Lazy rascals, spending their substance, and more, in riotous living

Too much Alinsky, not enough Lenin

Saul Alinsky apparently used to ask new recruits to his organizing efforts, “what are you organizing for?” And they would respond by saying that their goal was to help the poor, or get housing for the homeless, or whatever it might be. Alinsky would shoot down all these concrete goals, insisting that “you are organizing for power.” I like that; but Alinsky wasn’t terribly clear about what power actually meant, and this failure to think about power has had some pretty terrible consequences for the American left, especially in the very particular way they’ve adopted or adapted Alinsky’s methods.

This confused me when I first moved to the US; looking for the left in the Bay Area it seems at first like there’s no there there. The general left-wing sentiment in the area doesn’t seem to be matched by the existence of left-wing organizations. It turns out that that’s not quite right; it’s just that these organizations aren’t political organizations but are, rather, community organizations and non-profits. Some of these have radical rhetoric and a revolutionary pedigree, but they all share the weakness of the Alinskian (non-)understanding of power, where power is not conceived of as something that could be appropriated collectively and used creatively to common ends, but where power is something someone else (the state) has, and the limit of collective action is to force concessions from those who do hold power.

The limitations of this lack of understanding of power were starkly illustrated in an event in last week’s walkout at Berkeley. Some participants in the action suggested the possibility of using the pre-planned General Assembly as the starting point for an occupation. Unfortunately, this suggestion was shot down by the facilitators of the General Assembly, who had already decided on their own structure for the meeting, and weren’t about to have this disrupted by a debate on the possibility of an immediate occupation. What was so frustrating (both in the sense of being annoying, and in the sense of working to frustrate the attempted occupation) is that the moderators resolutely refused to make explicit and take responsibility for the power they were exercising. This made it very difficult to contest their power, as they were able to present all their decisions as necessarily already democratically pre-authorized.

Nonetheless, a similar reticence about power was also in evidence among those proposing the occupation. The one thing I would disagree with in the IndyMedia account linked above is the description of those proposing the occupation as the “occupation committee,” which implies a level of organization and explicit self-presentation that was regrettably absent. With one honorable exception, the pro-occupation people didn’t really present themselves explicitly as a collective making a demand or proposal to the group; there was, again, an unwillingness to take responsibility for an attempt to wield power. In the hurry of the moment, and against the backdrop of the interplay of the moderators pseudo-democracy with the genuine democratic energy of the assembly, this failure of the pro-occupiers is, I think, understandable (I should myself take responsibility for failing to understand this, and act on it, at the time; it’s taken me this long to develop this understanding of what was happening). However, it will be important to avoid this mistake in the future.