What empowered society builders can learn from radicals

Increasingly, society is divided into those (including resource people like us) with the vision and knowledge to improve and shape a better world; and those afraid to embrace change. Stewart Muir looks back to a radical thinker from the 1970s for reminders of how to thrive in these times. 



A handbook for radicalism

Saul Alinsky's Rules for Radicals is a 1971 book that became a manual for anti-establishment warfare. Over time, its teachings have become basic training for those determined to stop economic development at all cost.

Today, we see these rules systematically applied on the front lines of blockades and protests. And they guide the policy development and propagation strategies (can you say climate litigation?) of the American-funded foundations that have been working so hard to reduce Canada's ability to provide for its people. There are also thinkers who have developed these ideas further, including in ways that are positive and conciliatory.

As you read Alinsky's rules, compare them to the radical interventions that Canadians encounter every day – whether it is school indoctrination into zero-sum thinking about solving environmental challenges, ceaseless social media bombardment, or the mental frameworks that often define how stories are told in the news media. They'll start to look familiar, even obvious, and you'll soon agree that these rules have become ubiquitous in the campaigns that are driving so much of Canadian public policy today. 

But it's not just radical movements that apply Alinsky. Take a look around: from Trump to Trudeau, politicians everywhere are using the same methods.

Awareness is the first step to Alinsky-proofing your endeavours. Read these carefully:

Saul Alinsky's 13 Rules for Radicals

With the author's commentary.

  1. “Power is not only what you have, but what the enemy thinks you have.” Power is derived from two main sources – money and people. “Have-Nots” must build power from flesh and blood.
  2. “Never go outside the expertise of your people.” It results in confusion, fear and retreat. Feeling secure adds to the backbone of anyone.
  3. “Whenever possible, go outside the expertise of the enemy.” Look for ways to increase insecurity, anxiety and uncertainty.
  4. “Make the enemy live up to its own book of rules.” If the rule is that every letter gets a reply, send 30,000 letters. You can kill them with this because no one can possibly obey all of their own rules.
  5. “Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon.” There is no defence. It’s irrational. It’s infuriating. It also works as a key pressure point to force the enemy into concessions.
  6. “A good tactic is one your people enjoy.” They’ll keep doing it without urging and come back to do more. They’re doing their thing, and will even suggest better ones.
  7. “A tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag.” Don’t become old news.
  8. “Keep the pressure on. Never let up.” Keep trying new things to keep the opposition off balance. As the opposition masters one approach, hit them from the flank with something new.
  9. “The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself.” Imagination and ego can dream up many more consequences than any activist.
  10. "The major premise for tactics is the development of operations that will maintain a constant pressure upon the opposition." It is this unceasing pressure that results in the reactions from the opposition that are essential for the success of the campaign.
  11. “If you push a negative hard enough, it will push through and become a positive.” Violence from the other side can win the public to your side because the public sympathizes with the underdog.
  12. “The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative.” Never let the enemy score points because you’re caught without a solution to the problem.
  13. “Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.” Cut off the support network and isolate the target from sympathy. Go after people and not institutions; people hurt faster than institutions.

Some of these rules are practical and should be consciously adopted. Depending on how you read them, some may exist outside the framework of what professionals can adopt, yet are still important to understand. For those working in 2019 to improve and shape society through responsible natural resource activity, the rules remain a must read.

Stewart Muir is the executive director of Resource Works.

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