Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Why localism won’t change the world

Many critics of present day society, including within the Occupy movement, seem to have given up on trying to change society as a whole and argue that the way forward is activity at local level; if this works, they claim, this will show people that there is an alternative way to capitalism of organising things. But it won’t work and can’t work, as is explained in a book published last year by Greg Sharzer, "No Local. Why Small-Scale Alternatives Won’t Change the World" . In the opening chapters he makes the same basic point as we’ve been making that “… while small-scale alternatives can survive and occasionally flourish, they won’t build a new equitable society.”

We reproduce below some of the passages in which he develops this argument (the sub-headings are ours).

What localists claim

“Localism has developed into many different streams, which can be roughly grouped into localists who support capitalism and those who want to overcome it. Pro-market localists suggest that market regulation can create ethical local capitalism. Some build small businesses, while others promote non-profits and cooperatives. Locally-owned businesses are supposed to keep money in local communities and, since they're small, treat workers and the environment better. Residents care more about what goes on, participate in local issues and send their kids to local schools. Personal connections can overcome the impersonal, alienating power of the marketplace.
Anti-market localists blame capitalism for separating and isolating us. Instead, people who live close together can create a healthy balance of community, individual and environmental needs. By bartering, creating alternative currencies and local credit, localists can create a cooperative, decentralized economy. Participatory Economics (Parecon) and Libertarian Municipalism (LM) create plans for self-governing communities. The perma-culture and appropriate technology movements advocate using smaller-scale, accessible tools in those communities' economies. Taking inspiration from pre-colonial societies, bioregionalism uses the land's ecological limits to plan community self-reliance in every area of economic life, reducing and balancing growth. If these measures were generalized, the homogenizing, alienating forces of capital and the nation-state could eventually disappear. We can start small, with community gardens and cycling, but put together, all these measures can create a postcapitalist future.”
(p. 20)

Limits of ethical consumerism

“First, wages don't create all demand: they're just one way for capitalists to realize the capital invested in commodities (…) Most people encounter the market when they shop, so it seems natural to believe that capitalism exists to satisfy our consumer needs. But while the market in consumer goods is constantly on display, exploitation is hidden. Workers matter as workers, the source of surplus value: they're only able to receive and spend a wage if their employer makes a profit first. Moreover, capitalist production creates capital goods that only business buys: the machinery and building materials that go into factories, offices and other sites of exploitation. Capital has to consume materials at all stages of the production process. Machines increase production, making more machines necessary and increasing the importance of industries producing the means of production. There are huge areas of the economy off-limits to workers' spending power. (…) Even if localist missionaries convinced all workers that local consumption could change the world, workers could, at best, change the conditions of production for their own housing and durable goods, a small portion of the capital circuit.”
(pp. 32-3)

What’s wrong with high-tech?
“Although mineral deposit and agriculture-based economies are heavily place-dependent, extracting, creating and transporting market commodities across vast spaces have shaped economies for thousands of years. Production has never been entirely local; trying to force it to become so creates serious problems.” (p. 39)

“ISI [Import Substitution Industrialization] encounters even more problems in advanced capitalist economies that, unlike poorer states, can't import existing production and distribution models and must establish new ones to remain competitive. Governments can nationalize existing industries or set up new ones, but capital is just as interested in retaining control in rich nations as in poor ones. Setting up national industries, to say nothing of local ones would require restricting private property rights. ISI was a partial, temporary de-linking from the global market to establish a more competitive national economy. These plans failed even with vast amounts of capital and power behind them. Localism aims to recreate this autarky on an even flimsier basis, as a moral rather than nationalist project.” (p. 41)

“Consumer goods, let alone mass public transit systems and high-speed internet, are impossible without a highly-developed capacity to source materials, process them into finished products and distribute them across large distances. For example, making solar panels involves advanced machinery and massive financing that would be impossible to muster locally
. (…) Even localism’s direct democracy needs high-tech to reduce people’s workload and allow them time to participate.” (pp. 44-5)

Capital’s drive for profits rules
“… localism sees capitalism as a market to trade things. The social relations of power disappear, and any remaining problems are technical. This lets pro-market localism portray capitalism as ethical and build small businesses that won’t have to play by the rules of big capital. But small business isn’t a check on capitalist development: it’s another form of it. Small firms provide a vital, risk-taking function for capitalism as a whole, introducing new technologies and inhabiting margins of their own, opening ground for larger businesses. Even small firms must lower their costs by reducing the amount of value embodied in their commodities, leading to larger firms and often larger machines. Anti-market localism suggests that we can replace big industry and high-tech to create a new, cooperative society based on direct, non-capitalist trade. But these plans are stymied by the law of value. By focusing on technical relations both pro- and anti-market localism miss the power of capital to dominate the market. Capital's inherent drives to profit expose local alternatives to ruthless market discipline.
(pp. 53-4)

“… localist reform schemes run up against the limits of capitalism: its incessant devouring of workers and smaller competitors in a bid for temporary stability. It wouldn't be capitalism without a drive to expand, centralize and control. Localists have trouble acknowledging this, and it's easy to see why. For the pro-market localists, people can be empowered through ethical market choices; admitting the market destroys individuals would be contradictory. Anti-market localists are clearer on how capitalism works but believe we can step outside the market to defeat it. Both are wrestling with powerlessness: faced with the unpalatable conclusion that small alternatives won't outcompete or destroy capitalism, localists cling to a fierce faith in communities to band together and do it yourself.”

A word of warning is now in order. Sharzer is not a socialist but a Trotskyist who favours workers’ democratic control of money and praises Lenin “whose movement inspired millions to take up arms for socialism.” This is likely to put off many who might otherwise gives his views a hearing.

Adam Buick


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