Tuesday, April 19, 2011

What transition? Part 3: Renewing the vision (Installment #1: Trade selectivity and reasonable relocalization)

The previous post ended with a call for replacing blind evolution (which has driven the genesis and succession of socioeconomic systems up to today) with conscious evolution. This is not some hazy new-age idea, although the expression "conscious evolution" has been used in hazy new-age contexts, too. The recent history of the developed world, and in particular the emergence of social democracy between the two World Wars and especially after WWII, has shown quite clearly that we have reached a new stage -- a stage where the conscious design of mechanisms permitting free emergence has taken over from the older notion of Adam Smith's "invisible hand." Smith's vision involved the unconscious and un-designed emergence of mechanisms (e.g., the market) which allow you to realize your freedom if you're lucky enough to come out on the right side of those mechanisms. We need something more.

Social democracy has been a first step in the direction of making the invisible hand more deliberate. I don't intend to argue that we should roll back those positive steps. Instead, we should push forward. The industrial-financial-capitalist version of social democracy which we are currently presented with as "the" embodiment of a modern, progressive economy is actually just an initial stage of social democracy -- not its final achievement. (In the same way, John Michael Greer has argued in The Ecotechnic Future that today's industrial civilization is merely an initial stage in what he calls an "ecotechnic age" that is going to involve, or so he believes, centuries of groping for, and muddling towards, more ecologically and socially sound technologies.)

Here I would like to delineate the broad change of vision (sorry for those readers who are allergic to "grand" tapestries -- this is going to be one of those...) which I believe we need in order to usher in a new phase of conscious evolution into our economy. I want to make it very clear right at the outset that I am not -- I repeat: not -- going to argue for centralized planning or any other authoritarian device. The transition we need is as far removed from any sort of crypto-Soviet model as you could possibly want. (But don't take my word for it. Read on and you'll see.) It has many libertarian features and it emphasizes bottom-up decision-making as well as decentralized governance. We can't avoid top-down decisions and measures, but they have to be designed in such a way that they very quickly, by the very nature of their design, hand over power and energy to bottom-up processes -- indeed, that they actually create such bottom-up processes where they don't yet exist.

The transition, if it is going to be desirable despite the difficulties involved, will be first and foremost a matter of democratic coordination so that the "economic minorities" (i.e., those who wish to move towards non-mainstream lifestyles in a society that remains hooked to the mainstream) as well as the incumbent "economic majority" (i.e., those who, for various reasons ranging from ideology to comfort to fear, want to remain within the mainstream spectrum of lifestyles while they wait to be convinced to change) are allowed to coexist while, at the same time, not stifling each other's aspirations more than what is at all necessary to keep society from imploding. Needless to say, the current state of capitalist social democracy isn't in line with this requirement, or so I will argue here.

There will be three separate installments in order to avoid that this post becomes a mile and half long. This is the first installment.


1. Trade selectivity, subsidiarity, and participatory coordination

Deglobalization and relocalization have certainly not yet reached the top of political agendas, and this is due to many factors, but I suspect that the two main ones are the following. One, opulent citizens generally worry that their lives will become dreary and contrived if fewer consumer goods are available, if less long-distance travel can be done, and so on. And two, the power relations in the political-cum-economic sphere (where the elites are getting together) are skewed towards the flawed responses I described in Part 2, one of which is to rev up trade and competitiveness in such a way as to keep economic growth going. (And emerging countries, as well as aspiring ones, certainly have no qualms in going along with this idea. Never mind that it doesn't seem to lead to very much trickling-down of wealth to the poor and meek at all...)

Arguing in favor of deglobalization and relocalization can be done on the basis of any number of more or less alarmist scenarios about accelerated climate change, the imminence of the peak in oil extraction, or the fact of deepening human dis-adjustments due to globalization. (One book that presents a credible spectrum of scenarios, ranging from the exalting to the downright scary, is David Holmgren's Future Scenarios.) In fact, it isn't so much a matter of arguing for or against it, as if it were a sheer matter of ethical options or, worse still, of mere opinion. Those who -- from the side of the environmental sciences as well as from the side of culture- and psychology-infused social science -- think that a genuine transition towards more sustainable economic practices is paramount view the reduction in the volume and the geographical reach of economic exchanges (including raw materials and semi-finished manufactured products) as one of the main necessities dictated by reason in our time.

This is not a matter of ideology, nor does it have anything to do with "protectionism" as a covert strategy to secure domestic or local producers' profits and niches. (This strategic use of protection to cater to wealthy special interests is rightly denounced by trade economists and lawyers.) Nor is it a neo-luddite plea against production, consumption, and trade. I have read challenging and even enticing books dealing with the virtues of increased self-sufficiency, such as Sharon Astyk's Depletion and Abundance (a truly remarkable book for its rigor and wonderful sensitivity), but most authors I draw my inspiration from are keenly aware that domestic or very small-scale self-sufficiency is a thing of the past, linked to poverty and destitution and lack of access to basic capabilities -- and they argue, at best, for a deliberate and reasoned selectivity in trade to replace today's no-holds-barred, anything-goes anarchy in trade flows. The problem isn't trade per se -- not at all. Trading is a vital, and often enjoyable, part of economic life. Local market squares as well as shopping streets are among the richest places in terms of human interactions and enjoyment of life. The problem is the political-economy option we have taken, and inscribed between the lines of our macro-rules such as those of the WTO, of viewing any and all trade as potentially beneficial and not questionable as to the possibly perverse effects of excess mobility and of export-led "development."

The wedge between self-sufficiency and relocalization is called subsidiarity. It means, quite simply, that political and economic decisions ought to be made at the level that is most relevant given the underlying issues. In this case, it means that whatever can be produced at level n should not be imported from any place located at a distance on level n+1 -- even if the criterion of comparative advantage (which discards all environmental as well as cultural issues which cross-border trade carries with it) says some other place on the planet should produce it. One of the key aspects of this discussion is how we are going to reinterpret what mainstream trade economists are bound to call the "deadweight losses" to consumers of an incomplete division of labor. The main avenue here is to recover a sense of what a local economy means, and what its intrinsic value might be on top of whatever instrumental benefits we might derive from planet-wide trade flows. In this context, I hope I may be permitted by Counterpoint to quote a page-long passage from Wendell Berry's 2001 essay entitled "The Idea of a Local Economy" (reprinted in his collection, The Art of the Commonplace, pp. 249-261):

"So far as I can see, the idea of a local economy rests upon only two principles: neighborhood and subsistence.
"In a viable neighborhood, neighbors ask themselves what they can do or provide for one another, and they find answers that they and their place can afford. This, and nothing else, is the
practice of neighborhood. This practice must be, in part, charitable, but it must be economic, and the economic part must be equitable; there is a significant charity in just prices.
"Of course, everything needed locally cannot be produced locally. But a viable neighborhood is a community; and a viable community is made up of neighbors who cherish and protect what they have in common. This is the principle of subsistence. A viable community, like a viable farm, protects its own production capacities. It does not import products that it can produce for itself. And it does not export local products until local needs have been met. The economic products of a viable community are understood either as belonging to the community's subsistence or as surplus, and only the surplus is considered to be marketable abroad. A community, if it is to be viable, cannot think of producing solely for export, and it cannot permit importers to use cheaper labor and goods from other places to destroy the local capacity to produce goods that are needed locally. In charity, moreover, it must refuse to import goods that are produced at the cost of human or ecological degradation elsewhere. This principle applies not just to localities, but to regions and nations as well.
"The principles of neighborhood and subsistence will be disregarded by the globalists as 'protectionism' -- and that is exactly what it is. It is a protectionism that is just and sound, because it protects local producers and is the best assurance of adequate supplies to local consumers. And the idea that local needs should be met first and surpluses exported does not imply any prejudice against charity toward people in other places or trade with them. The principle of neighborhood at home always implies the principle of charity abroad. And the principle of subsistence is in fact the best guarantee of giveable or marketable surpluses. This kind of protection is not 'isolationism.' "
(Wendell Berry, "The Idea of a Local Economy," pp. 260-261, © 2002, Counterpoint)

This quote clearly does not exhaust all problematic issues linked to striking a balance between openness to trade and the protection of local producers and local values. Far from it. Berry is more than a bit idealistic about the readiness of many local producers to use the protection bestowed on them in order to maximize the surplus to be given and/or sold at a fair price to foreigners who need them. He seems not to take into account the experience of past bouts of protectionism, such as the Smoot-Hawley Act of 1930 in the U.S. (see Douglas A. Irwin, Peddling Protectionism), which were mainly devices to secure rents for local producers concerned with their private interests rather than with the general interest.

However, I take Berry to mean that deglobalization has to be judicious, and therefore selective, and that relocalization has to be reasoned. It isn't a catch-all solution to all problems -- but then, neither is free trade. Selective deglobalization would imply, in particular, that there be political coordination -- with intense citizen participation -- as to the legitimate and illegitimate uses of fossil fuels and other non-reneawble energy sources (as well as of renewable ones, of course). It would also imply that each citizens' group, anchored within a suitably defined "bio-region" (see e.g. Kirkpatrick Sale, Dwellers in the Land: The Bioregional Vision), be able to determine which goods and services it needs to import and which ones it deems necessary, or at least possible and desirable, to have manufactured and distributed locally. The idea is not at all to isolate bio-regions from one another, but rather to ensure local resilience (as opposed to a volatile world market economy in which more and more "fire doors" are being dismantled) so as to make subsequent cross-region trading innocuous and, actually, truly optimal because the rationale for trade (as well as for protection) will then have been, as much as at all possible, disconnected from special interests thanks to widespread democratic participation subject to the usual countervailing powers and checks and balances of a messy citizen-based decision process. (There is a wonderfully instructive chapter on this democratic "muddling" in Warren A. Johnson's book, Muddling Toward Frugality, pp. 105-117.)

What I am advocating is not a vision of extreme localism. The relevant regions have to be large enough so that a significant division of labor can occur in them, so that a large number of goods and services can be forthcoming with the help of local talents, and so that economic activity is lively and vibrant, including the development of local "short circuits" and local "soft" transport options. The non-local, "hard" transport options -- such as road or air traffic, which will still involve the use of fossil fuels for quite some time -- need to be reserved as much as possible for (a) whatever cross-border trade still needs to be carried out (and that may quite a lot, especially in the early phases of the transition) and (b) what George Monbiot, in his jarring book Heat, has ironically called "love miles": the travel of persons for the sake of family, affection, love, or other human bonds.

All these choices need to be made through some multi-level coordination device. For reasons which ecological economists understand better and better today, the current capitalist market economy and its short-term pricing logic is unable to accommodate such complex issues, be it only because most producers as well as consumers simply do not have enough of an interest to integrate medium- and long-term aspects into their outputs and their purchases. The market is not about to disappear, but it needs to be supplemented by alternative devices which are more deliberative and qualitative in nature. This is why, as we will see again in later posts, a crucial component of the transition has to be the deepening of decentralized, participatory, bottom-up decision processes that can be summarized under the heading of "participatory economics," as spearheaded a.o. by Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel in several pathbreaking books in the 1990s and 2000s. The basic idea of participatory decision-making is that nested popular assemblies send "up" to level n+1 data about level-n consumption, work, and production plans, the data get aggregated and sent "up" to level n+2, and so on. (The basic mechanism is described, for instance, in Michael Albert, Parecon, Verso, 2003, Part III.)

As Robin Hahnel has emphasized quite rightly in his excellent book Economic Justice and Democracy, since total regional self-sufficiency is illusory (and I agree it is), what we really need is a multi-layered governance structure which allows various coordination agencies at the municipal, regional, national, and international level to compute "full-reality" prices which will take into account not just short-term, quantitative profit-seeking and goods-buying, but also qualitative aspects linked to working conditions and to the types of goods we ought to produce (so as to integrate the anthropo-environmental internalities into the allocation mechanism), as well as longer-term and planet-wide quantitative information about the side effects created by economic activities (so as to include the bio-environmental externalities into allocation, too). As Albert and Hahnel have endeavored to demonstrate (in particular in a rather technical but enlightening book entitled Quiet Revolution in Welfare Economics, published in 1990), neither central planning nor the competitive market are able to perform the complex qualitative-cum-quantitative tasks that democratic coordination can. And just as democratic coordination needs nested decision-making that goes all the way down to small localities (communes, barrios, arrondissements, etc.), by the same token it needs national and supra-national decision-making instances as well. Democratic (and possibly participatory) decision-making all the way down, as it were, but also all the way up.

So, to conclude, the basic idea here is not relocalization on the basis of any neo-luddite, or "Little House in the Prairie," vision of plain and simple, small-sized, "human-scale" communities. Such communal rootedness does have its rationale within the new framework conditions we'll need, and I'll come back to it later. But let me just emphasize that my only reason for integrating deglobalization and relocalization into our new vision at this point is that ecological as well as human problems simply make them an eminently reasonable response. This is why there is no dogmatism here -- just an attempt to pragmatically pose the question of deglobalization and relocalization as a problem in selecting the reasonable extent of globally-oriented viz. the reasonable extent of locally-oriented activity. Trade and mobility are not seen here as problems in themselves. What is a problem, however, is when there are no properly designed decision and coordination instances which can introduce a modicum of hierarchy and priorities into the anarchy of anything-goes trade and mobility -- which means, essentially, that we leave it all for the market to decide, and we ought to know what that implies: "one dollar, one vote," and if you have no money you cannot effectively express your aspirations and demands on the market. This, it seems to me, is not a properly designed device for today's problems.

In the two next posts, I will offer installments #2 and #3 of this Part 3 devoted to vision-building:
  • Main political challenge: to introduce plurality into our discussion on the meaning of economic prosperity
  • Main political/philosophical tool: a renewed concept of equality of opportunity, which will allow us to subsequently justify framework conditions that make room for a plurality of economic life-choices

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This post from the "Eco-Transitions" blog by Christian Arnsperger is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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