Beyond Decentralization

While the institutions of great scale fall apart around our ears, the proprietors of those institutions recognize that decentralization urgently is required--but they see and suggest the requirement only as a function of the Great Institutions.

They offer the failed institution itself as a solution to the failure.

An example. The Federal government's Executive makes a crucial issue of executive power and privilege. The Executive demands, or takes, the power of an absolute monarch. And everything continues to go wrong. So--the Executive embarks, collaterally, upon a campaign to decentralize government.

What does it mean? That the Executive understands that only by delegating responsibilities can any social organization be innovative, resist rot and, as is today demanded, figure its way out of the disasters caused directly by the inevitable miscalculations and misperceptions of central power. Central power is preoccupied in every known instance, with the preservation of privilege and not with innovation and creativity, things that inevitably challenge accreted and self-serving, non-creative authority.

But, even as the Executive understands the need to decentralize so that people may survive it also has an institutional imperative that says the people must survive to serve the institution.


Another example. Industrial leaders begin, as though it is a difficult perception, to see that the assembly line has a diminishing utility because, over time, it drives people quite mad, causing them either to work badly because of sheer boredom or because of active hatred. Either way, the line becomes a target for industrial sabotage of an order previously known only in places being occupied by a tyrant enemy.

Finally, an example for a particular argument: The cities are falling apart. Nothing works in them. Crime goes up and so does the police budget. The police can't protect. Transportation declines and the highway budgets go up. The roads can't deliver, they can only congest. Kids seem to get dumber but the school budgets stay high. Schools can't educate--at best they try candidly to pacify.

Some cities, notably New York, try to decentralize with little town halls, police auxiliaries, elaborate traffic laws, and wild experimentation in the school system. But always the great institutional ooze pervades. It is all done within the reinforcing system of the city government itself.

A reaction. In some place, like the neighborhood in which I live, people understand the need to decentralize, but in a way that actually will detach them from the big institutions; that will permit them the space for their own survival, not just the 'privilege' of being volunteer rather than coerced servants of institutional ambition. (An industrial version of this occurs when a management lets workers form production teams rather work on the assembly line. Production, of course, goes up. The workers are a bit happier. But their relationship to the ruling institution remains unchanged. They have been made happier, not for humane reasons, but for the strictly businesslike one of getting more and better work out of them. It is like a sweet, secret wage cut in the final analysis.

After understanding that the great institutions have failed, what?

In the Adams-Morgan section of Washington (racially, economically mixed but predominately poor and black) the first step, taken out of desperate impatience with past 'civic association' type organizations, was to form a neighborhood assembly, based on the town meeting model but with an important innovation, open committees. In fact the committees came first.

Neighborhood people, galled by the filth of the streets left untended by the city and admittedly spoiled by uncaring attitudes that flourish in neglect, decided to form a committee to get folks together for volunteer clean-up days. Since the first meetings to discuss an overall neighborhood assembly had been held, the committee to clean the streets identified itself with the larger group, but it worked independently and creatively. It got the streets, at least some of them, cleaned up. Neighbors began meeting neighbors while sweeping. Neighbors became neighbors. They became citizens of their neighborhood.

Other committees began working on housing (how to stop speculators from uprooting the neighborhood), rats (how to kill them), recreation (in an area of 31,000 persons with only two tiny play areas).

The recreation committee built a ball park, bleachers, and playground equipment on a vacant lot which became Community Park despite the wails of the titular owner. It remains Community Park. The housing people galvanized enough community support to defeat an invading gas station (there are five already in the neighborhood) and to hold the line against a number of evictions from houses bought by speculators--and to begin accumulating the support and capital to start the local, hopefully co-operative purchase of vacant buildings.

Meantime, the town meeting went ahead. In one year (this past one) the membership has gone from 1,000 to 3,000 and more than 100 neighbors join each month.