Local electricity for local people

These days The Guardian is an odd place to be finding conservative free marketeers. Yet that’s what we do find in Aditya Chakrabortty’s series on how the world might be run differently. An insistence upon the core conservative (do note, not Conservative) vision of society combined with the purest essence of what free markets are all about. Both, of course, in entire and total opposition to the policies of the socialists, or even just the left more generally, over the past century or so. And to be frank we don’t give a damn what people call all of this as long as we do end up doing it the right way.

The specific story is about how a German town, Wolfhagen, mobilised the populace to finance and build (hmm, reclaim an extant one perhaps) a local electricity grid and the generation plant to feed it. The celebration by Chakrabortty is that this right sticks it to The Man of corporate driven capitalism. OK, fine, maybe it does. But our claim has never been that the multinational corporations are the right way to do everything, only that they’re the right way to achieve some things.

In fact, we’d say that capitalism is only the right way to achieve some, not all, goals, so too with global or local organisation, even socialism itself. We’re entirely happy with whatever it is that works – we don’t see the capitalists protesting outside John Lewis now, do we?

What we do argue about, in favour of, is the process by which we work out what it is that works. That this new method of doing it all so lauded in The Guardian now encapsulates both those conservative and market principles is not a threat to neoliberalism, it’s a cause for celebration. Because it is the two basic principles which drive the latter prescriptions.

The first of these is not the localism in the sense being celebrated. That is the usual environmentalist, possibly even Polanyi influenced, idea that things done locally are just better. Eat locally, buy locally, all that. The conservative ideal is much more basic than that, it is to try locally.  Burke’s little platoons that is. For the great insight is that the people there, the people actually on the ground, can see what needs to be done and also organise what is to be done better than others can.

If that means a locally owned and operated grid, plus the generation to feed it, then so be it. Which is where our insistence upon markets comes in. For this is not some demand that things must be bought and sold, anonymously, over vast distances. We’re all just fine with that Polanyi idea of the interweaving web of local obligations – when and where it works better that is. That is how families work and it isn’t how global trade does each of which have their time and place. Quite obviously there’s going to be some dividing line therefore, one which we would insist is different dependent upon what it is that we’re all trying to achieve.

Thus again our markets. No, not just that mental image of the stalls selling in the town square, but markets in methods of doing things, markets in organisational forms. Because that is the only way we’ll work out which works better solving a particular problem given the time, place and level of technology. I’ve, nor you so we’ve, no problem with the idea that the optimal solution in Germany is different from that in England, or in a small town than a metropolis, or that low-carbon techs mean a different solution than coal or nuclear. So we’ve also no problem at all with this great new hope of the left.

Local people set about solving local problems and we let the varied ideas, forms of organisation and ownership fight it out in the market for such things to see which is optimal. And how conservative and free market is that – meaning that if this is what the left are going to adopt as their new organisational principle, haven’t we just won?

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  1. What happens if as a resident of that town you don’t like the plan? This is a genuine question, because we know that at some scale collectivism leads to coercion. That’s the big problem with socialism to me. When socialism has the power coercion is endemic and enforced by the organs of the state. And some proper organs some of them are. So what substitutes for coercion in that town? When does it rise to the level of objectionable?

    Oh, and finding contradictions in the Guardian is like shooting fish in a barrel. Let them die in peace.

    • “Rühl….just thought his speck of a town should run its own electricity supply.” As opposed to the large utility companies that Schröder was privatizing. Your question becomes: If you like your supplier, can you keep your supplier? Tim’s question becomes: Was Rühl’s fixation at odds with costs/benefits as perceived by any customer?

      Rühl, the manager of the local plant, declined to renew a 20-year agreement and to set out on his own in the name of the town. It being the Guardian, there is not a lot of detail on why this is a good thing or with what he replaced the prior contracts. (Rühl had “evidence, arguments and expertise” – Q.E.D.) Just a lot of celebration that he did it, blame for the British press in not covering it, and sympathy for the heat Corbyn is taking for moving in the same direction. Freed from The Man, Rühl (no, The Community) was free to do the right thing: “go 100% renewable.”

      We need not worry about the Guardian going free-market. There is no discussion of prices or of dissenters. Townspeople are all at the town’s cinema, watching An Inconvenient Truth. Now that the power plant is municipalized, it turns a profit every year and molten gold runs down the storm drains. All the citizens feel they own it. As you feel you own the NHS and it listens to you.

  2. When Sheffield built its own power stations in the 19th century they had enough capacity to sell the surplus to the grid, and the profits contributed to reducing the need for money from the rates. Of course, we can’t have local authorities being financially self-sufficient, so they were stolen in 1948.