17 May 2009

12 Rules

Saul Alinsky, radical activist and the soul of the 1960s community organizing movement, composed a set of twelve rules in his book Rules for Radicalism. They define the approach of a generation of activists that are now dying out. The rule, above all, is to win. As he said, "The Prince" was a book to tell the Haves how to get power. "Rules for Radicals" was about how the Have-Nots can take it away.

RULE 1: "Power is not only what you have, but what the enemy thinks you have." Power is derived from one of two main sources - money and people. "Have-Nots" must build power from flesh and blood.

RULE 2: "Never go outside the expertise of your people." It results in confusion, fear and retreat. Feeling secure adds to the backbone of anyone.

RULE 3: "Whenever possible, go outside the expertise of the enemy." Look for ways to increase insecurity, anxiety and uncertainty.

RULE 4: "Make the enemy live up to its own book of rules." If the rule is that every letter gets a reply, send 30,000 letters. You can kill them with this because no one can possibly obey all of their own rules.

RULE 5: "Ridicule is man's most potent weapon." There is no defense. It's irrational. It's infuriating. It also works as a key pressure point to force the enemy into concessions.

RULE 6: "A good tactic is one your people enjoy." They'll keep doing it without urging and come back to do more. They're doing their thing, and will even suggest better ones.

RULE 7: "A tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag." Don't become old news.

RULE 8: "Keep the pressure on. Never let up." Keep trying new things to keep the opposition off balance. As the opposition masters one approach, hit them from the flank with something new.

RULE 9: "The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself." Imagination and ego can dream up many more consequences than any activist.

RULE 10: "If you push a negative hard enough, it will push through and become a positive." Violence from the other side can win the public to your side because the public sympathizes with the underdog.

RULE 11: "The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative." Never let the enemy score points because you're caught without a solution to the problem.

RULE 12: Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it." Cut off the support network and isolate the target from sympathy. Go after people and not institutions; people hurt faster than institutions.

Very few organizations use these tactics these days. To my knowledge, in fact, the only major one that still hits the establishment this hard is PETA. And since I find the doctrine that "ends justify the means" (which, despite the Lady Macbethian protests, is to what the rules amount) reprehensible, that explains why I find PETA so annoying. But one cannot deny their effectiveness. They don't care about playing "fair," or being nice. They are okay with being the bad guy, as long as they can change the dialog and come closer to their goal. It's why they are successful: they're the ruthless, relentless, crazy radicals who nonetheless have shifted the national debate over the years from "Who cares about animals?" to "How much do we care about animals?"

A major part of the insight behind these rules is the recognition that the corporate establishment is hugely influential in the political and governmental sphere, and has accordingly built-in abilities to shift public opinion. And they have few constraints on their inclinations to do so beyond their profit margins. That's just how they work - it's a feature, not a bug, to borrow a phrase. The opposition of activists is already in a weaker position, thanks to the perilous dependence on short funds and the lack of purchased politicians with which to voice their arguments. So when those activists further constrain themselves, it's almost impossible to win.

PETA and other students of Alinsky's rules take the native strengths of community organizing - manpower and emotion - and use them without any moral compunctions to get what they want. They learned from an older school of early American socialists and radicals like Sinclair that radicals have to go from the gut, but succeeded where their predecessors failed by not pulling any punches.

There has to be a better way, but I don't know it and no one acts by it. Groups like MoveOn are ineffective castrati, like groups like PETA are amoral bulldozers. Modern advocacy has no effective and moral path.

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