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Book of the Day: Why Small-Scale Alternatives Won’t Change The World

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
29th January 2013


Key thesis: The localist form of citizenship may empower us, but it cannot confront capitalism. Against a global network of power must emerge globalised forms of struggle.

* Book: No Local. Why Small-Scale Alternatives Won’t Change The World. Greg Sharzer. Zero Books, 2012.

Here is the summary of this book which challenges localist initiatives:

“Can making things smaller make the world a better place? No Local takes a critical look at localism, an ideology that says small businesses, ethical shopping and community initiatives like gardens and farmers’ markets can stop corporate globalization.

These small acts might make life better for some, but they don’t challenge the drive for profit that’s damaging our communities and the earth. No Local shows how localism’s fixation on small comes from an outdated economic model. Growth is built into capitalism. Small firms must play by the same rules as large ones, cutting costs, exploiting workers and damaging the environment. Localism doesn’t ask who controls production, allowing it to be co-opted by governments offloading social services onto the poor. At worst, localism becomes a strategy for neoliberal politics, not an alternative to it.”

The author Greg Sharzer argues:

“In 2011, as Greece continued its inexorable slide towards bankruptcy, The Guardian featured economist Costas Lapavitsas on how Greeks were coping with the crisis. As unemployment grew, communities lost:

the means to live as well as the norms, customs and respect of regular work. Barter has appeared among the poor and the not so poor… Schools and transport are disintegrating. People are abandoning cities to return to agriculture, a sure sign of social retrogression.

The strange Marxist curse of “social retrogression” attracted the attention of geographers David Harvey and Keir Milburn. They countered that, far from being a sign of social decay, the return to agriculture was, in fact, a sign of resistance. Going back to the land was “crucial in building alternatives to the neoliberal policies that have impoverished so many”, and “a move full of potential.”

All three economists are socialists: they believe in the power of mass social movements, like the Arab Spring and mass mobilizations across Europe, to change capitalism. Yet if they agree on an active, resistant kind of citizenship, they disagree on what direction citizens should put their energies. One is about mass resistance to austerity; the other is a form of localism. At the heart of this disagreement, I would argue, are two different concepts – not of citizenship but of capitalism.

Our world is structured by how wealth gets produced. As I argue in my book No Local: Why Small-Scale Alternatives Won’t Change The World, capitalism is a system of making wealth socially and keeping it privately. Most of us, the ‘99%’, have to work; a very small number of people, the capitalists, get to own. The latter face two major problems: they have to expand their production and lower their costs or risk competitors swallowing them up. This constant drive to expand creates unnecessary production and crisis. When the profit rate falls, capitalists have to do everything in their power to restore it. That can mean a recession and austerity, or even a war – anything to eliminate excess capacity and ‘surplus’ workers.

How we respond to this austerity – resistance or adapation – depends on how we understand capitalism. Localism sees it as uneven and fragile; the dispossessed can operate at the margins to create a fulfilling life for themselves. The alternative, a democratic, revolutionary socialism, agrees that capitalism is unstable and open to change, but not at the margins: rather, capitalism creates its own grave-diggers at its very centre. The working class, who have nothing to sell but their work, create everything and can therefore run everything. Capitalism can be organized against and overcome.

In the abstract, we can choose both. By going back to the land, we can create communities of resistance that provide the material and moral strength to resist neoliberalism. However, by not confronting capitalism, this localist form of citizenship fails on every level: ethical, practical and political.

Ethically, localism lets capitalists pass the costs of their failures to workers. Why be so quick to abandon the schools, hospitals and factories that have defined contemporary society? Workers fought for the good education, healthcare and jobs that capitalist governments are trying to eliminate.

Practically, localities can’t recreate the amenities and infrastructure of an advanced society: the mass transit, renewable energy and dense urban development needed to transform to a low-carbon economy are impossible without the vast, international coordination of resources and technical know-how.

Politically, localism dodges important strategic questions: how do we oppose attacks on pensions, wages and services that workers have fought for? How do we deal with entrenched forms of state and corporate power, which have no problem with tiny cooperatives and the occasional black-masked riot, but whose profits and stability are genuinely threatened by a general strike?

The localist from-below vision empowers people as everything from consumers to producers but, crucially, not as citizens. This is because a citizen is a fundamentally political being who engages with the issues of people who don’t have the opportunity or luxury to drop out. As I argue in No Local:

Marx famously alliterated, “Here is the rose, dance here!” We begin with society as it is, not as we’d like it to be. Voluntarism means substituting one’s own personal projects and priorities for building social movements, rather than trying to understand and change conditions as they exist right now.

Lapavitsas can talk about social retrogression because he believes workers create collective wealth, in the form of public services and productive capacity. The problem is not one of austerity but ownership: in fact, workers create vast wealth, actual and potential, that is squandered privately. Put towards public, democratic ends, that wealth could end poverty, hunger and create a comfortable life for all.

How do workers learn to run things? Through resistance: fighting for change wherever the issue of the day arises, be it privatisation, layoffs or government-imposed austerity. Through struggle, we build the capacity to create independent and democratic movements. This kind of citizenship emerged in Quebec during the student occuptions of 2012, and it continues in Egypt in the struggle against the new regime. Those activists are trying to create an entirely new, collective, democratic citizenship, based on an egalitarian society.

Whatever concessions social movements were able to carve out of states in their more generous pre-crisis days, states have shown themselves to be instruments of capitalism – not because they’ve been ‘captured’ by corporate elites but because their job is to manage the system of profit-making. We can either resist or give in, but there is no outside to the class struggle. As I argue in No Local:

class struggle allows activists to learn first–hand about the strategies and principles necessary to build a movement. This kind of prefiguration embodies social justice, cooperation and community, all cherished localist values, plus one that’s even more important: collective resistance. Rather than imagining possible futures, we can practice and learn about the political steps needed to get there.

The pan-European general strikes against austerity last November are a great example. As workers connect local issues to the global crisis, we can create a new form of citizenship, confronting, not avoiding the strategic questions of how to take power from capital. Against the globalized age of austerity, we will create our own globalized age of resistance.”

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6 Responses to “Book of the Day: Why Small-Scale Alternatives Won’t Change The World”

  1. Øyvind Holmstad Says:

    What came to my mind is the Alexandrine pattern 87.

    Pattern 87, Individually Owned Shops:

    “When shops are too large, or controlled by absentee owners, they become plastic, bland, and abstract.

    Therefore:

    Do what you can to encourage the development of individually owned shops. Approve applications for business licenses only if the business is owned by those people who actually work and manage the store. Approve new commercial building permits only if the proposed structure includes many very very small rental spaces.

    The profit motive creates a tendency for shops to become larger. But the larger they become, the less personal their service is, and the harder it is for other small shops to survive. Soon, the shops in the economy are almost entirely controlled by chain stores and franchises.

    The franchises are doubly vicious. They create the image of individual ownership; they give a man who doesn’t have enough capital to start his own store the chance to run a store that seems like his; and they spread like wildfire. But they create even more plastic, bland, and abstract services. The individual managers have almost no control over the goods they sell, the food they serve; policies are tightly controlled; the personal quality of individually owned shops is altogether broken down.

    Communities can only get this personal quality back if they prohibit all forms of franchise and chain stores, place limits on the actual size of stores in a community, and prohibit absentee owners from owning shops. In short, they must do what they can to keep the wealth generated by the local community in the hands of that community.

    Even then, it will not be possible to maintain this pattern unless the size of the shop spaces available for rent is small. One of the biggest reasons for the rise of large, nationally owned franchises is that the financial risk of starting a business are so enormous for the average individual. The failure of a single owner’s business can be catastrophic for him personally; and it happens, in large part because he can’t afford the rent. Many hundreds of tiny shops, with low rents, will keep the initial risk for a shop keeper who is starting, to a minimum.

    Shops of Morocco, India, Peru, and the older parts of older towns, are often no more than 50 square feet in area. Just room for a person and some merchandise – but plenty big enough.” — Pattern 87, A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander, page 432 – 434.

    Please note that A Pattern Language has beautiful pictures illustrating this pattern.

    In Norway now small shops owned by the merchant itself is only found among immigrants or on the most remote places, like Å, as far as you can get out in the ocean on the archipelago of Lofoten.

    A serious state providing real welfare to its people needs to protect patterns like this with law, to give its people real dignity as real owners of their own small stores, to protect them from capitalist monsters like Wall-Mart and so on.

  2. Todd S. Says:

    Marxists always seem to say the same things. “We can’t do that because it won’t work. We must do as we’ve always done, because even though that hasn’t worked, it might someday. Maybe. Possibly. But I’ve staked my entire academic career on it working, so it really has to. Someday.” This author seems to assume that the goal of localism is to preserve the modern nation-state and the whole notion of “progress == growth”. In doing so, it feels like the whole thing is a straw man.

  3. Kevin Carson Says:

    Amazing that someone with his head stuck in all the technological assumptions of Galbraith/Chandler World, ca. 1960, accuses decentralists of “not understanding economics.”

    These liberals use “economies of scale” like creationists use the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics.

  4. David de Ugarte Says:

    100% with Kevin point of view

  5. Karl Says:

    I don’t get what everyone’s beef is with this piece. Mr. Sharzer is saying that removing some groups from distant market-based relationships is not sufficient to break the domination of the larger players. Unless you can replicate those localized economies on a global scale and starve the corporate beasts, you haven’t achieved much. That is a larger political task that also needs to be in the mix. It’s seems like a valid point to make, even if you don’t like the confrontational Marxist approach.

  6. Kevin Carson Says:

    “…replicate those localized economies on a global scale and starve the corporate beasts…”

    I think this is precisely the mission of efforts like the P2PFoundation, Open Source Ecology, Permaculture, etc.

    The beasts would’ve starved a long time ago without the corporate state to supply them with massive subsidies and to enforce the monpolies and regulatory cartels that protect them from destructive competition. The ever-growing costs of overcoming capitalism’s chronic crisis tendencies are sending the state into a spiral of fiscal crisis, and new technology is making things like the copyright and patent monopolies virtually unenforceable. And new technologies of ephemeralization are rendering the vast majority of investment capital useless.

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