Re-Thinking the Local

Another kind of community organizing is possible! This is the message announced by the recently published Contesting Community: The Limits and Potential of Local Organizing (Rutgers University Press, 2010). This is no small claim in a political environment in which local community-based organizing projects have become a primary outlet for grassroots politics. The supremacy of the local is one part of the problem authors James Defilippis, Robert Fisher and Eric Shragge set out to identify and correct. They propose a new kind of community organizing model that retains the ability to address local concerns while also offering local activists the ability to develop perspectives on and participate in national and even international campaigning.

The Not-For-Profitization of the State

Contesting Community begins by tracing the clear shift toward the local that has occurred over the past thirty years. They tie it to the rise of neoconservative politicians such as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan while also seeing deeper historical links with the “American love affair with decentralized charity and local voluntary associations.” The eventual rise of neoliberalism and the resulting disappearance of public services and state-based welfare supports created a wide field for community organizing to operate on. The numbers related to the retreat of the state are truly staggering. For example, the budget of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development shrank from 7% of the total Federal budget in 1976 to 1% in 2005.

However, such opportunities to organize came along with systemic mechanisms to limit any potential for radicalism. Here, the authors borrow from Marxist theorist David Harvey’s discussion of the existence of an “NGO culture” which shapes the nature of community organizing and, Harvey argues, much of the American left. The structures of funding and organization serve to “narrow conceptions of community organizing” by “squeezing out conflict models from the community organizer’s arsenal of strategies and tactics.” The result is that either community organizations become highly reliant on outside institutions for funding or they focus on local consensus based organizing. Both of these approaches tend to produce projects that avoid challenges to the retreating state or private interests.

One of the most efficient ways to enforce these limitations is by creating a “manufactured civil society.” Community organizations act as the providers of formerly state-based social services, but the state maintains control over these services. Decisions regarding policy goals, rules for administration, target populations and so forth are made by the state not the community organization thereby inherently limiting the ability of these organizations to cultivate transformative politics.

The limits imposed on community organizing are not all structural – the political context also matters. The authors illustrate how dominate political trends place pressure on the local politics. In the process, they make an important point for radicals. Community organization is not inherently progressive – they document both right and left manifestations of local based strategies and tie the success of these efforts to the general political climate. In fact, they argue that the use of more conservative forms of community organization such as “social capital” and “community building” served “to help bring neoliberalism to the grassroots…by figuring out how to adapt to neoliberalism’s global hegemony.” Thus in conservative historical eras, attempts at launching conflict-based local organizing projects are either “moderated and incorporated” or may even be “repressed.”

Radicalizing the Local

Despite holding a generally dim view of the overall “turn to community” the authors are still hopeful about the prospects of a new radical community organizing. “Community” they argue, “is a central realm in the organization of the larger political economy.” They draw from both historical and current organizing projects to develop a set of proposals for re-orienting community-based organizing projects. Key to this is helping local groups recognize their potential power in national and international contexts. They are therefore quite hostile to the popular notion that advises activists to “think global and act local.” This artificially limits the possibilities and perspectives to the local thereby cutting off the local from the rest of the world.

Inspirational models for a different type of local organizing come, not surprisingly, from Depression era politics. Once again, the general political context matters. The militant local activities of groups such as the Communist Party (CP), the Catholic Workers Movement and Saul Alinsky inspired organizers model local radicalism with national organization. CP organizing was particularly important since, although it was often beholden to the dictates of the Soviet Union, it also managed to make a critique of capitalism concrete through local level organizing. Such organizing freely mixed hyper-local actions, such as anti-eviction campaigning, with national campaigns such as the CP’s anti-lynching efforts. “These efforts,” the author’s state, “provide a vivid and provocative historical example which valued community as an organizing site, recognized its limits and offered an organizational theory and practice to go beyond…local efforts.”

Contesting Community also offers some more recent examples of community efforts with aspirations to combine conflict organization with national perspectives. ACORN and the proliferation of Independent Workers Centers (IWC) stand out as examples of the potential of local organizing. ACORN managed to effectively mix local initiatives with national campaigns created in response to broader shifts in neoliberalism. The IWC’s have managed to organize primarily undocumented workers that traditional labor unions have failed to approach. Community organizing tactics have been critical to this effort and the centers have, thus far, managed to operate outside of the “NGO culture” and have created new forms of conflict-based organizing.

Local Electoralism?

One critical question that Contesting Community tends to de-emphasize is the linkages between community-based initiatives and the two-party electoral system. Local organizations often develop a reliance on either Democrats or Republicans that also helps to shape and limit both their community organizing and the eventual legislative agenda that emerges out of the political conflicts they may develop on the local level. This notion is particularly clear in the current immigration debate where local community organizations, including the IWC’s, have been funneled away from broader proposals for amnesty programs and towards the relatively limited provisions included in the Democratic Party supported Dream Act.

A similar point is made in John Atlas’ recent publication Seeds of Change that examines the development of ACORN. Atlas examines an early moment in the group’s development where founder Wade Rathke and others consider proposals to run independent ACORN candidates for local office in competition with Democrats and Republicans. This idea was ultimately dismissed and the organization attached itself quite closely to the Democratic Party, a relationship that ultimately led to its demise. In short, then, one part of re-imagining a new radical community organizing will necessarily entail developing electoral strategies independent of the two parties that offer voters the chance to support the ideas being produced by grassroots initiatives.

Contesting Community is a valuable asset for political radicals interested in examining the possibilities and pitfalls of local organizing. The authors manage an effective critique of actually existing community organizing, while also plotting out a path to build an alternative practice. Defeating neoliberalism will require developing oppositional forms of community organizing that bring politics to everyday life and connect people to broader anti-capitalist initiatives.

BILLY WHARTON is a writer and activist whose articles have appeared in the Washington Post, the NYC Indypendent, Spectrezine and In These Times. He can be reached at