Monday, August 09, 2010

Listening to Alinsky -- critically

About a month ago, a friend pointed me to Nicholas von Hoffman's essay 7 Lessons Saul Alinsky Would Give Progressives Today in the hope that it would cheer me up about the disappointments I express about the Obama administration. It didn't do that job, but it is an interesting enough essay to merit some commentary.

Unlike the contemporary U.S. right wing, I don't believe Saul Alinsky was the most dangerous populist shit disturber of recent times. So to read von Hoffman echoing Alinsky's claim to be "a radical" (in contradistinction to contemporary "liberals" and "progressives") rubs me the wrong way. Alinsky was a guy who figured out how to mobilize popular discontents in an era (1930s through 1950s) when the other force that might have done the same work was the Communist Party. Now probably it was a good thing that dogma-besotted Communists didn't end up leading populist eruptions in this country -- most were too beholden to Moscow and too organizationally inflexible to have been able to deliver much for needy people. But analytically, they were the "radicals" of the time, correctly proclaiming that capitalism could not and would not deliver an economy in which most people got their fair share.

If Alinsky was "a radical," it was a stance assumed to upstage Communists who were telling a lot of home truths about how rotten things were, while Alinsky peddled ideologically unmoored "community organizing." Without ideological underpinnings that seek to explain why conditions are so bad and so hard to fix, organizing becomes a petty enterprise of small winnable fights and a series of campaigns for stop signs. It's a lot harder, but if we want to accomplish big changes, we have to believe that people can understand big concepts and envision life-altering changes. Now that's radical -- that's what has driven social movements for Black freedom, for women's liberation, for LGBT rights -- and uprisings against corporate-led globalization. And that is the kind of stuff Alinsky-inspired organizations watch in wonder, usually from the sidelines.

So don't hold up Saul Alinsky as a representative radical. We need something tougher, braver and smarter.
All that said, there were bits of von Hoffman's essay I didn't mind. Contemporary progressives DO need to understand we'll get out of Obama mostly only what we can extort by popular pressure -- not because he's a bad guy, but because he is President of the United States. The job is compromised because the country isn't what it ought to be. That's our problem and project. So I don't mind this:

Enough complaining, criticizing and attacking Obama, Alinsky would say -- not out of besotted loyalty to the president but out of hard-nosed political analysis. He would ask, do you have another person who would be better for the job who has any remote possibility of being elected two years from now? Unless you're nuts, the answer has to be no. Then why, Alinsky would ask, are you moaning, groaning and attacking him? ...

I was interested in von Hoffman's suggestion that Alinsky would have used the predictable antics of right wing media to inflate the perceived power of his own side.

Fox News ought to be a godsend for people with practical, political agility. Properly used, a denunciation from Fox depicting you as a menace to God and country spreads the idea that you are dangerous because you are powerful. People and organizations considered to be dangerous and powerful can spread fear in the hearts of their opponents. Fear makes people do dumb things which you can leap on and use to your advantage. Used correctly, Fox is the answer to a liberal's prayer. ...

That rings true. Isn't that what a relative handful of over-hyped Tea Baggers are doing in the opposite direction?

When it comes to using media, I think we progressives need to look at what Van Jones is doing since he was driven out of an Obama administration environmental job by right wing smears. Jones is back in the media, using his notoriety to speak truths. We have to leverage our opportunities more boldly and agilely.

Perhaps the best bit of the von Hoffman's article was this:

Before you do something, Alinsky would say, ask yourself: if you do it and it succeeds as you hope it will, what have you got? If the answer is ego satisfaction, Alinsky would say it's a waste of time.

That's always true. I think Alinsky would, in reality, have been a lot more interested in using the opportunities the netroots creates than von Hoffman credits him for being. But von Hoffman is right that we can't afford to let ourselves be mesmerized by the excitement of each cool new techtool to the detriment of the strategic planning, tactical imagination, and sheer daily drudgery that organizing requires.

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