Category Archives: Struggle & Movement

Michel de Certeau on Strategy and Tactics

I finally got around to reading all of de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life. I had, of course, before read all that stuff about walking, but there is so much more here for the literary and philosophical geographer. I might have liked the chapter on tactics best of all, even if I disagree with it. I have been thinking about strategy and tactics for the past few weeks, it’s one of the things community organizing is all about, but I was reading this particular book for another project entirely. Interesting. I’ve kept some of his headings because I quite love the breadth of what he writes about, and though I’ve found even of interest for two, maybe three blogs here, I am fairly sure there will be more when I read it again. There are some pieces from the intro in this, blog 1, but it is mostly chapter 3.

This is one of my favourite quotes:

As unrecognized producers, poets of their own acts, silent discoverers of their own paths in the jungle of functionalist rationality, consumers produce through their signifying practices something that might be considered similar to the “wandering lines” drawn by autistic children…”indirect” or “errant” trajectories obeying their own logic. (xviii)

Though I’d prefer my poetry emerged through something other that my consumption. I kind of like to sit and stare and these sentences that at first sound so good, but then sometimes lose sense as you think about them. Wisps of smoke. The strategy and tactics I found much more clear:

I call a “strategy” the calculus of force-relationships which becomes possible when a subject of will and power (a proprietor, an enterprise, a city, a scientific institution) can be isolated from an “environment.” (xix)

Not entirely sure about the environment, mostly disagree with strategy as belonging only to such subjects of will and power and wonder what it means to place a city itself into that category, but interesting.

Chapter 3 “Making Do”: Uses and Tactics

Thus a North African living in Paris or Roubaix [France] insinuates into the system imposed on him by the construction of a low—income housing development or of the French language the ways of “dwelling” (in a house or in a language) peculiar to his native Kabylia. He superimposes them and, by that combination, creates for himself a space in which he can find ways of using the constraining order of the place or of the language. Without leaving the place where he has no choice but to live and which lays down its law for him, he establishes within it a degree of plurality and creativity. By an art of being in between, he draws unexpected results from his situation.

These modes of use–or rather re-use–multiply with the extension of acculturation phenomena…of transiting toward an identification of a person by the place in which he lives or works. That does not prevent them from corresponding to a very ancient art of “making do.” I give them the name of uses, even though the word most often designates stereotyped procedures accepted and reproduced by a group, its “ways and customs.” (30)

I love this, both in how it understands the ways in which we inhabit space by making it our own, the ways that that subverts and transforms space, and that a similar process should happen in language. Because of course, you see it everywhere and most places I have lived, this in-between has become a vibrant new place and new way of speaking both.

But on to a deeper explanation of the already stated view of strategy:

A distinction between strategies and tactics appears to provide a more adequate initial schema. I call a strategy the calculation (or manipulation) or power relationships that becomes possible as soon as a subject with will and power (a business, an army, a city, a scientific institution) can be isolated. It postulates a place that can be delimited as its own and serve as the base from which relations with an exteriority composed of targets or threats (customers or competitors, enemies, the country sur­rounding the city, objectives and objects of research, etc.) can be man­aged. As in management, every “strategic” rationalization seeks first of all to distinguish its “own” place, that is, the place of its own power and will, from an “environment.”

I love how this manipulation of power is always in a place, always tied to a geography and a here as opposed to a there. But how does a city exert this? I am still pondering that. I cannot tell where agency lies, and that bothers me. It is too vague. But interesting. De Certeau continues about the difference between the two along different axes: That of time, that of sight, that of knowing:

The establishment of a break between a place appropriated as one’s own and its other is accompanied by important effects, some of which we must immediately note:

(I) The “proper” is a triumph of place over time. It allows one to capitalize acquired advantages, to prepare future expansions, and thus to give oneself a certain independence with respect to the variability of circumstances. It is a mastery of time through the foundation of an autonomous place.

These past few weeks — time has mastered me rather than the other way round. It makes sense to think of power as its master, interesting that it (might be) through place.

(2) It is also a mastery of places through sight. The division of space makes possible a panoptic practice proceeding from a place whence the eye can transform foreign forces into objects that can be observed and measured, and thus control and “include” them within its scope of vision. To be able to see (far into the distance) is also to be able to predict, to run ahead of time by reading a space.

The ability to see gives more control over time, more control over space…

(3) It would be legitimate to define the power of knowledge by this ability to transform the uncertainties of history into readable spaces. But it would be more correct to recognize in these “strategies” a specific type of knowledge, one sustained and determined by the power to provide oneself with one’s own place. Thus military or scientific strategies have always been inaugurated through the constitution of their “own” areas (autonomous cities, “neutral” or “independent” institutions, laboratories pursuing “disinterested” research, etc.). In other words, a certain power is the precondition of this knowledge and not merely its effect or its attribute. It makes this knowledge possible and at the same time determines its characteristics. It produces itself in and through this knowledge.

Transforming history into a readable ‘space’…another magician’s trick. I am not sold, but oddly fascinated of this way he has of assuming we create spaces through words. This slippage between physical and abstract space intrigues.

I am troubled by ‘masters’ owning space, thereby strategies, while the rest of us are without center, reduced to tactics.

By contrast with a strategy (whose successive shapes introduce a certain play into this formal schema and whose link with a particular historical configuration of rationality should also be clarified), a tactic is a calculated action determined by the absence of a proper locus. No delimitation of an exteriority, then, provides it with the condition necessary for autonomy. The space of a tactic is the space of the other. Thus it must play on and with a terrain imposed on it and organized by the law of a foreign power.

I have trouble moving between physical and abstract space here, trouble working out where we actually stand. But stand we do, I will defend our ability to have strategy, even on someone else turf.

It does not have the means to keep to itself, at a distance, in a position of withdrawal, foresight, and self-collection: it is a maneuver “within the enemy’s field of vision,” as von Bülow put it, and within enemy territory.

Doesn’t it?

It does not, therefore, have the options of planning general strategy and viewing the adversary as a whole within a district, visible, and objectifiable space.


It operates in isolated actions, blow by blow. It takes advantage of “opportunities” and depends on them, being without any base where it could stockpile its winnings, build up its own position, and plan raids. What it wins it cannot keep. This nowhere gives a tactic mobility, to be sure, but a mobility that must accept the chance offerings of the moment, and seize on the wing the possibilities that offer themselves at any given moment. It must vigilantly make use of the cracks that particular conjunctions open in the surveillance of the proprietary powers. It poaches in them. It creates surprises in them. It can be where it is least expected. It is a guileful ruse.

We can keep wins. We can gain ground. It does not mean that we should not search for cracks or go poaching.

In short, a tactic is an art of the weak.

Maybe this is what is wrong with the British left.

Clausewitz noted this fact in discussing deception in his treatise On War. The more a power grows, the less it can allow itself to mobilize part of its means in the service of deception: it is dangerous to deploy large forces for the sake of appearances; this sort of “demonstration” is generally useless and “the gravity of bitter necessity makes direct action so urgent that it leaves no room for this sort of game.” One deploys his forces, one does not take chances with feints. Power is bound by its very visibility. In contrast, trickery is possible for the weak, and often it is his only possibility, as a “last resort”: “The weaker the forces at the disposition of the strategist, the more the strategist will be able to use deception.” I translate: the more the strategy is transformed into tactics. (36-37)

I am strangely drawn to reading Clausewitz, von Bulow. I am all for trickery. But that’s not going to win a fight. Nor will tactics. For all his exploration which at least acknowledges this form of resistance where many do not, de Certeau doesn’t really promise much. He yields a great deal to the enemy from the very beginning.

Lacking its own place, lacking a view of the whole, limited by the blindness (which may lead to perspicacity) resulting from combat at close quarters, limited by the possibilities of the moment, a tactic is determined by the absence of power just as a strategy is organized by the postulation of power. (38)

It’s also a strangely evanescent, individual sort of thing, this tactic. I wonder if it is precisely because he makes this distinction:

strategies pin their hopes on the resistance that the estab­lishment of a place offers to the erosion of time; tactics on a clever utilization of time, of the opportunities it presents and also of the play that it introduces into the foundations of power. Even if the methods practiced by the everyday art of war never present themselves in such a clear form, it nevertheless remains the case that the two ways of acting can be distinguished according to whether they bet on place or on time. (38-39)

Many communities are trapped in place, or part of a place and identify with a place and will never leave a place. This collective identity and its connection to a neighborhood or piece of earth is where strength comes from, this is what drives them to make a stand. They cannot not bet on place, they cannot or will not just pick up and move. What then? The difference between Algerian’s ‘making do’ in Paris as opposed to those fighting occupation in Kabylia perhaps.

So given I reject my banishment to the use of tactics only, where does that leave me? Us? Because I am not fighting alone. Turned on its head this means we do need our own places, time and space both to think, to plan. To come together. A place on the heights, to see far. One that draws strength from how this place is transformed by our own culture and value and ways of being in the world. That creates the room for these possibilities, that celebrates hybridity and flexibility while drawing on history and tradition that stand in opposition to capitalism. Somewhere not easily seen (but do those in power ever truly see us?). Somewhere we can move quickly and take advantage of the moment, but in ways that lead us to the transformations we seek. Strategically.



Organizing Manual from Daniel Hunter: A Movement to End the New Jim Crow

The organizing guide to Daniel Hunter’s Building a Movement to End the New Jim Crow contains a note on the copyright page that this emerged from conversations with Daryl Atkinson, Chris Moore-Backman, Michelle Alexander and Dr Vincent Harding, makes me so wish I had been a fly on that wall. Daniel Hunter is an organizer and strategist with Training for Change, and James Lawson gives it a brief preface. It is short and sweet and tries to answer the question of what to do with the realities described by Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow, how do we build a movement to end it?

Hunter starts each chapter with a story that holds a lesson. Nice. Every chapter is filled with clear headings and clear points. Every chapter ends with next steps that summarise the main points and gives you the questions you need to be asking yourself. This makes it easy.

I. Roles in Movement Building

It starts out debunking some myths about movement, which I really like.

Myth: Movements are like a lit match.

The myth that movements “Suddenly appear” misses the critical process of building up networks ready to act and ways to communicate broadly. The myth ignores the necessary tasks of leadership building and visioning. While sparks are important, without those critical pieces, movements will not tun into a fire. (6)

Myth: Movements are built by heroic figurehead leaders (6)

Myth: Movement require complete internal unity (7)

Myth: Movements succeed if they mobilize large, mass actions.

…movements don’t win because of singular actions. Movements need ongoing resistance…require sustained pressure. (7)

I like too the understanding that there are different roles in this great struggle to change the world. It’s good to understand where you fit, to know that might change (I might have added that in there, most of us aren’t organisers for all that long), and to respect the others. He gives this minimum of four: helpers, advocates, organizers and rebels, just as a starting point. I also like that he connects each to structural change — that’s really key, and hard to do for a lot of folks. I don’t know why I liked the warning labels best but I did, there’s lots more description.

Helpers — great, but need to understand structural issues, not just personal ones

Advocates important, sometimes take over and take away ‘clients’ power and agency.

Organizers — awesome, might get stuck in a stuffling organization, only try to get what they think is ‘winnable’ even if people want to try for more. That goes for the others too. I really like this line:

‘Organizers understand that shame festers and breeds when people experience something as a personal failing they cannot overcome. (12)

rebels — can become too attached to marginal identity, reduced to simply tactics without an end game, can become self-righteous.

Just to reemphasise that a Key part of movement building is the moment when pople understand not just through eyes of individual responsibility, but larger structural issues.

2: Building Strong Groups

I like how this chapter unpicks the reality behind Rosa Parks, what really happened the day she refused to change her seat, the role of Jo Ann Robinson and the Women’s Political Council, the various people involved not all talking to each other, Robinson’s frustrations and her immediate jump to action regardless of what Dixon or others said. I never knew a lot of this until I read Danielle McGuire. The lessons learned:

Prioritize relationship-building in every way you can , organize one-on-one meetings, recruit people outside your circle. Develop a shared power analysis — I really like his triangle model — there’s a very cool worksheet here to help structure a workshop.

Knock out those damn pillars! Analysing them, thinking this way helps us understand what we can do, gives us back our own power. I often don’t like analogies and metaphors, I’m not sure I like this one but appreciate the point:

Elimate the smog inside of us: Some have likened oppression to smog. Without a choice, we all inhale smog. It is in our body. The toxicity fo oppression is in each and every one of us. It makes us callous to the oppression of others — and even of our own selves. We must detoxify ourselves…create a culture that stands on higher prinicples. (36)

And finally, empower leadership from the oppressed — I write about that all the time. This decentralised method also allows innovation and experimentation, national groups in the spotlight don’t usually have this ability.

Chapter 3: Creating Effective Campaigns

Another awesome drawing on what a campaign actually looks like.

I have to say, I have never met anyone in the UK who would consider anything but the first damn drawing. Until recently hopefully.

You pick a goal — Hunter gives a range of campaign goals that could be considered to chip away at the system explored in The New Jim Crow, like stopping prison construction and reducing incarceration rates, improving prison conditions, ending re-entry barriers and increasing direct services, tackling the contributing structural issues, and fighting for alternatives to incarceration. The structural issues are important, especially as they intersect with deportations, or with issues of race, class and gender. This needs ongoing discussion and education — he suggests a ‘newspaper game’ to collectively build knowledge by pooling articles.

He describes the process for collectively choosing the campaign, the importance of having a target:

The people who can make the changes are usually quite happy to avoid doing so….. Change will not happen… unless the target is faced with direct, persistent pressure. It;s therefore crucial to identify the appropriate target … the person or people who could implement a new policy. (51)

You can see the old Alinsky influence in a lot of this despite the total difference in style, God I miss people who understand picking targets.

I like the continued emphasis on the tensions between picking campaigns that are winnable without losing sight of the revolutionary goal of what he calls ‘storming the castle’, achieving the broader structural change we need. There’s also some good stuff in here about thinking about allies, recognizing where they are in relation to your politics. moving people from opposition to at least neutral positions.

I also like the emphasis on thinking about how to create alternative institutions, what do we actually want, rather than just what we are against. We need to do this way more, as well as continuously build towards deeper change. Hunter writes

effective campaigns are ones that promote and instill new values. To do that, we should look for all available opportunities to represent the highest moral values of humanity in our words and actions, and encourage others to do the same. (60)

Some of us might need a little more humour here, perhaps, but it’s a serious thing.

He also describes the need to make sure you are growing as a campaign, moving and recruiting outside your easy, comfortable circles, that you are self-reflective on your own role, where you fit within oppressive systems and contribute to them. It all seems simple, it is still very far from most people’s practice. And finally — another key point, particularly in differentiating this book from much traditional civil rights organizing as Alexander notes, as well as many organizing in the Alinsky tradition:

It requires that we build a new public consensus that values each and every human being’s worth and dignity–especailly poor people and people of color who are demonized, whether as felons, criminals, or any kind of “other.” (63)

This is not an easy battle, but it is one we must win.

[Hunter, Daniel (2015) Building a Movement to End the New Jim Crow. Denver: Veterans of Hope.]




Mike Miller: community organizing

Mike Miller’s Community Organizing is exactly what it says — a (very) short book, and a good very practical introduction to the updated basic style of Saul Alinsky’s Industrial Area Foundation (IAF)’s kind of community organizing that has its roots back in the 1930s. There is, as always, and emphasis on democracy in the preface:

‘Community organizing’ applied democratic ideals and practices to specific contexts… (1)

First line of the book proper though?

‘Power’: the ability to act effectively in the world. (3)

The focus is on the organizer:

The first organizer in one of these organizations is typically an outsider. Because the people inside the community have histories of rivalry, any initiative taken by a local person or group is likely to leave out some people and groups, heightening conflict. (3)

Miller writes the book developing a kind of real-life example of an organizer coming into a community, which gives a good concrete view of the process as it is supposed to work, and also means it is full of practical advice if you are going to do things this way. While Alinsky himself was quite flexible for much of his career (see his own book, and Myles Horton’s description of his strengths) the IAF model has moved to work only through faith organizations (see more below). After being invited (and paid) they start with an initial set of workshops:

participants learned about community organizing and its relationships to the American democratic tradition, to the teachings of their own religious faith, and to the specific problems facing them. their members, their neighbors and their congregations. More than anything else, they learned, at least in the abstract, that building an organization was more important than any particular issue. In fact, they came to realize that this organization-building was the key to an effective struggle for justice… (5)

What follows is key to the methodology: one-to-one meetings. Out of this, leaders are developed

organizers have a core meaning for “leader.” … someone with a following. (6)

That’s not entirely universal, but a good place to start. Miller talks about social capital and the mediating institutions of civil society, why the IAF focused on most deeply rooted institutions — ie churches and other faith based institutions. He quotes extensively from a document called Organizing for Family and Congregation, published by the Industrial Areas Foundation in 1978, and written by then-director Ed Chambers. It gives  for the theoretical ideas and context underpinning the IAF’s approach with great clarity:

Our country is in…crisis…. The intermediate voluntary institutions including churches–are ineffectual in a power relationship with the powerful. As a result, the middle is collapsing, confused. The economic and political middle is being sucked dry by a vacuum — a vacuum of power and values. Into that vacuum have moved the huge corporations, mass media and “benevolent” government… (10)

This is so much about the middle, seems to stop its analysis of what is wrong with the world at a fairly shallow level. PICO (People Improving Communities through Organizing) is a spin-off on the Alinsky approach also founded in faith-based organizing. Their 2011 statement of vision and purpose goes rather more to the point:

We pledge to teach, preach and organize to unify people of faith around reducing poverty and increasing economic and racial justice. We will challenge our elected leaders from both parties to put the needs of working families, the poor and the common good of our nation ahead of short-term political calculus and special interests. Join us in making America a land of opportunity for all people. (15)

Miller describes why Alinsky-style organization moved towards this exclusive focus on faith-based organizing — he argues that the 1970s saw other voluntary and community organizations ‘atrophied’ or co-opted in search of funding, thus faith-based organizations became seen as the

only value-based, stable organizations in many low- to moderate-income communities.

And of course, in organizing through such stable institution with large membership bases,

The organizer formula, “Organized people plus organized power” was met. (16)

There is some discussion of ACORN here, Miller notes their work as a different model developing out of Alinsky’s associate Fred Ross’s work, a model which builds membership into the organization directly.

So back to IAF model in progress, the organizer has been doing lots and lots of one-ones, over a few months she ‘knows’ the city. She asks the leaders to come together. Together they pick their first issues, which are ‘Immediate, specific and winnable’ (23), Miller adds they are also believable and non-divisive (24). This is because he argues that skepticism is the biggest problem, the organizer needs a win to show people what they are capable of.

So what does it take to move decision makers? First a political understanding of their position and the political moment:

…they must be very secure and very powerful and thus not constrained by the threat of rivals and competitors. Or, they must see that the price paid to maintain the status quo is not worth paying. (29)

One or other of these will define the strategy. Miller’s organizer Jeanne must prepare for the conflict and confrontation (in traditional Alinsky style).

Almost everything Jeanne had to teach came together in the preparation for meetings with ‘decision-makers,’ the meetings themselves, and the post-meeting evaluation. The drama of a three-act play unfolds, with heroes and villains, the uncertainty of how the plot will unfold, the high point of tension, and the final resolution. (31)

This emphasis on narrative is interesting, the technique of role-playing is of course key in preparation for the meeting or action to pressure those in power. From my own experience, this is necessary (if not sufficient) for success. Miller emphasizes that the organizer must ensure that the leaders are not afraid to press the yes or no question, they must cut through the ‘fogging’. I love that word, it’s exactly what politicians and bureaucrats do. Miller writes

Most powerful people know how to deal with conflict. Most are used to dealing with conflict. It is the powerless who see conflict as somehow uncivilized. Decision-makers know this, and often seek to use this sense of misplaced politeness to control. (30)

So true.

He outlines some key tests for good tactics. They:

  • should contribute toward winning

  • …should contribute to building an organization — involve more people in active roles, deepen skills and self-confidence, recruit new allies and members, broaden appeal to wider public (34)

In a nutshell.

Miller briefly talks about role of education, that community organizing can’t simply be about getting more power and resources for one group or victory will simply maintain power relations intact by simply substituting one group for another. He does works through a sample workshop that helps educate more broadly around political issues.

These are the quick and dirty basics, which boiled down to bare essentials as they are, give quite a good idea of what Miller would consider those essentials to be…of course, his analysis goes much deeper elsewhere, given his decades of work in both SNCC and the IAF, and his current position as Executive Director of the ORGANIZE! Training Center, definitely check out their website:

The purpose of the ORGANIZE! Training Center (OTC) is to strengthen democracy by supporting strong, participatory, democratic organizations whose principal constituency is people of low- and middle income. OTC is committed to social, environmental, and economic justice for all, to a democracy that is based on the active participation of all its citizens and residents, and to building strong communities based on the ideas of individual responsibility, solidarity, and our interdependence as human beings.

Since “community organizing” is widely used with many meanings, we place our work in what has come to be known as the “Alinsky tradition” and the work done in the Deep South by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (“Snick”). More broadly, we place our work in the tradition of radical democracy as expressed in American history by the industrial labor movement of the 1930s, the early period of the Populists, the Knights of Labor, the Abolitionists and those American revolutionaries for whom independence from Britain and democracy were equally at the core of their philosophy. We root our work in the social and economic justice, and moral teachings of the world’s great religions, and the small “d” democratic tradition.

[Miller, Mike (2012) Community Organizing: A Brief Introduction. Milwaukee: Euclid Avenue Press.]

Alinsky on Existing Community Organization

I’ve been thinking so much lately about community and connection and reading so much about poverty and place and feeling so strongly about how wrong most of these authors get things looking into neighbourhoods from the outside and seeing only the absences of things, so I found this little snippet particularly interesting in Saul Alinsky. It’s a lot about seeing what is actually in front you, understanding that you are not operating in some kind of vacuum or emptiness, that organisation exists even if not in the form you expect or recognise.

The ghetto or slum in which he is organizing is not a disorganzied community. There is no such animal as a disorganized community. It is a contradiction in terms to use the two words “disorganization” and “community” together: the word community itself implies an organized, communal life; people living in an organized fashion. These people in the community which concern us may have experienced successive frustrations to the point that their will to participate has seemingly atrophied. They may be living in anonymity and starved for personal recognition. They may be suffering from various forms of deprivation and discrimination. They may have accepted anonymity and resigned in apathy. They may despair and feel hopeless about their children inheriting a little better world. From your point of view they may be representing a very negative form of existence, but the fact is that they are organized in that way of life. Call it organized apathy or organized non-participation, but that is their community pattern. They are living under a certain set of arrangements, standards, accepted modus operandis and a way of life. They may in short have surrendered – but life goes on in an organized form; even if it is as Thoreau described about most lives as being one of “quiet desperation.”

Therefore, if your function is to attack apathy and create citizen participation it is in actual fact an attack upon the prevailing patterns of organized living in the community. Here I would like to state my first proposition; the first function of community organization is community disorganization. Disorganization of the accepted circumstances and the status quo of the arrangements under which they live. These circumstances and arrangements must be disorganized if they are to be displaced with changed patterns providing the opportunities and means for citizen participation. All change means disorganization of the old and organization of the new.

This is why the organizer is immediately confronted with conflict. (115-116)

I am rather fascinated by this. I think he is missing here all the ways the women at least are more positively organized amongst themselves to work and keep the home together and keep an eye on the kids and find out about sources of support and all those things they have traditionally had to do and that often require help, particularly at the time Alinsky was working. And again, he overplays the conflict, always, there are other ways to go about this. But this is still worth thinking about, making sure you understand the patterns that exist, how people are surviving, seeing the strengths there and seeing what might hold folks back. Particularly important, it seems to me, is understanding that in how disrupting old patterns you better be damn sure you are building stronger, more supportive patterns in their place.

Conflict and Controversy: The Genius of Saul Alinksy II

So the first post on Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals looks at the big picture, the discussion of the political moment, of ends and means, of how we use words in our Struggle. This is the more practical section of the book, the programme that Alinsky helped build in cities across the country. Much of this practical approach is embedded in community organizing so deeply it is strange to see it written here like this, making it perhaps the most influential aspect of his work. Though ultimately I think that award maybe goes to his ‘non-ideological’ stance that needs to be reckoned with.

Above all there is this specific, privileged role of the organizer, having been one in the US, having attempted similar work in the UK without anyone in this role, I am inclined to give this idea some real credit. I think it is needed, though not quite along these lines.

The Education of an Organizer

The building of many mass power organizations to merge into a national popular power force cannot come without many organizers. (63)

I agree. Also with the below:

The education of an organizer requires frequent long conferences on organizational problems, analysis of power patterns, communication, conflict tactics, the education and development of community leaders, and the methods of introduction of new issues. (64)

And of course, always this:

Everything becomes a learning experience. (64)

The incredibly male, macho, no-balance-whatsoever thing however, that is both bullshit and instructive of a certain mentality that needs to be reckoned with.

The marriage record of organizers is with rare exception disastrous. Further, the tensions, the hours, the home situation, and the opportunities, do not argue for fidelity. (65)

If we move beyond traditional romance and family models that could be okay of course, as long it’s all mutual respect and not the organizer taking advantage of lots of young women or men. This kind of hyper-male organizing role kind of encourages that though, so I dunno.

I like that there is some discussion of the contrast with the old model of CIO organizing in the 1930s (now all but forgotten), where 10% of the meetings covered immediate problems, the rest expanded upon Spanish Civil War, problems around the nation etc. Maybe it’s good that ratio changed around a bit though.

I do really like Saul Alinsky’s list of the characteristics of a good organizer (again, not the relentless maleness, though in this model it would be very hard for a woman to play this role ever given the higher likelihood of her playing some caring roles in addition):

Curiosity: He is driven by a compulsive curiosity that knows no limits…life for him is a search for a patterns… (72)

Irreverence: Curiosity and irreverence go together. Curiosity cannot exist without the other. …He detests dogma, defies any finite definition of morality, rebels against any repression of a free, ope search for ideas… (73)


A sense of humor.

A bit of a blurred vision of a better world. (this allows others to contribute and build — I very much like this idea)

An organized personality. (Has to work flexibly, be organised amongst disorganization, able to manage multiple issues and people)

A well-integrated political schizoid. (Can’t be a true believer because they can’t operate politically enough, but after committing to an issue must commit 100%)

Ego. (Confidence in one’s ability to do what must be done).

A free and open mind, and political relativity.


A whole chapter on this, and small wonder.

One can lack any of the qualities of an organizer–with one exception… (81)

And now we get to some of the nitty gritty, the process from the ground up — there isn’t honestly too much step-by-step in here. But what little there is can be found here, ‘In the Beginning’:

In the beginning the incoming organizer must establish his identity…get his license to operate.  He must have a reason for being there–a reason acceptable to the people. (8)

I loved how Alinsky’s preference was to get the people in power to hate him, get the press to vilify him — then everyday people knew he was on their side. The genius of conflict as I say.

I liked too his flexibility — though again, it would work so much better combined with a conscious conscienticization (see Myles Horton’s analysis of Alinsky style organizing). It is only after you win that you figure out what you want. This is where the organizer has to really have trust, silence that inner doubt and lack of faith in people. (Alinsky admits there might possibly be some doubts among you.)

Then we are back to superman:

From the moment the organizer enters a community he lives, dreams, eats, breathes, sleeps only one thing and that is to build the mass power base of what he calls the army. Until he had developed that mas power base, he confronts no major issues. (113)

But there is an element of single-mindedness needed, and this — this is true:

Change comes from power, and power comes from organization. In order to act, people must get together. (113)

There’s some interesting stuff about disrupting existing organization and patterns in communities that I’ve separated out into a third post because I found it that interesting, but sometimes people need to shake their own ways of being in the world up. Above all you have to overcome apathy, and you do that by picking specific, winnable battles to show that people can win. This is a cornerstone of American community organizing really. Alinksy writes:

…in any community, regardless of how poor, people may have serious problems–but they do not have issues, they have a bad scene. An issue is something you can do something about, but as long as you feel powerless and unable to do anything about it, all you have is  a bad scene. The people resign themselves to a rationalization: it’s that kind of world… (119)

You can’t tackle problems all at once, you have to break it up into issues, the question spawning vast arguments and trainings and some writing is how yo do that effectively so that you are still tackling the big problems.

There is one word that is repeated over and over in this book that is often not found elsewhere — respect. This is all important, I don’t think anyone who hasn’t grown up poor or working-class really understands how this must be constantly defended, and how it is constantly withdrawn.

If you respect the dignity of the individual you are working with, than his desires, not yours; his values, not yours; his ways of working and fighting, not yours; his choice of leadership, not yours; his programs, not yours, are important and must be followed… (122)

…when we respect the dignity of the people, that they cannot be dined the elementary right to participate fully in the solutions to their own problems. … Denial of the opportunity for participation is the denial of human dignity and democracy. It will not work.  (123)

For those two sentence alone this book would be worth it. And all those (to me) slightly cringeworthy stories that Alinsky tells about being straight with people around issues of class, race or culture, I am sure they only worked at the time because they were told after this respect had been established. I wouldn’t recommend establishing it quite this way anymore though.


More rules! Tactics are all important, and these are quite brilliant and worth thinking through:

  1. Power is not only what you have but the enemy thinks you have.

  2. Never go outside the experience of your people.

  3. Whenever possible go outside the experience of the enemy. (127)

  4. Make the enemy live up to their own book of rules.

  5. Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon.

  6. A good tactic is one that your people enjoy.

  7. A tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag.

  8. Keep the pressure on, which different tactics and actions (128)

  9. The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself

  10. The major premise for tactics is the development if operations that will maintain a constant pressure upon the opposition.

  11. If you push a negative hard and deep enough it will break through into its counterside (129)

  12. The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative

  13. Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it. (130)

In this country the left has almost no fucking tactics at all, which has made me appreciate them all the more. Thinking this way becomes a habit, it is confusing when people see none of this.

Having a target also seemed so obvious to me. Apparently that isn’t obvious either.

Obviously there is no point to tactics unless one has a target upon which to center the attacks. (131)

One criteria is vulnerability, I like the point he made about how John L Lewis, organizing great, never attacked GM or Ford, but Alfred “Icewater-In-His-Veins” Sloan or “Bloodied Hands” Tom Girdler.

I liked Alinsky’s three additional points

  • The real action is in the enemy’s reaction

  • The enemy properly goaded and guided in his reaction will be your major strength

  • Tactics, like organization, like life, require that you move with the action (136)

A little organizing jujitsu. Seems simple, but hard to do and the UK has proven none of these are obvious.

There’s some subtlety here too. Alinsky notes the importance of understanding the competition amongst the haves, their drive to make money to one-up each other that lead them to their own forms of destruction. He emphasises capitalising on that. Some academics seem only now to be recognizing the non-monolithic nature of things like government, the capitalist class and etc.

A pretty cool side note: how useful jail time is (make sure it is only a few days or you’ll miss all the action) to recoup and have space and quiet to think about where you are, what comes next, update your tactics.

Timing is to tactics what it is to everything in life–the difference between success and failure. (158)

And again, flexibility is the key. As it is to everything in Alinsky style:

Accident, unpredictable reactions to your own actions, necessity, and improvisation dictate the direction and nature of tactics.  (165)

The Way Ahead

Organization for action will now and in the decade ahead center upon America’s white middle class. That is where the power is. (184)

See, this is where we diverge again. Though I wouldn’t be too sad if this suggestion had actually happened:

Middle-class organizers should put their class backgrounds to good use…

He’s right though, if they didn’t move to be with us, they were against us.

His final paragraph.

The great American dream that reached out to the stars has been lost to the stripes. We have forgotten where we came from, we don’t know where we are, and we fear where we may be going. … We must believe that it is darkness before the dawn of a beautiful new world; we will see when we believe it. Afraid, we turn from the glorious adventure of the pursuit of happiness to a pursuit of an illusionary security in an ordered, stratified, striped society. Our way of life is symbolized to the world by the stripes of military force. At home we have made a mockery of being our brother’s keeper by being his jail keeper. When Americans can no longer see the stars, the times are tragic. We must believe that it is the darkness before the dawn of a beautiful new world; we will see it when we believe it. (196)

[Alinsky, Saul ([1971] 1989) Rules for Radicals: A pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals. New York: Vintage Books.]



Conflict and Controversy: The Genius of Saul Alinksy I

Don’t get me wrong, I have a hardcore critique of Saul Alinsky, but I forgot just how good and smart and hell of committed he was — Rules for Radicals is an important thing to read I think. There is still a lot of room for some of these old school tactics and organizing basics, though maybe not so much for the super-hero profligate organizer and thank god we have some a long way in thinking about intersections of class, race, gender and sexuality…

But damn, is he still a lightening rod for right-wing vitriol or what. My internet search for images turned up some fairly crazy shit. Do we care if he slept with Hilary Clinton? No.

But anyway, I had forgotten just how much Alinsky’s work speaks to its times–it speaks to ours as well of course, but in such a different way. Makes me nostalgic for times I never got to live really, written in 1971, it opens:

The revolutionary force today has two targets, moral as well as material. Its young protagonists are one moment reminiscent of the idealistic early Christians, yet they also urge violence and cry, “Burn the system down!” They have no illusions about the system, but plenty of illusions about the way to change our world. it is this point that I have written this book. these words are written in desperation, partly because it is what they do and will do that will give meaning to what I and the radicals of my generation have done with their lives.

They are now the vanguard, and they had to start almost from scratch. Few of us survived the Joe McCarthy holocaust of the early 1950s and of those there were even fewer whose understandings and insights had developed beyond the dialectical materialism of orthodox Marxism. My fellow radicals who were supposed to pass on the torch of experience and insights to a new generation were just not there. (xii-xiv)

This is perhaps the tragedy of the McCarthy period —  Alinsky himself owes a whole lot to the organizers of the 1930s when he got his start. But the history of struggle in the UK has actually convinced me that it was perhaps not entirely a bad thing to be allowed to reinvent ourselves from the bottom up. But that’s a whole other argument. For now, Rules for Radicals. This first post looks at the big picture, the second looks at the nitty gritty.

The Purpose

What follows is for those who want to change the world from what it is to what they believe it should be. The Prince was written by Machiavelli for the Haves on how to hold power. Rules for Radicals is written for the Have-Nots on how to take it away. (1)

Sweet enough, right? He quotes from the Spanish Civil War — better to die on your feet than to live on your knees. Nothing more true in life or death, but of course, it was Zapata who said that. The Mexican Civil War did come first, but never mind.

Alinsky always claimed he was steadfastly non-ideological. The more I read about the communist party in the US, their show trials  (I can think of nothing I’d hate more), the great move as dictated by Russia away from what brilliant neighbourhood and tenant and anti-racism organising they did sponsor to the popular front and all of that followed by Stalin and Hungary and…well. I can’t rightly blame him. None of that history sits well with me and he lived it blow by blow.  It’s left its mark, he writes:

We have permitted a suicidal situation to unfold wherein revolution and communism have become one. These pages are committed to splitting this political atom… (9)

and also

This is not an ideological book except insofar as argument for change, rather than for the status quo, can be called an ideology; and different times will construct their own solution and symbol of salvation… I detest and fear dogma. I know that all revolutions must have ideologies to spur them on. (4)

I question this definition of ideology, but like this practical adaptability. Seems like Marx would have wanted it more that way. In truth, this reads something like Clausewitz or Sun Tzu’s Art of War. This is about tactics and strategy (never enough on the long game).

Radicals must be resilient, adaptable to shifting political circumstances, and sensitive enough to the process of action and reaction to avoid being trapped by their own tactics and forced to travel a road not of their choosing. In short, radicals must have a degree of control over the flow of events. (6-7)

Funny how Alinsky becomes the perfect postmodernist. I never see him credited though. I do like his list of characteristic belonging to an organizer, it’s repeated several times.

An organizer…does not have a fixed truth–truth to him is relative and changing, everything to him is relative and changing. He is a political relativist. … Irreverence, essential to questioning, is requisite. Curiosity becomes compulsive. His most frequent word is “why?” … To the extent that he is free from the shackles of dogma, he can respond to the realities of the widely different situations our society presents. In the end he has one conviction–a belief that if people have the power to act, in the long run they will, most of the time, reach the right decisions. (11)

I don’t think all is relative, but building on such community organizing as one strand of work in combination with a revolutionary process of conscientização as outlined by Freire or Horton will get us where we need to go I think. Horton knew Alinksy, discussed some of these issues, you can read more here.

The world operates on multiple levels, you bring in a deeper understanding of hegemony, of intersectionality, of micro-power then you start seeing a very different picture than that painted by Alinsky. But much of the world does actually operate on this basic level, and these kinds of tactics are often most useful.

It is painful to accept fully the simple fact that one begins from where one is, that one must break free of the web of illusions one spins about life. Most of us view the world not as it is but as we would like it to be.

Political realists see the world as it is: an arena of power politics moved primarily by perceived immediate self-interests, were morality is rhetorical rationale for expedient action and self-interest. (12-13)

The strides in community organizing since his time have been incorporating all of this into a broader framework. I had forgotten that Alinksy himself had recognised some of the dangers of his style. He notes that the folks from the back of the yards organized under

equality for all races, job security, and a decent life for all. With their power they fought and won. Today, as part of the middle class, they are also part of our racist, discriminatory culture. (16)

This is the heartbreak, this the thing we have to work to transcend. I think it goes deeper than

It is the universal tale of revolution and reaction. (17)

Moving from how this fails to address race, I think class is more complex too, but this is an interesting way to cut it (and there is always a strategic usefulness in making complex things more simple):

The setting for the drama of change has never varied. Mankind has been and is divided into three parts: the Haves, the Have-Nots, and the Have-a-Little, Want Mores. (18)

We have to reach the second two, he argues. If only everyone knew in their very bones that this was true, how much better the world would be:

A major revolution to be won in the immediate future is the dissipation of man’s illusion that his own welfare can be separate from that of all other’s. (23)

For Alinksy, even so, it all comes down to self-interest. I think this works for some, not all — I don’t think the low road is ever to be found in the great swells of movement and sacrifice that rise from time to time. To not see beyond it feels like a weakness, but this remains a good point for some people among us, and after all, what else is Keynsian economics really?:

I believe that man is about to learn that the most practical life is the moral life and that the moral life is the only road to survival. He is beginning to learn that he will either share part of his material wealth or lose all of it; that he will respect and learn to live with other political ideologies if he wants civilization to go on. This is the kind of argument that man’s actual experience equips him to understand and accept. This is the low road to morality. There is no other. (23)

Of Means and Ends

I find it funny that Alinsky would have seen eye to eye with Trotsky as well as Bismarck on this. We don’t really have fights about this any more in the US or the UK, do we? Except perhaps in the very smallest of groups. This seems so dated, but I realise only because we have given up on revolution in a way, and for all Alinsky’s faults he hadn’t.

That perennial question, “Does the end justify the means?” is meaningless as it stands; the real and only question regarding the ethics of means and ends is, and always has been, “Does this particular end justify this particular means?”

He goes on to quote Goethe — at the end I have collected a list of all the literature Alinsky quotes, and I swear it will surprise you.

The practical revolutionary will understand Goethe’s “conscience is the virtue of observers and not of agents of action”… (25)

I haven’t thought about means and ends for a long time, but this is challenging, and I think true. I think about Palestinians fighting and fighting for any recognition of their rights, and decades of nothing and I think so much of this holds true.

The most unethical of all means is the non-use of any means… (26)

As do Alinsky’s eleven rules for the ethics of means and ends (he promised us rules in the title, and he always delivers. He also uses a lot of italics):

  1. one’s concerns with the ethics of ends and means varies inversely with one’s personal interest in the issue.
  2. the judgement of the ethics of means is dependent upon the political position of those sitting in judgment. (26)
  3. in war the end justifies almost any means. (29)
  4. judgment must be made in the context of the times in which the action occurred and not from any other chronological vantage point. (30)
  5. concern with ethics increases with the number of means available and vice versa.
  6. the less important the end to be desired, the more one can afford to engage in ethical evaluations of means.
  7. generally success or failure is a mighty determinant of ethics.
  8. the morality of a means depends upon whether the means is being employed at a time of imminent defeat or imminent victory. (34)
  9. any effective means is automatically judged by the opposition as being unethical. (35)
  10. you do what you can with what you have and clothe it with moral arguments.
  11. goals must be phrased in general terms like “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,” “Of the Common Welfare,” “Pursuit of Happiness,” or “Bread and Peace.” (45)

This is a philosophical question most current discussions of community organizing aren’t entering into at all, and maybe we should. Similarly, Alinksy devotes a whole chapter to how we use certain words, and the battle over them that needs to take place.

A Word About Words

He talks about words that are ‘loaded with popular opprobrium’ … words prevalent in the language of politics, words like power, self-interest, compromise, and conflict. (48) This isn’t Voloshinov getting into how we fight for meanings in the most awesome of ways, but it is a level of awareness of how our use or avoidance of certain words shapes our movement. For that very reason I don’t know that I agree with all of his analysis of these words, but I love that he includes this argument with the prominence of a chapter.

Power is a good word though. This may be a bit simplistic in its analysis, but worth thinking about.

Striving to avoid the force, vigor, and simplicity of the word “power,” we soon become averse to thinking in vigorous, simple, honest terms. We strive to invent sterilized synonyms, cleansed of the opprobrium of the word power–but the new words mean something different, so they tranquilize us, begin to shepherd our mental processes off the main, conflict-ridden, grimy, and realistic power-paved highway of life. (50)

Disagreeing with his analysis of self-interest, I rather disagree with this, though I love the style of that last sentence. But the idea that how we speak truth to power is as much about the form as the content (I know, I know, you shouldn’t separate them) is important, and is often lost. I like this too:

To know power and not fear it is essential to its constructive use and control. (53)

The next post is on the nitty gritty of being an organizer and actually digging into the process of community organizing.

But first, a look at the books and authors that Alinsky draws from. I don’t know when this man had time to read, but he was no small-time intellectual.

Upton Sinclair
Alice in Wonderland
de Tocqueville
Henry James
La Rochefoucauld
Founding Fathers (ALL of them)
George Bernard Shaw
Mark Twain
Trotsky writing about Lenin
Bertrand Russell
St Ignatius
Clarence Darrow

[Alinsky, Saul ([1971] 1989) Rules for Radicals: A pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals. New York: Vintage Books.]




Solidarity Blues: Richard Iton on Race, Culture and the Left

Richard Iton’s Solidarity Blues was so good for thinking not just about how race and the American left have articulated, but the nature of the left in general. I use that word ‘left’ often, struggle with it, often distinguish between an elite left and a grassroots left (you all know which one I’m for). Iton takes a step back, to look at the broader ideas in motion:

I attempt to understand how the forces of individualism and collectivism interact in different contexts. (5)

This is much broader than the ‘left’, starts to capture some of the things that happen outside of movement. But I like his broad understanding of the left as well, looking at it in three different aspects:

  1. the conventional conceptions, labor movements and socialist parties

  2. the availability of a certain set or type of public goods

  3. the prevalence of a certain sensibility or set of cultural values. (6)

I like too, this case for just how different America is from the other ‘developed’ nations and how it contrasts with other countries where:

certain things are taken for granted: comprehensive health care, inclusive voter registration procedure, affordable higher education, and a certain standard of public safety. (7)

Not in the US as everyone knows. Which begs the question:

Why so slow, so reluctant to provide public goods?

the answer — constructions of race — and instead of choosing to allow race to disappear or lose its significance,

at every opportunity the choice has been made to remake race in some potent form at the cost of community. (22)

So, to summarise Iton’s arguments on the articulation of race with these three principal aspects of the Left.

Labour Movements and Socialist Parties

Labour movements are sustained by a collective identity of labour opposed to capital. In the US, this collective identity was fractured by race in three principal ways — that follow one from the other and that in themselves show the complexities of this I think.

  1. the popular identification of organized labor with racial progressivism (an association that was accurate at times and ironic at others)

  2. the energies consumed by internecine battles within the labour movement between nativist and racist constituencies and those advocating a more inclusive movement

  3. the decisions made by nativists, racists and their opponents to forego challenging the racial status quo and organizing immigrant workers, in the belief that a successful labour movement could be sustained without the participation of those groups, and that these issues and constituencies  could be dealt with at some later point… (25)

This helps explain the rise of someone like Samuel Gompers in the AFL — fucking Samuel Gompers, the UK has some responsibility for him too as he was born here. He promoted a focus on today’s battles rather than a broader struggle or movement — small wins, craft unions, the exclusion of people of colour, such an ugly politics that wasn’t arguably even practical given it created large pools of strikebreakers. He actually fought while in the cigar makers union to have white labels placed on cigars made by white labour so racists would know and could but white and union.

No wonder you get Du Bois writing that the  ‘AFL not a labor movement, but monopoly of skilled workers’.

There are some brighter lights, though they may have shone briefly. Hurrah, for instance, for the Western Federation of Miners, founded in 1893 in Montana (Montana! No longer somewhere such a movement could blossom I think). From them grew the IWW in 1905 — and of course Iton notes the greater homogeneity of the west coast and how it shaped their politics, it was easier not to be racist. But still. While Iton argues their importance was more symbolic, he does quote Dubovsky:

so feared were the Wobblies that probably no group of labor agitators before or since has as suddenly or disastrously experienced the full wrath of state and national authorities. (51)

On the whole though, Labor’s record in the US is dismal.

labor’s job is to ensure that its constituency can control the circumstances of its existence. Organized labor in the United States has largely either been afraid to do so, or, because of internal and external compromises, been unable to do so. (78)

Where it has been successful in building solidarity, Iton notes, it has actually been along racial lines rather than lines of work or labour.

Southern Politics and Parties

Nothing establishes better the broad weaknesses of the left, and how racial conflicts have prevented it from creating a more collectivist society, than a hard look at the impact of Southern ‘Democratic’ party politics. Iton summarises his argument that it created a:

  1. constant division of leftists activists over issue of whether organizations would be interracial, segregated, or separate but coordinated.
  2. popular rejection of those movements which have pursued interracial alliances …IWW, UMW, CIO
  3. …the race issue has just been a problem to be solved at some future date (84)

Jim Crow disenfranchised Blacks, but also increasingly poor whites, concentrating power in Southern elites against which the whole country has been held hostage through the Democratic party.


There was, of course, that brief period when Lenin in the 2nd congress of 1920 directed the Communist Party to support the self-determination of oppressed peoples within nations — this included the Irish and  African negroes as revolutionary groups, which ensured that the CPUSA  for a time did its best to pursue equal rights for blacks, and in South proposing in proposed a black belt nation. In the North, party activists began doing grassroots organizing work with tenants, particularly around rent strikes and the unemployed councils. In 1936 they formed the National Negro Congress, and at this time also began reaching out  to other race communities, such as Mexican farmworkers.

‘By 1935…11 percent of the party’s roughly 27,000 members were black, and in the South, blacks composed an even higher percentage. (118)

Change in CP policy led widespread abandonment of earlier causes, but this isn’t really mentioned. It does help explain some of the automatic connection between race equality and communism that is still so prevalent today, though I mostly think this has been a convenient labeling to facilitate isolation and repression. Of course, it meant the red scare had an even greater impact on those fighting for racial equality. Like Gerald Horne, Iton writes of this period after WWII, which saw:

a unique collapsing of the realms of racial and class politics…the effective end of the traditional left in American politics and a further truncation of the acceptable range of debate concerning economic issues and alternatives. (125)

The radical politics emerging from the Great Depression could have been a time when working classes came together, but instead they split over race. Party politics since then has not sought to challenge current attitudes, but work within the very limited gains staying within them can achieve… White privilege was just a little too strong I suppose. Old FDR himself maintained a 2nd home in Warm Springs Georgia, and promoted himself in 1932 election as a “Georgia planter-politician’.

And now? Iton cites Robert Greenberg’s 1985 study of Macomb ,Michicgan and the switch from Democrat to Republican among white working to middle-class Americans

These white Democratic defectors express a profound distaste for blacks, a sentiment that pervades almost everything they think about government and politics. . . . Blacks constitute the explanation for their vulnerability and for almost everything else that has gone wrong in their lives; not being black is what constitutes being middle class; not living with blacks is what makes a place a decent place to live. (129)

Bloody hell.

Beyond the Left

Iton describes how race conservatism has allowed rights to vote to be curtailed, slowed and reduced medicare and medicaid, opposed fair employment practices committee, ensured no best practices taken from Europe as US the only superpower post WWII. But this is a question that continues to pester me:

While I do not want to overstate the importance of the cultural politics of the post-McCarthy era from a progressive standpoint, the inability of the American left to survive the era that produced the civil rights movement and second-wave feminism says something about the American left, as well as American society. (218)

For Iton the why is at least partially found here:

the characteristically American resistance to collective strategies reflects an attachment to the rights and prerogatives of individuals over and above and particular communities. (234)

This of course emerges from Turner’s ‘frontier thesis, or Louis Hartz or Seymour Martin Lipset’s work.  But this doesn’t go deep enough, why this push towards individualism?

The liberal individualism Hartz and others have cited has been rhetorical residue remaining after the battles among the competing “we” claims promoted by different ethnic and racial communities. In other words, while an examination of the speeches of politician might reflect a particularly American preference for individual liberties, the unstated realities have often been shaped by the ethnic and racial calculations made by different groups. (235)

This has never been dealt with by the left in its goal to appeal to the broadest number of people and rejection of the call to help with the ‘maintenance and relaization of a collective sensibility and human civilization.’ (245-246). There is more to dig into here about the way that race has structured capital (see Cedric Robinson), or about how racism has help form a concept of whiteness tied to privilege (as does David Roediger), but the result has been tragic. The book ends with this thought:

The particular and exceptional extent to which the American left has been removed from the main stage of American life has been a direct function of its inability or unwillingness to transcend these hurdles in an especially demographically diverse context, and a result of the popular attachment to a realm — race — that can generate few larger meanings, resilient identities, or practical moralities. (246)


Iton, Richard (2000) Solidarity Blues: Race, Culture and the American Left. Chapel hill and London: University of North Carolina Press.







In Defense of Housing: Madden & Marcuse

Madden and Marcuse have written a great book here  in In Defense of Housing — concise, clear, and challenging to the status quo. It is a great outline of some of the key structural challenges we face, and ways forward to short and long-term transformation of how we deal with housing.

The tragedy of Grenfell Tower is only one in a long line of tragedies caused by putting profit over human life. These moments of spectacular violence shock and enrage — hopefully driving a will to change. But there is a slow violence at work here too, the way high rents drive anxiety and force families to make hard choices every day of every month, and the way poor housing conditions destroy both physical and mental health every minutes spent inside which add up to a life damaged and often death at a younger age.

In thinking about housing  in the US, there is a key fact to start: There is no state in the US where someone working full time on minimum wage can afford to rent a one-bedroom apt paying what is ‘affordable’.

That generally means paying no more than one third of your income. That is fucking crazy, right? Forget about trying to have any kind of family on that income. Forget about living life well on that income. Leaving two choices, which should probably go together — raise minimum wage, and lower what people must pay for a home.

These are eminently political questions. We go back to good old Engels.

We take from Engels the idea that the housing question is embedded within the structures of class society. Posing the housing question today means uncovering the connections between societal power and the residential experience. It means asking who and what housing is for, who controls it, who it empowers, who it oppresses. It means questioning the function of housing within globalized neoliberal capitalism. (6)

Like Harvey and Lefebvre, Marcuse and Madden emphasise:

Housing and urban development today are not secondary phenomena. Rather, they are becoming some of the main processes driving contemporary capitalism. (8)

Thus it is real estate and housing development that is soaking up investment and driving the accumulation of wealth. The other end of the spectrum?

for poor and working class communities, housing crisis is the norm. (9)

You been there, you don’t need anyone to tell you what that’s like. All because someone’s making money off your housing.

I found the distinctions between the US and the UK useful to think about, I am still getting my head round them.

In the United States, the discourse of housing crisis is often used to condemn state “interference” in housing markets. In the UK, the crisis frame is invoked in support of granting new legal powers to developers in order to override local planning guidelines. (10)

Above all I appreciate Marcuse’s point that the housing crisis is not a result of the system breaking down, but of the system working as it is intended.

Just let that sit a while. Writing this in the aftermath of the horror and death in Grenfell Tower, there could be no better way to capture just how capital and government collude to maximize profit on real estate, cutting corners, silencing complaint, and in the end killing children.

Thinking about this really comes home, when they write:

The built form of housing has always been seen as a tangible, visual reflection of the organization of society. It reveals the existing class structure and power relationships. But it has long been a vehicle for imagining alternative social orders. Every emancipatory movement must deal with the housing question in one form or another. (12)

We can see what our current system has brought us in the flames exploding up to engulf that building. Time to imagine something better. Still, there’s not much behind that sentence in the book itself.  There is so much more to explore there, but at least it is signaled here. Also the importance of land in defining identity

…struggles over housing are always, in part, struggles over autonomy. … No other modern commodity is as important for organizing citizenship, work, identities, solidarities, and politics. (12)

But what is missing here is mortality, morbity, life chances and particularly how this ties to segregation and racism. of course, this is where my own work focuses, so I’m bound to be critical. They have a section for intersectionality, that always drives me a little crazy, because there is a lot more going on there and it weaves through everything. My principal critique I think.

Against the commodification of housing

This is key, well-argued, everyone involved in housing should be working to this end and that means a substantial shift in some of the strategies used by both charities and advocates. There was a time in the UK when most land wasn’t actually a commodity — more acts of violence were needed to make that happen, through the privatization of the commons. This was still in process in the 1840s:

when Engels was surveying the dwelling conditions of the great towns of industrial Britain, he was in part describing the emerging impact of the commodification of housing. (22)

Through this period, housing became

ever less an infrastructure for living, and evermore an instrument for financial accumulation. (26)

The problem in a nice nutshell there. I think there’s more to tease out about how housing and neighbourhood remain part of the social reproduction of power and wealth, with segregation/enclaves occurring globally now. Still, it’s very true that real estate is increasingly the driver of the economy per Harvey and Lefebvre, they look at three other trends leading to hyper-commodification of housing:

  1. removal of restrictions on real estate as a commodity
  2. financialisation — ‘a generic term to describe the increasing power and prominence of actors and firms that engage in profit accumulation through the servicing and exchanging of money and financial instruments.’ (31)
  3. globalization — housing market now dominated by economic networks global in scope

These ensure housing has become a commodity as never before — and easily converted to investment capital, the heart of the present crisis.

The value of super-prime real estate is secure because of the ease with which it can be converted into money through loans, debentures, mortgages (37)

Full deregulation and building new housing cannot be the answers to the crisis. First, because the

State has always been central to the process of making housing a commodity…Government sets the rules of the game. It enforces the sanctity of contracts, establishes and defends regimes of property rights…[connects] the financial system to the bricks and mortar… (46-47)

Second because of issues around power — housing is a domain of struggle.

The commodification of housing is a political project that refuses to acknowledge itself as such. (47)

Opposed to people’s needs for a home, the real estate industry does anything possible to raise prices within a market now moved by global investment forces, not local demand for somewhere to live. Marcuse and Madden write:

The solution to the housing problem, then, is not moralism, but the creation of an alternative residential logic. Exhorting for-profit real estate companies to act differently in the name of creating a less vicious housing system is pointless. Housing problems are not the result of greed or dishonesty. They result from the structural logical of the current housing system. Alternative, decommodified models of residential development must therefore be created. (52)

Residential Alienation

Like Lefebvre, they apply the idea of alienation to housing in addition to more traditional Marxist uses of alienation in labour.

Alienation means estrangement, objectification, or othering. The idea is rarely applied to housing, but it should be. (56)

They begin to get at the meaning of home (see Dovey or Cooper-Marcus for much deeper examinations of this…)

Home is an extension and expression of our capacity to create. It takes an infinite variety of forms, but making a home for ourselves is an essential and universal activity. Residential alienation is what happens when a capitalist class captures the housing process and exploits it for its own ends. (58-59)

They summarise experience of today’s housing market in three words: precarity, insecurity, disempowerment. (59) They write ‘In America, the narrative that housing is the key to dignity and stability is deeply ingrained…’ (74) but this is only true for elites. We need a new definition for a successful society, and that is one where ‘the residential good life is provided to everyone’ (82)

Disalienation would mean reorganizing the housing system around the goal of providing residential stability and ontological security for all. (83)

Oppression and Liberation in Housing

In all social settings, dwelling space structures power relations. It can be used to maintain the social order, or to support challenges to it… housing is part and parcel of social and political struggles. (86)

Yep. Housing is worth fighting for. I can never quite believe that this has been a struggle for so many marxists.

I confess hadn’t thought much before of the additional benefits of emptying the discontent from the city centre.

The zones of empty luxury housing at the center of global cities are as peaceful as cemeteries. Commodification is not only a strategy for capital accumulation. It is also a technique of governance, a political process as much as an economic one. (94)

After nodding my head through all of this,  I then found here a subtitle — the intersectionality of residential oppression. The nodding stopped, I must confess that I don’t really like that this isn’t woven through, that it is a section apart, contained.  It kept bugging me. But there’s some good stuff here. I like bell hooks’s idea of the ‘homeplace’

“where all black people could strive to be subjects, not objects, where we could be affirmed in our minds and hearts despite poverty, hardship and deprivation.” from Yearning, Race, Gender and Cultural Politics. NY:Routledge 2015, p 42

I think this is so important to recognise, home is a place of strength. We don’t just need affordable housing, but housing that enables its residents to ‘confront power, social inequality, and structural violence…’ (117)

The Myths of Housing Policy

I always enjoy some myth debunking. These two are doozies.

  • The myth of the benevolent state — that the government has tried to solve the housing crsis, acting for the benefit of the majority. Nope.

all based on controlling the poor, preventing revolution and worst infectious diseases. Actions like slum clearence, despite all claims to the contrary, were always prey to real estate and development interests from the beginning. Then there’s idea of ‘Affordable’, an ideological term, and one that helps legitimize the building of luxury housing if it ensures provision of a little ‘affordable’ housing as a result. Rather vomitous

  • The myth of the meddling state — one that just gets in the way arising through the 1980s. But this ignores the need for the state to guarantee the conditions for the housing market to exist, so the state is always involved, it just depends on which side.

The question will always be how the state should act towards housing, not whether it should do so. (142)

This narrative of the meddling state prevents an open view of the services the state renders to housing markets. A useful obfuscation.

Housing Movements of New York

I’m glad this was in here.

Conclusion: For A Radical Right to Housing

They argue for struggle to ensure housing as a right, and look to steps that are small enough to be doable, but that point towards much deeper structural change towards a true right to the city. Useful thinking for housing organisers. There three main areas of suggested action are:

  • To decommodify and de-financialize the housing system (as an overarching goal) — public control, rent control, secure tenancies, public ownership of land, public financing, limits on speculation, regulation of home-finance mechanisms (201)
  • To expand, defend and improve public housing (203)
  • To let a thousand housing alternatives bloom — cooperatives, mutuals, communes, limited equity co-ownership, land trusts (209)

A good place to start.






John Berger on Ways of Seeing

John Berger Ways of SeeingWays of Seeing by John Berger is a most wonderful wonderful book. Told both in words and pictures, what follows is a lopsided collection of sentences that does some violence to the whole I confess. I was particularly interested in photography, but found myself swept away into other places and didn’t mind at all. It is a book I look forward to reading many more times — and hunting down the series as well. I so wish I had been lucky enough to have been given this to read in the high school Art History class that has remained with me all through my years. Better late than never.

It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world; we explain that world with words, but words can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it. The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled. (7)

Nothing is ever settled. I love this unsettling. Love this sense of history:

The past is never there waiting to be discovered, to be recognized for exactly what it is. History always constitutes the relation between a present and its past. Consequently, fear of the present leads to mystification of the past. The past is not for living in; it is a well of conclusions from which we draw in order to act. (11)

Just a sentence and then off he goes in another direction. I want to think more about this alongside Trouillot and the erasings and the silences, but later perhaps.

Because we are off to Frans Hals, always one of my favourites:

Hals was the first portraitist to pain the new characters and expressions created by capitalism. He did in pictorial terms what Balzac did two centuries later in literature. (16)

The regentesses of Haarlem’s almshouse, such an unforgettable picture but never had I thought of it this way:

Frans Hals — Portrait of The Regentesses of the Old Men’s Almshouse Haarlem, 1640s?

And this, my favourite statement of the power that images hold, the potential they carry, a statement that makes me think of things quite differently though I have for a long time been thinking about this — like the wonderful obsessions of Otto Neurath and his isotypes:

If the new language of images were used differently, it would, through its use, confer a new kind of power. Within it we could begin to define our experiences more precisely in areas where words are inadequate. (Seeing comes before words.) Not only personal experience, but also the essential historical experience of our relation to the past: that is to say the experience of seeking to give meaning to our lives, of trying to understand the history of which we can become the active agents.

The art of the past no longer exists as it once did. Its authority is lost. In its place there is a language of images. What matters now is who uses that language for what purpose. (33)

I don’t know why Berger’s passages on oil painting struck me as they did, I think because they represent what a profoundly different way this is of understanding painting as it sits within its context — I love it.

Oil painting did to appearances what capital did to social relations. It reduced everything to the equality of objects. Everything became exchangeable because everything became a commodity. All reality was mechanically measured by its materiality. … Oil painting conveyed a feeling of total exteriority. (87)

I can see this exteriority, feel the velvets and silks under my fingers in these paintings. That always struck me, the incredible details. I think there was such a love of these sumptuous textures in themselves, but yes, also this:

Works of art in earlier traditions celebrated wealth. But wealth was then a symbol of a fixed social or divine order. Oil painting celebrated a new kind of wealth — which was dynamic and which found its only sanction in the supreme buying power of money. Thus painting itself had to be able to demonstrate the desirability of what money could buy. (90)

And then there is the section on advertising, the co-optation of art (not that that was anything new, as can be seen in the quote above) and this unapologetic reading that made me happy:

The pursuit of individual happiness has been acknowledged as a universal right. Yet the existing social conditions make the individual feel powerless. He lives in the contradiction between what he is and what he would like to be. Either he then becomes fully conscious of the contradiction and its causes, and so joins the political struggle for a full democracy which entails, among other things, the overthrow of capitalism; or else he lives, continually subject to an envy which, compounded with his sense of powerlessness, dissolves into recurrent day dreams. (148)

So to end with photography, which sent me here in the first place and of which I found but little, though I did not care in the slightest.

First, something that seems so simple, and yet… before thinking about it I might have said as a reflex that photography was somehow more ‘objective’, I might still lapse into that feeling. But really,

The photographer’s way of seeing is reflected in his choice of subject.  (10)

On the other hand, I had not before thought through how the camera changes our perspective, how it differs from painting, how it decentres us from time and space:

The camera isolated momentary appearances and in so doing destroyed the idea that images were timeless. Or, to put it another way, the camera showed that the notion of time passing was inseparable from the experience of the visual (except in paintings)….

This is not to say that before the invention of the camera men believed everyone could see everything. But perspective organized the visual field as though that were indeed the ideal. Every drawing or painting that used perspective proposed to the spectator that he was the unique centre of the world. The camera — and more particularly the movie camera — demonstrated that there was no centre.

The invention of the camera changed the way that we saw. The invisible came to mean something different to them. This was immediately reflected in painting. (18)

This is something I need to think much more about. It’s interesting how this is one of the major differences between Western and non-Western art, it doesn’t surprise me at all that it is Western art of a certain period that put human beings always at the centre. It must be a good thing to destabilise that, but I’m not sure I entirely grasp how photography and film do that. Our own private viewings into the world of others.

But there is so much joy in art and pleasure in thinking about it here…

Robert F. Williams on White Racism

While the bulk of Negroes With Guns deals with self-defense and the story of trying to organise for political, racial and economic equality in Monroe, North Carolina, Robert F. Williams also gives some real thought to the problem of white racism. Know your enemy. He writes:

What has happened and continues to happen in Monroe,
N.C., illustrates an old truth: that words used in common
by all men do not always have a meaning common to
all men. Men have engaged in life-or-death struggles because
of differences of meaning in a commonly-used word. The
white racist believes in “freedom,” he believes in “fair trial,”
he believes in “justice.” He sincerely believes in these words
and can use them with great emotion because to the white
racist they mean his freedom to deprive Negroes of their
basic human rights and his courts where a “fair trial” is that
procedure and “justice” that decision which upholds the
racist’s mad ideal of white supremacy. On many desperate
occasions when our constitutional rights were denied and
our lives were in danger, we called on the Justice Department
and the FBI to investigate the Monroe situation, to protect
our lives and to restore our constitutional rights-in
other words, to administer justice. And they always refused
our request. (54)

It can still shock me, I realise, to read those words written decades ago and realise how true they still are. These words still ring with emotion in the mouths of Trump supporters, don’t they. Without understanding this dissonance, there is no other way to explain patriotic white discourse around ‘rights’ and ‘freedoms’ and ‘justice’, when at the same time children are being shot dead and nothing happens to their uniformed (or even non-uniformed) killers. When the NRA can defend to the death the right to carry any kind of arms whatsoever with no controls at all ever. Unless you are Black.

An aside to say that Robert F. Williams actually formed a chapter of the NRA while they were training with guns. That has a sweet taste to it, though some bitterness too.

I appreciate a section with the title:

Minds Warped by Racism

Because you can see it, and it is not pretty. Williams continues:

We have come to comprehend the nature of racism. It is a mass psychosis. When I have described racial conditions in the United States to audiences of foreign newsmen, Cubans and other Latin Americans, they have been shocked to learn of the depths of American race hatred. (72)

I, too, am still continuously shocked. Stretching from the hatred directed at Sandra Bland or Trayvon Martin to those gloating white faces over bodies that had been lynched and burned, it can only be a kind of psychosis. That is too easy a word really, it needs more unpacking from the likes of Fromm and others. But it begs the question of an adequate strategy in its murderous face. Williams asks:

Why do the white liberals ask us to be non-violent? We are not the aggressors; we have been victimized for over 300 years! Yet nobody spends money to go into the South and ask the racists to be martyrs or pacifists. But they always come to the downtrodden Negroes, who are already oppressed and too submissive as a group, and ask them not to fight back. There seems to be a pattern of some sort of strange coincidence of interest when whites preach a special doctrine to Negroes. Like the choice of theology when the plantation-owners saw to the Christianization of the slaves. Instead of the doctrines which produced the rugged aggressively independent and justice-seeking spirit that we associate with Colonial America as the New England Conscience, the slaves were indoctrinated in the most submissive “trust-your-master,” “pie-in-the-sky after-you-die” form of Christianity. (75)

Even Martin Luther King would tire of this liberal refrain. Nor did he have an entirely easy relationship to strict non-violence. The very real threat of violence meant that many communities he visited armed themselves and sat watch to protect him, as they did for the youth of CORE and SNCC — Cobb writes of this across the South. Williams was not alone in his assessment of white violence, and the means to prevent it.

This is one of the more eloquent statements on self-defense, and the challenge even this poses to white liberals, that I have read:

This fear of extermination is a myth which we have exposed in Monroe. We did this because we came to an active understanding of the racist system and grasped the relationship between violence and racism. The existence of violence is at the very heart of a racist system. The Afro-American militant is a “militant” because he defends himself, his family, his home and his dignity. He does not introduce violence into a racist social system-the violence is already there and has always been there. It is precisely this unchallenged violence that allows a racist social system to perpetuate itself. When people say that they are opposed to Negroes “resorting to violence” what they really mean is that they are opposed to Negroes defending themselves and challenging the exclusive monopoly of violence practiced by white racists. We have shown in Monroe that with violence working both ways constituted law will be more inclined to keep the peace. (76)

I put my favourite part in bold, but I like all of it. I like the acknowledgment that it is through lack of challenge that the system perpetuates itself, which means all of it needs to be challenged. I like the questions this raises for piecemeal change — not that we don’t need small steps to move forward, but that we should understand that they are steps. I feel that he understood both the potential and the limits of the Montgomery bus boycott before most commentators and civil rights leaders did (Ella Baker is one clear exception to this of course, I know there were others):

The Montgomery bus boycott was a victory-but it was limited. It did not raise the Negro standard of living. It did not mean better education for Negro children, it did not mean economic advances. Just what was the issue at hand for the white racists? What sacrifice? Remember that in Montgomery most white Americans have automobiles and are not dependent on the buses. It is just like our own experience in Monroe when we integrated the library. I called the chairman of the board in my county. I told him that I represented the NAACP, that we wanted to integrate the library, and that our own library had burned down. And he said, “Well, I don’t see any reason why you can’t use the same library that our people use. It won’t make any difference. After all, I don’t read anyway.” Now, this is the attitude of a lot of white Southerners about the Montgomery bus boycott. The white people who control the city didn’t ride the buses anyway. They had their own private cars, so it didn’t make any difference to them. But when Afro-Americans get into the struggle for the right to live as human beings and the right to earn the same amount of money, then they’ll meet the greatest amount of resistance, and out of it will come police-condoned or inspired violence. (77-78)

The limits came from how little it challenged the true structures of Black oppression — though it is terrifying really, even now, just how hard they had to fight for such a small change.

An inspirational chapter title:

“The Future Belongs to Today’s Oppressed”

And finally, the fact that Williams never did give up on the struggle, nor on white people. His theory, that they needed an honest look at themselves:

Whenever I speak on the English-language radio station in Havana (which broadcasts for an audience in the United States) I hope in some way to penetrate the mental barriers and introduce new disturbing elements into the consciousness of white America. I hope to make them aware of the monstrous evil that they are party to by oppressing the Negro. Somehow, I must manage to clearly reflect the image of evil that is inherent in a racist society so that white Americans will be able to honestly and fully see themselves as they really are. To see themselves with the same clarity as foreigners see them and to recognize that they are not champions of democracy. To understand that today they do not really even believe in democracy. To understand that the world is changing regardless of whether they think they like it or not. For I know that if they had a glimpse of their own reality the shock would be of great therapeutic value. (85)

An honest look is still what is needed. Wendell Berry too talks about the need for a double consciousness required from this level of injustice inflicted on another groups of human beings, the illusion-building needed and the distortions that it has caused. But instead of taking a hard look, those who most need it have elected, and continue to support a president handing out nothing but lies.

Not that we all don’t need a good long look in the mirror on a regular basis.