Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Modern Swadeshi in the US, or Why Local Production of Basic Needs is Better

Mahatma Gandhi is mostly remembered now for his non-violent resistance to British rule in South Africa and India, but he was a major critic of our civilization. His economic critique, as well as his proposed solution, expounded on mostly by his friend and collaborator J.C. Kumarappa, is still relevant today. Kumarappa was not only an environmentalist way ahead of his time, but an economist who saw an intrinsic violence to the industrial global economy. Gandhist economics is basically luddite, meaning the belief that a local, craft and agrarian-based economy is much less violent and better in several ways than a global, massive capital-based economy, or an economy split into a service economy in the west (and recently some third world countries like India), sustained by a product economy in most of the third world.

Swadeshi was an attempt not only to gain independence from England, but a way to create a better life for most people in India. At that point in history, England and other places were making products industrially that were undercutting native Indian products and destroying the existing village-based local crafts of India along with the communities that depended on them. It is interesting that the factories of England were not spared the ruthless march of industry, nor were those of the US. First the crafts and small farms inside the empire were mostly destroyed (with the remnants being craftspeople who cater only to the luxury needs of the wealthy instead of making functional stuff for all), then that fate moved on to the third world, then the nasty industrial jobs were destroyed in the heart of the empire and exported abroad, along with a few stupid (but not as nasty as the industrial jobs) service jobs. It is interesting that now the fringes of the empire are undercutting the center with not only material products, but services. I believe this race to the bottom is the fate of the global economy, which puts efficiency (and therefore price) first, and deep relationship last. A few jobs that involve creativity and connection were created too, in all fairness.

Below I discuss that and  summarize the advantages of a local economy over a global one.

1. Meaningful jobs
Yes, a few good jobs were made possible by the industrial fossil fuel economy, such as scientists, engineers, teachers, programmers, doctors, lawyers, mechanics, plumbers, house builders, electricians. But most jobs that were made available are stupid, dehumanizing, and disconnecting. The good jobs just listed and others like them can probably also be had in a local, craft and agrarian-based economy in a fossil fuel scarcer world, but maybe less of them. But there are hundreds of meaningful specialties that exist in a craft and agrarian-based local economy. If people can't express their life energy/will/creativity through meaningful work, psychopathology ensues, sometimes only in small ways such as random shootings, other times in massive ways such as the Third Reich or just the will to wage war.  There is more to meaningful than creativity and/or being able to directly contribute to one's community. Such as the following points:
2. More transparency
People can do awful things willingly and get away with it in places that tolerate nastiness. People can also contribute as consumers to awful things in far away places, either because they don't know, or don't care due to the abstract and indirect manner that their choices affect the far away people and nature. It is hard to hide what you are doing from your neighbor, who is also your customer. It is also hard to do nasty things to your neighbor if you are on good terms. So transparency also assumes good relations between neighbors.
3. Stronger feedback between production and consumption
If someone sees what it takes to make something that is at least partially handmade, they are less likely to take it for granted, trash it and just get a new one. If they themselves have to make something, it helps them be more conservative with consumption, but this works even if the neighbor makes it. The feedback in a global economy is very weak, through money. Local production solves the problem of unbridled consumerism.
4. Relationship with people
A vibrant economy is about relationships between people, and people and nature. Not about jobs that isolate people from each other or nature, which is what many creative jobs in the industrial economy do. A pure consumer to market relation is not as intimate as a consumer to producer relationship, especially when the consumer is also a producer.
5. Care of Nature
If production happens in one's "back yard" (YIMBY as opposed to NIMBY), then one is more likely to care about not dumping toxic chemicals or radioactivity.
6. Possibility for gift economy
It is much harder and much less meaningful to gift to strangers than to friends and neighbors.
7. Satisfy the need for craftsmanship
Not everyone can be a childcare, sickcare or eldercare provider, or teacher or other service worker. Some people need to make or grow stuff to feel grounded. It would probably be good for people who are either service providers or doing abstract work to do grounded crafty or farm work.
8. Resiliency
This is the favorite of the transition town movement or peak oilers, though they usually focus only on the food system. The point is that our current system is very efficient, but subject to easy failures based on political or economic upheavals. Too small of a local economy is also not resilient. There is a sweet spot where we can become independent of what happens in China, but also not be hit hard due to a drought or other natural disaster.
9. Peak and Decline of Oil Production
As oil production starts declining, transportation of goods globally becomes more expensive, starting to tip the balance towards local production and consumption, even as far as efficiency goes. Also other things that currently rely on petroleum become less efficient once petroleum costs to much (agriculture, factory production, etc). I put peak oil at the bottom of the list, because it was not an issue in Gandhi's time, and to my mind it is better to be motivated by the positive benefits of local economies right now, than by the negative effects of peak oil in the future.

The problem with current service economy:
1. The services are local, but the materials and tools are not.
2. Takes away services which are gifted (mostly domestically) and commoditizes them. Most services become institutionalized and the direct relationship gets degraded.
3. People need balance, to be involved in the physical world
4. Creates an aristocracy of privileged people in the developed world and factory workers in the third world
5. Creates incompetence in all but one's specialty, as people can't do basic things anymore.

OK, you say, but what about efficiency? That tractor gets the job done faster than the horses, and the chainsaw faster than the two man bucking saw. Well, life is about tradeoffs. I think I would rather have less efficiency in order to have more of the nine listed advantages. It is not just a rational choice, but has to do with values, which is the domain of religion. The religion of Progress has demonized the pre-industrial past. I don't think it was as bad as some people believe. Good work is a sacrament. Neither does the new religious sensibility have to demonize all industrial production. Some things could still be manufactured in factories with global inputs in a sane world. But we have gone too far. Let's get basic need production relocalized. Religion has a possibility to unify people around the 9 values listed above, and to give them the discipline to eschew the race to the bottom based on the value of efficiency alone.

There is also the possibility of increasing efficiency in a local economy, but the first step is to make the choice of putting our resources into it instead of continuing to fully support the global economy.

How is this to be done in practice? I can see two ways. One is for pioneers to sacrifice their privilege in the global economy and start producing basic needs for their communities. This is already happening  with the local food movement, but it needs to expand way beyond food. Tools for farmers, household equipment,clothes, hardware, transportation, medicine, education, healthcare are the next steps. This is an evolutionary process that could take generations, and could also be coopted by the global economy.

The other option I see, which relies to a lesser extent on evolutionary process and more on sapience, is for middle class and wealthy people who can be shaken out/deprogrammed of the cult/religion of progress to fund a think/do tank that would figure out first theoretically, then practically, how to build a sustainable local network of producers/consumers, what I already proposed in an earlier post on this blog:
first stage of think tank and whole project. As a renegade priest of the religion of Progress, I have hopes that some of my brothers and sisters from the priesthood would see this new light of reason and hope, but old religions die hard. Nevertheless, I remain hopeful: enlightened physicist.

Swadeshi. It's not just for India anymore.