Citizen Participation vs Class Power: Thoughts on community organizing

Ray Valentine talks about the limitations of the community organizing model. This article was first published by Organizing Work.

Submitted by R Totale on April 6, 2019

About five years ago, after a friend told me about a flyer he had seen taped to a tree near my block, I got involved in a “neighbors committee” in the gentrifying Washington, DC neighborhood I was living in. We started helping the tenant association in a run-down apartment building. Tenants wanted the landlord to fix up the building and let them remain there for the long-term, while the owner, a despicable absentee investor type with a thuggish property manager, wanted to push them out by any means necessary.

A few of us had been through community organizing trainings, and we put what we had learned to work. We mapped out secondary targets who could help pressure the landlord: we could oppose the landlord’s application for permission to add new market-rate units in the basement; we could get neighbors to write letters to the city inspection agency demanding they fine the owner; we could even try to get in touch with the pastor of his church to try and apply some moral suasion.

Tenants were united, determined, and well-organized. The tenant association leaders testified in front of the city council, addressed big rallies, and picketed the property manager in rat costumes on Halloween. We got the zoning commission to deny the landlord permits he needed to add his new units. Politicians and clergy passed through the building regularly to gladhand us, we got glowing coverage from the press, and eventually, the city sued the landlord to force him to bring the property up to code.

Then we sat and waited for years as the case crawled through the courts. Conditions were miserable: kids got asthma from the mold, elders got bitten by rats, the heat stopped working completely. In the last few months, people have finally been relocated to other buildings so repairs can begin. Spirits are still low though, and now that tenants are out, more and more say they never want to go back and are trying to negotiate buy-out agreements with the landlord. Things might turn out okay in the end, but it seems increasingly likely that tenants will be permanently displaced and the landlord will get to redevelop the place into luxury condos like he always wanted.

Last year, a DSA-affiliated project I’m part of started organizing in a much larger apartment complex in another part of the city (we documented it here). Going through landlord-tenant court records, we discovered a staggering volume of evictions for the property, and started canvassing with know-your-rights materials. We discovered that tenants were aggrieved about poor maintenance, lax security, and abusive management.

The landlord is a well-capitalized corporate developer with lots of political connections, not a small-scale slumlord. We, on the other hand, didn’t know the community very well and didn’t have many allies we could bring to the fight. We never got support from the press, politicians, or other activists. We made a lot of mistakes, and the group we helped tenants build was fractious and disorganized.

But we did one thing right: we proposed a rent strike, and the idea proved surprisingly popular among the people who lived in the building. When we delivered the threat of a rent strike to the owner, we got concessions immediately. Now, after seeing how effective collective action was, tenants want to negotiate a kind of collective bargaining agreement with the owner.

In the second case, the organizers weren’t smarter or more experienced. The tenants weren’t braver or more committed. The landlord certainly wasn’t more vulnerable. The difference was that we recognized the leverage tenants had.

It seems unfortunately rare for organizers doing this type of work to have a good understanding of tenants’ leverage, and the “community organizing” trainings I got in my misspent youth did little to clarify things. I don’t think this is an accident.

Alinksy organizing and its critics

Chino from Unity and Struggle has written a useful critique of the dominant model of “community organizing” practiced in the US. He charts the history of this political tradition: Saul Alinksy’s work uniting various local institutions in Chicago to support unionization drives and battle “social disintegration,” his followers’ success in building new local organizations across the country in the wake of the Civil Rights protests of the 1960s, and the development of national networks and institutes in the 1970s that codified the tradition, often with the help of federal funding.

The practical achievements of this tradition have been limited, at best. Rather than building independent bases of power, community organizations have often been drawn into deeper dependence on private foundations and closer alliances with Democratic Party politicians. As organizers are integrated into a “non-profit industrial complex,” they lose the capacity to put independent pressure on the state and other powerful institutions, and they are disconnected from, or even act consciously to suppress, outbreaks of popular insurgency.

Consequently, community organizations have been too weak to do much about the rightward drift of national politics. The eclipse of the power of these organizations was demonstrated poignantly when, in 2010, the Democrat-controlled Senate voted to defund ACORN, the most significant national organizing network, at the behest of right-wing provocateurs.

These good points have mostly been made before, but Chino adds some provocative insights. He looks at the experience of a new wave of organizations that grew out of local struggles in the 1980s and 1990s and cohered into an alternative set of networks and training institutes. These new groups were led by people with more radical politics, who rejected much of Alinksy’s theory and attempted to go beyond the limits of traditional “community organizing.” These groups made more “transformative” demands and made use of nonviolent direct action instead of using purely rhetorical pressure. While the most prominent community organizers of the 1960s were white men, these new groups prioritized the leadership of women and people of color.

Despite some advances, Chino concludes that for the most part “the new groups used standard organizing methods, but borrowed radical language,” and reproduced many of the failures of the old model. He worries that a new generation of leftists developing an interest in a strategy of “base-building” will repeat the same mistakes and fail to “derive new tools that can serve revolutionary goals, far different from the goals the playbook was designed for decades ago.”

So far so good: I agree with most of this analysis and share these concerns. But I disagree with Chino’s view that the main problem with community organizations is their focus on short-term, winnable goals. He argues that community organizers’ fixation on immediate, “winnable demands” gets in the way of developing a strategy for “broader social transformation,” and that this absence of a broader political horizon has limited organizers’ effectiveness. I disagree because that second wave of community organizers in the 1980s and 1990s had plenty of big goals, but they didn’t get much further than their predecessors because they didn’t depart much strategically.

When it comes down to it, the “new tools” Chino presents aren’t much of a departure from the community organizing tradition. He critiques community organizations’ dependence on “influence in the state through collaborative relationships with politicians and legal reforms” and says an alternative approach to building power focuses on the “growing solidarity and combativeness among the proletariat,” without saying what this combativeness looks like in practice (is it a rally with more extreme slogans?). He proposes that organizers “identify a goal that is currently considered impossible by existing political actors, and identify ways to make them possible given the balance of forces,” but he doesn’t have concrete suggestions about how to make the impossible possible.

The radicalism here is mostly rhetorical, emphasizing how we should think and talk about issues. What’s missing is an understanding of how working class people can effectively exert pressure and win that differs substantively from Alinsky’s outlook.

We can’t just think differently from the community organizers, we need to act differently. We can talk about revolution all we like, but we won’t get anywhere without a firm understanding of the nature of class power and how this can be wielded — which differs from what community organizers usually try to wield.

Citizen participation vs class power

Let’s think about where a community organization’s leverage comes from. To oversimplify, the basic cycle of a community organizing campaign is to come up with a demand, identify an individual (usually some sort of public official) who can deliver on the group’s demand, assemble a big group of people, and confront the individual with that demand until they give in. The power of this crowd of people is supposed to come from their numbers (or through the numbers of people they represent through other networks and institutions). Numbers are presumed to automatically translate into influence. The implicit threat backing up the demand is “there are more of us than there are of you, and you had better give us what we want or we’re going to vote you out.” More “radical” organizers may use more militant approaches to make the same basic threat: “give us what we want or we will interrupt a speech by the mayor or deliberately get arrested at City Hall and that will get on TV and then the people will know you’re a sell-out and vote you out.” Ultimately, “community power” as imagined by the organizer depends on citizens’ power to participate in ordinary politics, albeit it in an organized and conscientious way.

There’s a problem with this strategic premise, though: normally community organizations cannot actually vote the bastards out. Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, internal critics of the community organizing tradition, have noted that virtually no community organizing groups have ever organized a large enough voting bloc to have real power to swing elections. Poor people tend not to vote, and when they do vote, they’re more likely to vote on the basis of patronage networks, ethnic solidarity, or partisan identity than whether an incumbent gave into a demand of a community organization. Even when a significant voting bloc can be organized, it might lack good alternatives and get stuck in a client relationship with the Democratic Party. “The incumbent might not be giving you what you want, but have you seen these other jokers who are running? Better to just support the devil you know, who will at least answer your phone calls and show up at your annual fundraising gala.”

The example of the community organizing tradition is not particularly inspiring, but luckily we have a model of how ordinary people can effectively wield power: unions. Unions also get stuck in the morass of political lobbying, but they do not simply rely on the same kind of “power in numbers” as community organizing. Even when unions are weak and bureaucratized, their leverage ultimately depends on their ability to withhold labor, interrupt production, and challenge the boss’s control (union leaders might not want to use this leverage, but that’s where their leverage comes from whether they like it or not). Workers’ power as a class comes from their ability to disrupt the exploitation that powers capitalist society. Shutting down production and interrupting the business of daily life, even in brief and limited ways, has always been workers’ best tool for extracting concessions from the state as well as from any particular boss.

Chino mentions unions in his essay, but he emphasizes their similarities with non-profits, arguing that both conceal class relations and incorporate workers as capitalist subjects with narrow interest-group consciousness. I’m not a stranger to left-wing criticisms of unions, but there are important differences between the strategic premises of community organizations and unions. Obviously it’s true that most of the time, unions try to head off the naked expression of class power and instead channel workers’ grievances into individualistic (and often ineffectual) bureaucratic mediation processes, but those channels wouldn’t exist without the implicit threat of strikes and other forms of shop floor unrest.

Unions’ leverage comes from latent power workers have by virtue of their class position. If workers recognize their ability to withdraw their cooperation and disrupt production, profits stop getting made, bosses lose control, and the normal business of daily life gets interrupted in costly ways. Even when it’s used to pursue modest, immediate ends, this kind of power has a radical potential: it makes thinking about bigger goals more meaningful, and it provides tools to pursue them. Asserting class power requires people learn the courage and determination to defy authority and reject their own day-to-day subordination, rather than going through the socially-validated “proper channels” of citizen participation. Class power depends on solidarity and cooperation, not just the aggregation of individuals; it forces people to overcome differences and be accountable to one another in concrete ways, rather than allowing like-minded activists to network together and say they represent the community.

Using disruption as leverage

I am not arguing that only struggles in the workplace are relevant to organizing the class (come to think of it, I’ve never actually met anyone who argues this, just people disavowing it). I’m arguing that to win struggles over housing or healthcare or transportation or policing, working class people need to learn how to be disrupt business as usual, to threaten real economic and social costs if their demands aren’t met. I think unions — and the form of class power they depend on — provide a better model for approaching these struggles than the political activity of traditional community organizing groups.

It’s possible to generalize from the radical potential of unionism. Unions exercise power within a specific context: a workplace where people are brought together to produce value or carry out some some vital but unprofitable function that the state or some organization subsidizes. The productivity, profitability, and orderly function of that space depends on people’s compliance with a set of rules. The leverage a union comes from being able to bend, break, or change the rules and inflict a cost on a an individual or institution that can make concessions. I don’t think workplaces are uniquely vulnerable to this kind of leverage. Organizers who are interested in “base-building” need to look for other contexts where masses of exploited people are brought together and have the capacity to assert themselves collectively. To avoid getting trapped in the political labyrinth most community organizing is stuck in, we should be looking for forms of struggle that can unlock latent class power that exist in various spheres of capitalist society.

Tenant unionism is an obvious example of what I’m talking about, and one that I’m familiar with. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that many radicals across North America trying to build durable class-based organizations have gravitated towards organizing tenants. Like workers, tenants are organized by capital into economic units where they have common experiences, common interests, and common antagonists. Tenants can cause economically significant disruption in all sorts of ways: rent strikes are the most obvious, but they can also resist eviction, and in doing so prevent an owner from cashing in on the land they’re sitting on. I’ve seen other creative ways for inflicting pain on a landlord, like intercepting potential tenants touring the building and telling them about all the problems they’ll experience if they move in.

Tenants need to challenge the landlord’s authority by organizing themselves. The rules of the house, like whether they can meet in the courtyard, or whether the landlord can enter an apartment without notice to do an “inspection,” become political struggles. As these struggles start to effect small changes, tenants develop a sense of solidarity and collective identity. Organizations built on the basis of these struggles can flex real power, and I think this is the source of recent successes.

Other constituencies can act in similar ways. Besides tenants, I’m familiar with models of students, debtors, welfare benefit claimants, prisoners, and transit riders using coordinated non-compliance to deliberately inflict costs on a target in a variety of contexts and winning.

Insofar as leftists are committed to “base-building” and developing class organization, we would do well to look for existing social spaces where people have some latent social power to cause meaningful disruption, rather than assembling large crowds and appealing to the authorities. Based on my own experiences with tenant organizing and the direction of groups I’ve been in touch with, I’m actually pretty optimistic that organizers have made real progress in figuring out where our power really lies.