Thursday, June 05, 2014

Book Review: Rules for Radicals

I picked up this book because it's supposed to have strongly influenced our current President and a potential future candidate (Hillary Clinton). Writing as a GenXer with little to no interest in '60s activists, I had no previous experience with the author, his activities, or his writings, so this review will focus entirely on the text of Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals. If you're interested in politics--left, right, or other--I believe you'll find this brief read (196 pages) worthwhile.

I'm not 100% certain what I expected from this book, but the way folks on conservative talk radio use Rules for Radicals or "Alinsky" as shorthand for this or that political vice of the President, one would assume that this was the political version of The Anarchist Cookbook--all fire and brimstone and down with The Man. This would be incorrect.

Let's start with the subtitle: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals [italics mine]. This book was written in 1971, after much of the wildness of the 1960s had already happened--and in many ways this book is a reaction against the chaotic and at times violent activities of that decade. Alinsky saw dramatic, screaming activism as counterproductive to effecting actual, lasting change. As an activist and professor, Alinsky is at turns lecturing and speaking from experience. He's taking the tone of an elder statesman saying, "Look, kids: you can yell and scream all you want, but if you actually want to change the world, you need to play a different game." His primary lesson is, surprisingly (to me), to work with people and the system as you find it.

To introduce his topic, Alinsky starts by explaining his purpose for writing the book: to teach serious activists how to make lasting political changes without alienating a large section of the population, which he believed was the general reaction to much of what the hippies did. He is out to win hearts and minds, and he believes that that can only happen by working with people as they are and the political system as it is. He is trying to explain how to obtain greater political access for the Have Nots in a world comprising three main groups:
  • The Haves
  • The Have-Nots
  • The Have a Little, Want Mores

Alinsky also provides definitions of specific concepts, such as power, self-interest, compromise, ego, and conflict. He lays out these terms in realistic, non-threatening, and terms so the willing reader/activist understands how they operate within the U.S. system of government. His analysis is not so different from what you hear about America today: unnecessary war, government overreach, corruption, and minorities being kept under thumb by an oligarchical majority.

Community Organizers and Ego
One thing that caught my attention in this section was this description of a "community organizer," which is a favorite epithet of my friends on the right to describe the President:

"The ego of the organizer is stronger and more monumental than the ego of the leader. The leader is driven by the desire for power, while the organizer is driven by the desire to create. The organizer is in a true sense reaching for the highest level for which man can reach--to create, to be a 'great creator,' to play God."

However, he bookends this statement with the following two warnings:

"Nothing antagonizes people and alienates them from a would-be organizer more than the revealing flashes of arrogance, vanity, impatience, and contempt of a personal egotism."

"An infection of egotism would make it impossible to respect the dignity of individuals, to understand people, or to strive to develop the other elements that make up the ideal organizer."

Taking Action
Gradually, Alinsky moves from a theoretical discussion to more concrete, action-oriented content. He states that the first step in community organization is disorganizing the status quo. This is followed by organizing something new to replace it. One observation he had, which a conflict-averse person might have a problem with, is that there is no such thing as a "non-controversial" issue. If there is an issue, there will be conflict, and that must be managed through politics. If there is an issue but only one opinion on it, that amounts to tyranny.

Another Alinsky point: no one can negotiate without the power to compel negotiation. A protest against an entire nationwide corporation, for example, would be impractical for a local group; however, a protest at a single branch could have more impact.

So what does Alinsky mean by "take action" or protest? Perhaps one of the most important "rules" Alinsky writes about community organizing is that organizers must take people as they are--and that not all of them are going to join a group just because of the rightness of the cause, but for personal, self-interested reasons that are only partially connected to the overall "cause." Another favorite Alinsky ploy is to get one segment of the "Haves" to fight with another segment, resulting
in a win for the Have-Nots simply because the second segment of "Haves" did not want the aggravation of facing a protest themselves.

In the end, Alinsky's tactics are devious and at times cynical, but they were often effective because he understood the American political system. A recent example of effective activism in the Alinsky vein was the combination of pressures put on the L.A. Clippers following the racist comments of its owner. In that case, NBA players wore their jerseys inside-out and several teams threatened to boycott Clippers playoff games. The combination of bad publicity, threatened boycotts, and sponsorship losses (as well as the NBA-level ban) hit Donald Sterling where it hurt--his assets--and got him to sell his team. While more a case of Haves vs. Haves, the massive pressure put on Sterling was a loud message that his behavior would not be tolerated. Still, it was a campaign of which Alinsky would have approved. In the end, winning political battles come down to using the available, appropriate means to get your way. It might not always be pretty, but American politics very much wears the stamp of Alinsky's Rules for Radicals.

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