Sunday, 6 July 2014

Neighborhood Power: The New Localism

The ideas around 'localism'
Futures Forum: W(h)ither "localism"?
have been around for a long time.

Here's an introduction to a book from forty years ago:

The concept of neighborhood power seeks to return political and economic power to community life. It is based on a realization many communities have already come to, namely, that most social problems, like crime, health, and pollution, can be tackled effectively only on the local level. This book is a working tool in bringing political and economic power down to a human and workable scale. The spirit of the new localism is the spirit of self-sufficiency, of self-identity, of cooperation, and of participation. This book is for those who share these goals.

Neighborhood Power: The New Localism: David Morris, Karl Hess: 9780807008751: Amazon.com: Books

And here's a recent analysis from the States:

Neighborhood Power: The New Localism by David Morris and Karl Hess
In 1975, two leftists, one of whom had been a top GOP insider and a founder of the American libertarian movement, collaborated on a book published by a leading Washington, D.C. left-wing think tank and the Unitarian Universalist Association advocating devolution of political power from the federal, state and city levels to self-sufficient local neighborhoods, hopefully facilitated by the passage of a Republican senator’s bill to fund them with the redirection of three-quarters of income tax revenue.

David Morris and Karl Hess’s Neighborhood Power: The New Localism is simultaneously a time capsule from a forgotten moment of the New Left, a glimpse into roads not taken in the four decades since, a counterexample to the assumptions of today’s culture wars, and a prescient foreshadowing of today’s nascent trends towards a post-industrial future.

The central focus of the book is the building of neighborhood organizations for the purpose of directly addressing local needs, rather than exerting pressure on the political system to take care of them. After a brief general introductory chapter (which was included in the anthology First Harvest: The Institute of Policy Studies, 1963-83 as representative of how, in the words of its introductory blurb, “[d]ecentralization and participation have characterized IPS activities”), the slim volume gets straight to the process. Initially covering the creation of small, informal local organizations formed ad hoc to deal with specific day-to-day issues, the scale subsequently steadily broadens along with the hopeful broadening of the purview of the organizations themselves. While the growth of any particular is limited, by cooperation they are able to take on more and more of the social, economic and political functions within a single neighborhood, and then between freely associating neighborhoods. The conclusion sketches a decentralized, green, communitarian utopian future, Ecotopia meets a post-industrial News from Nowhere.

Along the way, attention is given to specific practical issues. While technology is not as central a focus as it is in Hess’s other work (one of his other books is Community Technology), there is a decent amount of material on it. This includes prescience in both local food production (Hess was a central participant in forgotten predecessors of today’s urban farming boom), computers (the Community Memory System has a cameo), and renewable, green energy...

The writing eschews jargon, in the manner of the straightforward, concrete social criticism of contemporaries like Paul Goodman and John Holt. The best rationale is not an elaborate academic argument, but

the residents of the Adams Morgan community growing vegetables on their roofs, mapping out the neighborhood for urban food production, setting up cooperative businesses, talking about small-scale technology, building solar cookers, starting neighborhood assemblies, hosting block parties, having fun (Acknowledgments page).

It deliberately steers clear of ideological posturing, to a degree rare on the left then and virtually unheard-of today. While it is not technical, it offers a clear overview and is well grounded in the relevant background...

How is it a snapshot of trends at the time? In many ways, it benefits from being written after the decline of “the Sixties”. It’s easy to forget that the mid-’70s-left was still optimistic that the tide was in their favor, and it was starting to learn from the mistakes of the Sixties, shifting away from an over-reliance on the protest movement model to more sustainable, less purely idealistic forms to ones with better technical and economic grounding.

Identity politics, then on the ascendance, was still associated with decentralist and participatory strands which the book is optimistic about... 

The ongoing decline of interest in economic alternatives has been both a cause and an effect of the relegation of “alternative” goods to individual consumer choices (usually with Whole Foods-style markups). Optimistic predictions of laundromats becoming community hubs seem wildly out of place in an era when even Barnes & Noble and shopping malls have difficulty staying afloat. Rather than joining together to form a basis for a new society, isolated economic alternatives have floundered to survive in the inhospitable existing economy...

Senator Mark Hatfield is usually remembered as a moderate due to his opposition to the Vietnam war, but a quote declaring that “It is clear today that the great experiment of our cities is a failure”, lamenting the loss of “community self-management”, and stating the need for “neighborhood government and interneighborhood cooperation” (97) doesn’t sound much like something one would hear from the lips of Nelson Rockefeller.

The use of the assumed necessity of centralization as justifications by technocratic liberalism and plutocratic conservatism are treated mercilessly:
To the modern liberal disposition this means that central planning, powerful executive-type government, and technocratic elites are justified and, indeed, necessary in running a society “efficiently.”
To the modern conservative disposition this means a justification of the hard class lines in society (the poor will always be with us, the rich will rise to the top naturally) and also justifies a corporate system which, by providing everything for people, makes it unnecessary for people to bother about anything but consuming — and showing up for work on time. (7)
... Since the mainstreaming of “green” hasn’t led to a concomitant questioning of the ”need to maintain the rate of growth and the sheer physical output of this society” (119), it’s worth a reminder that such a paradigm is as obsolescent as the fossil fuels it ran on:
Nuclear-power plants, metropolitan sewage-treatment plants, internal-combustion engines or solar cells, in-house waste-cycling systems, and electric cars. It is not only an ecological and economic choice, but a deeply political one. It asks whether we want to move our productive facilities back into our communities, or remain at the mercy of isolated forces operating on criteria that give human concerns a low priority. (124)
Morris and Hess make solid use of a knowledge of the inefficiency of big business, citing the work on diseconomies of scale by Ralph Borsodi and Barry Stein, and offering a sharp rejoinder to stock claims of “efficiency”:
Conventional wisdom holds that larger firms are a natural, even a welcome, extension of business activities, and that they should be encouraged. Such concentrations are said to bring with them efficiencies that lower consumer prices. The reality is that prices grow as concentrations grow. The truth is that bigness brings with it higher profits. Also, it is apparently true that bigness breeds slothfulness, that creativity and igenuity are submerged, in the largest firms, to the goal of profitability, that with their influence in distribution and advertising, large corporations can create markets from their most convenient and profitable items rather than bothering to make products that people genuinely need... (116)
And noting that ”volunteer labor, foundation grants, $25-a-week salaries, are flimsy foundations for a new society”, they devote extensive attention to getting a solid economic base through surplus from local business activities. Cooperative organization was already becoming successful at producing surpluses: one co-op was able to allow five-week vacations for its workers, and estimated that current productivity would allow that duration as a norm in a cooperative economy. In an era where it is assumed that skyrocketing technological productivity will somehow never allow an increase in leisure time, it is worth reviving the idea of cooperatives taking surpluses in terms of leisure time rather than wages.

How does the book hold up from today’s perspective? A standard modus operandi of belittling the ferment of the 1960s and 1970s is to acknowledge individual bits and pieces that have become mainstream, like recycling or feminism, but to write off the rest as naive and doomed to failure by inherent impractical utopianism. Some readers of this book of will inevitably do so. But while the book has its share of overly optimistic predictions (cost-competitive solar power by 1990!), it holds up better than many of its contemporaries, being more grounded and pragmatic than the ones focusing solely on symbolic actions and consciousness raising. Many of its ideas were already starting to be put into practice and working in local efforts at the time only to be abandoned, epitomizing not-tried-and-found-wanting-but-found-difficult-and-not-tried. And in many ways it was prescient. Some passages sound like something you’d hear from a city planner today:
Transportation systems became locally oriented. It seemed ridiculous to think that in the old days it was easier to get downtown, a distance of some ten miles, than it was to go sideways to another neighborhood, a distance of half a mile. Now the minibuses, the electric cars which were rented, not owned, by the neighborhood residents, and the bicycles took care of local transportation. (165)
In recent years, there has been a return to some of the ideas, usually without awareness of the past. Urban gardening, which Hess was a pioneer of, has seen a renaissance. The maker movement has started to push modern technology past the era of mass industrialism. “Collaborative consumption” is rediscovered as an unprecedented novelty. Too much emphasis is placed on the role of the latest technology, and too little on social and organizational factors; it is worth getting a perspective on successes with the technology of the ’70s. To modern-day movements, it offers perspective that they didn’t arise in a vacuum.

Everyone has something to gain from taking a look at Neighborhood Power.

Center for a Stateless Society » Neighborhood Power: The New Localism by David Morris and Karl Hess

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