The dialectic of the local and the global

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by Jeff Noonan

Interpreted from the perspective of revolutionary politics, the relationship between the local and the global is at once spatial and temporal. Life unfolds in the here and now, but the forces that structure actions in the here and now have a history. In turn, actions in the here and now have future implications for the configuration of the spaces in which life is lived, the experience of time within which activity unfolds, and the forces that determine both. A frozen moment, like a space not contiguous with other spaces, is an abstraction but not a matrix within which real human lives can be lived. Thought through politically, the problem of the relationship between the local and the global is that life-requirements must be procured day after day in the local spaces in which people live, but the socio-economic forces that determine the availability of life-requirement satisfiers operate globally. The pressure of natural necessity pressing people to satisfy their life-requirements today runs into the socio-historical problem of the open-ended time it would take to transform the global forces responsible for commodifying the life-goods people require. If people focus on the here and now, they leave the larger structural problems affecting their lives untouched; if they work to resolve those larger structural problems, they may have to sacrifice their own or others’ immediate needs for the sake of the struggle. Since, however, immediate needs cannot be ignored save on pain of serious harm or death, people understandably concentrate their energies on the local context, ensuring, perhaps, that their most basic life-requirements are met, but at the cost of allowing the life-blind dynamics of the capitalist money-value system to continue unchallenged (at a global, systematic level). Anti-capitalist movements seem trapped in a contradiction: if their members do what they need to do to survive as individuals, they must focus on the local and immediate context. If they focus on the local and immediate context, they do not build the broad-based long-term movements the world needs to transform the life-destructive dynamics of global capitalism that are the cause of wide-spread life-requirement deprivation.

In a conversation with renowned Detroit activist Grace Lee Boggs at the United States Social Forum in 2012, Immanuel Wallerstein articulated this problem clearly. “People live in the present,” he argued. “Everybody has to eat today, not tomorrow. Everybody has to sleep today, not tomorrow. Everybody has to do all these just ordinary things today, and you can’t just tell people that they have to wait another five or ten or twenty years, and it is going to get better … So you’ve got to worry about today, but you can’t worry only about today.”[1] The pressing political question is, therefore: how can local and global, present and future struggles be dialectically synthesised? In other words, how can we struggle today in ways that generate coherent momentum towards larger scale and deeper structural transformation of the capitalist money-value system and the life-destructive socio-economic forces its competitive dynamics engender?

Traditionally, vanguardist revolutionary parties have exhorted their members to sacrifice their present for a future of universal liberation. There may be times when sacrifice is necessary in history, but as a principle of liberation it is self-contradictory. It affirms the equal value of all human lives and establishes this as the moral foundation for its critique of class power. In practice, however, present life is reduced to its instrumental value for the struggle only, and future life alone is regarded as intrinsically valuable (that is, only in the future will human beings enjoy the social conditions necessary for intrinsically valuable lives). Those existing now must deny the intrinsic value of their lives for the sake of the future lives who will be able to enjoy the full intrinsic value of human life, because of the willingness of revolutionaries to sacrifice theirs in the present. Trotsky’s “Testament,” written just before he was murdered, movingly invokes this contradiction: “Natasha has just come up to the window from the courtyard and opened it wider so that the air may enter more freely into my room. I can see the bright green strip of grass beneath the wall, and the clear blue sky above the wall, and sunlight everywhere. Life is beautiful. Let the future generations cleanse it of all evil, oppression, and violence and enjoy it to the full.”[2] Trotsky is right: life is beautiful, and it does need to be cleansed of evil and oppression. But must those charged with the duty of so cleansing it struggle in an all or nothing way which prevents them from enjoying all those beautiful aspects of life that are not directly related to political struggle? The present essay is an attempt to sketch the outlines of a means of transformational but not self-sacrificial politics.

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On initial consideration, the contradiction might appear unresolvable. Either one takes care of the here and now, or one sacrifices one’s immediate needs (and encourages others to do so) to build a struggle to overthrow the rule of the capitalist class and rebuild society completely. However, as David Harvey reminds us in his most recent argument, political movements must maintain a dialectical understanding of contradiction. “There are two basic ways in which the concept of contradiction is used. The commonest and most basic derives from Aristotle’s logic, in which two statements are held to be so totally at odds that both cannot possibly be true … The other …way … arises when two seemingly opposed forces are simultaneously present within a particular situation, or entity, or event.”[3] The contradiction between the local and the global, there here and now and the future, is a dialectical and not logical contradiction. It can therefore be resolved if modes of political action are devised that reclaim local and immediate life-time and space from exploitation by the money-value system in ways that build a global alternative capable of consolidating local gains at the level of national and international institutions. If such a movement can be built, then a new, democratic life-economy can be constructed without present life-interests being sacrificed in a wholesale fashion.

I will develop my argument in three steps. In the first, I will explicate the localist position in favour of focussing political energies on the reclamation of life-spaces and times in the immediate here and now, using the theoretical and practical work of Grace Lee Boggs as my core example. In the second, I will expose the weaknesses of localism, drawing as needed on the work of Harvey, John McMurtry, and Greg Sharzer. The great strength of localism is that it does not wait for the objective conditions for a global revolution to appear, but instead chooses to act, with the people and materials at hand, to enable others through their own efforts to satisfy their needs and thus free their lives, so far as possible, from the power of capitalist money-value. Its main weakness, I will demonstrate, is that it cannot overcome the global power of money-value. Since the local is the material reality of the global, failure to control the international flows of money-value ultimately means failing to consolidate control over reclaimed local life-spaces and because, by eschewing the struggle for state power, localists have no means of securely institutionalizing whatever practical gains they might have achieved. Thus, the key to resolving the contradiction between the local and the global, I will argue in the concluding section, is the construction of new democratic parties at the national level which can forge organic political connections at the international level, progressively choking off the escape routes money-capital currently employs to evade subordination to life-value principles. Despite its recent and current challenges, I will use Syriza as an example of what such parties should look like.

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I: Being the Change You Want to See

Over a storied revolutionary career that has taken her from the Trotskyism of C.L.R. James’ Johnsonite tendency to a leading figure in Detroit’s Black Power movement to her on-going community-transforming work on Detroit’s east side, Grace Lee Boggs has developed profound insight into the limits of the nineteenth and twentieth century models of revolution. Boggs did not abandon revolutionary Marxism in favour a tepid parliamentary liberalism, but in favour of what she regards as a new model of revolution appropriate for contemporary circumstances in advanced capitalist societies.[4] Her critique of that model of revolution demonstrates a keen understanding of the fundamental principle of historical materialism: human practice responds to concrete demands in ways that unintentionally but decisively alter future social circumstances. If revolutionary theory and practice are dialectally linked within the matrix of social life, then as social life changes, revolutionary theory must change too, (or become moribund dogma that speaks to no one). The old model of revolution, whereby a vanguard party organizes the working class and allied “masses” for the once for all conquest of state power has been tried and found wanting in those societies in which it was successful in conquering state power. That politics has never had mass appeal in most North American and European countries, and there is absolutely no empirical basis for any belief that it will be able to attract adherents now. Moreover, according to Boggs, there are intrinsic political and philosophical problems with that old model that undermine the credibility of its emancipatory claims.

Boggs makes three specific criticisms that need to be examined carefully. First, she claims that the Leninist and Maoist conceptions of vanguard parties are anachronistic. Since historical materialists are committed to understanding a changing reality, adherence to anachronistic models of organization is contrary to the principles of historical materialism. Second, there was a deep political flaw in the model of the vanguard party from its origin: they tended to treat the mass membership as instruments of the leadership who alone could understand the complexities of the revolutionary struggle. Once faced with external and internal threats, it was easy for these parties to become closed authoritarian military-command structures that choked off the democratic energies of workers and the oppressed they claimed to mobilise and rely upon. Third, the understanding of revolution as requiring the conquest of state power ignored the spheres of everyday life where most of what is valuable and meaningful (life-requirement satisfaction, friendship, care and concern, beauty, creation, love) is found. Party discipline hardened personalities and valorized a macho attitude towards politics that contributed to the totalitarian disasters that ensued the conquest of state power. She sums up her critique: “leftists, and many other people who are not leftists, have tended to hold on to a concept of revolution created in the early twentieth century that involves the seizure of state power by a party representing the working class …Those leftists who pride themselves on being ‘revolutionary’ have usually sought to distinguish themselves from liberals and social democrats who are ‘reformists’ and lack the will and chutzpah to seize state power and try to bring about wholesale social change.”[5] While revolutionaries of this sort did not lack for chutzpah, they failed to bring about the sorts of changes they claimed trying to make.

From these three criticisms, but especially the historical fact of political failure, she draws the practical conclusion that a new understanding of revolution and a new, local community based politics of open-ended life-space and time reclamation is required if the global problems capitalism continues to cause are to be solved. To be a revolutionary today means, according to Boggs, rejecting, at the level of everyday lived practice, the alienating and eco-cidal values of capitalism: waste of life-time in pursuit of empty consumer pleasures, waste of life-resources through their conversion into money, competition, conflict, and violence. Politics is not so much matter of organization outside of and apart from the spaces of everyday life as it is a personal commitment—sustained and nurtured by community connections—to live more simply, more self-and small collective-sufficiently, and with greater moral and ecological integrity. Politics is not about proving others wrong but living in the right way. For Boggs, living the right way demands that people replace the capitalist cash nexus with ties of mutual care and concern as the determining social bonds between people. Since our values are determined by the choices that we make, and there are no external, structural causes that absolutely determine our choices, we are free today, she believes, and not in some always deferred post-revolutionary future, to adopt life-affirming values. “The next American revolution,” she argues, “is about living the kind of lives that will not only slow down global warming, but also end the galloping inequality both inside the country and between the Global North and South. It is about creating a higher humanity instead of a higher standard of living dependent on Empire. It is about … being the change we want to see in the world.”[6] Rather than awaiting the structural conditions for the socialist “new human” to emerge, Boggs demands that everyone change the one thing it is in their power to change—themselves.

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Boggs’ allusion to Gandhi’s challenge to system-critics to be the change they want to see is no accident. The major political and philosophical influences on her rethinking of the meaning of revolution are Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. The principles which she derives from both thinkers is a commitment to non-violent direct action, occupation and recuperation of life-time and space for the satisfaction of local needs, and the necessity of what she calls a spiritual transformation of our inner lives. She does not demand this transformation of people considered as abstract individual atoms of desire, but as socially self-conscious members of communities. Indeed, the spiritual dimension, for Boggs, is not a heaven above, but emergent from mutualistic social relationships below:

The main reason why Western civilization lacks spirituality, or an awareness of our interconnectedness with one another and the universe, according to Gandhi, is that it has given priority to economic and technological development over human and community development … Traditional societies lacked our material comforts and conveniences, but individuals had more Soul, or a belief in the individual’s power to make moral choices, because their societies valued the community relationships that they depended upon for their survival.[7]

“Spirit” and “matter” are thus mediated by life-valuable community relationships. Spirituality just is the real interconnections of living things with each other and their sustaining environments raised to consciousness. For Boggs, this sense of “Soul” is the philosophical foundation of a genuinely revolutionary rejection of the ultimately unsatisfying reward-system of capitalist society. If you cease to need money in order to live, and you derive life-satisfaction from the work you do with others to sustain your community and develop your own individual capacities, and you thus cease to desire money, you have freed yourself from the money-value system’s power over you. By contrast, if you espouse revolutionary rhetoric but remain mired in a high-consumption lifestyle, you remain dominated by the ruling value system, regardless of the principles you espouse as abstract slogans.

It would be unfair to argue that this spiritual (in the sense defined above) and personal dimension of revolutionary theory is completely absent from the Marxist tradition. Marx himself certainly had no compunctions about defending socialist values in terms of the spiritual health of human beings alienated and exploited by capitalism. The real difference between Boggs and the best of the Marxist tradition is a matter of temporal priority, not justifying values. For Boggs, as for localists generally, change must be immediate, rather than mediated by a long revolutionary struggle, first for state power, then for social and economic transformation. The means of changing life are present to hand, according to Boggs, in the soils and structures abandoned by capital. Boggs affirms transformations on scales typically dismissed by Marxists as irrelevant to social change—a single person, or house, or vacant lot, or neighbourhood. What is more, Boggs is not concerned with formal structures of inter-linkage between local movements. For her, revolutionary change will emerge from a politically uncoordinated multiplication of local transformation projects. She explicitly rejects that which Marxists have typically taken to be essential: overarching political leadership. Like John Holloway, Boggs believes in changing the world without taking power.[8] “Our diversity is the source of our strength,” she argues. “We are not aiming simply to impact one election or one government. Rather, we are striving for long term sustainable transformation, and for that we need the wisdom that comes from many cultures, movements, and histories.”[9] Rather than integration and coordination by a central political intelligence, Boggs affirms the intelligence of multiplicity and experimentation.

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[Credit: lifeaftersconsumerism.]

At the same time, there is a shared foundation to these local experiments: control over the satisfaction of the community’s basic needs. This principle is exemplified in the urban farming movement, whose slogan, according to Boggs, is: “We cannot free ourselves until we feed ourselves.” When people can feed themselves, then they “are empowered to make our own choices.”[10] When people are materially empowered to make their own choices, they can no longer be dominated–politically, economically, culturally, intellectually, or morally, by the money-value system. Material self-sufficiency entails, therefore, moment to moment freedom from capitalist society, and moment to moment freedom from capitalist society allows people the freedom to determine their own lives on the model of reciprocal, mutualistic, and loving relationships. That which keeps the entire capitalist machine working is the structural dependency of people on labour and commodity markets for the means of their own survival and development. This socially constructed structural dependency creates tremendous barriers to the formation of revolutionary consciousness—workers have more to lose then their chains, they can lose their means of making a living. Contrary to Marxist expectations, this threat to livelihoods has not generally led to revolutionary consciousness, but rather deeper integration with the values of the system. People who believe that the only way to survive is to find a job will support parties that promise jobs—just look at any election cycle in any advanced capitalist country for evidence to support this claim. If, however, revolution means living a materially concrete alternative using ready-to-hand materials and existing labour—then (or so the localist argument goes) people are more easily motivated to embrace the alternative.

Let me now sum up the key principles of Boggs’ version of the localist argument. The first principle is that life is lived in the here and now. The second principle, which follows from the first, is that changing the structural conditions of life means changing how one lives, materially and morally, in the here and now. The third principle thus maintains that there is no necessary role for a political party to play, mediating between the immediate life-conditions and consciousness of the so-called “masses” and their purported long-term interests in revolutionary change. The fourth principle, which draws out the practical implications of the first three, is that revolutionary change can be accomplished right now by seizing the already available means of self-sufficient production and ignoring, by living apart from, the technological-industrial means of capitalist production long thought necessary as the objective foundation for the successful construction of a socialist society. As is evident, this argument is internally consistent and politically comprehensive, including everything formally necessary for a theoretical-practical model of revolutionary transformation. Whether it is capable of meeting the challenges that capitalist society itself puts in the way of its realization is the problem to which this investigation now turns.

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[Credit: pixgood.]

II: Re-Routing Around Local Reclamation Projects: The Challenge of a Globally Mobile Value Disorder

The strength of Boggs’ argument in particular (and localist experiments in democratic self-organization in general) is that they make life better right now, by reclaiming life-time and space from domination by the money-value system. Instead of awaiting the objective conditions for revolution to be present (potentially a waiting for Godot-type experience), localism works with the subjective need and desire for a set of life-affirmative social relations, creating what it can in the here and now while overcoming the market-induced psychology of consumer demand commodities that can only be obtained through monetary exchange. In the localist vision, revolution can be achieved by living apart from the institutions of capitalist society. If that vision is correct, then these institutions do not need to be overthrown because they can be ignored. But can they really be ignored?

Whether one’s psyche is determined by the desire to succeed in capitalist labour and commodity markets or not, it remains a fact that in a globalized money-value economy the vast majority of the productive resources of the earth are either controlled by private corporations, allowed to be utilised by nominally sovereign states as if they were private corporate property, or are in danger of being wrested from public or communal control where title has not yet been formally ceded (as in the case of lands still controlled by indigenous communities). The exploitation of natural resources and human labour for the sake of money-value accumulation in the hands of the ruling class has generated massive environmental and social crises which one cannot escape through local self-organization. Nothing prevents a group of localist activists from starting a collective farm near a fracking operation, but the commitment of the activists to healthy organic food will not be sufficient to save the project if the fracking industry protected by the state pollutes the ground water. Nor will internal communal bonds be strong enough to resist expropriation or eviction if the state, in collusion with private capital, decides that the farm is standing in the way of the so-called “economic growth” fracking will cause. The strength of localism—its small scale and disinterest in contesting for state power—is also its weakness—capital can re-route around it and continue thereby to cause the global problems that it causes. Alternatively, if local experiments succeed they themselves become money-valuable, making them a target for take-over. A community garden can be the catalyst for neighbourhood revitalisation, and neighbourhood revitalisation, in turn, a spur to higher real estate values. Higher real estate values can trigger gentrification, and gentrification will end up driving the original community activists out of the neighbourhood they recreated. Artists have long been the victims of the higher real estate values their life and work spaces generate in initially abandoned urban cores.[11] If, despite capital’s best efforts, the reclaimed space cannot be bought and threatens to become a real limit to capital, there is always the danger of eviction or expropriation. Occupy was a magnificent and unforeseen experiment in spontaneous direct democracy, but it could not withstand police violence once the state had had enough.[12]

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The problem with localism, therefore, is not that its values are not life-grounded, expressing the best of what the socialist movement has countered to the alienation and exploitation of capitalism: mutuality, conservation of scarce resources, recognition of the intrinsic life-value of other people, cooperation, non-violence, pluralism of vocation, democratic determination of the rules of collective life, and individual creativity. Rather, the problem is that scale in politics matters. Globalisation means that small-scale reclamation projects are never sufficient to disrupt the flows of money-capital that are the ultimate cause of eco-systematic and social crisis. Given the fact that the capitalist “laws of supply and demand … are indifferent to the real economy of providing life-goods otherwise in short supply,” they must ultimately be changed if the threat they pose to the provision of life goods for all is to be met and overcome.[13] Committed activists working in a neighbourhood can improve certain aspects of that neighbourhood—and that achievement should be celebrated. What they cannot do, if they are resolutely committed to the locality, is institutionalise their gains at the national and international level. Unless gains are institutionalised, they cannot pose a decisive challenge to the life-destructive money-sequence of value.[14] In Detroit, where some of the earliest and most successful examples of urban agriculture emerged, their success could not prevent the city—newly awash in capital eager to “redevelop” the city core- from cutting off thousands of poor African-American residents from the water system because they could not afford to pay their bills.[15] One can try to ignore state power, but it does not follow that state power will continue to ignore you, when and if there is money at stake.

Localism errs theoretically in so far as it fails to understand the dialectic of abandonment and reclamation that is essential to global capitalism. Positions such as the one Boggs develops see de-industrialization, ghettoization and other disasters of capital flight as permanent dis-economies that free space for localist reclamation projects. Evidence suggests, however, that if one extends the time frame, abandonment is an essential moment of later capital accumulation, which means that local reclamation projects are always in danger of being swallowed up by capitalist reclamation projects. This insight is central to David Harvey’s analysis of the function of cities in the global political economy. “Capitalism has periodically to break out of the constraints imposed by the world it has constructed. It is in mortal danger of becoming sclerotic. The building of a geographical landscape favourable to capital accumulation in one era becomes … a fetter upon accumulation in the next. Capital has, therefore, to devalue much of the fixed capital in the existing geographical landscape in order to build a wholly new landscape in a different image. This sparks intense and destructive localised crises.”[16] Even the wholesale emptying of large sections of cities like Detroit does not, therefore, signal a crisis of the entire global system. If Harvey is correct (and the evidence suggests that he is), this localised crisis is essential to the overall health of the system (on its materially irrational terms), which constantly requires new spaces for investment. If the globe becomes too full, too developed, capital must destroy some of what has been accumulated in order to find new sinks for surplus money-value. So, in one era, the infamous Packard plant in Detroit was one of the top producing auto factories in the world. In another, it becomes a ruin, a destination for urban adventurers and a dreamscape for localists imagining how it could be repurposed to serve neighbourhood needs.[17] In a third (which is actually occurring right now), the possibility of local control is negated by its private purchase by a Peruvian real estate speculators.[18] As I noted above, local activists can inadvertently contribute to this dialectic of destruction and reconstruction by creating revitalised neighbourhoods that become attractive as sinks for ever-mobile capital. The actual dynamics of globally mobile capital means that it is impossible to defeat capital through piecemeal and uncoordinated projects which eschew the demand for institutionalised change to property relations and ruling value system.

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Marxists critics of localism are thus not being dogmatic when they insist on the need for coordination and unification of social movements and insisting that they contest for state power. As I will argue in the third section, the contest for state power need not take the form of militarised struggle, (as traditional vanguardist parties maintained). Nevertheless, a global system requires a global response. Mere addition of formally unrelated local experiments to capitalist society is not sufficient to fundamentally alter the property relations and ruling value system. Even if these local experiments operate outside (as far as possible) the money-economy, they do not contest its legitimacy, but only avoid being determined by it in their internal operations. Outside of these small-scale projects, everything continues as usual: pollution, growing inequality, capture of the state by money-value, destruction of public institutions, slashing of the social wage, and rampaging inequality undermining even the pretense of democratic self-governance. Greg Sharzer makes this point well in a recent critique of localism: “This is the crux of the issue: do post-capitalist alternatives only provide a different way of living for participants, or can they confront capitalism? … These schemes face limits from the market and only succeed by adopting its principles or finding non-market forms of support through donation or the free labour of their supporters. Relying on people with free time and money makes it very unlikely that these schemes will grow.”[19]   In fact, relying on donation and free labour makes these post-capitalist projects perversely dependent upon a “healthy” capitalism. In order to have money to donate, one must have money, and in order to have money, one must either work (in the capitalist economy), or be independently wealthy. None of this impugns in any way the ethical integrity of committed activists trying to build a life-valuable alternative economy right now. It only points out the structural limits a globally mobile money-value system poses to their success. As Sharzer, defending his argument in an interview argues: “People who want to make their lives better by growing their own food or meeting their neighbours should do so … It’s not a question of whether cooperatives are possible–clearly they are–or whether they can make life better for some workers–clearly they can. The resilience and creativity of social enterprises are not in question: their capacity to serve as a base for anti-capitalist organizing is.”[20] They cannot serve as a basis of anti-capitalist organizing so long as they remain uncoordinated and unconcerned with state power.

It is true that one cannot infer from the class composition of the ruling power the value system they will serve. That is, there is no reason to believe that a government of the working class will be able to solve all problems caused by the various histories of oppression that mark the capitalist era (racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism) or be willing to take the steps necessary to drastically curtail the consumption of natural resources and the production of toxic waste, just because they are workers. Boggs and other localists are therefore correct to insist upon personal value transformation as a variable that is independent of class but essential if fundamental social problems are to be resolved. At the same time, if social movements remain indifferent to state power, they cut themselves off from crucial means of self-defense and institutionalization crucial for the consolidation of gains and the generation of a dynamic, virtuous circle of dynamic of life-valuable transformation. In Spain, where a right-wing government currently rules, protests in front of parliament have been made illegal. In Greece, despite the severe challenges it is facing right now, Syriza permitted competing demonstrations on the eve of the European Union’s decision on its compromise economic proposals. This difference is not inconsiderable. In fact, it is the difference between the possibility of democratic transformation that the localists affirm and the need to resort to more potentially violent means of struggle they purportedly abhor.

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[Credit: Stephanie McMillan.]

Social change can of course begin with small, local experiments. Juliet B. Schor is right to remind those who despair about the possibilities of local projects having global effects that the Industrial Revolution began with a few bold pioneers employing exotic technologies in ways that could not be fully understood at the time. “If starting an economic revolution from individuals and small-scale activities sounds unrealistic, it is worth remembering that that the first industrial revolution in Britain developed in just this manner. What became powerhouse companies … began from individual craftspeople working on a small scale, in workshops and homes.”[21] What Schor does not add, but needs to, is that the industrial revolution was preceded by a century or more of class struggle in which the peasantry of England was driven off the land, a new ruling class came to power, and used the institutions of the state to make the legal changes the legitimation of proletarianization required.[22] The stress on the importance of state power is not in contrast to the practical value of do it yourself experiments in alternative ways of living, but rather in contrast to the principled position against holding state power as a necessary condition of social transformation. Eventually, the question of which value system—money or life-capital, rules–will have to be posed and answered. At the level of social institutions, the question of which value system will rule is answered in the language of property relations, productive and distributive priorities, the missions of public institutions, and the legal frameworks which legitimate and protect them all.

Unfortunately for localism, the only conclusion consistent with the historical evidence is that one can change oneself and one’s neighbourhood, but not the world, without taking power. The reason is straightforward-if too many people and too many neighbourhoods reject the money-value system, the class that serves the money-value system will begin to deploy state power against those changes. At that point, localists will have to fight that state power, or give up their experiments. It does not follow, however, that in countries where the battle for democracy has already been won that these struggles need to be violent on the model of early twentieth century revolutions. The ruling class has typically been willing to use overwhelming violence to defend itself, but there are many examples of revolutionary change taking place through mass mobilization but little to no violence on the part of the revolutionaries. Indian independence and the overthrow of the Soviet Union are the most obvious examples. So, if the concern of localists is with the violent degeneration that undermined twentieth century revolutions, it all the more important for them to affirm the need to build mass democratic parties committed to life-valuable strategies and tactics of gaining power and changing institutions. To not work to build the new kinds of national parties needed to catalyze systemic change, localism leaves itself—and everyone else outside the ruling class—vulnerable to state violence. David Harvey’s warning needs to be taken seriously: “Oligarchic capitalist class privilege and power is taking the world in a similar direction everywhere. Political power backed by intensifying surveillance, policing, and militarised violence is being used to attack the well-being of whole populations deemed expendable and disposable.”[23] Combatting this global life-destruction requires more than promissory notes; it requires building on the achievements and intelligence of past struggles.

Marxist critics of localism like Sharzer are often guilty of the problem of tactical vagueness on the crucial question of what institutions a transitional society will employ. When pressed, they tend to affirm the creativity of people in struggle, and then cite examples of practices that already exist. Here is Sharzer invoking the recent Egyptian revolution: “socialism involves the vast majority of people planning their collective future, going through tremendous struggle and upheaval. This is the crucible of revolution, which teaches people to cooperate in new ways. For example, in the Egyptian revolution of January, 2011, demonstrators organized security, food distribution, childcare, and medical care on their own.”[24] The first and second parts of the argument are in tension with each other. On the one hand, we are told that socialism involves “tremendous upheavals” which teach people to cooperate in “new ways.” On the other hand, the examples that he cites of these new ways are not, in fact, new, but very old, ancient, in fact, forms of communal cooperation and self-provisioning—the very principles that localists turn to as the material mediation between the old and a new society. My point is that the institutions that we need to effect global transformation already exist: first, in the life-affirmative labour (of child care, of food production and distribution, of education, of cultural creation) that has always been the source of the meaning and value of life, and second, in the “civil commons” institutions and practices through which these life-goods have been and/or are distributed on the basis of need for them.[25] The problem, therefore, is not so much one of having to invent new practices and institutions, but to more universally institutionalize the already legitimate principles of life-requirement satisfaction for the sake of life-capacity realization in a democratic and ecologically healthy society.

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III: Anti-Austerity, Democracy, and Life-Capital

The global mobility of capital means that the localities in which people live their lives are constantly enmeshed in new relationships. Four hundred years ago, Guangzhou and Long Beach California had nothing to do with each other. Now, the jobs of workers at the Port of Los Angeles depend upon the arrival of container ships transporting the output of the massive factories of the coastal cities of southern China. The day to day lived experiences of the Chinese and American workers are primarily shaped by local conditions, but any fundamental changes to the social structures in which those local forces operate would require global coordination. Given the fact that global forces shape local conditions, anticapitalist struggles must be, as Alan Sears argues, local and global at once: “Anti-capitalism has always existed simultaneously as a global and a local politics, with a history that needs to be understood at different levels (global, national, local). The global nature of capitalism, the centrality of migration and the impact of internationalism within the left have meant that local experiences are not lied in isolation, even if their specific circumstances and histories make for sharply divergent practices and tendencies.[26] Mediating the locality in which life is lived and the global forces shaping that concrete environment are the political and social institutions of the nation state. A politics that is adequate to the dialectical relationship between the local and the global must be a national politics working to forge international alliances that progressively close off the escape routes of money-capital.

Globalization has not in any way made the nation state obsolete; the nation state is the regulator of globalization in so far as the terms of access to national markets are determined by the sovereign institutions of government of each nation state. That point in no way means that these sovereign institutions cannot be shaped by global forces to conform their terms of access to the demands of global money-capital. Globalization can be understood, economically, as the intensification of the power of mobile capital to dictate terms to national governments.   The events in Greece are a case study in the weakness of isolated national governments to resist the demands of international finance capital. At the same time, Syriza is also an example of a new political formation: a democratic party of the radical left in the heart of the capitalist world committed to the principle of pluralism and electoral contestation of power but guided by a platform which, if ever implemented, would lead Greece toward a socialist future.

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The moment to moment struggles of Syriza to re-negotiate the terms of the deadly austerity demands of the European Central bank are not my main concern here. Rather, my interest is in the principle that Syriza represents and the way that principle can inform a new political practice on the anti-capitalist, pro-democratic socialist left. That principle is: the case for socialism as an ethically, economically, politically, socially, and culturally superior system to capitalism can be made through argument and put into practice using the existing political institutions of capitalist society. That is not to say that socialism is compatible with all existing institutions (clearly, private property in the universal requirements of life-support and development is not compatible with the socialist principle that life-resources are to be used to satisfy life-requirements and enable life-capacities). Rather, it is to say that property relations can be changed through legislation and enforcement of that legislation that existing political institutions have the legitimate power to enact and enforce. Greek voters not only repudiated austerity when they elected Syriza, they elected a party whose very name—“Union of Radical Left Forces” and its official platform is a repudiation of the money-value system.[27] Of course, not everyone who voted for Syriza accepts the full implications of their platform. On the other hand, its name and origins and program were not frightening enough to prevent people from voting for them. Whatever the success or lack of success in this particular phase of Syriza’s struggle against austerity, the principle it has established is a lesson for socialists across the advanced capitalist world: democratic parties of the far left can win elections. Elections confer legitimate power. Majority support for a party of the far left lends moral support to the de jure power election confers. An alliance of the parliamentary party and extra-parliamentary social movement mobilization can exert real counter-power against money capital, not only squeezing it out of a small local space, but cutting off its influence over national institutions, disrupting its ability to dictate terms. Such a process has been occurring (not without challenges and contradictions) in South America for over a decade. As Harvey notes, Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador demonstrate that “the art of writing progressive constitutions as the basis for regulating human life is by no means dead.” [28] To a small but real extent, these countries have reclaimed some of their life-resources from the control of global money-capital and put them to work satisfying their citizens real life-needs.

Unfortunately, the counter-argument to this position seems obvious: progressive constitutions and party programs do not solve social problems on their own. Syriza was forced to attenuate its transformational demands in order to gain power, and even after this shift it has not cut off money-capital’s influence over Greece, but has been forced to make concession after concession. This counter-argument is sound, but not decisive. The problem Syriza is facing at the moment is isolation. In order to succeed, its needs its allies like Podemos in Spain to win power. Let us imagine what might happen if Podemos follows its success in municipal elections with success in national elections. If that were to happen, and it maintains a principled anti-austerity position, the European Central bank would now be confronted with a G-7 member demanding an end to austerity. Greece can be threatened with expulsion from the Euro-zone, Spain cannot. An alliance between Spain and Greece would have to be listened to-the ability of finance capital to dictate terms would be seriously compromised. If the ability of finance capital to dictate terms were compromised, and lives demonstrably improved as a consequence, a powerful argument for the practical superiority of anti-austerity parties of the left would be available for other, now much smaller socialist parties (like Die Linke in Germany) to use in their struggles for political power.

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[Credit: westminster.ac.uk.]

At the same time, it is true that a politics of anti-austerity is not identical to a socialist politics. One can fight austerity in capitalist (Keynesian) terms—a problem in fact raised by localists like Boggs. While this problem is real, if one looks to the underlying principle of anti-austerity, and not the policy mix or compromises that are tactically adopted moment to moment, a deep connection between anti-austerity and socialism becomes clear. What is it that the anti-austerity movement is “anti” to: the life-destruction austerity has caused. To cite only the Greek case, a comprehensive study of the health-effects of austerity has found that austerity has nearly destroyed the public health care system, impeding access to even basic medical care, led to a dramatic rise in drug use and HIV infections, and an escalating suicide rate.[29] To be anti-life-destruction is logically equivalent to being pro-life, in the political sense of in favour of the use of life-resources to satisfy life-requirements for the sake of the free realization, in ecologically coherent ways, of the life-capacities whose enjoyment makes human existence meaningful and good. Thus, the connective tissue linking anti-austerity and a life-valuable and life-coherent socialism is life-capital. As McMurtry argues, “the moving line of the war of liberation begins with what we are able to control, our own lives. Here we can recognise that every value we enjoy, lose, or gain has a bottom line—its life-capital, that is, the life wealth that produces more life-wealth without loss and with cumulative gain. We defend it by life-goods to ensure our life-capacities are not reduced but gain through time.”[30] Life capital takes both natural (water, oxygen, nutritious food, the beauty of natural spaces) and social (free public education, libraries, health care) forms. That which is essential to it is that, unlike the growth of the money sequence in capitalist society, its growth is necessarily sustainable over time. Life capital—life that produces more life—must by its very nature, include understanding of the material limits which, if exceeded disable rather than enable the growth and development of life. Hence, tailoring policy, law, and public institutions to these conditions ensures that the human species and all its members can continue to flourish in individually meaningful ways over the open horizon of the human future.

That which can never be ensured, and which therefore requires constant political engagement and argument, is peoples’ capacity to see this life-capital at work in their own lives. Austerity and neo-liberalism all count on people continuing to mistake money-capital for life-capital, identifying their interests with the former, and supporting policies which allow money-capital to grow at the expense of life-capital. The genius of localism is to recognize the existence of life-capital in spaces abandoned by money-capital; its limitation is that it overlooks the need for national and international institutions to stop the destructive flow of money-capital and re-channel it to serve life-valuable purposes. That re-channeling requires, in addition to good ideas, good will, and committed effort, means of financing and protecting life-valuable alternatives. If Greece, for example, has access to an alternative finance system (like the Bank of the South, created as an alternative to the IMF and the World Bank by Venezuela and allied governments in South America) whose mandate was to use money-capital as a means of advancing life-valuable projects, on terms that could be repaid without bankrupting the nation, they could simply walk away from their debt obligations to the European central bank.[31] But no amount of local gardening is going to save the Greek banking system if the European banks cut them off, which is why Syriza has been forced to compromise. The collapse of the banks would mean the loss of Greek citizens’ savings and what is left of their pensions. Localism is correct—freedom from capitalism means freedom form material dependency on capitalist markets. Freedom from dependency on capitalist markets requires control over national and international money-capital flows, and that control cannot be established without control over national and international political and economic institutions.

Still, work towards that control can begin at the local level. Not only are people’s lives improved in the here and now, they can also gain the political confidence now lacking in the left (after forty years of defeats) to re-imagine the organizational forms, strategies, and tactics by which its values can be advanced. The vulnerability of local projects to expropriation proves the need for political parties that can win power at the national level. The weakness of Syriza in relation to international and European institutions demonstrates the need for an alternative international financial system. However, political development does not move from abstract principle to global realization, but from local struggles that inspire others and demonstrate the reality of people’s desire and capacity to live in more life-affirmative and mutualistic way. But if it is to become the embryo of a new world, local projects must coordinate, synthesise, and contest for national power, and national parties must then replicate that process at the international level. Gradually, over time, money-capital will find no safe haven, and be forced to return to what it originally was– people’s life-energy at work building a human world out of the giveness of raw nature.

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[Credit: jacobinmag.]

End notes:

[1] Grace Lee Boggs, with Scott Kurashige, The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-first Century, (Berkeley: University of California Press), 2012, (197).

[2] Leon Trotsky, “The Testament of Leon Trotsky.” http://www.marxist.com/testament-of-leon-trotsky.htm (accessed, June 17th, 2015).

[3] David Harvey, Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism, (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 2014, p. 1.

[4] Boggs and Kurashige, op. cit., p.195

[5] Ibid., p. 53.

[6] Ibid., p. 72.

[7] Ibid., p. 88

[8] John Holloway, Change the World Without Taking Power, (London: Pluto Press), 2005.

[9] Boggs and Kurashige, op. cit., p.131.

[10] Ibid., pp. 115-116

[11] David Harvey, Rebel Cities, (London: Verso), 2012, p.14.

[12] See, Jeff Noonan, “After Occupy,” Philosophers for Change, https://philosophersforchange.org/2013/03/14/after-occupy/ (Accessed June 26th, 2015).

[13] John McMurtry, “Breaking Out of the Invisible Prison: The Ten-Point Global Paradigm Revolution,” The Bullet, http://www.socialistproject.ca/bullet/1085.php (Accessed, Jun3 18th, 2015).

[14] The money sequence of value is schematised by McMurtry as: $-means of life-$1 Unpacked, it means that the normal investment cycles of capitalism turn means of life into money to be appropriated by private money-owners. Iterated repeatedly across the globe, it has progressively undermined the life-support and life-development capacities of ecosystems and social institutions. John McMurtry, Philosophy and World Problems Volume 1: What is Good? What is Bad? The Value of all Values Across Times, Places , and Theories, (Oxford: EOLSS Publishers), 2011, p. 25.

[15] Mary M. Chapman, “Detroit Shuts Off Water to Residents but not to Businesses Who owe Million,” The Daily Beast, http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/07/26/detroit-shuts-off-water-to-residents-but-not-to-businesses-who-owe-millions.html (Accessed, June 22nd, 2015).

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[Credit: galleryhomeland.org.]

[16] Harvey, Seventeen Contradictions, p. 155.

[17] Boggs and Kurashige, op. cit., p. 124.

[18] ABC News Detroit, “Detroit’s Packard Plant owner Fernando Palazuelo Shares his Vision for Long Neglected Property,” http://www.wxyz.com/news/detroits-packard-plant-owner-shares-his-vision   (Accessed, June 3rd, 2015).

[19] Greg Sharzer, No Local, (Winchester, UK: Zero Books), 2012, p. 147.

[20] Greg Sharzer and Jordy Cummings, “The Contradictions of Localism,” The Bullet, No. 937, February 17th, 2014. http://www.socialistproject.ca/bullet/937.php (Accessed, June 2nd, 2015).

[21] Judith B. Schor, Plenitude, (New York: The Penguin Press), 2010, p. 157.

[22] The literature on the transition from feudalism to capitalism in England is voluminous and explanations contested. The best short account, to my mind, is Robert Brenner, “Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-Industrial Europe,” The Brenner Debate, T.H. Ashton and C.H.E. Philpin, eds., (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 1988, pp. 10-64. The volume also has the merit of including critical commentary and alternative accounts, sufficient to get the historical amateur oriented towards the wider literature should she or he desire to pursue the issue. The historical-theoretical debates are also superbly summarised in Ellen Meiskins Wood, The Origins of Capitalism: A Longer View, (London: Verso), 2002.

[23] Harvey, Seventeen Contradictions, p. 292.

[24] Sharzer, op. cit., p. 150.

[25] See John McMurtry, The Cancer Stage of Capitalism: New Edition, (London: Pluto Press), 2013, pp. 237-8.

[26] Alan Sears, The Next New Left, (Halifax: Fernwood Publishing), 2014, p. 23.

[27] G. Dragasakis, “The Economic Program of SYRIZA-EKM,” The Bullet, No. 653, June 12th, 2012. http://www.socialistproject.ca/bullet/653.php (Accessed, May 11th, 2015).

[28] Harvey, Seventeen Contradictions, p. 284.

[29] David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu, The Body Economic: Why Austerity Kills, (new York: Harper Collins), 2013, pp. 77-94.

[30] McMurtry, “Breaking Out of the Invisible Prison: The Ten-Point Global Paradigm Revolution.”

[31] Stephen Lendman, “The Bank of The South an Alternative to IMF and World Bank Dominance,” Global Research,  http://www.globalresearch.ca/the-bank-of-the-south-an-alternative-to-imf-and-world-bank-dominance/7207 (Accessed, Jun2 20th, 2015).

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[Credit: pinterest.]

[Thank you indeed Jeff for this contribution. Lead graphic: Fernando Vicente.]

The writer is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Windsor, in Windsor, Ontario, Canada. His most recent book is Materialist Ethics and Life-Value, (McGill-Queen’s University Press), 2012. More of his work can be found at his website: http://www.jeffnoonan.org

If publishing or re-posting this article kindly use the entire piece, credit the writer and this website: Philosophers for Change, philosophersforchange.org. Thanks for your support.

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