Saturday, November 08, 2008

The Secret of Obama's success

Maurice Glasman on the secret of Obama's success

Of all the astonishing things that happened on Tuesday night perhaps the most remarkable and least remarked upon was the fact that someone who trained and worked as a community organiser on the South Side of Chicago had become Commander in Chief of the United States Armed Forces.

Why does that matter?

Community Organising was developed in Chicago by a man called Saul Alinsky in the 1940’s. It was based on a few basic principles of political action. The first was that politics was about moving from the world as it is to the world as it should be. Alinsky taught that we can only act effectively if we understand that the world is a place constituted by power and domination. In the Chicago of Al Capone and Mayor Daley’s Democratic Machine Alinsky came to the conclusion that only organised people could beat organised crime. He created neighbourhood alliances that built up relationships, generated actions and gained power in the Back of Yards area among poor Catholics and in Woodlawns among black churches. Community Organising was born. Saul Alinsky taught a basic set of rules of engagement in politics that Obama would have learnt from his training in Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundation. Let’s look at how they worked for him. The first rule of community organising is:

1. Always work inside the experience of your people. Through the use of facebook and other internet fora, through the use of music and video as forms of mobilisation and communication as well as the reactivation of churches and local meetings, Obama worked outside the experience of mainstream politics but within the experience of the coalition of first time white voters, African Americans of all kinds and local Democratic activists. No-one could see them, no-one reported on them, no-one could control them and yet they were there, they were mobilised, they won the Primaries against a very well organised Clinton campaign and they understood what was going on. The extra turnout, the unprecedented voter registration, the level of energy and engagement that was generated came out of working within the experience of his people which is linked to Alinsky’s second rule

2. Wherever possible go outside the experience of your opponents. By using the internet and popular culture, by working within the organisation and cadences of the Black Church, by organising meetings which the media were not invited to and were unaware of, Obama’s campaign confused and frightened both Hilary Clinton and John McCain who both began to panic and enforced another of Alinsky’s teachings which is:

3. Power is not only what you have but what your opponent thinks you have. By working within the experience of their own people and outside those of their opponents the stature of Obama began to grow, his strategists were seen as Machiavellian geniuses, the internet networks as mobilising millions and ‘Obama Girl’ was the pop sensation of the year. Obama, far from appearing as an inexperienced one term Senator with no record of having run anything, ever, looked like the President Elect and Hilary Clinton was reduced to drinking whisky shots in red neck bars while complaining about the price of petrol while McCain, with forty years experience started describing himself as a maverick. This also led to McCain picking as his running mate someone who was clearly unprepared for the job and which led to a vindication of Alinsky’s fourth rule:

4. Ridicule is our most potent weapon. The selection of Palin and the increasing desperation to depict Obama as a Marxist while George Bush was busy nationalising the banks meant that Tina Fey and Saturday Night Live could focus exclusively on the ridiculousness of the Republican campaign. By trying to make the electorate afraid and angry of a softly spoken Lawyer from Harvard the Republicans opened themselves up for a degree of ridicule from which they never recovered. The fact that they were opened up in this way flowed from the fifth rule of effective campaigning which is:

5. Keep the Pressure On. Obama’s campaign clearly identified ‘change’ as a fundamental idea and the thing they defined themselves against was George Bush and his economic and foreign policy legacy. Obama opposed the war in Iraq and it gave substance to the point. This put tremendous pressure of McCain to define what he was for, or against. Obama’s biggest weakness was his lack of experience. By keeping the pressure on McCain to define the change that he was about Obama forced a fundamental incoherence to emerge. If McCain distanced himself too much from Bush he looked disloyal and dishonest while if he portrayed himself as the experienced continuity candidate there was no change at all. By surrendering the centre ground to Obama he lost the campaign by making himself look erratic and impulsive, as the Palin pick revealed. A principled Senator began to look like a grubby opportunist with no strategic vision for his campaign or the country. And as Obama knew from his Community Organising training:

6. The Price of a successful attack in a constructive alternative. Yes we can. Obama claimed to represent a new constructive politics that overcame division and political bickering. When the decisive moment came, when the Banks of America lost their liquidity and went into liquidation and the chicken licken bankers assured us that unless George Bush transferred $700,000,000,000 into their current accounts, immediately, the sky would fall down on everyone’s head, John McCain went missing for forty eight hours. Then he said he would suspend his campaign, then he said he wouldn’t, then he said he would not debate with Obama, then he said he would. He said that the fundamentals of the American economy were sound, then he said they weren’t. Obama, in contrast, supported the bail out while adding a moratorium on home repossessions and a cap on bankers’ bonuses for a year. He attacked the Bush record and had a constructive alternative. It looked like ‘change you could believe in’. This flowed from the seventh rule of Community organising which is that in any campaign you have to :

7. Pick the target, freeze it, personalise it and polarise it. The target was not John McCain but George Bush. He was the face of what Obama opposed and then he polarised. Obama asked whose side are you on, my side or Bush’s side? He made America choose and he made his opponent choose and poor McCain had to show loyalty to his bitterest enemy, George Bush, he had to choose Palin, he had to laude Joe the Plumber who had no qualifications as a plumber. By polarising against the most unpopular President in recent history in the middle of a financial meltdown Obama squeezed McCain out of the mainstream and made sense of Alinsky’s final rule which is:

8. The Action Is In The Reaction. The enemy properly goaded and guided in his reaction will be your major strength. Community organisers are taught the difference between activity, which we all do all the time and which makes no difference to anything, and action, which engages others and provokes a reaction. By all the actions listed above Obama forced McCain to run against himself. Obama was freed to glide on stage at enormous rallies to the strains of Signed, Sealed Delivered I’m Yours and let his ‘people’ know that confronted by those who say it couldn’t be done they could answer ‘Yes we can’. The most liberal Republican in the Senate ran on nationalism and anti-communism, tried to demonise community organisers as Marxists, picked a running mate he disagreed with and vacated the centre ground while swinging wildly between strategies that opposed each other. McCain had been ‘properly goaded’ indeed.

The result is that the new Commander in Chief is schooled and versed in the tactics of urban guerrilla politics, of how to turn a disaggregated rabble into an organised community, of how to organise the defeated and win, how to increase your power through your action, how to generate new relationships through political victory.

The Bush Administration had exposed the limits of two very big ideas that had dominated politics for the previous thirty years. The first is the beneficial effects of free markets and the necessity of financial deregulation as a foundation of prosperity and liberty. The lack of oversight of the banking sector, their huge power and wealth led to excessive greed and creative accounting that strained the credibility of even their partners in deception. The huge inequalities this generated in the real world meant that the poor could not afford to pay their mortgages or other debts. The primacy of the formal economy crashed revealing the needs of people in the real economy for food, shelter and clothes. The State stepped in to meet the need. For the first time in a generation Politics was more important, more powerful than economics. Events asserted the primacy of political community to the markets, as Aristotle might have said, or ‘Yes we can’ as Obama summarised the thought.

The second big idea was the supremacy of arms, the idea that a superiority of force could lead to a substantive defeat for the enemies of America and a reordering of the world. That has also been defeated. Without an effective politics of mobilisation and engagement military action alone can only generate sectarian hate and increased violence, and thus create the conditions of dictatorship. Democratic politics is more vital to imperial success than military supremacy. Its not so much hearts and mind as body and soul.

The combination of the principles of Community Organisation that guided Obama’s strategy of electoral success and American military strength would indicate that those who oppose the renewal of American hegemony had a very bad day indeed last Tuesday.

Chicago looks like the capital of the world in more ways than one.