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. An entire chapter is devoted to movements by tenants increasing their bargaining power vis-a-vis landlords; while the deck was certainly stacked against them, it seemed to be less utterly so than in today’s era of gentrification.

It should be clarified that the book’s approach is far from completely apolitical. While the strategy outlined steers almost entirely clear of conventional electoral politics and political pressure groups, it is far from purist in rejecting state reforms (to the point of endorsing rent control!) and includes the taking on of political functions from local government, albeit in a manner reminiscent of Proudhon’s dissolving of government into society. And the descriptions of neighborhood governments flexing their muscles sometimes come off as petty authoritarian (which would seem to be part of the appeal for many), though far less than taken for granted today and tempered by the decentralist aspects. Like Murray Bookchin’s municipalism, which it strongly parallels, it can be seen as soft on local state power. Samuel Edward Konkin III’s understandable view of Hess as a “neighborhood statist” at the time parallels anarchist criticisms of Bookchin.

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.

Readers familiar with Hess from other periods of his viewpoint-shifting life may be wondering how it compares to his other writings. It is less personal, more conventionally structured, and containing very little of the “enthusiasm and respect for entrepreneurs” his final book lamented his earlier self not having. While he’s moved far from the anarcho-capitalism of “The Death of Politics“, let alone his Goldwaterite days, he maintains a distrust of elites and big government, and a petit-bourgeois friendliness towards non-big business.

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.

Conscience can be a strong motivating factor, but it is also true that the Vietnam War taught us that there is little staying power derived from using morality as the driving force… The lofty ideals of a conscience confront the mundane bureaucratic regulations of the state. (39)

Identity politics, then on the ascendance, was still associated with decentralist and participatory strands which the book is optimistic about. And it would benefit in turn from them: “Serious problems could develop if a choice must be made between supporting the salaries of a black organization as opposed to a white one, or a gay group as opposed to a women’s group. But if the gay organization needs a mimeograph machine”, it and the others would both benefit from pooling it as a common resource (77).

In terms of the rise of an academic left which, despite lip service to Marxism, deals with everything but the means of production, there is a sharp critique of the strategy of raising class consciousness:

The theory is attractive, although probably more so because it permits most people to avoid doing hard work on the local level while they try to refine their rhetoric and ideas until they achieve the final “correct” position. But in a more basic sense it’s wrong-headed because it does not relate to people where they are, and particularly does not do so through an optimistic vision of the future. The sectarianism of the left is often caused by too much talking and too little doing. Picky fights about dogma tend to subside as people work together in some productive enterprise. Or at least the arguments are over very real things. What should be done when a worker breaks a leg and the company refuses compensation is a question that lends itself to much more concrete analysis than what should be done when the workers take over the factory and the army comes in. (42)

While even then, much of the American left was viscerally hostile towards decentralization, the decentralist tendency was far more robust. The acceptance in the discussion of healthcare of the need for patient understanding and control, not just the availability and affordability of service by experts, was far more resonant. Thus little of the book is spent in a defensive crouch. There was already a tendency of assuming that decentralization would go hand in hand with racism, and the authors defend their devolutionary proposals against charges that they would lead to “parochial and racist and illogical” schools (71) and “neighborhood parochialism and small-town isolationism and prejudice” (143), but it was less entrenched in an era where civil rights was seen as emblematic of local organizing and community control was still largely associated with an active Black Power movement.

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.

With the book’s publication being near the high-water mark of the influence of decentralism, it is emblematic of its rapid decline that such an approach has been almost completely forgotten, even by the survivors of the environment it came from. As the IPS shifted away from the decentralist strands of the New Left, its view of taxes went from “a sort of tithe” (74) to a book enumerating “excellent reasons not to hate taxes”. Aside from a small circle of fans and historians, libertarians half-remember Hess at best, despite his undeniable historical importance, and are puzzled by his lack of enthusiasm for big business and mass markets. 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)

(That last paragraph is a bit different than what one would expect from an opponent of big government, ain’t it?) And the pretense that only conservatives are against “liberal elitism” is far harder to maintain in the presence of a real left that says stuff like this:

Liberals say that smarter people can better represent everyone’s interests. But that just means that the supposedly smarter people can say they better represent those interests. They certainly don’t go out and interview everybody. They may assume that they don’t have to do that because, after all, everyone is pretty much alike. But we know that is simply not true, from experience, and even the existence of the liberal, or elitist, position says clearly that they themselves don’t believe we are all alike. They see themselves, at least, as different. (12)

And down-to-earth causes can unite people across political lines. Conservative James J. Kilpatrick, at what started as a partisan political debate with Hess, recalled that “before the evening was over we were talking about fish in his basement and tomatoes on his roof.” (43)

Given the place of environmentalism in today’s culture wars, it is illuminating to get a reminder of the pre-greenwashed state of the left of the time:

During a meeting a group of avowed Marxists who had been working with automobile workers in Detroit, trying to organize them in opposition to their union and company, were questioned about their ultimate goals. They responded, “To take over General Motors.” “What then?” they were asked. That was enough, they answered; the workers would control production and share in the wealth they themselves have produced. That was said to be “the revolution.”Yet, if we see General Motors as a part of the problem, and the multiplication of steel-bodied, internal-combustion-engine vehicles as contributing to our societal breakdown, a mere change in ownership would not necessarily mean real social change. (119)

(And the modern left would be content with getting a job there.) 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)

While acknowledgement of the non-economic costs of large scale production have started to go into the mainstream, liberals who never question their economic efficiency are stuck hand-wringing, and many buy-small leftists simply duck the question altogether. 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 fromt heir most convenient and profitable items rather than bothering to make products that people genuinely need. Their most imaginative efforts are in marketing, not in production of high-quality goods. Even the large profits of huge corporations may not be a sign of business acumen and efficiency. Many large enterprises get their profits as a result of their political influence, through tax write-offs and subsidies, import quotas, and defense contracts, not through competition in the marketplace. (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.

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