Can “Big Organizing” Lead Progressives to Victory?

With the approaching storm, it’s worth a try.

I finished Rules for Revolutionaries by Becky Bond and Zack Exley over the Thanksgiving holiday. It’s modeled after Saul Alinsky’s famous organizing manual Rules for Radicals. In some ways, the book sets itself in counterpoint to it. I’ll discuss how in a bit. Bond and Exley have been all over talking up their organizing model as a way to take on the incoming regime, so it makes sense to see whether it’s something that’s replicable outside of the hothouse that’s a Presidential campaign — particularly one as fervent as Bernie Sanders.

The central thesis of Rules for Revolutionaries is that progressives have to get back to what Bond and Exley call big organizing.

What’s “big organizing?

That’s…hard to say. Bond and Exley don’t strictly define the term.

Their definitions of the term are always either in opposition to what they refer to as small organizing — i.e., the traditional model of community organizing refined by Alinsky — or in reference to what they call mass revolutionary organizing — i.e., what they say used to be simply called organizing, and is now commonly understood by folks as a social movement.

This is frustrating, both for me as a reader and as a long-time progressive activist who wants to seize power in order to get from the world as it is now and shape into the world we progressives want to see. Here’s why.

We need to know whether or not “big organizing” works. That can only happen if it’s falsifiable — that is, the inherent possibility that it can be proven false. Right now, since there’s no definition, it isn’t falsifiable.

That’s not to dismiss big organizing. Far from it. But right now, there’s nothing stopping someone like me from cherry-picking the successes and dismissing the failures, and attributing the successes to big organizing and the failures to small organizing.

That, we can all agree, would be rank bullshit. But since there’s no agreed-upon definition of what big organizing is, and since Bond and Exley don’t settle upon a clear, concise definition in the book, it makes it hard to look at a campaign and identify whether or not it’s using “big organizing” to achieve success.

The closest they come to a one-sentence definition of big organizing is in the first page of the first chapter, where they say:

“Big organizing is what leaders do in movements that mobilize millions of people. Not everyone in these movements is a leader, but in big organizing, volunteer leaders emerge by the thousands from every classroom, family, office and work area, neighborhood, and prison block. The movement doesn’t need to awaken or even train them — these leaders emerge ready to make change, and they bring their full selves and life experience to the task of building a movement that works.”
Big organizing is what leaders do in movements that mobilize millions of people.

Let’s roll with that, then. Let’s establish that when Bond and Exley are talking about “big organizing”, what they’re really talking about are at least three things:

  • social movements
  • social movement organizations
  • mass mobilization

I’m going to define all three. We need to do that in order to properly discuss whether big organizing is a thing that works, and properly discuss this book. Otherwise, we’re going to be talking past each other, and that’s not going to be fun for anyone.

What’s a social movement? A social movement organization? Huh? And what is mass mobilization?

Turns out, there’s a whole body of literature about how effective social movements are at achieving change on a mass scale. I’m not going to get into it here, but it’s a key component of sociology. In fact, there’s a whole field of study called social movement theory. I’m going to wildly simplify and distill some of it here in this essay.

Now, there’s no single agreed-upon definition of what a social movement consists of (sound familiar?). Generally speaking, though, a social movement has the following characteristics:

  • they involve conflict, challenge and contesting claims on a target;
  • they employ a combination of political actions;
  • they have a collective identity that most or all members of the movement share.

But wait, there’s more!

For instance, David F. Aberle states that there’s four kinds of social movements. Here, let me throw up a picture:

Aberle’s four types of movements.

According to him, a social movement can be classified by both its scope (do they focus on everyone, or just some people) and its aims (are they trying to amend the establishment, or overthrow it?). But Aberle’s just one guy, and his definition isn’t the be-all, end-all. Social movements can also be classified by the type of change they seek (they can try to conserve society — hello, radical Right!), their targets, their methods (they can be violent — the Shining Path!), and so on.

Identifying a social movement isn’t particularly easy, either. That’s because people in the social movement don’t usually apply descriptive phrases or labels to themselves, since they’re too busy trying to change things! That leaves it to people outside the social movement to describe them. The result is that the labels applied to the movement tend to be derogatory, but people within the movement repurpose them in positive ways.

Additionally, members of a movement will often exaggerate their numbers by counting members whose participation is weak at best. Conversely, they’ll reject people whose membership in the movement brings discredit to the cause, regardless of how enthusiastically they embrace the cause. In turn, outsiders will include those members whom the movement rejects, but discount those whose ties are weak.

Finally, all social movements have a life-cycle. Yes, here’s another picture.

The lifecycle of social movements.

That’s right: they’re born, they live, they subside. I like using the picture above when I talk about social movements because it elegantly lays out how they flow. But all social movements have at least two principal challenges:

  • letting people know that it exists in the first place;
  • overcoming the free-rider problem — that is, getting folks to join up, as opposed to having people benefit from the movement’s hard work without participating in it.

Lots of social movements get around the first issue by having a charismatic founder figure leading the way. Along with that, the movement will often have two phases of recruitment. The first phase gathers people who are deeply invested in the primary goals and ideals of the social movement. The second phase comes after the movement gets going and enjoys some initial successes. The people who join up here traditionally have weak attachments to the social movement, and are often the first to peel away when it starts faltering and suffering from failure.

That’s why social movements create a bureaucracy. That’s where your social movement organizations come in. Those are the organized components of the movement. Let’s say you’re interested in fighting against climate change. That’s great! Pretty soon, though, you realize that there’s only so much you can do as an individual to affect an issue that effects all of us.

At this point, you could throw your hands up in the air in despair. Or you could join an organization like 350.org so you can become more effective. 350 is just one of many organizations working in the climate change movement; what they do, along with other organizations, is carry out the tasks necessary for the climate change movement to survive and to be successful.

If you look around, that’s true for any social movement you can think of, even the ones on the Right. What those organizations make possible and effective is something called mass mobilization. That’s a process that engages and motivates a wide range of partners and allies at various levels, whether national, state, or local, in order to raise awareness of and demand for a particular objective through face-to-face dialogue.

Now, that makes it sound a lot more decorous. The “process” we’re alluding to here are things like protests, mass meetings, sit-ins, demonstrations, strikes, marches, and so on.

Now that we’ve defined all that, we can get back to discussing Rules for Revolutionaries.

Great! How does that all tie in with big organizing?

As it turns out, the Internet and social media have made mass mobilization a lot easier in some respects. Some is the key word. Many of the revolutions in the “Arab Spring” were driven and supported through online tools, which amplified actions on the ground.

For Bond and Exley, that’s the exciting part. The Internet lets organizers truly engage in mass mobilization. Instead of talking to discrete, small target universes of people, we can talk to everyone. No, seriously. As they put it:

“At its most fundamental level, big organizing is how we create campaigns that allow people to work together to realize their dreams for a more just world.”

They continue:

“In big organizing we have big target universes. We need to talk to everyone — not just narrow slices of assumed swing voters — about what we want to achieve. We have to get as many people as possible engaged in the work of talking with voters. We have to have voters make demands of their representatives in Congress. Together, we will constitute a wave that will swamp the influence of big money, corporate media, and other establishment players who are invested in maintaining the status quo.”

They conclude:

“Our problems are big, so our solutions must be big as well. To achieve them we need a new kind of organizing, and that is big organizing.”

That’s all well and good, but what does that look like in practice? Bond and Exley spend much of the chapter kind of dancing about, but eventually land on this:

“Big organizing uses technology platforms — particularly free, consumer-oriented, social collaboration tools — to get as many people engaged in executing a campaign plan and to enable those people to talk to each other and to as many voters as possible regardless of whether the volunteers live or how much time they have to spend doing it each week.
In big organizing, volunteers act as the staff of the campaign. With a structure where leadership roles at nearly every level are primarily filled by volunteers, a campaign can scale up with everyone doing more and more valuable work at every level. (emphasis added)

Bond and Exley then spend much of the remainder of the chapter counterpointing their big organizing model to Saul Alinsky’s model of community organizing, which they refer to as small organizing.

Remember him? I mentioned him all the way up top. According to the two of them, Alinsky prioritized one-on-one organizing over mass organizing, and consciously steered away folks he was organizing from challenging the status-quo.

As they put it:

“At the heart of Alinsky’s methods was the one-on-one personal relationship between the organizer and the subject who was to be organized. Through one-on-one conversations, regular people were to be enlightened to their disempowered lot by a charismatic super organizer who came in from outside of the community. In theory, the organizer gradually activated community members and built what’s called a mass power organization, the purpose of which was to move people from despair to action in small steps — climbing what the digital organizing generation would later call the ‘ladder of engagement’ — and then to create disruptive campaigns that brought powerful forces to a bargaining table where the organizer could negotiate for incremental victories. (emphasis added).

Bond and Exley continue:

“Alinsky believed that the purpose of building power was not to put the people in power, but to compel negotiation.
“Alinsky’s approach was premised on the paternalistic concept that an enlightened core of outside organizers was necessary first to show the poor that there was a better way and then to represent them in a battle with elites.”

They conclude:

“The big organizing model that can fuel revolutions believes that communities are filled with talented and intelligent people who understand what is broken and, when given material and strategic resources, can wrest power from elites and make lasting change. A political revolution is different from community organizing as we know it today.”

I’ve excerpted a lot from the first chapter, out of necessity and fairness. I greatly admire the work that both Bond and Exley have put into the progressive movement, so my critique comes from a place of love and appreciation.

What do we want? POWER! How do we get it? Uh…

We seek the same thing: to seize power from an unaccountable, irresponsible elite and deliver it back into the hands of the people. Let me repeat that: the whole point of organizing is to build up power so you can then take power.

Got it? That matters, because when I look around and I look at some of the social movements that I think are really exciting — like the Fight for 15, or Black Lives Matter, or Dreamers — they look like…wait for it…community organizing! Bond and Exley cast all these as examples of “big organizing”, but this gets back to what I was saying earlier — if everything that’s “good” is big organizing, and everything that’s failing is not, then the term is effectively meaningless.

It makes more sense to me to look at something like the Fight for 15, or Black Lives Matter, or Dreamers, as they actually are and ground them in where they actually come from, which is community organizing, rather than try to shoehorn them into something else.

Before we go further, let’s define community organizing, so we’re all clear.

Community organizing is the process of building power through involving a constituency in identifying problems they share and the solutions to those problems that they desire; identifying the people and structures that can make those solutions possible; enlisting those targets in the effort through negotiation and using confrontation and pressure when needed; and building an institution that is democratically controlled by that constituency that can develop the capacity to take on further problems and that embodies the will and the power of that constituency.

Got all that? Now, I’ll readily grant that lots of times, that involves outside organizers going into a specific community. Hell, maybe that even involves one-on-one conversations — depending on the context! But there it is: context matters.

Lots of times, the organizers come from the community themselves. Imagine that! They know what’s wrong, they know what solutions they want (if not in specific detail), and they know who and/or what can make those solutions possible.

But wait, there’s more! Community organizing is characterized by the mobilizing of volunteers. Staff roles are limited to helping volunteers become effective, to guiding the learning of leaders through the process, and to helping create the mechanism for the group to advocate on their own behalf.

If community organizing is characterized by mobilizing volunteers to become effective, and by extension, effective leaders…and if organizers can come from the community itself, and need no outside help to figure out what’s wrong, how to fix it, and how to build up their power in order to do so…then what are we talking about here?

Aren’t we really talking about a distinction without a difference here? That’s to say, there’s no substantive difference between community organizing and big organizing.

Or is there?

The key difference between community organizing and big organizing

Turns out there’s a significant difference between the two. Bond and Exley mention this in passing in their book, but it’s at the heart of community organizing.

People are motivated by their self interest.

They argue against that a bit by saying that we need to take on all the issues at once. As they put it:

“As an organizer, you have to recognize that no one lives a single-issue life. We’re human, and we’re affected by everything. To make the changes we need to see on climate or on getting money out of politics, we’ll need to fight for those changes alongside the vast majority of the people. For that to happen, the revolution still has to be about immigration and structural racism and abortion rights because the revolution has to be huge, and we won’t be able to recruit all the people we need to join us if we don’t talk about all the issues at once.”

This sounds great, right? And if it sounds like a Presidential campaign model, well, yeah. That’s because a Presidential campaign has to address all the issues. But let’s step back from this a bit. Most campaigns aren’t Presidential campaigns. But to them, that doesn’t matter — we need to go big or go home!

Here’s where things can go awry. As it stands, their model explicitly pushes back against the kind of volunteers or leaders who “expect something” in return for themselves, for an existing organization, or for a community and elevates the selfless “doer” who eschews self-interest in service of the greater good.

Self interest is not the same as focusing on a single issue.

To me, that’s problematic, because you wind up with people who are merely intellectually stimulated, as opposed to people who have “skin in the game” and who seek to build real power in their communities. That matters, because the former are much more likely to have weak ties to the movement and to walk away from it when it starts to falter and fail, whilst the latter are much more likely to stick with the revolution, come hell or high water.

For me, it’s a mistake to say that self-interest is focusing on a single issue. Rather, it makes more sense to me to tie a person’s self-interest to the revolution as a whole. That way, you can get a person to fully buy in to the political revolution, and not walk away at the first reverse.

It’s easy to be a summer soldier or a sunshine patriot; we want neither. We want those who will weather the winter’s storm that is fast approaching. The most steadfast of these will be gotten through an appeal to their self-interest, and through it to the common interest.

So how does big organizing look like in practice?

I think there’s both promise and peril here. Promise, in that it potentially fulfills the original premise of community organizing — mobilizing volunteers, and identifying leaders who can then take on tasks of greater and greater importance. To reiterate:

In big organizing, volunteers act as the staff of the campaign. With a structure where leadership roles at nearly every level are primarily filled by volunteers, a campaign can scale up with everyone doing more and more valuable work at every level. (emphasis added)”

I’d be kidding myself if I didn’t admit being excited as a progressive activist when I read this! In any campaign, what you want to do is maximize your strengths and minimize your weaknesses. This is basic, Art of War-101 stuff here. If you’re small, that means that you’re nimble and quick, and have the advantage of maneuverability. Having volunteers act as your campaign staff doesn’t just mean scalability; it means being able to draw upon their various life experiences to amplify your campaign, sometimes massively so.

There’s a catch here, though. If you have a volunteer-led, volunteer-driven organization, that organization is going to be largely by people with lots of free time on their hands. That means systematically handing power to people who have economic privilege in the organization. By and large, that tends to be affluent people who can afford to take time off work, or who are not consistently part of the workforce — i.e., retirees. Or students.

In big organizing, volunteers act as the staff of the campaign.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that, but it’s going to affect how your organization looks like, and what it focuses on.

We depend on volunteer labor in progressive organizations. But the reason we have paid staffers at the core of organizations is because that ensures that the organization’s decisions are driven by what the membership as a whole wants, not what volunteers with lots of time on their hands think happen to be is a priority! That’s how you ensure democratic accountablity in a membership organization.

Here we get to the crux of the issue. Giving volunteers control over huge chunks of the machinery sometime works in a completely top-down effort like a campaign, where you can be removed at will, but it can be problematic otherwise.

Getting a paycheck means that you’re accountable to whomever pays your salary. If you get elected to a position, you’re accountable to the people who voted for you. But if we’re giving over power to people who’ve got time on their hands, then we’re just giving it to those with economic privilege and not demanding any accountability in return. That is not a sustainable model.

I’m going to tread carefully here. I don’t want to dismiss giving volunteers real power and real leadership outright. It’s important to understand we’re talking about two kinds of volunteer leadership:

  • high-order stuff (setting strategy and priorities, that sort of thing);
  • low-order stuff (tactical stuff, like how will the phone-bank I’m hosting be a success).

Now, we understand the former as “leadership” because it involves fancy titles and ordering people around. But the second is also leadership, and it’s probably even more important, because it lets the organization function effectively. You can have the most brilliant GOTV strategy ever, but if your phone banks are ineffective, it won’t matter.

Bond and Exley are talking about both types of leadership, but clearly they’re focusing on the latter throughout the book. And democratic accountability isn’t as important with the latter group; it just isn’t. Moreover, if you’re using social collaboration tools to communicate, you can use those tools as a method of accountability as well, though they aren’t designed with that purpose in mind.

Here’s the thing that I think Exley and Bond are getting at with their emphasis on volunteer leadership. If we look at the vast majority of progressive organizations, there’s a profound democratic deficit. We are deluding ourselves if we deny that, and we need to address that. That’s not something that can be fixed by periodic self-selected email canvasses of email lists, either. Our organizations have self-selected boards of directors, and “membership”, to the degree it even can be called that, either consists of paying a nominal occasional fee or signing the occasional online petition. That’s bullshit, and it abuses the meaning of membership to meaninglessness.

Voting, creating actual local chapter organizations, raising money from your members on a regular basis, convening on a consistent basis in person, driving actual actions, hiring staff on the ground which in turn creates an actual organization beyond that which may exist in DC, and reporting back to your members on a consistent basis with concrete things you have done and accomplished and accepting responsibility for failure — that, right there, is how you create an authentically democratic movement of, for, and by the people.

That’s why Bond and Exley are emphasizing volunteer leadership and saying that the revolution, however you define it, won’t be staffed. That they call it “big organizing” might be frustrating to me, but in the end, we are looking for answers in the whirlwind. The storm is coming, and there’s not much time left. Are we in the whirlwind? I believe it so. Because I do, I think it’s time we look at what we have to offer each other, gather each other, and stand together in solidarity.

We must stand together, or else we will all fail separately. And in our failure, the failure of our nation will hang on our heads. I refuse to let that be our legacy.