Radical Origins of the 'Big Society' ?
Saul Alinsky's 1971 book, Rules for Radicals has been cited recently as an influential source for David Cameron's campaign for a Big Society. The main themes are the importance of citizens as participants and opportunities for re-engagement and re-empowerment.
If you're already questioning why the Conservative manifesto employed a guiding quotation from that book, you're not alone. One alarmed commentators was Gerald Warner, writing in the Daily Telegraph on April Fools' day 2010:
"David Cameron's Big Society is a grotesque fantasy inspired by leftist subversive Saul Alinsky"
"Yet the Conservative Party blurts out this admission in the launch document of Big Society. There is a pedantic debate over whether Alinsky was technically a Marxist, or by-passed Marx as old-hat. What is beyond question is his project to overthrow capitalist society and to do so through infiltration of political parties, institutions and, above all, by the use of “community organisers”. Anybody who thought claims on this blog of Cultural Marxism influencing even the Tory Party were exaggerated can now think again."
I've selected some quotes below from Alinsky's book which I hope readers will find useful:
"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."
"The price of democracy is the ongoing pursuit of the common good by all of the people. One hundred and thirty five years ago Tocqueville gravely warned that unless individual citizens were regularly involved in the action of governing themselves, self-government would pass from the scene. Citizen participation is the animating spirit and force in a society predicated on voluntarism. (p.xxv)
(p. xxv) Here we are desperately concerned with the vast mass of our people who, thwarted through lack of interest or opportunity, or both, do not participate in the endless (p. xxvi) responsibilties of citizenship and are resigned to lives determined by others. To lose you “identity” as a citizen of democracy is but a step from losing your identity as a person. People react to this frustration by not acting at all. The separation of the people from the routine daily functions of citizenship is heartbreak in a democracy.
"It is a grave situation when a people resign their citizenship or when a resident of a great city, though he may desire to take a hand, lacks the means to participate. That citizen sinks further into apathy, anonymity, and depersonalization. The result is that he comes to depend on public authority and a state of civic sclerosis sets in.
"From time to time there have been external enemies at our gates; there has always been the enemy within, the hidden and malignant inertia that foreshadows more certain destruction to our life and future than any nuclear warhead. There can be no darker or more devastating tragedy than the death of man’s faith in himself and in his power to direct his future.”
Beyond the Big Society idea, Alinsky's preoccupation with the combination of opposites suggests another discourse underpinning the surprise joining of the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives:
Perhaps also welcome is the notion of open-ended. Alinsky quotes Niels Bohr, speaking out against dogmatic ideology “Every sentence I utter must be understood not as an affirmation, but as a question.” (4)
He further explores dualities such as ying and yang etc
“We know intellectually that everything is functionally interrelated, but in our operations we segment and isolate all values and issues.” (15)He further quotes Bohr on complementarity “There is not so much hope if we have only one difficulty, but when we have two we can match them off against each other.”
and on p. 16 Alinsky quotes the philosopher Whitehead
“In formal logic, a contradiction is the signal of a defeat; but in the evolution of real knowledge it marks the first step in progress towards a victory”
The jury's still out on politics, philosophy, radicalism; the Big Society Rulebook is yet to be written. I tend to agree with Alinksy at this point: there are more questions than answers
Have the subversives really taken over the Conservatives?
I look forward to reading your Toolkits and Action Plans. Look out for my forthcoming blog 'The Spectre of Community'.