A Public Sphere for Poetry, Nature, and Politics
Saul Alinsky (1909 – 1972) is generally considered to be the founder of modern American community organizing. Alinsky focused on improving the living conditions of poor communities across America, especially the black ghettos — beginning with Chicago and later applying his methods to other cities. His ideas heavily influenced the 1960’s and 70’s anti-war, feminist, environmental, and social justice advocates and continue to be influential today with the rightist Tea Party movement, as well as the progressive anti-Trump resistance. Both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton participated in the Chicago community movements that Alinsky inspired, and Clinton wrote her undergraduate thesis on him. Time magazine was prescient when it wrote in 1970 that “It is not too much to argue that American democracy is being altered by Alinsky’s ideas.” And even one of his staunchest critics, conservative author William F. Buckley Jr, said in 1966 that Alinsky was “very close to being an organizational genius”.
The opening of his brilliant book Rules for Radicals, first published in 1971, makes clear its purpose, as well as its intended audience:
What follows is for those who want to change the world from what it is to what they believe it should be. The Prince was written by Machiavelli for the Haves on how to hold power. Rules for Radicals is written for the Have-Nots on how to take it away.
Below is Alinsky’s list of 13 “Rules for Radicals,” offered with his warning that political activism cannot be self-serving: “People cannot be free unless they are willing to sacrifice some of their interests to guarantee the freedom of others. The price of democracy is the ongoing pursuit of the common good by all of the people.”
1. “Power is not only what you have, but what the enemy thinks you have.” Power is derived from 2 main sources – money and people. “Have-Nots” must build power from flesh and blood.
2. “Never go outside the expertise of your people.” It results in confusion, fear and retreat. Feeling secure adds to the backbone of anyone.
3. “Whenever possible, go outside the expertise of the enemy.” Look for ways to increase insecurity, anxiety and uncertainty.
4. “Make the enemy live up to its own book of rules.” If the rule is that every letter gets a reply, send 30,000 letters. You can kill them with this because no one can possibly obey all of their own rules.
5. “Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon.” There is no defense. It’s irrational. It’s infuriating. It also works as a key pressure point to force the enemy into concessions.
6. “A good tactic is one your people enjoy.” They’ll keep doing it without urging and come back to do more. They’re doing their thing, and will even suggest better ones.
7. “A tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag.” Don’t become old news.
8. “Keep the pressure on. Never let up.” Keep trying new things to keep the opposition off balance. As the opposition masters one approach, hit them from the flank with something new.
9. “The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself.” Imagination and ego can dream up many more consequences than any activist.
10. “The major premise for tactics is the development of operations that will maintain a constant pressure upon the opposition.” It is this unceasing pressure that results in the reactions from the opposition that are essential for the success of the campaign.
11. “If you push a negative hard enough, it will push through and become a positive.” Violence from the other side can win the public to your side because the public sympathizes with the underdog.
12. “The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative.” Never let the enemy score points because you’re caught without a solution to the problem.
13. “Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.” Cut off the support network and isolate the target from sympathy. Go after people and not institutions; people hurt faster than institutions.
The video below is a 1966 interview with Alinsky at his home in Carmel, California covering a wide range of issues such as poverty, injustice, and Vietnam. Alinsky answers the questions with sardonic humor — claiming, for example, that Los Angeles “needs an enema” and when the U.S. Military is finished destroying Vietnam, it should “bomb Mississippi… but only the southern part.”
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Copyright 2017 Michael Simms. The author is indebted to the work of Josh Jones writing for Open Culture.