Here are three complementary articles on the decline of middle America, the idea of the local (and its discontents), and some speculation on the future of the wide, anonymous country between the two coasts. There are plenty of observations to agree with, plenty to quibble with, and as this is a blog, I choose to quibble with Daniel Larison, who says with admirable concision:
The cosmopolites, as Prof. Deneen calls them, see many of the advantages of localism but want none of the obligations. They are starved for what it provides, and so wish to escape the confines of their way of life, but they are unwilling to enter into the confines of the local, perhaps because they prefer status rather than happiness or perhaps because they have become so accustomed to the life of the displaced tourist that they cannot imagine being still for any prolonged period of time. The locavore and organic food habits that serve as proof that their way of life is in important ways unsatisfying are themselves a temporary remedy that serves to fill in the gaps and mask the costs of their way of life. The locals, meanwhile, want the products that the world of the cosmopolites can provide, and, as Jeremy argued, many of them want to enter into that world, never fully understanding that their homes will change dramatically and often for the worse as a result of their departure.While partly true, this is poorly observed, a high-altitude view that fails to see the fine gradations of terrain available to the man on the ground. Some of the so-called cosmopolites seek "the advantages of localism but . . . none of the obligations." I suspect that in addition to trendy, green-washed celebrities, the person that Deenan and Larrison have in mind here is the proverbial affluent liberal, who buys local produce, but mostly at Whole Foods, who has a Prius, but also a BMW X5, who buys low-energy bulbs, but uses them to light a 3,000 sq. ft. house, who likes the neighborhood but also takes two far-flung vacations a year. We have a fair number of this sort on Pittsburgh's East End, but surely they're yet more common in the Boston or D.C. metropoles.
Frankly, though, in my experience and observation, the majority of support for local agriculture or urban reclamation originates not in the lawyerly upper echelons of social liberalism but among younger, educated-but-middle-income singles and families resettling in cities like my own Pittsburgh. These may not be people willing to return to the small towns of Indiana, where there remains such a dearth of opportunity that returning would promise only inescapable poverty, but they are migrating to infill the previously declining neighborhoods of some of America's rust belt. Hell, I even saw some promising signs in Buffalo on a recent trip. I'm not a sentimentalist about this, and don't think that post-hipster art farters are going to save the mid-sized American city, but I do think that intellectual commitments to localism as well as the purer economic drivers such as the search for low-cost housing will continue to support this trend for the foreseeable future.
Larison quotes Deenan:
This, in a microcosm, is a central paradox of our political system: our cosmopolite meritocrats theoretically admire localism but abhore [sic] the idea of living within the confines that such life would entail; our Red-State locals tend to despise cosmopolites, but support (and vote for) an economic system that encourages borderlessness, placelessness, and a profoundly abstract economy that has the effect of eviscerating those very localities. This arrangement is one of the central features undermining the localist cause today, and it’s difficult to see how it will be reversed.I don't think it's so difficult to see how it will be reversed. This arrangement is also wholly temporary. WalMart is a behemoth, yes, but a vulnerable one. Its network of far-flung production and distribution is not sustainable. The model of producing cheaply in Asia and shipping cheaply to the US and Europe cannot continue indefinitely. The cost of labor in Asia is rising, and although the cost of petroleum is still far down from its previous highs, anyone with half a semester of statistics can plot the trend lines and see that the cost of ships, planes, trains, and automobiles will increase.
Meanwhile, although Glen Reynolds and the transhumanist mafia may not get their borg bodies just yet, it is true that the future of manufacturing, whether clothing or electronics or tools to till the soil, is specialized, local, made-to-specification. The economic infeasibility of far-flung mass production and the ongoing advances in production and materials science are going to have repurcussions for the way we live, and it seems to me that there may yet be a medium to be reached in our self-sustaining little enclaves, a three-dimensional printer in every pot, a modest nuclear deterrent in every grain silo.