Good localists do not simply fetishize the familiar for its own sake. They also aren’t totalizing some partial argument, about valuing local people, into some catch-all of all things local. Here are two ways to look at value interactions that might help:
1. The first of my arguments can actually sound a lot like Karl Marx, with different results. To start, Marx is criticized for thinking that the “means of production” explains everything. But the converse is no more true. Social relations really are altered by various ways of economic alignment – and furthermore, the way we view the world is often connected with its social structure. No determinism or 1:1 relations here, but real relationships nevertheless. From this argument of partial economic materialism, we see that a preference for local isn’t just about the kind of experience I can obtain, or about the moral relationship I have with the cashier. It is also about (a) the moral relationship I have with the cashier’s chain of command, through the cashier, and (b) me reinforcing, with my dollars, the kind of economic (and consequently social) relationship between the cashier and her chain of command.
2. But you don’t need to be Louis Althusser to be a local lover. The second argument is the argument from Wendell Berry, which is a little more spiritual, a little less like French philosophy, and related to ontology. I might begin by making the agrarian point about how a man is connected to the land – that his personal identity, and moral being, cannot be dissociated from it. That is, the things I physically do shape my values, and vice-versa. It is not that man is one with land, but that land is integral to his nature. If that is the case, there is a difference between local and Super____ not merely because of the social relationships, but because it recalls us to the physical connections of our souls. Tools and oranges do not simply appear in stores, but someone worked to prepare them, even if it wasn’t me. And it is good for that fact to be in my mind; not just theoretically, but even better if I have an idea of who that person might be, or what the work might be like. This is true to varying degrees of a chain store, which derives not just its name but its practice, form, and goals from corporate.
There is no need to make blanket statements here. If your neighborhood entrepreneur is selling the same things as CVS – well, he has a plus and a minus on his moral economic ledger. Not that it is sinful to sell the things CVS does, but it adds problems to our moral being, such as the Berry-an alienation I describe above, or the ability to dissociate ourselves from the moral exchange of the vast supply chain. Similarly, chains like Trader Joe’s and even Starbucks can do a lot of good things to “particularize” there progeny. Every store has a variety of value elements that affect our soul-ish being, and all these are weighed against actual cost.
Too complicated? It’s the price we pay for a complicated world.
Bryan Wandel works in government finance and has studied history, accounting, and religion. He is a member of the editorial board at Humane Pursuits. Bryan’s writing has appeared at Comment Magazine, First Things, and elsewhere.