Flavors of Localism

This post, apropos of nothing, attempts to define different strains of thought that fall under the banner of localism. The first two are what we might call intentional forms of localism, followed by two that are cultural and identity-based, followed by two that are generally the province of local elites.

These categories necessarily overlap, and many localists will have aspects of several. There are, however, distinct motivations that underpin each group, which is why I felt the compunction to categorize them. It’s also worth noting that relatively few people think of themselves as localists above all else; it’s often a secondary feature of one of these more pronounced, if fluid, identities. They are all united, however, by an emphasis on action tied to geography or a social network within one’s immediate sphere. To that end, here are the six varieties.

  1. Crunchy Localism

This category is one of the most straightforward, and may be the one that comes most immediately to mind for casual observers: the co-op shoppers and CSA members and backyard chicken-raisers; the vegetarians or devotees of free-range meat; the local craftspeople who try, to varying degrees, to escape box store shopping and big business in general. Their most fundamental concern is typically a desire to protect our planet, meaning crunchy localism is usually associated with the political left, and it’s somewhat unusual in that its localist platform tends to fit fairly coherently with its national platform. That said, it also contains plenty of people who distrust big things in general (both business and government) and can accommodate some more libertine or religious strains of thought.

Strengths: Crunchy localists are acutely aware of threats to the planet and work hard to counter them. They align their consumption with their belief system and generally try to live within their means. This mindset emphasizes genuine quality of food, of locally made goods, and cultivates a homey, sustainable ethos unafraid of a little dirt. It’s also less prone to excess than some other movements; ecoterrorism isn’t exactly a widespread phenomenon.

Weaknesses: This way of thinking has a tendency to attract some doomsayers, and some of its mid-20th-century antecedents were very wrong about, say, the threat of overpopulation or peak oil or other such concerns. There’s also an occasional problem of scale, as shown when people seek to prevent a certain activity in a developed country only to see it farmed out to poorer locales with no labor standards or environmental safeguards, or those who proclaim climate change is the greatest issue facing the nation and then proceed to spend all their time working to ban plastic straws. Such causes are noble, but rather misses the gravity of the problem: is this really where we want to draw out battle lines? Like any movement with an ideology at the root, it runs the risk of collapsing into infighting.

2. Religious Localism

Like crunchy localism, this brand involves the creation of intentional local communities around shared beliefs, and as noted above, some of its adherents are also pretty environmentally conscious. Adherents to this brand, however, aspire not to some earthly realm of unity, but to a community that gives them access to God or some other higher being or state. Groups come together to share in their traditions, whether through a traditional school or an active community of worship or a cloistered retreat or even the occasional compound. While many major religious faiths have an evangelistic or crusading side that strives to bring the whole world along, most also have a tradition in this vein; whether out of deep commitment to a simple and contemplative life or a sense that the world is to depraved to be redeemed, these localists believe they must first and foremost tend to their own garden.

Strengths: Builds a coherent worldview for believers, and few versions create such strong networks of believers: united not only by a shared vision for this world but of eternity, these people can be very loyal to one another. Some communities, like the Amish or the Mormons or subsets of Buddhism and Islam, have remarkable staying power.

Weaknesses: It can be suffocating to those who don’t fully share the view, or even those who begin to question it some; no version of localism demands more of anyone who would wish to join it. At its most extreme, it can drift into cult creation and all its attendant problems. Of all the versions it is also probably most susceptible to reliance on charismatic individuals, who can either use their power over their flock for questionable ends or just see their communities crumble when they fall out of the picture somehow.

3. Traditionalist Localism

In striking juxtaposition to the crunchy localists we find the traditionalist localists: people who just like things the way they are. They tend to be members of a place’s dominant culture, and they don’t see what all the fuss is about messing with it. They’re prone to nostalgia and may be diligent local historians, carrying on small-town festivals and small civic organizations, and they generally don’t get why anyone would want things to be some other way. There’s some overlap here with religious localism, though the motivation, I would argue, is distinct. The traditionalists’ primary concern is not transcendence or their immortal souls; it is just stability. In this category we find a lot of straightforward small-town folk, though when their mindset starts to coalesce into a political movement it can take on a decidedly different flavor: here we find the Brexiters and the French National Rally, and also the flyers of the Don’t Tread on Me flags and that dude in the hut with a shotgun at the end of the road.

Strengths: It’s simple, and the narrative is consistent and requires little thought. It treads on some of the most basic loyalties and asks little else, and as a result can be a powerful motivator. It has proven it can be a fairly successful political movement, and it can also give some unique life and sustenance to longstanding local quirks and traditions.

Weaknesses: Anyone who doesn’t conform to the traditions of the locality will feel stifled by this culture, and it doesn’t much like people aspiring to much beyond it. This brand of localism can drift into jingoism and violence when threatened. It can also descend into painful defenses of old things that don’t deserve defense, lapsing back to some long-lost era and choosing some strange lines in the stand. These can include major corporate brands or some mysterious “way of life” that is an often limited snapshot of a very specific era, at which point it really ceases to be local at all, and instead just becomes reactionary. Its excesses, taken to their most extreme form, are among the worst of any form of localism.

4. Subaltern Localism

This localism features the breakaway movements composed of groups left out of a dominant culture and their fellow travelers. Here we find the indigenous rights groups, the Black nationalists, the tightly-bound ethnic neighborhoods of major cities, and even things like culturally specific charter schools. These are groups of people who are usually excluded, either explicitly or surreptitiously, from the levers of power in a society, and they seek radical measures to create their own spaces where their voices and traditions have a home. While some in these movements may seek to overthrow the existing order, either through nonviolent reform or violent revolution, the localists in this camp, much like the religious groups, are either so jaded by the broader culture or so enraptured by their local work that they don’t spend much time on that level.

Strengths: These local movements are often very empowering for their members. Some of these can build very dense mutual aid networks that can substitute for the failures of a state that does not or cannot do much for a marginalized group. As much as any of the localisms, this one generates some impressive cultural work, both through a flowering of new creative outbursts or through the resurrection of historic figures within the culture or tradition. The memories it unearths can fundamentally upend the way we tell local histories.

Weaknesses: By its very nature, this localism is at risk of being crushed by the dominant culture if it questions the existing order too much; as a result, it can turn to violence and get caught up in some of its related excesses. It also faces some practical questions over how exactly it fits in to a pluralist society. How much space is enough space, and if it involves the formal drawing of boundaries, who else gets roped in with this group?  Does it run the risk of simply re-creating segregation? These groups are also not monoliths, and can be prone to infighting between sub-groups or idealists with competing visions. (It is also the hardest to name, given the alphabet soup of academic terminology for non-dominant cultures facing social exclusion; in this case, I tried to go to the pithiest origins of the general concept, which we owe to Antonio Gramsci.)

5. Civic Greatness Localism

This localism trades on people’s pride in the pride in their homes. It wants to see a local place made great through major civic projects, economic growth, and the development of good publicity. It usually emerges from genuine love for the place and on the surface is one of the least objectionable and most expansive: who doesn’t want their city to look good and have fun things? Civic greatness usually strives to be apolitical, though it can’t always avoid such situations. Its exponents include the local visitor’s bureau and the chamber of commerce, along with many local politicians who do not have any national ambitions. Its members are usually, though not always, members of a place’s dominant culture, and while they can generate mass followings based on the composition of the local population, this is typically an elite-led form of localism.

Strengths: This instinct produces monumental local projects that often come to define cities in the eyes of their residents. It rewards visionaries and unites people behind a vision, and it promotes a positive narrative about the locality. People usually feel good to be behind its efforts. It can take the best of the traditionalist view and put it to good use, and also draws on any of the others if they help feed the narrative.

Weaknesses: As an elite-led movement, this one may not necessarily be very participatory (hey there, Robert Moses). Sometimes its leaders are more into their own projects (or profits, or political futures) than they are into communities. A vague chase of greatness may also lead a place to assume all investment is good, and pursue projects that displace people or have major environmental concerns or undermine actual local businesses as it seeks to bring in non-local money. Because it rather innocently declares that it’s simply out to support a city, its downsides can often be surreptitious, and may not emerge until it’s too late.

6. Liberal Localism

Members of this final category are comfortable with local pluralism and nuance, and cultivate an intense appreciation for their heterodox locales. They thereby escape the traps of the monocultural traditionalists, and while they often share the general goals of the civic greatness localists, they are also willing to be critical and tell the whole history of a place, warts and all. The founders of the urban planning field, from Louis Mumford to Jane Jacobs, reside somewhere in here, as do community development corporations and other organizations that seek to attract plural voices behind a local vision. It has, on rare occasions, been able to rise to something approximating a heterodox national movement: Robert F. Kennedy was a champion before he was gunned down, and a certain brand of British Toryism has done some dabbling here recently. Barack Obama had roots in this world, but did not really govern as a localist.

Strengths: With apologies to some brilliant figures in religious and subaltern localism, this version has the greatest intellectual power behind it. Its appreciation of complexity allows it to see things that other views do not, and its sympathetic but not uncritical view of humanity allows it to both learn from the past and aspire to something better in the future. It pairs a deep diagnosis of local ills with modest but achievable local action plans, and it can point to plenty of concrete projects that its adherent organizations have gotten off the ground. In theory, it can find common ground with any of the other visions.

Weaknesses: This is generally an elite position limited to people with a lot of education (formal or informal) and local passion; it can also lapse into a tendency toward observation and appreciation instead of direct action. While sympathetic to other left-leaning localisms like the subaltern and crunchy flavors, it likely won’t move at the pace that the adherents of those worldviews desire, while the more conservative localisms will be skeptical of its willingness to include many voices. It can sound pretty in theory but be wickedly difficult to deliver in practice.

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