The Problem with America and How Geography Matters

An opinion piece in Sunday’ Guardian by Baskar Sunkara,[1] the founding editor and publisher of Jacobin Magazine, is worth a look; some of the longer comments too. His title is roughly indicative: “America is a failing state. And establishment politics can’t solve the crisis.” As he shows, it is not that difficult to argue the case: widening income gaps, a healthcare crisis, crime, relatively high infant mortality rates. Bottom line, at least for me: If you are going to be poor, don’t be poor in the United States.

The number one, long term reason for this, he argues, is the weakness of the labor movement compared to those of the West European countries which, even in their currently emasculated state still post higher memberships and, one thing that Sunkara doesn’t mention, some ideological heft, some framework of understanding to bring to the struggle with the ruling class. It is not like it was, and the great moving right show has done a lot of damage but the old left still survives, as in the current struggle within the British Labour Party. American labor unions have always seen themselves more as interest groups among others of their ilk, rather than spearheading a national movement of a progressive sort; a perverse adaptation to American beliefs about individual responsibility.

What he also refers to, and which helps to explain the title of this blog, is the extraordinarily decentralized character of the American state. In his words, “With power split between the local, state, and federal levels and among different branches of government, there are countless ‘brake’ points in the system that stall or stymie attempts at reform.” Amen. The history of public housing and what happened to the very ambitious New Deal legislation for it is a classic instance. Money was available but using it depended on states passing enabling legislation; and in some states, on local governments agreeing to set-up an agency to apply for money and build the housing. So many obstacles, therefore, inserted at the insistence of real estate lobbies. But testifying to the way in which the fragmented American state provides so many points of access to those with an intense interest in legislation; something highlighted by Lowi’s still highly relevant The End of Liberalism. Not only that, the landlords would keep on pushing until they finally got their way and the public housing program was virtually dismantled in favor of Section 8: a giveaway to, you guessed it, the landlords, in the form of a voucher program. And then to cap it all, many of them refuse to take Section 8 applicants.

This, it seems to me, is only one of the pernicious effects of how the state is organized territorially. The division of metropolitan areas in the US into a staggering number of local governments is legendary. Armed with powers delegated by the state, most notably with respect to land use planning and education, this has set things up nicely for a segregation into the wealthy enclaves, the also-rans, and those who did not even make it to the starting gate. This makes any redistributional politics within metropolitan areas, as for example, sharing out property tax money for schools, impossible. Nice work if you can get it, and certainly a big contributor to a problem of inequality in conditions of life that goes back much further than the current crisis.

Most important, is the way that decentralization reinforces certain features of the American social formation that condemn it to reproducing its dysfunctionality and put in place a massive obstacle to any serious reform. The American brand of individualism, the preference for market over state, gets reinforced by the way in which state and local governments – extraordinarily generous by the standards of elsewhere in the developed world – allow the state to function as a quasi-market, squeezing the working class under its relentless pressure. States compete for investment by advertising their ‘business climate’: something made possible by the way in which they are responsible for a big chunk of labor law. Local governments compete for the wealthy as well as new business investment, so long as it doesn’t scare them away with its unseemly intrusion into their green retreats. Both then draw on the fragmented federal state for particular favors; something made possible by the much vaunted, only practiced where it suits the ruling class, separation of powers: so a continuing stream of irrigation money for agriculture and real estate interests in Arizona; a juicy Department of Defense contract for Boeing for tanker refueling aircraft – much sought by the Senators and Congress-people from states where Boeing has plants or offices, like Washington, Kansas, South Carolina and Illinois. And on it goes.

This particular structure has then been superimposed on a country that is still quite unevenly developed. The South showed signs of convergence on average American levels of prosperity during the golden branch plant years of the 60s and 70s but has since started to regress again. For any progressive federal legislation, the South has always been a stumbling block; and for any non-progressive legislation, like the misnamed ‘right-to-work’ clause of the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, a keen facilitator. Ever wonder why the US has no ‘national’ welfare state but fifty of them, all highly variable in their provision? Go back to the New Deal debates about national coverage for social security and income supplements like aid to single-parent households. Both would be held hostage by Southern Senators and representatives anxious about their low wage labor market and keen to preserve it. How to prevent boy friends leaching off single-mothers? How to prevent early retirement by agricultural workers? Aid to Families With Dependent Children would become a federal-state program and not just federal: federal contributions would depend on how generous states wanted to be, and Southern states would turn out to be not generous at all. As for social security: simply exclude from the provisions of the legislation domestic servants, of which there were many in the South, and likewise agricultural workers.

Sunkara calls for a revamping of the constitution. This is going to be extremely difficult. There are too many interests vested in the advantages that it provides them. The decentralized form has to be countered, but how? The country is simply too big and diverse for the sort of centralization more common elsewhere. A more feasible solution would be to move to something approximating the EU: a division of the US into four or five separate countries, therefore, but with a common market and some central regulation imposing a common regulatory imprint. Again, don’t hold your breath. Meanwhile, there is agitation from diverse sources in the United Kingdom for a decentralization of powers and responsibilities to local government, not least from a North of England that feels neglected. If the American case is anything to go by, be careful what you wish for.



4 thoughts on “The Problem with America and How Geography Matters

  1. Good article. The capitalist class best strategy has always been decentralization, pluralization, fragmentation, and competition.
    My question is what would your solution or alternative look like?
    As a socialist we need a socialist constitution, a unitary state, collective ownership, and collective capacity.


    • Thanks so much for this; appreciated.

      Things change, but radical change is, of course, the most difficult of all. Lots of things have to come together: understandings of the world, technologies, ecological conditions, a serious shift in the balance of class power, along with institutional experiments that point a way to the future. We won’t know the future till we are on its cusp and currently we are a long way off. Two suggestions: The old claim that you can’t plan on a large scale is obviously untrue. The platform economy and the big banks are cases in point. To declare them as public utilities would be an important step. Worker ownership of firms would be another. They already exist, as in the much cited Mondragon case. For other ideas, Erik Olin Wright’s ‘real utopias’ project is worth exploring.


  2. I have only read the reviews. What he is describing – the dominance of local government by development interests – has a long history of which he might not be aware. Recall that Harvey Molotch was talking about it almost fifty years ago. My forthcoming book on Columbus confirms that view. Also, I have the sense from the reviews that he is extending his view of developer dominance to other major capitalist countries. I think that needs to be qualified, as I describe in my 2016 book on development politics in the US and in Western Europe. Countries matter.


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