PN’s ‘review-editorial of three important new books on campaigning’ raises questions about how we organise to create lasting change. (PN 2622–2623). At least two of the books draw on Saul Alinsky’s methods of community organising, and I want to mention some problems with these.
Back in the early ‘70s when the women’s liberation movement was growing by the day – maybe even the most vibrant part of a huge upheaval of squatting, strikes and solidarity movements – my best friend was a community worker who gave me Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals.
As I read, I became more and more alienated. Whereas we were organising together – ourselves alongside other people – Alinsky was talking about doing organising to other people.
His aim was a professional cadre or corps of community organisers. Alinsky also decided to look for ready-made organisations to step into and steer, rather than starting from the bottom up. He chose the churches in Chicago for his allies.
This is a method followed by Obama in the US and by Citizens UK over here. There have been some big short-term successes but in the long run the compromises involved cause huge political disappointment. At that point the Right steps in, because the ‘community organisers’ haven’t confronted the big value changes needed.
Citizens UK organisers project a shiny, almost corporate image with well-rehearsed speeches (sometimes repeating patriotic clichés such as ‘this country has always sheltered refugees’, which are simply untrue). I know of at least one organiser who couldn’t take the uniformity, and left or was pushed to leave.
Having attended a huge dramatic rally in Citizens’ East London base, and seen CEOs of companies sheepishly paraded on platforms and made to promise at least a living wage, and having seen radical clergy create an Independent Review of detention and asylum with Citizens’ help; I was excited to come to Citizens’ first North London meeting a few years ago.
It quickly became clear that our crowd of local activists and asylum support groups was not of interest to the organisers. They had already decided that synagogues would be their base (though none of these had bothered to attend). I haven’t enquired into their attitude to the present antisemitism furore, but Alinsky like Blair would have said ‘Don’t go there’.
I don’t want to single out Citizens, and I hope their campaign to bring child refugees will succeed better than it has done to date. There are plenty of other groups looking to find out ‘How We Win’.
Training courses proliferate. I am doubtful. Organisation arises out of people’s own experiences, not questionnaires and mapping. Techniques of NVDA are valuable but technique isn’t at the heart.
Occupy London (in my opinion) faded out not because it failed to embrace ready-made demands about tax and pay, but because it did not take the step forward to join with the homeless and dispossessed as Zucotti Park and other Occupy movements across the US had done – daring to create disorder and then a new collective life.
We should take lessons here from Tunisia, the first Occupy, and now the Gaza border camps. These are huge organisational efforts, feeding masses of people and discussing most of the night how to change the world.
Could I raise the issue of personal values here? How far would each of us go to build links? If we are vegan, would we share a meal of meat to be friendly? If female and secular, would we cover our heads, or go along with sex-segregated meetings? If of any gender, how far would we be prepared to change the way we look and behave in the world, if it would help us build alliances?
I haven’t nearly sorted out any of my own answers to these questions yet.
As anti-authoritarians we think of a huge wave somehow uniting all of us diverse people and groups. I know I’m still guided by that vision in the totally different surroundings of my local Labour party! Thank you to Milan Rai for raising all these questions and keeping the space open for debate.