There are definite downsides to thinking out loud in public. But one of the upsides is that people’s responses show weaknesses in how you’ve communicated… and expose gaps and inconsistencies in your ideas – and that is really helpful.
My discussion about Alinsky’s strategies and tactics, and ‘community organising’ in general, has raised many concerns about the government investing millions of pounds in what I call an “Old Power’ approach. I don’t believe this to be positive or progressive.
In my haste to raise some debate about this matter I realise that I have failed to put this conversation, which is about deliberate strategies at local level, into the wider context. This wider context includes many other aspects of protest and politics that I don’t think I explored fully in earlier posts. Also issues around conflict, protest and oppression are important ones, so important that it brings out out strong and heartfelt feelings - no discussion on this sort of subject should be flippant or careless
One of the bigger misinterpretations of what I have been trying to express, quite understandably and kindly I might add, was from Julian Dobson responded with his own blog post. In this post he reads my ideas to refer primarily to “a long and undervalued philosophical debate about non-violence and peacemaking”. And in some respects I do very much share this as an overall philosophy. I think that in the context of my previous post in particular, which focused a lot on ethics, it would be easy to be diverted from what I was saying ....
What I have been trying to express is that I don’t believe that conflict and community organizing, as a deliberate strategy or intervention delivers good results long term. I have tried in the last post on this subject to describe that what I am talking about is not just a different approach to the same question i.e. “we want power or more equality, now how are we going to get it – conflict or dialogue?” What I am trying to describe is that it is completely different altogether – and it leverages creativity and ideas rather than power to effect change. It leverages, in fact, decades of existing research and thinking.
Currently all forms of community organising, with the exception of Asset Based Community Development (ABCD), work through the ‘power’ dynamic, even the ‘non-Alinsky’, the ‘updated-Alinsky, the ‘softened-Alinsky, the ‘hardly-Alinsky-at-all’ and the ‘Alinsky-who?’, which I believe has poor practical long-term effects and contributes to negative patterns – particularly at local level. Community organizing as a concept, for all its very good intentions, is sadly stuck …. Somewhere prior to the 1970s. I have been wondering for ages why community organising doesn't incorporate new research and thinking and I believe that it is because it is a 'fixed model'. It only has one way of operating and effecting change and that is through power systems. The community organising training is all about agitation and power ... and the language around community organising is about power. Until a few weeks ago I had never heard the phrase 'speak truth to power', but this type of phrase seems quite common.
Community organising has its own deeply held dogma, but is actually being used as a tool politically. Alinsky himself was undoubtedly driven by a desire to reduce poverty and improve living conditions and equality, but today the 'mechanisms' are being appropriated by many different ideologies. We associate social justice with left wing politics but on the level of taking power it can used by anyone. If you see community organising as a power lever to effect change, rather than a left-leaning ideology, it explains (a little) why in this country the Conservatives are promoting it... and in the US the Democrats have been aligned with it. While in the US Alinsky and community organising has become the largest, most public, weapon of the Republicans against Obama, and the Rules for Radicals in particular shown as evidence of a lack of integrity on his part, the Tea Party movement is reported as having widely promoted Rules for Radicals. It can be very confusing.
"Tea Party leader and "the co-founder of Top Conservatives on Twitter" Michael Patrick Leahy has written an entire book based off of Alinsky's "shocking" work, deftly entitled: Rules for Conservative Radicals: Lessons from Saul Alinsky[!] the Tea Party Movement and the Apostle Paul in the Age of Collaborative Technologies. In his book, "Leahy argues that today's conservative radical should follow the tactics of Saul Alinsky, but apply the morals and ethics of Martin Luther King."
But power as a lever for change isn't the only option anymore - surely we need to move on - try and move towards a more enlightened way of working, rather than repeat the negative patterns of the past? The three old levers for achieving social justice: Power, Charity and Education, have been joined for some time now by a fourth, Creativity.
Power and Creativity co-exist - they are happening around us every single day of the week.
My questions are:
Do you want more activism and conflict ... or more creative citizen-led solutions?
At local level which paradigm - Old or New Power - would you prefer to invest time and money in?
Which intervention offers the most promise for ensuring good decision making, social justice and equality?
Below is a diagram in which I try to describe the differences. This has been a very difficult (and rather painful) task and I would appreciate your feedback as this is the first attempt at articulating these differences. (Click on image to zoom)
Here is one of Hilary’s observations about the overall effects of organizing at that time:
“The Council’s Executive Secretary, one of Alinsky’s fellow-radical, has held his position for over twenty five years and, if the neighborhood does not “change” (i.e. integrate) he could hold it for another twenty-five. Change is the key to situation in Back of Yards today just as it was in 1939, only now the residents are the status quo. When a community is organized around the concept of self-interest, as Back of Yards and other Alinsky-orgnized areas have been, it is natural that self-interest remains the theme of that community’s cohesion.”
In another section she talks further about the effects long-term on communities and about people applying Alinsky’s conflict tactics badly:
“Alinsky’s psychodramatics have brought him attention and catalyzed organizational activity, but many sociologists, such as Professor Annmarie Shimony of Wellesley College, regard Alinsky as a showman rather than an activist.
Professor Shimony considers both Back of the Yards and Woodlawn failures; the former because of its segregationist tendencies, which are particular hostilities publicly expressed, and the latter because its takeover by gangs who optimize a blatant hostility approach. Another criticism of Alinsky’s catharsis approach is the difficulty in applying it. Alinsky, the master showman, is able to orchestrate it, but other less-skilled organizers, such as the Reverend Mr Fry, cannot maintain control. Many of the Alinsky-inspired poverty warriors could not (discounting political reasons) move beyond the cathartic first step of organizing groups “to oppose, complain, demonstrate, and boycott” to developing and running a program."
Hilary also introduces the idea of ‘contrived’ conflict through her quotes from Coser’s 'The Functions of Social Conflict', where he talks about ‘realistic’ and ‘unrealistic’ conflict’:
“Social conflicts that arise from frustrations of specific demands within a relationship and from estimates of gains of the participants, and that are directed to the presumed frustrating object, can be called realistic conflicts. Insofar as they are a means towards specific results, they can be replaced by alternative modes of interaction with the contending party if such alternatives seem to more adequate for realizing the end in view.
Nonrealistic conflicts, on the other hand, are not occasioned by the rival ends of the antagonists, but by the need for tension release of one or both of them. In this case the conflict is not orientated toward the attainment of specific results. Insofar as unrealistic conflict is an end in itself, insofar as it affords only tension release, the chosen antagonist can be substituted by any other suitable target.”
If you are interested in this, and have the time, do read Hilary Clinton’s thesis – really fascinating. She even included a cartoon at the end!
UPDATE: Excellent posts that continue this discussion: