Sunday, August 23, 2015

Community Rights or Games of Thrones? Response to Thomas Linzey, the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund

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Thomas Linzey of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) certainly makes a persuasive argument with respect to the plainly undemocratic effectively dictatorial powers wielded by corporations. He is also, I think, dead-on concerning the very limited scope of recent court decisions that provide, as he puts it, only ephemeral success to municipalities--communities that have earnestly sought to act in the best interest of their constituents. 

But there are serious problems--and they come to this:
Linzey doesn't go far enough to articulate either what is a community or--and intimately related--where the powers of a community ends and those of a state or federal government are legitimately exercised.

These are crucial issues. Here are just a few examples:

1. What in Linzey's argument prevents a community of the very wealthy from advancing a bill of rights that bans, say, fracking infrastructure within that community--but leaves open the possibility that the municipality nearby--one inhabited by poorer folks with fewer resources--will become a sacrifice zone?
In other words, what in this argument bars me from defining "community" as the economic bastion of the wealthy--at the expense of the less well-to-do? 
What prevents "community rights" from simply deteriorating into a version of NIMBY-ism for those who can afford the lawyers? 
This is no idle question. 
I have watched first hand--over and over--in Pennsylvania communities of the working class become the fracking cesspools of the gas industry--all the while communities better off win (however brief) respite from this industrial assault.

2. What in Linzey's argument prevents a community from adopting grossly unjust statutes such as one that condones slavery or one that effectively dispossesses women? Linzey might respond that because such statutes are intrinsically inconsistent with the concept of equality and justice, they'd never pass muster within any legitimate constitution. 
But this response is inadequate since 

(a) Linzey already effectively accedes to economic/class divisions by omission (see (1)), and 

Photo Wendy Lynne Lee, May 2015
(b) like Ancient Greece, it is entirely within the self-accorded rights of a community to determine what counts as a "member." What, in other words, prevents a community from defining membership in terms of, say, sex, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation/identity--or class? What, in fact decides even whether "community" need be geographically bounded? (in which case, all bets are off with respect to any democratic principles governing membership).

3. What in Linzey's argument prevents a community from adopting grossly unjust statutes governing, for example, speech or other forms of expression? 
Could a community whose majority of members want a fracking ban vote to silence or exile opposing members? 
Do communities have the right to censor their membership if that member's speech is perceived as a threat to the integrity or cohesion of the community? 
Who's authorized to make these determinations in particular cases?

4. Finally--and what 1-3 clearly add up to: what is the legitimate place of the state or federal government with respect to its relationship to communities? 
This is thorny to be sure--but what does Linzey envision--a confederation of loosely knit but entirely independent communities as opposed to a "united states"? 
What happens when the action of one community poses potential harm to another? 
For example, do communities really have the right to decide against vaccines? 
Do they really have the right to erect barriers to keep out "strangers"? 
Should every community be responsible for its own militia? 
What about a community who wants as many frack pads and pipelines as they can squeeze in--at the direct cost of water contamination for their neighbors? 
What of the community who wants to build a flood wall--and makes their poorer neighbors the victims of the next hurricane? 
What about a community that determines it's in their best interest to make a communal living off puppy mills? 
Rare earth mineral extraction? 
Can communities impose a religion on their members? 
Can communities impose any variety of qualification for membership? 
Who decides that?

What Linzey appears to assume is that every community presented with the option would--suitably educated--reject energy industrialization (or factory farms or pharmaceutical manufacture, or Monsanto, etc). 
But this is clearly not the case. 
In fact, the opposite is true--and that is among the reasons we do not have any cohesive movement in the U.S. that would undertake the revolution he calls for. In fact--a loose confederation of not-necessarily-cohesive communities might actually agitate against that revolution--deteriorating into a panoply of special interest enclaves as opposed to communities of genuinely democratic citizens. 

And that's a game of thrones--not a place anyone with any sense wants to live.

These are just a few of the admittedly tough philosophical questions that CELDF needs to address. 
But they're not merely philosophical--real people, real nonhuman animals, and real ecologies can be harmed immensely by communities, and appealing to community rights will be no panacea to prevent this. 
There is a place for larger government. 
I don't think Linzey denies this--but he also doesn't spell out what--or where--this is. 
And without it, no revolution will be possible. 
Or, perhaps better: a confederation of "communities" can certainly generate the conditions of violent sectarianism just as readily as democratic decision-making. 
How does Linzey assure us that we'll get the second in the course of the revolution he proposes?
I agree with Linzey that corporatist domination must end. 
But it's end will not by itself usher in a new day for democracy.
That revolution demands much much more.

Wendy Lynne Lee
Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania