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Blog // Thoughts
November 26, 2008

Is Localism Just A Cover For Chauvanistic Nationalism?

I admire the way John Smulo manages to generate conversation and comment over on his blog. In recent weeks he’s had some really good posts and the reading the follow-up conversations has been worthwhile. That said, the recent interview discussing ethical clothing stoked my ire. Whilst I consider economic globalisation to be a potential force […]

I admire the way John Smulo manages to generate conversation and comment over on his blog. In recent weeks he’s had some really good posts and the reading the follow-up conversations has been worthwhile.

That said, the recent interview discussing ethical clothing stoked my ire. Whilst I consider economic globalisation to be a potential force for good, I’m certainly not blind to its limitations and failures. I’m also no fan of the way it creates cultural and commercial hegemonies or the consequences of that in terms of reduced options and choices in the arts, in retail and in education. I’ve never advocated that we would be better off in a world limited to McDonalds, Starbucks and Hollywood blockbusters, or that we should perpetually exploit global differences in standards of living.

But, there’s something morally and intellectually unsatisfying about a lot of the anti-globalisation rhetoric that I hear (and sadly most of what comes from church leaders on the topic). At the risk of sounding inharmonious, I put it down to a combination of naïveté and guilt. All too often the talk is of harsh third-world jobs that are “probably” not worth saving, but with little reference to what the alternatives might be, if those jobs were done away with.

The problem comes down to the inability anti-globalists to articulate a clear vision of what undoing the system would mean, in the short to medium term, for the people who depend on these jobs, and the future of developing nations.

Of course, if you are more concerned with assuaging your own guilt and insuring yourself of moral responsibility, then you don’t have to worry about that. Just rant against globalisation and hope it works out (probably?) for those poor people “over there.”

The neo-paternalism (I know what’s best for them) doesn’t end there. The latest buzzword in anti-globalisation circles is in localism. The idea is to consume locally, support your local economy and direct your patterns of spending locally. It’s actually not a bad idea. Localism in terms of food has a lot going for it and supporting local artisans and designers is the key way we build up provenance. Both are lines of argument I’ve supported for a long time and written about on this blog.

When the place that somewhere comes from matters, the value of a good or service carries implications beyond cost. Provenance is a way to change the value structure in a global economy and a way to support the strong communities. Supporting local food production is environmentally sound, supports good nutrition and encourages a connection between the sources of food and the consumption of food that benefits our long term health.

However, some arguments in favour of this kind of localism, especially when it comes to industrial and semi-industrial products, elides the language of proximity with that of nationalism. Distance become foreignness and proximity becomes patriotism. Pretty soon the rhetoric starts to sound like old-fashioned protectionism, or worse.

It doesn’t take long to get the feeling localists might well be comfortable with a lower standard of living for the “foreigners” than for their local neighbours. This is the worst kind of economic romanticism. As Julie Clawson , comments in her post “Globalization and Consumerism,”

“…to naively promote the idea of abandoning global industry in favor of only buying American is to wish a death sentence onto these countries. Abandoning them in the midst of a chaos of our making would destroy them. (apologizing and atoning for our sins is another issue entirely). In the business world national borders are losing significance quickly. To be so pro-America that our jobs and our economy matters more than every other person on this globe is inexcusable selfishness.”

Regular readers of this blog can see the pattern in the argument for economic localism – another version of the localism versus cosmopolitanism argument. This time we just have economic fundamentalism in place of cultural fundamentalism, at least for now. It’s probably fair to expect that they will merge over time.

I understand the concern with the negative aspects of globalisation and I understand the desire to build up one’s global community. But, anyone who thinks the two are inherently incompatible needs to, quite frankly, get out and see the world. Globalisation and localism are lived realities in China and India, as they have been in Europe and Latin America for decades.

I also understand the moral desire for a healthier economic system. We need a better version of globalisation and we need to accept that the path there will involve us spending more for fewer things. But, to instigate a solution where we salve our own guilt at the expense of those in other countries and consign them to a lower standard of living because of the lottery of birth is even more abhorrent and, quite frankly, the kind of sin that Christians should be able to spot from a mile away.

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