Localism in the United States

Advocates of localism often act as though it’s a brilliant idea that has yet to be tried (outside of a few intentional communities, etc.). One thing that strikes me, however, is the degree to which we already have a working model of decentralized local control: a small, obscure country called “The United States of America.” For all the paranoia about federal power, 99% of people’s everyday encounters with “the government” in the U.S. are with state and local jurisdictions. Law enforcement is largely handled by autonomous local police forces. Schools are run by locally elected school boards. Even citizens’ access to the vote is regulated by state and local authorities rather than the federal government.

Overall, the result has been disastrous. Even setting aside the glaring fact that “local control” has often been a synonym for “racial oppression” in the U.S., none of the supposed moral benefits of localism have ever obtained. Localism does not serve to build more responsible communities — instead, it allows people to wash their hands of certain community members entirely by separating off into a new locality.

Yet again my always correct theory about the right and the left turns out to be correct: localism is literally a right-wing agenda in the U.S., and lo and behold, it leads to right-wing outcomes. We have well over 200 years of empirical data to look at here, and it basically all bears out this conclusion. And if someone pleads, “Well, local authority has always been corrupted by other forms of concentrated power, such as corporations” — that’s not a counterargument, that’s just the point.

16 thoughts on “Localism in the United States

  1. Well said. The diffused popular will can only ever oppose concentrated power by itself concentrating in the form of movements and institutions. However this is not to negate the separatist aspirations of populations caught in historically shady federations everywhere.

  2. Is this a bit of a straw-man? Maybe we’re just in different circles, but when I encounter advocates of “localism,” most don’t have in mind participation in the kinds of institutions you’re mentioning here. In fact, most usually suggest those institutions are actually a sort of parody of localism as they envision it. I’m not necessarily trying to argue one way or the other, but your description doesn’t appear to match those I’ve rubbed elbows with.

  3. This is making me think about Mick Smith’s Against Ecological Sovereignty, which I’m currently reading through. From this angle localism is problematic precisely because it’s still an ecological model based on sovereign power and authority. Are you think of localism, here, as specific variants of political philosophy? Or are you critiquing any kind of activist politics (perhaps only loosely informed by such philosophies) that gives aid and support to entities that are contextualized, and geographically proximal? Giving an organization aid or support because of the fact that it’s small, or geographically proximal, might belie a kind of shifting ideal that seeks to keep politics and transactions close at hand, more tangible (perhaps a kind of utopian dream). But that’s not necessarily an actively totalizing program to drive and advance forms of local control.

  4. My definition of localism is probably not very rigorous, but I’m referring basically to principled political philosophies (Wendell Berry type of stuff, Christian “leftists” who tend toward communitarianism, etc.) — certainly I wouldn’t refuse to donate to a cause simply because it has a local orientation or anything like that.

  5. I think the best one can say about localism is that it is a kind of opt-out strategy in the face of very bad options, but as such, it is inherently reactionary and readily mobilized towards right-wing goals. I take this to be part of Adam’s point.

  6. So, in other words, you’re suggesting that localism would only be “defensible” to the extent that it’s a negative action?

  7. Defensible if defensive? I’m not trying to prescribe tactics here, though — I’m talking about goals, or even theoretical coherence. The idea that systemic problems are solvable at the local level is a mismatch. “But if we didn’t try to build overarching universalizing structures,” one might object, “then we wouldn’t have these problems.” I don’t think that makes sense, though, given that there are these universalizing structures. You don’t bring a locality to a universality fight!

  8. Locality doesn’t solve the problems of universality… I think that’s a helpful critique in a broad sense. I would agree with Dean, however, that the critique of locality itself becomes – rather quickly – a straw dog. There are things about locality as something more of an epistemology (“thinking locally”, let’s say) that seem to me politically useful, even though they may not “solve” systematic problems. Locality, “thinking locally”, can (when it works well) encourage practices that put your body into distinct situations. Opting to limit your diet to food that’s grown close to the place where you live can give a different sense of how weather patterns affect food supply, etc… I think it can create a different kind of awareness about the fragility of systems, or their capacity to resist, etc… Not that we can’t read books and news commentary about all of this. But being able to taste the affect of a dry season is just a different kind of compliment to the knowledge that inevitably informs our politics.

  9. Adam, thanks for the post. I live in Chattanooga Tennessee a city that is trying to revitalize itself along the lines of localism. This idea of localism has been framed as a post-politcal discourse, a society beyond politics (Leaving politics and management of the city to people linked to the blue-blood families on the mountains). Entrepreneurship is another buzzword. Here again the ties to blue-blood lines are essential for the new entrepreneur class, who un-ironically, generally tend to be the children or grandchildren of these families. Like you pointed out, this framework of community and economics conceals the Other it excludes by optimizing this language of community.

    What makes this eerie however, is how this done with little acknowledgement of the history of segregation, slavery, (not to mention the Tear of Trails) or labour movements. This new form of community appears to absolve the local of any connection to the past. I am of the opinion, that while many think that it is the Federal government that has limited freedom and innovation on the local levels of society, it is in fact the local governments that have done so. Americans however, have projected their local sense of helplessness onto the national stage.

  10. “I am of the opinion, that while many think that it is the Federal government that has limited freedom and innovation on the local levels of society, it is in fact the local governments that have done so.”

    Can’t it be both/and instead of either/or?

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