Posted 11 months ago on June 15, 2012, 2:51 a.m. EST by francismjenkins
This content is user submitted and not an official statement
Trying to synthesize all the different ideologies, approaches to civil disobedience, community organizing, etc., can be a challenge for even the most brilliant intellectual. Navigating through this landscape is at times confusing, overwhelming, and it can even seem like a road without direction. Maybe it's because we're culturally oriented towards an expectation of reward. A light at the end of the tunnel, somewhere we can plant our flag and declare victory.
Surveying literature related to 19th century anarchism, communism, etc., it's easy to see the distinctions between those days and today. Some anarchist and communist thinkers favored what is essentially a labor theory of value (where we basically pay people according to labor inputs e.g. money becomes valued according to a scheme like number of hours worked).
Some thinkers rejected this idea (notably Peter Kropotkin), who believed (and I think rightly so) that at the moment of the first exchange, it becomes virtually impossible to value things according to something like hours of labor input (and I would say the problem starts even before the first exchange, because it doesn't account for all the hours worked in attaining expertise, particularly in the case of highly skilled professionals like scientists, doctors, etc.). On this count, I have a great deal of respect for Kropotkin, but of course he (like all anarchists and communists) believed in the famous maxim of Pierre Proudhon, "property is theft" (and they weren't solely referring to the means of production, they were also referring to real property, on the basis that property is the sum of all efforts of those who came before us, and thus cannot be said to be "owned" or monopolized on the basis of legal title resulting from a financial transaction). There is a real problem with this idea. Namely, property ownership induces stewardship of property, whereas an agent who merely rents, who does not perceive property ownership as a realistic option, will (generally speaking) be a poorer steward of property -- compared to an owner.
Then fast forward to 60's activists, like Saul Alinsky, the many college campus organizers, freedom riders, etc. I appreciate Saul Alinsky for his pragmatism. There was a statement he made famous, which I'll paraphrase. When commenting on the virtue of the maxim the "end justifies the means" --he said that we should evaluate the "ends" and "means" in the context of each particular case (and his call for a case by case evaluation of the circumstances, effectively makes this maxim a misnomer under his community organizing & rules for radicals approach).
The flaw with Alinsky's approach (in the context of the situation we face today), is he believed, in order to organize a community, you had to first "disorganize" it. In other words, the pitch of the organizer had to be sprinkled with both hope and despair. In his view, people need to become desperate (or at least perceive their circumstances as sufficiently desperate), before they would become willing to take a risk with radical new ideas.
Now fast forward to 2012. We have no war in Vietnam raging, the bodies coming back from Afghanistan pale in comparison to the slaughter of Vietnam (on both sides). We have no Jim Crow, no segregation, and most of the injustices faced by the urban poor, minority communities, etc., are invisible to most Americans. Even attempts to expose the authoritarian nature of our system, has thus far fallen on deaf ears (or the people who are moved by these scenes, tend to be people who already sympathize with our view point).
We can point to an unemployment rate above 8%, underemployment, droves of people who have given up looking for work, etc., but even if that total number approaches 20%, it still means that over 80% of America is employed, has health insurance, pretty decent places to live, good communities, schools, and they're kids are generally able to go to college.
The point is, the situation we're facing is much different compared to 60's, and much more different compared to 19th century Europe. People like home ownership, and the likelihood of convincing Americans that Pierre Proudhon was right when he referred to property as theft, seems implausible. Moreover, it's very unlikely that a sufficient number of Americans will come to perceive their circumstances as so desperate ... that they become willing to entertain what are commonly viewed as extremely radical ideas (like communism). However, to Alinsky's credit, he understood that community organizing cannot solely comprise protest without a goal and strategy (merely regurgitating a list of grievances ad nauseam, without a calculated purpose).
All of this gives me the sense that we need to tailor an approach that matches our circumstances. If a philosophy purports to be an all encompassing collection of ideas, suited for all circumstances people can be expected to face, then it must be durable and flexible enough to adapt itself to all circumstances. If it fails this test, then it's hard to define it as an all encompassing set of ideas. In other words, since Alinsky's desperate circumstances probably do not exist, we need a new idea (something that doesn't rely on desperation). This isn't about a failure to recognize or acknowledge that many people do indeed face desperate circumstances. However, if the goal is to change an "entire" society (not just small parts of a society), then there needs to be a perceived benefit for the society at large.
It is possible that people's natural sense of altruism can inspire them to join this struggle. However, assuming this theory of altruism is correct, then it becomes a battle of information dissemination (and successfully fighting against sophisticated attempts to manipulate and distort information).