Loyalty and Localism
For all of the oddities of hipsterdom, they get at least one thing right: buying local. Corporations care more about their ROI than the quality of the goods produced; they care more about their profit than their product. Part of the return to a true, profound Christian polity is a return to caring less about what company will yield the greatest returns and more about what company will do a city good.
For those of you who aren’t hipsters out there, you may be shaking your head already: “Hipsters are weird”; “The quality of local stuff isn’t better, or not enough to justify the higher price”; “Don’t financially support mediocrity”; “Trading with foreign places builds peace between neighboring peoples”; “sometimes you just can’t get oranges locally”; and so on go the first rebuttals. But hear me out.
Locality is related to loyalty, because loyalty is nothing but love—love for something insofar as one belongs to it. The nature of loyalty stands out when we forsake the better for the sake of the closer.
St. Thomas Aquinas validates this principle when he asks the question: “Whether we ought to love those who are better more than those who are more closely united to us?” and concludes “we ought, out of charity, to love those who are more closely united to us more, both because our love for them is more intense, and because there are more reasons for loving them.”
His last point is really the point. Budweiser has one reason for eliciting and sustaining our love, and that’s the love of consuming it. Its basic taste. Its consistent distribution throughout the entire world that enables us to chug it whenever we want. On the contrary, we have many reasons for loving our local brewery, the one “more closely united to us”: we may love the family it supports, the pride it inspires, the opportunity it provides for festivals, the land on which it works, and so on.
Every time you buy a Bud, some small percentage of your money goes to Belgium and to Brazil, dissipated out into a global corporation that does not give a damn about your community. This hardly seems like the economic relation that should stir the spirit of the good ol’ local boys, but it is a perverse feature of liberal states that its citizens tend to love their nations, and so their national brands, over their neighbors, and the production that takes place at a neighborly scale. Through the manipulation of American flags, eagles, and old-fashioned monopoly, corporations have successfully faked “closeness” and gained our loyalty.
Others of you non-hipsters still agree with them, that we should buy locally, and are guiltily saying to yourselves right now, “Yes, I know I should shop local, I just don’t; it’s too easy to just jump on Amazon” or “Coors is just so much more affordable.” Well, just stop it; deepen your loves, as C.S. Lewis would say: “we are far too easily pleased.” Say farewell to Starbucks, wave goodbye to produce shipped from New Zealand, ignore the Czech Republic’s beer! Focus on loving your neighbor rather than on yourself, shirk off Black Friday (which is still ongoing somehow?), and start budgeting to help Greg sell his coffee down the road.
Hipsters don’t get off easily themselves. It seems to me that their movement is less about buoying up and devotion to their neighbor than it is a general anti-corporatist vibe. At best, it’s a love of the arty aesthetic. In a strange way, this aesthetic is becoming corporatized itself: it doesn’t matter whether I’m in London, Pittsburgh, or Cape Town: all “local” shops look the same. The predictability of Starbucks isn’t the problem for them—no, they don’t mind, even actively desire, all coffee shops to look the same; it’s just the universal ownership they hate; it’s the leftist, “down with the 1%” spirit.
While I’m keen on their critique of Starbucks, I’m a bit nonplussed about their negative motivation to buy from “the corner shop.” In fact, it seems, in a certain way (and I know I’m generalizing so all exceptional hipsters out there, please forgive me), that they are fleeing from the corporatists and not moving toward the localists. The movement to the local must be a drive of love, not of hatred; a desire to support our neighbors rather than run out our enemies. Their love may be for the taste of the local, you say—but even then, their affinity is akin to the obsessed football fan’s preference for Bud-Lite: it’s about their palate and not other people.
In both cases, we need to recall the Lewisian dictum: don’t be too easily pleased. Long for more; desire beatitude; deepen your loves. Love bespeaks belonging, having people to depend on and depend on you. It is profoundly personal. So shirk off the love of products for the love of people. But, of course, the product does matter.
So let’s get back to the criticism mentioned above: what if the brewmaster at the local pub struggles to make good beer? Well, that happened to us in our town. For a couple months, the guys would only bring to our monthly, First-Friday festival, a strawberry milkshake IPA. (I’m really not sure how anyone ever came up with that idea, let alone in the Rustbelt, but I digress.) We bought it, sure, out of solidarity and support. But with some fraternal correction, he stopped his pink mistake and started bringing his true-to-form classic American lager. Then we weren’t just buying out of love for the man but also for love of his product. Double win.
The product, and even the act of producing, really does matter. As a result of the current corporate takeover, through their ubiquity across every small and large town in America and beyond, we have forgotten how to do things ourselves. Skills are habits of souls. If we’re out of the habit, we lose the skill. This is most easily seen by the fact that we have lost the power of navigation—we can’t get anywhere without our phones lighting our path. But this is true about our hobbies as well. Why would you ever buy a coffee roaster when it’s cheaper, or at least more convenient, to buy a drip on the go? Why go through the hassle of buying brewing equipment when you can get a case of Corona for eighteen bucks? For those who do try to create their own goods, to fight against corporate-induced sloth, there is a market full of people who are habituated to “knowing what they’re going to get”, to buying the predictable, to the commodification of all consumable goods and not to the local. So we are not only a people that need to relearn what good taste is, we are also a people that needs to rediscover how to produce it. However, we will only ever give people the chance to learn, both how to produce as well as how to consume, if we turn to the local.
So today I encourage you to focus on where your loyalty should lie. Go out and buy those feather-laden eggs, the wilting rosemary, and the expensive meat. Make it into something delicious and say a prayer for your fellow citizens who produced it.
Jacob Imam is the president of New Polity (newpolity.com), a DPhil candidate and prize scholar at the University of Oxford writing on theology and economics.