Towards a Progressive Localism?

Tim Harrison makes the case for localising power.

In mid-July, the government dropped an internal market white paper-sized bomb on the politics of British devolution. As the government tried to protect its ability to make post-Brexit trade deals, the Scottish and Welsh devolved administrations reacted predictably. They accused the government of a power grab and are now working to ensure that it is they, not Westminster, who take back control after EU regulations cease to apply in January.

But it isn't nations in the UK pushing for reorientation away from national governments. There are a broad range of progressive voices calling to localise state power.

Socialists, from the former occupants of Seattle’s Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone to Fabians, covet a decentralised politics. In their vision, communities are empowered to make decisions for themselves, beyond the reach of a centralised state unduly influenced by capital or entrenched power relations.

Institutional liberals have similar ideas. Raghuram Rajan, the influential former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund, used his book, The Third Pillar, to argue that neglect of local communities explains the backlash against globalisation. According to Rajan, only giving these communities more control in politics can save liberal market democracy.

Both sets of views represent clear breaks with 20th century views of municipal government, and even go beyond the expansion of devolution sought by Scotland and Wales. Instead, they represent a play for a new politics where local communities are given the power to make a range of political decisions beyond existing state structures. This is commonly called ‘localism’.

Progressive promoters of localism are tied together by a common analysis that the age of Brexit, Trump and Duda are a community response to a globalised world enforced by a distant state. From this analysis, flows an assumption that localism would represent a step back from the right wing brink. An admirable goal, perhaps. But it’s not clear that this would necessarily be the case.

In Why Liberalism Failed, Patrick Deenan makes a conservative case for localism. Like Raghuram, Deenan identifies the neglect of local communities as a driver Western discontent with liberal democracy. Unlike Raghuram, Deenan doesn’t want to save it.

In Deenan’s view, social democracy and free trade are two sides of the liberal coin, and liberals have spent the post-war period using governments and markets to destroy local cultural practices. In their place, there is a world where activities from finance to sex are regulated by the state rather than traditional norms.

Deenan’s prescription for curing this illness? A politics based in local communities. A politics where social and economic life is regulated by the traditions built by groups of people who know each other and have mutual political interests. This also appeals to the legal academic, Joseph Blocher, who advocates localism as means of protecting gun rights in rural American communities.

These localisms have the potential to be profoundly regressive. In some communities, cultural ties will inform an inclusive, forward-thinking politics. But in many they won’t.

It isn't hard to imagine that some communities would use their newfound political agency to close themselves off to ethnic minorities and migrants, or declare Polish-style LGBT free zones. Less dramatically, there’s the potential to further embed and deepen economic inequalities between different communities.

It isn’t clear how progressive localists would avoid this outcome. A liberal response might be to build increasingly complicated, if localised, constitutional structures, likely including deliberative democracy. Given the localists’ assumption that a distant, complex state is part of the problem, this might not be enough.

On the left, even less thought has been given to these issues beyond the Marxist assumption that a more local, classless society would address many other antagonisms.

Perhaps there is a world in which localism promotes an open, progressive politics and resists its darker potential. If that world is to become a reality, these issues need considerably more thought than it’s been given by its progressive backers to date.

Tim Harrison is a policy researcher in the not-for-profit sector and a delegate to Unite's Young Members Committee for the London & Eastern Region.

He tweets at @TimHarrisonEW

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