Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Caricaturization of Saul Alinsky

The libertarian Jesse Walker has an interesting review of Nicholas Von Hoffman's book on his friend Saul Alinsky-and in it we get a much more nuanced view of the radical organizer than can be gleaned from the demonizations of Sean Hannity. Understanding Alinsky's philosophy informs us of the dangers of political and economic centralization-and can be seen as a primer for those on both the left and right who are concerned with the growth of statism and corporate power.

We have commented before that Alinsky has been some what of a theoretical guru for the work of the alliance-and for us, unlike the president, community organizing in the Alinsky model has been more than an affectation. And, as Walker points out, Alinsky's success-much like our own-has not been in poor neighborhoods, but in white working class communities like Chicago's Back of the Yards: "The founders of the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council, by contrast, appreciated all the self-directed activity taking place in the district. The group’s first meeting, held on July 14, 1939, featured 350 residents from 76 organizations: parish clubs, ethnic lodges, women’s groups, athletic clubs, unions, the chamber of commerce, a community newspaper. The council was a federation of those local groups rather than a mass organization of individuals; its structure, in Slayton’s words, was designed so as to “not challenge the private order of segmentation and nationalism, but instead create a public realm in which the individual pieces could join,” working together on areas of shared interest."

Here we see glimpses of the thought of Paul Goodman and others who saw the dangers in the overweening power of the state-and protection and sanctuary in neighborhood vitality: "And work together they did. In the ’30s and ’40s, among many other activities, the council built a playground, established a credit union, did strike support work, acquired and lent out a portable bug exterminator, brought an infant health clinic to the neighborhood, helped young people find jobs, sprayed weedkiller in vacant lots, sold garbage cans to the community at a fraction of the market cost, and funded a softball league organized by some of the local gangs."

And like Jane Jacobs, Alinsky shunned the social workers and do-gooding elites who saw slums where real vibrant communities were living and breathing: "When sociologists started studying such areas, they thought they were looking at human wastelands. In his 1986 book Back of the Yards, the historian Robert Slayton noted that such scholars were familiar with the sorts of social ties that were forged in small towns but were “blind to similar bonds of community among immigrant workers”; in 1929 one sociologist wrote bluntly that the slums were places where “local life breaks down.” Social workers and other outsiders often adopted similar attitudes, seeing the rich ecology of neighborhood institutions as something to be overcome, not strengthened. Social improvement would be provided by professionals with scientific training, not by a bunch of bohunks acting on their own behalf."

Here we can see the possible intersection of libertarian thought on both ends of the political spectrum-and why the work of the Neighborhood Retail Alliance in opposition to Wal-Mart has been able to meld progressive labor forces with small business and neighborhood groups. Alinsky pioneered this train of thought and to see him as some sort of communist-compared to, of all people, Antonio Gramsci-is absurd.

Walker lays this out: "But in the days of the New Deal, a time when the American Left was increasingly centralist and statist, this was a different approach: social change driven by intermediary institutions at the most local level, not by experts erecting bureaucracies in Washington. In 1945, in a book called Reveille for Radicals, one of the council’s founders argued that such “People’s Organizations” could be the building blocks of a new, more participatory sort of citizenship."

But those on the right who are learning from Alinsky are, in Walker's view, limiting the value of this lesson by confining themselves purely to the real of tactics: "Alinsky’s 1971 book Rules for Radicals has been studied closely by conservatives convinced that they’ve found the White House’s secret playbook. Smarter folks on the right, such as the Tea Party champions at FreedomWorks, have been reading Rules for Radicals as well, not to decode Obama’s occult intentions but in hopes of adapting Alinsky’s tactics to the fight for freer markets. It isn’t a bad idea, but it only scratches the surface of what the foes of taxes and bailouts can learn from Alinsky. In all his successes, mistakes, and contradictions, Alinsky represents the dormant decentralist wing of the left. His life is full of lessons for anyone, left or right, who demands a devolution of power."

Alinsky detested elites, and particularly their condescension towards the abilities of the folks-and in this sense we can see how Alinsky would have disdained the government-growing elitism of  President Obama. And to his everlasting credit, he hated policy advancing social workers: "By the time Lyndon Johnson was in the White House, the old radical had grown even more caustic. Always hostile to social workers, Alinsky attacked the entire Great Society in a 1965 article for the Journal of Social Issues. “The anti-poverty program may well be recorded as history’s greatest relief program for the benefit of the welfare industry,” he wrote."

Makes it kind of difficult to tar Obama with an Alinsky brush-the two men couldn't be more diametrically opposed: "This was the Alinsky that his Machiavellian reputation sometimes concealed: a humanist radical who distrusted large institutions and put his faith in concrete local affiliations. In von Hoffman’s words, Alinsky wanted little platoons like the Back of the Yards Council to form a “countervailing power” against “the gigantism of government, corporation and even labor union.”

So, in Walker's view, the Tea Party folks can learn a great deal from the man who has been caricatured by simplifiers on the right: "There’s a lesson there for the Tea Partiers who have been studying Alinsky’s tactics, should they care to explore the rest of his legacy. If they’re serious about building a real alternative to the Bush/Obama megastate, as opposed to merely being used by the Republicans and discarded as soon as the GOP is in a position to relaunch the K Street Project, the activists need to build countervailing power of their own, rooted not merely in talk radio and the Internet but in the indigenous institutions that shape people’s everyday lives."

For us, Alinsky, Jacobs and Paul Goodman are exemplars of individual liberty-and real heirs to the intermediary institutions legacy of Tocqueville. They are the real anti-progressives-and have more in common with the Tea Party wave than the Hannitys and Limbaughs do. With the rise of Leviathan, and the elitism that stokes its perpetuation, there is a need to find ways to tap into-and coalesce-those forces on opposite ends of the political dial that want to enhance personal freedom, and who rightly understand that the expanding state is its natural enemy.