Decentralised organisation and production for the benefit of all – not only in times of need

by Christian Fischer, Köln

The current situation makes us all aware of the mutual dependence of human life and thus raises fundamental questions: The boundlessness of the virus is one thing, the problem of concentration, monopolisation and centralisation of our economic production is another. This has not just been the case since the Corona crisis, but now in our Western countries we have become more aware of how quickly such questions can become existential.

The current pandemic-induced restriction of social contacts is a recess that we have not yet experienced in this way, but which many of us can bear for a while. After all, we have means of communication and supermarkets and pharmacies where we can usually still find what we need. We also help older people who are more dependent on helpers than usual. This works surprisingly well; helpfulness has developed spontaneously and help was organised quickly in many places.
But in the medical and nursing field we face more difficulties – here, more and more staff are being lost because they are subject to an increased risk of infection; at the same time, more medical and nursing staff will be needed in the foreseeable future. The difficulty lies in the nature of the matter, an infectious disease. Apart from this, the Covid 19 pandemic also prompts fundamental considerations: How centrally or decentrally should our social and economic life be organised? Is the crisis not a real test for this question?

Centralisation creates dependence and injustice

For some time now centralisation has been taking place in political and social life. Legislative powers have been transferred from national parliaments to an EU Commission, economic concentration processes are taking place at the expense of small and medium-sized enterprises, hospitals are being closed or have to specialise in such a way that some medical services are no longer available close to the citizens, production is being relocated to cheap locations somewhere in the world, for example, Germany’s steel and textile production decades ago, and more recently pharmaceutical production, to name but a few examples. International dependencies have already developed on the labour markets to such an extent that the coverage of care needs for the elderly and sick or harvesting assistance for vital agricultural products no longer functions without permanent or temporary workers from abroad. Conversely, however, many people do not even ask themselves how the people in need of care in Eastern Europe are actually provided for under these circumstances. Or how agriculture and small-scale trade can flourish in Africa if we ship our subsidised overproduction there and sell it off. Or what it means when agricultural production areas in poorer countries are converted into energy production areas for richer countries. Redistribution takes place on a large scale; the richer countries can obtain good and cheap supplies worldwide; the others can see how they get by. The globalised free trade system works in a similar way to the soccer world: if a talented player turns up in a small second-division club, he is soon bought by a big first-division club, and the small club remains what it is. A weak club does not get up, a strong club becomes even stronger.
Nevertheless, globalisation and the centralisation that goes with it are seen by some as an inevitable course of history, if not desirable progress. Indeed, in this redistribution programme, even the weaker ones get some products that they did not create on their own, such as mobile phones; but the stronger ones benefit disproportionately. At least as long as “things go well”.
Especially in times of crisis, however, the networking and centralisation of economic activities become visible as a system of dependencies that can tip over into the opposite direction. Medicines for Europe are mainly produced in China. Our clothes are made in Bangladesh. Gas and petrol come from other continents. And even daily food crosses borders, which appear as such in the crisis. The international division of labour creates countless other examples of what can happen, especially for our rich countries, when things are not going so well, when borders do not exist just on paper.

Independence needs decentralised basic services

Of course, as a counter-example, the other extreme cannot serve as a model, as if we could live today in small units almost as self-sufficiently as a farm a thousand years ago. But since our economic and social life is man-made, we can and must, within certain limits, consider how we want to shape it.
A greater decentralisation of vital production processes would in any case mean greater independence, i.e. more sovereignty. Can we really not afford to have as many well-equipped hospital sites as we had 50 years ago? Why can we not support vital production and services at local or regional level in the sense of basic services, even with tax money if we could support “systemically relevant” banks with billions? These are questions for policy makers, i.e. indirectly for us citizens. And why do we increasingly have to have our goods delivered from some central warehouses by a global corporation, while at the same time retail stores in our vicinity have to file for insolvency? This is a question for us citizens directly.
We decide how our economic life is organised. These are political decisions whether decentralised structures for the supply of “central” goods are supported or disrupted. At present, tendencies towards decentralisation and correspondingly “low-threshold” self-determination are being fundamentally devalued propagandistically as “seclusion”, lumped together with malicious nationalism and stirred into yesterday’s old-fashioned federalism anyway. That is the hip “narrative”.
The fact that it is the task of the state to protect its citizens and let them live in freedom is almost a violation of human rights in the eyes of these narrators, because all non-citizens will be excluded...
A more decentralised organisation would be in everyone’s interest: political decision-making would be closer to the citizens and the production and trade of existential goods would be much more flexible. If a shortage arises in one place, a neighbour who has “systemically relevant” products and services of his own can help quickly. In contrast, a centralised care system, which relies only on the international division of labour even for basic services, is much more likely to  collapse abruptly. The nearest “neighbour” capable of helping is far away and quickly overloaded if additional demand comes from all sides. Especially if it has been “optimised” for the standard case, not even considering an emergency case.
Fear of partitioning seclusion and siege mentality can only be imputed to the suggested proposal by those who themselves have a correspondingly poor view of human nature. In fact, it is precisely in the Corona crisis that we are seeing that independent and healthy neighbours are willing to help others where ever they can. That is human nature. This aid is all the more successful if important competences are broadly distributed in many places, not fragmented into widely dispersed and maximally profitable centres.
Incidentally, this also affects the immediate social relationships. In functional and somewhat manageable units, internal social relations are more direct; people know each other better. It makes a difference whether I can talk to my butcher or baker or whether I get my sausage and bread from a huge supermarket shelf or even have it delivered “from the Internet”. Personal acquaintance helps even when there is a risk of infection. You communicate with each other and know more about each other – more and especially more important things than you can tell each other in Facebook chats lasting for hours.
A more decentralised economic organisation for basic services and goods not only leads to more flexibility in the crisis, but also to more justice in normal circumstances. More existentially independent units are not so easy to weaken, and they often have less ambition to weaken others.
The political intent to support such structures, or to create them at all, requires a rethinking of economic policy and may require decisions contrary to economic “reason” – as long as this reason only means short-term profit. The creative will to shape an economic structure that is oriented towards the common good, fair, secure supply, i.e. decentralised for crucial services, needs politicians who are not satisfied with being “shaped” by even the strongest lobbyists. First of all, therefore, we need citizens who can produce such politicians. That would be the self-realisation of a sovereign citizenship.     •

A look at France

“According to a survey published on Monday by the polling institute Odoxa, around 9 out of 10 people surveyed would like to see a re-nationalisation of industry and food supply - even if that means higher prices. For more than half of them, this is also the most important consequence to be drawn from this crisis.“

Source: «Neue Zürcher Zeitung» from 15 April 2020

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