Sunday, February 23, 2014

Buying local: anti or proto capitalist?

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. 


  1. Interesting points. I agree with your conclusions, if not all of your analysis. Rather than local/family businesses merely sustain their own families, I think many consumers support local firms based on the reasoning that keeping their money in the community will improve services and relations in their towns, and will lead to more, and better paying, local jobs. While I agree that, in the short term, this may only produce a parallel economic system, in the long term the "buy local" movement could reverse the trend towards internet commerce and Big-Box retail consumerism (assuming that prices and quality of small-business products would become more equal to large-scale producers.) And, considering this week's Marx reading, one could argue that this buy-local trend is moving closer to the old "guild system," or the local agriculture-based villages in which producers produced their goods for trade and avoided duplication. Perhaps I'm being naïve, but it seems that large-scale success of a "buy local" movement would, in fact, move us farther away from postmodern capitalism.

  2. Interesting points, and I think in today's economy it's a complicated issue. Marx writes that "only with a certain minimum of capital does the capitalist cease to be a worker himself and begin to concern himself entirely in directing work and organizing sales" (1027). So buying local, especially from small local businesses, I think is a form of resistance.

    But, one's participation in "buy local" can mean entirely different things. Take, for example, buying groceries in Lincoln. Russ's Markets are a locally based company, however, the owners have most certainly reached and surpassed that threshold: they have a corporate headquarters, numerous stores (including the Super Saver stores), have branded and marketed aggressively, and (in my opinion) exploit their workers with a Walmart-like mentality.

    On the other hand, A Street Market does not appear to have reached that threshold, there's just one store and there is a decidedly non-corporate "feel" to it. Their prices are noticeably higher than Russ's. I would, in light of Marx's statement, go so far as to say the owners of A Street Market function primarily as workers in their own business.

    So, one could argue that if you are shopping at Russ's, you are participating in the capitalist economy more so than if you shop at A Street Market, although both can be said to be local.

    All that being said, I fill my prescriptions at Russ's rather through the CVS mail program, although the latter would be cheaper and more convenient. At least the workers at Russ's actually live in Lincoln, despite their being paid and treated poorly.

  3. While I like the idea of local businesses being able to exist outside capitalism, having worked for small business I do not think that they aim to do so. I think that you are exactly right that most local business hope to earn profit and expand in order to make a larger profit. What may be the distinguishing factor between an A Street Market and a Russ's Market is what that business hopes to do with their profit. Will they put it into the business and focus on growth? Or will they focus on their employees and communities first, and growing the business second. Many local businesses choose this second option because that is the kind of place they, as individual business owners, want to be. But their actions and business is still within capitalism, in fact they are dependent on capital in order to achieve the place they want to hold within their community. We, as consumers of local business, simultaneously support both goals - both capital and community improvement. The benefits to a community by supporting a local business is clear and real, both for the people that work their and the culture they create - but I'm not entirely sure that local business alone can undo capitalism. After all, once a business is too successful - too good- it runs the risk of being bought out by a larger company.


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