Decentralization and the Poverty of Our Political Language

Political dialogue suffers mightily from a lack of categorizational clarity. This problem is attributable in part to the slipperiness of political concepts, which implicate and blend (often carelessly) the empirical, the historical, and the normative. To blame, too, is the cultural phenomenon of politics as entertainment or sport, team-rooting being more important than truth-finding or genuine understanding. Once one has settled upon a team, he systematically shields himself from any information that could compromise his allegiance to it, as even brain scans have been able to demonstrate. Still, conceptual or categorizational clarity (if you’ll pardon the mouthful) is worth pursuing if we aspire to more than talking past one another or angrily exchanging partisan talking points.

One who consciously identifies his political thinking with decentralism has a particularly hard time finding his place within today’s ideological taxonomy. To whose cause does the decentralist join his strength, the left or the right? Liberals or conservatives? Decentralists argue that centralization and its massive institutions encourage and engender unaccountability, that the proper goals of socially beneficial human organization are obstructed rather than served by all-consuming centralization. As the anarchist intellectual Paul Goodman pointed out, “In a centralized system, the function to be performed is the goal of the organization rather than of any persons (except as they identify with the organization). The persons are personnel.” Though clearly a man of the left, when Goodman discusses the “centralizing style of organizing” he doesn’t sound anything like today’s liberals and progressives, who have made of rigid hierarchy and centralization through distant, monolithic institutions practically a religion. Indeed, he sounds very much like today’s libertarians, except that his analyses are filled with trenchant criticisms of existing capitalism, which he perceptively contrasts with “Adam Smith’s economics.” If Goodman’s drawing of this distinction comes as a surprise to today’s political left (however defined), it shouldn’t, for there has always been, particularly in the United States, a tradition of market-oriented left-wing individualism.

Strong decentralist currents are an important part of the DNA of both the left and the right, just as are the opposite forces; this is one of the many reasons why the labels “left-wing” and “right-wing,” by themselves, can’t clarify or explain very much of substance, why they fail to express anything particularly meaningful about the arrangement of the social and political order. German National Socialism and Italian Fascism are examples of what we might call right-wing centralism, while American free-market libertarianism might be an example of right-wing decentralism. On the other side, Maoism, Soviet Communism, and the twentieth century’s various other forms of authoritarian communism may be regarded as left-wing centralism, with classical anarchism, certain localist and anti-globalization movements, and aspects of the cooperative movement perhaps understood as cases of left-wing decentralism.

Yet even this attempt at classification seems to fall apart upon inspection. It is not at all clear, for example, what it is about libertarianism that places it on the political right, other than, perhaps, the fact that it is putatively a reaction, at least in the American context, against Progressivism and New Deal Liberalism, neither of which itself arguably belongs on the left. Similarly, definitions of Nazism and Fascism that associate them with the right, thus failing to recognize the socialist extraction of both, seem extraordinarily inadequate and tendentious. We’re left with a puzzle, the lingering feeling that our need to classify in terms of left and right may actual obscure more than it illuminates.

Today, libertarians may be foremost among the flag-bearers of decentralism, though their role as earnest defenders of global corporate capitalism detracts from their decentralism. Indeed, much of the left’s anti-corporate and anti-capitalist message is historically bound to decentralism, to an opposition to monopoly power and grants of special privilege to the rich, together with a preference for local and cooperative forms of production. In the late nineteenth century and through the twentieth, decentralism fell out of favor and the global socialist movement embraced political and “industrial gigantism,” possessed by a spirit that transcended political ideology during that period, that of treating hierarchy and centralization as the scientific way. In his biography of the first self-described anarchist, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, George Woodcock argues that the political left took a wrong turn “in accepting so uncritically the phenomenon of large-scale and centralized industrial organization.” Proudhon, whose anarchism incorporated a radicalized federalism and decentralism, has become more relevant than ever “now that we know all the social, economic, and ecological evils of industrial gigantism.”

Proudhon and American individualists that followed him (Benjamin Tucker, for example) were keen to point out that market economies are not inherently or necessarily capitalist economies. Much depends on how we define capitalism, whether we treat it as just another way to express the notion of free markets or define it in terms of inequality, exploitation, and privilege (as socialists of all stripes have tended to do). We won’t get very far in a conversation or a debate until it is clear that we’re using the same language, and too often we aren’t. The current moment in American political life seems to call for a renewed interest in decentralist ideas, if only as a point from which to start real conversations. In his introduction to E.F. Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful, Theodore Roszak remarks, “Bigness is the nemesis of anarchism, whether the bigness is that of public or private bureaucracies, because from bigness comes impersonality, insensitivity, and a lust to concentrate abstract power.” Notwithstanding the fact that today’s incoherent political categories would make anarchism and conservatism antitheses, there is certainly a current of Kirkian conservatism about which the very same thing could be said.

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