Last time (before a restful fortnight in Crete) I was reflecting on the different frames held by the UK citizens on the street and the professional elite. Their view of the world is utterly different and, following the riots, the bemused and condescending puzzlement in places of power is the result. If we are going to make real change stick in the oppressed communities that saw violence and looting in August, we need some grassroots solutions not the top down approach of the authorities.
Alinsky and social crisis
For the last year, I’ve been studying the work of Saul D. Alinsky, a maverick activist-scholar who shook things up in the late 1930s in Chicago. His family were émigré Jews from central Europe and he studied both anthropology and sociology at the University of Chicago. In his early career, he worked with teenagers in crisis, with the mob (think Al Capone!) and with prisoners, immersing himself at street level. He concluded that his society was disintegrating and the institutions of community life – family, church, elders, union, synagogue – were failing to hold it together.
Alinsky was deeply influenced by the organising of John L. Lewis (1880 – 1969), President of the United Mine Workers of America 1920-1960. Lewis (pictured on the left) was a major figure in US labour organising, founding the Congress of Industrial Organizations and helping to organise millions of industrial workers across the nation in the 1930s. Alinsky wrote a valedictory and unauthorised biography of Lewis in 1949 and he adapted from his mentor many of his methods and world views. Particularly he saw the conflict of self-interest between powerful industry bosses and the exploited workforce reflected in the Chicago neighbourhoods of Haves and Have-nots.
Power to the People
His answer to this dislocation and crisis of ethnic and religious conflict in the Chicago slums was community organising. He saw that the existing institutions of the people were in conflict and decline and as a result the power of the interests ranged against them was allowed full rein. For Alinsky, a disorganised people meant that social norms and values were disrupted leaving the Have-nots vulnerable. In community organising, Alinsky brought the methods – and not the ideology – of the most effective communist organisers in the union world into the residential community. He gave people an enemy to unite against. He shaped their ambition and expectations by using a highly creative repertoire of actions. The community knew it would be fun. They knew it would embarrass the powerful. They knew they had a part to play in making things better in their area.
Dislocation in London
In modern London, many communities are struggling with ethnic, cultural and class divisions. The statistics for population mobility are staggering; Southwark along with most of inner London faces a 50% turnover of population every five years. The economy of London is dependent on inward migration from all parts of the world, bringing a rich blend of national identities and cultural practices into close contact. In this turbulent environment, organising means developing a shared vision of community, drawing on the strengths of the whole citizenry. It’s about shaping an agenda that reflects the key priorities for social life to thrive and building people together into a network of common purpose. Like Alinsky’s work, citizens need to be agitated into action, discovering the realities of enduring power and privilege and how their lives are restricted and constrained by the elite. But unlike Alinsky, we also seek out allies and co-conspirators who seek the same goals. Alinsky was always clear that enemies were enemies only for a time and no one was certain to be a friend for life.
An answer to the riots?
Organising addressed the weakness of the community in the devastated parts of 1930s Chicago. Today it can strengthen the fibre of civil society where the norms and values of community life have broken down. Bringing people together who share the same streets, shops and schools allows us to construct our own solutions to the pressure on community life. Organising offers tangible hope of creating London communities robust enough and committed to working together that riots and violence, arson and looting cannot erupt again – the community itself will stand against it.
Do you agree that one cause of the riots was a breakdown in the institutions of community life?
Do we need to create a stronger sense of the Haves and Have-nots to realise a different future for our communities?
Is it possible in the modern day to organise a community to prevent violence and looting?
Sanford D. Horwitt (1992) Let Them Call me Rebel – Saul Alinsky His Life and Legacy Vintage
Nicholas von Hoffman (2010) Radical – A Portrait of Saul Alinsky Nation Books