If many pragmatic people are blind to the importance of decentralism, many in the ecology movement tend to ignore very real problems with “localism” — problems no less troubling than the problems raised by a globalism that fosters a total interlocking of economic and political life on a worldwide basis.
Without wholistic cultural and political changes as I have advocated, notions of decentralism that emphasize localist isolation and a degree of self-sufficiency may lead to cultural parochialism and chauvinism.
Parochialism can lead to problems that are as serious as a “global” mentality that overlooks the uniqueness of cultures, the peculiarities of ecosystems and ecoregions, and the need for a humanly scaled community life that makes a participatory democracy possible.
This is no minor issue today, in an ecology movement that tends to swing toward very well-meaning but rather naive extremes. I cannot repeat too emphatically that we must find a way of sharing the world with other humans and with nonhuman forms of life, a view that is often difficult to attain in overly “self-sufficient” communities.
Much as I respect the intentions of those who advocate local self-reliance and self-sustainabilty, these concepts can be highly misleading. I can certainly agree with David Morris of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, for example, that if a community can produce the things it needs, it should probably do so.
But self-sustaining communities cannot produce all the things they need — unless it involves a return to a back-breaking way of village life that historically often prematurely aged its men and women with hard work and allowed them very little time for political life beyond the immediate confines of the community itself.
I regret to say that there are people in the ecology movement who do, in fact, advocate a return to a highly labor-intensive economy, not to speak of Stone Age deities. Clearly, we must give the ideals of localism, decentralism, and self-sustainability greater and fuller meaning.
Today we can produce the basic means of life — and a good deal more — in an ecological society that is focused on the production of high-quality useful goods.
Yet still others in the ecology movement too often end up advocating a kind of “collective” capitalism, in which one community functions like a single entrepreneur, with a sense of proprietorship toward its resources.
Such a system of cooperatives once again marks the beginnings of a market system of distribution, as cooperatives become entangled in the web of “bourgeois rights” — that is, in contracts and bookkeeping that focus on the exact amounts a community will receive in “exchange” for what it delivers to others.
This deterioration occurred among some of the worker-controlled enterprises that functioned like capitalistic enterprises in Barcelona after the workers expropriated them in July 1936 — a practice that the anarcho-syndicalist CNT fought early in the Spanish Revolution.
It is a troubling fact that neither decentralization nor self-sufficiency in itself is necessarily democratic.
Plato’s ideal city in the Republic was indeed designed to be self-sufficient, but its self-sufficiency was meant to maintain a warrior as well as a philosophical elite.
Its capacity to preserve its self-sufficiency depended upon its ability, like Sparta, to resist the seemingly “corruptive” influence of outside cultures (a characteristic, I may say, that still appears in many closed societies in the East).
Similarly, decentralization in itself provides no assurance that we will have an ecological society. A decentralized society can easily co-exist with extremely rigid hierarchies.
A striking example is European and Oriental feudalism, a social order in which princely, ducal, and baronial hierarchies were based on highly decentralized communities.
With all due respect to Fritz Schumacher, small is not necessarily beautiful.
Nor does it follow that humanly scaled communities and “appropriate technologies” in themselves constitute guarantees against domineering societies.
For centuries humanity lived in villages and small towns, often with tightly organized social ties and even communistic forms of property.
But these provided the material basis for highly despotic imperial states. Considered on economic and property terms, they might earn a high place in the “no-growth” outlook of economists like Herman Daly, but they were the hard bricks that were used to build the most awesome Oriental despotisms in India and China.
What these self-sufficient, decentralized communities feared almost as much as the armies that ravaged them were the imperial tax-gatherers that plundered them.
If we extol such communities because of the extent to which they were decentralized, self-sufficient, or small, or employed “appropriate technologies,” we would be obliged to ignore the extent to which they were also culturally stagnant and easily dominated by exogenous elites. Their seemingly organic but tradition-bound division of labor may very well have formed the bases for highly oppressive and degrading caste systems in different parts of the world-caste systems that plague the social life of India to this very day.
At the risk of seeming contrary, I feel obliged to emphasize that decentralization, localism, self-sufficiency, and even confederation each taken singly — do not constitute a guarantee that we will achieve a rational ecological society. In fact, all of them have at one time or another supported parochial communities, oligarchies, and even despotic regimes. To be sure, without the institutional structures that cluster around our use of these terms and without taking them in combination with each other, we cannot hope to achieve a free ecologically oriented society.