The Americans of de Tocqueville’s time, when they wanted to make something happen, didn’t march around with placards or write their legislators demanding that the government do it. Instead, far more often than not, they simply put together a private association for the purpose, and did it themselves.
— John Michael Greer
When various transitioners and change makers seek to influence the politics, economy and future course of a small town, they first organize a civic association. There are many kinds, from churches and town beautification committees all the way to activist groups and guerrilla gardener clubs. Alexis de Tocqueville rightly saw such civic underpinnings as something essential, the very foundation of American democracy.
These civic groups in turn seek to influence the official power holders — the town hall and its minions. They serve as pressure groups while working on the particular projects they have undertaken, and so act to counterbalance the power gathered by local politicians and bureaucrats. Among Transition Towners in particular, there’s been much debate whether and how much one ought to work with the folks at town hall; in Europe, there seems to be more cooperation across that particular divide than here in the States.
There is, however, another power-wielding group in every town, and it rarely gets the consideration it deserves. Professor Domhoff has done a great deal of research on and written extensively about these people — the so-called “growth coalition.”
Local power structures are land-based growth coalitions. They seek to intensify land use. In economic terms, the “place entrepreneurs” at the center of the growth coalitions are trying to maximize “rents” from land and buildings, which is a little different than the goal of the corporate community — maximizing profits from the sale of goods and services.
Unlike the capitalist, the place entrepreneur’s goal is not profit from production, but rent from trapping human activity in place. Besides sale prices and regular payments made by tenants to landlords, we take rent to include, more broadly, outlays made to realtors, mortgage lenders, title companies, and so forth. The people who are involved in generating rent are the investors in land and buildings and the professionals who serve them. We think of them as a special class among the privileged, analogous to the classic “rentiers” of a former age in a modern urban form.
The most typical way of intensifying land use is growth, and this growth usually expresses itself in a constantly rising population. A successful local elite is one that is able to attract the corporate plants and offices, the defense contracts, the federal and state agencies, and/or the educational and research establishments that lead to an expanded work force. An expanded work force and its attendant purchasing power in turn lead to an expansion of retail and other commercial activity, extensive land and housing development, and increased financial activity. It is because this chain of events is at the core of any developed locality that the city is for all intents and purposes a “growth machine,” and those who dominate it are a “growth coalition.”
Although the growth coalition is based in land ownership, it includes all those interests that profit from the intensification of land use. Thus, executives from the local bank, the savings and loan, the telephone company, the gas and electric company, and the local department store are often quite prominent as well. As in the case of the corporate community, the underlying unity within the growth coalition is most visibly expressed in the intertwining boards of directors among local companies. And, as with the corporate community, the central meeting points are most often the banks, where executives from the utilities companies and the department stores meet with the largest landlords and developers. There is one other important component of the local growth coalition: the daily newspaper. The newspaper is deeply committed to local growth so that its circulation and, even more important, its pages of advertising, will continue to rise. [And] labor unions often join the developers as part of the pro-growth coalition.
Rather obviously, the primary role of government is to promote growth according to this view. It is not the only function, but it is the central one, and the one most often ignored by those who write about city government. City departments of planning and public works, among several, become allies of the growth coalition with the hope that their departments will grow and prosper. In addition, government often provides the funds for the boosterism that gives the city name recognition and an image of togetherness, which are considered important by the growth coalitions in attracting industry, and government officials are expected to be the growth coalition’s ambassadors to outside investors.
The growth coalitions also have a well-crafted set of rationales, created over the course of many decades, to justify their actions to the general public. Most of all, this ideology is based in the idea that growth is about jobs, not about profits.
It never fails to amaze me how little these people figure in the plans and schemes of those who wish to transform towns in the direction of greater livability, sustainability, prosperity and democracy. While the civic group contingent provides checks and balances for the powers-that-be at the town hall, who minds the ballast on the side opposite the growth coalition so the boat does not capsize?
Political powers assembled off the radar can wreak a great deal of damage unless they are checked by another powerful group, one not under their thumb. And we all know that, right? We are all suffering from a global system where governments function, more and more, as glorified gofers and talking heads for the new sultanate: the shadowy, transnational coalition of bankers and financiers whose doings escape scrutiny and accountability. Similarly, if a town’s citizens have over generations permitted the growth coalition to turn their town hall into a servant of profit rather than common good, isn’t it utterly naïve to think that the civic group contingent could possibly provide adequate checks and balances to this formidable unholy alliance?
John Michael Greer has been making hints for some time about the benefits of old-fashioned benevolent societies from Freemasons to Moose to the Odd Fellows. Not so long ago, they played an important role in America’s public life, a role that stretches all the way back to the early days of the republic. Providing a powerful social presence in each community, they were committed to improve local quality of life above all. Most of these groups fell on hard times in the 50s and 60s as the result of the government taking over the caregiving functions which once provided inexpensive health care and other welfare benefits to member families. But I suspect there is more to the loss of membership. The 50s and 60s were also times of relentless pro-science propaganda (Better life through chemistry!) and the promotion of sober secularism (God is dead! Religion will fade by the end of the century!). In this opinion climate, the once secret inner workings of the lodges acquired a whiff of embarrassment. What I think of as the “silly hats, mumbo jumbo and secret handshakes” routine has seen its better days, and the only folks I know who still hang onto that particular style of old timey mystique and pageantry without loss of membership are the Latter Day Saints.
There was a very good reason why Freemasonry was first feared and persecuted, then infiltrated by the rich and famous (both Mozart and emperor Joseph II belonged). It had become an important locus of power through the creation of a trustworthy and united brotherhood devoted to the betterment of the human world and shielded from the prying eyes of the other powers-that-be.
Humans love social games that shroud their companionate doings with a veil of secrecy and throw in a dab of useful magic. Long ago, there were the secret rituals among awe-inspiring paintings and eerie echoing music in deep caves. Much later, the early Christians celebrated their love feasts well away from public view, hid in the catacombs, and signaled to each other through graffiti of fishes and other symbols. Various “heretics” of the Middle Ages, like the Brethren of the Free Spirit and later Anabaptists, walked from town to town, hiding in the cracks of the system, opening minds. Then came Freemasons and took Europe and America by storm. And now we have millions-strong computer gamer brotherhoods like the World of Warcraft, where devoted virtual-warriors ally with and battle each other in the interest of some benevolent vision, through magic powers they acquire along the way. The might of discreet alliances with other trusted people is immeasurable. It can more than counterbalance the power of money and influence peddling, as long as it has the numbers, the vision, and the unity.
There was a time in late 19th century America when obscure rural lodges came quietly into being, first in west Texas pioneer country. Much later, they gained fame as the Populist movement. Their secret lodges had all the various customary trappings of magic and spectacle and grew like Topsy, creating wildly popular cooperative arrangements that favored the interests of small farmers and ranchers. This alliance eventually spread into many states, and provided the grassroots power that nearly came to tipping the balance not only in state politics, but nationwide.
Close, but no cigar. They made a huge mistake. Forgetting their place in the scheme of things, they “outed” themselves in the eager hope of grabbing political positions with their chosen candidates. In other words, they moved into the civic group square in the diagram, while also playing politics in the government square. Having abandoned the place that gave them power, they were coopted. The elites of the growth coalition — the large landed interests, along with the robber barons and their helpers — lacking effective counterbalance, won. Again.
Taking Greer’s advice makes sense. It’s time to learn from the lodges of old, build on their templates, and with the help of skilled young computer gamers create new ones so opaque to the powers-that-be, and so imbued with a deep kind of magic suited for the 21st century, that their power will discreetly begin to right the balance that has wronged our world for so long. Only trustworthy people grown united and fired up by the zeal to make lives good again for each other and those who come after, will be able to finally put public governance on a sound footing and stage the second American Revolution. Do you object to the secret agendas of the elites? Then let us create our own secret agendas, ones that befit a free people devoted to furthering our common weal!