Friday, August 12, 2016

Small is small (2013)

Book Review from the February 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

No Local: Why Small-Scale Alternatives Won’t Change the World. By Greg Sharzer. Zero books, 2011. 180 pages.

According to Sharzer there are two kinds of ‘localists’–those who openly favour small-scale capitalism (small businesses, ethical consumption, community gardening) and those who see small-scale alternative economic arrangements (cooperatives, LETS schemes, local currencies, credit unions) as a way of undermining capitalism and progressing towards a post-capitalist society. His argument is that ‘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.’They may be ways for some people to survive under capitalism, but are no threat to it.

Pro-market localists share the assumption of mainstream economics that capitalism is a system geared to meeting paying consumer demand whereas in fact it is geared to making profits and accumulating them as more capital. Capitalist firms are driven by market forces to accumulate as, to stay in the race, they must continually invest in reducing their costs of production. Small firms are not exempt from this pressure. Neither are the cooperatives favoured by anti-market localists. Both kinds of localist are ‘faced with the impalatable conclusion that small alternatives won’t outcompete or destroy capitalism.’ Rather, ‘capital’s inherent drives to profit expose local alternatives to ruthless market discipline.’

Ethical consumption can’t be effective because most people can’t afford it. LETS schemes and local currencies are less convenient than ordinary money and only survive because (and as long as) some activists are prepared to put in the extra work to keep them going. Community gardening in towns has to compete with other, rent-bringing uses of the land. If national governments have been unable to delink their economies from the world market how can local communities be expected to?

Sharzer questions both the feasibility and the desirability of localist schemes to maximise local autarky:
‘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.’
Sharzer, then, makes a powerful case as to ‘why small-scale alternatives won’t change the world.’ This, however, is confined to the opening chapters. After them it’s downhill all the way. A whole chapter is devoted to trying to show that localism is the ideology of the ‘petite (sic) bourgeois’ as if this was a separate class (and as if he wouldn’t fall into it himself). Localism could be described as ‘petty bourgeois’ but only in the economic sense of wanting to create an economy of independent artisans and small (‘petty’) enterprises. Rock bottom is reached when he praises Lenin ‘whose movement inspired millions to take up arms for socialism’, i.e., for state capitalism, his own unviable ‘alternative’.  This means that unfortunately his criticisms are not going to be taken so seriously by anti-market localists.
Adam Buick

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