The anti-globalization protest movement has been one of the most visible manifestations of international citizen action over the last ten years, but the groups driving this agenda have been criticized for lacking a coherent and convincing intellectual case to fill out their slogans. Developing this case is crucial if the raw energy of the streets is to be translated into concrete gains in the corridors of power. Colin Hines’ new book Localization is one of a rising tide of books that try to do just this.
Taken at face value, Hines’ central thesis has an obvious logic. If the ‘problem’ is globalization, especially in its corporate form, then the solution must be localization – meaning the deliberate strengthening of local economies, the protection of local cultures, and the promotion of community control over decision-making. Hines does not favour an outright block on international trade, aid or capital flows – only on global regimes that discriminate against local interests. The book spends a good deal of time articulating what the alternatives might look like in practice, with a host of useful ideas on how to privilege local development and enshrine the principle of ‘subsidiarity’ as a new bottom line in economic affairs – the principle that whatever can be carried out most effectively at the lowest level of a system should remain there.
So far so good, but Hines underestimates the difficulty of achieving large-scale, sustained improvements in material prosperity where local economies are weak, and consequently is too hard on the prospects for responsible export-led growth. As countries like South Korea, Mauritius and Chile have shown, significant increases in income do not come from localization as such, but from a dynamic balance between protection and integration that enables societies to take advantage of the opportunities of a global market without being swamped by outside competition. Hines’ critique confuses the traditional theory of ‘comparative advantage’ with the ability of societies to change their market position over time by moving into higher valued-added exports. In this scenario, localization is certainly part of the solution, especially during early periods of economic transformation and for particular areas of productive activity like housing which don’t rely on economies of scale or heavy investments in research and development. But it is not the solution, especially where communities differ radically in terms of their pre-existing resource endowments, productive potential and purchasing power – self reliance may be good for your quality of life in Greenwich Village but not so useful in subsistence economies in Africa and Asia.
Hines sometimes seems to recognize these problems, arguing for global cooperation to level up the productive potential of different communities, but there is no guarantee that they would choose to remain ‘localized’ as they grow richer. Most people seem to want both the advantages of local autonomy and the fruits of global integration, and until the protestors marshal an argument that encompasses both these objectives their efforts are unlikely to build sufficient public and political support to see them through.
Localization is not an easy read, and Hines has the annoying habit of citing a small coterie of intellectual and political friends while ignoring huge areas of research and experience that challenge his assumptions. Nevertheless, his thesis is an important one and deserves a hearing. At root, this is a debate about democracy, not economics, and the right of each society to determine its own path into the future. Societies may not choose the path of localization, especially where poverty is endemic, but they should have the opportunity to do so. At the very least, all communities should have a chance to enter global markets from the strongest possible local foundation, since this is probably the most important determinant of their future success. Hines and his colleagues have begun to provide a roadmap to help communities harness the forces of both globalization and localization to a vision of the good life for all.
Michael Edwards is Director of the Ford Foundation’s Governance and Civil Society Unit in New York, and author of Future Positive (Earthscan/Stylus).
Localization: A global manifesto