How Local Can We Go?
A debate with Zac Goldsmith on the future of local
vs global politics
The Ecologist, April 2001
The role of the State, and its relationship
with people and their communities is a key political
issue. What legitimacy does the State have? What should
be its relationship with its people? Is it necessary
at all? These questions have been asked for centuries.
My view is that the State as it exists today is a largely
illegitimate structure - inherently corrupt and/or corruptible,
unrepresentative and with no moral or social right to
act on behalf of the people and communities it has progressively
Compare, briefly, two obvious polar
opposites from recent history: the former Soviet Union,
which actively deconstructed communities and villages
in order to render individuals dependent on a mega-state,
and Switzerland, a system that places emphasis on regional
decision-making and popular referenda. Which model best
satisfies the needs of ordinary people and the environment?
The latter, and the reason can be found in one word:
The bigger a political institution
gets, the more unrepresentative and unwieldy it becomes.
A state will always be characterised by a clear (im)moral
code, a distinct view on how an economy should be run,
how and what teachers should teach, how people should
live, and so on. Generally speaking, the State, regardless
of its rhetoric, will tend towards self-promotion and
growth. Rarely has there been a long-established state
that has not become authoritarian, and therefore harder
to remove with time.
In the Third World, where state-based
Western forms of governance have been embraced (or more
often, imposed), honest states can be counted on one
hand. That is the result of a great many factors, not
least the fact that most modern Third World states are
in effect mini empires that were created by the West
with total disregard for the cultural, ethnic or ecological
boundaries that already existed. Today, the effects
of these modern dictatorships are made clearer each
time agricultural markets are opened up for the benefits
of Western corporations (but to the detriment of Southern
farmers); each time hundreds of thousands of people
are pushed aside to make way for a useless dam and each
time a minority tribe is quashed brutally for trying
to protect its identity.
Here in the West, things are different
but not much better. The US, the only remaining superpower,
is now run by a man whose election bid was funded almost
entirely by vast corporations. It goes without saying
that he will devote much of his term repaying those
debts. Here in the UK we are much the same. As The Ecologist
has shown time and time again, big business runs government;
from pushing through the WTO agreements to opening the
doors to GM crops, or getting cosy with the supermarkets:
the interests of industry come before the interests
of the people, because a big state deals with, and understands,
big business better than it understands scattered and
diverse communities of ordinary folk.
Unfortunately, this crucial issue has
become confined within the narrow margin of traditional
left vs right politics - which has, in turn, created
a bogus debate. For while the left is traditionally
keen to see an ever-greater barrage of regulations,
and the right is keen to see a roll-back of the State,
both, through their acceptance of the process of economic
globalisation, are in effect calling for the same thing.
Globalisation is characterised by a massive project
of global deregulation, paving the way for the growth
of already powerful corporations, but also by a massive
re-regulation of people's lives and traditional pursuits.
So while borders are being opened to
indiscriminate trade, small producers are being regulated
out of existence. While corporate misdeeds go unchecked
and are everywhere apparent, individual governments
are busying themselves clamping down on the only means
available to ordinary, angry people to effect change
- see our new Terrorism Bill for details.
What conclusion do I draw from this?
That it's highly unlikely that a nation state can truly
represent the interests of the people, as opposed to
multinational corporations eager to purchase this or
that right, this or that chunk. And that the only answer
is to devolve political and economic power to the local
level, where the people themselves can decide how to
I don't believe that national government
can or should be abolished, but I do believe that everything
which can be localised, should be. This is, of course,
a long-term aim and involves a two-part strategy. First
is a recognition of the need to empower - in the short
term only - the nation state so that it need not be
bullied into submission by the likes of Monsanto et
al. Second is the need to recognise that alongside that
process, and in the long-term, decision-making and indeed
economics should be decentralised so that the State
is kept at arm's length when dealing with issues with
which it has no legitimate concern.
Local people know best what is good
for them and their communities. They can, and should,
decide what is bought, what is sold, what is taught
to their children and how they want to run their lives.
Hand the power back to the people, and we will see a
rebirth of local character and genuine democracy - rather
than the sham we now have.
Where to start? In a way this is a
slightly odd debate, because we're both starting from
more or less the same position. We both agree that some
form of localisation, both political and economic, is
a fundamental step towards the sort of society that
we need. But, the fact that we agree on the fundamentals
makes it all the more important that we debate the details.
Because this, it seems to me, is where some problems
Let's start by kicking economic localisation
into touch. There are people better qualified to talk
about this, and it can, in any case, be separated from
the political issue of how power is distributed. Let's,
instead, talk about the State.
At heart, I suppose I'm an anarchist
(the word, from the Greek, means literally 'without
government' not 'chaos' in the sense that it's always
misused). If you were to ask me to create a political
system from scratch, it would probably be based on a
curious mixture of the ideas of Kirk Sale, GK Chesterton
and Prince Kropotkin. Possibly I'd be the only one who'd
want to live in it, but in my view, that kind of local,
decentralised, mutually-supportive, bioregional society,
with fairly distributed small property and no vast,
formal governmental structures, is as representative
and sensitive to human needs as you're going to get.
At heart, that is. But in my head,
things are different. Because we're not starting from
scratch, we're starting from here. A very global, very
technological, very militarised, very polluted, very
overpopulated planet, stalked by a voracious economic
machine unlike anything ever seen in history. And a
planet which, thanks largely to accidents of history,
is made up of something called 'nation states', based
on arbitrary geographical, cultural or simply cartographical
And that, even now -- despite the EU,
despite the WTO, despite NATO -- is where the political
power lies. You say that those states are 'largely illegitimate
and unrepresentative'. I agree. You say that 'the bigger
a political institution gets, the more unrepresentative
and unwieldy it becomes'. I agree. You say that we should
'hand the power back to the people'. This is where it
You use the USSR and Switzerland as
examples of good and bad government. But it seems to
me that your Swiss example actually demonstrates not
that a nation state will always 'tend towards self-promotion
and growth' but rather the opposite; that power can
be devolved by a responsible state. Doesn't your approval
of it show that states, when bounded about by laws and
limitations devised by their people, can work well?
It must be a witness for the defence.
But I'm not going to get myself into
the position of defending the nation state. What I want
to do is to take a hard look at some of the thornier
questions that localisers must address, so that our
mutual case can be strengthened.
Firstly, how local do we want that
power to go? Two more extremes for you: New Labour supporters
(apparently there are some around) could conceivably
defend this government's record on devolving power.
For the first time in 200 years, the Scots have their
own parliament, with a wide range of real powers. The
Welsh have a national assembly, and England has regional
assemblies (one of which, the South East England Regional
Assembly, has just exercised its right to local democracy
by deciding to build a disastrous bypass around Hastings).
The other extreme is that proposed by the magazine Alternative
Green, which suggests abolishing taxes and the political
unit, and devolving all power to a network of autonomous,
armed villages which run their own affairs. I suspect
that both of us would pitch up somewhere in between.
And anyway, who decides? That's the
crucial question. 'Local people' you say, 'know best
what is good for them and their communities.' Do you
believe, then, as a matter of principle, that a community
has the absolute right to run its affairs in its own
way, with no interference from outside? If you do, there
are consequences you need to live with. One of them
will probably be the end of the concept of universal
human rights -- that Enlightenment legacy that millions
have died for, and which liberal types like us take
for granted. After all, if local communities have total
autonomy, who are we to tell them not to eject everyone
with the 'wrong' skin colour, bring back hanging, establish
feudalism or, come to that, start growing GM crops and
building bypasses everywhere? If they don't, who decides
what standards should apply -- and at what level?
It all seems to come back to that question
of degrees. What I'd like to know now, is what you think
those degrees are. What powers should the State have?
What powers should local communities have? Who defines
a 'community' anyway? Who should tax, run public transport,
control the military (if you want one)? When, if at
all, can national government interfere in local life?
What role do international institutions play, if any?
Big questions. Shame we've only got four pages!
As you point out, we do not live in
a straightforward world. Communities are utterly dominated
by the central government. That government is increasingly
dominated by an unaccountable government in Brussels,
and both are effectively bought by big business. Simply
disempowering the nation state would create a vacuum
that would most likely be filled by one or both of the
other dominant forces mentioned above.
So in a sense there are three questions
here. First, what should we expect of the State? What
appears to have been forgotten is that taxation itself
is a form of delegation of responsibilities, or employment
by the people. The State is employed to uphold common
law, represent us abroad, spend public money on public
services, and defend the interests of its employers
against any threats they may encounter. These may be
military threats, for which we have an army, or economic/cultural
threats in the form of multinational corporations that
increasingly behave like citizen/territory-free nations
in their own right. That, very loosely speaking, is
what I would expect from a state.
Second, what should we expect of the
so-called 'international community'? I do not believe
in globalisation, but there are certain problems common
to all regions of the planet. An obvious example is
climate change. Such issues do not respect human borders,
and the effects of one country's bad conduct usually
impact on another. Take Ladakh, a country that could
not be more community-oriented. There, glaciers that
deliver fresh water are melting, through no fault of
the Ladakhi people. Another example is the effectiveness
with which big business can now undermine national laws,
not least through such bodies as the WTO. In both these
examples, international co-operation is essential.
Third, what powers or rights should
communities have? Here is where we no doubt differ.
You ask whether I believe a community 'has the absolute
right to run its affairs in its own way', and to involve
itself in activities that The Ecologist has traditionally
condemned, like building endless bypasses, experimenting
with biotechnology and so on. My initial response is
that in a local economy, governed by local community,
these issues would be irrelevant, not least because
in organic communities members tend to want to improve,
not destroy their own back yards. In the case of mega-technologies
like GM, the same applies, since much of these 'advances'
have evolved as means of propagating the global economy,
or of patching up the disasters that are inevitably
caused by it, and are therefore of no interest to a
But more important than that, should
they be allowed to? If a community engages in an activity
that will undermine and encroach upon the freedom of
other communities, like building a nuclear power plant
for instance, then some form of intervention is obviously
justified. But on most issues, there is no clear right
or wrong, particularly where moral issues are concerned.
Which means that whoever takes it upon themselves to
pass judgment, or make moral decisions will do so subjectively,
for no matter how hard one tries, objectivity is not
possible. If this is so, then the question is, who is
best placed to make a moral decision?
Who for instance should decide on the
values imbued through teachers into a communities' children?
A central, anonymous state that represents the moral
code of a particular political worldview? Or the local
communities themselves who will seek to pass on to the
young that information most suited to life in their
locality? I favour the latter, and believe that a community
should be allo wed to determine its own form. And yes,
I concede, a possible extension of that is the formation
in some cases of rigidly 'exclusive' communities.
As we write, the Zapatista National
Liberation Army is marching peacefully on Mexico City;
an event which one observer says could be 'the equivalent
of Martin Luther King's march on Washington'. The Zapatistas,
as you know, are a peasant 'army' formed to defend the
people of Chiapas, Mexico, against an overweening State,
and against global, neo-liberal economics. Their aim
is not revolution, but simply to be left alone to live
their lives as their community wishes.
But the Zapatista's spokesman, Subcomandante
Marcos, is clear that theirs is also a local struggle
for a global vision. 'Marcos,' he once said, 'is gay
in San Francisco, black in South Africa, an Asian in
Europe... a Palestinian in Israel... a Jew in Germany,
a gypsy in Poland... and a Zapatista in the mountains.'
In other words, a symbol for minorities everywhere --
whose battle is not only with 'globalisation' but with
the kind of oppression which has existed for centuries.
I worry that your world of 'rigidly
exclusive communities' endangers this vision. Your phrase
brings all sorts of images to my mind: the return of
signs on pubs that say 'no Irish, no blacks, no gays'.
Vanloads of British-born Indians driving around the
country in search of 'communities' that will 'accept'
them. The return of anti-Semitism -- something which
your family might be the first to suffer from. I'm bothered
that, in your laudable desire to rejuvenate local life,
you may be unwittingly laying out the red carpet for
This is why I believe in universal
human rights, and why I believe that they should apply
to all communities at all times. True, 'universal human
rights' is a Western notion; but they have been embraced
all over the world. The reason is that they are liberating
rather than proscriptive. They do not seek to channel
communities into a Western worldview, but they do guarantee
minimum standards for all people. The right not to be
tortured, killed, raped; the right not to have freedom
of speech or expression curtailed by others.
You say we need global agreements for
global problems, and you use climate change as an example.
So, what if a local community -- let's call it 'Dubyaville'
- decides that climate change is bunkum and refuses
to accede to regulations -- energy conservation measures,
say, or high taxes on car use - laid down by the State
to combat it? Is that their right as a community, or
can the State intervene, in the name of a wider interest?
If you accept intervention in this
case, why not to enforce human rights? And if you don't
accept the latter, would you be implicitly accepting
the right of a community to pursue ethnic cleansing?
An unpleasant question, but we have to face it. You
say that 'if a community engages in an activity that
will undermine and encroach upon the freedom of other
communities... then some form of intervention is obviously
justified'. I contend that 'rigidly exclusive communities'
would encroach upon just that freedom.
Finally, you say that 'on most issues,
there is no clear right or wrong, particularly where
moral issues are concerned'. I know you too well, Zac,
to imagine you believe that for a minute. If you did,
you wouldn't be working at The Ecologist! If someone
finds it morally acceptable to murder your wife, is
their opinion on the matter really as valid as yours
- or hers!? Human rights, if they represent anything,
represent the freedom not to fall victim to just this
sort of moral relativism. Without such universal standards,
we could be opening the doors to barbarism. To keep
those doors closed, I'm happy to sacrifice a certain
degree of 'community' autonomy. Surely you are, too?
Briefly, where I have used the term
community, I have done so to describe a people bound
together not by a single common interest, but by a multitude
of factors, including environment. I hope it is obvious
that I do not regard 'rigid exclusivity' to be the ideal,
but rather a reaction to threat, and that I do not advocate
an end to common law. Finally, regardless of whether
they are absolute, the fields of 'right' and 'wrong'
have been negatively exploited for centuries.
The EU, for instance, defines anti-single-currency
campaigners as 'monetary xenophobes'. The US Senate
accuses opponents of the China-US free trade deal of
being 'racists'. And an Essex publican was recently
charged with racism for erecting a banner advising people
to 'remember the war; say "no" to the Euro'.
In all these cases, moral judgments were made by people
who, like you, believe 'right' and 'wrong' are unquestionably
defined. My point is that when a regime sets the standards,
it will invariably do so to reinforce its grip.
For a community to act as a community,
it must be allowed to determine its own form. Take recent
moves to render Tibetans a minority in their own land
by injecting 50,000 willing Chinese. The Tibetans are
protesting. Are they racist, or are they seeking to
protect their 'community'?
International human rights would not
have protected Germany's Jews, and the majority of rape,
torture and killing you refer to has been conducted
by State against citizens. You cannot legislate against
hatred. Ultimately, the greatest guard against excess
is community itself. Like a human body, communities
cannot survive without absorbing change and influence.
But nor can they survive if they are denied the ability
to regulate those influences. In other words, if a community
is strong, it will make informed, organic choices. If
it is threatened, it will become reactionary. I do not
hold that human nature is inevitably 'barbaric'. Strengthening,
not undermining, those communities is the answer.
'You cannot legislate against hatred'?
Tell that to the parents of Stephen Lawrence. 'International
human rights would not have protected Germany's Jews'?
They would if they'd been enforced - by the sort of
empowered UN that could also have saved the Rwandans.
'If a community is strong, it will make informed organic
choices'? I could give you hundreds of examples of local
communities that have been just as oppressive and unjust
as nation states.
Let's get back to basics. We both want
a world in which a rich tapestry of cultures can survive
and flourish; in which human diversity is as cherished
as biological diversity. A world in which the people
who understand their own landscapes, their own cultures
and their own economies, can run them their own way.
A world in which every nation, every region, every village
is different, and in which the rights of ordinary people,
communities and the environment take precedence over
those of profiteers and powermongers.
But also, surely, an international
world, in the true sense of that word. A world in which
basic rights for all are guaranteed. A world in which
an accountable UN can intervene to prevent genocide
and war; in which a democratic trade body - not the
corporate WTO - can set standards that protect the small.
In short, a world in which diversity can flourish, within
a global web of agreed minimum standards, safeguards
I believe it can be done. But it doesn't
have to happen at the expense of human rights, racial
equality, freedom of expression and lifestyle - some
of the pearls which can be extracted from the dunghill
of the 20th century. We must advance towards a co-operative
fertilisation of autonomy and distinctiveness, not retreat
into exclusion and rejection. And it's a fine line.
Human nature, as Walt Whitman put it,
'contains multitudes'. Multitudes of ideas, and multitudes
of ways of living. Nurture the right ones, and we can
get there united by our differences, not divided by