Some time ago, I was talking with a nutritionist friend about how expensive and time–consuming it is to be poor. You have to chase low–wage jobs, live in poor–quality housing and endure the daily stress of trying to afford the essentials. Government, which used to provide a social safety net, doesn’t help much. Warming to the topic, I added, “They don’t even provide spaces for community gardens.”
My friend replied, “Why should poor people have to grow their own food?”
I had never considered this before. When you’re poor, time and energy aren’t the only things to go: the first is dignity, as you’re forced to scrape by on less. Is there anything noble in adding yet another burden of work? Yet dozens of boosters claim the exact opposite: growing, making and doing it yourself is supposed to be liberating. This book groups all of them together under the label of localism, because they have a common thread: the belief that small, ethical alternatives can build quality communities, outcompete big corporations and maybe even transform capitalism.
Some of this is left–wing, but the Right shares that vision as well. For example, the UK’s Department of Community and Local Government homepage invokes “Localism, localism, localism” and has created a localism bill that devolves power to communities, claiming that a “radical localist vision is turning Whitehall on its head by decentralizing central government and giving power to the people.” When anarchists and Tories both claim local spaces for their own, we need to clarify exactly what localism is.
Localism begins with the principle that when things grow too big, communities and collective values suffer. Concentrating economic and political power creates inequality. Owners of big factories who live far away don’t care about workers and the environment. In response, localism says we can change how we act within capitalism. If consumers don’t like a commodity, they can demonstrate their commitment to a better one: for example, choosing to buy a Fair Trade cup of coffee. Support ethical, small–scale businesses and little by little the excesses of economic growth will disappear. More radical localists say that power and size are integral to capitalism and the system needs to change; to do so, we can work together to make and distribute ethical products outside the market. Community gardening, farmers’ markets and biofuel movements will change the entrenched power of agribusiness. Foodies and locavores unite: you have nothing to lose but your fast food chains.
However, while small–scale alternatives can survive and occasionally flourish, they won’t build a new, equitable society. Their prospects are severely limited by the power of capital. The problem with localism is not its anti–corporate politics, but that those politics don’t go far enough. It sees the effects of unbridled competition but not its cause.
This is not a book about the successes and challenges of a particular community garden or biodiesel scheme. That research is important, but it’s already been done: there are plenty of detailed empirical surveys of local projects and their participants. They usually end with the hope that people will take the example and try it elsewhere, implying that local projects can be spread throughout the economy. But if localists had a greater understanding of how capitalism works, they might not be localists. That’s why No Local is largely a theoretical book. Although it examines plenty of localist projects, its purpose is to provide what they lack: a critical understanding of the internal drives of capitalism and how they limit the potential for small–scale alternatives.
Karl Marx showed how capitalists must do everything possible to sell their commodities at the lowest price. That means lowering wages and not paying for environmental costs. Firms do so not because they’re evil but because they have to grow. If they don’t, they’ll be forced into bankruptcy.
OK, some might say, localism might not change everything. But at least it’s doing something. And in fact, the whole point of being a locavore is that it’s not trying to bring down global systems (and who’s ever done that?) Localism makes small, incremental changes within our reach. If the net result is that the world is fairer and greener, so much the better; if it’s not, no one gets hurt, and maybe we get a few good crops of tomatoes out of it. In that sense, localism is a kind of pluralism: you build your big social movements over there, we’ll set up our farmers’ market over here, and sooner or later the two will add up. We don’t have to choose between the two.
If you want to create healthy food for yourself or trade crafts, that’s great. Making something yourself, whether it’s a painting, a bicycle or a carrot, is a way to feel you’ve left a mark in a world where everything’s bought and sold. If growing your own vegetables makes you feel better and helps you meet your neighbors, then you should do it. Moreover, participating in a local DIY project can provide the strength and tools for community activism. Inspiration and political imagination are highly personal and subjective things, and no one can predict what inspires a critical understanding of society and how to change it.
But if the goal is stop ecological degradation and runaway growth, then the stakes are higher, and localists need to ask whether small projects will create long–term change. In practice, building those alternatives takes a lot of time and energy; projects can become self–justifying, not the means to build broad movements for social change. That’s why this book argues that hidden beneath localism’s DIY attitude is a deep pessimism: it assumes we can’t make large–scale, collective social change. Those with the correct ideas can carve a niche outside the system, but for most people, the machinery of capitalism will continue to be oiled with the blood of its workers.
Political economy deals with big, abstract laws, which can imply there’s nothing for us to do but lie down before the steam-roller of economics. Given this logic, it’s tempting to focus on how people are making a better world right now. The problem is that even if we ignore capitalism, it won’t ignore us. If we understand how the capitalist system grows and lurches from crisis to crisis, we can understand our own possibilities for action.
If small–scale, local changes won’t change the system, what can we do? Lots: if we understand how capitalism works, we can act to transform it. This is the project of No Local: to sketch the outline of capitalism and apply it to localist plans for change. Chapter One shows how Marx anticipated localism, debating the political economists of his day about how economies work. Classical economists said capital was a collection of tradeable objects. Everyone comes to market to sell products, either commodities or their own labor. The market is neutral, there’s no power involved, and it follows that entire economies can be re–organized according to our personal preferences. Marx, on the other hand, defined capital as the power to exploit. Capitalists own factories, fields and offices, collectively called the means of production. The owners have to grow their firms or die. Workers, on the other hand, own nothing but their capacity to work, which they sell on the labor market. They have to work or die. Capital tries to make the cheapest possible commodities, while workers try to stretch their wages by buying cheaper goods. Smaller firms are squeezed between both forces.
Chapter Two looks at how localists have applied these ideas, in both pro–and anti–market ways. Pro–market localists believe small business is always more ethical and environmentally friendly, keeping local money in the community. But this isn’t always true: due to their size, small businesses often cut corners and don’t treat their workers better. Anti–market localists don’t share these illusions, but they still believe building small projects can transform capitalism, creating decentralized economies with simple technologies and alternative currencies. In both cases, capital places strict limits on the ability of small businesses or ethical, social alternatives to change it. To overcome these limits, localists look to ethical consumers to pay more for local products; however, consumers don’t have the power to change capitalism.
Chapter Three examines food politics, which raise important questions about the quality of food and the sustainability of large–scale agriculture. Localism suggests urban agriculture (UA) can overcome malnutrition and promote ethical production. However, capital’s drive to expand appears on the land too, in the form of rent, which means UA must generate higher profits than any other potential land use. Pro–market UA can sometimes find market niches; anti–market UA faces an uphill battle. In both cases, existing high rents in cities mean it’s far more likely that land will be put to more profitable uses than community gardens.
Chapter Four suggests that localism’s values of morality, community and voluntary effort appeal to the class of professionals and managers who make up the middle strata of society. Full of nostalgia for a bygone era, these people create visions of community based on small–scale entrepreneurship, or try to transcend capitalism by appealing to utopias. When small, incremental changes don’t add up, localists can end up blaming consumers who buy the wrong things. By creating a sense of elitism based on consumer choice, localism pushes out other, more collective kinds of politics with more potential to change society.
Chapter Five suggests political alternatives to localism. Neoliberalism, the ideology of market deregulation, has used localism to transfer social costs onto the working class. Without understanding capitalist laws of motion, localism can become a tool to implement pro–market reforms. This even appears in anti–market theories like postcapitalism which, in an effort to avoid capitalism, ends up reconciling with it. We don’t need to live the future society today; rather, Marxism provides a way to build counter–power within capitalism, creating social movements to transform it.
Since the bank bailouts of 2008, governments have said that we have to pay for the crisis. The $20 trillion given to financial institutions worldwide has been matched by the scale of cutbacks to social services. In this context, trying to make small–scale change to a system intent on stealing from as many people as possible makes even less sense. The corporate class is acting globally; so should we. The 2011 uprisings in the Middle East have not only given voice to the democratic ideals of entire peoples: they’ve put mass struggle back on the agenda. We have concrete evidence that collective resistance can topple dictators. If you agree that capitalism degrades our communities and the earth, what comes next? This book argues that if we understand how capitalism works, we can do more than tinker around the edges: we can build anti–capitalist movements to create a world where human need, and not growth, is the goal of development.
Greg Sharzer has a Ph.D. in Political Science from York University, Toronto, Canada, where he studied political economy and social movements. His activism includes participating in anti-poverty, trade union and migrant rights campaigns. When not thinking about politics he enjoys cycling, films with subtitles, gourmet coffee and all the other trappings of a petty bourgeois lifestyle.
No Local – Why Small-Scale Alternatives Won’t Change The World, published by Zero Books
ISBN: 978-1-84694-671-4, $19.95 / £11.99, paperback, 189pp
EISBN: 978-1-78099-332-4, $9.99 / £6.99, eBook
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.
No Local draws on political theory, history, philosophy and empirical evidence to argue that small isn’t always beautiful. Building a better world means creating local social movements that grow to challenge, not avoid, market priorities.