Saul Alinsky’s 12 Rules for Radicals

Accumulating a Power Base that Will Implode

BY Frater Bovious

Power Base Politics Have No End, Only Means

Power Base Politics Have No End, Only Means

Saul Alinsky was a Community Organizer, or as some have styled it, a Rabble Rouser. Basically, Alinsky recognized that, for example, a bunch of folks living in a tenement house owned by a distant slum lord had no power. The reasons for lack of power are beyond the scope of this post. However, the basic physics principle involved in the difference between a grain of sand and a dump truck full of sand grains was not lost on Alinsky. There is an inherent power in numbers.

But, how do you get a bunch of disinterested and despairing individual people who feel powerless and unconnected to operate as a unit for the common good? Alinsky figured out how to create a power base from almost nothing by uniting folks against a common enemy.

If you read the below rules I think you will begin to see how these rules have become the handbook for American Politics today. You can see the tactics in the debates, in the news headlines, in soundbites and bumper stickers. It clearly works. There is however a problem inherent in these tactics. Read and see if you can identify the core issue. (I don’t believe the parenthetical statements are  part of the original rules. They seem to be editorial comments by, I think, Glen Beck.)

* RULE 1: “Power is not only what you have, but what the enemy thinks you have.” Power is derived from 2 main sources – money and people. “Have-Nots” must build power from flesh and blood. (These are two things of which there is a plentiful supply. Government and corporations always have a difficult time appealing to people, and usually do so almost exclusively with economic arguments.)
* RULE 2: “Never go outside the expertise of your people.” It results in confusion, fear and retreat. Feeling secure adds to the backbone of anyone. (Organizations under attack wonder why radicals don’t address the “real” issues. This is why. They avoid things with which they have no knowledge.)
* RULE 3: “Whenever possible, go outside the expertise of the enemy.” Look for ways to increase insecurity, anxiety and uncertainty. (This happens all the time. Watch how many organizations under attack are blind-sided by seemingly irrelevant arguments that they are then forced to address.)
* RULE 4: “Make the enemy live up to its own book of rules.” If the rule is that every letter gets a reply, send 30,000 letters. You can kill them with this because no one can possibly obey all of their own rules. (This is a serious rule. The besieged entity’s very credibility and reputation is at stake, because if activists catch it lying or not living up to its commitments, they can continue to chip away at the damage.)
* RULE 5: “Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon.” There is no defense. It’s irrational. It’s infuriating. It also works as a key pressure point to force the enemy into concessions. (Pretty crude, rude and mean, huh? They want to create anger and fear.)
* RULE 6: “A good tactic is one your people enjoy.” They’ll keep doing it without urging and come back to do more. They’re doing their thing, and will even suggest better ones. (Radical activists, in this sense, are no different that any other human being. We all avoid “un-fun” activities, and but we revel at and enjoy the ones that work and bring results.)
* RULE 7: “A tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag.” Don’t become old news. (Even radical activists get bored. So to keep them excited and involved, organizers are constantly coming up with new tactics.)
* RULE 8: “Keep the pressure on. Never let up.” Keep trying new things to keep the opposition off-balance. As the opposition masters one approach, hit them from the flank with something new. (Attack, attack, attack from all sides, never giving the reeling organization a chance to rest, regroup, recover and re-strategize.)
* RULE 9: “The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself.” Imagination and ego can dream up many more consequences than any activist. (Perception is reality. Large organizations always prepare a worst-case scenario, something that may be furthest from the activists’ minds. The upshot is that the organization will expend enormous time and energy, creating in its own collective mind the direst of conclusions. The possibilities can easily poison the mind and result in demoralization.)
* RULE 10: “If you push a negative hard enough, it will push through and become a positive.” Violence from the other side can win the public to your side because the public sympathizes with the underdog. (Unions used this tactic. Peaceful [albeit loud] demonstrations during the heyday of unions in the early to mid-20th Century incurred management’s wrath, often in the form of violence that eventually brought public sympathy to their side.)
* RULE 11: “The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative.” Never let the enemy score points because you’re caught without a solution to the problem. (Old saw: If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. Activist organizations have an agenda, and their strategy is to hold a place at the table, to be given a forum to wield their power. So, they have to have a compromise solution.)
* RULE 12: Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.” Cut off the support network and isolate the target from sympathy. Go after people and not institutions; people hurt faster than institutions. (This is cruel, but very effective. Direct, personalized criticism and ridicule works.)

One problem that I see with the tactics is they don’t create a self-sustaining organization based on recognition of the innate dignity of all humans. To the contrary, the rules specifically require demonizing your opponent, and making the participants feel good about it. This is basically bullying.

The other problem is that once you have toppled a bastion of power, such as a landlord, or maybe a political opponent, you become the new power and you are subject to the same tactics. When you make of your opponent the rabble, and you have become the establishment, the cycle simply repeats. Meaning there is no long-term progress resulting from this method of gaining power. And that’s because whatever the point of trying to gain power was, it has been lost in the overarching need to be in power, and then to defend being in power. Nothing is left for actually doing whatever you wanted to do.

The solution is to be found first in recognizing the inestimable worth of every single human being, from womb to tomb, and resting in that reality. From there, dialogue between persons of equal dignity can happen. It’s not as quick or as flashy, and will at times seem like you planted a seed and nothing is happening – but that is how real growth and development always transpire. (cf Mark 4:26-28)

Rules for Radicals give false and temporary power – something worth considering this Lent as we contemplate our ultimate end.


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