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

Dylan Pahman
By | July 9, 2013

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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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  • Paul Grenier

    Oh for goodness sakes.

  • Diego F. Ramos F.

    Hi Dylan,

    Your post reminded me a book written by Giampolo Crepaldi, with support of the Van Thuan Observatory, and it comes something like this:

    3 mistakes
    Bishop Crepaldi then dedicates a chapter looking at three mistakes made in analyzing globalization. The first of these, a sort of economic determinism, consists in considering globalization as a sort of undeniable process that leaves us with no room to maneuver. We can feel impotent in the face of changes that come about far removed from our control. For this reason it is necessary that international organizations and the more powerful nations not impose on the poorer and weaker countries economic changes that do not take into account local needs and problems.
    The Church also asks for respect for local traditions and cultures and not to impose a globalization based only on economic criteria. It is vital also that the human person be the main protagonist in the process of development. This requires full respect for human liberty and not reducing people to mere economic instruments.
    In this way globalization is seen not as a technical question, but as a process to be guided by people. Economic and technical processes may well bring us closer, but not necessarily more united. And if they are made absolutes, they risk dividing, not uniting, humanity.
    A second mistake is a reductionism that simply blames all problems and social changes on globalization without an adequate analysis of each situation. The impact of globalization on many aspects of our lives cannot be denied, admits Bishop Crepaldi, but it is wrong to simply blame all the world’s ills as stemming from it.
    Many countries have benefited from globalization and it is not necessarily the case that the economic advances of one nation result from impoverishing another. The problems of underdeveloped countries often stem from a complex series of factors, not all of them economic.
    The third mistake is similar to the second, and consists in thinking that by now all is globalized. There are, nevertheless, sectors of economic activity that are not integrated globally. In addition, hand in hand with globalization there has been an increased emphasis on local and regional identities.

    Going with it, I think, supporting globalization using the classic Ricardian model of trade is a mistake because it doesn’t take account of the dynamic comparative advantages, the limitation of providing goods and services for a community without actually knowing the needs of that community and, most of all, the role of money in globalization (money is not neutral).

    After all, I agree that globalization is not good or evil per se, but the “structures of sin”, which Cardinal Müller often mentions, are strongly present in the actual globalization scheme (precisely because it is money-driven).

  • Dear Diego,

    Crepaldi’s points are good ones. Thanks for sharing.

    I realizing I’m trying to walk a narrow line in my essay. I think in many cases you are right that “the ‘structures of sin’ … are strongly present in the actual globalization scheme,” but I would echo Crepaldi in that one could easily go beyond specific cases to a general assumption that may or may not be warranted in any given context.

    And, to reiterate my point regarding the environment, it is important to also ask who the responsible parties are. Or more specifically: where do such structures of sin reside? A highly corrupt nation with no respect for the rule of law may open themselves up to global markets, but for any company to succeed in such a context it will either need the resources (and patience) to hire lawyers to wade through regulatory red tape necessary to try to run business legally or (the worse option) to the resources to bribe the right people. Neither option is very good, though. The first is certainly more moral, but in such a context in the short run they may only be making things even harder for local, smaller businesses that do not have the resources for either option. On the other hand, the developed world tends to ignore news from countries that they have no financial interest in. Perhaps a foreign company who chooses the first option (the more moral one), would also as a side effect bring more international attention to the level of corruption in the nation in question in the medium and long run, helping people in that nation leverage international support for improved conditions.

    In this case, though, I would simply ask: is globalization per se the problem? It can compound the problem, but the structure of sin cannot be imputed to the internet or high-speed rail, for example. Furthermore, it might even help alleviate the problem. Globalization is as good or evil as it is used. I argue that it is a preferred indifferent because it by definition increases our connectedness to other human persons, but it is certainly not an intrinsic good and certainly is capable of doing serious harm.

  • Joshua Burnett

    Hi Dylan,

    I agree with you that we cannot turn back time, and I’d further say that too many localists have Luddite leanings. But if the argument is between localists and globalists, I’ll side with the localists. To suggest that globalization fosters interconnectedness in any real sense of the term just shows how vapid our “connections” have become. I believe the likes of Robert Nisbet and Bertrand de Jouvenel have taken great strides toward showing that the growth and centralization of the state, which is necessary to the growth of globalization, is inimical to the growth of communities which are necessary for the preservation of traditions and social mores. Local custom is the bedrock of culture. Social mores–as defined in a community small enough to apply the social pressure necessary for general adherence to them–are the wellspring of morality.

  • Dear Joshua,

    I would certainly agree about the priority of local communities. I did not mean to suggest that the increased interconnectedness of globalization created ties that were as strong or essential.

    Nevertheless, I still think these ties have positive moral potential. Consider, for example, the wave of media calling Western Christians to solidarity with their persecuted brothers and sisters in the Middle East (Syria and Egypt especially right now). At one time the rest of the world would only hear about such tragedies after the fact. Now we hear about them nearly up to the minute, and with this information comes a duty and ability to morally respond. That, of course, does not make discerning the most prudent response easy, but the opportunity would not even have existed in a less globalized world.