Thursday, October 30, 2014

Mid-Sized Meditations #5: Conservatism, Localism, and the Mittelpolitan Problem

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

This morning, I completed a series of lectures and discussions with a local civic group here in Wichita. The topic for this morning was the upcoming elections, but in the end, the only thing just about everyone wanted to talk about was the upcoming sales tax vote. That didn't surprise me much--I'd spoken to another community group just two days before, and most of them wanted to talk about the sales tax vote as well. To which I can only say: great! This city has shown a surprisingly amount of citizen engagement and even outright passion this election season--this whole year, really--and I'm happy to have been an observer and sometimes participant in it.

Of course, that's the political and civic wonk inside me talking, the one which delights in democratic involvement no matter what the outcome. There remains one basic question: what if all that local energy is being turned towards efforts that actually, in fact, hurt one's own locality? That's the accusation being made by the "Yes" camp in the sales tax fight: that those who oppose it--and, truth be told, they're probably going to win the vote--have no faith in their city, and no willingness to invest in its future. Frankly, it's an accusation I find persuasive (despite readily acknowledging both 1) the fact that sales taxes are regressive and a poor option for raising funds, and 2) that I have little doubt that real estate moguls and big construction interests are likely going to soak up that portion of sales tax dollars nominally budgeted for "job promotion"). I've never pretended--to myself or anyone else, I hope--that my radical localist-socialist-anarchist-populist democratic side doesn't get regularly trumped by a compromised progressive/"good government" mentality: I'm a believer in locally responsive public schools, in environmentally responsible farm policies, in democratically egalitarian health insurance programs, and, short of genuinely criminal inefficiencies along the way, I'm willing to pay taxes for all of them (and I think you should be willing too). Obviously, though, many people around here don't feel that way.

Again and again, in both the groups I spoke to this week, the issue of "trust" came up. The root of the complaint is pretty simple: Wichita, these folks argued, may be a fairly large city, but it's also a city with a fairly small and insular group of leaders, who have been around long enough for most of us to get to know them, or at least to get to know someone who knows them, or who has worked for them or with them. And the trust in or affection for these people is pretty minimal. One individual suggested to me that Wichita is still a "tribal" city, with pretty clearly defined leaders of various petty factions who basically much run the show--and you're either on their side (and thus you enjoy the blessings of the city's largess, and see your preferred issues and candidates triumph over and over again), or you're not (and thus you don't). I'm not sure how one could empirically demonstrate that this is true or not, but if it is true, it suggests a particular, shall we say, mittelpolitan problem, one which James Madison's argument in Federalist #10 speaks to: if a city grows too large for genuine affection to exist between leaders and citizens, that vacuum in familiarity is going to occupied by powerful players who can command sufficient factional support to be able to ostracize those small groups who don't agree with them. The Madisonian solution, obviously, is to extend oneself more, to grow larger, so the tribal mentality is transcended by the multiplying scale and diversity of the city and a true metropolitan environment emerges. The possibility of a consensus born of trust may have been lost, but at least there would no longer be the abiding suspicion that one's community was a insular playhouse for a few big wigs.

"Extending" a city, though, is easier said than done. The data seems to suggest that growing cities hit certain limits and end up clumping together in a certain mid-sized range, with breakouts being notable but rare. Perhaps that reflects, at least in part, the public policy difficulty in harnessing the tools of expansion and investment as one transitions from a fairly homogenous, smaller city where participatory consensus is at least a theoretical possibility, to a larger, more diverse metropolitan center where old ideas about democratic government have been fully transcended by Madisonian interest group efficiency (such as it may be). One way of talking about these cities which endure in the middle is "conservative." Indeed, that label came up multiple times in my conversations with these civic groups: Wichita is a "conservative" city, and they weren't talking about (or at least weren't only talking about) Republican-party-style American "conservatism." No, they meant that it was a city that was cautious and protective and conservative; not a city of risk, a city broadly suspicious of untested innovations. Presumably there could be a great advantage to this mentality: there would be a focus on the wise management of one's resources, and an unwillingness to support extensive and unexpected initiatives.

But on the other hand, if one is--as every America city, and indeed probably every industrialized city everywhere in the world, surely is--captured by a global economy of specialization which makes actual autarky impossible, then it seems plausible that a lack of innovation might in practice only mean that local economic actors will, instead, be impelled to simply continue with well-established functions. This would, incidentally, be one way to keep the same old tribal factions in positions of influence. And this would, if one takes a look at Wichita, and the way a huge portion of the city's total expenses our eaten up by maintaining a single transportation corridor which developers keep building on to, seem to describe out city fairly well as well.

Thus we come to the most difficult urban problem we face locally, and which many other cities face. The socio-economic logic of what sustains cities is, with relatively few exceptions, bound up in practices and technologies that are difficult to operate on a small scale. So there is a drive to expand, and well-positioned tribal leaders will push for, administer, and benefit from that expansion. But that expansion will hit limits, and become repetitive and more environmentally costly, without innovation--whether driven by external forces and trends, or originating from within. Absent those external forces, expansion beyond a particular point will require finding the democratic trust to innovate beyond the bounds informally laid out by those aforementioned entrenched interests--and yet if the conservative attitude of those who live in such cities was formed (as of course it would have been) by the context of that initially-growing-but-now-leveled-off city, why would that level of trust exist?

Recently there has been much discussion about conservatism and urbanism--can there really be a "conservative" notion of urban living, and if there is, what would that notion contribute to life in and the management of our nation's cities? If by "conservatism" we simply mean the preservation of the local and the traditional, then I'm not sure I can give a positive answer to that question. That kind of determined commitment requires a degree of independence and autarky which no urban area in our world of specialization could possibly manage; cities can only survive by embracing their own anarchic potential, for good or ill, and that means transformation and conflict and change. Political life, though, is about managing change, and that makes anti-statists and anti-centralists and anti-federalists of all sorts cringe. Management! Far better to embrace the local- and self-disciplined liberty of the agrarian than something which involves government. I can understand the appeal of this, because it enables us to uncomplicatedly (or at least theoretically so) to grasp at immediate realizations of local knowledge, affection, and--yes--trust. I, too, like what Bill Kauffman has to say:

[I]f you wanna change the world you’ve got to do it within your own ambit. Within your own circle of love. Anything grander--more far-reaching--and you’re dealing with people not as flesh and blood but as constituents, as soldiers, as numbers. You wind up shipping them off to war or herding them into public housing projects—always for their own good, of course. This doesn’t mean shun politics. It does mean, from my angle of vision, that the only meliorative political acts are those which decentralize, which devolve power to the most local levels: to the small community, to the family, to the individual. To the human scale--the only scale that can measure a person’s worth.

That's powerful, and true. But also an invitation to stagnation, distrust, and all sorts of troubles of the sort which drove Madison to turn viciously (and unfairly) on the state and local governments which developed during and immediately after America's revolution: the trouble of the petty tyrant, of the--dare I say it?--local tribal chief. Anyone who has paid even slight attention to the conflicts, protests, and violence which has sprung up in Ferguson, MO, over the past several months knows--because it has been pointed out in news reports again and again and again and again--that so of these problems have arisen because St. Louis County is a case of localism gone mad, with nearly one hundred tiny municipalities, some less than a mile square, surviving off the extraction of traffic fines and late payments from mostly impoverished (and mostly minority) citizens and, of course, from those unlucky motorists who get nailed by the cops from Bella Villa or Velda City or some other municipality that luckily was able to grab a 1/4 mile of I-70 in its borders.

It would be easy, I suppose, to insist that one's own decentralized locality is entirely different from these parasitic tiny urban enclaves--that it is, in Kauffman's terms, truly worthy of being loved for what it captures and holds within itself. But doesn't that very language suggest that, if something is to be worthy of our affection and attachment, it needs of have such a scale--and, given today's capitalist economic realities, therefore be innovative and trusting enough--so as to be able to hold onto something loveable? I see no easy answers here--only the realization that urban localities can become genuinely unlovely if they cannot work out ways to balance conservative sensibilities with something a little more trusting in the face of inevitable change. This is not to claim that the human scale isn't worth holding up as an ideal; on the contrary, it is. Local knowledge will always be more supporting of civic virtue, I think, than the expertise of the specialist. But humans are political animals, and they form political communities to manage their own affairs, and that means being willing to risk actual "management" on behalf of specialized tasks (as is the case with our sales tax, and the idea of using to raise money behalf of repairing our local aquifer, upgrading roads, funding public transportation, and, yes, subsidizing business start-ups and relocations). Figuring out what kind of management is appropriate for one's own place, and being willing to accept risks and changes when it is clear that one style of management can no longer--no matter what level of citizen involvement and activism--give you what one's city needs, is probably the most difficult puzzle any urban localist (especially if your context happens to be one of those cities stuck in the middle) has to face.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Mid-Size Meditations #4: City Liberty, Country Liberty

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

It's clear to me that one of the primary things people (in the United States, certainly, but also elsewhere) think about when trying to understand the differences between large cities and small ones--perhaps not as primary as such immediate issues as economic prospects, proximity to family, personal security, transportation accessibility, and educational resources, but then again, often lurking in the background of all of the above--is the scope and style of the city's government, and what kind of freedom that government's approach allows. How that "freedom" is measured depends on the person making the distinctions: it could be tied up in questions of property and business regulations, or it could be a matter of tax burdens, or it could a concern over social or lifestyle expectations and support, or it could be all of the above. But however it is appropriated in any given conversation about urban life, worries about how much of a "hassle" a city and its may institutions present, or hopes for the "opportunities" the city might make available, seem to be constantly entwined with all of the above, more mundane concerns.

The long history of Western thought includes both pro-urban and its anti-urban partisans when it comes to human liberty. The pro-urban side basically follows the argument that, in rural environments or small towns, because of the homogeneity of the population and the comparative slowness of the economy (perhaps because it is still mostly tied to agriculture, or because the population is mostly unchanging), the communitarian traditions and norms are all-encompassing and oppressive, and too easily backed up with the force of law, thus squelching aspirations, limiting choice, and undermining creativity. Stephen Schneck expressed this view well:

[C]onsider a line between “city” and “village.” The line is drawn well by that apocryphal 15th century peasant who claims that “Die Stadtluft macht frei!” Consider the tension revealed here between the qualities perceived in village life and those anticipated in the city. Village represents a smothering community. An homogeneity of tastes, styles and desires is inscribed on each villager’s soul by an intrusive familiarity that begins in the cradle. The village represents a life lived with intimate, ubiquitous authorities wherein all is public. City, for our peasant, offers the heterogeneity of anonymity and the possibility of private spaces resistant to intrusive, public scrutiny found in village life. In the peasant’s ideal of the city there is room for private space and authority is formal, not intimate or personal....Consider Athens on the eve of Alexander’s empire; note the distance between the experiences of its occupants and the polis of Aristotle’s Politics. For the 75,000 people who left their villages and communities for the Stadtluft of Athens’s Piraeus the appeal of city life was not corporate hierarchy and communal place. The city was not sought for its public space so much as for its private space. They saw city life as desirable for the space it offered that was relatively free from the suffocating presence of community as experienced in their village living.

What the city--the larger the better, presumably--offers, then, in its busyness and anonymity, is a kind of freedom by way of privacy. The government, lacking the capability to track and intervene in all the lives of the myriad individuals to congregate together, instead retreats to distant and neutral rules, thus opening up a public space wherein individuals may truly live their lives in their own diverse ways.

But there is, of course, another stream of Western thought, an anti-urban one, usually (but not always) associated with republican ideas which present "freedom" mostly in terms of belonging and the morally--if not necessarily empirically--liberating civic virtue which the responsibilities of self-government and community membership allow one to develop. This, of course, was the position taken by Jefferson, or in a populist manner by William Jennings Bryan, who saw in large urban areas the inevitable dominance of financial interests over those who performed socially ennobling productive work, and hence the need, in the name genuine independence, to resist them. The philosophical ideals of republicanism or populism are far away from the minds of most who are trying to work out in their heads what is, or is not, appealing about cities of a certain size--but those anti-urban traditions nonetheless inform, I think, those who note how the economically-induced complexity of extensive urbanization contrasts with the kind of genuine freedom from interference which less developed, smaller, more rural areas provide. James C. Scott puts it this way:

The first thing to notice is that since the Industrial Revolution and headlong urbanization, a vastly increasing share of the population has become propertyless and dependent on large, hierarchical organizations for their livelihood. The household economy of the small peasant-farmer or shopkeeper may have been just as poverty-stricken and insecure as that of the proletarian. It was, however, decidedly less subject to the quotidian, direct discipline of managers, bosses, and foremen. Even the tenant farmer, subject to the caprice of his landlord, or the small-holder, deeply in debt to the bank or moneylenders, was in control of his working day: when to plant, how to cultivate, when to harvest and sell, and so forth. Compare this to the factory worker tied to the rhythm of the machine, and closely monitored personally and electronically. Even in the service industries the pace, regulation, and monitoring of work are far beyond what the independent shopkeeper experienced in terms of minute supervision.

(Add to the above the comments of famed, early-20th-century sociologist Louis Wirth: "[T]he masses of men in the city are subject to manipulation by symbols and stereotypes managed by individuals working from afar or operating invisibly behind the scenes through their controls of the instruments of community. Self-government...under these circumstances [is] reduced to a mere figure of speech...")

There are many ways in which someone might attempt to reconcile these contrasting views. The effort to turn the priorities of classical, agrarian republicanism in the direction of a theory of "non-domination" could potentially be read as an attempt to make republicanism fit for our heavily urbanized world. Similarly, populist arguments might be presented as aligning importantly with the conservation of community norms, thus contextualize its devotion to one (agrarian) type of community above all others. However one approaches the problem, though, it remains a puzzling difficulty that city life--which describes the life which, on level or another, over 80% of the American population lives--can be (and is) understood as both a venue of and a threat to freedom by Americans of diverse ideological preferences, which makes any productive democratic rethinking of the future of our (strongly urbanized) common life rather complicated.

One possible way to reframe this whole disagreement, though, can be found in some of the most recent literature on cities, which focuses on the curious fact that, almost without exception, cities--whether gigantic or tiny, whether wealthy metropolitan financial centers or undeveloped micropolitan backwaters--are not sovereign. That is, whatever jurisdictional claims that the authorities and elites which govern urban areas make, they are nearly all made without any formal constitutional or federal legitimacy. States and provinces and the like are seen, in our general understanding of what counts as "political" and what doesn't, as having a fully recognized legal standing in terms of wielding executive authority; cities, by contrast, while obviously having within their sphere of influence a wide range of governmental powers, are nonetheless almost never understood as being rooted in any consented-to constitutional framework. In the United States, for example, there are national offices (the presidency) and state offices (governors); there are national offices determined by state-wide elections (senators), and national offices determined by constitutionally mandated and state-designed population-based districts (congressional representatives); and you also have state offices determined through additional state-designed population-based or county-based districts (state senators and representatives)--and the boundaries of those counties are themselves functions of state administration. In almost none of these cases are the territorial ranges, fluctuating populations, or economic health of the communities in which people actually live formally taken into consideration in terms of laying the particulars of the social contract.

This is a point which was made long ago in the writings of Max Weber--that is, that the sort of ordering of commercial life or industrial development or anything else that emerges in the city is a kind of "non-legitimate domination." For Weber, this was a fairly unique historical development, a signpost on the way towards the rationalization made possible by the modern bureaucratic state. But for many scholars who have taken up this topic lately--Benjamin Barber, Loren King, Warren Magnusson, and others--the fact that the city has developed politically as a distinctly non-sovereign entity is a vitally important (and mostly positive) resource for reflection. Sovereignty, at least in the classic post-Westphalian sense, has been in trouble for a good while now (certainly since the post-Cold War explosion in globalization, perhaps since the post-WWII rise in global institutions, maybe even longer than that), but amidst all the talk of changing definitions of what it means to be "sovereign," the idea of actually investing our political self-understanding in polities that are essentially interdependent, and which were never constituted in light of sovereign preoccupations in the first place, still strikes most political thinkers and actors as strange. It would seem to these nationally and internationally inclined individuals to be limiting, or downright even anarchic, to trust one's liberty to the polis alone, absent the liberating and/or security-providing apparatus of a constitutionally-defined state.

For myself, the accusation that a focus on the liberty as something to be developed "non-sovereignly" would involve too many city-specific limits from outset doesn't trouble me too much; broadly speaking I think modern life has been too dismissive of too many limits for too long, anyway. As for anarchy, getting away from a statist focus allows us to see the anarchic order of city life (which Jane Jacobs, Richard Sennett, and many others have discussed) as a potentially important place to start thinking anew. What exactly constitutes the sort of reliable civil society which allows most (if not all) cities to function as sites of sustainable "disorderly order"? Years ago, Lyn H. Lofland argued that cities originally made it possible for residents to freely and peacefully interact with each other because of "apprearential ordering": that is, before industrialization and economic development leveled out much of the physically obvious role- and class-based distinctions between persons, our sense of security and trust arose from being able to literally recognize something about one another, even if we were just two strangers bumping into each other on the street. She then claimed that as wealth, democratization, and diversification following industrial (and post-industrial) development undermined the reliability of that kind of recognition, a different kind of order--a "spatial" one, dependent upon neighborhoods, districts, and other time-and-place demarcations, took its place. In other words, we co-exist in relative anarchy with one another because we know who is supposed to live and work where, and thus know where we should be and go, and where we shouldn't.

There are, I realize, all sorts of problems with that argument--but it opens the door to the sort of thinking about liberty which I think a proper assessment of cities and city size might really benefit from. For example, might it not be the case that in smaller urban clusters, with a smaller set of population types, apprearential ordering might endure longer? Or, then again, might it be the case that as the dominant urban model of public ordering--even in small cities--became more clearly premised upon spatial recognition, that the demand for sovereign governments, and a consequent change in how we think about freedom, grew overwhelming? Magnusson and some others imply that the abiding emphasis on sovereignty and territoriality and borders may be significantly a rural creation: with all that uninhabited land, the imperative need was for a sovereign government to provide, in essence, "eyes on the land," since obviously out in the country there aren't enough crowded streets and productive neighborhoods to supply those eyes, that spatial recognition of who belongs where. If there is anything to this speculation, it wouldn't be the first time that republican and agrarian principles were found to be, at least in terms of personal freedom, contributing to their own undermining.

No definite answers here; just more questions. We're always thinking about our freedom, even while we're thinking about much else, and it haunts the way we talk about and campaign for and condemn our government(s). In the meantime we move from country to city, from smaller cities to larger cities (and, though only rarely, in the other direction too); our polities, the places we live, thereby expand and change. We need to be conscious of these changes, because whether we realize it or not, it matters very much for how we understand what we're looking for in the first place.