Neighbourhood Government

Picture of houses in a city. By Anita Hillestad

The impulse for communities to manage themselves is, to communalists, a thread running throughout history. Obscured by the state’s monopolisation of power, this political realm frequently has a subterranean existence, bubbling to the surface in challenges to the professional control of local affairs, before receding again.

One recent, though barely remembered, upsurge of popular democracy was the US neighbourhood power movement of the late 1960s and ‘70s.

An early chronicler of the movement was Chicago-based organiser, Milton Kotler, whose manifesto Neighborhood Government appeared in 1969. Amid the violent conflicts and anti-war protests of the late 1960s, Kotler discovered “a movement for local control” across America. In the poorest parts of US cities, people were coming together to change their lives in a tangible, political sense. They were demanding the transfer of political authority to institutions they directly controlled, and were using that democratic power to pass their own laws and control rents, prices, banks, taxation, schools, housing and welfare programmes.

A history of self-government

Kotler located this movement for self-rule in the neighbourhoods of cities. The neighbourhood had a special meaning for him. It is not, as commonly assumed, just a place where people live and socialise. It is, buried deeply under the surface of central state control, a political unit. He defined the neighbourhood as “a political settlement of small territory and familiar association, whose absolute property is its capacity for deliberative democracy.”

Kotler delved into American history to show how the neighbourhoods of many US cities were once independent self-governing territories before being annexed and then subjugated by larger entities around them. Originally, many US cities were directly democratic: political decisions were made by town meetings of citizens. In these town democracies there were factions but not organised political parties. This popular democracy was gradually replaced in the nineteenth century by what he calls “aristocratic government” through elected representatives.

But this was not just an American phenomenon. Kotler claimed that the “fundamental character” of modern revolution has been local insurrection against the central power of the state. Like Murray Bookchin in The Third Revolution, he saw this movement for grassroots control in the Parisian sections of the French Revolution and the factory and neighbourhood soviets of the Russian Revolution; a flowering of decentralised democracy that was stamped out by centralising Girondists and Bolsheviks.

East central citizens organisation

In late 1960s America, in cities like New York, Philadelphia and New Orleans, that revolutionary tradition was being revived. Kotler recorded in detail the experience of one attempt to develop neighbourhood democracy in Columbus, Ohio which began with the formation of the East Central Citizens Organization (ECCO) in 1965.

ECCO started as a local service provider in a neighbourhood of 6,500 residents with an unemployment rate far above the city’s average. The participants decided to legally incorporate the neighbourhood, creating an organisation open to all local residents. They vested legislative power in an assembly, and elected an executive council to carry on the administration of decisions between meetings of the assembly. Political clubs in each of the four districts of the neighbourhood had the task of initiating discussions and new programmes which were put before the main assembly. Within three years, the organisation was operating a public health service programme and a veterinary clinic, purchasing houses for rehabilitation, operating a credit union and was planning to open a supermarket.

But ECCO did not just regard itself as a provider of necessary services to local people. It wanted “territorial jurisdiction over public activities.” It controlled federal anti-poverty programmes in the neighbourhood and had de facto control over programmes for young people. It also had jurisdiction over the local library, appointing the librarian and selecting books. It hoped, in time, to be legally designated a political entity of the municipal government.  Kotler saw the significance of ECCO in its “liberation of practical political deliberation.” “For the first time,” he wrote, “residents legally decide certain matters of community life. They are steadily practising the art of political decision-making and living with and learning from the consequences of their decisions. ECCO residents are now orators and officials, and practical political wisdom is developing in a community where earlier the only expressions were frustration and escape.” This is the essence of philosopher Hannah Arendt’s definition of political freedom – the right to be a participant in government.

The transfer of power

Despite this transformation, Kotler regarded ECCO as only travelling a few steps towards genuine self-rule. He likened poor neighbourhoods to colonised countries. Everything sold inside the community is owned outside. Everything earned flows to outside ownership. To redress this, neighbourhoods needed to regulate their own territorial economy. They needed the authority to tax businesses and citizens and to decide how that revenue is spent. Local people should control local production and be employed in local enterprises. “It’s reasonable,” he said, for neighbourhoods “to control prices, rents, licensing and banking.”

Kotler claimed that were a community to constitute itself to weld such economic and political power, it would form a neighbourhood government. It is worth dwelling on what he meant. He was not referring to greater public participation in centrally planned political programmes. He was not talking about local people taking or being given, control over single institutions, such as schools – which would be in effect, if isolated from any collective democratic structure, a form of privatisation. And he did not have in mind the informal participation of ephemeral protest movements or free-floating assemblies brought together to deal with single issues. Self-rule meant, to him, the transfer of the legal authority of the state, to permanent, legally-constituted, directly democratic entities, open to all citizens and possessing their own formal constitutions and rules.

“Political power has two components,” wrote Kotler, “prudent decision and forceful action.” This definition view of government as potentially the directly democratic exercise of self-rule by a community – entirely separate to government by a state – has also been made by Bookchin. “A government – or better still, a polity – is an ensemble designed to deal with the problems of consociational life in an orderly and hopefully fair manner,” he writes in The Communalist Project. “Every institutionalized association that constitutes a system for handling public affairs – with or without the presence of a state – is necessarily a government.”

Justifying neighbourhood democracy

Neighbourhood government was posited by Kotler as the democratic alternative to national representative government, which purports to be the apogee of democracy but isn’t. “We have been told so often that our government is ‘democratic’ that we have failed to realise that is only representative,” he wrote. “Once we elect our representatives, our voice in day to day political decision is lost.” But in neighbourhood government, law-making power remains in the demos, the people.

In his book Neighborhood Government Kotler undertakes an extensive justification of this form of government against the familiar claims of its representative opponent. When faced with any experiment in direct democracy, the advocates of representative government usually claim that it is has no legitimacy because few people will actually participate. Kotler takes as an example ECCO, where attendance fluctuates from between 10 and 25 per cent of the membership. But even attendance at the low end of this range “is quite sufficient to bring all political positions of common concern and interest to the forum for deliberation,” he says. “Even a 10 per cent quorum usually encompasses the widest existing range of political opinion and emotion.” A local councillor by contract may be elected by as little as 10 per cent of the electorate, and will have ultimate power to decide on political matters for the whole community until the election comes around again.

Neighbourhood democracy is also more likely to serve the common interest than representative government where the interests of the wealthy intercede between the voters and the council or government they elect. “Law-making by an assembly of citizens will favour the many rather than few simply because wealth and special interest have a smaller voice in the assembly than in elected councils,” Kotler wrote. But this does not mean that there will be no stratifications of power or divisions in assemblies. Factions and internal political groups will exist. Without them neighbourhood democracy would have no motion or direction, but they won’t turn into political parties attempting to gain control of the state. Kotler sought to distinguish the neighbourhood power movement from other political theories that used the local community as the springboard for political activism. Most notably, he rejected the approach of the father of community organising Saul Alinsky, whose Chicago-based Industrial Areas Foundation was later to train the current Commander in Chief of the United States. In Kotler’s view, Alinksy saw the neighbourhood in instrumental, rather than political terms. Alinsky wanted to organise neighbourhood power to exert a continuous pressure on central government in order to extract political concessions in areas such as housing, jobs or wages. He never saw the potential of the neighbourhood as a place of community self-rule.

Future citizens' assemblies

The neighbourhood power movement spread to most major US cities during the 1970s, even reaching as far as Montreal. Kotler himself founded the National Association of Neighborhoods in 1974. The movement subsided after the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and then disappeared completely. But as the Argentinean neighbourhood assemblies and experiments such as Marsh Farm in the UK show, the impulse for face to face democracy and self-rule – the political realm – keeps recurring.

There are limitations in Kotler’s vision. He was hazy about how citizens’ organisations in different neighbourhoods should federate together. He assumed that neighbourhoods merely need to control economic enterprises within their boundaries. There was – understandably for 1968 – no mention of ecology and he established an unnecessary conflict between the desire for social equality and political liberty, while summarily dismissing class struggle. But as a flesh and blood example of how citizens’ assemblies can constitute themselves and begin to take political power and authority, the neighbourhood power movement he chronicled has valuable lessons for social ecologists and communalists.


Editorial Comment

Published in Communalism #1 December 2009