A Return to the Local

Before it became an overused banality, “Act Locally, Think Globally” was a radical statement of possibility and responsibility. It was an expression of the hope that fundamental, systemic political change could be enacted on an international level. And it was an acknowledgment of the West’s culpability for the violence, exploitation, and suffering of colonialism, capitalism, and environmental degradation. Though the phrase did not originate with the student protests of 1968, groups like the Situationists that were active during the uprising made it ubiquitous.

Cultural critic and historian Greil Marcus, in his book Lipstick Traces, wrote of Situationist Raoul Vaneigem and the changed meaning of the phrase:

“He was contriving a prophecy of May ’68, when so many of the lines in his book would be copied onto the walls of Paris, then across France, and then, as the years went on and the words floated free of their source, when the book had been lost in the vagaries of publishing and fashion, around the world. ‘ACT LOCALLY, THINK GLOBALLY,” I can read today on a bumper sticker in my hometown; Vaneigem wrote the words, though the person will never know it.”

“Act locally, think globally” endured as an activist slogan for decades. The environmental movement embraced it, human rights groups embraced, and anti-sweatshop groups embraced it.

Then, as Marcus hints at, something changed. The phrase has become just another marketing strategy in the playbook of multinational corporations. From McDonalds to BP, companies with dubious environmental and workers’ rights records have adopted the phrase as a means of making consumers feel good about their consumption. The practice of flattering consumers’ sense of virtue is fully part of today’s economic climate, where “local” foods and “global responsibility” are ideas promoted by companies that show little regard for them in practice.

The idea that was once behind the phrase “Act Locally, Think Globally” has disappeared. It has been replaced with the market-oriented idea that changes in individual consumption habits can result in systemic changes. Theories of change that use the logic of the system they intend to alter are rarely successful. For all their popularity, movements like those for locally sourced food and socially responsible investing cannot bring down the vast economic apparatus that creates the problems they try to address. Eating tomatoes grown within 100 miles of one’s home and divesting from weapons manufacturing companies can only do so much.

The greatest political challenges of our time require political solutions. Climate change, income inequality, and institutional racism cannot be fought in the realm of personal consumption. Only collective action—politics—can address these crucial issues of justice.

And yet, left-wing activists, for the most part, have not found an idea to replace the one that corporate advertisers so skillfully co-opted. In many instances, when it comes to issues of climate, economic, and racial justice, we remain focused on the global when both our actions and our thoughts should aim at the local.

If there is any enduring lesson to learn from the disastrous 2014 mid-term elections, it is that what happens on the local level matters more than we think. The Republicans kept control of the House of Representatives and took control of the Senate, not because the United States is an overwhelmingly conservative country where the majority agrees with the Republicans’ moral and ethical positions, but because the Republicans were better organized, better funded, and more effective in state and local elections that, at face value, seemed to matter very little. It is hard to care about a boring congressional race in a district where both Republican and Democratic candidates’ ideologies appear nearly indistinguishable. But whether we like it or not, those kinds of races are where important political decisions are made.

The elections for city council, county sheriff, or local school board, might seem inconsequential. But there are countless examples where those elections’ ramifications become a matter of life and death—literally. In Ferguson, Missouri, where the white police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, the mayor, police chief, and five of the six council members are white. Around 70 percent of the city’s population is black. The political inequities that turned Ferguson into the ground zero of America’s race-relations crisis could have been lessened if the city had represented its residents better.

To be sure, a return to local politics will not be easy. The left’s power is dwarfed by the incredible sums of money that right wing groups can muster up. And many municipalities, like Ferguson, are plagued by such severe structural inequalities that it would take more than a “get-out-the-vote campaign” to change the political landscape. The American political system is rigged—this is not something new. Wealthy individuals and corporations almost always get their way. And tangled up with this system that perpetuates income inequality are the continued, systematic oppression that people of color face. But this does not mean that we can abandon the local political battles that are so important in shaping citizens’ every day lives. To the contrary, for the left that so often appeals to “the politics of the impossible” and insists on fighting injustice even if victory seems distant if not unforeseeable, the struggles that people face in places like Ferguson, Oakland, and the Bronx should be more than enough to light the flames of the righteous indignation that can lead to broader political action.

This does not mean ignoring the more distant struggles in places like Palestine; it means focusing on the local political processes as the roots of global injustice—what “Act locally, think globally” really used to mean. It means working to remove from power the local politicians who provide economic support for human rights abuses or environmental destruction.

Social media, technology, and globalized communication have made it easy to forget the inequities that occur close to home; we are incessantly inundated with images of violence and oppression from around the world. But the injustices we see are no more important than the ones we do not see. It is one of the perversities of contemporary society that it is far easier to get a sense of what is happening halfway across the world than it is to get a sense of what is happening twenty miles away. I have no doubt that a Princeton student could say far more about the civil war in Syria than he or she could about the food crisis in Trenton.

On the left, there is a kind of suspicion of the possibilities of electoral politics. And given the current moment, there is no shortage of reasons to be skeptical about the possibility of any kind of emancipatory political change, in the U.S. or abroad. But the alternatives, from prefigurative politics to “changing the discourse,” have not yielded the desired results. The Occupy movement managed to create an egalitarian encampment in the middle of the capital of global capitalism, and while it changed the way Americans speak about income inequality, it did not result in any systemic political change. The left needs something more.

For many, a focus on the local seems reactionary, or perhaps provincial—that it is too particularistic of an idea for those who are universally inclined to get behind. And it is true that from the early days of the republic, white supremacy and economic domination have been couched in the language of states’ rights and decentralization that “local” often seems to recall. But there does not have to be anything inherently reactionary about a return to local politics.

“Thinking local” means being willing to put our bodies on the line to fight, not only against injustices that take place overseas, but also against injustices that take place in our own backyards. It means demanding representation not only the macro-political level, but also on the most basic, municipal level. It means remembering that the decision-making processes that effect our everyday lives should not be out of reach.

On the left, the overwhelming feeling is one of despair. Perhaps, by returning to local struggles, even the most depressing ones, we might find a few reasons for hope.

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