The general malaise which seems to grip America these days is often characterized as a “crisis of leadership.”
The implication is that our problem lies in the personalities of our leaders; that if only the right person could be elevated to the Presidency, our problems would be solved, our days brightened and our loads lightened.
Prudence, however, suggests an alternative view of our crisis, for even a cursory look at recent history appears to undercut conventional wisdom. Over the last two generations, surely, the American Presidency has been occupied by remarkably disparate personalities.
Obviously, the problem with America does not derive from personality at all. We’ve had experience with too many different types to seriously believe that. Our trouble is more basic.
The American crisis is one of structure and scale. Our great leaders have not failed, but our great – and huge – institutions are failing, at this very moment. New characters in the same old roles will not solve our problem, for the roles themselves, not the players, are at fault.
Whether one approved or abhorred the war in Indochina, it is clear that the federal establishment, manned by “the best and the brightest” miserably misled the citizenry in conducting that war.
Everybody knows that the federal government promises a lot and delivers damn little, and pays for most of what it does deliver out of the earnings of individuals rather than the profits of great corporations.
Scale is not just a problem of the federal government. Indeed, a classic example of structural failure with which we are all familiar is the contemporary American city. In fact there is no major U.S. city which can point to an increase in governmental scale as ushering in a better life for its citizens.
If big is indeed better, it follows that New York or Los Angeles should be as problem-free as any city in the world. Theoretically, the citizens of both cities should choose to live in the largest, most densely populated areas, rather than in the smaller scale environs of ethnic neighborhoods, as in New York, and the suburban cities-within-the-city, as in Los Angeles.
People do not choose such environments, however, because ordinary common sense provides an intuitive understanding that scale is crucial in social organization; that at every level of enterprise and government in America the advantages of increase sale have long since been passed.
What, then, should be the new focus of social scale? In my view, the tightest and best unit is the neighborhood, the place where people know one another – or at least have the geographical opportunity to know one another – and where most of one’s life is spent.
My own neighborhood, in a so-called ghetto area of Washington, D.C., exemplifies the benefits to be gained by redirecting attention from the largest to the smallest of social organizational units.
For approximately 3,500 of the 31,000 people in the Morgan Adams neighborhood, the most appropriate formal organization for making decisions has turned out to be an unofficial town meeting. This voluntary government by assembly requires each person to participate. No one can dodge responsibility by electing someone to do the job.
Without legal status, this town meeting has organized neighborhoodwide street cleaning; established forums to deal with tenant-landlord disputes; started work on a neighborhood health clinic; taken over the maintenance of some public spaces, and even now is addressing the crucial problem of street crime (with first efforts focused on establishing a shared anticrime culture rather than calls for more police). Indeed, Spanish-speaking residents of our triracial neighborhood have already instituted volunteer escort service and street patrols.
The worker-managed grocery stores we have established not only provide good, cheap food but also show how we can move toward industrial democracy, just as the town meeting points toward real political democracy. Worker-managed bookshops, record stores, alternative schools (including one at high school level), construction “collectives” and even an institute of science, with which I am closely involved – all these have emerged as well in our neighborhood. (Our science institute has successfully developed a way to produce significant crops of vegetables on urban rooftops, and to utilize a network of basement water tanks to produce tons of rainbow trout.)
So with government, which can be treated in much the same way. It too can operate on a human scale, with local interests represented in regional and national federations or forums called for particular purpose.
To do this, Americans might have to sacrifice the office and institution of “The Great Leader.” But since “Great Leaders” seem to be as much a part of the problem as the solution, that would be a small price to pay.
Americans are misguided in their continuing search for new leaders. Rather, they should seek rewarding social institutions to ensure a better life.
In this quest, the first thing to throw out is the old yardstick that measured quality by size and growth.
From the Tri-City Herald May 25, 1975(Originally appeared in the Washington Post)