1. Global as antagonist of local?
Globalisation is a phenomenon of the world’s modern development; the term itself started to be widely used in scientific circles in the 1990s (although some date the first steps of globalisation back to the time of the discovery of America), with the American sociologist R. Robertson among the first to address globalisation problems, introducing the word ‘globality’. Descriptions of globalisation, as a rule, centre around 1) its economical aspects; 2) creating a united information sphere; 3) development of general standards of manufacturing, everyday and social life (using the metaphor Macdonaldization of the world).
The understanding of the modern world as a uniform space has began to spread everywhere. On the one hand, it is defined by the structured diverse and interdependent transnational networks of social interactions, representing preconditions for the process of gradual formation of a global civil community. Does globalisation mean unification and standardisation? Aren’t the processes connected with the integration of the global community, within the limits of the existing national-state formations excluded? After all, the latest measurement of globalisation, concept of the ‘washing out’ of state frontiers, is shown in the intensification in all areas of trans-boundary interaction, or trans-boundary processes. Having opened interstate borders, globalisation has facilitated the activity of new, non-state actors on the world scene: multinational corporations, interstate regions, non-governmental organisations, and other social movements thereby stimulating their activity and growth. But here there is a return influence: non-state actors themselves stimulate the development of globalisation and the transparency of frontiers.
This growing flow of information, capitals and - in a very unequal way - people, has been mostly for the advantage of a solo-player since the fall of the Soviet bloc. Triumphant Neo-liberalism boosted by new technologies of information and communication, the establishment of new economic powers in other latitudes (the BRIC group for example), became the clear target of diverse groups of civil society willing to reverse the adverse effects of this project, in economic, social as well as environmental aspects. At the same time, also in the mid 1990’s, a time of rapid mergers and new markets consolidations, the first global NGO’s came to be called the 4th sector and forged the slogan ‘Think global, act local’. The so-called anti-globalisation movement, was clearly not even a reaction but a consequence of globalisation, an off-spring we could say. The same technologies that made possible the financial speculative flows that made up 90% of all flows, also made possible the activist networks that knew everything about world leaders’ summits and gathered there, from Cologne 1999 to Geneva 2001, and others. This tactic, that was ironically named summit-hopping, soon showed its weaknesses, but not before it had shown the world both the power and plans of global entities as transnational corporations: the World Trade Organisation and the World Bank. The automatic protests accompanying any important date (G7, Davos etc.) after some initial surprise (Prague 2000 was probably the best example), were responded to with more invisible and inaccessible meetings, increasing state violence repressing those movements, together with a certain institutionalisation of them (World Social Forum of Porto Alegre, for example). The stark motto, ‘Shut Them Down!’, brought together groups, that had shown their differences in the demos (from reformists Oxfam members, to Marxist trade unions, to autonomous Black Block anarchists) and were finally silenced with the roaring crash of the 11th September 2007 attacks. Other global networks, such as the radical Islamic ones, appeared on stage showing their willingness to use weapons as a way to change the world. Maybe this development managed to avoid an involution of some sectors within the - mainly western - anti-capitalist social movements, preventing them from slipping into armed struggle and mirroring the bloody outcome of the ‘68 protests (Brigadi Rossi, Baader-Meinhof RAF…).
What happened to the millions of people who gathered at any summit, who also marched in the streets of NATO countries against the wars on Iraq and Afghanistan? One possible answer would be the fact of a shift in attention. All those global networks apart from being still active in cyberspace, they have somehow rooted themselves in specific places. In most cases, in places where the activists were already living - the space proximate to oneself is the local.
Probably the latest and more interesting initiative of this new sensibility are the transitional towns. We will came back to this later.
Social Movements Flows
1900 to 1970
1996 to 2007
Revolution to take power to install a new regime, short/long term
Event oriented, short term
Process oriented, medium term
Automatic readings of the global: de-localised economies, non-places and global players. The new nomadism in the Liquid Era
The world we live in now is one of expanding urban populations, rapid adoption of Bluetooth mobile devices, tiny ad-hoc sensor networks, and the widespread influence of wireless technologies across our growing urban landscapes. The United Nations recently reported that 51 percent of the world's population currently lives in urban areas and in developed nations the number of urban dwellers is even more dramatic - expected to exceed to 75%. Current studies project Bluetooth-enabled devices to reach near to 10 billion units by 2010 - five times the number of mobile phones or Internet connections. Mobile phone penetration already exceeds 80% of the population in places like the European Union (EU) and parts of Asia. WiFi hardware is being deployed at an astonishing rate of one every 4 seconds globally. The growing flows of capital and merchandises, despite the temporal recession of the Subprime Crisis, create new sorts of nomadism. As Attaly depicted: ‘Unfortunately, the world now seems divided between the rich and poor nomads: the nomadic elite who travel at will, expanding their world, and the disenfranchised poor who travel because they are desperate to improve their conditions’.
Rich nomads or global players have been also defined as 'liquid moderns'. This term was coined in 2000 by the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman in Liquid Modernity, his account of globalising modernity and its liquefying effect on older unities such as family and class. Bauman stresses that improved communications and flexible labour markets work against durable personal and professional arrangements. While workers remain largely place-bound, capital is more and more mobile as it seeks new markets and cheaper labour, re-localising the productive tissue; power, which was once directed at controlling territory, now works to dismantle the obstacles to its own mobility. Under ‘heavy modernity', nomads had a marginal place in society. Today the most powerful are nomadic. They travel light, mobile in hand, their ties becoming increasingly provisional as they remain alert to new opportunities elsewhere (that Bauman's analysis applies as well to the art world as to other economic spheres should be clear).
2. The promises of the local
An ever growing economy, a production that always increases, is a myth of neo-liberal capitalism. Aristotle claimed for restraint, and considered the polis to be self-limited to a certain scale, in order to keep the true dimension of a local government.
Much later Rousseau followed the same principle when writing, Discourse on the Origin of Inequality Among Men:
If I had to make choice of the place of my birth, I should have preferred a society which had an extent proportionate to the limits of the human faculties; that is, to the possibility of being well governed: in which every person being equal to his occupation, no one should be obliged to commit to others the functions with which he was entrusted: a State, in which all the individuals being well known to one another, neither the secret machinations of vice, nor the modesty of virtue should be able to escape the notice and judgment of the public; and in which the pleasant custom of seeing and knowing one another should make the love of country rather a love of the citizens than of its soil.
I should have wished to be born in a country in which the interest of the Sovereign and that of the people must be single and identical; to the end that all the movements of the machine might tend always to the general happiness. And as this could not be the case, unless the Sovereign and the people were one and the same person, it follows that I should have wished to be born under a democratic government, wisely tempered.
I should have wished to live and die free: that is, so far subject to the laws that neither I, nor anybody else, should be able to cast off their honourable yoke: the easy and salutary yoke which the haughtiest necks bear with the greater docility, as they are made to bear no other.
Utopian architect, Yona Friedman also defined, in ‘Realisable Utopias’, the essential features of an organic community, in which the influences one member has over the others are equal to the ones the others have over oneself. A kind of equation:
Local place + right size + socialisation mechanism + horizontal relations = organic community
Nevertheless, we have to bear in mind that usually this ideal formula doesn’t take place: there are local environments without a community, and we could even consider communities linked virtually through the internet, and no shared local, except a blog or site. If the territory regarded with a cultural gaze becomes landscape, we could think that a place would became local under a cultural and emotional reading. But in fact, ‘local’ has a dimension beyond the fact of just being inhabited.
Local, is overall a realm of politics.
3. Local as power’s arena : realpolitik vs. ideal narrations
It is not strange that a new attention of the local was drawn by the environmental movement. The necessary re-calibrating of our model of production became clear with the scale of energy demands and their diverse environmental impact, the closeness of Peak Oil and with climate change still ongoing. Philosophically, there is also a stress on building up other ways of living, simpler and more satisfying. To extend and apply this program, local governments are being challenged in diverse ways. One of them is Bioregionalism.
Bioregionalism has been called the ‘politics of place’. It has a number of characteristics. These include a belief in natural, as opposed to political or administrative, regions as organising units for human activity; an emphasis on a practical land ethic to be applied at a local and regional scale; and the favouring of locally and regionally diverse cultures as guarantors of environmental adaptation, in opposition to the trend towards global monoculture. Jim Dodge (1981), bioregional author and activist, has offered a different set of characteristics. They are: natural systems as the source of physical and spiritual sustenance; anarchy, or the decentralisation of political institutions to a scale where face-to-face interaction and self-management become possible; and spirituality, a belief in the sacredness of the web of life.
Bioregionalism emerged in the early 1970s as the product of an intermingling between biogeography and the Californian counter-culture, by authors such as Peter Berg. In an article published in ‘The Ecologist’ in 1977, Berg states that the term bioregion ,‘refers both to a geographical terrain and a terrain of consciousness - to a place and the ideas that have developed about how to live in that place. Within a bioregion the conditions that influence life are similar and these in turn have influenced human occupancy. This expands the more shallow definition of ‘bioregion’ as an area constituting a natural ecological community with characteristic flora, fauna, and environmental conditions and bounded by natural rather than artificial borders, including cultural and even spiritual parameters.
This approach reveals the concept to be intimately related to the principles of Deep Ecology as defined by Norwegian philosopher, Arne Næss, the father of Deep Ecology. Famous deep ecologists as Edward Goldsmith and Helena Norberg-Hodge, both funders of the International Society for Ecology and Culture (ISEC), applied the bioregional focus within their theories and actions. Arne Næss coined the term deep ecology as a contrast with shallow environmentalism, which he criticised for its utilitarian and anthropocentric attitude to nature and for its materialist and consumer-oriented outlook. The ethics of deep ecology hold that a whole system is superior to any of its parts. They offer an eight-tier platform to elucidate their claims, the first of them being:
The well-being and flourishing of human and nonhuman life on Earth have value in themselves. These values are independent of the usefulness of the nonhuman world for human purposes.
Deep Ecology is difficult to define. It encourages subjective intuition as a means of understanding its principles. The basic idea is the belief that nature does not exist to serve humans. Biodiversity is a value in itself and is essential for the flourishing of both human and non-human life. Deep Ecology locates the origin of the ecological crisis in human belief systems, be they religious or philosophical. Deep ecologists identify ancient Near Eastern religions, Christianity, and the scientific worldview as fostering a mindset that seeks to dominate nature. It is by ‘asking deeper questions’ that these origins of the ecological crisis are identified and social causes are dismissed as being part of a ‘shallow’ analysis.
Deep Ecology gained both publicity and controversy in the 1980s when it was adopted as a philosophy by the Earth First! wilderness movement that had begun to take dramatic direct action against the logging of old-growth forests. Its most controversial figure was founder, David Foreman, who welcomed famine as a means of limiting the population. This is something that Deep Ecologists believed to be necessary to restore ecological balance on the planet. Similar statements about the AIDS epidemic were issued by a fellow Earth First!er. The implications are that if human beings are no better intrinsically than animals, then their premature death is morally acceptable. Population control goes beyond contraception to calculated neglect, fostering a ‘permissible’ degree of famine. This development of deep ecology has led to some links with far right movements, or eco-fascism. Deep ecologists repudiate the right-wing accusations of the population issue, saying,
We, contrary to some social ecology slanders, seek population reduction, or perhaps controls on immigration from a maintenance of biodiversity perspective, and this has nothing to do with fascists who seek controls on immigration or want to deport ‘foreigners’ in the name of maintaining some so-called ethnic/cultural or racial purity or national identity.
Not so far from his reasoning is the cry of the wing of the National Front in Britain: ‘Racial preservation is Green!’ while in the United States, white supremacist, Monique Wolfing, remarks that animals and the environment, ‘are in the same position as we are. Why would we want something created for ourselves and yet watch nature be destroyed? We work hand in hand with nature and we should save nature along with trying to save our race.’
The key question is whether supporters of Deep Ecology are vulnerable to absorption by far-right groups. The main fear for this happening lies in Deep Ecology's demonisation of reason. This biocentric approach has been criticised by key figures of anthropocentric radical environmentalism, such as Murray Bookchin, the main architect of Social Ecologism. Social Ecology claims that Deep Ecology fails to link environmental crises with authoritarianism and hierarchy. Social ecologists believe that environmental problems are firmly rooted in the manner of human social interaction, and protest that an ecologically sustainable society could still be socially exploitative. Deep ecologists reject the argument that ecological behaviour is rooted in the social paradigm (according to their view, that is an anthropocentric fallacy), and they maintain that the converse of the social ecologists' objection is also true in that it is equally possible for a socially egalitarian society to continue to exploit the Earth.
Bookchin goes further in detail when he explains the implementation of Social Ecologism through the political form of Commonalism:
It is my contention that Communalism is the overarching political category most suitable to encompass the fully thought out and systematic views of social ecology, including libertarian municipalism and dialectical naturalism. As an ideology, Communalism draws on the best of the older Left ideologies—Marxism and anarchism, more properly the libertarian socialist tradition—while offering a wider and more relevant scope for our time … Communalism seeks to recapture the meaning of politics in its broadest, most emancipatory sense, indeed, to fulfil the historic potential of the municipality as the developmental arena of mind and discourse. It conceptualizes the municipality, potentially at least, as a transformative development beyond organic evolution into the domain of social evolution.
Looking beyond these historical functions, the municipality constitutes the only domain for an association based on the free exchange of ideas and a creative endeavour to bring the capacities of consciousness to the service of freedom.
This is not to say that Communalism accepts the municipality as it is today. For Communalism, the modern municipality is infused with many statist features and often functions as an agent of the bourgeois nation-state. It seeks to radically restructure cities’ governing institutions into popular democratic assemblies based on neighbourhoods, towns, and villages. In these popular assemblies, citizens—including the middle classes as well as the working classes—deal with community affairs on a face-to-face basis, making policy decisions in a direct democracy, and giving reality to the ideal of a humanistic, rational society.
Minimally, if we are to have the kind of free social life to which we aspire, democracy should be our form of a shared political life. To address problems and issues that transcend the boundaries of a single municipality, in turn, the democratized municipalities should join together to form a broader confederation.
Bookchin also explains other aspects of local politics:
Libertarian municipalism (…) seeks to reclaim the public sphere for the exercise of authentic citizenship while breaking away from the bleak cycle of parliamentarism and its mystification of the "party" mechanism as a means for public representation. In these respects, libertarian municipalism is not merely a "political strategy." It is an effort to work from latent or incipient democratic possibilities toward a radically new configuration of society itself--a communitarian society oriented toward meeting human needs, responding to ecological imperatives, and developing a new ethics based on sharing and cooperation. That it involves a consistently independent form of politics is a truism. More important, it involves a redefinition of politics, a return to the word's original Greek meaning as the management of the community or polis by means of direct face-to-face assemblies of the people in the formulation of public policy and based on an ethics of complementarity and solidarity.
For Aristotle, and we may assume also for the ancient Athenians, the municipality’s proper functions were thus not strictly instrumental or even economic. As the locale of human consociation, the municipality, and the social and political arrangements that people living there constructed, was humanity’s telos, the arena par excellence where human beings, over the course of history, could actualize their potentiality for reason, self-consciousness, and creativity. Thus for the ancient Athenians, politics denoted not only the handling of the practical affairs of a polity but civic activities that were charged with moral obligation to one’s community. All citizens of a city were expected to participate in civic activities as ethical beings.
Libertarian municipalism proposes a radically different form of economy - one that is neither nationalised nor collectivised according to syndicalist precepts. It proposes that land and enterprises be placed increasingly in the custody of the community - more precisely, the custody of citizens in free assemblies and their deputies in confederal councils. How work should be planned, what technologies should be used, how goods should be distributed, are questions that can only be resolved in practice.
At the basis of libertarian municipalism, there is a distinction between policy-making and administration. This distinction is fundamental to libertarian municipalism and must always be kept in mind. Policy is made by a community or neighbourhood assembly of free citizens; administration is performed by confederal councils composed of mandated, recallable deputies of wards, towns, and villages. If particular communities or neighbourhoods - or minority groupings of them - choose to go their own way to a point where human rights are violated or where ecological mayhem is permitted, the majority in a local or regional confederation has every right to prevent such malfeasances through its confederal council. This is not a denial of democracy but the assertion of a shared agreement by all to recognise civil rights and maintain the ecological integrity of a region. These rights and needs are not asserted so much by a confederal council as by the majority of the popular assemblies conceived as one large community that expresses its wishes through its confederal deputies. Thus policy-making still remains local, but its administration is vested in the confederal network as a whole. The confederation in effect is a Community of communities based on distinct human rights and ecological imperatives.
The explanations below would show the conflictive relation between radical politics and concepts of local, as well as the differences between policy and administration. An example of an elusive debate on the local would be the concept of ‘food sovereignty’ coined by the international farmer’s movement, Via Campesina. Food sovereignty is the right of any community to define the policies that will sustain a food system. Is this sovereignty or autarchy?
4. New localisms and trans-local initiatives
There have been many examples throughout history of social change models aiming to have a large scale impact, which were envisioned to be implemented just by means of local initiatives. This is closer to our current perception of social change rather than the ‘modern’ approach of a vast mass movement guided by a committed avant-garde, usually intelligentsia, that would bring a new consciousness, a ‘new man’, with the subsequent ideal social order. The importance of locally rooting any of those attempts can be seen in Gandhi’s starting point of creating Ashrams (we shouldn’t forget that his ultimate political vision was the Gram Swaraj, a confederation of villages-republics), the EZLN (Zapatista Freedom Army) proposed the Aguascalientes, as a kind of commune space. Today we see the springing up of new branches of the Slow Movement, either SlowFood canteens or conviviums, or even Slow Towns.
They will be nurtured through short circuit economics that avoid a large energetic footprint and strengthen the local productive tissue. There are also growing numbers of CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) or Radical Design mobility systems. An international network of Transition Towns, going further into the public imagination than Ecovillages, and willing to ‘form groups to look at all the key areas of life (food, energy, transport, health, heart & soul, economics & livelihoods, etc)’ and often promoting Local Exchange Trade Systems (LETS) as locally initiated, democratically organised, not-for-profit community enterprises that provide a community information service and records transactions of members exchanging goods and services by using the currency of locally created credit. The LETS Credit currency does not involve coins, paper money or tokens of any kind but rather acts as a scoring system, keeping track of the value of individual members' transactions within the system. It is simply a community information system attached to its own market-place.
All these diverse and open initiatives show new shapes of the resistance of the local in a globalised world.
See, Roland Robertson, Globalization: Social Theory and Global Culture, (London: Sage, 1992).
Jacques Attali, Une brève histoire de l'avenir - (Éditions Fayard ,2006)
Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity, (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2000).
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Orgin of Inequality Among Men, trans. by G. D. H. Cole (1974); http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Discourse_on_the_Origin_of_Inequality_Among_Men
Yona Friedman, Utopies Réalisables, (Paris: Union Générale d'éditions, 1976).
See, Jim Dodge, Living by Life: Some Bioregional Theory and Practice. CoEvolution Quarterly, 32 (winter)(1981): 6-12.
Peter Berg and Raymond Dasmann, ‘Reinhabiting California’, The Ecologist, 7 (10)(1977): 399-401.
‘The Eight Tenets of Deep Ecology’, Deep Ecology Hub; http://www.deep-ecology-hub.com/eight-tenets-of-deep-ecology.html.
David Orton quoted in, Kev Smith, ‘Ecofascism: Deep Ecology and Right-wing Co-optation’; http://www.thefreelibrary.com/Ecofascism%3A+deep+ecology+and+right-wing+co-optation.-a0109266917
Monique Wolfing quoted in, ibid.
Murray Bookchin, ‘The Communalist Project’, Communalism: A Social Ecology Journal, 2 (2002): http://www.communalism.net/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=179:the-communalist-project&catid=84:movement&Itemid=2.
Murray Bookchin, ‘Libertarian Municipalism: An Overview’, Society & Nature, 1 (1)(1992): http://www.inclusivedemocracy.org/dn/vol1/bookchin_libertarian.htm
Murray Bookchin, ‘The Communalist Project’.
Transition Network.org; http://www.transitionnetwork.org/.