Friday 1 February 2008

Decentralisation and its discontents

by Ondine Green I think that one part of Vaughan Gunson's excellent article "A People's Constitution for Aotearoa?" deserves more looking at. That would be Vaughan's opposition of centralisation (bad) to decentralisation (good). Vaughan writes that his idea of a constitutional alternative for Aotearoa entails:
a state where sovereignty is devolved downwards to the people, to local communities, including indigenous people.
Certainly a new constitution has to be based on people power, on empowerment of the grassroots rather than an authority on high in Wellington (or Washington for that matter) doling out favours and punishment. Is centralised power altogether a bad thing? Vaughan rightly promotes the Communal Councils of Venezuela as a positive step forward, as "sovereignty in the hands of the people". But the crucial thing about the Communal Councils is where their funding comes from - directly from the presidency of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. The essential novelty of the Communal Councils is that it is a way for the oil wealth of Venezuela to go directly to communities, bypassing the infamously corrupt state bureaucracy. So in Venezuela, we see a process of decentralisation (the communal councils) contrasts with one of centralisation (the empowerment of the federal government, in particular the office of President Chávez, at the expense of the bureaucratic fiefdoms). One part of President Chávez's failed constitutional referendum that really had the right-wing escualidos (filthy ones) going nuts was his proposal to let the national government of Venezuela declare certain towns and areas "federal areas", responsible directly to central authority rather than to the various state governments. It's important not to get carried away with the idea of decentralisation as a good thing in and of itself. The history of the working class movement over the last 200 years is that centralisation - in the sense of workers co-ordinating their debate, decision-making and plans of action over as large an area as possible - is vital to win. It is only when centralisation slides over into bureaucratization that this becomes a bad thing. Conversely, "decentralisation" can be another word for fragmentation, alienation and powerlessness. Ideas of "decentralisation" tend to be promoted heavily by middle-class social liberal groups, such as make up the Green Party - with their vision of a future of tiny local communities producing for themselves. I think Vaughan perhaps gives away a little too much too much to this school of thought when he talks about
a system of localised food and energy production controlled “by people for the people”...Localised organic food systems combined with local energy production (solar power, wind turbines and other sustainable technologies) would slash the greenhouse gas emissions produced by centralised industrial food and energy production.
While food and energy sovereignty for every nation and region is a goal which should be fought for, we need to realise that there are limits to how far "localism" can effectively go. The lesson of the 20th century's disastrous experiments with "socialism in one country" surely must be that for one nation or region to isolate itself from others impoverishes us all. Only a network without limits of economic and social co-operation through all parts of the world can maximise the wealth and happiness of humanity. The rhetoric of "local sovereignty" can too easily slide over into sheer selfishness - even xenophobia. On the local level, we've seen the middle-class "local community" of Makara Beach fight for years to prevent a wind-farm that will mark a real step forward to sustainable energy for Wellington - solely on the basis that it would spoil the view and lower their property values. More disturbingly, we've heard some green or leftist activists seriously recommend that we shut our doors to refugees from climate change - or even halt immigration altogether - to make sure that our country stays "clean and green" and those who already live here can enjoy an "unspoiled environment". On a more serious note, Bolivia, another state in the process of revolution, is currently in near-civil war because of the efforts of the resource-rich eastern provinces to effectively secede, keeping their wealth for themselves. The unholy alliance of local businessmen and racist (even fascist) street gangs pushing this proposal do so under the rhetoric of "autonomy" and "sovereignty of local communities". The forces of counter-revolution are attempting to promote similar reactionary autonomy movements in resource-rich parts of Venezuela and Ecuador. In the United States in the 1950's, the civil rights movement was held back and stymied by reactionary white-supremacist state governments, flying the banner of "the rights of individual states" against the dominance of the Federal government. In fact, the question of the power of the centre as opposed to the localities was the issue over which the American Civil War was fought, 100 years earlier.

The fascist UJC group in Bolivia (seen here campaigning in the recent referendums) uses the rhetoric of "decentralisation".

Of course, all these examples could be balanced by those where local communities fought for justice and freedom against oppressive central authority. But that's my point - the door swings both ways on this issue, and we must get past the false dichotomy of capitalist globalisation and reactionary localism. We could raise the slogan of a "synergetic" economy - one where local communities play to their own strengths, but also pool their efforts with other communities around the world to raise the living standards of everyone through trade and co-operation. This would need to go along with a system of "networked" power - a new dispensation in which there would no longer be a contradiction between centralised and localised power, where local, regional, national and international organs of people's power work together seamlessly and synergetically. The best of centralisation and decentralisation combined is what is required, both for society's wealth and society's power.

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