In many communities efforts to direct consumers towards local business by “buying local” have become popular. While most notable in the idea of buying locally produced food, calls are made to support local, rather than national or global, business whenever possible. These movements are often justified by some ration of two arguments 1) it keeps money local – bolstering local economics and 2) such products are often more ethically or sustainably developed. While these are certainly admirable goals, while reading for this week I also noticed that these local business seem to exist on the boundary between merchant/guild economics and capitalist modes of production, and as such I want to explore them a bit more.
Let me begin by exploring how such business seem to be – at least partially –outside the capitalist mode of production. In Capital, Marx notes one of the separating features between guild/merchant production and capitalist production is scale (1022). And while many consumers may have fetishized the specialty of this small scale, many of these small businesses are family endeavors, with maybe a few employees. Additionally, because of their small scale, these business are often more about sustaining the owners and/or their families, as such they seem to be engaged more in the C-M-C mode of exchange; they produce their goods to get other commodities which have use value to them. In this way, the producers of the commodities are still largely connected means of production – lacking the alienation present in the industrial worker.
If it is true that these businesses are less capitalistic, it would suggest that continued patronage of such business could work against large industrial capital – slowly driving society back towards a more guild/merchant economic system. Similarly, small yeoman farmers could slowly replace mega farms (although if such farms would have the capacity to feed global populations is an interesting question). If this possibility exists, it would seem that buying local, while not a profound revolution might be a small move against capital.
However, this move seems to be problematized in many ways – both from Marx and others.
First, do they really help us escape the psychology of capitalism? Marx notes that even if businesses exist in residual modes of production, they are largely understood in the terms of the capitalist mode of production (1042). Because of this, the self-employed worker will likely see themselves as a waged employee working for the company they own – recreating the alienating problems of wage labor.
Additionally, because the merchants would be largely in a capitalist psychology, those businesses that thrived would likely expand. While workers can be added in a way that does not generate capital (1041), the likelihood is that these workers would be paid something less than the value they added to these companies. At this point, the merchant becomes a capitalist, and any anti-capitalists gains made are slowly undone. This seems to suggest that at least two social shifts would have to accompany such a move. First, consumption would need to be reduced, so as to remove some incentive for expansion of business. Second, business would have to be content to produce goods only to exchange for what they need (and maybe some excess not capitalized income) and let competing C-M-C merchants fill excess demand.
Third, due to the scale of these productions, their products are almost certainly more expensive. Meaning that while we can ask for this move, as long as cheaper goods are available wage rate will remain too low to let many workers engage in this type of consumption. Because this move would largely be a middle, rather than working class, movement, it at best creates parallel economic systems, allowing many to ignore the larger capitalist presence in their lives because they are helping support something less overtly capitalistic.
So I think buying local is probably better than buying from big firms, but it takes more than just a change in consumption habits to really start to deconstruct capital.