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THE GLOBAL IN THE LOCAL
About ten years ago, a movie called Local Hero (directed by Bill Forsyth) appeared on the screens of artsier movie theaters in the United States. The movie narrates the study of a friendly confrontation between a global oil company located in Houston, Texas, and a small town on the Scottish coast, which the corporation plans to buy out and to raze so that it may build a complex for its North Sea oil operations. The corporation seeks to bargain the townspeople out of their property—since, we are told, they are not mere Third World people who may simply be pushed out of the way. The locals, though excited by the promise of unimagined wealth, not only prove to be crafty negotiators, but in the end manage to humanize the initially very urban young company executive sent there to do the negotiating, as well as the tough but spacy owner of the company (played beautifully by Burt Lancaster), both of whom end up falling in love with the place and its inhabitants. The film ends with the ceo scrapping the planned oil complex in favor of building a research laboratory where refineries and docks were to have been. The locals win, the town wins, the environment wins, and the corporation is happy—except for the young executive who is shipped back mercilessly to Houston, and the jungle of urban life and global corporate operations, with only memories of what might have been.
The film in its execution conveyed all the warmth of its message, but what seemed most remarkable about it at the time was its romantic nostalgia for the concretely (and, therefore, humanely) local against the abstractly (and, therefore, dehumanizingly) global. In hindsight it seems romantic still, but somewhat less nostalgic. We know that the humanization of one corporate ceo does not add up to the humanization of capital, and we are even more aware than before that the salvaging of one local community from the ravages of capital does not stop the onslaught of capital on community. We have learned, if anything, that to save one community it may be necessary to destroy another.
What makes Local Hero seem less nostalgic is the emergence in the intervening decade of a concern with the local as the site of resistance to capital, and the location for imagining alternative possibilities for the future. Romantic the movie may have been, but within the context of what was to follow, its nostalgia for the local community appears as something more than a mere fabulation of a past irrevocably lost; it appears as a nostalgia that becomes an active ingredient in the formation of a contemporary discourse on the local which has rescued "fabulation" itself from the opprobrium of a more "realistic" time to render it into a principle for the reconstruction of the local. It would seem by the early nineties that local movements, or movements to save and reconstruct local societies, have emerged as the primary (if not the only) expressions of resistance to domination: from the tree-hugging women of the Chipko movement in Northern India to the women workers of the maquiladora industries of the United States-Mexican border, from indigenous people's movements seeking secession from colonialist states to the western Kansas counties that wish to secede from Kansas and the United States because they feel abused by their governments, local movements have emerged as a pervasive phenomenon of the contemporary world. These movements find resonance in radical social theory in the increasing frequency with which the term "local" appears in considerations of the present and the future of society globally. In this theorizing the "local" retains the concrete associations of the local community—as in Local Hero—but more as reference than as specific description (or prescription); the meaning (the very scope) of the local is subject otherwise to negotiation in accordance with those considerations.
I reflect on the "local" as a site both of promise and predicament. My primary concern is with the local as a site of promise and the social and ideological changes globally that have dynamized a radical rethinking of the local over the last decade. I am interested especially in the relationship between the emergence of a global capitalism and the emergence of concern with the local as a site of resistance and liberation. Consideration of this relationship is crucial, it seems to me, in distinguishing a "critical localism" from localism as an ideological articulation of capitalism in its current phase. Throughout, however, I try also to remain cognizant of the local as a site of predicament. In its promise of liberation, localism may also serve to disguise oppression and parochialism. It is indeed ironic that the local should emerge as a site of promise at a historical moment when localism of the most conventional kind has reemerged as the source of genocidal conflict around the world. The latter, too, must surely enter any consideration of the local as a site of resistance to and liberation from oppression. In either case, the local that is at issue here is not the "local" in any conventional or traditional sense, but a very contemporary "local" that serves as a site for the working out of the most fundamental contradictions of the age.
Rethinking the Local
It is too early, presently, to sort out the factors that have contributed to the ascendancy of a concern with the local over the last decade, and any such undertaking must of necessity be highly speculative. What the "local" implies in different contexts is highly uncertain. Suffice it to say here that a concern for the local seems to appear in the foreground in connection with certain social movements (chief among them ecological, women's, ethnic, and indigenous people's movements) and the intellectual repudiation of past ideologies (chief among them, for the sake of brevity here, the intellectual developments associated with postmodernism).
Why there should be a connection between the repudiation of past ideologies and the reemergence of the local as a concern is not very mysterious. Localism as an orientation in either a "traditional" or a modern sense has never disappeared, but rather has been suppressed or, at best, marginalized in various ideologies of modernity. Localism does not speak of an incurable social disease that must sooner or later bring about its natural demise; and there is nothing about it that is inherently undesirable. What makes it seem so is a historical consciousness that identifies civilization and progress with political, social, and cultural homogenization and justifies the suppression of the local in the name of the general and the universal. Modernist teleology has gone the farthest of all in stamping upon the local its derogatory image: as enclaves of backwardness left out of progress, as the realm of rural stagnation against the dynamism of the urban, industrial civilization of capitalism, as the realm of particularistic culture against universal scientific rationality, and, perhaps most importantly, as the obstacle to full realization of that political form of modernity, the nation-state.
This teleology has been resisted not only in the name of "traditional" localism, that sought to preserve received forms of local society, but by radical critics of modernity as well. Antimodernism rendered the local into a refuge from the ravages of modernity. Socialists, while not resisting modernity per se, have sought to localize modernity so as to render it more manageable—beginning with the social experiments of the utopian socialists and culminating in Peter Kropotkin's plans for "industrial villages" as the foundation for anarchist society. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who rejected "utopian" in favor of "scientific" socialism nevertheless saw in "abolishing the contrast between town and country" one of the keys to resolving the problems of capitalist society, which had brought this contrast "to its extreme point." Third World revolutions in the twentieth century would perpetuate these concerns for local society; especially those revolutions which, compelled by force of circumstances to pursue agrarian strategies of revolution, had to face local societies and their participation in revolution as a condition of revolutionary success. In these cases, ironically, local society would also emerge as a source of national identity, against the cosmopolitanism of urban centers drawn increasingly into the global culture of capitalism.
The teleology of modernity, nevertheless, was to emerge victorious in the twentieth century over earlier socialist doubts about its consequences. The concern for the local persisted in the thinking of agrarian utopians and anarchists, but they, too, were to be marginalized for their insistence on the continued relevance of the local. In the immediate decades after World War II, the modernizationist repudiation of the local prevailed in both bourgeois and Marxist social science.
It is not surprising, therefore, that the local should appear in contemporary discourse hand in hand with the repudiation of modernist teleology, the rejection as ideology of the "metanarratives" which have framed the history of modernization, whether capitalist or socialist. "Postmodernism," which has been described as "incredulity toward metanarratives," provides a convenient if loose term for characterizing the various challenges to modernist teleology, not because those who do so think of themselves as "postmodernists," but because every such challenge in its own way contributes to the making of a postmodern consciousness. Be that as it may, the repudiation of modernist teleology implies that there is nothing natural or inherently desirable about modernization (in capitalist or socialist form) and that the narrative of modernization is a narrative of compelling into modernity those who did not necessarily wish to be modern. This critique, too, is not necessarily novel, but long has been fundamental to the radical criticism of capitalism; from Marx and Engels to Kropotkin, radicals in the nineteenth century rejected the "naturalness" of capitalist development and pointed to coercion as key to the global success of capitalism. Marx, however, viewed it as a progressive development whereas Kropotkin viewed complicity in development (with specific reference to the nation-state) as the consequence of "brainwashing thanks to ... education deformed and vitiated by the state, and our state prejudices"—which may be one reason among others that anarchism has made something of a comeback among radicals in recent years as Marxism has suffered for its association with modernization.
The repudiation of the metanarrative of modernization, and its redirection of attention to coercion over teleology in development, have had two immediate consequences. First, it rescues from invisibility those who were earlier viewed as castaways from history, whose social and cultural forms of existence appear in the narrative of modernization at best as irrelevancies, at worst as minor obstacles to be extinguished on the way to development. Having refused to die a natural death, but instead come into self-awareness as victims of coercion, they demand now not just restoration of their history, further splintering the already cracked facade of modernity. The demand is almost inevitably accompanied by a reassertion of the local against the universalistic claims of modernism.
The repudiation of the metanarrative of modernization, secondly, has allowed greater visibility to "local narratives." Rather than an inexorable march of global conquest from its origins in Europe, the history of modernization appears now as a temporal succession of spatially dispersed local encounters, to which the local objects of progress made their own contributions through resistance or complicity, contributing in significant ways to the formation of modernity, as well as to its contradictions. Also questioned in this view are the claims of nationalism which, a product itself of modernization, has sought to homogenize the societies it has claimed for itself, suppressing further such local encounters, and the "heterogeneity" they imply.
Were it simply an ideological phenomenon, the postmodern repudiation of the metanarrative of modernity could be dismissed as a momentary loss of faith in modernity, another instance of those chronic failures of nerve that seem to attend moments of crisis in development, especially on occasions of transition, that will go away as soon as the transition has been completed and the crisis resolved. If so, this new round of antimodernism might be at best a passive enabling condition that allows us to hear previously inaudible voices, that will be muted again as soon as the business of development is once again under way, with capitalism having disposed of the competition that for nearly a century shaped and "distorted" its development.
It is possible that the disillusionment with capitalism, accompanied by a loss of faith in socialism that gathered force in the 1980s to reach its culmination in the fall of socialist states in 1989, has played a fundamental part in the resurgence of an antimodernism that has redirected the attention of radicals to local solutions to problems of development. It is more than possible, as I will argue below, that rather than signal the death of developmentalism, this new round of antimodernism has something to do with a new phase in the development of capitalism. What is not so certain is that the concerns expressed by this antimodernism will go away once the crisis of transition has been overcome, because these concerns are not merely ideological but the very products of the ecological, social, and political consequences of development. They are responses to a real crisis created by developments within capitalism and the whole project of modernity, and solutions to the crisis (as in the past) will have to be factored into considerations of further development. Above all, however, what is likely to give these concerns lasting power is that they express the demands not just of the powerless victims of development, although that is significant enough, but of formerly powerless groups who have acquired new power by virtue of the process of development itself, who now seek to redefine it in accordance with their own interests and perceptions.
It is neither necessary nor possible to recapitulate here what these groups are, except in the broadest terms to indicate the ways in which their emergence from invisibility and silence contributed to the questioning of metanarratives of development. Primary within the United States are the emergence into politics of Afro-Americans and women in the 1960s, followed (and due to the stimulus they provided) by other ethnic and indigenous people's movements. Globally, Third World revolutions (especially in China, followed by Vietnam) played a major part in questioning earlier (capitalist and socialist) models of development, but even more important in the long run have been the emergence from the 1970s of successful instances of capitalist development in the Third World which, having achieved success, proceeded to question the assumptions of Eurocentric models of development, countering the latter with models of development that claimed inspiration in native cultural and ideological norms; I have in mind here the cultural claims of East Asian societies.
I will say more about the latter in the next section in connection with the emergence of a global capitalism. A few words are necessary here concerning the various "people's movements" in the United States (and elsewhere in the First World), which called into question not just the claims of capitalist society, but received notions of socialism as well. Most obvious is the questioning by women, ethnic, racial, and indigenous peoples of the socialist claims to the centrality of class as the fundamental problem of capitalist society. The result was not only a more thorough examination of social categories in political organization, but also a greater awareness of the political manipulation of social categories; that is, the imposition on social complexity of reductionist interpretations of categories to rationalize ideological rule in the name of the groups so represented. The response to categorical reductionism was to assert the historicity and contextuality of social categories, which was to find expression in the works of E. P. Thompson, Eugene Genovese, and the so-called "new social history" which their works inspired. What is important here is that new consciousness of the historicity of social categories drew attention to the local culture of the people in social movements against earlier emphases on a one-to-one relationship between social existence and ideology.
Even before the crisis of socialism became evident in the 1980s, and postmodernism became a household word, developments in social movements and in the relationships between the "Three Worlds" called into question the spatial and temporal teleology of development, as well as the conceptual teleology that had characterized earlier radical thinking. However, it is necessary to note that whatever the material circumstances that rendered "postmodernism" intelligible and plausible, it was the generation that came of age with these developments that was to play the crucial part in its articulation. The concern for the local (whether literally local or in reference to the "local" needs of social groups) gathered force simultaneously with the repudiation of teleology. I can do no more than suggest here that an ecological consciousness, which has done much to reassert the primacy of the local (as the most viable location for living in harmony with nature), was a product of the same circumstances and obviously bore some relationship to the shift in social and political consciousness.
Excerpted from Global Local by Rob Wilson, Wimal Dissanayake. Copyright © 1996 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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