Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals

It seems clear that Obama’s political education has come through Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals, so I bought a copy and started reading. Written in the late sixties and early seventies, it’s a book providing a short course in change for people who want to carry out a program of practical reform in the ‘real world’ rather than an idealistic program of change in a posited-but-never-realized other world.

In this, it sports deep roots in the modern experience going back (but not exclusively) to Rousseau and Marx’s historical overturning of Hegel. Where Marx gets all up in the theory of his subject, Alinsky is a more practically-minded person. Alinsky seems (to me) like a well-meaning liberal person who has the interests of people at heart and sweeps in with his superior organizational ability.

Alinsky quotes himself at the beginning of his book:

“Lest we forget at least an over-the-shoulder acknowledgment to the very first radical: from all our legends, mythology, and history… the first radical known to man who rebelled against the establishment and did it so effectively that he at least won his own kingdom — Lucifer.” (ix)

I have no problem with that. People can think anything they want, and it doesn’t bother me that he aligns himself with Satan—he uses the form of Lucifer, I think, to draw attention away from his alignment of himself with the person (or demon) who personifies absolute evil. He does it, I’m sure, because he doesn’t really believe in Satan or Lucifer but uses Him as a prop for his argument, which is that Satan/Lucifer was a man who ‘did stuff’ in the world rather than passively waiting for stuff to happen, as status quo Trinity had done.

My Problem with Alinsky

My problem comes from a contradiction that I can identify in his elaboration of his premise. On page 48, Alinsky begins his chapter ‘A Word About Words.’ In that chapter, he says that radicals should not shy away from using the powerful terms when talking about politics. These include ‘power,’ ‘self-interest,’ ‘compromise,’ ‘ego,’ and ‘conflict.’ According to Alinsky, these words have ‘become twisted and warped, viewed as evil’ (48).

The question may be legitimately raised, why not use other words—words that mean the same but are peaceful and do not result in such negative emotional reactions? (49)

He says that using other words in place of these tends to eliminate the power of the word themselves (49). By using words directly he intends to straighten out the ‘twisting’ of words so the people can properly understand what he is saying. He must use his words directly, and not through euphemism, which hides—the term used in the Roman de la Rose is ‘gloss’—the true nature of the what the word denotes. In this way, Alinsky announces his ‘determination not to detour around reality’ (49).

That is a huge leap of faith on Alinsky’s part, and one which I think is not justified in a philosophical sense. In the Roman de la Rose, Reason descends from her (surely ivory-covered) tower into the time-bound realm of mortal man. She, too, argues that the Lover should use the word she herself has given, rather than a ‘gloss.’ In her case, she is talking about sex, so she advocates that the Lover use the word ‘coilles.’

That may not sound like much to the non-Old-French speakers among you, but its meaning in Old French was a vulgar term for ‘balls’ (it means the same thing as the Spanish word ‘cojones’ , which Wikipedia says ‘is a vulgar Spanish word for balls (testicles), denoting courage; it is considered a curse word in Spanish.’ They go on to note the ‘glossing’ of the term as it gets translated from Spanish to English: ‘In English, as a loanword, it similarly means courage or brazenness.’).’ It loses some of its force in translation.

When I was in graduate school, people thought that the Lover was wrong to steer away from speaking directly and instead use euphemism. Even famous scholars like D. W. Robertson, Jr. thought that reason had come down from Heaven with answers and that the Lover had turned away from her sage advice. The question that I had in graduate school is why Reason is urging the Lover to talk about his balls as he approaches his love. My answer was that she was wrong to do so, that the Lover should have fled Reason, and that he should have continued to use euphemism (all of which he actually does). Only in that way will he be allowed access to her body by which the species (that Reason is urging him to continue) can be perpetuated. Reason has at her heart a contradiction.

The same thing holds with my reading of Alinsky. He is urging people to use language directly, without euphemism, and by that process to confront the problems that the timid bourgeoisie cannot face on account of their living a lie. Only radicals in Alinsky’s environment have contact with ‘the truth,’ which they reach (according to the back cover of the book) through ‘an absolute insistence on rational political discourse.’

If we can puncture the heart of reason—a thing not all that difficult in the modern age which relies on Rousseau and Nietzsche (as well as countless other modern and postmodern philosophers)—then surely we can deflate claims of ‘absolute rational political discourse’ to reveal the final solution of political problems.

I’ll start with Alinsky himself. On page 50, he quotes Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals:

Why stroke the hypersensitive ears of our modern weaklings? Why yield even a single step to the Tartuffery of words?

Nietzsche is a post-Romantic philosopher who still holds sway behind the walls of the Ivory Curtain. He regards those outside his circumscribed realm as ‘weaklings.’ ‘Weaklings’ are slaves who need to be led by a few ‘masters.’ This master-slave dialectic goes back to Hegel, and out of it Nietzsche sets up his One-Against-the-Many cult.

A Side Note on Sam Peckinpah

As a side note, I’ve been watching a lot of Westerns lately, and my favorites are those of Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah. Nietzsche reminds me of Peckinpah. His notion that the West was an era in which men were men has given way to a democratic leveling. People used to be cowboys, living on the open range. But now ‘sodbusters’ are coming and crowding out the old-fashioned heroes. Although this is the case, Peckinpah won’t have it. He fights against his own dying culture to make a last ditch doomed effort at asserting his individuality.

By this revolt he becomes a Master. Masters are built out of the heroic culture of revolt, while Slaves are taking over and fencing off the land into discrete properties. The way of the hero is to resist at all costs.

Back to Saul

Alinsky means to align himself with Nietzsche’s/Peckinpah’s way of the heroic Master. He, too, will not compromise his ‘telling it the way it is.’ Like the medieval Reason, this involves his displacement from the world of metaphysical certainty (in which he can align himself with Satan) to the world of time and men.

In his displacement, he doesn’t feel that change of position involves any change of status. He secures that position, not through reason at all. Instead, he relies on the authoritative creatures of the past (like Nietzsche; I mean, who am I to argue with someone as famous a Nietzsche?). I think Alinsky (like Peckinpah) is wrong to believe this, though.

Reason in the Roman de la Rose, who translates herself from the world appropriate to men (created by/through the mysteries of God) to make herself a goddess. She make a mistake when she does this. Likewise, Nietzsche has, in fact, only changed the terms of his rational argument from the limited human individual to the status of god on the basis of his own will. All anyone has to do to gain power over other sheepish slave men is to travel to the margins of society and embrace ‘outsider’ status.

But, as Nietzsche notes himself, in order to get back to ‘the thing itself,’ Nietzsche will have to find his way out of the Hermeneutic circle of interpretation. As Augustine noted so long ago, reason cannot approach the role of the Creator in the universe. “To this, Augustine replies with a challenge that reason itself present the credentials by which it presumes to operate” (402-03). This drive Jean de Meun (the second author of the Rose) to dismiss Reason and go travel an alternate road to a ‘higher’ truth that Reason doesn’t even suspect is available to him. Nietzsche just accepts the contradiction and makes it the shibboleth of belonging.

My Invitation to the Black Mass

I think the same process that I identified in the Roman de la Rose can be found in Alinsky’s work when he offers us Lucifer in place of Satan. Why would he do so if not to blunt the criticism (often leveled at H. P. Lovecraft, for instance) that he is leading people down the road to Hellas followers of the Prince of Darkness? If he was really serious, wouldn’t he invite us all to a satanic feast in which we say the Black Mass?

The reason he doesn’t is that he doesn’t really believe in Lucifer or Satan. On page 78, in a section entitled ‘A well-integrated political schizoid,’ he talks about the organizer’s lack of belief in what he is saying.

The organizer must become schizoid, politically, in order not to slip into becoming a true believer.

This gives him an ironic perspective on life, a perspective that not only elevates him above most men (the Sheep/Slaves) to the status of one of the few, the proud, the Masters. From this elevated perspective, he believes that he can come into community of disorganized people and organize them into groups.

‘This grasp of the duality of all phenomena is vital to our understanding of politics….There is no such thing in life….Once the nature of revolution is understood from the dualistic outlook we lose our mono-view of a revolution and see it coupled with its own counterrevolution’ (17-18).’

I note that this is the same thing we find in Marcuse’s dialectic two-dimensional man (and is probably derived from it directly).

I found graduate school to be filled with people who were urging the use of the Black Mass. ‘It is the lesson of criticism,’ said one of my wife’s teachers. ‘As critics we say the Black Mass.’ On the basis of that class, my wife decided that she could not finish graduate school, since he was one of the three who would be judging her dissertation and she could not reconcile herself to saying ‘the Black Mass’ for a living.

The Alinsky Perspective

This was the perspective that caused me to leave academia, as well. I was supposed to believe, but not too much, and I could never understand exactly where the boundaries between belief and unbelief lay. I still don’t know, but I frame the question differently now so that my ignorance of ends doesn’t really matter in my calculation of the future.

This perspective seems to me to have a parallel in modern medicine. Jonas Salk introduces an attenuated polio virus into the body as a way to prevent infection. Alinsky introduces an attenuated version of Satan into the body politic in order to cure it. Anyone who doubts the wisdom of trafficking in the dark arts is automatically put ‘outside.’ In other words, the way to get into the clubhouse is to acknowledge what the other club members already know: ‘We say the Black Mass.’ That is also the characteristic behavior of a cults.

My perspective on the clubhouse mentality was to revolt. No one in the clubhouse cared, since my perspective demonstrably didn’t line up with their own. Rather than changing their perspective to meet new evidence (which I thought I had), they turned back inwards to stare into their omphaloses. So I left.

The experience I have had since leaving graduate school has been one of encountering the imbalance of nature itself rather than the ‘balance’ of Reason’s encounter with Nature. I call it after the man who discovered it: the Pareto Principle. I suggest that my academic colleagues seriously consider my alternative proposals rather than simply excluding me because I don’t wish to say ‘the Black Mass’ with them (but then, who am I?)

Heise’s Thoughts on Alinsky’s Tactics

Anyway, here are my thoughts on Alinsky’s tactics (from the chapter by the same name which appears on pp. 126-164 of my edition) given, not as Alinsky gives them from the ‘absolute’ perspective of reason, but from my perspective on my experience with the relativity of ‘unreason’ in graduate school which I found to be a more accurate model than the perfectly balanced model which reason can create in our minds but which may be challenged in the universe of Pareto inequality of nature itself.

#1: Power is not only what you have but what your enemy thinks you have.

As I realized in graduate school (and which I told you about the other day) this tactic only works in an environment in which you have power and are willing to use it. In the environment of competition, your willingness to use power becomes terror over others and not something you can explain away by declaring that you don’t really believe what you are saying. In the real world your unwillingness to use terror becomes merely a rhetorical device and can be ignored.

#2: Never go outside the experience of your people.

You must be very sure that you know the outlines of the experience of your people. Women? They feel obliged to take metaphysical stance on sex. ‘You can’t accuse me of sexism,’ they say. ‘I’m a woman.’

This position actually introduces telos/science/purpose into your metaphysical argument, and people who use such arguments are often unaware that they are mixing up metaphysics—which should contain all sides of a question to the point at which nothing is left out—with science, which the thinkers of the Middle Ages as well as the Enlightenment and Romantic thinkers all acknowledged to be a weaker and incomplete form of knowledge.

Taking this position without full knowledge reduces you to a purveyor of (sometimes weak) science. How anyone can resolve their position as metaphysical is beyond me, but people usually do it by transferring their positions away from absolute metaphysical knowledge to relative scientific knowledge by a rhetorical move. This reduces their position to a contradiction: ‘I may not know anything, but at least I know what I don’t know, and that is more than my opponents know.’ That is not an absolute statement. (Think of the consequences if you are wrong).

The entire basis of this knowledge requires that you find a metaphysical foundation for your argument. In fact, this position is only secure as long as there is a metaphysically secure position available to anyone. I would deny it and ask you to prove it to me. Since I know you can’t, you will be driven back to your position as knowing one thing. But since you’ve given up your metaphysical pretensions, I can ask you to use reason to prove things that reason cannot grasp (just as Augustine did during his encounter with classical reason).

In the end, Augustine, like the Romantics, thought that he had found a way around reason that would connect us back to God. I take a different view of the matter. I use reason to gather as much information as I can in a universe in which metaphysics is beyond my scope. The more information I have, the better off I am. This, in my opinion, is a much (much, much) better position than to turn inward to the comforts of people who think exactly like you do.

#3: Wherever possible go outside the experience of your enemy.

This requires, once again, ‘knowing’ your enemy, not simply turning away from him secure in your premise that you already know him and so don’t even have to listen to his arguments.

My experience in graduate school with my pair of rhetoric teachers confirmed for me the folly of deciding in ones premises that one knew what I was going to say so nobody ever bothered listening to me. I was called upon to spout ‘Nazi’ propaganda, not to hear any sort of argument (of which I had many).

When they called on me I had answers that did not correspond to my teachers’ expectations. Rather than listen and adjust, my teachers reduced my arguments to the simple form they thought they were going to hear and ignored the rest.

These ‘tactics’ were launched at me because my teachers thought that I was a static enemy and they were (like Alinsky) sole proprietors of ‘dynamic’ thought. Their behavior towards me never changed. Instead, they left me alone as soon as I stopped talking back.

#4: Make the enemy live up to their own book of rules.

This tactic works best if you aren’t listening very hard. My rhetoric teachers believed they knew what my book of rules contained. Rather than listening to me, they cut me off before I could go outside of their expectations.

The lesson for President Obama is that he should really listen to Rush Limbaugh for his actual arguments rather than ignoring him on the basis that he has a firm grasp of what he is saying (in my opinion he doesn’t) despite the fact that he is loathe to listen to him.

#5: Ridicule is man’s most important weapon.

This is my favorite Alinsky tactic, and it is one that the liberal left has forgotten. Or, rather, their humor is ironic humor, which requires that they step outside of their actual lives for a ‘higher’ purpose. I call this
Being There. Limbaugh uses the more immediate tactic which I call being here. This does not require the step outside of ourselves into the sphere of (metaphysics? reason?) whatever you want to call it.

For my part, I don’t believe that there is a there in being there. The only possible perspective for a human being is the perspective of being here.

This means that Rush can attack you as an unbeliever in things like God and the constitution. Your only defense is to build more boundaries in a universe that should require fewer boundaries. You retreat behind your Ivory Curtain and launch your attacks from behind protected walls. In doing so, you exclude a lot of people. This is my read on the election results last Tuesday.

#6: A good tactic is one that your people enjoy.

See #5.

#7: A tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag.

Here, I think that Alinsky’s just wrong. I would say to him (were he still alive) ‘not if you do it right.’ Alinsky is constantly on the prowl for minute shifts in behavior which he can take advantage of. He, like Rahm Emanuel, looks to exploit a crisis, but neither notices that the universe is not subject to their rhetorical constructions. As I said before, it is only though the use of force (not just by its threat) that power works in the real world. Alinsky tells us that the threat of violence is greater than its actual use. He should have added, ‘so don’t put yourself in a position where you wield actual power or people will begin to see how little power you actually have.’

But look at Rush. In many ways, he’s an Alinskyite (though not in all; I think I’ll have to explain myself further on this point). He’s been on the air for 22 years, and despite attacks on him as a racist and a terrorist by both President Clinton and President Obama he has managed to come though unscathed, building a huge audience in the process. Clearly he is doing something that falls outside of the Enlightenment ‘with-us-or-against-us’ mentality of Marcuse, Alinsky, and Obama.

#8: Keep the pressure on.

I’ve dealt with this above in dealing with your ability to really listen and not to assume that just because you’re a radical that you have the high ground. Know your enemy, and make sure that what you are doing is working, and not just working in the salted fields of old argument.

#9: The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself

I thought I dealt with this already. It turns out that I was thinking about this when I was talking ‘My Strategy’ in the post I published the other day. Ignoring a threat that comes without action is better than reacting. Make sure that your enemy knows that you are willing to use the power you have at hand, or your threat will be seen as empty and you will be an empty suit who spouts high-flown rhetoric but who has no there there when it comes to using your power.

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

I note the use of logical vocabulary in Alinsky’s declaration of purpose rather than the super-logical vocabulary that Augustine shares with his modern (and postmodern) aestheticians.

#11: If you push a negative hard and deep enough it will break through to its counterside.

This is only true in a dialectical universe. I propose that the universe is not dialectical. It’s up to you to prove to me that it is. I will not accept the delusions of people like Nietzsche in place of your own reasoning since that would be cheating and you would still have to prove to me that Nietzsche knows more than me about how the universe is constructed, as well as how you know this about Nietzsche and not enough to know for yourself. (Don’t try it. It’s an unsolvable puzzle.).

#12: The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative.

Not always. Sometimes, as with Al-Quaida’s attack on the finance hub of the United States, the counter attack is so overwhelming and decisive that you are never even allowed the opportunity to strike your target again. At such times, you will want to pick up a copy of Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals to pick up strategies for continuing a guerrilla insurgency after your straight up attacks have failed.

This is the strategy which losers regularly pick on their way to extinction in a universe of Pareto inequality. Obviously the winners in a Pareto universe can continue doing what works (that is until circumstances change and it doesn’t work anymore; think horsewhips and buggy-makers).

#13: Pick a target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.

Idealism is a particularly prominent tactic in the late 60s and early 70s, and we can see it in Alinsky’s tactic #13. In #13, he recommends picking a target The Obama White House tried this with Rush Limbaugh early in the presidency. They abandoned this tactic (at least with Rush) after it failed to produce the desired results, and they have been searching through the ranks of GOP alternatives for a better ‘enemy’ to personalize and polarize (their other efforts have been with John Boehner and Sarah Palin).

That they failed was not because they did not get their message out clearly (which Obama still apparently thinks is his only problem), but that they are relying on Alinsky, who has a deeply flawed sense of time in his configuration of the universe.

In the modern (and postmodern) configuration of the universe, thinkers had positioned themselves in a universe in which scholastic philosophers had made a mistake about the existence of an ‘other world.’ After the humanists had attacked that ‘other world’ as an absurd fantasy, thinkers went looking for another source of transcendentalism. They found it within ‘history’ itself.

The history of modern philosophy can be reduced to the reworking of formerly ‘otherworldly’ themes into ‘history.’ Take the philosophy of René Descartes or the empirical psychology of John Locke. Postmodernism catalogs modern philosophy’s failure to provide an adequate justification for its initial aim. So after these schools of thought failed to achieve their goals on some level, we get the ‘synthetic a priori’ of Immanuel Kant. Postmodernism catalogs the failure of Kant’s system to close the gap, as well. This launches the postmodern adherent into a position in which they can catalog the construction of ideas and then catalog their inevitable deconstruction in a perfectly balanced system.

In following the Enlightenment principles of ‘either-with-or-against-us,’ Alinsky is a proponent of a thoroughly modern idea. He wants to combine his ‘transcendental’ vision with a ‘historical’ vision, and he thinks he’s found a way to do it. The way is not ‘nihilistic bombing and murder’ (xiv), but a push towards a new order based on things that have been suppressed and oppressed in society as it currently exists.

His view on time is relevant here and is worth a quote:

In the past the “world,” whether in physical or intellectual terms, was much smaller, simpler, and more orderly. It inspired credibility. Today, everything is so complex as to be incomprehensible. (xv)

The only difference between Limbaugh and radical Alinsky on this point is one of ends. Limbaugh enjoys the past and makes out of it a goal. Alinsky thinks the past is decadent and wants to push into the future, despite the revolutionary chaos that that entails, and build a new (and simple) order out of the ashes of the past. I have expressed my reservations about both systems in my post on Cochrane’s reservations about building a system based on an idealized view of the past. Idealism gives too simple a picture of the complexity of the past.

Alinsky is at war with time, as he lays out in his ‘Tactics’ chapter in a section called ‘Time in Tactics.’ ‘Enough of philosophical cells,’ he writes. ‘Let’s get back to the active essentials of organizing’ (158). In this statement I believe that he is attempting to draw a line between philosophical thought—which he associates with ‘theory’—and thought which he associates with action. This is the difference between (as it says on the back of the book) ‘being a realistic radical and a rhetorical one.’

Time is the radical’s enemy, since the sheepish masses of the public have short attention spans and are easily bored (159). This is why he must use an enemy for a moment and then pass on to another. The whole notion of ‘freezing’ someone in time is the equivalent of making a tableaux out of them, a static picture in another world. The same impulse drives Creed’s ‘Higher’ and its imitation of Yeats’ Sailing to Byzantium where the poet sets out of this life to ‘set upon a golden bough to sing’ a song to a drowsy emperor’ in a timeless world where the sheepish and hurried masses ‘neglect / Monuments of unageing intellect.’

Despite his best attempts not to, Alinsky is still thinking vertically, rather than horizontally. What’s more, he is even willing to grant the unfairness of isolating, freezing, and polarizing a single person in a world of passing bucks and interconnected world of responsibilities (130). He does it anyway because he needs the reductive power of reason to reduce the complex world to a much simpler and more manageable structure.

Now that’s fine as long as you realize that in reducing the complex world to a simpler form that you’re changing the game. The complex world is subject to the charge, frequently leveled by skeptics, that ‘nothing can be known, not even this.’ This was why in the Middle Ages thinkers divided metaphysical thought from scientific thought. Metaphysical thought was beyond our grasp, but scientific reason, while not as effective in transforming human beings into God of Satan (or gods like Zeus and Lucifer) had the power to allow human beings to make limited judgments about things that they cannot know with absolute certainty.

But this limited reason comes to a stop before we get to the end of any natural stopping place.

In the scientific environment of science (not of metaphysics) Alinsky stops his inquiry into the nature of the universe on the basis that he and his radical friends are moving from topic to topic within the world, while the opposition is stuck in the status quo. Status quos must be broken before conflicts can be introduced. But all this happens in the relative world of science without a certain foundation in any foundation in metaphysical reality.

And this is why it is so important to have as certain a knowledge as possible about what’s in your opponent’s playbook before isolating and attacking their position. You may not be able to know anything exactitude that you would like, but close is good enough in horseshoes and hand grenades (though not in metaphysics).

And this is the problem with relying on Enlightenment notions of ‘either-with-or-against-us’ rationality as a substitute for metaphysics. It presupposes that nothing is lost when you descend out from behind your Ivory Curtain into the world of time. This is not the case (and if you think it is, I would propose the impossible task of proving to me through reason and not through some greater authority who knows what you do not).

In such a relativistically-constructed universe, Alinsky stops before he has a right to. He supposes that in freezing the world that he and his radical friends are the only ones who have mastered the world of time, that it is they and not he who conflict on his side, while ‘they’ (the proverbial ‘other’) are stuck in the status quo. In a metaphysical world he might even be right, but we do not live in a metaphysical world. We live in a world of relative values.

In such a world, you have not got the power of a god (like Satan or Lucifer). Using limited reason you can only approximate your opponents’ position. And (this is important) where you’re wrong, your opponent can deploy your weaknesses against you. If you stop without realizing that fact, you may become a target yourself.

Alinsky is ignoring the world of business which he, like most intellectuals, think of as governed by greedy men looking after their own interests and not in the interest of a wider ‘common’ good, and not (as is the case) by men who operate without the philosophical net of metaphysics which insures that they (and only they) have a sure grasp on timeless and unchangeable principles. That metaphysical perspective is useful for thinking about the past, as I said in a previous post and its clarification. But by operating without that net, the businessman has a better grasp on the present situation and future states that might arise out of the present than the static and self-satisfied intellectual does.

In the world of time, a world largely ignored in intellectual circles, marketing departments read marketing texts to take advantage of small changes in the competitive environment to reap large gains which come from having a better view of the environment than their competitors do. This is just one of the advantages of thinking of the natural universe in terms of Pareto inequality rather than in terms of natural balance that human beings have intruded on simply by virtue of their existing.

The cost to Alisnky and his modern compatriots is that they are still holding on to the last gasp of metaphysics in a world where metaphysical thought has largely gone the way of horsewhips and buggies. Sure, there is still a marketplace for them, but they have largely been replaced by a perfectly relative universe of, not ‘absolute,’ but imperfect reason. Such thinkers as Alinsky still exist behind an Ivory Curtain (but not in anything as solid as an Ivory Tower). In a universe of relative values such artificial boundaries as academics hide behind are easily torn asunder.

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