18 December 2016

The future of the left is local

The Democrats’ loss on the eighth of November this year can, and still should, be made into a teachable moment for the American left and left-of-centre. The Democrats thought that they could win an election, under our current electoral rules, on the strength of a coalition of professionals, plutocrats and the traditionally-‘underrepresented’ minorities (blacks and Hispanics). But they lost, in a major way, among their traditional bases in rural areas and among white working-class voters; and this cannot be attributed solely to factors like racism (even though, yes, racism still is a real thing and we need to take real steps to counter it). Nor, it must be noted repeatedly and insistently, did the Russians have anything to do with why the Democrats lost, except indirectly.

No – there are three big reasons that the Democrats lost big in these distressed (but not minority) areas. The first one is the economy, and this is where the Democrats’ rears got handed solidly to them, with Clinton making less than no effort to appeal to working people in ‘old economy jobs’, cosying up to the big banks, and backing the same big corporate-friendly trade policies that hurt American workers throughout the entire election. The second one is foreign policy, where most white voters (and most voters in general) wanted a drawdown from wars that never seem to end and never seem to be winnable. And they particularly took a more doveish view on Syria than Clinton did.

But the third reason that the ‘left’ lost so heavily in these areas, is because they just didn’t bother with them. ‘Flyover country’ got written off. The people who live here got called ‘deplorables’. Those of us who supported Bernie in the primaries (again, most of us coming geographically from the rural North and Rust Belt areas) were accused by Clinton proxies – wrongly – of being ‘privileged’ and ‘entitled’. In short: locality (and in particular locality based in those parts of America which have been traditionally anchored in the ‘old economy’) no longer mattered to a Democratic Party, which now seems to value its jet-setting cocktail-party set, and its control over the commanding heights, over any other considerations.

Rediscovering and reappropriating the politics of the local, the politics of community, the politics of subsidiarity and sobornost’, therefore, has to be a top priority for those of us on the left. Sanders pointed imperfectly, and incompletely, to this direction. Two thinkers who are even now pointing in a similar direction are the high-elder of political communitarianism Amitai Etzioni, and the idiosyncratic American socialist Gar Alperovitz.

Gar Alperovitz has written directly to this effect in The Nation, where various visions of a localist left turn were floated. Alperovitz’s vision is particularly interesting and attractive, in that the development of worker-ownership and local experimentation with providing official support to urban credit and producer cooperatives, can (if it succeeds!) provide an institutional impetus for rural Midwesterners in particular to rediscover for themselves a populist legacy which capitalised on similar ideas.

Amitai Etzioni puts forward a cultural rather than an economic argument for solidarity, and even on economic issues he tends toward a kind of New Deal and postwar-settlement arrangement. But he still points in a similar direction to Alperovitz, arguing that progressives need to focus on strengthening local institutions like schools and post offices, even if they may be less efficient on a macro level than regional ones. He argues for many of the same things the new urbanists want, too – discouragement of sprawl, and better design of public spaces (parks, sports fields, walks and bike paths) to make them more liveable for people. But most of all he argues that progressives need to stop disdaining people who don’t share their globalist priorities. ‘[N]obody can bond with seven billion people,’ Etzioni writes, ‘and almost everyone feels more responsibility toward those closest to them. People have profound needs for lasting social relations, meaning, and shared moral beliefs.’

We need to focus not so much on technocratic tweaking from the commanding heights, but on strengthening local institutions at the grassroots where they already exist (including labour unions, environmental protection groups, clubs, schools, post offices, and – yes – churches, particularly those of the traditional Apostolic faith), and building them where they do not. We need to rekindle old strategies for political organising at the local level. And, yes, we need to be able to articulate economic policies that directly benefit the people who voted for Trump, and as we must on foreign policies that don’t send their sons off to die needlessly. And we may need to organise outside of the established parties to do so. But it is certain: the future of the left is local, if it is to have a future at all.


  1. I am not quite sure who "we" who need to focus on local institutions are, but if "The Left" were to follow this course, would they still be "The Left"?

  2. That depends.

    Do distributists, social credit folks, populists, modern-money theorists, socialists of a certain pre-Marxist variety and so on count as 'the Left'? If so, then what I'm calling for here is very little different.

  3. I should not think so. The Left (it seems to me) is the alliance of those for whom an alleged Freedom is the highest good. Freedom from one another, freedom even from the reality of their own existence -- for example, they claim not to be able to tell men from women, and demand everyone at least pretend not to be able to either. They claim a Freedom of Will that I think would make even Nietzsche blush. Distributists, social credit folks, populists, and socialists of a certain pre-Marxist variety all recognize an essential non-Freedom about human existence. I am not sure about modern-money theorists.

    How do you define "The Left"?

  4. Interesting. Thank you for the response, Tom!

    By the standard you provided, I think, you wouldn't count me as belonging to 'the Left', either, since I don't see freedom as the highest possible good. It is - just as the state itself is - a contingent good, conditioned by its capacity for the individual to use it for greater goods. What you have described just now to me, I would classify as 'liberal'.

    But what I mean when I say 'the Left', are people who adhere to a.) ideals of distributive justice that see our current distribution of wealth and social power as marked by destructive degrees of inequity; b.) who hold to a social and communal anthropology of the person; and c.) seek to reform or remake societies along the lines suggested by a and b, whether by violent or non-violent means.

    That includes not only Marxists, liberals and 'progressives' in the United States, but also distributists, social-crediters, populists, MMT types, pre-Marxist socialists, and even certain High Tory conservatives (in the mould of Samuel Johnson, Jonathan Swift and Richard Oastler).

    Along the same lines, I actually (and somewhat controversially) trace the history of the Left back past the French Revolution to the reign of King Charles I in England and Scotland, to the reign of Tsar Alexis Romanov in Russia, and to the histories of peasant activism and revolt that preceded and informed both.

    In short, I am addressing a fairly broad group of people, whose commitments range well beyond the scope of modern American progressivism - and which, I hope, would include you also! Pardon if such a designation causes offence; please understand that this is the definition of the 'Left' I'm using here.


  5. Not offence -- just confusion. I don't think there's a term these days for what you're describing; namely, sanity.

    The trouble I see with your coalition is they don't share a common understanding of the human person. Whom I have called "left" and you have called "liberal" deny there is any such thing as human nature (for example). There is no shared vision for the purpose of human existence -- Marxists deny there is any purpose at all, we being accidents of physics in a purposeless cosmos without any transcendent value. All of the High Tory conservatives were culturally Catholic even if they were Anglican. Your coalition can't have a communal principal in common beyond "I don't like pain and I bet you don't either, so let's not antagonize one another". Anyone who actually cares for a civilization can't agree to this.

    I just read Chesterton's play The Judgment of Doctor Johnson. The speech at the end is really terrific.

    I am of an older fashion; much that I love has been destroyed or sent into exile, and it may be that the future of mankind is all your own. Only I will say this. Suppose that you have deposed your tyrants and created your republics, suppose that a hundred years from now the earth is full of your free parliaments and free citizens. You have often reminded me that Kings are only men. Suppose you have discovered by that time that citizens are only men. Suppose that those Wielding power should still be bad men. Suppose your parliaments are as unpopular as monarchies. Suppose your politicians are more hated than Kings. Suppose there returns to you war, the ancient enemy of mankind, laying the world waste and leaving riddles to be read by a decimated race of demagogues and hucksters. If in that far-off day you are thus disappointed and embittered, I ask of you one thing. Do not in that day turn upon the people and curse them, because in your own whims and fancies you have chosen to ask of them more than men can give. Do not be like poor Gulliver, your great namesake, Jonathan Swift, who saw so clearly where the world was going, and turned on men and called them Yahoos. When your parliaments grow more corrupt and your wars more cruel, do not dream that you can breed a Houyhnhnm like a race-horse, or summon monsters from the moon, or cry out in your madness for something beyond the stature of man. Do you in that day of disillusion still have the strength to say : these are no Yahoos; these are men; these are fallen men; these are they for whom their Omnipotent Creator did not disdain to die. -- GKC; The Judgment of Doctor Johnson; Act III; 1927