Rules for Radicals – 1

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series Rules for Radicals


A sharp-eyed reader may have spotted a reference in a recent piece on BDS-amokery to Rules for Radicals, the Bible for the Community Organizer written by political activist and guru Saul Alinsky in 1971.

Because our current President came out of a profession defined in many ways by Alinsky’s work, critics of the administration have reached back to Rules for Radicals with an odd mixture of hostility (seeing it as a blueprint for subversion) and excitement (since the aggressive tactics the book outlines can be just as effective when used by the Left or Right).

To the delight of some, and disappointment of others, I’m going to stay out of such domestic political quarrels for now to take a closer look at Alinsky’s Rules and the historic context from which the movement he inspired emerged.  And while some may find the first part of my analysis a bit too friendly towards its subject, hold tight – for after that I will highlight how serious flaws within the system Alinsky developed contained the seeds of its own corruption, best exemplified by our old friends in the BDS “movement.”

While I’ve talked out Left vs. Right arguments at length in the past, one of the reasons I hesitate to get drawn into those debates is that these 18th century European labels (which originally applied to the seating pattern around the King of France) filtered through an American cultural prism of rugged individualism vs. the collective leaves out the two major intellectual drivers of American political thought.

To begin with, the nation’s founders were not striving to create a nation of lone frontiersmen and cowboys (which only became idealized characters in the 19th century), but rather saw the nation they were founding as an experiment in Common Sense philosophy.

Most people will recognize that phrase from the famous tract written by Thomas Paine, but Paine – like the rest of the Founding Fathers – were steeped in a philosophical tradition that originated in Scotland which bore the label of “Common Sense.” And unlike the colloquial way the phrase is used today, Common Sense philosophy saw truth – up to and including scientific truth – as something that could best be derived through the work of common folk reasoning things out together.

The image you should hold in your head is that of the jury trial where a group of citizens, not selected because they possess any type of expertise, are asked to come together to draw conclusions based on evidence, the law, even human psychology that could have dramatic (up to and including life and death) consequences.  And for the builders of this nation, it was the small, local Common Sense community that would provide the foundation for the new Commonwealth: localities where the citizens would work together to find solutions to their own problems large or small.

But as modernity reared its head, bringing with it industrialization, urbanization, travel and trade, new philosophies began to take the place of a Common Sense that no longer worked in an increasingly complex world.

Pragmatism, America’s major contribution to the philosophical canon, built an intellectual superstructure to help the growing, changing nation deal with this increasing complexity.  And rather than getting into the weeds of this interesting but complicated school of thought, I’ll instead just look at the end product to which it contributed: technocracy, or rule not by citizens exercising their Common Sense wisdom, but by trained and skilled experts.

Given that most of us spend every waking hour dependent on experts we will never meet for the gas and electricity that flows into our homes, the technology that energy powers, and virtually every other aspect of our lives, the notion of rule by the Common Sense community can seem quaint to the point of irrelevance.  But as experts became the decision makers (including experts who teach politicians how to get us to vote for them so that they can then appoint other experts to run the machinery of state), the notion of citizen rule – i.e., democracy – has come to be perceived (accurately) as increasingly hollow.

So while modern Conservatism has evolved to become a sophisticated political philosophy, those strands of Conservative ideology that react violently against the rule of elites are not expressing hostility towards the suppression of the cowboy in us, but are rather demonstrating nostalgia over a Common Sense way of life that no longer works.  Interestingly, the Left’s suspicion of Big Government (at least as it relates to its military and security arms) not to mention hostility to Big Corporations and other large entities reflects this same nostalgia for a time when the small autonomous community was the grounding for an organized society.

One solution to this dilemma was the creation of sub-cultures: small self-contained communities living within the larger too-complex-to-fully-understand world, communities able to give their members a sense of meaning and purpose.  And the brilliance of Alinsky was his ability to find ways to harness those civic communities towards a common political good.

How he did that (or tried anyway) will be the subject of my next posting.

Next – Alinsky’s Pragmatism

Series NavigationRules for Radicals – 2 >>

2 thoughts on “Rules for Radicals – 1”

  1. Jon, I have only just recently discovered this series of pieces and, so far, you are creating something very interesting, I think.

    What you write reminds me of Theodore Roszak who wrote The Making of a Counter Culture and Where the Wasteland Ends, which are two of the seminal books of sociology outlining the emergence of the American counterculture of the 1960s.

    Anyway, I will continue to read through this series and recommend it to others.

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