Sunday, January 22, 2012 reading – Saul Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals”.
It is our first revisit to a book that we may come back to even more in the future. Early on in the days of Occupy, we read passages from Alinsky’s text and learned some wisdom for revolutionaries – make it fun, things that drag on too long become a drag, ridicule your enemy. This second set of excerpts, courtesy of Roger, took Alinsky to a deeper level.
The ensuing conversation took us into a discussion of the Occupy movement: what it has accomplished, how it has accomplished it, and what its future is. Despite the smallness of the group, there was a range of opinions, with the most cynical coming from James who declared, perhaps hyperbolically, that the movement was a failure. Group consensus, though not that strong, did seem to feel that the movement had grown stale or tepid.
But before I get into that, the text itself merits discussion, and brings about obvious correlations to the Occupy movement worth thinking about. I am struck, and have always been struck, by the Orwellian idea, expressed by Alinsky as well, of three fundamental classes of people. Alinsky calls them the “Haves”, “Have-nots”, and “Have-a-Little, Want Mores”. It has been a feature of history that the third group can sometimes supplant the first, but the Have-nots always have naught. It is always worthwhile to look at the makeup of a movement like Occupy with regard to race, socioeconomic status, and other features. Are the “leaders”, the most vocal participants, tending to come from one of these three particular categories? I think Occupy is fairly safe for now, but it does tow a dangerous line between being a movement of the poor or a movement of the disenfranchised bourgeois (college graduates from middle-income families).
But tactics are what Alinsky is really known for, even if his analysis of history is also worthwhile. These are the parts of Alinsky’s works that Occupiers use (or fail to use) on a daily basis, whether they even realize it or not. And it was from this portion of the selection that we jumped into a discussion of Occupy itself. Nicole and some others questioned whether Occupy had grown stale, or had drug on too long and become a drag, something Alinsky warns against. But it’s a double-edged sword, because the exact opposite of too much protraction is too much flash-in-the-panning, or “terminal tactics” – a tactic that “crests, breaks, and disappears like a wave.” These might include actions like boycotts, which tend to have little long-term damage. I’d extend the example further and say something like self-immolation qualifies. Though the image of a burning monk is not easily forgotten, it is far from the worst blow one might inflict on the powers-that-be.
So we talked about whether Occupy was doing any of the things Alinsky would suggest it do. Roger was a little more optimistic, commenting on the dedication of the people who are permanent Occupiers – they continue to sleep on the steps of City Hall and maintain a physical presence. But the physical presence has very obviously diminished, and this was cause for concern for some of us. Nicole pointed out that although that physical presence has shrunk, Occupy has enjoyed successes outside of that, and is metamorphosing into something else now. This is perhaps a romantic impression, but it might be right, and I even am inclined to agree with it – we talked about how Occupy has impacted the public consciousness, with Danny asking random passengers in his taxicab what their thoughts of the movement were (and these ran more or less the usual gamut, although it seemed like their attitudes were cynical from the few examples he did share) and me invoking my grandmother, who is the best instrument I have for measuring the pulse of that all-important segment called Middle America. To me, her attitude has changed. While always a lifelong Democrat, she was always somewhat reactionary toward certain groups – drug users, homosexuals, etc. – but her positions have softened and she no longer seems to view them as an enemy.
I continue to believe that the physical presence is going to be the most important thing, and I’m hoping that in the spring when decent weather returns we will see a significant resurgence. Meeting at the top of the City Hall steps, we could see almost as many police officers and cruisers from our vantage point as we could Occupiers. But the information booth is still set up, and new voices are still being heard in the movement. The reading group did meet one lady who expressed enthusiasm for what we were doing, and it’s a crucial component of the movement as a whole. What is clear, however, and is clear from Alinsky, is that Occupiers must be educated in their tactics, message, and goals. For instance, contrary to the message Occupy is trying to send out of being a body of people without specific leadership or a specific message, Alinsky believes that the best and brightest of a movement ought to take on leadership capacities. To be able to organize successfully requires training.
Hopefully, the Occupy movement can learn from Alinsky’s writing and utilize some of these tactics when they rebound in the spring to deliver significant blows to the powers-that-be. I, for one, am optimistic, but it’s still a source of contention, even within the reading group in particular, how Occupy should proceed. If it should be under one banner, with one strong message, with vocal leaders, or if it should proceed in the direction it is already going, with several splinter groups sometimes arranged under the “Occupy” banner and sometimes changing their minds and going with something else.
The possibility of Occupy becoming a stigmatized label was talked about by Danny, and I hope that this isn’t the case. But whether it is or not, the people who have been awakened by the movement need not to return to their slumbers. Whether we call it Occupy, or whether we’re all united under one banner, or whether we form coalitions and try to work in unison that way, it hardly matters. What’s important is that the movement has begun and we need not to let the moment pass. Another of Alinsky’s arguments is that timing is essential to the success of an organized movement, and the time – with farcical Republican debates, a Democratic president who is scarcely any different from the far-right reactionary he replaced, and an economy that’s teetering ever closer to the verge of collapse – can hardly be any better than now.