Battle of the Manifestos
Debate with Simon Fairlie and Jyoti Fernandes of Chapter 7. 26th March 2004.
Not so long ago I was listening to Radio 4, when they announced a phone-in on the subject of the “outsourcing” of British call centres to India. I braced myself to hear some liberal apologist for global techno-capitalism fielding calls from outraged members of the public moaning about job losses, when it emerged that the expert in the studio was none other than George Monbiot, introduced as the well-known “critic of globalization”. “Hah!” I thought “George ought to put a few things straight”.
To my horror, far from allying himself with the job-loss worriers – and thereby taking the opportunity to edge them towards towards a more global justice-oriented perspective – George turned out to be the liberal apologist I had feared. Outsourcing, he claimed, was, all things considered, a jolly good thing because the poor devils in India, impoverished by centuries of colonialism, needed the money.
Never have I so desperately wanted a mobile phone. Here was the same argument that has been used for centuries to justify every form of colonial wage-slavery ever conceived of, from punkah wallahs to Maquilladoras, flowing from the mouth of the champion of anti-globalization in support of an industry which must be one of the most fatuous wastes of human effort ever devised. Employing graduates in one country to perform unskilled services for another country in a language that is not their own is daft. There are plenty of reasonably sensible ways of directing wealth towards the poor countries which do not take jobs away from the poor people in the UK in order to swell the ranks of the middle classes in India . What on earth is leading George to support an industry which, for a large number of ordinary people in this country, is a vivid testament that the current economic system is utterly screwed up?
The answer is in George’s latest book The Age of Consent, and a number of articles by him that have sprung out of it. The starting point of this book is that everything has now been globalized except the democratic process and George comes up with some thoughtful and provocative proposals as to how global democracy can be achieved. His suggestions for a global parliament – and particularly his suggestions as to how it could be established initially with only moral authority (rather like the recent Geneva Accords proposals for peace between Israel and Palestine) are stimulating, challenging and witty. His revival of Keynes’ proposals for an International Clearing Union, to replace the IMF, is fascinating, though my knowledge of the issues concerned is not great enough to spot any potential flaws there may be in his argument. His suggestion that the WTO wouldn’t necessarily have to be abolished, and instead could be reformed into a World Fair Trade Organization is reasonable enough . The book is easy to read and there are some great passages in it .
However there is a sub-plot to the book – an attack upon the “pernicious impact” of “localization”; in particular upon Colin Hines’ advocacy of this concept as an alternative to globalization, and the Green party’s support for this stance. Why this sub-plot is there at all is not clear. It seems to have taken an unseasonable hold upon the author’s mind, so that by the end of the book, like a cuckoo puffed to freakish proportions, it clamours for attention and pushes everything else out of the picture.
The concept of localization has evolved in the anti-capitalist movement over the last three of four decades, and can be traced back to books like Borsodi’s The Distribution Age and Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful, Gandhian economics, anarchist proposals for decentralization, and many other sources. Chapter 7, like many other organizations, has consistently fought for policies which lead to greater local self-reliance, and which protect local economies from being undermined by global forces. George’s attack on localization, while he still claims to be part of “our movement” and allows himself to be described as a “critic of globalization”, is extraordinarily insensitive and divisive.
It is insensitive, partly, because, while George has been writing about global issues in the Guardian, a lot of other people have been beavering away at a more local level trying to make this country work in a more sustainable localized way. For example, thousands of committed people have put countless hours of work into getting the importance of local foods onto the agenda, into the market-place and written into Government policy, in an effort to keep our food real, prevent our countryside being totally taken over by the leisured classes and decrease our reliance on foods produced on the other side of the world under social and environmental conditions over which we can have no control. The growth of the local foods movement has been one of the success stories of the last ten years. Many of the people involved are acutely aware of Third World issues, and some belong to organizations such as Farmers’ Link and Farmers’ World Network. George’s hastily penned attack on localization is a stab in the back.
Chapter 7 has a further interest in addressing this matter . We are part of The Land Is Ours network, which was formed to address land issues in the UK and abroad. Its formation arose out of a public meeting in Oxford, in 1995, where George Monbiot called for a new organization that would bring land issues to the fore. Although there were many other people involved, George is still considered by many to be the “founder” of TLIO. Even though he hasn’t had anything to do with TLIO for about four years , Chapter 7 still gets journalists and other media types ringing up asking if they can speak to George Monbiot.
Chapter 7 wishes to make it clear that we distance ourselves from George Monbiot’s views on localization. We have no quarrel with anything else in his book but, we would like to persuade George to re-examine his stance on this issue; and to deter other people from being swayed by what we view as faulty logic.
In this critique I have tried to lay out the issues as clearly and logically as possible
What is localization?
I quote here from the advance publicity for Colin Hines’ book Localization – A Global Manifesto:
“Localization reverses the trend of globalization by discriminating in favour of the local. Depending on context the “local” may be part of a nation state, the state itself or even a regional grouping of states. At the heart of localization is a rejection of today’s environmentally and socially damaging subservience to the shibboleth of “international competitiveness”. In its place we must prioritize local production and the protection and diversification of local economies.
What can sensibly be produced within a nation or a region should be. Long distance trade should supply only what cannot be produced within the local economy. Localizing policies will increase control of the economy by communities and nations, creating greater social cohesion, reduced poverty and inequality, improved livelihoods, social infrastructure and environmental protection . . .
Localization is not about restricting the flows of information, trade, investment, management and legal structures that themselves further localization. . . . The rules for this diminished international sector would be those of the “fair trade” movement.”
Policies to bring about localization include:
– safeguarding national and regional economies against imports of goods and services that can be produced locally;
– localizing money flows to rebuild the economies of communities;
– a redirection of trade and aid, geared to help the rebuilding of local economies, rather than international competitiveness.”
The above, in Chapter 7’s view is a fairly accurate description of what localization means to most people who support it.
It may help to add that localization is linked to the “proximity principle”, that resources should be consumed as near to the place of production as is reasonably practicable. In the UK, the principle has been accepted in respect of waste disposal: Government policy is that “waste should generally be disposed of as near to its place of production a possible”. Welsh planning guidance goes a little further by stating that the proximity principle, to which it subscribes, means “solving problems locally, rather than passing them on to other places or to future generations.”
The proximity principle is the economic equivalent of “subsidiarity”, the principle that political decision-making should always be devolved to the most local level practicable, a fundamental principle of the EU constitution.
What are the benefits of localization?
The most obvious benefits of localization are:
(1) It protects local industries and economies from being undercut and undermined by distant competitors and global forces beyond their control.
(2 It prevents land-use systems, which are dependent upon these local economies, from collapsing.
(3) It helps people maintain control over their local natural resources. As George has himself reported, when crops are grown for export, peasants tend to be dispossessed of their lands by large commercial interests.
(4) It prevents wealth being siphoned away from the locality by distant interests or amorphous corporations. The more distant the market, the less the primary producer is likely to receive out of the final retail price and the more is likely to go to middlemen.
(5) It is easier to take stock of the environmental, social and animal welfare impacts of any product if it is derived locally. The UK government recognizes this under what it terms “informed consent”.
(6) It safeguards cultural diversity. Cultures and societies are defined to a large degree by what they produce and consume from the land and resources around them. Globalized trade destroys these differences and leads ultimately to one global McCulture.
(7) It promotes human-scale social structures. Localization rejects economies of scale in favour of economies of distribution, leading to more human-scale corporations and institutions, less division of labour and factory-style conditions. Lots of little brothers, instead of one big one.
(8) Reduced transport. Localization leads to reductions in carbon emissions, pollution and other transport impacts in respect of road and air freight (less so in respect of waterborne goods). In particular it cuts out the absurdity of ?cross haulage? (ferrying separate consignments of an identical product in opposite directions).
George Monbiot opposes localization because he thinks it will prevent poor countries becoming wealthier . . .
Essentially George Monbiot has only one objection, but it is a big one: that localization and the protectionism associated with it will prevent a flow of wealth from the rich countries – in short that it is “inherently regressive”1 . Here is how he introduces this objection
“There is an argument for permitting the poorest nations to protect their economies against certain imports in order to incubate their own industries . . . There is no argument founded on justice for permitting the rich nations to do so. If all countries were to protect their economies, the wealth of the rich ones might diminish, but the poverty of the poor ones would not. We would, if we followed his [Colin Hines’] prescription, lock the poor world into destitution.”
Now we should give George credit here for raising important questions, which can easily get glossed over. The present global trade system is a highly unsatisfactory and ineffective way of addressing the inequalities in the world; but localization does not, in itself, offer an obvious dynamic for addressing these inequalities. It allows poorer nations to protect their local industries against unnecessary imports, and their resource base from extraction by powerful foreign interests – and so to protect their existing wealth. But neither of these involve a redistribution or transfer of wealth from rich countries to poor. Localization doesn’t, on its own, explain how the poorest countries can obtain the resources necessary to bring their standard of living and opportunity up onto a level with ours, even if ours should diminish to sustainable levels.
However, if we accept that localization does not in itself satisfactorily address the issue of inequality between nations, it does not necessarily follow from this that localization is incompatible with a programme that does address this inequality.
There are many other kinds of measures – environmental standards, hygiene rules, animal welfare regulations, bans on certain technologies etc, – which are not designed to address inequality, but to tackle some other problem. We do not expect them necessarily to be “inherently progressive” (though it is preferable if they are); we do have to ensure that these are not “inherently regressive”, in other words ensure that they are compatible with other measures which are effective in reducing wealth disparities, and do not undermine them.
It is the same with the protection of local economies. If we are agreed (i) that global equity is a fundamental objective, and (ii) that localization cannot on its own deliver equality between the nations, then it follows that supporters of localization need to demonstrate that localization allows other measures that realistically can deliver equality. Conversely, anyone who opposes localization on the grounds that it is “inherently regressive”, needs to demonstrate that localization is incompatible with other measures necessary to achieve equality between the nations.
. . . He argues that in a localized economy, the only way poor countries can become richer is through export of cash crops . . .
What means of transferring wealth from the rich countries to the poor countries remain available in a localized economy where long distance trade is restricted to fair trade in goods not available in the consumer country? George puts the view that poor countries will only be able to export raw materials:
“As Colin Hines . . . accepts, “some long-distance trade will still occur for those sectors providing goods and services to other rgions of the world that can’t provide such items from within their own borders, eg certain minerals or cash crops”. To earn foreign exchange from the rich world, in other words, the poor world must export raw materials.
“This of course is precisely the position from which the poor nations are trying to escape. Raw materials will always be worth less than manufactured products. Their production also tends to reward only those who own the primary resource . . . To earn sufficient foreign exchange to import the goods they cannot produce themselves, the poor nations would need to export more, not less, of their natural wealth, thus increasing their contribution to climate change, soil erosion and the loss of biodiversity. His policy also wipes out small farmers, who would be displaced from their land by mechanized cash cropping . . . The poor world under this system, remains trapped in both the extractive economy, and – as a result – in its subordinate relationship to the rich world.”2
George misrepresents Colin Hines here. In the quotation cited by George, Colin gives “minerals and cash crops” as two examples of the goods and services that might be traded over a long distance under a regime of localization, when they cannot be obtained in the importing country, or in the surrounding region. The quotation is taken from Chapter 6 in Colin’s book , and it is made clear a few sentences earlier that such “long distance trade” is “the last resort” – the exception rather than the rule.
George does not quote from Chapter 17 in Colin Hines’ book which is entitled “Localizing International Development”. Here, under the heading “The Infatuation with Exports”, Colin states:
“The NGO movement’s own research and that of, for example, the World Bank shows that . . . the position of the majority in such export dependent countries did not improve and in many cases worsened . . . In cash crops exports, the position is even clearer. Cash crops worsen land tenure, deprive small farmers of a living, result in increased numbers of landless and neglect the rest of a nation’s infrastructure.”
In other words, Colin Hines is in agreement with George that cash crops are a disaster. In Chapter 6, he happens to mention them, in passing, as one example of trade that could be carried out over a long distance as a last resort, and George leaps on this, plucks it out of context, and uses it to demonstrate that Colin is in favour of cash crops and the poor world being “trapped in the extractive economy” – when it is clear from Colin’s book that he is not.
Now I do agree with George that Colin does not make it very clear in what other ways wealth can be be transferred from North to South under a localization regime – at least I could not find it – and I would agree that this is a weakness of his book. But Colin is not the only advocate of localization, and it is a breach logic for George to assume that because Colin Hines does not mention something, therefore it cannot exist.
In fact there are a number of ways in which wealth can be transferred from rich to poor countries under a localization regime, and some of them are highlighted elsewhere by George in The Age of Consent.
. . . But there are many other ways in which wealth can be transferred which are consistent with localization:
Here is a list of some of the main categories of potential wealth transfer from rich to poor countries consistent with a programme of localization;
– Processed materials.
A key principle of fair trade is that added value through processing should generally take place in the country of origin of the materials, particularly where it is ergonomically or ecologically preferable (in line with the proximity principle). So coffee gets made into instant coffee in Tanzania or Mexico; timber is sawn into planks or made into plywood in Russia or New Guinea, rather than exported to timber-deficient countries as logs; copper wire could be manufactured in Zambia; West African bauxite could be turned into aluminium in West Africa, with West African oil or possibly solar energy; Third World oil could be refined or converted into plastics in Nigeria or Azerbaidjan, rather than exported as crude. All of this is consistent with localization policies: local industries typically grew up around a key resource, or a happy conjunction of two, such as grass, water power, woodland, iron ore deposits, or coal. George doesn’t mention this at all.
– Specialist and quality goods.
These are goods whose high quality or cultural distinction would allow them to remain competitive even if tariffs were imposed (eg Cuban and Indonesian cigars, oriental carpets, local crafts and textiles, Austrian scythe blades and Ferraris.) George doesn?t mention this either.
Tourism is becoming increasingly important as a means of transferring wealth from North to South, and is expected to be the world’s largest industry bt 2010. . A lot of its effects are extremely undesirable, both socially and environmentally. But an economic system which gave local people greater control over what sort of tourism they found acceptable would almost certainly improve matters. Once again, George doesn’t mention tourism
– Economic Migrants.
If rich people are allowed to travel round the globe for leisure purposes, then why should not poor people be allowed to travel for work purposes? “Everything has been globalized except our consent” is the opening sentence of The Age of Consent; but George forgets that labour has not been globalized either. The WTO forces countries to open up their borders to goods, but not to migrants . If there were a free trade in labour the differences in wealth between countries would fade away in a very short time – but there would be a host of other problems! To parrot George’s phrase, there is no argument founded on justice for permitting corporations to sell their products wherever they like whilst preventing people from selling their labour wherever they like. It means that corporations can play the labour market to their advantage, but people can’t. If justice is your aim, you must either allow free movement of goods and free movement of people – or neither. As the Tupamaros used to say “Everyone dances . . . or no one dances.”
George does mention aid: “Redistribution is simply not going to happen through aid . . . But even if, in a sudden fit of compassion, the rich world were to start pouring its money freely into the hands of the poor, this would merely trap the poor nations in patronage, dependency and blackmail . . .There has been a great deal of talk within the global justice movement of the need to compensate the poor world for centuries of colonial plunder, slavery and environmental destruction. But some of the proposals raised appear paternalistic: the rich world should forgive the debts of the poor world, or should raise significantly the aid it provides. What better compensation could there be than to permit the poor world to pursue its own path to development, if necessary at the expense of the rich world?”
Yes, aid is paternalistic, it is a haven for blackmail and corruption and it causes all sorts of problems. Money stinks, and hence, as Gustavo Esteva put it, “development stinks.” Any transfer of wealth from the rich to the poor countries, however it may be achieved, is likely to provide a focus for corruption, bribery, greed and abuse of power, but that t is in the nature of money transfers.
But it is also paternalistic for George to dismiss the potential for aid so peremptorily in a couple of paragraphs. Aid can work, and in some situations it does. The Marshall Plan, in Europe after the Second World War worked, and even if it is hardly the model one would wish to see emulated in the Third World today, it is worth noting that the US donated five times as much (as a per cent of its GDP) to the Marshall Plan as it does now to foreign aid.
Colin Hines’ book calls for a “redirection of aid, geared to help the rebuilding of local economies, rather than international competitiveness.” He cites land reform, micro credit , energy conservation, waste reduction, public transport systems, food production on allotments and wasteland and enhanced lobbying power for community groups as being suitable targets for aid. George gives no reasons or evidence as to why aid directed towards the empowerment of local self-reliant communities could not be an effective way of transferring wealth from North to South. (it just ain’t going to happen)
Nor can I accept that the way to avoid paternalism is to let the poor world “pursue its own path to development”, since, in reality, that is not its own path at all, but a path mapped out in the industrialized world, staked out by a Third World capitalist elite in conjunction with transnational corporations, and paved by the rich nations? greed for ever more and cheaper commodities. A better way to avoid paternalism, is for us to acknowledge that the Third World’s traditional way of living – where the majority of people get most of what they need from the land around them – is more responsive to the constraints of the natural world than ours, where consumers expect their every desire to be satisfied through a system which ransacks distant parts of the planet for resources. The world’s peasants have much to teach us about how to live in harmony with our surroundings. We should be paying them (at consultants rates) to come over here and teach us, rather than the other way round. They may (or may not) need money, but it is we who need the aid.
“Besides giving and spending, it is hard to see how money can be extracted from the hands of the rich. Theft has served the powerful nations well, but the poor are in no position to reciprocate.”
This statement of George’s is curious, since earlier in the book he proposes a form of theft which the Third World countries could carry out, namely defaulting on the $2.5 trillion they owe in debt to the wealthy nations. In fact, George makes the reasonable suggestion that instead of just refusing to pay, poor countries should use the threat of refusing to pay as a lever for securing other changes, for instance the restructuring or demise of the IMF and the World Bank.
– Contraction and Convergence
This is another means of transferring money from rich to poor nations which George highlights in the early part of the book, and yet fails to mention in his chapter on trade.
“Contraction and convergence” is the proposed mechanism for addressing global warming, whereby a global target for the steady reduction of greenhouse gases is set, and then all countries are allocated quota for emissions according to the size of their population. Poor countries consuming little fossil fuel energy would have surplus quota which they could sell to the wealthy over-consuming nations, and so secure capital to invest in renewable energy and energy conservation measures. George adds: “The model has been approved by ministers and government scientists in dozens of countries, and now appears to be the favoured solution of the United Nations and even the World Bank”.
The beauty of contraction and convergence is that it combines ecological sustainability (contraction of emissions) with global justice (convergence). Loosely speaking, contraction and convergence provides a model for future world development as a whole. A sustainable and just world economy will be one where people in the North learn to consume rather fewer resources, so that more are available to people in the South.
George Monbiot advocates an increased flow of goods from poor to rich countries
George’s formula for redistribution is to allow a measure of protectionism for poor nations, through “tariff barriers, other import restrictions and export subsidies” while “rich nations, on the other hand would be required to pull down their barriers to trade”.
One can understand the primitive egalitarian logic in this, but it doesn’t fit the contraction and convergence model at all. It might more plausibly be described as -parallel expansion – since transfer of wealth through trade is dependent upon and commensurate to increased levels of consumption in the rich world, and there is no clear explanation how the poor world will ever catch up. Opening up borders so that the North is flooded with even more imports from the South, even if they are “fairly traded”, will do nothing to reduce excessive consumption in the North and means that the poorer countries will have an interest in seeing people in the rich world consume more and more.
The cruel logic of this scenario is that the poor countries can never attain the level of wealth that we in the North dangle before them. The economies which George advances as rags-to-riches success stories – Japan , China and the Asian “tiger economies” – have grown wealthy by providing cut-price consumer goods for the rich world which we could never have provided for ourselves, and have thereby created for us an artificial abundance to which the whole world now aspires, but which is ecologically and economically unsustainable.
Who will produce all these cheap goods once everyone is rich? The people of China and Ethiopia – however much money they may claw back from us – can never enjoy the abundance that we do because there will be no further pool of cheap labour to manufacture their shoes and washing machines and answer their telephone enquiries at a fraction of their minimum wage. (but massive increase in living standards there)
To become as wealthy as we are in the North, poor countries don’t simply have to become free from exploitation; they have to have someone else to exploit. The advocates of unbridled trade are purveyors of illusions: the illusion that there are limitless resources somewhere the other side of the blue mountains; and the illusion that one day all the worlds’ people will be able to enjoy the abundance that comes from exploiting a distant proletariat.
This is why contraction in the North – “a prosperous way down” – rather than increased consumption, has to be the model for future development and the springboard for global redistribution. And it is why advocates of localization argue that global justice should be achieved by looking to our own resources, living off our own footprint and establishing more self reliant lifestyles in the North, to a standard that is attainable in the South.
Jyoti Fernandes, commenting on an earlier draft of this critique, wrote: “Most people in the world would be better off building up their own culture and social systems to the point that all people had access to land, shelter, education, health care, shared transport, local food, some imported food for things they can’t grow themselves, some simple luxuries and access to markets for a percentage of their produce”
The transfer of money required for this to happen around the globe is relatively small, and can easily be achieved without trying to change every Third World country into a “tiger economy”. What is missing is the political will. But when even “critics of globalization” turn round and attack this agenda as “pernicious” what hope is there of convincing the majority or of facing down the vested interests.
Urban vs rural.
Ferraris for All?
How someone as acute as George Monbiot could come round to propagating to this view is almost beyond comprehension. The last paragraph of the chapter on trade offers a clue:
“Thanks to the pernicious impact of the localization agenda, some campaigners in the rich world have been perceived by the citizens of the poor world as their enemies. Campaigns whose overriding purpose is redistribution are campaigns whose solidarity with the poor world is immediate and unshakable.”
George has come to view global redistribution as an objective which overrides every other objective, including ecological sustainability. This is dangerous ground. A purpose which overrides every other consideration is one whose end justifies all means. The overriding purpose of Stalinism was redistribution. George’s stance isn’t Stalinist, but it is fundamentalist. It is disturbingly reminiscent of that taken by the cornucopian organization WorldRight, which accuses environmentalists of denying equal opportunities to the poor of the world, and whose slogan is “Ferraris for All”.
If George had simply reminded the antiglobalization movement that global equity is a necessary requirement, a sine qua non, of future world development, and that the localization agenda perhaps needs to be examined a bit more closely in this respect, then The Age of Consent would have been a magnificent book. Unfortunately his cuckoo has tipped the other birds out of the nest. George has forgotten that ecological sustainability is also a necessary requirement; so is the protection of local communities and cultures against corporate McCulture; so is the taming of rampant technology before it enslaves us; so is a secure economic environment for farmers everywhere. The task ahead of us is to find a way of making all of these priorities grow together, rather than riding one over all the others. It is a great shame that one of our most eloquent spokesmen seems to have lost sight of this vision.
BOX on AGRICULTURE
Issues concerning trade and localization particularly concern farmers and smallholders, including many of our readers. Here are some of George Monbiot’s comments about UK farming – and our response.
“The poor world possesses what economists call a “comparative advantage” in most kinds of crop production. Land and labour are cheaper, currencies are weaker and sunlight, in the tropics, is stronger, which means that plants grow more quickly. This is why the rich world protects its farmers against competition . . . The rich nations now give their farmers $352 billion a year, which is six an a half times what they give poor nations in aid . . . The European Union spends $1,6 billion a year on subsidizing sugar production, despite the inefficiency of producing sugar from sugar beet in cool nations by comparison to sugar from sugarcane in hot nations.”(pp.190-192)
No evidence is provided for the “inefficiency” of sugar beet, which, by European standards, appears to be an extremely efficient crop. Sugar cane is 20 per cent sugar, whereas sugar beet is 17 per cent, not an enormous difference.(Pimentel and Pimentel 1979) (Cider apples are 6-7 per cent sugar and grapes are around 10-12 per cent). The remaining fibre from both crops is used for other purposes. Average sugar beet yields in the UK in the 1970s were 35 tonnes per hectare, which is huge, more than potatoes or maize silage. (Grapes in France are around 4 to 8 tonnes per hectare). The output/input energy ratio for UK sugar beet is 3.62, higher than it is for maize, winter wheat, oats, barley and potatoes in the UK. (Leach 1976). Is George arguing that the UK should abandon sugar beet and move to less efficient crops because Brazil or Mauritius can produce sugar more efficiently than us? He appears to be arguing that the UK should stop growing nearly all crops because someone, somewhere, can produce them more efficiently?
“Both the US and the EU have failed to begin to dismantle their farm subsidy system.” (p.245)
This is not quite true because the EU has started to move away from production subsidies and towards payments for provision of environmental benefits. These payments are still subsidies insofar as the state gives money to support agriculture; but arguably they aren’t insofar as they are payments for environmental services performed, in which case cheap agricultural produce is a by-product of the environmental/tourist industry.
But this is nit-picking. Does George seriously advocate that the EU should and could withdraw support for its farmers?
If UK farmers aren’t globally competitive, and aren’t protected by tariffs or subsidies, how are they going to be paid? And if you don’t pay them, then who is going to manage the land? George apparently favours the free market approach which, for the foreseeable future, would see the UK countryside turned over to parks, horseyculture and suburban development, so we can swan around in a pretty landscape while people over the other side of the world grow most of our food. Very sustainable!
Agenda 21 states: “A farmer-centred approach is the key to the attainment of sustainability in both developed and developing countries.” There are three main options: a free market, subsidies or tariffs. The only option out of these three which would protect the future of EU agriculture, and protect Third World farmers from subsidised dumping by EU farmers, is tariffs. A tariff system would release the EU?s $352 billion subsidy which could then, given the political will, be redirected (a) towards keeping food cheap for poor people in rich countries and (b) increasing aid to impoverished Third World farmers.
BOX: OMNIVOROUS PARASITES AND SERENE CARDINALS
Aside from the obsession with localization , there is some great stuff in The Age of Consent, for example, this paragraph:
“The state, like a tree, is essentially immobile. While it can expand its access to resources by extending its roots into the soil on which other trees are growing, it must adopt to the circumstances in which it finds itself. The corporations, like omnivorous animals, are mobile. They move from tree to tree, taking shelter in the branches, preying upon both the trees which protect them and the other members of the ecosystem, seeking always the most easily obtained resources. The burden of predation has now become so great that most of the trees in the wood appear to be suffering from what foresters call “die back”.”
Or this paragraph:
“While the rulers of the world cloister themselves behind the fences of Seattle or Genoa, or ascend into the inaccessible eyries of Doha and Kananaskis, they leave the rest of the world shut out of their deliberations. We are left to shout abuse, to hurl ourselves against the lines of police, to seek to smash the fences which stand between us and the decisions made on our behalf. They reduce us, in other words, to the mob, and then revile the thing they have created. When, like the cardinals who have elected a new pope, they emerge, clothed in the serenity of power, to announce that it is done, our howls of execration serve only to enhance the graciousness of their detachment. They are the actors, we the audience, and for all our cat-calls and imprecations, we can no more change the script to which they play than the patrons of a cinema can change the course of the film they watch. They, the tiniest and most unrepresentative of the world’s minorities, assert a popular mandate they do not possess, and then accuse us of illegitimacy. Their rule, unauthorized and untested, is sovereign.”
I have met three or four people in my life whom I would describe as possessing genius, and Simon Fairlie is one of them. He is a fiercely original thinker, a persistant and determined critic of the social order and a builder of real alternatives. He has influenced my thinking in the past, and I am sure he will do so in the future. But I believe that in this case he is mistaken.
Let me start by trying to explain why I concentrate on the issue of the global distribution of wealth. I have two reasons. The first is the obvious one, that no one should have to live in the kind of poverty I have seen in the slums of Jakarta, Kolkata, Nairobi and Sao Paulo. The second is that a just and equitable world is impossible while one group of nations is vastly richer than the others, with all the power relations this implies.
Among the middle and upper classes, from which, I regret to say, almost all the prominent thinkers in the British global justice movement are drawn, there is, I often feel, a complete failure to understand the implications of persistant, non-elective poverty. Some of the movement’s members have chosen to be poor, and I respect that. But there are 3 or 4 billion people on earth who have not, and who have no NHS, state education or state pension to fall back on. Most of us have enormous difficulty in grasping quite what it is like to be in their shoes (if they have any). Their poverty doesn’t hurt us, and it is, almost all of the time, invisible to us. But our priority, if we are really pursuing global justice, is surely to put their interests first.
So two questions immediately arise. The first is: why are these people so poor? The second is: by what means could they escape from such poverty?
To the first question, there is more than one answer. The maldistribution of wealth at home, often emerging from a colonial model of enclosure and concentration, is plainly a prominent one. But there is another reason which is just as important. The Third World has been kept poor, so that the First World can be kept rich.
Let us take, as I have just returned from that country, the example of India. In 1700, Britain banned imports of cotton cloth from India, in order to protect its own textiles industry. It did so because India possessed a number of comparative advantages: labour was cheaper; cotton could do things wool couldn’t; in some respects the Indian industry was technologically and organisationally superior. Under imperial rule, Britain continued to suppress the Indian textiles industry, smashing looms and banning imports. After decolonisation, it continued to prevent India from competing successfully, by means of the protections enshrined in the Multi-Fibre Agreement.
The textiles industry kicked off Britain’s industrial revolution. It provided the wealth which permitted investment in other industries, and which, after industrialisation allowed labour to organise on a large enough scale, eventually generated the tax revenues necessary to establish the welfare state. At the same time, the suppression of the textiles industry and other emergent industrial sectors in India prevented that country from escaping from its position as a supplier of raw materials to the rich world. A dearth of foreign exchange, a trade deficit, a small middle class and therefore a minimal tax base, has made the establishment of a welfare state impossible. The existence of a huge, unskilled, illiterate and underemployed labour force has undermined all attempts to make the mobilisation of labour effective.
In other words, from the point of view of the Indian underclass, protectionism by the rich world has been a complete disaster. It is disturbing, therefore, to find members of a movement which claims to put such people first advocating further protectionism.
Now I don’t like call centres any more than Simon does. They are depersonalising and mechanical. But our argument is not over whether they should exist or not. If they are to exist, it seems to me far better that they should be stationed in a country in which such jobs are desperately sought, rather than one in which people have to be dragged kicking and screaming off the dole queue to take them.
Simon and I had a warm exchange of words about this issue in November. It seemed to me that his objection to their removal to India was an aesthetic one. He did not want to be told about trains to Llandridnod Wells by someone in Bangalore. Well, he’s free to voice such objections, and to some extent I share them. But against what is surely a minor grievance, we must place a major enhancement of income for hundreds of thousands of Indian people. The transfer of professional work to India (including accountancy, corporate law, architecture and IT) is establishing a lower and middle-middle class in places formerly dominated by caste. Not only does this generate tax revenues; but a growing petit bourgeoisie may also be all that saves India from the rise of the fascist BJP and Shiv Sena movements, which play upon the desperation and ignorance of the poor.
And this is a business whose transfer has no substantial environmental implications. If India is not to be allowed to exploit its comparative advantage (lower wages) in call centres, then in what sector should it be allowed to succeed? Simon’s objection, while expressed in different terms, is entirely consistent with the history of self-interested British protectionism. It holds India down, and permits countries like Britain, dominated by the class from which Simon and I are drawn, to continue to tell India and other poorer nations what they can and cannot do. Could it be that within our movement we are subconsciously defending the power politics which have permitted people like us to achieve their global dominance?
This question becomes especially pertinent when one looks at who has been funding much of the localisation movement in Britain. The two principle funders are both the recipients of vast inherited wealth. One is a member of the aristocracy. Both appear to be nostalgic for a pre-industrial era, in which neither the upper classes nor the peasantry were threatened by an emergent bourgeoisie. I can’t help wondering whether, though they may not be fully aware of it, they are attempting to return to a past in which the control by their class of a feudal, largely rural society went unchallenged by industrial wealth.
This is not to suggest that I do not recognise a conflict here. As George Orwell observed (Writers and Leviathan), “all sensitive people are revolted by industrialism and its products, and yet are aware that the conquest of poverty and the emanciapation of the working class demand not less industrialization, but more and more.