Sunday, August 2, 2009

Decentralism for the Masses: The Big Sort and What It Reveals About Localism andVoluntary Segregation

Decentralization: How, Why, and What Kind
One of the debates in the libertarian-anarchist community concerns the nature and effects of decentralization. How will people reorganize themselves into smaller social and spatial units, and what will such a milieu be like? Will (or should) people stick together with those similar to themselves, or are there superior benefits in cosmopolitanism and hybridity?

I've seen two major options so far for what a decentralized world might look like. Kevin Carson presents a model of decentralism of driven by necessity through eroding transportation and lack of mobility, characterized by small regional markets, localized production and high levels of economic autarky. By contrast, Keith Preston portrays a model of decentralism by choice along lines of interest and affinity, a panarchy of multiple systems in which social, political and cultural factors are motivating influences, and some degree of segregation and separatism are likely (though not necessarily universal).

Which is more likely to occur -- and which would be more successful? According to Bill Bishop 's The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart (2008), an experiment along these lines is already taking place. The United States is becoming progressively more differentiated into smaller units along political, social, economic and geographical lines. What do the data show?

So far, the process fits more into Preston's model of decentralization by choice rather then necessity, enabled by mobility and based on personal preference rather than economic need. Although the two are interconnected, it is primarily sociocultural choice that drives economic reorganization. People are going to places with people they like and jobs they want, rather than adjusting themselves to local necessities.

People can't eat silicon chips, but they can export them and trade them for other goods. When a region specializes in a certain range of goods and services, it can achieve a form of regional economy of scale, equivalent to vertical integration in a business firm, which includes a sociocultural component. Specialized human capital aggregates in the region. People share and trade ideas. The local subculture becomes an integral part of the process of problem-solving and innovation.

This leads to the paradox that decentralization at one level of scale is complementary to relative centralization on another -- sorting into local enclaves of cultural and occupational preference leads to the development of local nodes and centres of specialization.

The Psychology of Tribes and Neo-Tribes: How Free Is Galt's Gulch?
How does the Big Sort affect social attitudes? Another debate in the left-libertarian and anarchist communities focuses on whether pluralist, particularist, or separatist forms of decentralism would lead to the proliferation of repressive, antiquated mores. The actual evidence is ambiguous: differentiated communities tend to become more extreme and polarized over time, through a snowball effect in which a given tendency attracts more of the same. Thus, conservative areas become more conservative, liberal ones more liberal.

The authors regard this shift toward the extrema as essentially a bad thing, but here I disagree. Not all things considered extreme are necessarily undesirable: "For example, the local culture of Portland, Oregon features extreme literacy, a milieu uniquely hospitable to artists, writers and booksellers." (p. 198)

In relation to individualism, sorting-by-community has a paradoxical effect: individuals make the primary choice of which community they want to join, but, once in, the forces of conformity often close in to obscure further choices. In a small, close-knit community, it is easy for members to maintain surveillance of each other's choices and provide criticism and reinforcement, which promotes more conformity than an anonymous, heterogenous setting where no one expects agreement in the first place. Too, when people have found a group with whom they truly feel comfortable, they feel more pressure to be loyal, and fear anything that might jeopardize such closeness. There is a granularity of autonomy, a compromise between freedom on one level of scale and restriction on another.

For those who highly value independent thought and the integrity of the individual mind, this presents a dilemma. The creation of like-minded communities of paleoconservatives, libertarians or even anarchists may, in the long term, foster more like-mindedness than liberty. Maintaining space for genuine cognitive diversity is a challenge that will require new ways of constructing dialogue and social relations. The price of freedom is eternal vigilance, even against the very best of neighbors.

Political Subcultures and Partisan Lifestyles

What are the political effects of sorting? The authors focused mainly on divisions along the traditional lines of Republicans and Democrats. The trend toward the extremes applies here: red areas become more red, blue areas become more blue, and there is a ballooning number of landslide counties.

In addition, each political party comes with its own subculture and lifestyle, encompassing religion, family, clothes, food, vehicles, entertainment, etc. One notable aspect is that Republicans tend to be more rural and also more solitary, living in areas of low population density, while Democrats are more urban and gregarious and live in high-density areas. Ironically, Democrats are more likely to be environmentalists while Republicans spend more actual time in nature, hunting, camping and fishing, or working on their farms. It looks like living in a city causes people to develop an idealistic sentiment for the wilderness they encounter so infrequently, while first-hand contact strips them of sentimentality.

Family and childrearing style are important lifesyle factors. The authors quote from in his study which confrirms George Lakoff's classification of the Republican parenting style as "authoritarian father" and the Democratic as "nurturing parent". (Apparently only fathers, not mothers, are typified as "authoritarian", while both can be "nurturing". It makes me wonder about the role that mothers play in conservative families.) Not surprisingly, partisans of both parties perceive government in the parental role, authoritarian and nurturing respectively, which implies that they both perceive themselves, the populace, as children. No members of "third parties" were studied; perhaps one would find more political adulthood in this group.

Interestingly, all the individualist values -- independence, self-reliance, and curiosity -- are on the Democratic side. In terms of childrearing style, at least, Republicans show no interest in individualism at all. Their values are very Old Regime: respect, obedience and good manners. How can this be reconciled with the fact that they call for less government interference (albeit that their own candidates fail woefully to provide it)?

Both political subcultures retain ties to the American dream of individualism, which they interpret in different ways. Conservatives see it in terms of external, physical autonomy. They like to have lots of empty space and open land around them, in which they can engage in the autarkic productive activities of hunting, fishing and farming. Liberals, conversely, think more in terms of inner, personal independence of thought, feeling and belief. But they also strongly tie their personal sense of freedom to being accepted by others: it is not enough to be free to be gay, gays must also have acceptance and inclusion among heterosexuals. Liberals are disinclined to seek freedom in spatial seclusion -- yet, .paradoxically, rural conservaties form closer social networks, more connections to neighbors, church, PTA and clubs, than do the denizens of crowded, anonymous cities. In fact, even suburb and exurb residents are more neighborly than urbanities, which goes to refute the leftist linking of space and individualism with alienated isolation. Individualism, as a social, cultural and geographic phenomenon, is by no means simple, but rather nuanced and complex.

Although regional particularism is a long-standing American tradition, the current configuration of Red and Blue spaces, including their attendant subcultures and lifestyles, is a development that began in the 1970's. Earlier in the 20th century, political affiliation was less tied to other life factors, and locales were more mixed. The formation of party-specific lifeways shows, for good or ill, a totalizing process, a mergence of politics and culture -- a tangible manifestation of the 1970's maxim that "the personal is the political",and the postmodern devolution of politics into every sphere of life.

One positive aspect, from an anarcho-pluralist perspective, is that the localization of political impulses into discrete communities encourages political autonomy and decentralization: "Federal leadership has been replaced by a wild display of federalism, as like-minded communities put their beliefs into law." (p. 222) Another positive aspect (although Bishop does not consider it such) is growing distrust towards government and other large institutions not only in the US but in other advanced, postindustrial countries. This, like sorting, is tied to relative prosperity and the emergence of "postmaterialist" values, the predominance of sociocultural preference above economic concerns.

Genetic Implications
There is evidence that political affiliation has a genetic component along with personality traits such as gregariousness, individualism, altruism, risk-taking and the like.. Moreover, people tend to mate assortatively, choosing partners who are genetically similar to themselves. Assortative mating is generally unconscious and instinctual, since it can involve genetic matching for factors that cannot be consciously perceived, such as blood proteins. Mobility and mass sorting are bringing together people with similar traits and similar genes, who are likely to marry each other and produce families of self-selected stock.

In past centuries, migration typically resulted in mixing and hybridity, as different races, ethnicities, and cultures came together to form new genetic and memetic combinations. Now we are witnessing the opposite pattern: the freedom to move is generating local pockets of homogeneity. What will this pattern entail? Will new genetic combinations emerge with new biological strengths, specialized to compete in the postindustrial world? Or will unconstrained inbreeding result in future generations becoming as hyperspecialied and degenerate as overbred pedigreed dogs?

Advanced knowledge of genetics, such as is now emerging in the Human Genome studies, is becoming crucial to understand such issues and to help prospective parents make wise choices. As a libertarian, I firmly believe that such choices, with their vast and long-term consequences, should remain in the hand of individuals and couples -- not government A biologically-educated populace is needed to make informed and responsible decisions.

So, how good were my predictions? Well, I was right in some ways while my opponents were right in others. Sorting does facilitate personal choice and options, but it also leads to homogeneity and extremes (though not all the same extreme). There is no evidence that sorting is more conducive to conservativism than liberalism; it seems to foster both equally.

The current situation is very limited in that there is polarization toward only two major options (with, quite likely, a smattering of others too small to fit into the authors' data sampling.) This is a product of the nation's two-party system in which dichotomized political groups compete to pull the strings of a single, centralized government. A complete micronational-anarchist system would be quite different, with many more options and a more-market-like structure in which communities would compete for mobile resources like people, trade and investment, rather than centralized political influence. Thus, the Big Sort should be seen as only a very rough intimation of what true panarchy or anarcho-pluralism would be like.

Nonetheless, it is the road down which we are now moving. Whether it continues will depend on political, economic and environmental .factors, including whether energy shortages induce constraints on mobility (as Kevin Carson has argued.) If technology succeeds in keeping up with such changes, and if new political visions of anarchism, secessionism, and microanarchism take hold, the 21st century could witness the transition into a decentralized America.

The consequences of freedom of association need to be understoood as a set of trade-offs: large-scale diversity and local segregation, individual choice and group homogeneity, political autonomy and economic specialization . Unlike collectivist visions of utopia, it offers no guarantees; people sometimes become snared in their own choices. Nevertheless, my own belief is that freedom of association is worth the price, first, because at least the options are there; second, because it provides for a competitive market of lifestyles which, over the long term, fosters memetic evolution and social progress; and third and most important, because it accords with the basic human right of a person's ownership and control of her own labor, actions, participation, and bodily presence.

I highly recommend this book for those who would like to investigate the politics of association with good, solid data.

[A different analysis of The Big Sort and related data can be found in Keith Preston's article, Is Something Really Wrong With Kansas?]


Kevin Carson said...

Thoughtful commentary, Ethel, and thanks for the link.

Although I dislike the know-nothingism of the religious right, I suspect the self-sorting that you describe currently underway is atypical of what would happen in a genuinely decentralized society. The teabaggers, birthers, townhall meeting disruptors, and worshippers of Joe the Plumber and Palin are subcultures formed by centralized mass politics.

Without the mass politics and mass political culture to react against, what remains of Bible Belt culture would display a lot less resentment and anger, and be more stable and inward-focused--more like the Amish. Of course that's not so great in itself, but I'll take them over Fred Phelps any day.

Blode0322 said...

"For example, the local culture of Portland, Oregon features extreme literacy, a milieu uniquely hospitable to artists, writers and booksellers."

A milieu uniquely hospitable to leftist artists, writers, and booksellers.

No conservative could ever find contentment in such a nest of backstabbing, grinning Maoist scum. But then again, I'm at a blog where it goes unchallenged that "all the individualist values -- independence, self-reliance, and curiosity -- are on the Democratic side", so y'all might see things differently.