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Nov 30, 2011

Small is Horrible

Wendell Berry is one of the critical figures of the environmentalist left, a fierce critic of the Vietnam War with a long personal history of direct action in environmental causes. A complicated figure, Berry has looked outside the boundaries of a supposedly binary politics, discovering (for example) conservative instincts in the New Left. He has also repeatedly expressed his appreciation for the Amish, who center their lives on families and communities, withdrawing as much as possible from "our intrusive, inhuman, indifferent, clumsy, expensive institutions." This insistence on community over large institutions is something close to Berry's political bottom line; as a biographer puts it, "Berry scorned the massive state."

I've been thinking about Wendell Berry this week because I'm reading Eric Miller's magnificent biography of Christopher Lasch, required reading for any animal that walks upright and uses tools. Lasch shared many of Berry's concerns, not only about environmental limits on corporate capitalism but also about the scale of our politics. As Lasch wrote, "[A]ny vision of socialism which does not confront the need for a drastic scaling down of institutions, for the need to combine planning with as much regional and local control as possible, does not have much to offer Americans in the twentieth century and has little chance of attracting a following."

Maybe I'm blending some political traditions, here, but it seems to me that Berry and Lasch represent an enormously important American political tradition, a populist left that sought what we would now call social justice and economic equity in local action and the protections of community. And it seems that this long cultural and political line has simply vanished. Front Porch Republic is a conservative website; good progressives call for federal control of healthcare and... well, everything else. To oppose central control of medicine, the economy, education, energy, and the lightbulb in your living room is to be "anti-government," the most troglodytic thing imaginable. It's like being against oxygen, and where in your cave do you keep your wooden club, teabagger?

Here's Robert Reich decrying policy "smallness" and demanding -- this is my least-favorite phrase in the English language, and always makes me picture a party rally at Nuremberg -- "bold alternatives": "The nation needs a real jobs plan, one of sufficient size and scope to do the job -- including a WPA and a Civilian Conservation Corps, to put the millions of long-term unemployed and young unemployed to work rebuilding America... And what about really raising taxes on the rich to finance what the nation should be doing to create a world-class workforce with world-class wages?"

Or watch Paul Krugman declare that the federal government should massively increase its spending, because "we have five or six trillion dollars to play with, here."

Because nothing says fairness like the massive concentration of economic power in a centralized political regime that plays with trillions of dollars. No way that kind of political and economic system could ever be rigged to benefit the wealthy and turn into an oligarchy. It's, like, unpossible -- bigger government is bigger fairness. QED.

Where, when, why, and how did this renunciation happen? When did the American left, such as it is, abandon scale as a worthy topic? As a historical matter, where can we locate the demise of "small is beautiful" liberal politics? Why is the argument for a devolution of power right wing? Why is the dial on American "progressive" politics stuck on the "massive" setting? None of this just happened. It's a development with roots, and with dire effects.

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