Power, as they say, before policy

14 September 2008

Take a gander at this article, allegedly a defense of organizing, which I think has it wrong in a number of ways. Its thesis is that organizers and Sarah Palin have a lot in common, a conclusion likely to please neither party. Let me focus on this sentence in particular:

“I like organizers, if they sign on to the right causes.”

You have to admire his willingness to go out on a limb. But he’s by no means along in having an unfortunate tendency to focus on issue campaigns, and on the merits of a particular approach to a community problem, and which approach is the right one. Organizers are no more immune to this than anyone.

But of course no policy is objectively right. There are only choices, which we make on the basis of our values and our other self-interests. Experts in economics, in sociology, in science can tell us what the choices are, what the consequences are of a particular policy or procedure. The real trouble has always been figuring out which trade-offs we should make as a society – not whether approaches (do-nothingism among them) are imperfect (they all are), but how they are imperfect, and which imperfect projects we the people will undertake anyway.

Democracy is not measured by the universality of the franchise. It’s measured by how many people have a stake in that process of figuring-out. The price of admission to that process is power, so the power-building work of organizers is what really makes a deeply democratic society – whether you agree with the causes or not.

The Powers-That-Be have been choosing imperfect solutions for many hundreds of years – but the imperfections have been the imperfections that they want.

Organizing is about building power, not about the merits of a particular issue. And people who won’t otherwise have enough power to have a seat at the table getting that power is an unqualified good.

*[There’s also a tendency to focus on the tactical element, mainly because tactics are fun. Who doesn’t smile at the idea of a “shit-in” shutting down O’Hare, a la Rules for Radicals? But tactics are about what you do with your power. They’re not a substitute for it, especially over the longer term.]


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