No Local: Why small-scale alternatives won’t change the world

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No Local, by Greg Sharzer, asks the question if establishing and supporting small-scale ethical enterprises is the route to making the world a better place. In his preface, the UK writer and activist characterises a nebulas range of trends as “localism.” He explains: it “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.” Having accepted this premise, localists believe if consumers change how they act within capitalism, the excesses of a system driven by the market will disappear.

Sharzer has no problem with people who get into local projects. They enjoy being part of a community garden, making crafts and other do-it-yourself projects or shopping at a farmers market. Where he takes issue is with the utopian belief that localism is a model, which can achieve fundamental social change.

While studying physics at an Open University I discovered that “heat” doesn’t exist for a physicist, only “heat transfer.” I came to appreciate that language matters. Without an accurate language, reality is not understandable. No Local: Why small-scale alternatives won’t change the world is an exceptionally exciting book, because is provides the reader with a language and scientific theory to understand the social world. It applies the science of Marxist political economy to show localism’s inadequacies and contradictions if the end goal is to stop ecological degradation and end exploitation and inequality.

At the heart of Sharzer’s critique of localism is an understanding of how the capitalist system grows and lurches from crisis to crisis. Because the local happens in the context of capitalism, there is no way to sideline this. Sharzer wryly comments, “the problem is that even if we ignore capitalism, it won’t ignore us.”

A Marxist understanding of capitalism is invaluable for debunking localism, precisely because Marx directly answered some of his contemporaries, such as Proudhon, who were making the same mistakes that 21st century proponents of localism do. In chapter one, Sharzer discusses this as well as introducing basic Marxist concepts and providing a brief history of capitalism.

Sharzer explains the logic of capitalism as discovered by Marx. Each commodity has a dual nature — a use value and an exchange value. The air we breathe has an infinite use value. But as far as capitalism is concerned, only exchange value is important. This is because the capitalist has to make a profit or go out of business. Sharzer puts it simply: “Marx showed how capitalists must do everything possible to sell the commodities at the lowest price. That means lowering wages and not paying for environmental costs. Firms do so, not because they are evil, but because they have to grow. If they don’t, they will be forced into bankruptcy.” In short, corporations can only grow by ruthlessly cutting costs, and every business must continue to expand or be taken over by more successful competitors. This is the logic of capitalism graphically evidenced by the huge Bunnings chain, which has driven almost every independent local hardware store out of business.

Sharzer references socially necessary abstract labour time (SNALT) throughout the book to explain the inner workings of capitalism and why small-scale localist projects cannot compete. SNALT is one of Marx’s genius additions to political economy. A key Marxist concept is surplus value — in essence, this is time the boss takes from the worker for free. The employer who buys a worker’s labour power pays the worker less than the value that they create. An extension of this is Marx’s discovery that labour is the only source of value. But if workers in one enterprise are less efficient and must contribute more labour to produce something, this does not make the product more valuable — the important part of SNALT is what is socially necessary as an average across the economy.

Every capitalist tries to lower the time it takes to produce. This is accomplished through mechanisation. If a commodity embodies less value through less labour time, but sells at the same market price, more of the surplus value goes into profits for the capitalists than into production costs. By constantly revolutionising the means of production, which is adding more and more efficient machines, capitalism churns out more and more goods. This is where the localist becomes unstuck: “artisans who try to trade directly, bypassing market signals, have trouble finding buyers; those who ignore SNALT and produce higher cost goods will be undersold.”

The drive to mechanise hasn’t just happened locally — it is a national and international phenomenon. As larger capitalist organisations are better able to reduce SNALT, they out-compete smaller companies. This process has been going on for decades. It reached a critical point just before World War 1, when competition between capitalists in different nations spilled over into military competition.

The important concept here is the state. While most localists don’t see the state as an aspect of capitalism, this institution acts to serve the interests of the capitalists. The Global Financial Crisis in 2008 demonstrated this perfectly — there was trillions of dollars of support from the state to support big business. Sharzer characterises this connection, arguing that the state has a crucial role to play: “corporations can only grow by ruthlessly cutting costs, and a good way to do that is to shift them onto the public sector: profits remain private, while the state assumes the costs of infrastructure and social welfare. When profit falls, state subsidies to business can offset those potential crises.” Capitalism is a massive monstrous global organisation, which reaches into the banking system and all aspects of the state, including the media, police and the military. Localism — with its tendency to see the state as a neutral entity — denies this at its peril.

Sharzer’s message is that behind all the hype about ethical investing, sustainable ecological business, guerrilla gardeners and do-it-yourself projects is a deep pessimism and failure to understand the central dynamics of capitalism. Utopian demonstration projects waste time and energy, which could be utilised for winning strategies. And worse than that, they could become co-opted and help prop up capitalism.

The final chapter of No Local ends with ways for activists to negotiate local action that is progressive. This comes down to recognising that capitalism can’t be reformed but must be uprooted and replaced by socialism. This means putting class conflict on the agenda and placing the working class as the central actors who have the power. It means understanding that even though struggle might start locally, it has to develop globally. It means ending the tyranny of profit and producing for human need in a sustainable ecologically way.

Sharzer’s contribution in writing No Local is a fresh and thought-provoking application of Marxist theory to an important question — how to change the world to meet the needs of the majority. His answer is, not turning back time to small scale alternatives, but confronting capitalist social relations through a planned economy in a way localism refuses to do.

Alan is a Marxist who lives in Perth. He is a retired member of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union.

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