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Strategizing for the commons: Beyond the Local, the State, and the Global

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
26th May 2013


“After 30 years of the right depoliticising the local – of which ‘localism’ is the latest variant – the key issue is to understand and open up political debate and choices about the future of this diffuse and productive creativity. And we must work at a much deeper seam than that of ‘demands on the state’.”

Any challenge to neoliberalism must go much further than making demands on the state, argues HILARY WAINWRIGHT in the June-July issue of Red Pepper. And we must avoid the false dichotomy between organising locally and on a broader stage.

HILARY WAINWRIGHT:

“The power of global connections,’ declares the first image of a revolving ad for Bank of America/Merrill Lynch. It shows a florescent, pulsating line. The following image is a silhouette of solitary man on a bicycle, set against a shadowy mountainous background. His mobility is clearly limited, confined by territory. The caption here is ‘human capital’.

By implication, the mobility of finance comes to the rescue to realise the potential of humanity, landlocked in its local confines. We are meant to imagine that global finance and humanity are all part of the same flow moving forward as smoothly as one slide flows into the next. Imagine the slides replaced by images of the struggle over the Belo Monte dam on the Xingu River in Amazonia, where workers and indigenous people confront the Brazilian government and its private corporate partners; or of the water wars in Cochabamaba, Bolivia, where water predator Suez SA was kicked out and the company taken over by an alliance of citizens’ organisations; or of local protests by Boycott Workfare, a UK-wide campaign to end forced unpaid work for people who receive welfare that has forced dozens of companies and charities to withdraw from workfare schemes.

A constellation of power relations

These alternative images would convey well the argument of the social geographer Doreen Massey that localities can best be understood as ‘a distinctive constellation of social relations and therefore relations of power, which themselves spread around the world’. She argues for a concept of power-geometries in which localities are not simply the victims (at the receiving end) of globalisation but also the loci of its production and reproduction.

A corollary of this, she argues, is ‘that places are differentially located within those geometries. Chad is in a very different position from the UK; Oldham in a very different position from London.’ This points to the importance of investigating the significance for capital of different localities, different ‘constellations’ of social and economic relations – rather than thinking of ‘the local’ as a blanket concept. But this is to leap ahead.

Massey’s focus on the power relations of place gives us a conceptual tool to move from the conventional, bounded notion of the local to one that views the local as a site of power and counter-power in the context of global capitalism. Her understanding of the way relationships of place produce and reproduce capital enables us to avoid both the false binary of local versus global and the flawed optimism about the local as a means of escape from corporate and systemic power.

From Massey’s work, I will draw an understanding of the local as no more inherently ‘good’ than the global is inherently ‘bad’ but as a context of changing, conflictual, unstable relations of power. I will use this framework to clarify some of the issues that Greg Sharzer usefully raises but does not consistently follow through. He tends to abstract the importance of ‘demands on the state’ from the often unpredictable dynamics of power struggles in and beyond the local.

Local sites of counter-power

Let’s consider and illustrate different aspects of locality as a site of potential counter-power. Capital, for all the mobility that is its distinctive feature, also depends in important ways on the social relations of place. It has to invest in some place at some point; it has to sell somewhere. Though new technology has qualitatively enhanced capital’s flexibility, it still has to physically locate at least some of its operations.

Take banks, for example, the very hubs of capital’s mobility. Many locate in the City of London. Here they depend on cleaners who live nearby. These workers have been using this reliance on their labour to win decent wages against bosses who can earn in a few days what the cleaners earn in a year. In 2007, these cleaners got organised through the Unite, Unison and GMB unions, supported by London Citizens and the campaign for a living wage. Through a mixture of guerrilla industrial action and public naming and shaming, they won a rise. Vital to their counter-power vis a vis the City were the alliances they had built, with roots in local sources of power: religious and cultural associations, sympathetic academics, local union branches. These alliances were important in building the confidence, capacity and cohesion of the cleaners and the strength of solidarity with their action.

The dependence of corporate retailers on local markets and on the local reputation of their brands provides another example of where the locality as a site of reproduction of capital has created an effective source of counter-power. Concerted campaigns to block Tesco, and corporate coffee chains such as Starbucks and Costa indicate how this leverage is being used. Often they are associated with networks of independent or social or co-operative retailers. And although the origins of these campaigns were often modest, starting from seemingly narrow ‘localist’ sentiments, they are increasingly linking up into a national networks.

The very mobility of capital, and its ability to get away with closing factories and taking over public assets in search of ever higher profits, depends significantly on the lack of information, organisation and confidence of local workers and citizens.

Thus, struggles that have successfully blocked the closure and asset stripping of a factory have usually involved both militancy in the workplace, collaboration with sympathetic researchers and alliances with surrounding communities.

‘When management came to take back the factory, it was the presence of the local community that stopped them,’ says Leano Morais, an activist lawyer describing the ability of the worker-managed takeover of the Flasco chemical container plant near Sao Paolo to see off the corporate asset strippers. Similarly, the concerted attempt by predatory corporations to privatise water across Latin America was blocked by trade unions linking up with citizens and municipalities. In the process, they created a global network, spreading the lessons of each local struggle.

A similar exercise of locally-organised counterpower is evident when capital tries to privatise public space. In 2009, Durban city council tried to sell off the vast and well-used Warwick Early Morning Market by Durban’s main station for a shopping mall. This move was faced with a sustained and eventually successful resistance of stallholders, organised through Streetnet, the organisation of informal workers and street vendors, and backed by the municipal workers’ union. Streetnet is an interesting hybrid organisation, whose activities include the development of an alternative, solidarity economy.

The state in a broader context

A condition for the nature and impact of the counterpower asserted in these struggles is not only, or even primarily, the fact that they are making demands on state institutions. Greg Sharzer is right to insist on the importance of demands on the state. But what was also of critical importance, in all these cases, was the ability to create organised bases to sustain in daily life alternative values and social goals.

Here it is important to recognise the repercussions of the scorched-earth strategies of neoliberal governments. The traditional, mainly trade-union bases of the left and its strategies for state power have been radically weakened. People are everywhere having to remake or newly create bases of solidarity.

They are building on and connecting all the various and often new ways in which people come together to struggle for justice – hence collective food buying and community gardens, as well as trade union branches, social centres and informal economic networks. In combination, they have created resilient sources of power able to shift the balance in the constellation of power relations that constitute a locality and its relation to global capitalism. These in turn provided autonomous bases for an engagement with the state, whether local or national or in some form global.

The issue of demands on the state, then, needs to be understood in a very much more complex context of plural sources of power than is currently common currency on the left. Greg Sharzer’s approach, though containing many insights, tends to fixate on this important issue of the state at the expense of paying detailed attention to the particular ways people are seeking to overcome their subordination. It leads him to false counterpositions of building capacity and self-organisation with ‘demands on the state’. For instance, the website of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network depicts not an ‘organisation which assumes, fundamentally, that resistance is useless’ pitching self-reliance as in itself sufficient, but one that is engaged in the wider struggle for social change. It was playing a central part in the US Social Forum in Detroit, for example, with the network’s chair, Malik Yakini, insisting how ‘important it is for all those who share a belief in mass social change to create alliances and work for that change together’.

That’s not just rhetoric. The DBCFSN was on the logistics and cultural committees of the forum and involved in organising tours of Detroit for its participants. Its policies involve an extensive engagement with the state to protect the space for urban gardens from corporate developments; to get schools and hospitals to buy food from local sources; and so on.

I recognise from my experiences in the women’s movement this combination of organising autonomously for change, around needs unmet or indeed exacerbated by the dominant insititutions, and at the same time struggling to control public resources. This kind of hybrid is becoming increasingly important as state institutions become hollowed out and people through collaboration find that they can create transitional solutions that also feed into the wider political struggle.

To appreciate the importance of combining efforts at direct, collaborative solutions to urgent problems with a wider political movement, we need a further set of tools. These can be drawn from the practice of social movements from the 1960s onwards and from a critical realist epistemology that goes beyond both the positivism associated with the closed system of the nation state and the post-modernism that flourished in the first phases of globalisation and the decomposition of these certainties.

Distinct meanings of power One such tool is to make a distinction between two radically distinct meanings of power. These are, on the one hand, power as transformative capacity and, on the other, power as domination. Historically, mass social democratic parties have been built around a benevolent version of the second understanding. Their strategies have been based around winning the power to govern and using it paternalistically.

The understanding of power as transformative capacity is related to a different understanding of social change, implicit in much of the practice of recent movements. Crucial here is the insistence first on refusing to reproduce relations of oppression and exploitation. This is associated with struggling to create spaces for change to illustrate and develop in practice alternative values – not as an end in itself, but as a basis for society-wide transformation, shifting the balance of power and cultural hegemony to this end.

The struggle with the state thus becomes not the overriding goal but a distinct and very necessary strategy for control over the means of domination in order to use these against capital and as a resource for transformative capacity. This then means it is possible both to build sources of power autonomous from the state and to make demands on/engage with the state. The Syriza experience illustrates this combination, as well as the unresolved tensions within it. Because so many of its activists at all levels were shaped by the social movements of the 21st century, they recognise the driving importance of transformative capacity.

At the same time as organising for governmental power – the power of domination – they recognise that, as Andreas Karitzis, one of Syriza’s key political coordinators emphasises: ‘It is clear that what is also decisive is what you are doing in movements and society before seizing power. Eighty per cent of social change cannot come through government.’

This points to the importance of developing power as transformative capacity, which more often than not is local in its roots, as a key and complex goal of any left activist or organisation. This in turn indicates a shift in priorities from those implied by an exclusive struggle for state power, whether electoral or revolutionary. There is a need for a certain ‘bending of the stick’ away from the traditional model of political parties, towards forms of political organisation able to learn from struggles occurring in and across local power relations; building alliances and forms of democratic organisation that have such learning and feedback at their core; developing forms of popular education in Paolo Freirian mode to realise latent capacities; creating contexts for debate and new levels of politicisation between local actors – conflict and debate being an important part of the development of transformative capacity.

This strategic concept of organising for change now as part of a long-term struggle for future systemic change has a special relevance today, as capitalism goes through what David Harvey analyses as a continuing cycle of decentralisation and centralisation.

As the Merrill Lynch advert implies, capital in its predatory manner is very interested in what often begin as local initiatives – from organic food production through young people creating new musical or artistic forms, to hubs of open software producers. It’s all human capital, there to be appropriated to create financial value to feed the drive to accumulate. If we are to resist and reverse this, so that all this diffuse entrepreneurialism becomes part of a process of social value creation, we need to recognise it as part of the constellation of power relations to which Doreen Massey calls our attention.

After 30 years of the right depoliticising the local – of which ‘localism’ is the latest variant – the key issue is to understand and open up political debate and choices about the future of this diffuse and productive creativity. And we must work at a much deeper seam than that of ‘demands on the state’.”

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