Andrew Dobson and David Hayes have an interesting article in Open Democracy, entitled: A politics of crisis: low-energy cosmopolitanism.
It starts by warning that the current crisis is not necessarily a boon to the left, which is fair enough.
It then goes on with a critique of localism, which I believe is misguided. Though there is indeed a form of localism that is inward-looking (this is pretty much what John Robb has been describing in his Global Guerilla blog as a return to ‘primary loyalties’), this is definitely not the case with the kinds of progessive localism that they are describing. Movements like the Transition Towns are local in their desire for physical resilience, but are at the same time globally networked and have a cosmopolitan outlook.
They stand for a sustainable relocalization of the physical economy, together with a globalization of intellectual productive cooperation around open design and tinkering communities.
(In my favourite historical analogy: combining local domain economy with the international culture and territorial interconnection of the Catholic Church …)
So, after their critique of left optimism, comes the following passage that includes their critique. Judge for yourself, and thanks for any comments.
Andrew Dobson and David Hayes:
“Such caution about anticipating shoots of progressive recovery is often met by arguments that emphasise the energy and vitality of grassroots campaigns. It is true that local movements can often sustain an impressive standard of commitment even during a downturn. But there is also a problem in their political underpinning – in that activity aimed at coping with increasing levels of insecurity is ambivalent in its character and intentions.
The “transition towns” movement in England, which encourages local experiments in environmentally sustainable living and develoment, is a prominent example. This movement is to all appearances right where it should be: making climate change and “peak oil” the linked starting-point for its analysis of possible political futures. The central focus of the “transition” talk is about resilience in the face of increasing vulnerability, and its implications – including reskilling to cope with insecure supply-chains of goods and provisions as oil becomes scarcer, transport becomes more expensive, and the life made possible by oil recedes into the past.
This approach could in principle be empowering for local communities as they take their futures into their hands and do things that governments are unwilling or unable to do. The transition economy can invent new currencies, experiment with new methods of producing and consuming, and develop new ways of engaging and mobilising people in a community.
But where will the politics of resilience lead? It should be recalled that the progressive, inclusive politics of the past two centuries has been accompanied by a fossil-fuelled energy binge. As society powers down, what will become of the outward-looking social and political advances that have accompanied the age of energy excess? The transition-towns movement – and similar initiatives that are motivated by ideals of self-sufficiency, eco-community, and simplicity – seek to manage the shift from oil dependency to post-oil security. It is less clear that they offer anything to say about the equally difficult and equally necessary challenge of combining localism with cosmopolitanism.
When their security comes under threat and when a familiar order begins to break down, people generally look to their own before they look to others. A number of recent post-apocalypse novels has painted a bleak picture of life after environmental catastrophe has wreaked its havoc (Sarah Hall’s The Carhullan Army, Maggie Gee’s The Ice People, and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road among them). A politics of fear shadows this fiction, the signal (which imaginative artists are so often among the first to perceive) of a wider quality in the collective emotional temperature.
In an overheating world where already hard-pressed citizens are faced with new and prolonged economic difficulties, the avoidance of harm to self and family and “tribe” can come to supersede the preventing of harm to others. The scrabble for scraps can leave little room for cosmopolitan sentiment.
An echo of such warnings is evident in the comment of Will Hutton – one of the most acute analysts of the financial crisis – who speaks of the dangers of “fragmentation”, where in times of hardship the temptation to blame (and the encouragement to blame) people or groups regarded as “other” increases. Hutton goes on to argue that “stories about why we should fragment are even more poisonous than the fragmentation itself”.
The limitation of a politics of resilience is that it can so easily become defensive, reactive, insular (a characterisation that fits much of what remains of the political left as a whole). The whole point of the transition movement is to manage a move beyond – rather than merely respond to circumstances that have got out of control. This managed approach to change could in principle permit a soft, cosmopolitan landing in a world that is (in ways unimaginably different from the 1930s) globalised, connected, and plural. But to do so will require creating structures that can mediate between local initiatives, and a larger politics that can articulate these links. In the absence of such structures and politics, the sound of the wagons circling could drown out cosmopolitan sentiment.”