Features & Reports
Comment & Opinion
Interviews & more
  About Paul
  Links and Campaigns

How Local Can We Go?

A debate with Zac Goldsmith on the future of local vs global politics

The Ecologist, April 2001

Dear Paul,

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 disempowered.

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: size.

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 use it.

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.

Yours, Zac

Dear Zac,

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 lie.

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 boundaries.

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 gets tricky.

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. But where?

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!

Yours, Paul

Dear Paul,

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 real community.

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.

Dear Zac,

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 legitimised hatred.

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?

Dear Paul,

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.

Dear Zac,

'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 and protections.

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 them.