Improving the Revolution: Big Organizing Meets Learning Organization

11/26/2017 05:22 pm ET Updated Nov 26, 2017

“The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.” Abraham Lincoln

To say the least, the predicament this Nation finds itself in is “piled high with difficulty.” Congress and the Executive Branch have been taken over by what Noam Chomsky accurately describes in this interview, as “a serious danger to human survival.” He elaborates that “Today, the Republican Party has drifted off the rails . . . It’s become […] ‘a radical insurgency’ that has pretty much abandoned parliamentary politics.”

Indeed, by walking away from the Paris Climate Accords and marching away from every effort to address the perils of a warming climate, the GOP has abandoned a good deal more than parliamentary politics. It is abandoning our children’s future, turning a blind eye, as Chomsky notes, to a “looming environmental catastrophe,” and is “literally a serious danger to decent human survival.” It would be hard to imagine difficulty piled any higher than that which we face now.

Fortunately, the progressive community grows more and more capable while rising to the occasion. There is much cause for hope as new thinking emerges that guides new action that may well be our only hope for saving our country. But far more than this nation’s future is at stake. The entire human community is threatened and we must rise to a challenge none of our ancestors ever faced and our descendants won’t be able to address in any meaningful way.

For this, and many other reasons, I was excited when I learned that a friend, Becky Bond, co-authored with Zack Exley, their superb book, Rules for Revolutionaries: How Big Organizing Can Change Everything. Drawn from their experience working on Bernie Sanders’ presidential race, they came to realize that the Sanders campaign pioneered a new grassroots organizing model that could, indeed, “change everything.”

The big and bold campaign that Sanders ran inspired such a groundswell of enthusiasm that it was quickly confronting a problem I’ve never encountered in 50 years of activism: they had too many volunteers. So many in fact, that they had difficulty engaging them all and risked having all this enthusiasm turn into bitter disappointment if the campaign failed to “rise to the occasion.” But as Bond and Exley make clear, the campaign did meet this challenge and gave birth to “Big Organizing” in the process. They developed a new organizing model, which, I agree, has the power to change everything, most particularly how progressives manage grassroots organizing going forward.

Big Organizing didn’t spring onto the stage as an entirely new creation forged solely out of the battle the Sanders campaign waged last year. It builds upon a body of knowledge and praxis I’ve watched mature over the course of the half a century I’ve been immersed in it. Reading Rules for Revolutionaries it becomes clear that the authors understand well the historical context from which their new organizing model emerged.

The title of the book itself, Rules for Revolutionaries, foreshadows Bond and Exley’s excellent critique of Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals, published in 1971. Like many progressives, I was familiar with the merits of Alinsky’s approach, but unaware of his inherent elitism and animus against revolutionary movements. Summarizing some of the virtues of Alinsky’s model, Bond and Exley write:

“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.”

Much of what Alinsky got right lives on in better form in the remarkable work Marshall Ganz shares freely throughout the progressive community. But there is a dark side to Alinsky that haunts and confounds progressive activism and must be confronted to clear the way for grassroots organizing to flourish effectively in the 21st Century. Making this point, Bond and Exley declare:

“For all the things Alinsky got right, he was explicitly looking to outflank the populist movement of his time and provide an alternative that was more palatable to the liberal elite. His funders were particularly eager to form incrementalist black and Latino organizations that would absorb, manage, and redirect the anger that was expressing itself beginning in the 1950s through urban uprisings. Alinsky disparaged the idea of revolutionary change and explicitly sought to undermine black, Latino, and working class revolutionary movements.”

Moreover, they elaborate:

“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. [. . .] It might seem strange that we’re spending so much time talking about a guy that many of our readers have probably never heard of, but hundreds of important organizations were founded by organizers that Alinsky hired, trained, or influenced. When we explored the backgrounds of electoral and labor organizers, we found that many of the most influential got their start with an Alinsky-descended organization.

The Alinsky model simply became the standard for the entire liberal and progressive world. But it’s time to move on.”

The Alinsky model may well be the active “mental model” that unconsciously influences activists to the detriment of more effective activism. Big Organizing is the necessary corrective for this. I think Bond and Exley are absolutely correct when they write, “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.”

For those who think it might be splitting hairs to draw a distinction between a political revolution and community organizing, let me share this. Without a political revolution, we are doomed.

Back in 2012 a researcher named Brad Werner, who works in the Complex Systems Laboratory at UC San Diego presented a paper at the American Geophysical Union meeting that year with an eye-catching title: “Is Earth F**ked? Dynamical Futility of Global Environmental Management and Possibilities for Sustainability via Direct Action Activism.” Writing about this, Dave Levitan notes, “[Werner] has a remarkably complicated methodology yielding a very simple answer: yes, unless people start a serious global rebellion.”

Elaborating, Levitan writes: “[Werner’s] argument goes something like this: modern culture, with its emphasis on money and economics, is far too focused on short time scales,” and this promotes instability. “So we’re in the process of destroying things thanks to that instability, and even when we engage in environmental management efforts, we couch them in capitalist terms, like cost/benefit analyses as efforts to deal with climate change. This, Werner says, will inevitably lead those management schemes to fail over a long enough time frame.” Summarizing all this, Levitan writes, “Capitalist society moves too quickly, and our connections to each other and the world become too superficial, to avoid destroying the world. But resistance movements – Werner cited the Arab Spring and Occupy movements as recent examples – could disrupt our otherwise inevitable course of enviro-destruction.”

So seen in this light, Big Organizing’s revolutionary potential demands our serious attention. While all 22 of the rules presented in Rules for Revolutionaries are worth pondering, here’s a list of the rules that most excite me, quoted from Bond and Exley’s superb book:

“Rule 1: You won’t get a revolution if you don’t ask for one. – People are waiting for you to ask them to do something big. Movements require clear demands for solutions as radical as our problems, and you need authentic, credible leaders to deliver that message.”

“Rule 3 – The Revolution will not be Staffed – There will never be enough money to pay all the organizers the revolution needs. The good news is there are more than enough amazing volunteer leaders among the people, and three or four talented and committed volunteers working part time can often do the work of a full-time paid staffer.”

“Rule 4 – Fighting Racism Must be at the Core of the Message to Everyone – If it is not led by people of color and immigrants, if it doesn’t have fighting racism and xenophobia at its core, and if it is not mobilizing white people to lead other whites to choose multi-racial solidarity over fear and hate – then it’s not a revolution.”

“Rule 6 – The Work is Distributed. The Plan is Centralized – In distributed organizing, the work may be distributed, but if you’re going to win something big, you need a centralized plan. Instead of letting a thousand flowers bloom, build a networked flower factory. Delegate chunks of work from a centralized, strategic campaign plan to a distributed network of volunteer leaders who can work across space and time, and in the numbers necessary, to meet concrete goals that put victory within reach.”

“Rule 7 – The Revolution Will Be Funded – by Small Donations – If you spend your time and energy asking rich people to support your movement, then your movement isn’t going to get anywhere. Spend your time talking to the people you are trying to organize, building your movement and resources as they are needed will come.” Sanders proved this to be true fantastically.

“Rule 8 – Barnstorm! – Use mass meetings as a technology to put people to work in teams and immediately. Constantly redesign your technique to get more out of your meetings. Ensuring that your meetings can be replicated is key to scaling up for revolution.” This is a major innovation developed during the Sanders campaign to engage the large numbers of volunteers inspired by Bernie’s big and bold campaign.

“Rule 12 – Learn the Basics of Good Management – Good management is not counterrevolutionary. In fact, you need to master the art of management to give your revolution a fighting chance.” I will focus on this rule more below. It is one of the major opportunities for improvement within the big organizing model.

“Rule 14 – Grow Complexity by Solving Problems as They Arise – In a successful movement, campaign, or revolution, everything is growing and changing too fast to make detailed long-term plans. Nevertheless, to grow big, processes will have to become more and more complex. Grow complexity by solving practical problems as they arise in conversation with involved leaders.” This relates to Rule 12 above as it is one of the greatest management challenges and organizational perils that must be overcome.

“Rule 17 – The Revolution Is Not Just Bottom Up; It’s Peer to Peer – The best movements invite great leaders from the base into a structure where all leaders work together as peers to reach their full potential and win. Your base contains many talented and experienced people; treating them as peers is the best way to attract them into leadership; working with them as you would with paid colleagues is the best way to keep them in leadership while bringing out the best of them.”

“Rule 19 – There’s No Such Thing as a Single-Issue Revolution – The revolution is about everything. The people live in communities affected by all the issues, and all our struggles are connected. That’s why there can be no single-issue revolution. What’s more, it’s going to take all of us, each motivated by the issues directly affecting us, working together to build the revolution.” The intersectionality of our concerns increasingly unite progressives and Bond and Exley are wise to point this out.

Let me be clear that all the rules Bond and Exley propose combine into a coherent prescription for what must be done, but the need for brevity compels my focus above. This is not to say that there is no room for improvement, as I’m sure the authors would readily agree. Their approach invites collaboration and in this spirit I have a suggestion that I think adds much to this most worthy project.

Late in the last century I came across a remarkable book, The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, written by an MIT professor named Peter Senge.

Senge writes about five disciplines he thinks would allow any organization to become a learning organization. Given the sheer complexity and enormous challenges the revolution must address the idea that big organizing would be improved by learning organization theory seems obvious.

One of the five disciplines Senge discusses involves “mental models,” which he points out are what allow us to “focus on the openness needed to unearth shortcomings” in our perceptions. It helps promote “dialog,” another discipline that allows teams to rise beyond “group think” to achieve “group mind,” an intelligence greater than the sum of its parts. The “fifth discipline” he refers to is “systems thinking.” It integrates all the disciplines into coherence. It literally changes the way you think and that has been my lived experience since I first encountered it many decades ago.

Senge isn’t the first MIT professor to promote systems thinking. In fact, the whole field was brought to life back in 1972 with the publication of Limits to Growth, written by Donella Meadows, Dennis Meadows, Jorgen Randers, and William Behrens. It set off a firestorm of criticism by suggesting that endless economic growth might, in fact, be impossible. It relied on a computer model, World3, to simulate interactions between the Earth’s and human systems to better understand the consequences of that interaction. Wikipedia reports:

“The original version presented a model based on five variables: world population, industrialization, pollution, food production and resources depletion. These variables are considered to grow exponentially, while the ability of technology to increase resources is only linear. The authors intended to explore the possibility of a sustainable feedback pattern that would be achieved by altering growth trends among the five variables under three scenarios. They noted that their projections for the values of the variables in each scenario were predictions "only in the most limited sense of the word", and were only indications of the system's behavioral tendencies. Two of the scenarios saw "overshoot and collapse" of the global system by the mid to latter part of the 21st century, while a third scenario resulted in a "stabilized world".”

Brad Werner’s modelling, referred to previously, can be regarded as a great-grandchild of the Limits to Growth simulation. It’s worth noting that both efforts arrive at very similar conclusions. Werner’s findings, however, direct us to active revolution for human salvation.

Fully exploring the ways in which Senge’s theory of Learning Organizations could improve Bond and Exley’s big organizing model is beyond the scope of this article. Bond and Exley astutely declare that “good management is not counter-revolutionary.” Back when I was first studying Learning Organization Theory, I was struck by how subversive it was to traditional authoritarian management precepts that dominate corporate thinking. It also squarely addresses big organizing’s 14th rule regarding complexity. The five disciplines that comprise the Learning Organization model, incorporated into a big organizing approach, would make complexity management far more effective. I’ve always thought it would be a tremendous experience to be part of a true learning organization.

Rules for Revolutionaries gives a clear vision for how effective progressive organizing could unfold. I realized that the networks and teams created in the big organizing context could easily persist far beyond the next election. It makes clear how we could win every day, not just on Election Day, or whatever objective some organizing effort might build towards. And if these networks were informed by the brilliant insights of Learning Organization Theory, they might be all but unstoppable. A cycle of learning and teaching, teaching and learning, skill-building and skill sharing would be animated throughout the organization’s networks in peer-to-peer structures, relying on smart technology that would utterly transform resistance into highly effective forms that would allow us all to “rise to the occasion.”

A.R. Ammons wrote Poetics, a poem I particularly like where he speaks of “the shape things will take to come forth in.” I cannot predict the shape that our necessary and essential revolution will come forth in. But for the first time in ages, I have a clear vision for how that might happen. And it excites every atom of my being anticipating that we can now disenthrall ourselves from failed approaches. That we can “think anew, and act anew.” That together we can “rise to the occasion” and do what must be done to win Climate Justice for us all, and the future our children deserve.

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