In 1975, two leftists, one of whom had been a top GOP insider and a founder of the American libertarian movement, collaborated on a book published by a leading Washington, D.C. left-wing think tank and the Unitarian Universalist Association advocating devolution of political power from the federal, state and city levels to self-sufficient local neighborhoods, hopefully facilitated by the passage of a Republican senator’s bill to fund them with the redirection of three-quarters of income tax revenue.
David Morris and Karl Hess’s Neighborhood Power: The New Localism is simultaneously a time capsule from a forgotten moment of the New Left, a glimpse into roads not taken in the four decades since, a counterexample to the assumptions of today’s culture wars, and a prescient foreshadowing of today’s nascent trends towards a post-industrial future.
The central focus of the book is the building of neighborhood organizations for the purpose of directly addressing local needs, rather than exerting pressure on the political system to take care of them. After a brief general introductory chapter (which was included in the anthology First Harvest: The Institute of Policy Studies, 1963-83 as representative of how, in the words of its introductory blurb, “[d]ecentralization and participation have characterized IPS activities”), the slim volume gets straight to the process. Initially covering the creation of small, informal local organizations formed ad hoc to deal with specific day-to-day issues, the scale subsequently steadily broadens along with the hopeful broadening of the purview of the organizations themselves. While the growth of any particular is limited, by cooperation they are able to take on more and more of the social, economic and political functions within a single neighborhood, and then between freely associating neighborhoods. The conclusion sketches a decentralized, green, communitarian utopian future, Ecotopia meets a post-industrial News from Nowhere.
Along the way, attention is given to specific practical issues. While technology is not as central a focus as it is in Hess’s other work (one of his other books is Community Technology), there is a decent amount of material on it. This includes prescience in both local food production (Hess was a central participant in forgotten predecessors of today’s urban farming boom), computers (the Community Memory System has a cameo), and renewable, green energy. An entire chapter is devoted to movements by tenants increasing their bargaining power vis-a-vis landlords; while the deck was certainly stacked against them, it seemed to be less utterly so than in today’s era of gentrification.