IN “THE MYTH OF THE STATE OF NATURE,” his creationist vignette from Philosophy for Non-Philosophers, Louis Althusser narrates what could almost be a manifesto for localism: a vision of a world in which all things appear “transparent” to us, are within easy reach, and, crucially, supplied by Nature herself.[i]
Localism, the idea that small-scale economic alternatives can agglomerate and eventually overturn capitalism, has become more popular as the world’s social and ecological crises mount. However, in the localist perspective the theory of how we transition to a post-capitalist society inevitably runs into problems.
Karl Marx recognized that firms must grow in order to survive, and that this process creates periodic crises due to the mismatch between the market’s production and consumption signals. He also thought that those crises posed political possibilities for rupture, ending capitalist rule through class struggle and establishing the workers’ democratic ownership of their own means of production. Other 19th-century radicals like Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Robert Owen, the founder of the cooperative movement, looked to replace capitalism with a regulated marketplace. Proudhon was an early proponent of fair trade: pay everyone what their labor is worth, control credit and property rights, and products would exchange at a fair price. Owen’s cooperative movement called for fellow capitalists to create networks of businesses that distributed profits to their worker-members.
This vision is alive today in the form of localism. As opponents of the insatiable drive of globalization, post-capitalist theorists such as Richard Wolff and Erik Olin Wright call for building small cooperative businesses that edge for-profit firms out of the market. Wolff’s networks of Workers’ Self-Directed Enterprises (WSDEs)[ii] and Wright’s call for “real utopias”[iii] that build social practices of sharing and cooperation within capitalism, are just two examples of democratic co-ops aiming to erode the system from within. The Next System Project brings these theories together to theorize a democratic economy based on bottom-up, ethical enterprises from farms to credit unions.[iv] These visions rest on a version of fair trade: it’s possible to know what a “fair” price is and then fix it, along with exchange rates, debt, prices, and rents. Capitalism is thereby transformed, not by revolution, but by fair regulations.
The problem with this analysis is that it sees capitalism as an exchange of useful objects. Marx had a different understanding of how wealth is created. In the workplace, workers create useful things: a car door, a latte. In order to exchange these commodities, Marx argued, a second, universal value — “exchange-value” — had to be established in the course of the production process. But this second value is an abstraction from the thing’s useful qualities. For Marx, only a special commodity — “labor power,” the capacity to work — can create extra value, because the worker creates more than she needs to survive.[v] Whoever owns the factory or office controls that surplus and uses it to expand her business.
An object’s uses don’t exchange; its exchange-values do. The value of a commodity fluctuates according to an infinite chain of production and distribution costs, ranging from measurable things like the distance to market, to qualitative things like workers’ expectations. That’s why capitalism needs markets: to signal — imperfectly, through demand — the prices that move up and down around the commodity’s real value. This “law of value” is the source of its constant crises of overproduction and unemployment, with economic reforms being set at the outer limits of such crises. If prices for commodities rise, capital will try to overcome the “inefficiency,” either by shifting production or flooding the market. If a commodity can be made somewhere else for cheaper, the ethical and democratic firm will fail.
The localist solution to this quandary is to constitute the ethical subject: try harder. Keep working at the community garden even if it’s unpaid; volunteer more hours at the co-op. At best, a government can step in and pass laws to regulate the monopolies. Rosa Luxemburg, the leader of the German Communist Party, had their number: “We thus quite happily return to the principle of justice, to the old warhorse on which the reformers of the earth have rocked for ages, for lack of surer means of historical transportation.”[vi]
This is where Althusser’s analysis of ideology illuminates. For Althusser, ideology exists in terms of how a social class imagines its own relationship to the means of production, as owners or as supplicants. As he wrote in “Marxism and Humanism”:
an ideology is a system (with its own logic and rigour) of representations (images, myths, ideas or concepts, depending on the case) endowed with a historical existence and role within a given society.[vii]
Ideology’s role in capitalism is to keep people working. Althusser also coined the term “Ideological State Apparatuses” (ISAs) to name social structures, like the church, media, and family, which generate, or “reproduce,” those representations.[viii] How an ideology works is not immediately apparent, because ideology is partial, rather than false. The bourgeoisie’s ideas of freedom are dominant because, as a class, they are truly free to buy and sell. The rest of us only imagine ourselves to be. As Marx pointed out in Capital, the market in labor is fair until the factory doors close — at which point one person owns capital and forces the other either to work, or starve.
Althusser’s theory of ideology can easily be applied to the petty bourgeoisie, Marx’s term for the middle classes who both own their own workplaces and have to work in them, such as small business owners. Consider the premises of localism: a democratic firm can operate at the margins of the market, selling fair-trade coffee or locally grown vegetables to ethical or marginalized consumers. Reminiscent of Althusser’s exasperation with humanism — proclaiming the universal subject “Man” when only the capitalists are truly free — this kind of add-it-up economics assumes that if one community garden can change a neighborhood, then a network of them can change a city, and so on across the globe. In place of seeing how the law of value forces capital to expand and destroy other alternatives, localists substitute their own practice. Althusser nods sagely: “Such is the role of this temptation of the recourse to ideology […] by making one’s need and impatience a theoretical argument.” Yet this impatience is not (just) a mistake. It is “the index of a historical reality, and simultaneously of lived ambiguity” that creates and reinforces all ideology. As Althusser observes in Lenin and Philosophy, we can’t even understand capitalism by looking at individual firms, because capitalism exists — and can only exist — as a social system: “What happens at the level of the firm,” he writes “is an effect.”[ix] To claim to be able to reform capitalism, firm by firm, appeals to the professional who both owns and works. The petty bourgeois wants capital without capitalism: the freedom to buy and sell, but without the inevitable competition that comes with it.
A localist enterprise is an ISA in terms of what it doesn’t signify: it marks a refusal to acknowledge the ongoing battle between labor and capital, present when someone works for the minimum wage or can’t get health care. Rather than making demands on power, localism tries to create fair trade around the margins of the market. In doing so, it imagines a society without a law of value that restricts both capitalist undercutting and workers’ demands for lower prices. It’s a clarion call of the small capitalists, who demand classlessness because they’re trapped between classes.[x] Just as ideology isn’t false, neither are local enterprises impossible; but the idea that a currency or business can supplant a dominant dollar or corporation ignores the system of weaponized class power the American state uses to prop up its capitalists.
In “The Stoics and Epicurus,” a short chapter from Être marxiste en philosophie, Althusser considers the concept of contingency. Change in a world arises from the encounters of subjects, and every encounter forms a new conjuncture; we are guided by the conditions that led us here, but the path is not fixed. The challenge is to understand such contingent encounters.[xi] And yet, as he argues in “The Myth of the State of Nature,” such understanding is itself the result of an abstract procedure, and produced by means of “a veritable labor in which one needs, in order to know, not just raw material, but also labor-power (people and their know-how) and instruments of labor (tools, words).” Even our understanding under capitalism is a form of social abstraction which pits labor against capital in a struggle for “meaning.”
Can we hope to bury the abstraction, and eventually exchange concrete acts of labor societywide? Althusser thinks not, since for him abstraction, like ideology, is a defining feature not only of capitalist society, but of all society, and extends beyond the so-called relations of production to our sense of self or subjectivity. Nonetheless, regardless of the local or global context, thinking beyond the law of value and its violent abstractions is essential if we are to have any chance of thinking a post-capitalist world and the new forms of political movements required to bring it about. To this end, Althusser’s directive to bring theory into politics is deeply necessary.
Greg Sharzer is Assistant Professor of English in the School of Global Communication at Kyung Hee University, South Korea. He is the author of No Local: Why Small-Scale Alternatives Won’t Change the World (Wiltshire: Zero Books, 2012) and “Cooperatives as Transitional Economics” in Review of Radical Political Economics (forthcoming). He is an editor of the journal Historical Materialism.
[i] Louis Althusser, “The Myth of the State of Nature,” transl. G. M. Goshgarian in: Jason Barker and G. M. Goshgarian, eds. Other Althussers: diacritics 43.2, 2015, pp. 16—22.
[ii] Richard D. Wolff, “Socialism and Workers’ Self-Directed Enterprises,” in: Monthly Review Zine, September 9, 2014.
[iii] Erik Olin Wright, “How to Be an Anticapitalist Today,” in: Jacobin, December 2, 2015. https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/12/erik-olin-wright-real-utopias-anticapitalism-democracy/
[iv] Gar Alperovitz, James Gustave Speth, Joe Guinan, “New Political-Economic Possibilities for the Twenty- First Century,” The Next System Project, March 2015. http://thenextsystem.org/#about
[v] Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume One, New York: Vintage Books 1977.
[vi] Rosa Luxemburg, “Social Reform or Revolution,” in: Dick Howard, ed. Selected Political Writings. New York, Monthly Review 1971, pp. 52-134.
[vii] [vii] Althusser, “Marxism and Humanism” in: Cahiers de l’I.S.E.A., October 1963. pp. 1—60.
[viii] Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” transl. Ben Brewster in: Essays on Ideology, London: Verso 1984, pp. 1—60.
[ix] Althusser, Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, transl. Ben Brewster. New York: Monthly Review Press 1971.
[x] Althusser has also been used to argue against this form of class analysis. Wolff and Resnick invoke his work to oppose the idea that the law of value, and the mode of production it structures, determines anything. See Stephen A. Resnick, Richard D. Wolff, “Marxism,” in: Rethinking Marxism, Vol. 25, No. 2 2013, pp. 152—162.
[xi] Althusser, “The Stoics and Epicurus,” transl. G. M. Goshgarian in: Jason Barker and G. M. Goshgarian, eds. Other Althussers, pp. 10—14.