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Is Local Democracy Possible in the Global Era?
(Image: Democracy Collaborative)

Is Local Democracy Possible in the Global Era?

(Image: Democracy Collaborative)

Part of the Series

Over the last several decades, community-building themes and paradigms related to the Pluralist Commonwealth vision have attracted increasing interest and community level governance, important support.

This “Chapter Twelve” is part sixteen of Truthout’s continuing series of excerpts from Gar Alperovitz’s “America beyond Capitalism.” This is an exclusive Truthout series from political economist and author Gar Alperovitz. We are publishing weekly installments of the new edition of “America Beyond Capitalism,” a visionary book first published in 2005, whose time has come. Donate to Truthout and receive a free copy.

Must communities – and therefore community democracy – rise and fall with every shift in the global economic winds? Can Americans ever really take charge of their common community life, given the realities of the modern political economy?

Beyond this, might we have the wherewithal – the experience, knowledge, political sophistication – to one day achieve the idea of community?

Historical perspective provides insight into a critical economic trend which suggests that the economic stability required for a new community-based democratic vision is likely to become increasingly feasible in the coming period.

Fully 31 percent of the nation’ s nonfarm workforce were involved in manufacturing at the midpoint of the twentieth century, in 1950. By 1970 such employment had slipped to 25 percent. By 1990 it was 16 percent. As of 2003 those working in the manufacturing sector numbered only 11 percent of the labor force – and this figure is projected to decline to approximately 9 percent by 2045. Some experts expect that a mere 5 to 7 percent of the economy will be involved in manufacturing long before that time.

The U.S. economy has for many years been dominated by services – a sector that is far more locally oriented and much more stable than manufacturing. Importantly, many service-sector industries are also much less dependent upon – and responsive to the vagaries and instabilities of – global trade. Only approximately 5 to 7 percent of U.S. services are exported.

Despite other problems associated with the larger trends, that more stable, locally oriented economic development is increasingly favored by sectoral changes even in an era of increasing globalization is documented in recent studies of the already high degree of localization of economic activity. “About 60 percent of U.S. economic activity is local and provides residents with the goods and services that make their lives comfortable,” observes economist Thomas Michael Power. “This includes retail activities; personal, repair, medical, educational, and professional services; construction; public utilities; local transportation; financial institutions; real estate; and government services. Thus almost all local economies are dominated by residents taking in each other’ s wash.”

Power reports that locally oriented economic activity increased from 42 percent in 1940 to 52 percent in 1980. Over the roughly two-decade period between 1969 and 1992 “the aggregates of retail and wholesale sales, services, financial and real estate, and state and local government” have been making up “a larger and larger percentage of total earnings, rising from 52 to 60 percent.”

Paul Krugman offers a summary judgment: “Although we talk a lot these days about globalization, about a world grown small, when you look at the economies of modern cities what you see is a process of localization: A steadily rising share of the work force produces services that are sold only within that same metropolitan area.”

The long-term sectoral trends also have reduced the importance of location-related efficiency considerations that conflict with policies aimed at greater community stability. Opponents of policies designed to help local community economies have traditionally held that firms must be allowed to locate wherever managers think best. Many such arguments, however, are implicitly based on the assumption of a manufacturing-dominated economy – that is, one in which economic activity historically had to locate near raw material sources and transportation hubs, starting with water and evolving to rail and air.

Some service industries (e.g., international banking) require networks of related businesses, but most are not nearly as wedded to places that happen to provide access to natural resources or to cheap transportation. In addition, advances in communication technologies have made it economic for firms to locate in a number of different areas.

Community-oriented strategies throughout the nation now regularly build upon these realities to achieve greater stability. Some stress bottom-up development utilizing conventional tax, loan, procurement, and other strategies. Others emphasize measures that enhance the local community’s physical and social environment so as to attract professionals and others looking for a supportive community in which to live and raise children. Successfully attracting new arrivals, in turn, stimulates new services, construction, and other economic activity. Attracting retirees and their pension income flows can also help bolster community stabilization efforts – a factor of increasing importance as the baby-boom generation reaches retirement age.

In recent years numerous other policies have been developed to retain jobs, build greater local self-reliance, and increase local economic “multipliers” so that money spent in a community recirculates to produce additional jobs. In addition to tax, loan, training, and other traditional approaches:

• State governments now regularly target public procurement to boost local economies. Community-based small businesses, for instance, can receive a 5 percent preference on bids for state contracts in California, New Mexico, and Alaska. Louisiana allows a 7 percent preference for products “produced, manufactured, grown, harvested, or assembled” in the state.

• Many cities increasingly use public contracts to help neighborhood-anchored Community Development Corporations – and to simultaneously improve the delivery of government services (roughly half the municipalities in a recent survey).

• Publicly sponsored “buy local” programs are also widespread. The Rural Local Markets Demonstration in central North Carolina identifies products, services, parts, and raw materials that manufacturers would like to purchase locally – and then assists other local firms with the development of such products and/or helps establish new local firms to fill the supply gap.

• Pension funds now also regularly seek ways to enhance local economic health. More than half the states have established Economically Targeted Investment programs to target investment to help communities. Several independent labor-backed programs – for example, the Landmark Growth Capital Fund and the Pittsburgh Regional Heartland Fund – also involve geographically targeted investments.

As we have noted, an obvious line of convergence has also emerged between stabilization strategies and many new institutional efforts. Precisely because worker-owned firms, community development corporations, co-ops, municipal enterprises, and related efforts are increasingly regarded as important to achieving broader community economic goals, they have received additional backing from many states and localities.

Research on the costs of “throwing away cities” has added to the economic arguments that favor new localist strategies. Allowing existing public and private investments in transportation, office buildings, schools, homes, and other local infrastructure to go to waste when companies leave town for small (possible) private advantage – and then having to rebuild them elsewhere – obviously creates very large expenses that, if saved, can significantly offset the costs of community-oriented policies.

One recent estimate is that taxpayers spent roughly $65 billion (2001 dollars) to pay for the infrastructure and other capital costs needed to serve individuals who moved out of declining cities to other locations over the 1980 to 1999 period. Work by University of Maryland researcher Tom Ricker suggests that adding private costs (e.g., redundant houses, stores, factories, etc.) brings the figure to over $350 billion – not including lost tax revenues and increased social spending borne by specific communities when jobs decline and citizens leave town.

Unusual and often unexpected political alliances have developed around more controversial issues of importance to community stability – including the left-right coalition that blocked several “free trade” initiatives. After the passage of NAFTA in 1993, Congress refused Clinton administration requests to reestablish expired “fast-track” authority, which facilitates presidential trade negotiations. Again, fast-track legislation proposed by the Clinton administration in 1997 was withdrawn when it became clear that it faced substantial opposition in both parties, and as concern about the proposed Multilateral Agreement on Investment began to develop force.

Although the Bush administration won approval of such authority (calling it “Trade Promotion Authority”) in 2002, it did so only after yielding several major points of contention – especially those that impacted local communities. Among other things, Republicans from textile-producing states (in particular, North Carolina) secured language requiring that duty-free textile imports from the Caribbean, Africa, or Latin America be made with fabrics dyed and finished in the United States.

The Bush administration also yielded much of the substance of the issue in connection with support for agricultural subsidies and protectionist measures for the steel industry – in large measure because of the economic threat to communities in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Given ongoing unemployment problems and the growing pressure from both left and right, the likelihood is for more rather than less support for trade measures of importance to specific communities in the future.

In connection with virtually every policy advance – local, state, and federal – there has been conflict, interest-group bargaining, and debate concerning effectiveness and efficiency. Viewed in a larger historical perspective, what is significant is the long-term trend. Detailed scholarly studies of numerous specific policies confirm the expanding use and refinement of a variety of new tools aimed in one way or another at community economic stability. “Sometime after the mid-1970s,” observes urban policy expert Peter K. Eisinger, especially on the state and local level there emerged “an intense preoccupation with economic development that has been marked by a level of consensus and expectation unusual in American politics.”

The growing force and political appeal of locally oriented strategies is also evident in organizing efforts by engaged citizens. Although many studies show a decline in national citizen participation, the United States in fact is in the midst of an extraordinary resurgence of local community-building efforts. A recent comprehensive survey by professors Carmen Sirianni and Lewis Friedland confirms the findings of many scholars, and concludes that Americans at the local level “have created forms of civic practice that are far more sophisticated in grappling with complex public problems and collaborating with highly diversified social actors than have ever existed in American history.”

The long-standing largely black BUILD alliance in Baltimore, for instance, challenges local insurance and home mortgage redlining, builds and rehabilitates homes, raises money for student scholarships, and – importantly – registers thousands of voters. Since 1976 Citizens for Community Improvement in Iowa has spearheaded opposition to corporate concentration in state agriculture, helped create financing for small farms and low-income rural and urban housing, and fought for enforcement of environmental air and water regulations. A youth organizing project works on projects ranging from gun violence and crime education to drug addiction.

In San Antonio, COPS – Communities Organized for Public Service – combines research and planning with public mobilizations of Hispanic American voters and other low-income groups. In the last several decades COPS campaigns have produced funds for libraries, playgrounds, schools, street paving, sewers, flood protection, and other infrastructure improvements. COPS has also forced support for health clinics, state funding of a community college, and federal backing for affordable housing programs from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Taken together, COPS’ s organizing efforts have secured an estimated $1 billion for neighborhood development from these and other sources.

New forms of local labor-community alliances have broken down traditional barriers between organizations in several cities. In Oakland, California, the Labor Immigrant Organizers Network (LION) helped the hotel employees’ union, HERE Local 2850, successfully challenge corporate efforts to prevent union organizing. In turn, the union supported LION’ s efforts to organize local residents around immigration issues.

In many cities – from Boston and Baltimore to St. Louis and Los Angeles – “living wage” campaigns have succeeded in requiring public agencies and their contractors to pay a wage that allows employees to support themselves and their families, commonly $9 to $10 per hour, plus health benefits. Cincinnati established a floor of $8.70 per hour with health benefits ($10.20 an hour without benefits) for all city employees or any business with a city contract over $20,000. New York’ s law requires a wage of $9.10 an hour plus benefits (or $10.60 an hour without benefits) for about fifty thousand workers.

Several related initiatives have achieved formal structures of greater democratic participation within larger municipalities. In Portland, Oregon, each of ninety largely autonomous neighborhood associations drafts its own plans detailing the form of development that is acceptable to its neighborhood. The city of St. Paul, Minnesota, has seventeen elected District Councils, each of which has considerable authority – including zoning powers and control over the allocation of certain city services and capital expenditures.

In Seattle, a Neighborhood Matching Fund allocates public funds for neighborhood-initiated projects when local residents match such support with their own contributions. Neighborhood District Councils made up of representatives of neighborhood organizations make specific recommendations for project funding. In Birmingham, Alabama, each of the city’s ninety-five neighborhood associations makes decisions about how public funds will be spent – with each also receiving an allocation of federal Community Development Block Grant funds.

Political scientists Jeffery Berry, Kent Portney, and Ken Thompson – who have studied St. Paul, Birmingham, Portland, and Dayton, Ohio, in depth – conclude that such efforts alter the balance of power between businesses and neighborhoods. Although “general” participation does not increase because of formal changes of structure, there is an increase in “strong participation activities” – for example, “being involved in neighborhood or issue groups, contacting such groups,” or “working with others to solve problems” (as opposed, for instance, to merely “working in social or service groups or contacting government officials”). A telling outcome is that it is commonly all but impossible for developers to win approval of projects that are strongly opposed by a neighborhood association – even when the association does not have formal power to reject proposals. In general, Berry, Portney, and Thompson observe: “Neighborhood-based government draws easily on people’s sense of identity with the area they live in. People know they are going to have frequent interactions with their neighbors, so even if they attend meetings infrequently they have a powerful incentive to think about long-term relationships in addition to the policy questions at hand.”

None of this is to say that a new day of participatory democracy has arrived. In most cities power still largely resides in the hands of traditional economic interests. In some cases, too, civil society organizations have lost credibility and are deeply compromised politically. It is to say, however, that there is growing evidence of change and of new longer-term possibilities. In many communities the developing trend of activist organizing and local policy change has followed a logic similar to that which has forced a reassessment in connection with a number of other matters of strategic importance.

An inability to achieve solutions to growing problems through traditional means has repeatedly driven home a painful reality. In case after case, the choice presented has been between no solution, and the ultimately critical decision to begin the arduous long-term process of rebuilding, step by step – at home, within reach, from the bottom up.

Over the last several decades, community-building themes and paradigms related to the Pluralist Commonwealth vision have also attracted increasing interest and important support from writers, academics, and activists representing different philosophical perspectives. We have noted the emphasis given such ideas by progressives ranging from Hannah Arendt and Jane Jacobs to Benjamin Barber and Michael Sandel. Along with many modern conservatives, William Schambra of the Bradley Foundation holds that “conservatism wasted much of [the twentieth] century futilely extolling the virtues of rugged individualism and the untrammeled marketplace in the face of America’ s manifest yearning for some form of community.”

Similarly, communitarian theorist Amitai Etzioni echoes the oft-heard judgment that the “most common antidotes to mass society” are “intermediary bodies” – but Etzioni quickly goes on to stress, “It is often overlooked . . . that many of these bodies are not the vaunted voluntary associations, with their meager bonding power . . . but communities, with their much stronger interpersonal attachments.”

Environmentalists Herman Daly, Thomas Prugh, and Robert Costanza begin with a different question but come to a similar conclusion: “[M]ost of the individual behaviors and attitudes that support sustainability are best nurtured at the community level. The political structure and process necessary for a regionally, nationally, and globally sustainable society must be built on a foundation of local communities.”

Black scholars on both the right and the left now commonly also emphasize community-based themes. Thus, the conservative activist and writer Robert Woodson stresses, “The lives of young people cannot be salvaged through outside intervention that ignores the necessity of strengthening their communities.” The progressive urban affairs and planning expert Sigmund C. Shipp emphasizes the importance of cooperative community-wide development: “The depth of the dilemmas that black communities face requires strategies that focus on the entire group and the total problem, that is, the collection of factors that constitute the quality of life of a community.”

Harry Boyte adds that such themes help reenergize a sense of commitment to “public work” in general. And Betty Friedan, speaking for many feminists, writes, “I’ve spent 25 to 30 years focusing on women’s issues. . . . I see no solutions in terms of power blocks. What is needed is a new vision of community, a higher vision of the good of a whole community that transcends polarization of groups. Groups have been effective in the past in achieving equality. Now we’re in a position where the only way progress can continue is through a new definition of community.”

Many analysts believe the growing interest at various levels in rebuilding the foundations of community is ultimately traceable to the psychological dead end that individualism has reached for large numbers of Americans, and from a profound – and ongoing – personal reassessment process: “[M]any of those we talked to,” sociologist Robert Bellah observes, “realize that though the processes of separation and individuation were necessary to free us from the tyrannical structures of the past, they must be balanced by a renewal of commitment and community if they are not to end in self-destruction.”

Research by University of Chicago sociologist Robert K. Sampson offers a summary overview. Sampson finds that “calls for a return to community values” now appear “everywhere” – especially (and, he urges, significantly) among the parents of the new generation: “Whatever the source, there has emerged a widespread idea that something has been lost in American society and that a return to community is in order. . . . Seeking an alternative to mainstream institutions such as old-line churches, urban sprawl, and market-induced conspicuous consumption, the baby boom is driving unforeseen demand for the good that is deemed community.”

The point is particularly important among those who will inevitably take over leadership of the nation – and of its communities – in coming decades. A recent survey found that two-thirds of young adults currently already do volunteer work in their own cities – and that a majority agree with the slogan “Think Globally, Act Locally.” Two-thirds believe “the best way to make a difference is to get involved in your local community, because that’s where you can best solve the problems that are really affecting people.”

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