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Local Knowledge and Occupy Sandy


Among the books that have shaped my political understanding, one of the most important is James Scott’s Seeing Like a State [2]. Scott seeks to understand why, in the twentieth century, so many vast, comprehensive, progressive schemes for social improvement failed, and failed tragically. Having analyzed a series of those failures, he comes around in his conclusion to a celebration of metis, which is an ancient Greek word for practical know-how, local knowledge arising from long intimacy in a place.

Much of the world of metis that we have lost is the all but inevitable result of industrialization and the division of labor. And much of this loss was experienced as a liberation from toil and drudgery. But it would be a serious error to believe that the destruction of metis was merely the inadvertent and necessary by-product of economic progress. The destruction of metis and its replacement by standardized formulas legible only from the center is virtually inscribed in the activities of both the state and large-scale bureaucratic capitalism. As a “project,” it is the object of constant initiatives which are never entirely successful, for no forms of production or social life can be made to work by formulas alone — that is, without metis.

The inestimable value of metis has just been illustrated once more by Occupy Sandy [3], where New York-area people who had participated in the Occupy Wall Street protests last year have found a new reason to organize: helping their neighbors. Some people involved in this wonderful project see it as an opportunity to cheerlead for Our (Godless) Side [4], but as it happens the endeavor seems to have started in a church in Brooklyn [5].

This is the kind of thing that churches and other religious organizations have specialized in for a long, long time. When, last year, a tornado ripped through the Alabama valley where my sister lives [6] the local churches were immediately out in force with food, water, and offers of shelter to the newly homeless. So Occupy Sandy isn’t doing anything those backward old Red State Christians aren’t quite familiar with. (Wait, am I cheerleading for My Side now? Oh, what the heck.) But what Occupy is doing is fantastic, as the regional head of FEMA said to the leaders [7].

Mightn’t there be lessons here that people from across the political spectrum can learn? For instance, that it’s not always good to “see like a state”; that in times of crisis local knowledge and local attachments are almost infinitely more valuable than plans imposed and controlled from afar; that metis is powerfully effective whether employed by those on the nominal Left or those on the nominal Right. And if all that is true in times of crisis, maybe a more thoroughgoing celebration and empowering of the local might be a good idea in everyday life as well.

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7 Comments To "Local Knowledge and Occupy Sandy"

#1 Comment By David Ryan On November 11, 2012 @ 3:42 pm

Back when dinosaurs walked the earth I did a project or two (or twenty) with the relief arms of one or another religious organizations.

One of the things I remember being told was that local parishes were often better “points of entry” into an area in need because the local parish was often more stable than the government, currency, etc. There might be several coups and/or revolutions in the course of as many years, but the leadership local parish would (often remain constant.)

I also think it must be very embarrassing to show up for Sunday worship having failed to fulfill one’s role in a phone tree. The power of shame is poorly understood…

#2 Comment By Peter On November 11, 2012 @ 9:45 pm

I’m very sympathetic to the idea of metis and to the value of celebrating the local but I wonder what the limit of this attitude is. I mean, metis sounds great when it comes to disaster relief. And I think we can all agree that the “social improvement” projects of Stalin and Mao were unmitigated disasters. But aren’t there other times when the, uh, peculiar institutions of the locality are justifiably removed by the power of the central state? Whether the issue is American slavery, or the civil rights movement, or the indictment of some corrupt local official by a federal prosecutor, or the enforcement of food safety laws on the dirty chicken plant down the road, aren’t some social improvements achieved precisely by using the state to override local custom and practice?

#3 Comment By Janis Gore On November 12, 2012 @ 12:45 am

I gave $250 to Occupy Sandy today. A week ago or so I gave $250 to the Red Cross through weather.com, which matched my donation.

I live in Louisiana. I do hurricanes, but I ain’t never seen one that big. And I worked with a local Baptist church here in value to bring what relief I could to victims of Katrina.

It’s a broad effort. The more people who set their ears to the ground and their noses to the grindstone, the better off we’ll all be.

#4 Comment By Janis Gore On November 12, 2012 @ 12:46 am

And I have no idea where that “in value” came from in that sentence. Sorry.

#5 Comment By Sean Scallon On November 12, 2012 @ 1:26 am

Probably the smartest thing they’ve ever done. Certainly the best.

#6 Comment By Russell Arben Fox On November 12, 2012 @ 7:36 am

I’m a late convert to Scott’s work, Alan, but lately I’ve been reading quite a bit of it. His recent book on the “stateless” peasant farmers of upland Southeast Asia has made me think hard about how much even the most highly-praised of localist endeavors–our image of the Jeffersonian, yeoman landowner–is itself wrapped up state-based assumptions, and whether there’s any way to get away from that; that is, for “metis” alone to truly yield the localist virtues which classic republicans and communitarians and Burkean conservatives have long prioritized. Scott has a new collection on anarchism out now; I’m looking forward to diving into that.

#7 Comment By Aaron Gross On November 12, 2012 @ 8:03 am

Some of the most important local work has probably been done by local governments: police, fire departments, etc. The government: local knowledge and local attachments.