In support of localism as a theological imperative

The possible, or is it likely, closure of the Steel Works in Port Talbot is a stark reminder of how communities can be highly dependent on a very few activities for their economic and social well-being. In the case of the steel industry blame for the Port Talbot closures has been, and will continue to be, attributed to global forces. Yet, if we look at the changing landscape of British industry over the last few decades it is easy to identify, and lament, the loss of local businesses, and such losses can’t all be rationalized away by reference to globalism.

In the retail sector it is hard, almost impossible, to remain an ‘independent.’ In financial services (my old ‘industry’) building and friendly societies have all but vanished and the financial link between civic institutions and the local population has been jettisoned, on the alter of political ideology. Ideology and idolatry, it seems, are intimately related.

My parents first mortgage was a county council mortgage and as recently as the early 1990’s it was possible to invest in something called a Permanent Interest Bearing Share – these were issued by local authorities and paid shareholders a fixed rate of interest. The capital was used to fund local infrastructure projects. The large provincial cities had their own stock exchanges through which locals could invest modest amounts of money in local businesses.

In order to justify the rubbing out of local institutions and initiatives the story was told that in a world dominated by global institutions all of us would benefit from ‘economies of scale.’ Corporate Executives have been the biggest beneficiaries of these ‘economies o scale.’ In the mid 1980’s Chief Executive Officers (who in those days might have had a really boring job title such as General Manager) were paid on average 14 times that of their average employer and now, well now the multiple is too obscene to quote. (It is over 300 times, on average).

Smaller scale local solutions were considered to be sub-scale and therefore inefficient. The products and services offered by local ‘service providers’ had, we were told, to offer poor value for money. Any form of financial partnership between a local authority and its residents was presented as an expression of undiluted socialism. Since the 1980’s we have all been asked to uncritically accept that market capitalism, presided over by ‘global executives’  has all the answers to all the questions. In theological terms we might label this blasphemy.

And, then in the early years of this century,  business schools up and down the land, and on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, MBA asked students to start thinking about how they might engage ‘Glocally.’ ‘Think global, act local’ became the new mantra to be chanted in each and every defense of an MBA thesis.

The problem is that it is actually a fairly meaningless term, except in this one sense: it surely recognizes that market capitalism on a global scale is not capable of serving the specific and unique needs of  local communities. If it was ‘glocalism’ would not have been invented. Global market capitalism, in order to achieve, its beloved economies of scale will always prefer mass customization to specialized requirements; it can do no less. It looks for commodity products and treats people as commodities in a blandly symbiotic relationship. Clever marketing manages, at least for a while, to gloss over its shortcomings.

So having thrown away local financial institutions, and having decided that local authorities should have no part to play in offering savings and loans products (PIBS and mortgages for instance) we are left with an appalling gap. The types of institutions that animated local communities no longer exist and the need is not going to be met by global institutions.

Thinking ‘glocally’ is fine but when life gets tough, when the something hits the road, the global will always win out over and above the local. Global institutions, and global executives, are simply not incentivized to prize and value the local. (Mind you the Anglican Communion is facing exactly the same problem! Sorry – off the point!)

The principle of profit maximization precludes the notion of subsidy. Money and resources should be deployed to the places where profits may be maximized. Rightly or wrongly that is what market capitalism does, it is what it is set up to do.

So here is a question for people of faith: is this simply an economic problem or is it a theological problem?

I suggest that it is a significant theological problem for community, and the health of  local community, is a distinctive Judea Christian motif. Jeremiah 29, for instance, makes it abundantly clear that the health and vitality of the faith community is directly correlated with the health and vitality of the civic community:

‘But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.’

So as Christians we need to pray for the local community and its welfare. But I think we need to go two steps further, (in order to ensure that our prayers aren’t just empty words): we need to look to support local business enterprises, even I suggest when it would be slightly more convenient or ‘economic’ to do otherwise, we simply can’t just say ‘we wish you well,’  before carrying on our merry way, leaving our ‘economic neighbour’ to struggle on unaided. Can we?

And, we (the institutional church, and its representatives) need to campaign hard for the restoration of local institutions and initiatives.  To be fair Archbishop Justin, through his advocacy of Credit Unions, has given us a wonderful lead. But now we need to kick on!

As one of the few institutions left that exists to serve every community (parish) up and down the land, the C of E should take a lead in campaigning for the types of institutions and initiatives which contribute to the common and local good, for therein may lie our prosperity, or put another way our Renewal and Reform.





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