Try the 'new localism'

By , Ed Gondolf is a professor of sociology at Principia College in Illinois.

The convention hoopla and candidate theatrics divert the American polity from the dilemmas besieging modern society.By casting a vote, we genuinely believe that we have been a good citizen -- have furthered democracy and even contributed to the resolution of social problems. Having done our deed, we return to our corners to watch the course of the headlines for another year. I believe much of the "apathetic" nonvote is in fact a statement against such seasonal folly.

I think the bottom of American politics is about to fall out, if it hasn't already. By that I mean that real decisionmaking, significant social action, and democratic participation can only be accomplished at the community level. We can influence and impact our neighbors -- but interestingly choose not to, for the most part. We give money to the United Way or taxes to the Federal government only to watch it return to our indigent neighbors in the form of welfare checks -- rather than ourselves walking next door to offer them a crust of bread.

The "new localism," as it is sometimes called, admittedly has had a shaky history: the community action programs of the war on poverty, the community control of schools in the late sixties, and the vigilante neighborhood groups of the seventies have been less than successful. But there have also been bright spots: the community development corporations in many inner cities, the food coops or tenant organizations that exist in even the more prosperous neighborhoods, the "sweat equity" labor collectives, or community councils that have reinitiated services formally lost to "outside interests." This sort of self-reliant, participatory collectivism deserves at least some attention.

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As we become less consumptive and more self-reliant, employing our spiritual and human resources more effectively, there will be less and less demand for the inflated goods of high technology. Unlike sociologist, Amitai Etzioni's recent prognosis for the "Entropy State," I think we are destined to go this route of a decentralized, "soft" technology, humanistically oriented, community-based lifestyle.

Free-market communitarians like Warren Johnson celebrate this ideal as the only way of surviving the post-industrial energy crunch. Simply electingm a pronuke or antinuke president will not bring about a solution. Moreover, it is evident that "collectivist" movements -- like the human-potential, civil rights, antiwar, women's, ecology, and "gay" movements -- have done more to raise the issues, confront the inertia of the status quo, and actually alter prevailing policy than the election of one candidate over the other. In fact adversarial "candidates" like New Hampshire's Governor Thomson during the Seabrook controversy and President Nixon during the Vietnam War were a catalyst for the contrary causes, rather than a hindrance.

In sum, my political recommendation for the future is: Don't make a one-day, solitary stand at the polls: begin to live in daily collaboration with your neighbor. The way we live day to day in our own communities will do far more to change the faltering political machinery than our campaign canvassing and yearly fling at the polls.

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