This second in the putative ‘Localism is not…’ series (for the first, see here) was inspired by the lovely people at Spiked-online.com, whose proprietors ludicrously describe themselves as ‘libertarian Marxists’ and which, a bit like chocolate-coated pretzels, is just so wrong that it ends up being quite compelling. Every time I cull the huge number of email newsletters from various organisations that I receive, theirs somehow survives, on a vague principle that I should probably not confine my reading habits to things that I agree with. So I came to see a recent piece which particularly interested me for what I saw as a wilful misinterpretation of the idea that communities could gain benefits from becoming more locally resilient.
The author, Colin McInnes, condemns the idea of local resilience – promoted by the Transition Town movement and many others – from an engineering perspective. One excellent point that he does make, which I feel is very much worth considering, is that “Individuals who purchase a domestic wind turbine can certainly congratulate themselves on their apparent self-sufficiency. However, they are entirely dependent on the international semi-conductor industry for embedded power electronics in the turbine, materials manufacturers for thermo-plastic turbine blades, Chinese miners for neodymium permanent magnets, and the oil industry which fuels the container ship that imports the constituent parts.”
McInnes is, of course, right – and his argument is a compelling reason to safeguard and foster green industry in the UK. His choice of example itself, however, is quite revealing. In an article with ‘localism’ in the title, the only examples of so-called ‘localist’ action that are given are individual actions: growing food in one’s garden, putting a wind turbine on one’s house. McInnes ridicules such actions for what he sees as their impracticality and inefficiency, compared to the ‘hydrocarbon-fuelled machines’ that produce food and energy at giant, economically efficient scales for distribution to individuals via the market mechanism.
McInnes’ evident economic philosophy no doubt leads him to realise two things: people respond to incentives, and negative externalities need to be stopped or paid for. Accepting this can lead to some interesting conclusions. Taking food retail, for example, the incentives framework at the moment favours large supermarkets. Much has been written about the middle-class solipsism of some campaigners who argue against supermarkets, and I would argue that people who care about these issues should avoid painting themselves into a corner by glibly recommending, say, organic local produce without tackling the fact that this is seen as, and often is, more expensive. However, one can also argue that there are negative externalities associated with supermarkets – or, more accurately, with the dominance of supermarkets – which are not currently being paid for, and that if these were to be factored in to prices, the incentives framework could well realign towards a localist approach.
This is all very much up for debate, with the methodology of identifying and quantifying externalities being a matter of considerable controversy for a lot of people far cleverer than I am, and McInnes’ argument can certainly be acknowledged as making sense within its own closed logic. As suggested above, though, what leapt out at me given the title of the Spiked piece was its lack of any concept of a community or a locality – which, for something that purports to be an argument against localism, presents a slight problem. Not many people are seriously suggesting, as McInnes claims they are, that most or many individuals will produce a significant proportion of the food and energy they need within the bounds of their own property through their gardens and roofs. There are three points to consider which I feel lead to a more accurate and positive vision of localism as collective action, rather than simply green lifestyle activism.
The first is the practical idea of economies of scale, which McInnes wrongly seems to assume cannot be achieved outside huge corporate-based activities such as nuclear power stations and factory farms. Considering food, community gardens have the potential to produce far more than individual gardens for a far lower input – the number of people wanting to be involved means that individuals need expend only a few hours a week to see a return, there is far more scope for sharing tools and physical resources, and the positive externalities from skill sharing and the development of social capital, though not necessarily quantifiable, are potentially impressive.
With energy, this argument comes into sharp relief because of the existence of technologies that only make sense at a community level, not an individual or a nationwide level, such as the use of energy generated from waste plants to provide power in the immediate area, or of the excess heat generated by a factory to heat homes. Community ownership of such technology through mutualist schemes can create income-generating community assets – potentially providing just that little bit more money that doesn’t need to come from taxation. So far, so Spiked, surely?
Secondly, it is worth acknowledging that though this sort of activity could substantially reduce the need for a community to import resources, it would hardly be likely to eliminate it. Reducing the need to trade, furthermore, is not the same as reducing the ability to trade. McInnes’ suggestion that communities aiming for self-sufficiency cut themselves off from international trade and leave themselves open to bad weather or crop failures is disingenuous nonsense: given that we do exist in this much-vaunted globalised economy, it escapes me how the opportunity to own part of a community asset with environmental, social and financial benefits would somehow restrict an individual’s ability to buy things.
Thirdly, and closest to my heart, it is a small leap – particularly in the context of the current political discourse – from collective asset ownership to some degree of collective, local civic governance: communities working together, raising and spending local budgets and generally rolling back formal government to an enabling role.
This probably isn’t what the Tea Party mean by smaller government. It certainly isn’t what Spiked seems to mean in its frequent diatribes against the nanny state. Taken to their logical conclusion, such rants always seem to end up handing more power to the equally unrepresentative elites of big business, precisely because – as with Jesse Norman’s critique of the Hobbesian philosophy which as he he sees it has come to dominate politics – their analysis consistently lacks a concept of community. And this need for community is why I am so uneasy about things like individual-level ‘choice’ over schools and hospitals being painted as localism by this and the previous government.
So in reality, maybe community action should be what these people mean when they talk about smaller government. Maybe they could start by campaigning, from a libertarian perspective, for the ideal of a shorter working week to give people back more of their own time to spend however they choose – including in taking an active part in running their communities.