The local is not enough

Greg Sharzer argues that movements have to confront the contradictions of capitalist crisis, and not simply try to carve spaces away from that crisis. Below, Hilary Wainwright responds

August 10, 2013 · 24 min read

nolocalIllustrations: Andrzej Krauze

Austerity is imposed by national governments and international banks, but its effects reach into the very deepest corners of our lives and we often feel powerless to stop them. Hence the appeal of local social enterprises, community gardens and intentional communities: they’re within our reach. No one person can change a food supply chain, but anyone with a little land, a small grant and enough effort can set up a garden.

Yet, as I outline in my book No Local, these projects have trouble remaining viable. The ability of large corporations to create specialised divisions of labour and economies of scale means that even the most democratically-run cooperative must abide by market pricing, or rely on subsidies by government or wealthier consumers to stay in business.

If a project such as a community garden can bring people together to cut their bills and create some community spirit, that’s great. However, faced with decades of neoliberal assault, we desperately need to build the scattered, local resistances into broad international movements. How?

Hilary Wainwright’s formulation of ‘structured contestation and of diverse but co-ordinated experimentation’ combines three crucial elements for this process: the experiments that all democratic struggles create when forced to confront capitalist power; the structure of organisation needed to sustain experiments; and the fact that these experiments must contest something. These projects can be called prefigurative.

Local projects must be more than the power of a good example. In other words, there are different types of prefiguration. Individualist prefiguration describes the small-scale social enterprise meant to create a kinder capitalism or carve spaces away from it. Collective prefiguration arises from anti-capitalist struggle, from the Paris Commune, Russian and Spanish revolutions to countless uprisings across the globe in which the working class has to run things itself. Collective experiments come from and create infrastructures of dissent.

Infrastructures of dissent

Social movements rely on formal and informal resources. The Canadian sociologist Alan Sears calls this the infrastructure of dissent, ‘the means of analysis, communication, organisation and sustenance that nurture the capacity for collective action’, which takes place in union halls and party offices, but also cultural centres, bookstores, restaurants and taverns. In the global North, there aren’t many of these remaining. This is not simply nostalgia for left-friendly hangouts; these local infrastructures were inherently political. They were inseparable from the notion ‘that there was a socialist alternative [which] meant that the persistence of capitalism was in question.’

This infrastructure is largely no longer with us, for complex reasons. However, people are trying to rebuild it, and I want to examine the challenges and potential of local action in two distinct environments: Detroit and Greece. Both involve struggles against austerity, and the hollowing out of welfare measures through aggressive anti-deficit measures.

Detroit’s battle over land

Detroit has seen two broad struggles against neoliberal assaults that I want to look at here, linked by the long-term economic decline of the city. One is over Hantz Real Estate Ventures, and involves a long-term fight to create a large-scale farm on empty Detroit lots, first for growing food and then for trees. CEO John Hantz’s openly stated goal was to ‘create scarcity’ on the land, driving up the price. He bought land at fire-sale prices at city auctions, and in return agreed to knock down unsafe properties and spend $30 million developing it.

The benefits were disputed. Residents demanded a public hearing last November, fearing the gentrification that would follow Hantz’s development, with the eviction of the hundreds of thousands of poor, mainly African-American residents who still live in Detroit. Yet Mayor Dave Bing, along with five of the nine city councillors, eventually approved the deal in April 2013, citing the positive effects of development.

Many local urban farmer groups recognise this as a land grab by global capital and have called for alternative, non-corporate uses for the land. The Detroit Black Community Food Security Network (DBCFSN) run the two-acre D-Town farm and a food-buying cooperative, and is affiliated with 100 community gardens, as part of an effort to provide food security to poor, mostly black Detroiters.

As DBCFSN activist Monica White explains, the network ‘challenges the social structure that is supposed to provide access to healthy food’. It doesn’t trust the government to provide healthy food, and sees that while wealthier, white residents have adequate safety-monitoring and supply channels, these don’t exist for black residents. What began as an effort at healthy eating has developed into an initiative for self-reliance and self-education.

These are all worthy goals. Poor people rarely get nutritious food. Politically, for a community that has had it taken away by racism and recession, self-reliance is an important part of restoring dignity. However, there is a difference between self-reliance that builds confidence to resist, and that which assumes, fundamentally, that resistance is useless. Not only is this mission prefigurative, it is directly targeted away from making demands on the state. As White explains, the goal is ‘to challenge the relationship between citizens and the state and for citizens to stop relying on the state to provide them with desired human rights’. Acting against ‘dependence on the state’, they ‘demonstrate agency and empowerment.’

This is a radically autonomous notion of advocacy, which demonstrates the limits of localist social movements. The grievances are very real. Yet a legitimate question remains: is teaching children to grow and sell their own food enough? Can eating raw food compensate for poverty and generational lack of opportunity? Don’t African-Americans have a right to make demands on the state that has asked so much of them, from slavery onwards, and given so little in return? In this case, the admirable rhetoric of self-reliance conceals a greater pessimism: the state will not provide anything, and the oppressed are forced to survive as best they can.

Emergency manager

Another struggle in Detroit involves the appointment of an emergency manager to run the city. President Obama has cut $150 million in federal aid to the state of Michigan. Detroit has also faced decades of capital flight, and owes billions to banks who made their money manipulating currency markets. Despite this, Michigan has a budget surplus of more than $500 million. Yet Republican governor Rick Synder has used the crisis to cut numerous social welfare programmes. This hits hardest in Detroit, where 60 per cent of children live below the poverty line.

Synder has also imposed the emergency manager, disempowering the city’s democratically elected mayor and city council and disenfranchising its residents. The man he has appointed, Kevyn Orr, is a millionaire lawyer; his powers include the ability to tear up union contracts. Orr has already reduced city council staff numbers by two thirds and privatised the management of the water, human services and planning departments.

Opposition to this capital-state collusion has been scant on the ground. The city’s unions have been largely complicit in Orr’s agenda. Sporadic resistance includes highway slowdowns; a lawsuit led by Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and two Detroit councillors; and council occupations by activists.

Detroit’s problems are depressingly simple. For every 100 people, there are only 27 jobs. Over the decades, as capital moved to the suburbs and wealthier, white workers followed, the tax base hollowed out. Tax policy remains heavily skewed towards the suburbs. Rapacious banks overvalue mortgages to squeeze holders dry. When the latter give up and leave, neighbourhoods deteriorate further. As if this wasn’t enough to contend with, there are the 70-plus toxic waste dumps, making Detroit the most polluted area in Michigan.

There are concrete steps that can be taken to remedy this, and they all require placing demands on the state. These include cancelling interest rate swaps amounting to $3.8 billion. Detroit also needs a public works project to clean up waste and build infrastructure, which could generate local employment.

Detroit’s problems don’t have local causes; they’re wrapped up in the global assault on working-class living standards. They don’t have local solutions either. Trying to be self-reliant – turning inwards in a localist attempt at self-sufficiency – ignores the causes and possible solutions of this crisis. Planning a successful resistance requires political strategy. When these political questions are posed directly, we get Greece.

Greece and political strategy

The economic crisis has given Greek lawmakers permission to impose austerity at the behest of EU diktats. The results have been predictable and tragic: unemployment at 25 per cent, rising to 55 per cent for young people; and rising inequality, as the richest fifth control six times more wealth than the poorest.

As each round of bailouts has been followed by deeper cuts, Greek workers have organized a series of sectoral and general strikes. Political alternatives have grown as well. Syriza was formed in 2004 as a left electoral alliance, and thanks to a consistent anti-austerity message it now tops national polls. Its left wing has raised three demands: cancellation of the debt; taxation of capital and the rich; and nationalisation of key industries under workers control, with no compensation to shareholders.

‘What is needed is a conscious strategy of rupture with capitalism, and a party that will be able to propose and apply it,’ says Nickolas Skoufoglou, of the Greek socialist party OKDE-Spartakos. This extra-local project comes out of thousands of local ones, because, just as in Detroit, Greeks are pursuing survival strategies.

These networks of sharing, barter and community are vital, not least in confronting the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn movement. Activists are working with teachers’ unions and artists in schools, and through neighbourhood cultural events, to educate people about the roots of the crisis and end migrant scapegoating.

Syriza is directly involved in all this. The coalition has set up neighbourhood solidarity networks that distribute free food and clothing and exchange services and skills. This is explicitly prefigurative. As Syriza activist Yiannis Bournous explains, these practical projects also ‘refer to more strategic questions. Because if you are talking about a vision of socialism with freedom and democracy, you need to promote the model of society that you want through opening small windows like that.’

However, unlike the DBCFSN, Syriza is committed to making demands on the state. ‘We do not wish to take the place of the state services,’ says Bournous. ‘We clearly say this to the people that participate in the networks of solidarity. We are not replacing a public hospital by creating a local voluntary health care centre. We are helping each other to collectively survive, but at the same time we encourage people to collectively demand the satisfaction of their basic needs.’

This kind of collective prefiguration is a tool for self-reliance, but not a substitute for collective provisioning. Syriza’s strategy is like Gramsci’s concept of a war of position, within and against institutions.

Anti-capitalist organisation

How might we create a local ‘strategy of rupture’ elsewhere? As a tentative list, the most important factor is training people to spread anti-capitalist organisation – creating cadres. As Richard Seymour has argued on his ‘Lenin’s Tomb’ blog, crisis doesn’t generate organisers spontaneously: ‘Political subjectivities have to be constructed, assiduously, along the main lines of antagonism.’ Yet in the UK, ‘there is no generalised political, cultural, social or industrial counterpoint to the right’s efforts.’ One has to be built, from the grassroots.

Movements have to confront the contradictions of capitalist crisis and not simply try to carve spaces away from that crisis. This requires more, not less, clarity about the tasks of an anti-capitalist party. As the Greek blogger Thanasis Kampagiannis suggests, ‘In engaging in these struggles the revolutionary left needs to maintain ideological and organisational independence.’ This means neither dissolving into a new electoral party, nor ‘apolitical movementism’.

This process of movement and party-building looks different in different places but depends on openness. Despite the far left’s history, sectarianism is not inevitable. Rather, we can create networks of local organisations rooted in particular struggles – the point is not their precise shape but their direction. Will they fight austerity, building the confidence of their members, en route to broader political forms such as a national anti-cuts movement? Or will they remain at the level of individual prefiguration, providing nutritional succour and community spirit to their members but not fighting for social change?

Pure localism, focused on sustaining social enterprise in a capitalist market, doesn’t have the terms to make a strategic assessment of anti-capitalist organising, with all the debates on the role of the state, political parties and social movements it requires. There is a clear relationship between successful local organising and prefiguration, but the latter cannot substitute for the former, and must be seen as a particular tactic of organisation rather than its goal.

Many revolutionary movements, and not just on the left, have provided services to working-class communities as part of a political programme – Golden Dawn is attempting to do the same for ‘pure Greeks’. So the issue is not prefiguration or not, but what kind of prefiguration: individual survival or collective struggle. This is not an optional extra for the more theoretically-minded activists. The success of ‘opening small windows’ to socialism depends on it.

Greg Sharzer is the author of No Local: why small-scale alternatives won’t change the world, published by Zero Books

A deeper seam

Any challenge to neoliberalism must go much further than making demands on the state, argues Hilary Wainwright. And we must avoid the false dichotomy between organising locally and on a broader stage


‘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 counter-power 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 counter-power 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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