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Crazy Ideas, Wise Strategies, Small Politics

July 1, 2024

Part I: How Things Change

There seems to be a sequence of stages through which new ideas must cycle before they can begin to make their presence felt in human affairs.

New ideas first materialize as isolated incidents of inspiration. An individual who has grown disillusioned or outraged by where things are heading suddenly feels an urgent need to rethink a given situation from the ground up. Reigning ideas are reduced to underlying assumptions and these are scrutinized with an unsparingly critical eye. Old ideas and supporting assumptions together are then shown to be complicit in the evils or injustices that inspired the deep rethinking, which effectively renders them unworthy of repair. Hence the need for a new idea capable of doing what anything proceeding from the old assumptions will never be able to do. Since this idea will have been crafted with a deliberate disregard for established methods of sense-making, it will appear absurd or ludicrous to most observers. We might call this the “crazy idea” stage.

Next, the new idea circulates among those who, because they too feel disillusioned or outraged, have started to question prevailing canons of common sense. The fate of the idea at this stage rests in the hands of external circumstances. Something in the world of events must make the idea appear credible – i.e., a plausible response to what is increasingly being perceived as an unprecedented situation. The realization that we are entering new terrain and the validity of a new idea develop together. For this reason, the new idea must somehow have a foothold in a future that has yet to arrive and, indeed, will only arrive if the new idea triumphs over the old ones.

If those conditions are met, the idea can grow in the circles within which it has begun to circulate. In that domain, typically a tiny one residing on the outskirts of acceptable discourse, it sheds its craziness and becomes an object of sober consideration.

The next (third) stage is the easiest to define and the hardest to enter. The new idea must break out of the ghetto within which it was incubated and acquire persuasive force in a wider world inhabited by people who have not found cause to question bedrock assumptions about how they live and think. In every place and time, including societies undergoing full-bore collapse, the vast majority of people belong to this group.

To understand how members of this majority might be brought to consider a radically new idea, it is useful to sort them into two broad categories: 1) the mainly contented and congenitally cheerful types who see no reason to worry about where things are headed; and 2) the uneasy, apprehensive characters who sense that trouble is coming but cannot imagine what might be done to avert it. Members of group #1 are the least likely to embrace a new idea but if it is to happen at all it will be the behavior of group #2 that will render them susceptible. Earnest proselytizing by advocates of that idea will not touch people who, because they remain upbeat about their prospects, have good reason to find it crazy. These people will grow unsettled if they see members of group #2 investing hope in a strategy for mitigating the troubles they once saw as intractable. Such a development will provoke some members of group #1 to inspect beliefs that until then had sustained their cheeriness about business as usual.

Members of both groups at this moment will begin to feel the certainty born of habit and convention draining from their sense of what it is and is not crazy to believe. Some will be open to new, even radically new, ways of understanding what’s going on around them.

The fate of the new idea as it idles between stages two and three, then, hinges on the readiness of the anxious sideline-dwellers in group #2 to rethink convictions that have served them well enough in the past but are ill-equipped to help them understand events that have begun to trouble them. To capture the attention of the larger audience it needs to reach if it is to do anybody any good, the niche idea will have to be capable of giving those inclined to cynicism a reason to believe that something can indeed be done. It will not be enough to offer hope to this group – they have been hoping for better for years. Their cynicism constitutes an adaptive response to seeing their hopes dashed time and again. That same attitude renders them resistant to proselytizing of any sort, including the kind undertaken by enthusiasts for an idea likely to strike them at this juncture as out of joint. If they are to shake off their feelings of powerlessness – and stir up some doubts amidst the true believers in group #1 – they are going to need to wield some power of their own and see that effort rewarded. They are going to have to involve themselves first-hand in actions that come to appear sensible as the new idea ceases to look crazy. They will want to see action and idea together illuminating a navigable path towards a future less burdened than the present by the things that spurred them to uneasiness about their lot and that of their descendants.

Passage through stage three is complete when the new idea builds into a movement pitched against an officialdom which, nearly everyone can see by now, will do everything in its power to prevent any meaningful change from occurring. The fate of the idea is now tied to the career of a movement with social and political ambitions. Its ability to impact the course of events depends at this decisive moment on the strength of that movement. If the movement succeeds, the once-crazy idea takes its turn as humdrum realism in a society where new institutions have supplanted the old. As the substance of common sense it is as powerful as an idea can be. If the movement fails, the idea returns to the ghetto from which it emerged to be batted around by people who attribute that failure to extenuating circumstances rather than to fatal flaws in the idea itself.

Part II: local festivals and localist politics

Let me now feed a new idea from the ghetto we occupy into the analytic machinery just described and see what happens to it. The goal here is a better understanding of just where we are in the sequence and, with that, a reliable determination of what might be done to propel the idea through the cycle.

Sites that champion “localism,” “degrowth,” “transition,” “regeneration,” and strategies of that sort all feature the idea that if we are to negotiate the crises that now beset us, our energies are best spent creating small, community-based economies and local governing bodies. On this reading, the methods of producing and exchanging goods practiced by supersized, resource-hungry growth engines only work by depleting the means of life on a planetary scale. The idea first gained attention with the appearance of two books published in the afterglow of the 1960s – Limits to Growth (1972), a report commissioned by the Club of Rome, and E. F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful (1973). Schumacher’s book rode a short wave of popularity before falling victim, as the 1970s wore on, to the mainstream attack on anything that smelled countercultural. Limits was given the “crazy” treatment as soon as it appeared by credentialed critics from every profession and discipline.

Over the last four decades, changing circumstances created a large receptive audience for both books. Each was republished and these new editions were treated by most reviewers as incisive analyses we would have been wise to have taken more seriously when they first appeared. These reconsiderations were part of a more general openness to arguments (wearing the labels listed above) in favor of economic and political downsizing. The acceleration of ecological degradation and climate chaos thus served to bleach the taint of craziness from the small-is-preferable idea within an expanding circle of people who concerned themselves with these issues. Following the scheme outlined above, the idea entered stage two.

And that is where it remains. Advocates have not yet managed to get the degrowth/localism idea in front of ordinary folks in a form that a large number of them might find compelling. A difficult task under any circumstances, it is made even harder by the stranglehold maintained on the media and political apparatus by those with a vested interest in keeping the growth engines humming and the global economy booming. But performing this task is next on the agenda if the idea is to become a movement and, in that guise, reroute the course of history towards a downsized future.

It is a promising sign that advocates of degrowth/localism are beginning to wrestle with questions of strategy. Recently there has been a spate of essays published here and on like-minded sites that offer practical suggestions for how we might gain more influence on a wider public terrain. At the same time, it seems certain that the ratio of group #2 to group #1 within the general population is on the rise. How then are we to make our voices carry within earshot of the millions of people who need to consider and hopefully act on the idea before conditions grow too desperate to manage by any means?

If the framework outlined in Part 1 has any validity, we would resist the temptation to break through with a barrage of cold facts and dark certainties. The ears of the loyal optimists in group #1 will be sealed to any new idea; the spine of the anxious bystanders in group #2 will not be stiffened by pitching a startling idea to them.

Chris Smaje’s recent trajectory is instructive on this point. After writing a book and countless essays feuding with George Monbiot and the ecomodernists, he decided the whole effort was largely “fruitless.” Since making that decision, he has resumed work on a vision of agrarian localism that on his farm and others like it is already a kind of practice. Indeed, he believes that measures designed to further the transition to a small farm future – to get people in the actual business of smallholder provisioning – may be all we need in the way of a collapse-appropriate politics. The future towards which he would steer us shows forth in still-living traditions. Most of us have farming families among our ancestors if we go back far enough – usually, given the pace of change since WWII, not far at all. The case for agrarian localism dovetails neatly with the stories we tell to hold them in memory. It echoes as well in countless novels, films, and country songs rooted in small domains either long vanished or now at risk of disappearing. It may startle as a politics but it is quite familiar as a way of life.

To overcome the resignation of those (group #2) who know things have gone off the rails but are paralyzed by the sheer immensity of the challenges ahead, we need a straightforward course of action, not a painstakingly elaborated idea. The strategy that will best repay the efforts of degrowth/localism’s advocates must enable mass participation in activities that mobilize the values being shredded by the onrush of fossil-fuel modernity – activities that readily can be perceived as stepping stones to a future where those values again animate social relationships and civic life. We will know we are getting somewhere when most everyone involved comes to recognize the craziness of trying by some bit of technological hocus-pocus to salvage the old regime.

So we need to organize, but what exactly? A third party? A vigorous lobbying effort? Yet another single-issue crusade? The absorption of degrowth/localism into an “intersectional” campaign? Those strategies presume that the existing system can be reformed to better address the polycrisis or that current powerholders can be pressured to act quickly and responsibly. There is no evidence supporting those presumptions. Go digging for some and you will run into a deluge of greenwashing but no success stories that bear up under scrutiny.

We might consider organizing local festivals. These would look like festivals and carnivals have looked since the Middle Ages except their main purpose is community-building. Communities built to last. We start out once a week, like many existing farmers’ markets. Our goal is not just the marketing of foodstuffs but the knitting together of town and country and eventually the creation of an integrated provisioning network – farms, gardens, markets, restaurants, bakeries, breweries. Most people would attend the festivals for the fun of it. Live music, singing and dancing, food and drink, sports competitions, games for kids – the usual thing. Activists would be there to talk localist politics with interested attendees and find people willing to help organize the network. They are proselytizing, yes, but among people already cooperating, through their attendance at the festival, in the creation of a community capable of supplying its need for sustenance and sociability. These are people who just by having a good time together are creating bonds of solidarity that can help them handle whatever might be thrown at them by inhospitable weather and societal breakdown.

The degrowth/localism idea passes from stage two to stage three – begins to acquire currency outside the niche within which it first took root – in these festivals. It does so not as a pitched idea but a live event. The festivals create the environment within which anxious bystanders (group #2) can imagine themselves to be members of a group taking meaningful action to address the real causes of their fears for the future.

For the idea to become a movement, two things will need to happen. First, the festivals will have to proliferate from coast to coast and, ideally, continent to continent, drawing in millions of people. Conditions for this seem to me favorable. Everybody loves a spirited festival. Anxiety about the future, already at a high pitch, increases with every warming-induced weather disaster and these are occurring with alarming frequency. Faith in the government to do anything about these disasters, or indeed do much of anything at all that is not blatantly corrupt or laughably inept, is at an all time low. Most of us pretty much know already, or will very soon, that we are going to have to dig in somewhere and manage this mess ourselves.

Second, the weekly festivals become daily, ongoing. A provisioning network, encompassing small farms and such locally-owned businesses as are necessary to reach a critical level of self-sufficiency, grows broad and dense enough to crowd out the corporate chains that have sucked small communities dry. We occupy a seldom used fairground, a hollowed out downtown district, an underdeveloped patch of suburban or urban sprawl and turn it into a thriving – and continuously festive – place to work, shop, and gather. The festivals breed a commons, the commons sustains a community, the community nestles comfortably within a web of local/bioregional caretaking and conviviality.

The idea acquires political capabilities as these two developments proceed. As festivals proliferate and harden into permanent fixtures, local inhabitants can claim for themselves the power to make decisions that affect their prospects and well-being. People who buy and produce most of what they need locally are not subject to the forms of blackmail (lifelong indebtedness, for one) that become customary, bearing the full weight of the law, when banks and corporations control access to the means of life. Economic self-sufficiency conduces to political sovereignty, as local assemblies spring up to settle disputes, manage resources and revenue, and establish modes of cooperation with nearby communities. Just as local economies drain wealth from the corporate economy, these assemblies drain power from the executors – media, parties, governments – of corporate politics. What David Graeber once described (The Democracy Project, 259-270) as a “dual power” situation emerges, as citizens transfer their loyalties from the oligarchic institutions of the old order to the directly democratic organs of a localized politics.

Thus does a tectonic shift in political allegiances create openings for a new kind of power to erupt. It is not state power. It does not arise from holding an office and commanding people under threat of death or imprisonment to do what a ruling party or a ruling class has decided needs doing. A localist politics is steadfastly horizontal and, unlike the power projected by any nation-state that has ever existed, ecologically attuned. As I put it in the manifesto I wrote to help nudge localism along:

The power we wish to consolidate flows from the knowledge of how to make a particular place thrive and the determination, shared by all who occupy that place, to govern it as equals and defend it against anyone who would use it for purposes we deem unwise or unjust.

With that kind of power in our hands, the horizon of possibility broadens to encompass measures about which citizens or activists following standard procedure can only dream. At the very moment when our survival demands a deep overturning of what we have long believed to be true and proper, settling for less will look like the crazier option. Degrowth/localism will then be a thriving way of life for millions of people. Unlike a public square occupation, a protest encampment, or a street demonstration, a way of life involving a large chunk of the population cannot be forcibly dispersed, least of all by a state steadily losing the halo of legitimacy that allows exercises of raw power to pass for acts of divine intervention. The truly insane – the unwavering proponents of limitless growth, boundless consumption, and remorseless upsizing – will have their turn at powerlessness.

And it all starts with a bit of fun …

Brian Lloyd

Brian, recently retired, worked for three decades in the Department of History at the University of California, Riverside. He specialized in twentieth-century U.S. intellectual and cultural history. He writes now as an advocate for localization, which he sees as the most promising strategy for defusing the many crises we face and reconnecting to the things that make life pleasurable. His essays and a "localist manifesto" are available at Read more.