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Building Walls Cannot be the Answer

By Jonathan McIntosh

As much as building walls cannot be the answer to the horrible situation of refugees seeking asylum in Europe, it cannot be the means of choice for protecting national economies either. In the face of a resurgence of sovereigntist and nationalist rhetoric from both the Right and the Left, the French Degrowth Project makes the case for open relocalization as a basis for a new international:

With each new crisis, protectionism rises from the ashes, looking like a savior. This is nothing new: in the latter quarter of the 19th century, too, nation-states turned to protectionism to preserve their own interests. But it wasn’t long before they met one another face to face… on the battlefield.

Today, in the West, societies are going through a period of doubt and fear, and most importantly, of having lost all sense of direction and meaning. Things are speeding up. We are confronted with the collapse of the very model on which our civilization is based, constructed on the notion of “always more”. The economic mega-machine is spinning out of control, and with it, the ecological crisis, inequalities, suffering, violence… In this “society of the spectacle” and of communication we lack the time needed for understanding and real dialogue in order to develop sound and effective political solutions to the challenges of the early 21st century. “Politics,” we are told, “cannot do everything”. We have lost control of our institutions, which have become the heteronomous tools of an ever-more-powerful financial oligarchy.

This is why, in recent years, we have witnessed a resurgence of sovereigntist and nationalist rhetoric, from both the Right and the Left. As if by withdrawing into one’s own nation-state, or one’s region, it might be possible to overcome these societal, political and geopolitical challenges. One all-purpose word keeps coming to the fore, used, once again, by both the Right and the Left: protectionism.

In writing these lines, we hope to encourage dialogue on the topic of the risks posed by this trend toward insularity implicit in the term. Without going so far as to reject certain technical instruments with which it is associated, for us, the term is problematic. We would suggest a different approach, one centered on the notion of “open relocalization”. This is a notion true to the spirit of Degrowth thought, which is centered on the peaceful and democratic transition to new models of society, models that are sustainable and desirable, but that also generate solidarity and autonomy.

Economic fears are now rampant in our societies, a situation made worse by intensified austerity measures. People fear losing their position in society, finding themselves out of work, or being unable to pay back a loan. They fear for their children’s future, and much more. These fears are the product of growth-based society, which considers them natural, and has never tried (and has thus failed) to overcome them. They are part of growth-based society’s logic of alienation, for, in the face of danger, we keep on doing the mega-machine’s bidding rather than fight back, in hopes that it will save us. These fears are our fetters.

We must not let these fears frighten us into adopting stopgap social welfare measures. For whom? For what purpose? The social and ecological disasters of this absurd, oligarchical, productivist system spare no one. It is not by giving in to our instinct to withdraw from problems that we are going to be able to overcome them. Pitting everyone against everyone else has only brought us to the present predicament. This perennial retreat to protectionism is too often based on a logic of rescuing our moribund economies, without a thought for how others, beyond our own borders, might react to such measures. Moreover, protectionism is already well established, and we see that it serves to reinforce current forms of domination (the collapse, for example, of small African farms, unable to withstand unfair competition from subsidized Western agriculture).

Beyond its strict meaning, the very term “protectionism” is problematic. Indeed, the term stands in defense of a dysfunctional economic system. Our objective should not so much be to scrounge around for a few crumbs here and there in the hope of saving jobs. It should be even less about reindustrializing our so-called “developed” societies, or safeguarding our exports, regardless of what it is we are producing. In the same way that sustainable development allows us to “pollute less in order to pollute longer” in the face of environmental calamity, there is no point in “protecting ourselves in order to be able to go on for a little while longer producing useless rubbish in appalling conditions”! Yes, protectionism can be thought of and developed as a form of social justice… But in the end, it always becomes a tool for promoting growth, at best by cutting ourselves off from everyone else, but at worst by harming everyone else. Protectionism is often based in a logic of opposition and indifference to the outside world.

In fact, this line of thinking is based on the misconception that growth-based society might still be possible if we would only adopt a few simple measures. Protectionism might even be a tool to bring sacrosanct growth back to our country’s economy (or to avoid an excessively severe recession). All we have to do is build walls and barriers, and append a palliative economy on top of an already-excessive economy.

The goal should not be to find the right palliatives so as to take the edge off the economy’s tyrannical nature, nor should we try to regulate the economy. What we need to do is get religion out of the economy, freeing ourselves from such addictions, taking a moment to step aside and question the wisdom of what it is we are producing rather than just ensuring that it is produced locally.

And so protectionism, as presented to the general public, does not necessarily act as an alternative to growth-based society, or as a real solution for the long term… For, in our view, we need to move past growth-centered thinking, and not just adopt, for the umpteenth time, additional regulation: that is nothing more than a reactionary or confrontational approach to the problem.

We need to begin transitioning to new models of society. They should be environmentally sustainable, socially just, convivial, and autonomous. If we want to be able to dream up new alternatives, then we have to move beyond conventional ways of thinking (economicism, in this case) and free ourselves from toxic words and concepts…

The choice facing us is no longer unbridled, destructive economic liberalism on one hand, and messianic regulatory protectionism on the other. We need to break free of the logic of the “all-powerful” economy. Casting off the idea that the economy should be the key decision-maker in our lives is a necessary first step if we want to work together to build peaceful, sustainable and sensible societies.

We need to return to the heart of the matter. What is the meaning of our lives, of what we produce, consume, and exchange? What does it mean to coexist? We must ask these questions at all levels, considering the repercussions of our actions beyond our own borders. Building walls cannot be the answer. All walls eventually give way. We ought to tear them down.

Does this mean that all ideas conveyed by the term “protectionism” are ineffective? No: some can be used as transitional tools in taking the very necessary step of relocalizing the economy, provided it be done with an open and altruistic mindset, one that promotes dialogue and collaboration.

This is why we favor the concept of open relocalization. Open relocalization is not economicism: it is an entirely different term. Its name alone allows us to take a step back. By choosing to speak of “open relocalization”, we are emphasizing humanity rather than the economy; we are blending sustainability with desirability. Open relocalization is by no means just a simple word change; it is actually a change of mindset.

Open reloclization is about taking into account growth-based society’s limitations, whether in terms of energy, the environment, or even culture. From these limitations, we begin to envision alternative ways of organizing society, whereby the economy – as well as our interconnectedness, what we produce, and, finally, human relationships – can be relocalized and become collaborative endeavors. This allows us to form a new relationship with the environment, with time, with what we produce, and with our work – or, more accurately, our activities. This allows us to once again coexist in such a way that each of our actions has visible consequences, about which we can have real conversations since we are once again empowered to act, to mull over the fruits of our labor, our routines, and our lives. Open relocalization means, clearly, calling into question the primacy of the economy and of work as society’s central values; it also means the re-politicization of society, so that it become autonomous and responsible.

As the engineer Philippe Bihouix reminds us: “The mad waltz of shrimp, fished in Denmark and deveined in Morocco where labor costs are lower, and strawberry yogurt, whose ingredients, in 1992, travel over 5,600 miles, are facts that have instilled in me a certain skepticism of the ways of the world.” (The interview can be read here).

Open relocalization means relocalizing our activities, buying locally made goods, limiting transportation, and opting for the shortest possible path. It also means questioning – locally and democratically – the meaning of what we produce and consume, and evaluating the environmental and human impact. It means waking up to the illusion that we are free to consume anyway we wish!

It is a response to the environmental crisis, but also to social ones, as we break free from absurd ways of thinking. Open relocalization allows us to escape the mindset of “profitability at all costs”. The logic of comparative advantage, which interprets the world in purely materialistic and economic terms, has led us to organize society in absurd and inhumane ways. Although it is indeed pertinent to look into the energy and productive efficiency of essential goods, the choices we make must also take into account our overall well-being. Building large industrial centers for optimal bicycle production, for example, must be counterbalanced by examining the relationship we have with the object, and with the activities we engage in even more. Economies of scale have freed us from hard and often debilitating manual labor. Degrowth is concerned with balance and moderation; we must therefore try to identify the thresholds of counter-productivity in whatever we do, seeking out the right balance of efficiency, power and well-being, autonomy and conviviality.

No indicator, however powerful – not even GDP–, can replace democratic decision-making with respect to the choices we have to make in society in terms of the things we produce, how we produce them, and for what purpose. Indicators can, however, help us make those decisions with greater awareness.

Open relocalization aims to create better conditions for “coexistence” by rehabilitating the political realm. Direct democracy can only be implemented locally with constant dialogue, with shared imaginaries and perception, realities and limitations. This is a process, inherent as well in the concept of an “unconditional autonomy allowance”, which seeks to set into motion public deliberations on how to manage shared assets, distribute goods, and parcel out difficult work. How can we democratically delineate the appropriate and the inappropriate use of a given resource? In order to, for example, allow free access in the case of appropriate use, but to raise the price for inappropriate use. Why should the price of water be the same to fill a swimming pool as to prepare food?

Open relocalization is also about living life in the here and now, with the people around us and in the environment in which we find ourselves. It means transcending the illusion of perpetual motion society, and of a society of “virtual reality”. It means re-learning how to live in the present and breaking free from the frustration we feel when faced, in advertisements and the media, with the message that we should always want more. It means, quite simply, reaffirming the “human” side of our lives!

Open relocalization means questioning the meaning and autonomy of our tools, that is to say, of our institutions, whether economic, social or democratic. We emphasize “openness” in order to underscore the collaborative and dialogue-based dimensions of open relocalization.

From this perspective, we are not refuting the historical and cultural role that borders, regions, nation-states, and even the European Union have played in forming our identities and imaginaries. We are simply bringing up once again the question of subsidiarity with respect to the importance of dialogue between relocalized ecological regions. It is hard to respond to the suffering of climate refugees, to wars erupting from our unsustainable way of life, or to nuclear waste management, without upholding strong and legitimate democratic institutions.

Open relocalization is therefore also about reassessing the extent to which we work together, unite in opposition, and make decisions for ourselves, help one another and exchange ideas. It means, therefore, dismantling harmful or purposeless institutions (the IMF, the WTO or NATO, for example), building new ones, and reshaping some that already exist (the UN). We could, for instance, think about limits in terms of distance instead of borders, thereby giving birth to overlapping, interconnected territories, rather than territories that simply happen to share a border but in fact have little to do with one another. We already see examples of this emerging in the form of so-called “cross-border” initiatives that are realized within territories based on ecology and life.

Finally, open relocalization means putting culture and dialogue back at the heart of our efforts to liberate society. When we withdraw into our own worlds and traditions, we build the walls of our own prisons. Opening ourselves up to others through travel, hospitality, and face-to-face meetings fosters well-being and helps revitalize democracy and conviviality. Open relocalization means transcending a reductionist interpretation of our identities, limited to nationality or religion, so as to instead celebrate diversity and the many riches that it brings. Who we are is never diminished when we learn a new language or explore a new culture. Quite the contrary!

Most urgently, we need to regain control of our political activities and choices so that we can discuss and then construct societies that are socially and environmentally sustainable: open relocalization stands as the path before us, and Degrowth serves as the foundation.

Everything in this system is fundamentally opposed to individual autonomy, wrote the late André Gorz in his final essay. Refocusing on local concerns can rehabilitate what makes us Human at the expense of our identity as consumers – as homo-economicus – and can give us back a sense of our real limits.

Throughout the world, we see small, but very strong signs that people are reaffirming control of their lives. The transition is taking place through a quiet transformation of society. At the individual level, it can be seen in the form of voluntary simplicity, and the “decolonization of our imaginaries”, which enables us to relate in new ways with our work, with how we consume, with time, and with one another. It is even more evident at the community level, in the emergence of real local alternatives whereby we regain control not only of what we produce and exchange, but also of democracy itself. Each alternative is an opportunity to develop new tools for relocalization: technical tools such as low tech solutions or agroforestry, democratic tools such as sociocracy, and economic tools with locally exchanged currencies, and so on.

All these initiatives, collectives, persons, and movements are being increasingly debated… By dint of the interconnections among these different forms of relocalization, these alternatives strengthen one another, grow, and even institutionalize. But if they are going to succeed, we cannot neglect the political dimension: not in order to seize power, but to pressure those who hold power in the fight against oligarchy and lobbies. The challenge is to regain control of laws that allow us to conduct the necessary research, to regain control of public assets and other ways that public funds are distributed, and to thereby continue promoting connected, local-based initiatives globally, while making global initiatives more local. A new International is starting to take shape: it is decentralized and autonomous, relocalized and open.

This article was first published by “A Degrowth Project


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