides a set of (take your pick: nasty, underhanded, effective pragmatic) tactics that I imagine will work.

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