“In the end, the only power that any of these [corporate] institution have… are the power that we as citizens yield to them. And they remain in power because we accept their legitimacy… If we withdraw that legitimacy they lose their power over us.”
– David Korten (2011)
It’s no secret that the world is a flaming shit-heap of injustice. Nor is it a secret that much of that injustice emerges from human choices, hidden behind the legal distance of corporate personhood, tax havens, and the ever-compounding wealth of the super-rich. But what is often less clear is the way in which multinational corporations extend and continue a specifically colonial logic of extraction and division, embroiling us in a clusterfuck of busy competition and preventing us from engaging with answers far closer to hand.
One such answer is localisation, or rather, a shift towards increasingly self-reliant local economies. If you’re new to the idea, international organisation Local Futures provide an excellent overview in their documentary The Economics of Happiness (2011) – available to watch for free here for the rest of May – covering both the shortcomings of our recent slide to globalisation, and the (decolonial) potential latent in more local responses.
To begin, it’s important to clarify what we mean by globalisation. As head of Local Futures, Helena Norberg-Hodge explains, globalisation is often mistakenly associated with increased choices – faster communication, more travel and so on – when it is actually an economic process focused on deregulating the economy, enabling large multinationals to enter local markets and outbid domestic providers.
This is exactly what colonial empires did (just with more explicit violence): putting profit above all else while simultaneously telling those colonised that they should be grateful for the ‘progress’ [read: increased atomisation, dependence, dispossession from communal means]. It’s no coincidence that one of the big early players in colonial New Zealand was Edward Gibbon Wakefield’s ambitiously named “The New Zealand Company”. Corporations are all about sacrificial zones and an escape from regulation back home, this lack of accountability providing a convenient means to their profit-led end – which, as history shows, is really about ignoring the regulation in their new location – a size-based flex backed up by might [read: guns].
Colonial guns might have given way to the more subtle manoeuvrings of corporate monopolies, however, countless examples demonstrate the negative impact such ‘globalised’ [read: extractive] focus has on our quality of life. From Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine, to Adam Curtis’ Hypernormalisation, The Story of Stuff, and Raj Patel and Jason Moore’s excellent A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things, there is no shortage of research exposing the negative reality hidden behind globalisation’s claims of progress. Just what are we working for, again?
“The cost of radical monopoly is already borne by the public and will be broken only if the public realizes that it would be better off paying the costs of ending the monopoly than by continuing to pay for its maintenance. But the price will not be paid unless the public learns to value the potential of a convivial society over the illusion of progress.”Ivan Illich (1973)
As it proceeds, The Economics of Happiness explains eight different (interlinked) ways in which globalisation negatively impacts our quality of life, summed up briefly below.
- Globalisation makes us unhappy. Increasing rates of anxiety and depression in ‘the West’, linked to a productivity-obsessed workaholic culture. Percent of Americans reporting that they were happy peaked in 1956, despite a three-fold increase in American ‘wealth’ since.
- Globalisation breeds insecurity. Comparison and competition constantly reinforced as the key mode of social existence. Our susceptibility to greed exploited via manufactured scarcity (“This offer won’t wait!”) and the fear-based competition of keeping up/not being ‘enough’. The West’s materialistic life marketed as the pinnacle of human potential, disrupting communities around the world. Separation and envy instead of the love and connection we need.
- Globalisation threatens natural resources. The global economic system encourages urbanisation as ‘a step forward’, removing the accountability inherent in living close to your resources and fuelling a rampant consumerism. Externalities ratcheting up. Industrial production hugely environmentally damaging on both local and global scales.
- Globalisation accelerates climate change. The very logic of globalisation demands long supply chains, encoding huge emissions and waste in the process, for example, the madness that is fish from the North Sea being sent all the way to China for filleting, then back to the UK for consumption.
- Globalisation destroys livelihoods. Corporate wealth drives increasing centralisation, leading to local job losses across the board. Most ruthless is the buy up of small-scale farm holdings, forcing urbanisation, dispossession and for many, suicide: 100,000 killed in India alone.
- Globalisation increases conflict. Increasing concentration of wealth produces scarcity and competition for the rest, inflaming old antagonisms and creating new ones. And yet, somehow, the solution is ‘more growth’ – ignoring the hierarchy and exclusions encoded in such an approach.
- Globalisation is built on hand outs to big business. Despite claims of efficiency and the economic inevitability of globalisation, the current corporate dominance is built on huge subsidies, tax evasion, and cheap access to credit. Nothing ‘free’ about that market. For example, half of what consumers spend buying petrol goes to cover tax – a reality from which our airlines are exempted.
- Globalisation is based on false accounting. The elevation of economic growth as the be-all and end-all remains wildly blind to reality, both in terms of its ‘hidden’ costs (e.g., how oil spills increase growth), and the disjunct between any ‘development’ promised and what actually plays out on the ground.
The documentary then turns towards local economies and local political power as a means to achieve increased sustainability and quality of life. Again, there’s a huge and what seems to be growing coverage of the benefits of such a shift, from rapper Killer Mike’s exploration of the black economy in Georgia to Wendell Berry’s work, growing calls for food sovereignty, and the work of England’s The New Economics Foundation, to name but a few.
The Economics of Happiness defines localisation as “the removal of fiscal and other supports that currently favour giant transnational corporations and banks”, but also goes considerably into detail on the ways in which local communities are prioritising their own networks and production. This second element – “reducing dependence on export markets in favour of production for local needs” – has a number of multiplicative effects, and shouldn’t be confused with isolationism, protectionism or the elimination of trade. Rather, it is about a shift in priorities, a realignment with the people economies are meant to serve.
For example, while different studies report different amounts, Michael Shuman of the book Local Futures describes work showing how a spend of $100 at a local book store contributes 3x the amount to the local economy than the same spend at a chain store. Such effects are classically non-linear, reflecting the ways in which local businesses are integrated in their communities, for example hiring local lawyers and accountants, directing their advertising spend into local papers and so on, keeping employment and taxation within local bounds in ways big chains don’t. Or to put it another way, big chains are classically extractive, taking local money and depositing it into distant corporate bank accounts – while local shops ‘recycle’ their money through different layers of the local economy, helping to distribute its benefits and contributing to a higher quality of life for all.
This local focus extends into both finance and food, with the documentary explaining how increased localisation is associated with better local economies and increased resilience. There’s a huge amount I could say about local food systems – but the interlinked social, economic, and environmental benefits pinpoint local food economies as a key actionable step. More on this in future posts, but there are many such tangible steps, from economic saving pools to micro-loans, to decentralised, renewable energy production, helping to move leftist politics away from an obsession with ideology, and into a space of material change.
Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Willing is not enough; we must do.”Goethe
Shifting to a more localised economy also helps to drive cultural revitalisation, an increased sense of community, and deeper connection to place. In doing so, it catalyses a return to the rich spectrum of human diversity that globalisation/colonialism’s elevation of ‘a single story‘ has reduced. As Norberg-Hodge points out, “at the deepest level localisation is about connection. It’s about re-establishing our sense of interdependence with others and with the natural world.”
Perhaps most importantly, the local scale of these initiatives place them squarely within our reach: they are something we can do/encourage/participate in, and in doing so, help to birth new worlds amidst the old. As Auckland’s own Sam Te Kani points out, despite capitalism’s fostering of dependence, we still have choices to make. Put bluntly, “Does having an unthinking unfeeling complicity in systems of third-world exploitation and deliberate impoverishment bring you happiness? Are you content with this being the premise of our lifestyles, & the legacy of our generation?” Or do different possibilities loom, present in countless, small ways throughout our towns and cities, awaiting energy to help them grow well?