What happened when Justine read a classic book published in 1971. A world was shaken. A mind was blown. And this article was written.
In Rules for Radicals, Saul D. Alinsky writes to get us out of our comfort zones. Crafted in the context of our times, he directs the course of his book to the “Have-Nots” (the poor and disenfranchised) in stark contrast with the “Haves” (the elite and wealthy). Illustrating concepts through his own life experiences – of people he has worked with and observed – he serves an admirable practice of what he professes to be a good “organizer”. An effective radical.
“That we accept the world as it is does not in any sense weaken our desire to change it into what we believe it should be – it is necessary to begin where the world is if we are going to change it to what we think it should be.”
Emphasis is made on being realistic. To start with what people are already doing, instead of harping on what they ought to do. To see the world as it is, and to identify with people as they are – rallying them together for a common cause so that they come to believe in their collective power to act for their collective good.
Below is an attempt to depict – from Alinsky’s perspective – the key factors to being an effective radical.
On being pliant
The setting of his work, as might well be in life, is the ability to think on our feet. Life’s uncertainties require an ability to shift positions, but the character of our principles should remain intact. Enough to switch, but not enough to fade away and be replaced by fad or emotion.
“In the politics of human life, consistency is not a virtue.”
Inertia is gradual death of the soul. Rigid dogma is an obstacle to the freeing of minds. So that we may thrive in an attitude of constant searching, the purpose around which we function should be centred on goodness for all of mankind. We are all interdependent – the welfare of one is parallel to the welfare of all.
In seeking our own interests, we may better achieve them in seeking the interests of others.
A word with demonised associations, but that has long existed anyway in terms of national rule.
“Democracy is not an end but the best means toward achieving these values (i.e. equality, justice, freedom, peace, the preciousness of human life).”
According to Alinsky, process is purpose. Both are intertwined and complement one another. Thus politics in government, in the office and in the institution are all part and parcel of the process. Democratic values making way for the people’s choice are a mere step to human freedom.
The middle-class syndrome
Alinsky describes these as the “Have-a-Little, Want Mores”. Finding that today’s middle class are a great deal more helpless than the poor, he identifies complacency as a likely cause: the danger in the security of having enough, and of wanting to protect what little they have.
“Large parts of the middle class, the “silent majority”, must be activated; action and articulation are one, as are silence and surrender.”
The middle class are not scavenging for food or scouring the streets for shelter. This sets them apart from the “Have-Nots” who have daily, pressing survival needs which bind them together. Which makes it easier (somewhat) to mobilise them into action, as compared to the middle class with their self-righteous rhetoric and insistence on morals – criticising and dampening any revolutionary spark that comes to light. Many approve of the ends, but rarely the means to getting there.
“Quiet desperation”, as Thoreau puts it, is endured by the middle class as they think themselves incapable of forging change. They turn a blind eye and retreat into the familiarity of their cocoons.
It is as Edmund Burke timelessly declared, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
Intentional inaction in the face of need is criminal.
Role as an organizer
Alinsky devotes a large part of his book to organization – a vital ingredient for effective action. He points out that, as an organizer, equally important to getting your point across is genuinely listening to your audience, your target. Nothing alienates as much as lofty sermons with little to no bearing on their daily lives.
Noble aspirations of justice and equality– even love and freedom – may seem too detached. The issue should be simple and tied in to a relevant concept that is meaningful to the group. This might include their need for daily sustenance in the form of food, or their workers’ rights on being given fair wages and treatment.
People should have faith that you can lead them, guide them, sustain them; that you’re not just a flitting ‘radical’ blabbering sweet nothings upon their plight. Respect individual dignity by encouraging participation.
To dismantle apathy and inertia, Alinsky suggests changing up the group’s regular life schedules. Only then can they be shaken out of routine. This might breed conflict, which spurs movement.
“The conversion of hot, emotional, impulsive passions that are impotent and frustrating to actions that will be calculated, purposeful and effective.”
Find the hot button in each community to get their minds and emotions into disarray: this strikes a chord with them as it shows where shit hits the fan – their very own fan. Enough for them to be concerned and act, ending any resignation to their dismal circumstances. Some dissent is necessary as unwavering agreement is numbing to the senses. These “hot, emotional, impulsive passions” can be honed into an outlet for action.
To be innovative sounds cliché. Instead, agitate.
Strategizing your moves
Be consistent to maintain your presence, but not routine so as to crumble from weariness.
Acting in good timing within the context at hand is vital. Focus specifically on the target at which your tactics are directed.
Although our problems stem from many deeply-rooted causes in this complex society, find the one where it hits hardest and produces the greatest impact.
“The art of how to take and how to give. Of doing what you can with what you’ve got.”
Alternatives are invaluable. If Plan A does not work, try B, or C.
Fan the flame to keep things afresh, and to drive the movement for reasons of betterment.
Alinsky notes that the organizer should occasionally take time off to reflect, review strategies and re-energise to avoid burning out. Always explore both sides of the coin, to be neither smug in rightness nor dejected and ineffective in doubt.
Above all, have common sense and have fun.
When to act? How to act?
There is no perfect time or method or opportunity. For if we wait, we will be waiting for the rest of our lives. The time is now.
It all boils down to the question of how to live a meaningful life. The search for our identity in a world bombarding us with theories on what we are and how to live. Of ideals espoused by individuals revered by society, through charisma or through fame. Expertise is necessary, but the experts are not always correct.
Someone once said: “The world is not a given reality. [Neither does it revolve around you to accommodate your every step.] We are here to shape it, instead of being shaped by it.”
“The pursuit of happiness is never-ending; happiness lies in the pursuit.”
Does this then doom us to be constantly dissatisfied creatures? Not at all, for if true happiness were so easily attained, our restless nature would shun this happiness we once so feverishly sought.
Life may be seen as a learning curve. Alinsky proposes that we keep searching and never stop questioning. Because most of the fun is in the hunt.
See also: “Malaysia: Ripe for Revolution” by Marcus van Geyzel.