Friday, August 01, 2008

Organized labor minus the labor

B. Hussein Obama doesn't have much on his resume to brag about, so he talks a lot about his time as a "community organizer" in Chicago. However, Obama is vague about what exactly a community organizer actually does, leaving people to imagine him volunteering at the local soup kitchen or running a neighborhood sports league.

The reality is that a community organizer is like organized labor, only without the labor.

The job of a community organizer is to consolidate power and control for his own political advantage. It is a bare-knuckled, old-fashioned form of the political power grab born on the streets of Chicago.

Community organizing began in the Depression-era slums of Chicago's South Side when Saul Alinsky organized the people living in one of the worst slums in America, the "Back of the Yards." Alinsky described this area as "a cesspool of hate: the Poles, Slovaks, Germans, Negroes, Mexicans, and Lithuanians all hated each other and all of them hated the Irish, who returned the sentiment in spades." But Alinsky didn't need to get the people to love each other. He just needed them to work the system together, to extract handouts from the government, making them dependent on him. As Alinsky once put it, “to fuck your enemies, you’ve first got to seduce your enemies.”

Alinsky’s key insight was that poor people in places like Back of the Yards do not have access to traditional forms of power, but they do have numbers. He believed that if enough poor people realized that it was in their interest to work together and fight for particular issues, they could pressure people in power to give them what they want.

Just as labor unions organize workers to get better pay, benefits, and working conditions, community organizers use collective pressure to make demands. The major difference is that community organizers are looking for government handouts, not better compensation for productive labor. Hence I say that a community organizer is like organized labor, only without the labor.

Alinsky devised a strategy which he later taught at the Industrial Areas Foundation. One of the central principles he taught was to not rely on high-minded ideals like “brotherly love” or “the common good” to motivate people to join together for a particular goal. Instead, a community organizer looks for ways to appeal directly to a person’s self-interest. Looking out for number one drives every level of community organizing.

The first phase of community organizing is to build up a base of support by seeking out the leaders in an area, finding out what their self-interest is, and building a coalition of people willing to join together for a common cause. The community organizer doesn’t have to care at all about that cause, because his objective is his own empowerment, not a desire to help others.

Next, the community organizer identifies “the mark,” a government official who can get him what he wants. Perhaps he chairs an appropriations committee which controls the funding for a particular program. The community organizer scheduled a meeting with “the mark” where leaders, carefully cultivated and coached by the organizer, will present their demands in a meticulously scripted manner. The objective is not only to let “the mark” know their desires, but to impress on him that it is in his self-interest to comply. The stick is far more important than the carrot here, so they make it clear that failing to produce the goods will result in negative repercussions. If they have blackmail material available, all the better.

While it is vital that the community organizer convinces his base that he is looking out for their interests, his ultimate goal is to use them to gain personal power by getting as many people as possible to look to him for provision. Thus community organizing is married to collectivist ideologies such as socialism and diametrically opposed to conservative principles such as self-reliance and free market capitalism.

Barack Obama is schooled in the Alinsky-style art of political intimidation known euphemistically as “community organizing.” Recognizing this fact helps in understanding Obama’s recent move towards the center in matters such as his vote on the FISA bill. As a community organizer, he is a student of power and he knows not to worry so much about the power he has. Instead he is concerned with gaining control over the power he does not have. In this bare-knuckle form of old-school liberal politics, the only thing that can hurt you is the power you cannot control. Obama’s flip-flops are the community organizer working to build new alliances and neutralize threats to his power. It’s what any Alinskyite worth his salt would do.

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