The Question of Local Attachment

The interest in the so-called ‘left behind’ raises the obvious question as to exactly what it means. The obvious interpretation is that of economic marginality; notably unemployment and diminishing job opportunities. It can also be given more cultural meanings, which might explain why so many of the old were seduced by Trump and by the siren songs of Brexit. But assuming a more literal geographic interpretation, then the question arises as to why people want to stay where they are. One of the answers has been ‘local attachment.’ But what exactly does that amount to? Understanding why people are locally attached is not straightforward. The clearest explanation that I have come across was offered by Peter Marris in a book that was written almost fifty years ago. In Loss and Change he covers a variety of existential situations, like bereavement and forced relocation as a result of urban renewal. Extension to the idea of local attachment is not difficult. In each instance a shared meaning system is disrupted and the reason that it is felt as ‘disruptive’ is what Marris calls ‘the conservative impulse.’ So in the first instance, it is an emotional response.

According to Marris, people seek, for whatever reason, some predictability in their lives. Events that are hard to interpret and fit into existing meaning systems are stressful. He emphasizes the concrete nature of human purpose. Purposes in a more abstract sense are given by the particular society in which people live: so getting and keeping a job, attending school, talking with the neighbors, visiting the pub, being a mother, father or whatever – what, in the first instance, we are socialized into. But not any job, school, parent, neighbor or pub.

Individual purpose internalizes the highly particular contexts, events, practices, people through whom or through which it is realized, so that they are inseparable. If those highly concrete relations disappear – the death of a parent, the closure of a plant, having to go to another school – then it can be traumatic. So the other side of wage slavery turns out to be the enduring relations built up with fellow workers. When a plant closes it is not just the loss of a job, since a new one may be easy to find, but the loss of close personal relations, and there are lots of media stories in support of this. The same with the effects of urban renewal: relations not just with people but with a particular built environment are taken away. So ‘security’, which makes one think of Anthony Giddens’ notion of ‘ontological security’: a trust in the continuity of life whose disruption results in anxiety.

What holds these different relations together is that they tend to be distance constrained and overlap in their spatiality. Crucially, lives are lived locally and meaning systems constructed accordingly. The way to school might also be the way to the shops. As we leave the house, we see the same familiar faces and the same practices and then the same familiar landscape. If there is something of an emotionally negative sort, then we try to exclude it from our daily time-space budgeting. Our purposes are inseparable from the circumstances of place and of people-in-place, within which they are realized. We are attached to particular localities through the way in which they mediate our lives and we identify with that place. If we think back on our lives, then what happened is inseparable from the particular places involved. These experiences of a particular geography tend to be shared, so people are attached through the same streets, parks, buildings, and local events.

Parenthetically, Marxism has tended to be blind to the emotional content of these sorts of relation. It has what the sociologist Jack Barbalet has referred to as a cognitive bias. Relations to place are read strictly in terms of rationality, like protecting domestic property values or getting a child into a ‘good’ school. This is in seeming indifference to the claims of ties of a more emotional sort. Famously in the Communist Manifesto it is argued that the “The working men have no country”, and presumably no particular place at all, though when Marx got to talking in the Eighteenth Brumaire about the possibilities of revolution, he had a different view of matters: “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.” In short, attachments get in the way.

To talk about ‘local attachment’ might suggest a rather simple geography of attachment to one particular place and one that, moreover, is ‘local.’ Obviously we can be attached to more places than one. People go on holiday to the same place every year, and go walking in the same parks. For each there is a geography in which we are attached to particular places more than others – where we went to university, on holiday, a place important in our formation, and for me, the small Durham colliery village in which my mother grew up and which I often visited as a child: close family ties and visits to relatives, but also familiar smells of coal tar, and reassuring sights, like the biggest pit heap in County Durham – all relationships indissociable from one another and intensified by a child’s love for his mother.

I was reminded of the scalar aspects of attachment through a quite brilliant article by Gábor Scheiring that recently appeared in Sociology (2020, 1159-1177): Left Behind in the Hungarian Rustbelt: The Cultural Political Economy of Working-Class Neo-Nationalism.[1] In Hungary, the transition from communism was particularly brutal. A whole way of life, local in its scale, and a very secure one, was destroyed: company housing, subsidized vacations, company sports teams and social activities. By international standards de-industrialization was unusual in its magnitude. An implicit social contract was violated; expectations about the future, a reasonable standard of living through which families might be sustained, and based on past experience, crushed. As Scheiring added, “The violation of the implicit social contract leads to anger and outrage that can be expressed in various forms …”

Identities have recently shifted from the local working class community to the national. Globalization has been identified as what has destroyed the world that they knew. A new cosmopolitan elite in Budapest and foreign owned companies that have imposed a regime of severe insecurity are the more concrete vectors of this. Instead of being working class Hungarians, they are now simply Hungarians viewing the rest of the world, including immigrants, as the threat. There is, though, a suggestion that this did not have to be; that the Hungarian Socialist Party abdicated responsibility for reconstructing a meaning system that would have placed the working class at the center once more. In short, the ‘left behind’ could have been constructed in a different way, though with the way globalization talk was promoted by the media it might always have been difficult.

The recent publicity given to the ‘left behind’ might suggest that local attachment is something new. Assuming the interpretation that I have given it, that cannot possibly be so. One might certainly argue that the shocks endured by some local economies through de-industrialization have brought deeply felt emotions to the surface to an unusual degree by placing local meaning systems in doubt. But even something as simple as that is in question. In 1930s England, unemployment was quite massive and had a distinct geography. The unemployment suffered in areas of heavy industry and coalmining is well-known; less so is the fact that the Midlands and the Southeast enjoyed a relative boom. But no-one complained about being ‘left behind.’ What they complained about was unemployment and destitution. The territorial interpretation given by the trope of ‘left behind’, if it existed at all, was sidelined by one much more rooted in class understandings. Unemployment was something shared with others elsewhere and to be the focus of a class-conscious political agenda. When people voted for the Labour Party in the historic election of 1945, they were certainly anxious about work and housing in the places where they lived. But the Labour Party aggregated these demands across all localities and imparted a different understanding that cut across territorial claims. Much has happened since then; not least the shift from more ideologically driven parties to the catch-all party, more entrepreneurial, more cynical, and casting around for a winning formula, even if it means stigmatizing the immigrants. Local attachment is real; but how it is expressed politically is clearly variable, highly contextualized, and fraught with implications.

[1] Thanks to Deborah Galimberti for recommending it.

2 thoughts on “The Question of Local Attachment

  1. Very good. On loss and change and its relationships with place: I wonder sometimes whether yearnings relating to a sense of loss of youth are part of Brexit type politics – not just in Britain, but elsewhere (your Hungarian example is similar). It is the older people who feel more strongly about such loss, partly because their memories of youthful innocence and its ‘simple pleasures’ (first loves, etc.) are situated within the now idealised locality of ‘the old place’.


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