Monday, April 07, 2014

Small Capitalism is not Nice Capitalism

Stan Cox is a senior scientist at The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, USA, and seems to read the same books as members of the Socialist Party and come to similar conclusions.

Stan Cox quotes approvingly from “ No Local: Why Small-Scale Alternatives Won't Change the World”“ by Greg Sharzer , "The problem with localism is not its anti-corporate politics, but that these politics don't go far enough. It sees the effects of unbridled competition but not the cause." and comments, “It's not that local owners are exceptionally greedy or heartless. As Sharzer shows, they simply have no choice but to play by the rules of the regional, national, and global market. Even the most well-intentioned local owners know that if they don't squeeze the greatest productivity out of the smallest payroll, there are plenty of other, more efficient businesses ready to take their place.”

In the Socialist Standard review of the book we wrote “ 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.”

Cox in his article provides some hard unpalatable facts. The four largest grocery chains increased their share of the retail market from a disturbing 22 percent in 1998 to an alarming 53 percent in 2010. Even if Americans planted every residential lot in the country with food crops, that would substitute for less than 2 percent of current US cropland (and we'd have to chop down millions of shade trees).  The lopsided distribution of farmland imposes tight limits. For example, the largely rural state of Nebraska has 5.3 hectares per resident of soils suitable for food production, while densely populated Connecticut's far smaller cropland endowment, amounting to less than a 15-by-15-metre plot per person, would fall far short of what is required to feed the state's residents for a year.

CoX crItically cites a proponent of the Local Food Movement, “ Ted Trainer, a leading advocate of economic de-growth, has written: "The magnitude of the over-consumption problem calls for a radical alternative to consumer-capitalist society, which I label 'The Simpler Way'. This would involve people organising frugal but sufficient material lifestyles within mostly local economies made up of small farms and firms, using local resources and labour to meet local needs… Most problematic of all, it could not work without the willing acceptance of frugal and self-sufficient lifestyles, strong collectivism, and a desire to give and to nurture." Cox then asks some  poignant questions.  “How will an entire community come voluntarily to accept a "frugal and self-sufficient lifestyle"? How will such personal transformations overcome the highly unequal distribution of power within the community itself? How can the community fend off the embrace of the global economy? And even if the local transformation does occur, will it it have any positive effects beyond its own city or county borders?”

The Socialist Standard explains “Ethical consumption can’t be effective because most people can’t afford it.”

Cox quotes Vanderbilt University sociology professor David Hess’ admission: "The 'buy local' movement is, at least at present, mostly an alliance of small business-people and middle-class shoppers. It is not a poor people's movement."

Cox goes on to commend those like Sharzer who urge local movements to stop avoiding political struggle and trying to create idealised communities; instead, they need to "confront global institutions of capitalist power in local spaces" and to join with myriad other local struggles for "transcending capitalism on a world scale". Needless to say, taking that course will be far more arduous than gardening and buying local. But it's our only way out”

In contrast to Cox, the Socialist Standard reserved a final condemnation for Sharzer, himself, for praising Lenin’s state-capitalism.

Another review of No Local and its critique of small neighbourhood capitalism can be read here

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