Britain And The EU: Beyond The False Dichotomy

The path to genuine prosperity lies in taking economic power away from huge corporations and handing it back to communities and nation states.

In the fog of uncertainty generated by the referendum, people are worried about their jobs, their economic future and their cultural identity. But will the new order be a significant departure from ‘business as usual’?  Almost certainly not.  At a fundamental level, the Remain and Leave campaigns share the same misguided ideology.  In common with virtually every political movement in the world (not to mention the mainstream media), both are under the spell of the ‘market’,  and see global trade as the panacea for all our problems.

I would argue that the global ‘free’ market, rather than being the solution to today’s multiple crises, is largely responsible for them.  The path to genuine prosperity lies in taking economic power away from huge, unaccountable corporations and handing it back to communities and nation states.  In other words, economic localisation.      

As long as corporations have the freedom to move in and out of countries more or less at will, something akin to global government is needed to control and regulate them.  But increasing the scale of governance inevitably leads to a decrease in democratic accountability –one of the valid complaints of the Brexiters. The sensible alternative is to shrink the power and mobility of business–to insist that corporations be ‘place-based’, or localised.

Globalization had relatively benign beginnings. Not unreasonably, in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War economic integration was seen as a way of maintaining peace and stability.  But over the decades global corporations—and that includes the big banks and other financial institutions—have gained so much power that they are effectively able to hold nation states to ransom.  The Investor-State Dispute Settlement clauses in the current batch of trade agreements are just the latest manifestation of this process—giving corporations the right to sue governments if they do anything to impede not just actual but potential profits.  Corporate rule by any other name.

Rolling out the red carpet for global corporations hands over wealth and power to the 1 percent, at the expense of everyone else. For very large sections of the population (and that now includes the middle class),  job security has become a thing of the past, while simply making ends meet is an increasing struggle. A chain reaction is set in motion, leading to personal insecurity, social fragmentation and, ultimately, to the rejection of ‘the other’, to the fundamentalism and violence we are witnessing worldwide..

We need to step back and look at the big picture to see the enormous benefits of a systemic shift in direction: from global to local.  

Essentially, localisation is about reducing the scale of economic activity, about bringing the economy home. That doesn’t mean pulling up the drawbridges and retreating into isolationism.  Nor does it mean an end to trade, even international trade.  But it does mean a fundamental change of emphasis: away from monoculture for export towards diversification for local needs. In a time of human-induced climate chaos, we need to reject out of hand the absurdities of the global marketplace, in which countries across the world routinely import and export identical products in almost identical quantities.  The subsidies and other supports that currently make such practices ‘efficient’ and ‘profitable’ need to be reversed.

The ecological argument for localisation is unassailable. But its logic doesn’t stop there. Among other things, localisation allows us to live more ethically as citizens and consumers.  In the global economy, it’s as though our arms have grown so long that we can no longer see what our hands are doing.  By contrast, when the economy operates on a smaller scale, everything is necessarily more transparent.  We can see if the apples we are buying from the neighbouring farm are being sprayed with pesticides; we can see if workers’ rights are being abused.

We can already catch glimpses of localisation in action.  Across the world, literally millions of initiatives are springing up—often in isolation one from another, but sharing the same underlying principles. The most important of these initiatives relate to agriculture—important since food is the only thing we humans produce that each one of us requires several times a day.  From farmers’ markets to community supported agriculture, from ‘edible schoolyards’ to permaculture, a local food movement is sweeping the planet.

We are also seeing the emergence of small business alliances, local banking and investment programmes (including local currencies), and local energy schemes.  The Transition Network has captured the imagination of people in both the global North and South.  So too the Global Ecovillage network. Thousands of communities are attempting to lower their carbon footprints.

Local economies not only help to ensure greater job security, they also provide the framework needed to support strong communities, which in turn support the health of the individual – psychologically and physically. I call it ‘the economics of happiness’.

Ultimately, localisation renews our connections – to one another and to the living world around us. It satisfies our deep longing for purpose, belonging and a secure future for ourselves and our children.

Leave/Remain was always a false dichotomy.  The real choice is between a corporate economic system that systematically destroys livelihoods and undermines the environment and, on the other hand, a form of economic decentralisation that actively encourages both community and ecological renewal.  The British people weren’t offered that choice in the referendum. But it’s on offer out there in the real world.

Helena Norberg-Hodge is a pioneer of the new economy movement and recipient of the Right Livelihood Award and the Goi Peace Prize. She is author of Ancient Futures, co-author of Bringing the Food Economy Home and From the Ground Up and producer of the award-winning documentary The Economics of Happiness. She also is the director of Local Futures (formerly ISEC) and the International Alliance for Localization, and a founding member of the International Forum on Globalization and The Global Ecovillage Network.