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A few notes about "localism" - 3/13/19

The fundamental antagonism in capitalist society is between the bourgeoisie - which fights to retain private control of the means of production - and the proletariat, which fights to reclaim social control. This is why class conflict, at its heart, is a war for the abolition of private property. We fight to abolish it not only when it is expressed as an individual right, but also as a corporate right, a national right, or as any other kind of right that contests the sovereignty of the international proletariat. And that also includes assertions of a local right.


Capitalists correctly understand that their politics are built upon the ideological foundation of private property rights, which is why so much of their polemic is organized around defending them. They are, of course, defended in different ways. Conservatives say that private property rights are "god given"; libertarians appeal to a supposed "Non Aggression Principle". Lawyers often defend private property rights through corporations law, which places them in the hands of a legal fiction. Internationally, private property rights are defended through "borders", another fiction that defies popular sovereignty with the construct of national sovereignty.

That discourse of nationalism cannot, historically or politically, be untangled from the discourse of localism. Both defy popular sovereignty by constructing a group identity based on geography and placing them at odds. Both deny the stake that anyone outside of a certain (fundamentally arbitrary) boundary may have a stake in what happens inside of it. Both, in their segregation of humanity into distinct tribes with competing property claims, replicate the ideology of private property - and foster its extension into other domains.

That is why, in the United States, the language of reaction has so often been the language of localism. When our founding patriarchs built the Senate and the electoral college, they justified it as a defense of local prerogatives against the popular mob. When  Confederates fought for slavery, they justified it as a defense of states rights against the tyranny of the Union. When libertarians defend capitalism, they defend it as small local businesses that are optimally positioned to receive price signals that distant beltway bureaucrats would ignore. When nationalists oppose immigration, they invariably invoke local entitlement to jobs and wealth. It is not an accident that they are all speaking the same language.


Left appeals to localism often position it against alienation. This has the advantage of appealing to intuitions about how society has become too complex and too large, about how "distant" we feel from each other and from the levers of power, and so on; it also has a particularly Marxist resonance, with the subtext that there is a body of material analysis behind this kind of objection.

But when Marx writes about alienation, he is not making some in-general objection to social complexity, or to interdependence with distant people, or even with distant people having some say in our shared society. What he is specifically interested in are the kinds of "alienation" that directly result from our lack of control over the means of production. This is the fundamental problem that Marx comes back to as he discusses the different ways that alienation emerges under capitalism: "All these consequences are implied in the statement that the worker is related to the product of labor as to an alien object." [1, emphasis added]

The question, then, is not whether worker control over production will be local - it's whether it will be control. When workers have no control over their labor, they feel no investment in how they are spending their time, in what they have created, in who they have created it for, and in who they have created it with. The task of the socialist is to give them as much control over all of this as we can, not only to give them power but to restore to them a sense of purpose and meaning.

Obviously, it will sometimes make sense to do this by decentralizing control over production as much as possible. To insist that socialism will dictate when workers go to the bathroom or whether they can listen to music is the province of right-wing caricature and red-baiting. Other times, maximizing worker control over production will mean the exact opposite, particularly when production has global consequences. Should your community co-op be allowed to pump greenhouse gasses into the air in the name of "localism"? Of course not, and the reason is simple: this is an aspect of production that effects all workers.

Socialism asserts the right and the authority of the proletariat to make these decisions. It asserts this against any and all competing claims to authority, including local claims. This is how socialism overcomes the alienation of capitalism. How the people will choose to exercise their authority - whether centrally, or by deferring to locals - is a circumstantial question with no in-general answer.

It should be clear, then, how caught up localism is in right-wing assertions of private power, rejections of popular sovereignty, and constructions of nationalist identity. It plays into right-wing efforts to contrast state power with personal power, and (contra Marx) to blame state power for capitalist alienation. Intellectually, these appeals to localism find their home not in the socialist tradition, but in the right flank of anarchism - at best.