Friday, July 2, 2010

Power, Self-Interest, and The Way Things Are

As my reading of Saul Alinsky's Rules for Radicals slowly wanes it's way to conclusion, I encountered one of the primary conceptual challenges that I face as I look at how he does the organdizin' bidness.

That challenge comes when he throws out some key terms that need to be embraced by Alinskian organizing. These are words, Alinsky argues, that are generally viewed with some distrust. We must, however, wholeheartedly embrace them if we're going to effectuate meaningful change in our communities. Not redefine them, mind you. Alinsky is too gritty and hard nosed for that. We must swallow our qualms, and grab the bull by the horns, and embrace these terms and all that they imply.

Those words are Power and Self-Interest.

Power, of course, is just the ability to create change in the world. It's wielding energy and force to bring about a particular end. Alinsky argues that power is an inevitable and inescapable element of human life, and that any awkwardness we feel around the idea of wielding power is silly. We do feel some awkwardness, and for good reason. Where human beings amass power, the record of human history shows us that we have a propensity to do some nasty, nasty things. Alinsky notes this tendency, and then says we should just get the heck over ourselves. When confronted with Lord Acton's quote, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely," Alinsky says, "Aha! Notice how he uses the word 'tends.'" Power must exist if change is to occur, and therefore, we've got to be willing to use it.

As for self-interest, well, Saul's down with that too. Again, we tend to be a bit leery of the idea of self-serving people, particularly when those people have political or economic power. Bad things tend to happen when the selfish use power to get what they want. But Alinsky has no such qualms about selfishness. Human beings are all driven by their own self-interests, he argues. That's the nature of human beings, of both our political and economic systems. Therefore, the task of the individual seeking to organize a community and change a social system is to find ways to "bundle" self-interests, so that individuals support one another's goals as a way of self-interestedly furthering their own desires. In doing this, Alinsky is rejecting the idea that somehow self-interest is bad. It's the Way Things Are, says Saul, sounding for all the world like a leftist Gordon Gekko. We may as well accept it.

Oddly enough, this assessment of the nature of human social systems is pretty much in keeping with classical Christian understandings of the political sphere. The dynamics of power and the balancing of interests are, at least as St. Augustine's City of God expresses it, the nature of the state...and by extension, the purpose of the marketplace. All human endeavors revolve around power and self-interest.

Christians seek neither of those things. Our awareness of the transcendent foundation of all being leads us to see power as ultimately meaningless, and self-interest as solipsistic delusion. We aren't called to serve ourselves, but to orient our whole beings towards the good of others. From such a stance, power over others is inherently dangerous. Does it exist? Of course. We can't help it. But when we step out of self-seeking, and see the interests of the other as our primary interest, we approach power in a radically different way.

Because Christianity is radically subversive of the Way Things Are. It is...perhaps...far more radical than Alinsky.


  1. too simple, David. The syrophoenican woman, the woman with the flow of blood, Bartimaues, the friend of the parlytic-- all acting on their self-interest. Jesus didn't turn them away, or say they were too focused on their own needs. Then he tells a parable of the widow and the unjust judge, who pesters him until she achives justice. And Jesus concludes, "But when the Son of Man comes, will he find such faith on earth." Not, "she was only interested in her own issues." Jesus spend a lot of energy empowering those without power, not telling them that power didn't matter.

  2. @ Jeff: Aye, most likely. It is too can we set aside self-interest when we're shattered and broken and seeking wholeness? Is it wrong to desire restoration?

    No. Of course not. But in each of those instances, the individuals in question were seeking healing. They were shattered and broken and..particularly in the instance of the woman with the flow of blood..ostracized by their culture.

    What Christ did for them certainly did empower them, in that it made them complete and restored them. But I have some trouble seeing the primary purpose of those restorative actions as power in the socioeconomic sense...which is the milieu in which Alinsky operates.