What could be new about “New Localism”? (and what’s not)

In a recent Washington Post article Joel Kotkin uses the term “New Localism” to describe a series of current (escalating) shifts in the operative and moral landscape of U.S. everydayness. Not unlike its trampled cousin, New Urbanism, New Localism is, in essence, reactive conservatism with a big smile and even bigger—albeit comforting—words. Kotkin’s New Localism choses familiar concepts like the strengthening of “community”, the virtues of “small town” organization and lifestyles, or the risks of dispersion and dislocation brought about by global dynamics. It’s a story we’ve heard before: local is good, worldly is bad; big tends to be nasty and small is beautiful. But why?

We are falling back into a time of fundamental uncertainty; uncertainty generates insecurity, and insecurity usually promotes conservative tendencies. The U.S. in particular has a longstanding tradition of moving back and forth between isolationism and international involvement. These broad political, social and moral tendencies become evident not only through public policy or in the handling of foreign affairs, but often seep into the organization and production of space. At the scale of the city (or the suburb) isolationism might be expressed in the concentration on personal or family ties, populist distortions of Main Street America and the tainted concept of community itself. All of these issues are at the heart of the New Localist repertoire, with its odes to the Pleasantville life of playhouses and pushcarts and evenings at the philharmonic; a buffered, conflict-free quotidian existence of home offices, “staycations”, local rodeos and farmers’ markets.

Does any of this really promote “community” bonding, or at least transcend the selfish, individualistic nature of consumerist society? Not really. In fact, behind the homey, comfy and seemingly innocuous rhetoric of New Localism lie some very old and serious dangers, including self-absorption, bigotry, and—despite its supposed purpose of bringing people closer—fragmentation.

Regardless of Kotkin’s misleading perspective, the notion of “breaking down” the scale of everydayness into manageable and more grounded units might indeed be crucial for approaching our (near) future agglomerations. New Localism should not be understood as a lifestyle, but as a mindset; a way of providing more focused, immediate and realistic grasp on the things that make our cities or suburbs or exurbs (or whatever) tick. I’m all for downsizing from the usually abstract and overwhelming working concept of “city” into a more specific, landed, focalized spatial unit: neighborhood, barrio, district, enclave, belt, etc.

Still, it’s absurd to understand these as detached, self-sufficient, self-referential nuclei. Today more than ever, nearly every single aspect of our “local” day to day existence is traversed by the “global” . New localists might want to ignore this fact, or even worse, “reverse” it. This is especially evident when they go on about their conservative fantasies of “community” as a condition that relies on a strong physical and cultural proximity, a source of consensus and immutability. Not. A grounded, localized focus doesn’t necessarily have to be at odds with a networked, dispersed functional reality.

According to Kotkin, “localism is neither urban nor anti-urban. At its heart, it represents something larger: a historic American tradition that sees society’s smaller units as vital and the proper focus of most people’s lives.” But he’s wrong. There’s nothing particularly “American” about focusing on “community” or smaller aggregations. Kotkin goes on to affirm that this small-unit type of organization is what good ’ol Tocqueville noted as the main difference between U.S. political structure and its European counterparts. He seems to have skipped the chapter where Alex d.T. writes of another feature, which actually sounds more intimately American. Regarding individuals in democracies, Tocqueville remarks:

They owe nothing to any man, they expect nothing from any man; they acquire the habit of always considering themselves as standing alone, and they are apt to imagine that their whole destiny is in their own hands.

Thus not only does democracy make every man forget his ancestors, but it hides his descendants and separates his contemporaries from him; it throws him back forever upon himself alone and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart.


Anonymous said...

(1) I take your point about the “New Localism” containing danger as well as promise, though I’m not sure you’ve really made the case for exactly how that danger finds expression – I think you’ve more stated that the New Localists suggests one thing, said “Not really” and then moved onto stating the opposite, without explicating how self-absorption, bigotry, and fragmentation appear. Despite that caveat, I think you're right that there is a dangerous side to localism, so I appreciate that portion of the post.

However, I think the charge that there is “nothing particularly ‘American’ about focusing on ‘community’ or smaller aggregations” is a bit unfair. While I would agree with you that there is a nostalgia for a sort of community that was never as unambiguously good as some people (particularly, as you say, conservatives) would like to think it was, I think that the staying power of that mistaken notion in America demonstrates that there is indeed something distinctively American about the notion. The virtue of the citizen-farmer, the vitality of the agrarian frontier and the frontier towns found therein -- these things have been held up by a significant faction in American politics since the very beginning of American politics (see Jefferson, Thomas). Obviously this does not mean that it is the only sort of social arrangement that is distinctively American; we are vast, and we contain multitudes. (And that is one way in which localism becomes dangerous -- when a particular kind of locality -- the small town -- is held up as the only kind of locality that is truly American. Perhaps that is a good part of what you're arguing against.)

I’m probably parsing your post too carefully, as I suspect you would agree with the point that Geoff made at BLDGBLOG a few weeks ago, where he argued that political culture is responsible for or complicit in constructing an imaginary landscape -- "landscapes of nostalgia" -- which then become the terrain on which the political campaign is acted out. The imaginary America our politicians cater to is perhaps not dissimiliar to the American that "New Localists" anticipate the return of.

I would like to defend, though (as I did at BLDGBLOG in the comments and at some length on my blog), the real goods that that imaginary America references. That is, the desire for a sense of community, for close relationships with neighbors, for physical proximity to family and friends, for safe streets and shop-owners we know -- these really are good things, and while the search for them may sometimes take a dangerous form of nostalgia for a past that was exclusive or bigoted, we will get further in our conversations with those who hold on to those values by acknowledging the validity of those values and showing that they can be expressed in other times and places as well, than we do by making blanket arguments against "localism" that risk throwing out the good portions of localism with the bad.

(2) This is just to point out another blog post I thought was insightful, that dealt with the same Kotkin article. Matt Frost at The American Scene notes another problem with Kotkin's argument; where you have argued with whether Kotkin is right that increasing localism is a good thing, Frost notes that Kotkin is being rather unrealistic to expect financial collapse to solve our urban policy problems:

"Hoping that austerity will force us into solving our social problems seems incongruous with what I know of Kotkin and his work, and it’s a lousy mistake for anyone to make. A world of fewer jobs and higher prices will mean longer commutes, a frayed social contract, and tired grandparents. If we arrange our families and our living spaces poorly when affluence gives us choices, we are unlikely to suddenly flourish when those decisions are forced upon us. Hard times won’t compel Americans into becoming their better selves, and if we are heading into some bleak days, it’s best that we all understand that in advance.”

Mario Ballesteros said...

Hey Rob:

Thanks so much for taking time for giving the post some thought and commenting. I have a habit of always wanting to say too much in too little time or space, so I’ll try to clear out some of the things you mention.

I would say that self-absortion, bigotry and fragmentation are at the back-end of the “small town” rhetoric not only in the U.S. but everywhere else where nuclear community is an issue (from the classic Rousseaunian arguments of the virtues of the tribal to the notion “organic” and “sustainable” of ejidos in “deep” Mexico). I didn’t want to express that Kotkin is mistaken for considering the small community as a deeply rooted phenomena in the U.S., but only meant that it’s not an exclusively American issue, and that many other places have their own notions of the virtues of small community. The French case and the Mexican case are just a couple of examples. I also wanted to take his Tocqueville quote and contrast it with the other observation he makes about American politics and social organization: radical individualism. I don’t see the issues Kotkin mentions (going to movies, shopping, vacation, etc) as strong “community” forming alternatives.

I’m not out to disclose the myths of Americana, but I think anyone can recognize that there is more to any myth than just the light side of glory, success and great feats. Just to speak of one of the ones you mention: the frontier myth is seen as a “freeman” expanse into the “wilderness”, when in fact it was a complexly coordinated and promoted political choreography, and involved not only the “conquest of nature” but the displacement of peoples, the open competition for territorial control, big-capital interests (railroads, mines, etc.) and a couple of wars. I think part of the problem is that the light side of myths are boasted and brought in to justify many of the side-effects. We need to be constantly remembered of the “dark side.”

My main problem with the terms of new localists is that they seem to be calling for a “deeper, truer” America that doesn’t coincide with what America has become, and is becoming. Just as you mention, and like Geoff’s post notes, the same issue has been floating around the elections but it is more than a political issue. I can’t stand the “small town” eulogies that don’t recognize that community might include recent immigrant populations, disaffected youths, and all sorts of groups with particular interests that could have stronger ties or identifications with people that are far away. I don’t mind thinking small, but I want to see the small actively linked to the global.

I read the Frost post too, and again, it comes to show juicy and complex (and relevant) the whole issue is becoming. I might try to shoot at it from different angles in other posts. In any case, thanks for the feedback, and keep those comments coming!

Anonymous said...

Definitely; I think we probably agree here (I certainly agree that it is important to always remain aware the dark side of America's collective myths, and probably even more important to remain aware that there is far more to 'America' than any one set of myths can encompass) more than we disagree, and I appreciate the clarifications. Look forward to reading more of your stuff.

Daniel Nairn said...

This is funny to me. I've always thought of localism and buzzwords like "community" as coming from the left. Think Michael Pollan and the local foods movement, agrarian environmentalists like Wendell Berry, the "sustainable communities" crowd. I'm not sure how Kotkin fits into this.

Also, would not localists agree wholeheartedly with your Toqueville quote at the end? I thought the whole point was to overcome the individualistic/consumerist tendency of contemporary American society.

Then again, I think I've heard the word applied in an entirely different way.

Anonymous said...

Daniel -- I don't think you're wrong that there is a strand on the left which emphasizes "localism" and "community", but, while I had not heard the term 'New Localism' before seeing Kotkin's article, I think there's definitely a blending/common purpose between various elements on what would traditionally be thought of as the left and the right of the US political spectrum on these issues. I'm thinking in particular of writers like John Schwenkler and Rod Dreher, who have both made common cause with Michael Pollan lately on food localism. I'm also not sure its really fair to locate Berry on the left. He doesn't really fit too well into the narrow spectrum of acceptable political positions in the US, but I think it is more appropriate to place him more on the right than the left -- agrarian traditionalist I would think is an appropriate label, though you are certainly right that he is also a passionate environmentalist. Obviously your garden-variety corporatist Republican (that's a description, not a pejorative) will not find any particular virtue in localism or community (other than perhaps in the mythical sense referred to above as a electioneering tool), but more heterodox conservatives (I see both Wendell Berry and Russell Kirk's names dropped a lot by localist conservatives) are likely to.

Mario Ballesteros said...

Hey Daniel:

There is certainly a "leftist" mode of the community discourse, but I think Kotkin's "small town" focus is more "right-wing", traditionalist conservative. I don't think "left-wing" localists would be for radical individualism (which is what I actually think is behind the "small town" consumer Kotkin loves so much, instead of an actual focus on "community"). In any case, be it left or right, I think that the nostalgic idealization of "community" or "small town" is something the US and just about everyone else has to get over, or at least reformulate. Funny you guys mention the eat local movement. I was just thinking of writing about locavorism in my next post.

Daniel Nairn said...

Great. Looking forward to your take on locavores. It is an interesting subject.