I just finished reading both of Saul Alinksy’s books, Reveille for Radicals and Rules for Radicals. I read them mostly to see what all the right-wing disapprobation was about. “Obama’s playbook,” they call Rules for Radicals. The right wing views it as some sort of sordid lefty bible. Ridiculous memes have been created and falsely attributed to Alinsky. Another book was written to help surly rightys combat Alinsky’s Rules. The Tea Party has even done it’s very best to co-opt Rules’ tactics for their own use. No book has been more consistently criticized and falsified by conservative pundits than Rules for Radicals. I suspect that is because were everyone to read it—accompanied with Reveille for Radicals—with an open mind, they may finally see the truth those pundits don't want them to see.
I wanted to see if there was any modern day use for Alinsky’s works and tactics. Or are they tired and stale?
Saul Alinsky was a community organizer and writer, considered to be the founder of modern community organizing. His ideas were adapted in the 1960s by some US college students and other young counterculture-era organizers who used them as part of their strategies for organizing on campus and beyond. His writings, and the tactics outlined therein, have had a profound influence on all social change and social justice movements of recent decades. But “true revolutionaries do not flaunt their radicalism,” Alinsky says. “They cut their hair, put on suits and infiltrate the system from within.”
For one, anyone who admits to reading and utilizing Sun Tzu’s The Art of War or Robert Greene's The 48 Laws of Power should arguably have no issues with Rules. None. In fact, I wonder if many of Alinsky’s bandwagon detractors even realize that this is really the way power is obtained and sustained, and has been since the beginning of time. Liberals tend to be perceived as “soft”, “flaky”. And those who don’t have money or power unnecessarily feel they’ll always be powerless—they aren't aware of the tactics those who have risen to the top have most likely used. Alinsky merely, quite appropriately, offers advice for using one's wits to flip the script and obtain power to then use for the type of social change—social, political and economic equality—that will lift those who need it most.
In Reveille for Radicals Alinsky writes:
... the free society-organizer is loose, resilient, fluid, and on the move in a society which is in a state of extraordinary and constant change. He is not shackled with dogma. In our world today rigidity is fatal. The free-society organizer is constantly growing and learning. He knows and accepts political relativity.
... All radicals acting for change must attack the sacred cows of the past and many of the present. These sacred cows are accepted as terminal truths and serve as the supporting rationale for the ways of the past.
I'm drawing a parallel between Alinsky’s aim and Design’s aim for a seat at the business table. Let's think about the dogmatic rules of modern design—rules that over the years have been fearlessly broken by radicals like David Carson and others to industry acclaim, but still remain. And beyond the formula we apply to make things look correct, there is a certain formula for success in our industry that relies heavily on winning awards and international recognition. Maybe we should not be so bogged down with doing things because they're what we were taught and "that's what you do". If we want to make change, we've got to consider dropping some of our own dogma to achieve it.
What I’m going to say next will be controversial. Or maybe not, given designers’ history of activism and push for social change:
What if we co-opted some of Alinsky’s tactics in order to become more empowered?
The ultimate outcome of learning from and applying some of these tactics would be to develop stronger acumen and political savvy. To learn how to view the world from a business perspective in order to win more seats at the table, rather than wasting all of our time trying to get the business world to soften, understand us and let us in with open arms. If your company is already run by senior leadership that truly understands the importance and value of design, and knows how to make sure designers have proper seats at the table, you're already poised to start making a bigger impact. But for those still working to introduce design into their company, or struggling to make more headway with short-sighted numbers-focused leadership, some food for thought: the DEO is being hyped right now. Shouldn’t every company have one? And shouldn't the DEO always be an actual designer? I think, yes. And maybe the best way to get there, after all, is to infiltrate.
Either way, I would suggest reading Reveille for Radicals. It was written in 1946 but too much of the information inside still applies today. Read it with an open mind and, if nothing else, it will explain why those who fight for social justice do so, shed more light on the timely concept of becoming people-focused, help us to think about how and why to separate individuals from circumstances, and dispel the liberal-minded equals "pinko" myth. It will lift the veil of false liberty that so many in America believe in, and show that true liberty and social justice really go hand in hand.
To debunk the flawed link between liberalism and socialism or communism, and to help anyone best understand the way the American left truly thinks and feels, I'll leave you with this:
The radical places human rights far above property rights. He is for universal, free public education and recognizes this as fundamental to the democratic way of life. He will be for local control but will condemn local abuse of public education—whether it be discrimination or corruption—that denies equal education to anyone, and will insist if necessary upon its correction by national laws and the use of governmental authority to enforce those laws—but at the same time he will bitterly oppose complete federal control of education. He will fight for individual rights and against centralized power.
I could write a whole piece on this book alone. And maybe, like me, you'll read it and realize that if you like people—all people—and want to fight for all people, you're a radical, too.