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Against the idealization of relocalization as a strategy

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
8th February 2013


When you step out of the global economy, you cut yourself off from the imperial wealth pump that provides people in America with the kind of abundance they take for granted, and the lifestyles that are available in the absence of that wealth pump are far more restricted, and far more impoverished, than most would-be relocalizers like to think. Peasant cultures around the world are by and large cultures of poverty, and there’s a good reason for that: by the time you, your family, and the other people of your village have provided food on the table, thatch on the roof, a few necessary possessions, and enough of the local equivalent of cash to cover payments to the powers that be, whether those happen to be feudal magnates or the local property tax collector, you’ve just accounted for every minute of labor you can squeeze out of a day.

Excerpted from John Michael Greer:

“Those of my readers who have been following the peak oil scene for any length of time will have encountered any number of enthusiastic discussions of relocalization: the process, that is, of disconnecting from the vast and extravagant global networks of production, consumption, and control that define so much of industrial society, in order to restore or reinvent local systems that will be more resilient in the face of energy shortages and other disruptions, and provide more security and more autonomy to those who embrace them.

* The arguments in favor:

A very good case can be made for this strategy. On the one hand, the extreme centralization of the global economy has become a source of massive vulnerabilities straight across the spectrum from the most abstract realms of high finance right down to the sprawling corporate structures that put food on your table. Shortfalls of every kind, from grain and fuel to financial capital, are becoming a daily reality for many people around the world as soaring energy costs put a galaxy of direct and indirect pressures on brittle and overextended systems. That’s only going to become worse as petroleum reserves and other vital resources continue to deplete. As this process continues, ways of getting access to necessities that are deliberately disconnected from the global economic system, and thus less subject to its vulnerabilities, are going to be well worth having in place.

At the same time, participation in the global economy brings with it vulnerabilities of another kind. For anyone who has to depend for their daily survival on the functioning of a vast industrial structure which is not answerable to the average citizen, talk about personal autonomy is little more than a bad joke, and the ability of communities to make their own choices and seek their own futures in such a context is simply another form of wishful thinking. Many people involved in efforts to relocalize have grasped this, and believe that deliberately standing aside from systems controlled by national governments and multinational corporations offers one of the few options for regaining personal and community autonomy in the face of an increasingly troubled future.

There are more points that can be made in favor of relocalization schemes, and you can find them rehashed endlessly on pro-relocalization websites all over the internet. For our present purposes, though, this fast tour of the upside will do, because each of these arguments comes with its own downside, which by and large you won’t find mentioned anywhere on those same websites.

* The hidden downsides

The downside to the first argument? When you step out of the global economy, you cut yourself off from the imperial wealth pump that provides people in America with the kind of abundance they take for granted, and the lifestyles that are available in the absence of that wealth pump are far more restricted, and far more impoverished, than most would-be relocalizers like to think. Peasant cultures around the world are by and large cultures of poverty, and there’s a good reason for that: by the time you, your family, and the other people of your village have provided food on the table, thatch on the roof, a few necessary possessions, and enough of the local equivalent of cash to cover payments to the powers that be, whether those happen to be feudal magnates or the local property tax collector, you’ve just accounted for every minute of labor you can squeeze out of a day.

That’s the rock on which the back-to-the-land movement of the Sixties broke; the life of a full-time peasant farmer scratching a living out of the soil is viable, and it may even be rewarding, but it’s not the kind of life that the pampered youth of the Baby Boom era was willing to put up with for more than a fairly brief interval. It may well be that economic relocalization is still the best available option for dealing with the ongoing unraveling of the industrial economy—in fact, I’d agree that this is the case—but I wonder how many of its proponents have grappled with the fact that what they’re proposing may amount to no more than a way to starve with dignity while many others are starving without it.

The downside to the second argument is subtler, but in some ways even more revealing. The best way to grasp it is to imagine two relocalization projects, one in Massachusetts and the other in South Carolina. The people in both groups are enthusiastic about the prospect of regaining their personal autonomy from the faceless institutions of a centralized society, and just as eager to to bring back home to their own communities the power to make choices and pursue a better future. Now ask yourself this: what will these two groups do if they get that power? And what will the people in Massachusetts think about what the people in South Carolina will do once they get that power?

I’ve conducted a modest experiment of sorts along these lines, by reminding relocalization fans in blue states what people in red states are likely to do with the renewed local autonomy the people in the blue states want for themselves, and vice versa. Every so often, to be sure, I run across someone—more often on the red side of the line than on the blue one—whose response amounts to “let ‘em do what they want, so long as they let us do what we want.” Far more often, though, people on either side are horrified to realize that their opposite numbers on the other side of America’s widening cultural divide would use relocalization to enact their own ideals in their own communities.

More than once, in fact, the response has amounted to a flurry of proposals to hedge relocalization about with restrictions so that it can only be used to support the speaker’s own political and social agendas, with federal bureaucracies hovering over every relocalizing community, ready to pounce on any sign that a community might try to do something that would offend sensibilities in Boston or San Francisco, on the one hand, or the Bible Belt on the other. You might think, dear reader, that it would be obvious that this would be relocalization in name only; you might also think that it would be just as obvious that those same bureaucracies would fall promptly into the hands of the same economic and political interests that have made the current system as much of a mess as it is. Permit me to assure you that in my experience, among a certain segment of the people who like to talk about relocalization, these things are apparently not obvious at all.

By this point in the discussion, I suspect most of my readers have come to believe that I’m opposed to relocalization schemes. Quite the contrary, I think they’re among the best options we have, and the fact that they have significant downsides, drawbacks, and tradeoffs does not nullify that. Every possible strategy, again, has downsides, drawbacks, and tradeoffs; whatever we choose to do to face the onset of the Long Descent, as individuals, as communities, or as a nation, problems are going to ensue and people are going to get hurt. Trying to find an option that has no downsides simply guarantees that we will do nothing at all; and in that case, equally, problems are going to ensue and people are going to get hurt. That’s how things work in the real world—and it may be worth reminding my readers that we don’t live in Neverland.

Thus I’d like to suggest that a movement toward relocalization is another crucial ingredient of a viable post-imperial America. In point of fact, we’ve got the structures in place to do the thing already; the only thing that’s lacking is a willingness to push back, hard, against certain dubious habits in the US political system that have rendered those structures inoperative.”

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