In honor of May Day and my approaching semicentennial, here’s a gem of a video, a portion of a documentary about the famous community organizer, Saul Alinsky. Talk about brilliance. This particular excerpt is simply prescient.
Alinsky is best known for his book Rules for Radicals, a primer on community organizing.
This book earned the right wing’s ire because Obama used it as his textbook for community organizing. Then they snapped to its brilliance and co-opted it, all the while trashing it for its socialist leanings. Indeed, the right’s non-stop Obama Bashing is a page right out of Alinsky’s book. Well played, my friends, well played.
Alinsky articulates principles and practices that are genetically encoded in me by my progressive family; the book gave me a logic to frame what I already knew bone deep. A central tenet: power is not only what you have, but what the enemy thinks you have. This is the Zen of activism. The principle captures the essential relationality of power itself, a concept central to rhetorical studies and much of late twentieth century philosophy as well.
The video gets particularly interesting around :30 to 4:30, where Alinsky schools a young radical who defends the hippie movement. The young man argues against the media-driven capitalist institutions that condition poor people to desire a “piece of the pie,” whereas the hippies are living a counter-culture lifestyle. Alinsky tells him that hippies are nothing new, and he cites Paul and Christianity as an example, invoking the power and hard work of coalition and organizing. He demonstrates how Paul built a coalition of Christians with different agendas and made political concessions to spread a movement. The whole thing is fascinating, particularly when Alinsky ends with the following comment that sounds something like this:
“as long as you don’t organize to have the power to act, 1% will run the whole damned world.”