Local Everything?

I’m slowly making my way through The Relentless Revolution, a KPL staff-recommended book by UCLA historian Joyce Appleby on the historical development of modern capitalism. It offers (among other things) a striking reminder of just how much this development was both enabled by and helped cause the decline of local everything — local government, local language, local trade, local armies, local you-name-it.

Taking the case of Germany, Appleby notes that before it became a unified nation and an industrial powerhouse in the later decades of the 19th century, “the 350 German principalities” — i.e., the various independently ruled districts in what we now call “Germany” — “lacked uniform weights and measures, excise duties, road rights-of-ways, and commercial practices, not to mention currencies, banking institutions, and toll-free transportation” (170). You can imagine how much this slowed the exchange of goods, labor, technologies, and ideas: it would be like if we here in Kalamazoo had to exchange our currency, pay tolls and taxes, and figure out new units for measuring our goods every time we wanted to take our goods to Grand Rapids or Ann Arbor. Homogenizing those legal and economic aspects through centralized government made economic exchange much easier and helped Germany become a leader in steel and other industries over the course of just a few decades.

Germany was by no means unique in its fragmentation circa 1800: Italy wasn’t much different, and France, though with a longer history of centralization, only really became economically unified with the “rationalization” of society by Napoleon, through which were created uniform laws and standards for all areas of the country and, at least for a time, conquered territories as well. This kind of uniformity greatly facilitated the movement of capital, labor, and goods.

[Image from https://traveltoeat.com/dome-des-invalides-paris/]

There’s an agriculture side (or sides) to all of this too: the dismantling of local economic structures which aided the rise of industrial capitalism went hand-in-hand with huge shifts in rural life. Partly the shift was one of people off the land and into the urban centers where they worked in factories (or into the mines that supplied the factories). Agricultural products could also be transported much further from their places of production, especially as rail transport grew, which seems generally to have been good for farmers, as they could sell to the growing urban markets even if they didn’t live close to them. Maybe most significantly, in the case of Germany and elsewhere, there was a shift away from serfdom and to free ownership of the land for those who worked it (although those with wealth and power naturally often managed to find new ways to exploit the farmers).

It’s hard not to cheer for freedom and good incomes for farmers and the fair and uniform application of the law regardless of where you live, but it’s also hard not to be a little sad at the loss of self-determination by cities and regions that the same period witnessed.

It’s also not easy, reading Appleby’s book and other historically oriented treatments of economy and agriculture, to think that there’s any consistent historical truth to E.F. Schumacher’s “small is beautiful” dictum. The small and the unjust and exploitative tended to go hand in hand. That’s no surprise, really, for when entrenched local powers have no one to answer to, they typically use their power in self-serving ways. (Think too of the case of the U.S., where the mid-19th century call for “states’ rights” didn’t express an abstract or general desire for local autonomy but rather a very specific desire to continue slavery.) It doesn’t follow that “big is beautiful,” of course. The negative social and environmental effects of industrial capitalism that are so evident today (at least some of which were already clear in the 19th century) and that are the result of entrenched national and global powers are, of course, what lead many of us to see the appeal in focusing on strengthening the local.

Still, if there’s a takeaway message from Appleby for we localists, I think it’s that, as we go forward in our efforts to build a real food infrastructure that provides farmer equity, just food access for eaters, and good treatment of the land (to focus on the food and ag side of things), we really should think of this as building something as if for the first time, not rebuilding what used to be, even when we take inspiration from this or that historical reality. We should seek out historical examples that show the real value and viability of locally-focused economies, but we shouldn’t ever forget the downsides of earlier forms of localism, nor the benefits of at least a few of the things that the last two hundred years of industrial and political change have provided us (trains, this here internet, pain medication, and federally enforced individual rights to name just a few).

In short, what’s beautiful, even if I feel like holding hands in a circle and singing while I say it, is justice and peace and prosperity (for the biosphere, not just us). Small and big are only beautiful or not in relation to those ends.

Maybe that’s obvious, but I sometimes worry that the rhetoric of the local food movement paints a naïve and simplistic view of things, one which makes it easy to be dismissed by critics as just “wanting to go back” to some edenic past. But we’re fundamentally a progressive movement, not a reactionary one, and we shouldn’t forget that.

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