From the Market Mirage to Regional Communities: the Communitarian Vision of William Appleman Williams

In a famous, even infamous, statement, free market economist Milton Friedman said, “Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.”

Friedman made that statement in 1982, even as the laissez-faire economic ideas that had seemed impossible through much of his career were coming to fruition. The new Reagan Administration was busy cutting government programs and regulations, while reducing taxes on corporations and the wealthy. “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem,” Reagan had proclaimed in his inaugural address. It was a sharp turn from previous decades. The 1930s Depression had deeply discredited free market economics. From the 1930s New Deal to the 1960s Great Society, expansion of government and its role in society had been the hallmark.

But the 1970s saw the emergence of multiple crises. Oil prices skyrocketed, while inflation radiated throughout a stagnating economy. The old economic formulas no longer seemed to work. The ruling business and political classes were under severe challenge. Wealth inequality, always a major divide, reached a historically low point in the mid-1970s, while labor intensified its demands. The ideas of Freidman and other free market economists developed in the 1950s and ‘60s had already undergone a test run in Chile after the 1973 coup. Now the ruling classes of the U.S. were ready to implement them wholesale in the U.S., even as Margaret Thatcher brought them to the fore in the UK. Strictly speaking, the neoliberal revolution did not so much reduce government as the parts of government that benefitted ordinary people, while attacking labor and unleashing corporations from much of the regulatory framework created in previous decades. The trend continued through Republican and Democratic administrations.

Today, we face another time of crisis, born of the triumph of the neoliberal idea. Wealth inequality has risen to levels unprecedented since before the 1930s Depression, spurring social tensions intensified by a changing racial makeup. Public and private debt has reached astronomical levels. While all this has been happening, avenues for democratic reform have been systemically blocked by corporate forces. The political system is undergoing a crisis of legitimacy, as more people across the political spectrum come to believe, accurately, it no longer represents them. The January 6, 2020 Capitol Insurrection, happening a year and a day ago, is increasingly seen as the early warning for worse. A shattering crisis is clearly on the horizon.

It is time to have some ideas lying around about how we might organize politics, economics and society in a different manner.  As unlikely and impossible as they seem today, in coming years as systems break down they might come to be seen as necessary, even inevitable. We have had a set of ideas lying around for decades, elucidated to a high level in the 1960s and 1970s, and which have ramified beyond, for a more decentralized and democratic order, in which localities and regions empowered to engage the world as self-conscious actors come to outweigh the globalized power of corporations and the governments they control.  They were brought to the fore by thinkers such as Kirkpatrick Sale, who wrote of the Human Scale, E.F. Schumacher, who proclaimed Small is Beautiful, and eco-anarchist Murray Bookchin, who wrote many books on community scale of organization.  While many of these ideas have gone into abeyance in a world that has grown increasingly centralized and corporatized, they nonetheless have many contemporary expressions. From local movements for food justice, mutual aid and greener cities, to local and state social and environmental reform efforts pushing measures ranging from higher minimum wages to climate response.

As vital as these efforts are, they are fragmentary, pieces of the puzzle. A broader framework envisioning deep structural changes is needed.  The bioregional movement points in that direction, reconstructing society and culture around regions defined by natural features such as watersheds. But bioregionalism is substantially a cultural movement, and a political strategy to get from here to there is often diffuse and undefined. Some bioregionalists are outright secessionists. Others shy away from any engagement with the political system at all, being of a strongly anarchist bent and preferring to focus purely on building alternative community structures. I even once debated seminal bioregionalist Peter Berg, who coined the term, on the need to engage with politics.

In recent posts, I’ve been exploring the vision of historian William Appleman Williams to re-create the United States as a confederation of regional commonwealths, each with strong powers of self-governance.  (Links above) Williams’ vision, which he brought forward in the 1970s, drew together the political with the idea of rebuilding communities of place. We must, wrote Williams, “use our revolutionary right of self-determination to create a community in place of a marketplace, to replace the impersonal logic of possessive individualism with the morality of helping each of us cherish the other.”[1] Williams’ communitarian regionalism is precisely one of those “ideas lying around” that we need to counter the crisis brought on neoliberalism and its denial of the common good.

Williams saw that we as individuals can fulfill ourselves “only as a member of a community.”[2]  He called for a revival of engaged citizenship. It begins “with a commitment to community and to the best of our heritage, rather than to the mirage of a free marketplace of the narcissistic dream of self-selected and self-sufficient cadres, then it moves to acting as a citizen in one’s own neighborhood. That means, as a start, nothing more dramatic than opening oneself to know other people. First, to use their names, and to use them at every opportunity. Then to learn their concerns, and how they think and feel about dealing with those difficulties. Finally, to understand their dreams and visions and to talk with them about how to translate them into reality.”[3]

“If it all sounds very elementary and time-consuming, and it is . . . But it has to be done if one is to be a citizen embarked upon the adventure of building a self-determined community. After that, the labor grows even more difficult. Moving out of a neighborhood . . . into the city or the state is a demanding experience . . . But it has to be done. Not by all of us all of the time, but by all of us some of the time. It cannot be left to the politicians simply because it ceases to be self-determination if we delegate it to someone else. The saving grace is that each of us has our own particular ways of moving to and from between the neighborhood and the larger society.”[4]

Bill Williams, as he was affectionately known, practiced what he preached, moving from the University of Wisconsin and the academically-oriented community of Madison in 1968 to teach at Oregon State University in Corvallis and live in the coastal community of Waldport, shooting pool with loggers and fisherman down at the local tavern. It was his own way of “moving to and fro.” He lived there until his death in 1990.

Rooted engagement in community is “the process whereby you and I as individuals benumbed by the empire begin to function as citizens and then come together with countless others to create a social movement  . . . “[5]

Williams was clear about what a social movement is an is not. It is not single-issue, or reactive. Writing in the wake of the Vietnam protest movement, Williams saw an unrealized promise to transcend its singular objective of ending the war to develop a movement aimed at deeper and broader change. “One dynamic and imaginative group of people in the coalition was unquestionably concerned with developing an alternative conception of America.” Groups were elucidating such visions, notably the Students for a Democratic Society with its Port Huron Statement.

“That crucial capacity to function as a citizen working with others to evolve a mutually self-determined future was aborted by a combination of impatience, elitism, the lack of any real consequential sense of history, and the failure to even offer a meaningful outline for a different America. The antiwar coalition thus became a single-issue pressure group that began to disintegrate even before the war was actually terminated . . . ”[6]

In contrast, a social movement can and often does begin with specific issues. But it “generates its own objectives rather than coming into existence to implement or oppose decisions made by others and is deeply involved with the fundamental issues of the political economy.”[7]

A social movement must have a vision, wrote Williams. We “must commit ourselves to a new ethical system. The private gain and private pleasure of possessive individualism must give way to helping other people. Must give way, that is, to being citizens of a community.”[8]

Crisis is barreling down on us. U.S. democracy, such as it is, is already battered and compromised, seemingly beyond any capacity to address the mounting challenges we face.  The veil could be torn off in the next few years, and any sense we have much of a democracy at all could dissolve. We need to have some “ideas lying around” for that time, for deep structural change that revives democracy from the ground up, political and economic. William Appleman Williams’ ideas from the 1970s, for creating democratic social movements rooted in local and regional communities are a good place to start.

This is the third part of a series exploring radical historian William Appleman Williams vision of regionalism as an option for reclaiming democracy in the U.S. The first is here. The second is here.


[1]  William Appleman Williams, America Confronts a Revolutionary World: 1776-1976, William Morrow and Company, New York, 1976, p. 182

[2] Ibid, p. 187

[3] Ibid, p. 188

[4] Ibid, p. 188

[5] Ibid, p. 189

[6] Ibid, p. 191

[7] Ibid, p. 191

[8] Ibid, p. 192

This first appeared on Patrick Mazza’s substack page, The Raven.