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Localism, Globalization, and Moral Progress: An Orthodox Christian Appraisal

In the face of a growing awareness of global economic inequality and attendant environmental concerns, many Christians today raise calls for localism as the most moral solution. While I neither deny the moral challenge of globalization nor the value of local communities, I find condemnations of globalization per se to be ill-advised. Drawing from the social ethics of the Russian Orthodox moral philosopher Vladimir Solovyov (1853-1900), I argue that globalization holds great moral potential that must rather be cautiously viewed as moral progress.

Solovyov’s account of the moral progress of humanity through globalization is rooted in the Russian idea of sobornost’, which Christopher Marsh and Daniel P. Payne define as “the idea that human beings retain their freedom while participating in human society, and that human society is a participatory process through which human beings actualize themselves as unique hypostases [i.e. persons].” Accordingly, Solovyov writes that true society does not abolish the individual, but “subordination to society uplifts the individual” and “the independence of the individual lends strength to the social order” — an Orthodox parallel to subsidiarity.

Solovyov’s belief in the interdependence between the individual and society is grounded in traditional Orthodox Christian anthropology, in particular the distinction between humanity as created after the image and likeness of God (cf. Genesis 1:26). This distinction is summarized by St. John of Damascus as follows: “the phrase ‘after His image’ clearly refers to the side of [human] nature which consists of mind and free will, whereas ‘after His likeness’ means likeness in virtue so far as that is possible.” Thus the image refers to our natural capacity for virtue inter alia while likeness is dynamic and relational, referring the degree of realization of that capacity in each person.

Divine likeness ties into another aspect of Orthodox anthropology (and soteriology): theosis or deification, the conviction that “by glory and virtue” we “may be partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:3-4). Our moral potential is, consequently, infinite and is realized through infinite progress in the likeness of divinity. And a person’s relation to all other things in existence (God, others, the world) is the basis for the realization of this potential perfection.

The standard understanding of globalization involves three characteristics: deterritorialization, the growth of interconnectedness, and the increased velocity of social activity. With regards to the first, the advent of modern transportation technology, taking us from horse and buggy to high-speed rail to highways to air travel, has significantly reduced the extent to which any particular region’s geography isolates it from others. As a result, our interconnectedness has grown as the distance between people has, in a sense, shrunk, opening new avenues of commerce and trade. Many who would have been far off at one time are now our neighbors. Last, a parallel technological revolution has affected our communication, taking us from telagram to telegraph to telephone to television to internet to iPhone. I could have a video chat with a friend in South Korea with relative ease, something that was still classed with flying cars and hover boards as a thing of “the future” when I was a child in the early 1990s. Today, there is almost no one in the world who cannot potentially become my neighbor, in some sense.

While I acknowledge the dangers that can come from alienation between production and consumption, nevertheless I cannot support any imperative to “re-localize” the economy. First of all, we live in a globalized and globalizing world, and it is simply not possible to turn back time. Localism cannot and will not turn the tide of globalization. Second of all, as Solovyov points out, my infinite moral potential can achieve greater realization through the greater number of people to whom I am connected, and globalization connects me to more people. Third, economic cooperation between nations made possible through globalization, or the international division of labor, has proved to be an effective (though not sufficient) means of raising the quality of life of people all around the world, surely a sign not only of material progress but moral progress as well. Through specializing in what each locality can produce most efficiently to serve others around the world, more is available through trade at a lower cost for all. Perhaps paradoxically for some, such specialization increases efficiency and therefore sustainability.

Now, I do not want to give the impression that I am unaware of the troubles posed by globalization. While one can point to the remarkable rise in GDP per capita through trade since the 1970s in China, for example, reports of human rights abuses and clear evidence of environmental abuse cannot be denied either.

However, I would respond that, first of all, violations of human rights and squandering of natural resources are things that governments exist to prevent. While these may demonstrate failings of the Chinese government, I am unsure that such evils can be imputed to globalization per se. Certainly any business that takes advantage of such government failings would be culpable, but again, globalization does not seem to be the structural problem.

Furthermore, the typical argument put forth is that, despite this, other nations do have a duty: they ought to punish such countries with economic sanctions until they shape up their behavior. While this comes from a laudable sentiment, it has not proven to be prudent. As Daniel Griswold has argued,

From Cuba to Iran to Burma, sanctions have failed to achieve the goal of changing the behavior or the nature of target regimes. Sanctions have, however, deprived American companies of international business opportunities, punished domestic consumers, and hurt the poor and most vulnerable in the target countries.

He goes on to note,

Human rights abuses tend to vary inversely with economic development. Governments that systematically deprive citizens of basic human rights typically intervene in daily economic life, resulting in underdeveloped and relatively closed economies. Such nations are the least sensitive to economic pressure. The autocratic nature of their governments also means that they are relatively insulated from any domestic discontent caused by sanctions. If anything, sanctions tend to concentrate economic power in the hands of the target government and reduce that of citizens.

A basic case-in-point would be to compare China with North Korea: neither should get an A+ on anyone’s human rights scorecard, but I’d live in Beijing before Pyongyang any day. China’s willingness to open itself up to globalization, albeit imperfect in many ways, has given the rest of the world a window into China, motivating it to improve the conditions of its citizens unlike the relative darkness that hovers over North Korea, both figuratively and in actual fact.

One may yet argue, however, that globalization poses a threat to local cultures, that they might be absorbed like a drop in the sea. I would not deny such a threat, but I would again argue that localism is not the solution. As Solovyov observes,

Just as the individual man finds the meaning of his personal existence through the family, through his connection with his ancestors and posterity, just as the family has an abiding living content in the nation and national tradition, so the nation lives, moves, and has its being only in a supernational and an international environment.

The narrower circles of society have survived its broadening in the past and can survive it in the present and future.

The transition, however, from one stage of social organization to the other has not historically come without conflict. Moving from tribal systems to national systems came with great conflict as well but constituted a moral improvement, e.g. in abolishing the practice of blood-vengeance in favor of a state judiciary. Two World Wars and the tragedy of global communism have been among of the birth pangs of our more global era and serve as sharp reminders that such a project can go horribly wrong. But here as well the dictum applies: abusus non tollit usum.

To use a classical ethical categorization, we ought to view globalization as a preferred indifferent. That is, while it is not inherently good or evil per se, it is something to be preferred due to its potential for good. But given the failings of the past and present, we must proceed with sober, moral caution. “When we hear of a rapprochement between nations,” writes Solovyov,

of international agreements, friendships, alliances, we must, before rejoicing or being grieved about it, know in what it is that the nations are being united, in good or in evil. The fact of union as such decides nothing. If two individuals or two nations are united by the hatred of a third, their union is an evil and a source of fresh evil. If they are united by mutual interest or by common gain, the question still remains open. The interest may be unworthy, the gain may be fictitious, and in that case the union of nations, as well as of individuals, even if it is not a direct evil, can certainly not be a good desirable for its own sake. The union of men and of nations can be positively approved only in so far as it furthers the moral organization of humanity, or the organization of absolute good in it.

Ultimately, Solovyov argues, for globalization to be moral it must be driven not solely by economic interest, but by a greater spiritual and moral unity, ideally cultivated in and by a reunified global Church. By contrast, both fascism and communism proceeded on explicitly anti-religious grounds and the results were morally disastrous. But there is nothing so purposefully hostile in international trade and communication. We do, indeed, have a primary duty to those who are near, and thus local communities may retain a level of moral primacy, but through globalization those who once were far off have become our neighbors as well, and we ought to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.


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