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Localisation, Transition Towns… good ideas but fundamentally flawed?

Localisation, Transition Towns… good ideas but fundamentally flawed?
Russ Grayson

Guest writer, Dr Ted Trainer, is a retired UNSW lecturer who has focused on the limits to growth argument. He is also a maker whose small property on the banks of the Georges River in south west Sydney features his numerous works in appropriate technology and the arts.

Photo essay of open day at ted Trainer’s property: http://pacific-edge.info/stories/stories/t0oa7-a-day-with-ted/index.html

Ted Trainer — philosopher, limits-to-growth advocate, author.

Ted Trainer — philosopher, limits-to-growth advocate, author.

No Local: A critique

Ref: No Local: Why Small Scale Alternatives Can’t Change the World; 2011, Greg Scherer; Winchester, Zeri Books, 2011.

THE BOOK, No Local, raises serious problems that the theory and practice of localism must deal with if it is to succeed. My aim, however, is to show that there is no other way forward.

Author, Greg Scherer, offers a fairly standard Marxist view of the need for radical change, arguing that the big problems cannot be solved until capitalism is scrapped, and that this can only be achieved by class struggle focused on taking state power. Greg sees localism as failing to grasp this and deluding itself that its achievement of minor and limited reforms will eventually get us to a sustainable and just society.

This is a widely held position, not just among those on the radical Left, and it deserves to be thought about carefully. It is a quite respectable and plausible position, given the fact that our problems are clearly due, primarily if not entirely, to the capitalist system and the astronomical power, inequality, injustice and environmental damage it involves. Can this be remedied without enormous revolutionary action aimed at taking control from the capitalist class? How on earth can planting community gardens be relevant to that?

Localism the crucial eleme

I will argue that Greg is mistaken about two fundamental issues here, and both show the central importance of Localism. He does not understand that Localism is the crucial element in both the goal of this revolution and the means to achieving it. When the global predicament is understood in terms of the limits to growth it becomes clear that a sustainable and just society has to be based on the model of small, highly self-sufficient and self-governing localized economies. (See below.) When this is recognized it follows that the only way to eventually establish such a society is to focus here and now on building local systems.

Greg is right, however, in his basic criticism that merely building more and more of those systems will not lead to a good post-capitalist society, and he is right that the failure to see this is a major fault in alternative movements today.

I will explain below that the here-and-now building has to be seen as a means, indeed the best means, to raising the awareness that Greg and the Left in general rightly argue is necessary, that is generating the realisation that capitalism is the problem and no reforms within it or version of it can enable a sustainable and just world. In my view this and other factors Greg raises are such major problems for Localism today that if it does not dealt with them it will fail to make a significant difference. I have written at length about the Transition Towns movement on my website (link below).

But these faults and problems could easily be dealt with. I will argue that localism can and should be aligned with Greg’s core argument, and that he is therefore mistaken in thinking that it should be abandoned. Indeed I will argue that a localism that has taken on board some central traditional leftist elements is the only way to get through to a satisfactory world… more or less of the kind Greg wants to see.

A criticism of Localism

Greg notes that there is considerable variation among localists and not all are subject to each of the particular criticisms under discussion. These are best taken as identifying problematic tendencies evident within at least some of the various movements. He makes three basic criticisms, and in my view these deserve to be considered carefully.

1. Localists don’t understand capitalism and thus don’t realise it is the problem.

Greg argues that the main problem with the alternative movements is that they are not based on satisfactory analysis of the capitalist system.

When considering particular initiatives he often makes the point that the system is so powerful and entrenched that it will grind good little alternatives into the dust, or at least confine them to irrelevant niches. Things like community agriculture, cooperatives and local currencies simply can’t compete against gigantic corporations with access to high-tech systems and poorly paid Third World labour.

He says: “…small scale alternatives…can’t provide a lasting basis for building a non-capitalist society, because capital by its nature doesn’t tolerate competition for long.” (p. 165.)

Consequently, he devotes too much space to trying to explain key elements in Marxist economics, especially exchange versus use value, the grow-or-die imperative and the exploitation of labour. I didn’t find these explanatory efforts to be very satisfactory, most are not clear or convincing and some seem to be more or less irrelevant, eg. the discussions of Prudhon.

Localism fails to confront capitalism

Greg stresses that because they do not realize the need to get rid of the system, localist movements are merely reformist. They are only about attempting to improve aspects of a fatally flawed system that will go on causing increasing problems. It “ …refuses to oppose capitalism.” (p 166.)

These are very important issues to do with transition/revolutionary strategy. In my view Greg is correctly identifying major faults in much localist thinking and practice. Much of it does totally fail to even discuss capitalism and proceeds as if it is not important or necessary to think about capitalism’s nature or its dynamics, or the need to get rid of it if the big problems are to be solved, or how that can be done. This is, for instance, clear in just about all the literature associated with the Transition Towns movement.

The phenomenon connects with the implicit ‘accumulation’ assumption or strategy I will go into below; ie., the view that it is not necessary to bother with these questions because if we just go on building more local ways it will all eventually have added up to be a good alternative society.

But I don’t think he is right in identifying ignorance as the problem here. I have found that many within the alternative movements are clear enough about the significance and functioning of capitalism, especially among its more vocal leadership. The problem is that they choose not to discuss these things.

Resistance limited to complaining, blaming

I do think many, indeed most, within these movements have not thought carefully enough, if at all, about the significance of capitalism, but I do not think the problem is primarily ignorance. It is respectability. There is a powerful tendency among nice, friendly, successful, conscientious, public spirited, green people to regard any use of terms like capitalism, class conflict, revolution, Marx or socialism as quite distasteful. To talk in these terms is a social blunder, revealing a sad adherence to a mistaken and now irrelevant ideology. After all, socialism has failed, hasn’t it?

This is a tribute to the power of capitalist ideology. For most people it has disqualified, ruled out consideration of the system that oppresses them, or of any socialist alternative. There is plenty of dissent and resistance, but it is mostly confined to the level of complaining, or blaming politicians or immigrants etc.

2. The mentality of the localist — individualism

Greg argues that this failure to focus on the basic cause of our problems is due to the ‘petite bourgeois’ nature of localists: “ …localism is a petite burgeoise ideology.” (p. 90.) “ …It appeals to the small business and professional individualist entrepreneur. “(p. 5.)

This disposition produces an individualistic world view that is about morality, discipline, application, and the importance of one’s own action. It targets overconsumption, seeing this sin as open to remedy by voluntary individual action… “ …those who move up, apparently by their own efforts, come to believe that those who behave and consume appropriately can do the same.” (p. 91.)

These traits feed into the ‘accumulation’ theory of revolution. It is assumed that if individuals do specific good things one at a time this will in time build a satisfactory alternative society. Individuals ”…assume that the sum of their voluntary choices creates social change.” (p. 91). This is not to deny that localists cooperate, for instance in building community gardens, but many initiatives take the form of particular, separate enterprises that are to compete in the mainstream market, although often not driven solely by profit.

This is an important thesis. Marxists have long been aware of the unreliability of the middle classes, whose interests lie with those of the establishment. In earlier times the fortunes of the aspiring few depended on patronage, notably jobs in the royal bureaucracy. More recently, the crucial factor has been getting a good job within the system, through conformity and achievement. “ …they owe everything to their qualifications.” (p. 92). The petite bourgeois is “…convinced that he owes his position solely to his own merit”.

This reinforces the tendency to think about personal welfare and satisfactory systems in terms of individual performance, not in terms of faults in a system which condemns most to failure. It inclines the middle class to be wary of radical change as that would threaten its property, privileges and comfort, and thus to align with the status quo when there is trouble. Thus, in the difficult times ahead fascism is likely, partly because the discontented lower classes will be inclined to support strong leaders promising to fix things, and partly because the middle classes will support repression and elimination of rights and freedoms in order to deal with the disorder endangering their property.

Greg sees this disposition also leading to a personal lifestyle politics. “ …the petite bourgeoisie is drawn towards personal rather than collective action.” (p. 93) . The inclination is to do good things as an individual, to change one’s lifestyle, to downsize, reduce consumption, to opt for voluntary simplicity, and to think that getting more individuals to do these things is the way to change the world.

Greg also sees a moralistic element here, at least an implicit tendency to rank in terms of virtue, and to blame consumers for buying too much. ” …conspicuous consumption of limited resources… is a… spiritual error, or even bad manners.” (p. 5). This is the middle class lamenting the uncouth ways of the lower classes. “ …the petite bourgeoisie’s voluntarist ethos allows Localism to promote small lifestyle choices and a proper moral outlook.” (p. 120).

Thus, Greg sees this individualistic factor feeding into the predominantly reformist orientation. He points to the “…petite bourgeoisie’s mild reformism…” (p. 107).

Localism merely reformist, not revolutionary

I have seen that some and maybe many localists think they are more than reformists and believe their actions are contributing to revolutionary system replacement, but the things they actually work on are only reforms. He is right to point out how this can actually reinforce neoliberalism, as governments encourage locals to take on more functions that the state should be attending to.

In my experience ,something like the syndrome Greg describes is a powerful force within alternative movements. I have put considerable time and effort into trying to get people in these movements to address radical political theory, especially Marxism, apparently with less-than-no effect beyond hostile rejection.

They distinctly do not want to talk about any need to scrap capitalism. They believe it is unnecessary and indeed a mistake to get involved in even discussing these issues as this could damage the movement. Thus I strongly agree with Greg’s belief that these alternative movements need to connect with those on the traditional Left which cast radical political action as crucial. I also agree with him that if Localism remains so unconcerned with such theory and action it will probably fail to achieve anything much. I have stressed that it would be important to introduce these themes very cautiously.

3. The underlying and mistaken ‘agglomeration’ theory — why building more good stuff won’t create change

In using this term, Greg is onto one of the most serious faults in Localism.

That fault is the usually implicit and un-thought-about assumption that if we just go on building one good new thing here and another there, then someday we will find that it has all added up to be the good new society we want. I think a better term than Greg’s ‘agglomeration’ is ‘accumulation’.

Unfortunately, he doesn’t go into this in any depth, but the following quotes indicate that this is what he has identified. “ …community gardens and recycling…put together, all these measure can create post capitalist future.” (p. 20). “ …global capitalism can be transformed one small business at a time.” (p.55). They “ …hope that small, voluntary projects agglomerate”.

Why Transition Towns will not change anything

This is a most important theory of how extremely revolutionary change can and will happen. I have never seen any exposition or defence of it within alternative movement literature but it obviously underlies thinking and action not just in most of the localist camps but also in green, social justice, social democratic and other camps. It is usually unacknowledged and implicit, but the Transition Towns movement asserts and celebrates it. In fact it is the title and focus of the recent book, The Power of Just Doing Stuff, (Rob Hopkins, 2013.) As Will Steffen said, ” …just go ahead and do something, anything…”(www.worldchanigng.org).

For two hundred years vast amounts of ink, time and effort and many battles and lives have gone into grappling with the question: what strategy is most likely to get rid of the existing rotten order and replace it with a good one? But, it would seem, none of that was necessary. All we need to do is start building bits of the good alternative society,and in time, lo and behold, we will have built all of it! What a relief; no need to get involved in those messy, difficult wrangles, no need to think about endorsing socialism, whether to join guerilla armies or throw bombs, or whether parliaments are the places in which to fight, or whether we can do it without fighting at all. Just plant another community garden and we will have moved a bit closer to the goal.

This is my main criticism of the Localist movement in general and of its Transition Towns subdivision in particular. It is theory-less. It is deliberately theory-less — but of course this constitutes a distinct theory of transition, which is in my view and Greg’s view, is totally and disastrously wrong. The implicit theory is indeed that the good, post capitalist society can be brought about simply by building bits of it until it’s done.

What Greg rightly points out is that blocking this neat and convenient path is the gigantic monster that is capitalist power. How are more community gardens and voluntary simplicity supposed to deal with that? No need to worry about it evidently.

Greg”s transition theory is, disappointingly, not spelled out satisfactorily but seems to be the standard radical Left position: engage in class conflict with a view to taking state power and getting rid of capitalism, and then organizing a good society.

He only comes to this in the last ten pages and his account is sketchy at best. The focus of action is on class struggle that confronts the centre, the holders of power, the political system, and wrests power for us. What the actors do is exert mass pressure which brings about change in the central power system, somehow, which then fixes things. Certainly building little alternatives here and there has no place in such a strategy.

A better transition theory: the The Simpler Way

Greg’s critique is valuable in stressing that today’s Localism fails to deal with, or to even think about, how we are going to get past capitalism. I believe he is right in saying that its present localist focus and trajectory is not going to do this, but this does not mean that a localism cannot do it. The Simpler Way (TSW) transition theory suggests how it might do it, and my argument is that it’s approach to localism provides us with our best revolutionary strategy.

To explain my grounds for these bold claims it is firstly necessary to outline TSW perspective on the global predicament. Only when this is understood can we see the basic form transition strategy must take.

The situation

Few seem to realize how grossly unsustainable and unjust rich world ways are. The basic numbers on resource availability and consumption show that our per capita rates of use and ecological impact would have to be reduced to around 10% percent of their present levels in a zero growth economy before all the worlds’ people could live on an ecologically sustainable planet. The situation becomes more obviously impossible and suicidal when we add the fact that our supreme goal is economic growth, that is to constantly increase output, consumption and the GDP, without limit. (See link below for more on this).

Greg gives little evidence of grasping any of this, which is common on the Left. Thus he cannot be expected to realize that the good post-capitalist society cannot be affluent, heavily industrialised, centralised or globalised or have a growth economy. It has to be some kind of radically Simpler Way, based on, mostly, small and highly self-sufficient, cooperative and self-governing communities using mostly local resources to meet local needs.

While some central institutions and economic structures would still be needed their role would be minor as most functioning would be devolved to the small town and regional level. The point is that the solution has to be localist — there is no choice about this. No other social form is capable of enabling the huge reductions in resource use or ecological impact needed.

A good illustration is given by the present the food provision system. This involves astronomical levels of resource use and environmental impact, is energy-intensive agribusiness with its tractors, nutrient soil mining, soil-damaging fertilizers and pesticides, international shipping and air freight, packaging, advertising, supermarket lighting and wastage, inability to return nutrients to the soils, and need for expensive professionals in suits sitting at computers. Home gardens, community gardens and local agriculture can eliminate virtually all of this…while providing far better food.

It is obvious, however, that none of this can be done unless there is astronomical cultural change, away from individualistic, competitive, acquisitiveness to being content with what is sufficient and finding life satisfactions in non-material pursuits. This is of course the most unlikely element in TSW vision, but it is easy to overlook the powerful quality of life benefits simplicity enables and as scarcity bites these will become more attractive. (More in link below).

Clearly, Greg — along with lefties in general — has not realized that Localism will have to be the essential element in a good post-capitalist society. He discusses it solely as an ineffective means for getting rid of capitalism and apparently believes that when that’s done we can all get on with the pursuit of affluence within heavily industrialised, urbanized, centralised and globalised systems.

Given that the future has to be localized it is extremely important and encouraging that people have begun to develop local systems. In future, that will be seen as the beginning of one of the most remarkable turning points in the history of humans.

But that is not enough. Greg’s criticism of agglomeration/accumulation theory has also to be dealt with. I will argue below that this can be done, in effect by adding to Localism the focus Greg wants. It is not necessary to scrap localism and work from a completely different perspective.

The inescapable implications for transition strategy

First, it needs to be made clear why the standard socialist approach to transition can’t do the job. It made sense when the task was to replace the class in control of the industrial affluence and growth system; just take central power and redirect the system to more just outcomes.

But now that we have entered the era of limits and scarcity that definition of the situation is invalid. There is no value in replacing capitalist control of the industrial system with socialist control that is going to continue to pursue affluence and growth. The core problem now is how can we have a revolution that is for transition to TSW. My argument is that eco-socialists can’t explain this but eco-anarchists can.

Let us assume that by some miracle pressure builds sufficiently to elect a socialist ie. anti-capitalist government. That would get us nowhere unless it was thoroughly committed to The Simpler Way. But a new government with that world view could not possibly be elected unless most people had previously come to hold Simpler Way values and ideas …in which case they would have been out there building local alternatives for years before! So, the crucial prerequisite is the development of the values and ideas that will be needed if ordinary citizens are to run highly self-sufficient local communities well. Only if that is achieved can structural changes then be achieved.

Avineri (1968) provides a valuable account of the way Marx failed to deal with this. Marx explained the way certain institutions that will be needed in post-capitalist society develop within it before the revolution. To try to take power before this has occurred will result in the need to use force to try to make the new arrangements stick, hence the deterioration towards terror in the French Revolution and the failure of the Paris Commune.

Marx, however, did not deal with the need for similar development in the mentality of citizens. He assumed that in the period immediately following the taking of power the working class’ world views and values would still be individualistic, competitive and acquisitive, and oriented to top-down factory work discipline. He thought it would take a long period of rule by the party for these dispositions to be transcended.

That might have been good enough when the goal was to take power over industrial society from the capitalist class, but in our situation we can see that Marx got the order of events round the wrong way. This revolution is unlike any previous one. The limits to growth oblige us to rewrite mainstream Left revolutionary theory.

The anarchists, notably Kropotkin and Tolstoy, got the order of events right. They realized that taking state power is a waste of time unless and until people in general have come to understand that the solution has to be them running their own self-sufficient and self-governing communities. We now have to add the even more problematic preliminary condition, the need for willing commitment to simpler lifestyles.

Revolution the transition

The transition to the situation where these ideas and values are the norm is the revolution. It will make possible the changing of systems, structures, power and the state. The taking and/or elimination of state power is best regarded as a consequence of the revolution.

The main element in TSW strategy is that there is no better place in which to work at this task of building the required world view than within the local alternative movements

Greg gets into this territory at the end, where he invokes Luxemburg to stress the need to develop ‘awareness’ on the part of the masses. But he is only concerned with class consciousness, the recognition that the system does not function in the interests of workers. We need much more than that.

The main element in TSW strategy is that there is no better place in which to work at this task of building the required world view than within the local alternative movements.

Our main task is to try to get people working there to accept that accumulation theory is a mistake and that at some point, action at the level of big structures, the state, and dealing with capitalist domination will have to be undertaken. Greg’s overlooks the fact that accumulation theory is not essential to Localism. It can be abandoned and replaced by a strategic perspective in which dealing with structures is an essential but later concern.

A two-stage strategy

Thus, TSW transition theory identifies two stages.

The first, evident in localism today, is indeed about simply developing small alternatives that could be seen as mere reforms, by people who mostly are not interested in thinking about how these activities relate to capitalism. This revolution could begin in no other way. Localism represents significant numbers of people moving towards (some/many of) the kinds of ways that we will practice in post-revolutionary society. We should delight in that. I can look back on decades in which it wasn’t happening. The traditional Left isn’t helping with this. It isn’t interested. It doesn’t see its significance, and, indeed, it attacks it.
Building alternative structures

It is helpful to see the main goal of this Stage 1 of the revolution as ordinary citizens of the town or suburb building an Economy B underneath the mainstream Economy A, whereby we collectively identify urgent needs and do what we can to deal with them. “Do we have bored kid around here, lonely old people, homeless people? Well, let us get together to do something about these problems.”

Stage 1 is primarily about developing a sense of collective control and solidarity, about helping communities see that they must seek to take control of their fate, especially in view of the limits and scarcities ahead.

Local is limited

There are major limits to what can be achieved at the local level.

Even the most conscientious ecovillages leave a large footprint and have a considerable and unavoidable dependence on imports from the wider national and international economies. They need chicken wire and pumps and gum boots which cannot be produced within the town or suburb and presently come from an unacceptable wider economy. How can localism do anything about this? Here’s the answer we have to hope and work for.
Stage two of the revolution

As the global economy increasingly fails to provide for people, more and more will come across to join and build local alternatives. As Economy B develops and as town self-government takes on more functions there will be increasing realisation that the fate of the town depends on being able to get crucial imports from the wider economy. Thus, there will be increasing concern to restructure the national economy towards providing the basic and mostly simple goods and resource inputs towns and suburbs need.

Meanwhile grappling with the need to run the town’s economy effectively will be developing in its citizens skills in and commitment to participatory government.

Localism will take functions away from governments at the national, state and council levels, and develop the readiness to insist that the remaining central systems move towards participatory and citizen-led processes.

It will be obvious that the centre cannot run the towns and suburbs. These can only be run by citizens with local knowledge and commitment, dependent for their welfare on making the right decisions for their situation. Thus, the role demanded of more central agencies will shift to providing what the towns and regions need and can’t produce for themselves.

Increasingly large numbers, especially members of the now-desperately-troubled capitalist class, will need to be assisted out of unnecessary and failing industries and into local alternatives. If we work hard at it and are lucky, these conditions and forces will see us, eventually, radically restructure government and economy, gearing them to social need and putting them under participatory control.

An unlikely scenario? I agree, but something like this is our best option and we had better work hard to bring it off.

Thus Simpler Way transition strategy focuses here and now on working within the emerging Transition Towns, de-growth, permaculture, ecovillage and other movements, not with the objective of increasing the number of community gardens and clothing swaps that exist, but in order to be in the best position to connect red and green, to be able to help the communitarians to build and run an Economy B, to take control of their fate, and to see that their ultimate goals require capitalism to be scrapped.

The radical Left needs to take on board some of the themes that are central in TSW analysis of our situation, most obviously scarcity, limits and simplicity, and the fact that the solution, the goal of this revolution, has to be localism, and the fact that localism has to be the essential means.

Read Ted Trainer’s critique of the Transition Towns movement: http://thesimplerway.info/TRANSITIONERS.htm

More on The Simpler Way: thesimplerway.info/LIMITS.htm

Life benefits of The Simpler Way: thesimperway.info/YOUR DAY.htm

Feature artwork: Painting by Ted Trainer illustrating a retrofitted suburb as envisioned in his The Simpler Way model.

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