The Tyranny of The Local

A few days ago, I made a point I have made before: that local governance is not inherently more democratic than of other levels (national, regional or global). This point was discussed over at Corrente where some were unconvinced and Lambert noted that, in the context of inaccessible national politics, there is a greater chance of control at the the local level… I would argue that this is true, if one belongs to the gender / sexual / religious / racial / political majority. Otherwise… well…

Example 1:

“The chief rabbi of a West Bank settlement has prohibited women from standing in a local community election.

Rabbi Elyakim Levanon of the Elon Moreh settlement, near Nablus, said women lacked the authority to stand for the post of local secretary.

He wrote in a community newspaper that women must only be heard through their husbands.

No women have registered for the election due to be held later on Wednesday, Israeli media reported.

The rabbi made his comments in the community’s newspaper after an unidentified young woman wrote to him asking if she could run for the position of community secretary, the Israeli news website Ynet News said.”

Example 2:

“KABUL, Afghanistan — The two Afghan girls had every reason to expect the law would be on their side when a policeman at a checkpoint stopped the bus they were in. Disguised in boys’ clothes, the girls, ages 13 and 14, had been fleeing for two days along rutted roads and over mountain passes to escape their illegal, forced marriages to much older men, and now they had made it to relatively liberal Herat Province.

Alissa J. Rubin/The New York Times

Sumbol, 17, a Pashtun girl, said she was kidnapped and taken to Jalalabad, then given a choice: marry her tormentor, or become a suicide bomber.

Instead, the police officer spotted them as girls, ignored their pleas and promptly sent them back to their remote village in Ghor Province. There they were publicly and viciously flogged for daring to run away from their husbands.

Their tormentors, who videotaped the abuse, were not the Taliban, but local mullahs and the former warlord, now a pro-government figure who largely rules the district where the girls live.

Neither girl flinched visibly at the beatings, and afterward both walked away with their heads unbowed. Sympathizers of the victims smuggled out two video recordings of the floggings to the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, which released them on Saturday after unsuccessfully lobbying for government action.

The ordeal of Afghanistan’s child brides illustrates an uncomfortable truth. What in most countries would be considered a criminal offense is in many parts of Afghanistan a cultural norm, one which the government has been either unable or unwilling to challenge effectively.”

I am not exactly sure of the origins of the fetishism of the local but its most current incarnation is  prominent in the anti-neoliberal globalization movement (“think global, act local”) where the local is seen as the democratic antidote to “globalization from above”, that is, neoliberalism imposed by global institutions such as the World Bank, the IMF and the World Trade Organization. These organizations are often perceived as unaccountable, undemocratic and imposing one-size-fit-all policies on countries and local communities around the world.

The accusations are not unfounded, but just like finding flaws in evolutionary theory would not make creationism true, finding flaws in the current shape of globalization would not make localism the ultimate form of democratic governance.

Similarly, the fact that national politics is facing, in many Western countries, a crisis of legitimacy, as Habermas demonstrated, because it is seen as less responsive to citizens’ needs, complicit in denationalization of economic policy in favor of the global neoliberalism, does not establish the local as a more legitimate site of governance.

As yesterday’s book review on the MST shows, national governance is sometimes necessary to fight against local tyrannies (often disguised as “traditions”). This applies as well to the case of Nigerian children accused of being witches where salvation cannot be local or albinos in Tanzania, persecuted in the name of local beliefs. Sometimes, the regional level is the one that can apply true democracy or greater respect for human rights, for instance, as the European Commission on Human Rights.

Finally, local oppression is especially awful for women at the local level around the world. I could fill up the pages of this blog with articles just detailing the varied forms of local oppression of women and girls. Even the MST acknowledges it has a macho culture problem.

My point is not to assert that the local is bad but it should not be assumed to be somewhat more “naturally” fair, democratic and responsive to population needs.

6 thoughts on “The Tyranny of The Local

  1. The skeptics I’ve encountered deny there’s a local-is-beautiful meme (especially vis-a-vis my assertion that many are pushing local politics as the best way to cure our political ailments). Henceforth, I’ll collect examples I happen upon.

  2. And when the examples come, this is the criterion:

    My point is not to assert that the local is bad but it should not be assumed to be somewhat more “naturally” fair, democratic and responsive to population needs.

    I think we all understand that local oligarchies exist, yes.

  3. Those of us old enough to remember the American civil rights movement are, or should be, especially aware of how national power is sometimes necessary to defeat local tyranny. Just to confuse things, though, the history of our attempts to end school segregation through national power shows that we need to enlist local power against local tyranny, not just impose solutions from outside. I’m not knowledgeable about the Reconstruction era and its failures, but that might be another example.

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  5. “Think globally/act locally”, to me, has meant effectiveness. It’s easy to sit and stew about national and international issues, which most of us have little ability to impact. I’ve generally considered engaging in local politics simply to be more effective. It’s easier to attend council meetings, for instance, than to the same for a national (US Congress, for instance) issue. Thus, I wonder how many people truly feel that the local is truly more democratic, or simply more accessible.

    • AS I mentioned, the supposed greater effectiveness of local involvement only works if one is in the majority, racially, ethnically, or by gender. If one is in the minority, marginalization and stigma are more likely to be more obvious and physical.

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