Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Radicals need rules---but are these the right ones?

(Originally posted by Pat on 7/27/10)

I just finished reading Saul Alinsky's Rules for Radicals. I can't really be sure whether I would recommend this book. On the one hand, it is a short and compelling read, and Saul Alinsky has decades of experience in socialist community organizing that we should all learn about. (His greatest protegé: President of the United States Barack Hussein Obama.) On the other hand, Alinsky spends a lot of time talking about "radicalism" and "polarizing people"; in the book he defends a philosophy he calls "pragmatic" that strikes me as Machiavellian. I fear that people like me who don't think of ourselves as radical will be repulsed (nerd points++: I think of myself as Lawful Good, not Chaotic Good); worse, I fear that people who do think of themselves as radical will take Alinsky's words as an excuse to engage in acts of destruction.
It's definitely worth reading, but if you read it, you should be careful to realize that it is not the final word on the ethics of reform and revolution. In fact, these sense I get from the book is that Alinsky doesn't know why his organizing was so effective---the reasons he sees are not the reasons I see.
Alinsky spends an entire chapter talking about "the ethics of ends and means", in which he essentially endorses the idea that the right ends justify any means. He doesn't quite go that far, and in fact when he starts out he says something I would entirely agree with: "the question is not 'do the ends justify the means', but 'do these particular ends justify these particular means'?" The scariest thing he says is "In war, the ends justify almost any means." I'm not really sure what that almost means or what constitutes war, but I could definitely imagine socialist revolutionaries (Well-Intentioned Extremists) using these words to justify bombings or murders. The particular examples Alinsky gives, The American Revolution and World War II, strike me as basically uncontroversial---of course revolution was justified in achieving the first modern democracy; of course massive war was justified to defeat the Nazis---but the general point is more frightening to me.
Alinsky also spends a lot of time explaining how his community organizing is not planned, cannot be trained, doesn't follow precise rules and strategies. If that is so, I'm not sure what he thinks he will accomplish by writing a book called Rules for Radicals or organizing a training school for community organizers! But in fact, I don't think it's true at all. As Steven Pinker points out, creative people are often the most creative when they write their autobiographies. Alinsky has decades of experience over which he has developed an intuition for community organizing. He probably doesn't fully understand consciously what he is doing, which is why he is so bad at explaining it---but he clearly is using strategies and skills that are quite subtle and complex. He isn't just "responding to circumstances"---he is shaping circumstances with the expert hand of a sculptor.
Alinsky also spends a lot of time talking about how human beings are innately structured to seek power and advance their own self-interest. This is frankly bizarre to hear from a socialist organizer---this is what we are used to hearing from right-wing Randians and anarcho-capitalists, not socialists!  Moreover, it's simply false; experimental data in social psychology and behavioral economics clearly shows that people care about moral rules, social norms, principles of justice, and concerns of general welfare. There are surprising ways we can manipulate people's moral behaviors by reinforcing the salience of such norms---for instance, by making people sign an honor code. Indeed, the greatest heroes in history have been people who aren't limited by self-interest. How exactly did Martin Luther King, Jr. advance his self-interest by improving rights for Blacks and then getting shot? How exactly did Oskar Schindler advance his self-interest by bankrupting himself to save thousands of Jews?
In this book, Alinsky seems to pride himself on being "pragmatic", a notion he bases on these sorts of ideas about power and selfishness. And surely there is a selfish side to human nature that we need to be aware of (an underrated side of our essential reciprocity I spend a lot of time talking about in The Science of Morality), and there are real dynamics of power that any reformer must be aware of. A certain kind of power does come from the barrel of a gun!
Speaking of "reformers", that is how I would identify my political views; I am a social democrat reformer. I am  not a socialist radical revolutionary. Yet this is not a distinction that Alinsky makes well. He speaks to "radicals" and then talks about the obvious injustices of poverty, tyranny, starvation, corporate corruption, climate change. Why is it "radical" to oppose these things? Why is it "radical" to think that everyone in the world should have equal rights and as much as possible equal opportunity? Why is it "revolutionary" to think people need to work together to make the world fairer and better?
I think it would be appropriate here to remind you of the Beatles song "Revolution" (which is alas still not on iTunes due to some bullshit copyright issues):
You say you want a revolution...
Well, you know, we all wanna change the world.
You tell me that it's evolution...
Well, you know, we all wanna change the world.
But when you talk about destruction, don't you know that you can count me out?
You say you've got a real solution...
Well, you know, we'd all love to see the plan.
You ask me for a contribution...
Well, you know, we're all doing what we can!
But if you want money for people with minds that hate, all I can tell you is brother, you'll have to wait.
You say you'll change the Constitution...
Well, you know, we all wanna change your head.
You tell me it's "the institution"...
Well, you know, you'd better free your mind intead!
Cause if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao, you ain't gonna make it with anyone anyhow!
That's the kind of social change I want people to talk about. Not bombs, guns, anthrax or Molotov cocktails, but protests, pamphlets, blogs, voting, shareholder proxies, campaigning, community organizing, civil disobedience, passive resistance, and noncompliance. And the truth is, that's all the kind of stuff that Saul Alinsky did, which is why he is such an admirable figure. But this side of him doesn't come across well in Rules for Radicals, because he addresses himself to "radicals" who seek "revolution" and are willing to act "by any means necessary".
Maybe Alinsky is attempting a subtle art here---addressing himself to people who are angry and radicalized in order to slowly turn them toward more reasonable, democratic reforms. Maybe he talks about power and violence in order to  attract such people  and explain to them why he thinks more subtle, peaceful means are better. But as someone who came in already convinced that it is peaceful means that we need, this tone was offputting. This result fits well with one of the points that Alinsky does make well: "communication is only possible through shared experience".
In fact, reading Alinsky I came to better understand a lot of the arguments I've had with working-class people about socialism and community organizing. Indeed, Alinsky's words on the subject (p.94) seemed as if they were written for me:
"A classic example of the failure to communicate because the organizer has gone completely outside the experience of the people, is the attempt by campus activists to indicate to the poor the bankruptcy of their prevailing values. 'Take my word for it---if you get a good job and a split-level ranch house out in the suburbs, a color TV, two cars, and money in the bank, that just won't bring you happiness.' The response without exception is always, 'Yeah. Let me be the judge of that one---I'll let you know after I get it.' "
A couple weeks ago, I had essentially this exact conversation with a bunch of angry working-class people on Facebook. They called me "spoiled" and "privileged" and were completely unwilling to accept any suggestion that money by itself could not bring happiness. In retrospect this seems particularly weird, because I should in fact know better than they do: I've not only been with and without money, I also study cognitive science, global justice, and behavioral economics. I'm also happier right now being unemployed and broke than I used to be having plenty of money---not because being broke is good but because the rest of my life is in better shape. My depression is much better under control right now than it used to be when I had a steady job! I have both personal experiences and scientific knowledge. I should know better than most people how money relates to happiness! (It is indeed related, but not as simply as most capitalists imagine, and definitely not the one-to-one correlation that these working-class folk insisted upon.)
But really, Alinsky was right: People don't like to talk outside their domain of experience. I think to some extent we have to---otherwise our domain of experience will never grow---but it's difficult and painful for most people to do so, and I should be more conscious of that. I am not going at dealing with this side of people because it isn't a side I have. The truth is, novelty isn't painful for me---it's exhilarating. I love learning new things about new people and new ways of life. I consistently rate in the 98% quantile for the Big Five personality dimension "openness to experience". I am fascinated by split-brain patients and people with Dissociative Identity Disorder, and someday I might like to study them as windows into the Hard Problem. There is a part of me, the subclinical autistic part, that is uncomfortable with change and transition in my routine---but that's not a very important part of my identity, and change in routine isn't the same thing as change in society. Indeed my goal is in some sense to give everyone the opportunity to live a life of bourgeois middle-class habits.
In all I think Rules for Radicals is worth reading. People who think the world cannot be changed (or doesn't need to be changed) need to read it; people who are radicals who want to change things by any means necessary should read its arguments for why subtle reforms are better. And people like me who see that the world needs changed and want to learn strategies of organizing and reform to make that happen can take comfort and confidence in the vicarious mentorship of one of the great community organizers in history. The world can be changed; it has been before and it will be again.
It won't be easy---if it were, we would have done it already.
But if we work together, we can change the world.

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