Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Theory Corner #2: Rules for Radicals (Saul Alinsky)

Saul Alinsky's 1971 book "Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals", published shortly before his death, has been a significant influence on radicals from all sides of the political spectrum - from anarchists and other left-wing political activists to right-wing Tea party activists in America. In in he presents 13 rules for activist tactics, based on his extensive experience as a community organiser. As the book is still in print and presumably still under copyright, only the text in quotation marks is directly lifted from the book itself. The remainder of the text is my own interpretation for which I've tried to keep examples contemporary.

Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals, p127-130

1. “Power is not only what you have, but what the enemy thinks you have”

If you've got half a nation on your side, then you've got few issues showing your full force to your enemy. But if there's only a handful of you then you need to devise ways of making the enemy look like you're more powerful than you really are. Alinsky cites the example of Gideon: “Conceal the members in the dark but raise a din and clamor that will make the listener believe that your organization numbers many more than it does”

2. “Never go outside the expertise of your people”

Undertaking an action beyond the experience of the people leads to “confusion, fear, and retreat”, claims Alinsky. It is important that the people are capable of undertaking the action and can perform it well.

3. “Whenever possible, go outside the expertise of the enemy”

While you don't want to cause “confusion, fear, and retreat” amongst your own kind, this is highly desirable amongst the enemy. Dumbfound them with something that they are under-prepared for, and you've won a significant victory. However, remember that this victory may only be temporary and be prepared for the possibility of them catching up.

4. “Make the enemy live up to its own book of rules”

As Alinksy states: “You can kill them with this, for they can no more obey their own rules than the Christian church can live up to Christianity”. I would add to this the idea of making the enemy eat their own words. A very recent example of this is a 200,000 strong (and rising!) petition to make Conservative MP Iain Duncan Smith live up to his claim that he could manage on £53 a week (sign it here: https://www.change.org/en-GB/petitions/iain-duncan-smith-iain-duncan-smith-to-live-on-53-a-week). This also ties in with Rule 5.

5. “Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon”

Ridicule is almost impossible to counteract. People like jokes, and when your enemy becomes one it is difficult for people to take them seriously. It also infuriates them and tips them off balance, causes them to react with impaired judgement, increasing the chance of making mistakes.

6. “A good tactic is one your people enjoy”

This goes without saying. If you want people out trying to change the world, make it something they are going to want to do. One of the major reasons for the decline in the number of people on site at Occupy camps over time was that camping in October is not the same as camping in December or January. People stopped enjoying it, whereas it was fun to begin with. Make things fun! This leads into Rule 6.

7. “A tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag”

Yep, those tents weren't making the same impression in January 2012 as they did back in October 2011. I hate to admit it, but it really was time to move on and up the campaign a little using another tactic. Fortunately some people have done this, such as the occupation and subsequent community running of Friern Barnett library and Occupy Bath's seamless shift from camping to starting the Bath People's Assembly. The same tactic again and again gets boring and often annoying for the public and activists alike, and the message can often get lost in the process. Keep things fresh and exciting, and always have a plan of what to do next.

8. “Keep the pressure on. Never let up”

Keep up the fight! If you score a minor or partial victory, don't let that be the end. Celebrate by all means, but then get back to work, knowing that things are already going in your favour. 

9. “The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself”

The imagination of the enemy will probably make out that the action you've threatened them with will be far worse than what you're actually going to do. 

10. “The major premise for tactics is the development of operations that will maintain a constant pressure upon the opposition”

As Alinsky puts it: “It is this unceasing pressure that results in the reactions from the opposition that are essential for the success of the campaign”.

11. “If you push a negative hard enough, it will push through and become a positive”

Negative actions from the enemy can be used to your advantage and win over public support for your side, the victims of such inhuman brutality. Alinksy cites the example of Ghandi's tactic of passive resistance as a classic example.

12. “The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative”

You may win the battle, but you will then be pushed for a realistic alternative. Best to have one of these up your sleeve for when that moment comes, otherwise you'll be in danger of ultimately losing the war.

13. “Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it”

Possibly the most controversial of the rules. Alinsky makes the point that the target is constantly trying to shift the blame elsewhere (such as a company director blaming his board, a company blaming their suppliers etc.). He rightly accepts that a specific target may be not be the only cause, and suggests that by pinning down a target, the others will come out of the woodwork. Alinsky also favours targetting people rather than institutions - for instance going after the CEO rather than the company itself. On polarization, he makes the point that when a decision has been made, even if there are pros and cons either way, one must assume that their decision is completely the right one.

Theory Corner

1. Socialism (Alexander Berkman)
2. Rules for Radicals (Saul Alinsky)

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