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Saturday, January 12, 2013

Community Organizing and Politics

My friend and colleague, Arnie Graf, has been engaged by UK Labour Party chief Ed Miliband and the Party leaders to train them and 200 new organizing staff in the art of community organizing. (See the Guardian article.)

In so doing Arnie is somewhat anathema to some others in the Saul D. Alinsky Industrial Areas Foundation, which he helped lead for 30 years. The IAF discourages its organizers from getting involved in party politics recognizing that all political parties, including government and business officials, must be held accountable by a vigorous acting citizenry organized in local publics.

What Arnie and the Labour Party are doing is far different than what the Obama campaign is doing through its "grass roots movement" Obama for America. OFA is a national campaign directed by Obama that got him elected and is kept mobilized to assist him achieve worthy national goals in job creation, immigration reform, tax reform, health and other social insurance, climate control, and now gun control. It will last as long as Obama does.

Labour under Arnie's tutelege is building a permanent democratic mechanism at the local level working not on electing Labour officials (though that would also be an desirable outcome) but on solving issues and creating services that local people have identified through a listening and organizing process. A parallel, but without the religious and ideological underpinnings, might be Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood which had created extensive local relations and services and was ready to act to replace Mubarak. Maybe a better parallel is the town hall democratic structure in British America that was ready to replace King George with President George.

Localism, a long term learning process of democratic leadership and participation in local publics, is the essence of community organizing. This process focuses on educating people to act on local concerns and build an autonomous, sustainable public, and then wield the power of those publics into action on national and global issues and institutions that affect localities. Arnie is not promising that the Labour Party will elect the next Prime Minister. That is not his goal, though he knows that this could be an outcome of local service and action sponsored by the Labour Party. Rather, he is motivated by the possibility of the Labour Party developing an ongoing, democratic infrastructure for progressive social change. Hopefully the New Democratic Party in Canada is watching and experimenting as well.

I really see no parallels in the US except for the thousands of young community organizers working in a plethora of institutes slugging it out in local churches and communities on issues of affordable housing, urban agriculture, safe neighborhoods, homelessness, clean air and water, new economy experiments, school accountability and more. However, the only national interaction among them, if any, was probably in the Obama campaign which really does not have knowledge or interest in their bottom-up and uncontrollable organizing.

In the Clinton administration HUD Secretary Andy Cuomo started a "community builder's" program and a "faith-based" program to turn HUD to a field based operation; but this was seen as a threat by DC bureaucrats, the Public Employees Union, and many Republican Congress members who effectively blocked it. In the last few months of the Bush administration, new HUD Secretary Steve Preston with an MBA from the University of Chicago was also trying to move the organization to the field under resistance of many old time bureaucrats simply as a way to do business better. But that move was not carried out by the Obama administration. There are some local experiments among government, party people, and community organizations. But in general, neither government, nor US Parties are really ready for democracy.

Big questions remain: Can a national party, unlike government and business, look past the short term to build a long term outcome? Can a national party espouse broad ideals, but eschew narrow ideological positions, in order to listen to local people and help them see how their problems tie into broader issues.  Can it sustain the growth and development of autonomous inclusive publics that can challenge government, business, and the Party itself?

And can local publics keep their own distance from, instead of giving away their power to, political officials, monied interests, and talk show hosts. The way the Tea Party did. Remember, Hannah Arendt described the betrayal of the American Revolution as political representation and partisanship.

Labor Party Leader Ed Mileband and Community Organizer Arnie Graf are leading an experiment in direct democracy that has many potential pitfalls. But this is an experiment worth watching, supporting, and engaging.