Quebec students protest against tuition fees 2012. Source: Anticap
In 2011, as Greece continued its inexorable slide towards bankruptcy, The Guardian featured economist Costas Lapavitsas on how Greeks were coping with the crisis. As unemployment grew, communities lost:
the means to live as well as the norms, customs and respect of regular work. Barter has appeared among the poor and the not so poor… Schools and transport are disintegrating. People are abandoning cities to return to agriculture, a sure sign of social retrogression.
The strange Marxist curse of “social retrogression” attracted the attention of geographers David Harvie and Keir Milburn. They countered that, far from being a sign of social decay, the return to agriculture was, in fact, a sign of resistance. Going back to the land was “crucial in building alternatives to the neoliberal policies that have impoverished so many”, and “a move full of potential.”
All three economists are socialists: they believe in the power of mass social movements, like the Arab Spring and mass mobilizations across Europe, to change capitalism. Yet if they agree on an active, resistant kind of citizenship, they disagree on what direction citizens should put their energies. One is about mass resistance to austerity; the other is a form of localism. At the heart of this disagreement, I would argue, are two different concepts – not of citizenship but of capitalism.
Our world is structured by how wealth gets produced. As I argue in my book No Local: Why Small-Scale Alternatives Won’t Change The World, capitalism is a system of making wealth socially and keeping it privately. Most of us, the ‘99%’, have to work; a very small number of people, the capitalists, get to own. The latter face two major problems: they have to expand their production and lower their costs or risk competitors swallowing them up. This constant drive to expand creates unnecessary production and crisis. When the profit rate falls, capitalists have to do everything in their power to restore it. That can mean a recession and austerity, or even a war – anything to eliminate excess capacity and ‘surplus’ workers.
How we respond to this austerity – resistance or adapation – depends on how we understand capitalism. Localism sees it as uneven and fragile; the dispossessed can operate at the margins to create a fulfilling life for themselves. The alternative, a democratic, revolutionary socialism, agrees that capitalism is unstable and open to change, but not at the margins: rather, capitalism creates its own grave-diggers at its very centre. The working class, who have nothing to sell but their work, create everything and can therefore run everything. Capitalism can be organized against and overcome.
In the abstract, we can choose both. By going back to the land, we can create communities of resistance that provide the material and moral strength to resist neoliberalism. However, by not confronting capitalism, this localist form of citizenship fails on every level: ethical, practical and political.
Ethically, localism lets capitalists pass the costs of their failures to workers. Why be so quick to abandon the schools, hospitals and factories that have defined contemporary society? Workers fought for the good education, healthcare and jobs that capitalist governments are trying to eliminate.
Practically, localities can’t recreate the amenities and infrastructure of an advanced society: the mass transit, renewable energy and dense urban development needed to transform to a low-carbon economy are impossible without the vast, international coordination of resources and technical know-how.
Politically, localism dodges important strategic questions: how do we oppose attacks on pensions, wages and services that workers have fought for? How do we deal with entrenched forms of state and corporate power, which have no problem with tiny cooperatives and the occasional black-masked riot, but whose profits and stability are genuinely threatened by a general strike?
The localist from-below vision empowers people as everything from consumers to producers but, crucially, not as citizens. This is because a citizen is a fundamentally political being who engages with the issues of people who don’t have the opportunity or luxury to drop out. As I argue in No Local:
Marx famously alliterated, “Here is the rose, dance here!” We begin with society as it is, not as we’d like it to be. Voluntarism means substituting one’s own personal projects and priorities for building social movements, rather than trying to understand and change conditions as they exist right now.
Lapavitsas can talk about social retrogression because he believes workers create collective wealth, in the form of public services and productive capacity. The problem is not one of austerity but ownership: in fact, workers create vast wealth, actual and potential, that is squandered privately. Put towards public, democratic ends, that wealth could end poverty, hunger and create a comfortable life for all.
How do workers learn to run things? Through resistance: fighting for change wherever the issue of the day arises, be it privatisation, layoffs or government-imposed austerity. Through struggle, we build the capacity to create independent and democratic movements. This kind of citizenship emerged in Quebec during the student occuptions of 2012, and it continues in Egypt in the struggle against the new regime. Those activists are trying to create an entirely new, collective, democratic citizenship, based on an egalitarian society.
Whatever concessions social movements were able to carve out of states in their more generous pre-crisis days, states have shown themselves to be instruments of capitalism – not because they’ve been ‘captured’ by corporate elites but because their job is to manage the system of profit-making. We can either resist or give in, but there is no outside to the class struggle. As I argue in No Local:
class struggle allows activists to learn first–hand about the strategies and principles necessary to build a movement. This kind of prefiguration embodies social justice, cooperation and community, all cherished localist values, plus one that’s even more important: collective resistance. Rather than imagining possible futures, we can practice and learn about the political steps needed to get there.
The pan-European general strikes against austerity last November are a great example. As workers connect local issues to the global crisis, we can create a new form of citizenship, confronting, not avoiding the strategic questions of how to take power from capital. Against the globalized age of austerity, we will create our own globalized age of resistance.