Monday, January 21, 2013

Change the World

My friend Tony Hunt recently posted this review of Greg Sharzer's No Local: Why Small-Scale Alternatives Won't Change the World. This prompted some conversation that led to the thoughts I rehearse below. First, a few caveats. 

One, I haven't read Sharzer's book; I'm responding only to the review, and then only to some of the sentiments therein. I want to make that distinction now so as to not have to perform narrative gymnastics to make that clear as we go. 

Two, I'm not stumping for locavorism, though I'm sympathetic, nor even necessarily for localism as such. There's a time and a place for that, and people better suited to make that argument. And let me be clear that I think there are good points in the review and the book looks interesting: this is not a demo job. [Also, "Foodies and locavores unite: you have nothing to lose but your fast food chains" is a great line.]

In fact, I agree with the book's subtitle, to some extent. Maybe small-scale alternatives won't change the world. I suppose one could be cheeky and suggest that one particular small-scale alternative centered in first-century Jerusalem seems to have left a pretty significant mark, but one could also argue that it left such a mark all the more indelibly after it decided that living in the world but not of it didn't preclude being in charge of most of it. Let's call that one a wash. 

At any rate, while I wouldn't go so far as to say that small-scale alternatives have no effect, especially if we think beyond the metrics of immediacy, I wouldn't claim it as a tool for grand social change as such. And I'm not exactly the sort of localist defined in this review: I'm not particularly a locavore (though we have a garden and chickens), nor do I see localism as a means of manipulating the capitalist system, as the review implies ("Localism says we can change how we act within capitalism. If consumers don’t like a commodity, they can demonstrate their commitment to a better one: for example, choosing to buy a Fair Trade cup of coffee"). Whatever localism might obtain in my thinking is, like my anarchism, artifactual: not an end in itself but a by-product.

But let me cut to the chase. Here are two articulation of what seems to be the review's thesis: "However, while small–scale alternatives can survive and occasionally flourish, they won’t build a new, equitable society" and "But if the goal is stop ecological degradation and runaway growth, then the stakes are higher, and localists need to ask whether small projects will create long–term change." Those are perfectly legitimate observations, given certain premises.

One of the goals of the book, at least according to the review, is to help would-be localists understand how capitalism actually works and face the possibility that their localism unwittingly plays into a neoliberal agenda. I can't see this as a bad thing, necessarily, especially given what seems to be a commitment to a larger leftist program. To the extent that Sharzer and his audience share a commitment to "build a new, equitable society" or "stop ecological degradation and runaway growth" this is a completely legitimate move, even a smart one.

But I don't share that commitment. I question the premise that building a new, equitable society as such is our proper telos. First, it should be, for Christians, that a genuinely new ("If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation") and truly equitable ("no slave or free, Jew or Greek, male or female") society has already been given to us, not realized in revolution but revealed in the Cross. The new society is not "out there" to be built by our hands but already among us as a gift, but that we would only live into it.

Building societies of the kind suggested by this review requires tools that have been placed out of our reach if we take the Cross seriously. To the extent that the Fall has anything at all to do with the neolithic turn, with our attempt as a species to seize our own fate, with the rise of civilization and the tendency toward centralization in the places where we undertook such a seizure in earnest, then society-building is but more of the same, a recapitulation of what got us into this mess in the first place.

Just as the world looks different when you have a gun in your hand, it looks different when you wield the tools of society-building. It looks different when you presume to be in charge of it in some way, or of part of it. It looks different when you take upon yourself, intentionally or not, the crushing burden of making history come out right. 

To say that local commitments won't help to stop ecological degradation and runaway growth is like saying that pacifism won't stop the hypothetical home intruder: it posits an agreed-upon threat and then constructs the argument as a choice between a well-meaning but ineffective idealism and The Way Things Really Get Done, and assumes those are our only options.

It also would seem to presume that the avenues of power available to effect these kinds of change are themselves neutral, that they would not form and shape us in a particular way, that they would not get away from us or spin off unintended consequences, or that some properly constructed "we" is uniquely capable of taking hold of the reins in just the right way. It's not, then, a very sophisticated view of power, or powers -- but of course neither Sharzer nor his reviewer can be expected to bring to bear the kinds of theological resources I am presuming.

I realize that this is not a very satisfying leftism, if it counts as one at all. My "ecclesial postanarchism" (if I'm going to call it something) doesn't posit a team that one can be on in the hopes of winning the war for the fate of society. I am sympathetic to the left, particularly if we read a proper leftism as being critical of capitalism; if capitalism is not the primary cancer that is destroying us, it is at the very least one of its more pernicious symptoms.

At the same time, the sober reality is that whatever comes after capitalism will just end up being what came after capitalism. It will address the limitations and liabilities of capitalism and introduce its own. It will engender its own resistance. I'm skeptical that it will be less imperial, all things considered -- it is difficult to imagine anything less than a counterimperialism being adequate to the task. It is in this spirit that Sharzer's book makes sense, and I appreciate that. 

I sometimes quip that I'm not smart enough to know how 300 million people are supposed to live together on two billion acres (to speak only of the U.S. context) and I'm suspicious of the entire enterprise. The reality on the ground, of course, is that we're already part of that attempt, regardless of how spurious I consider it. 

I'm no more in a position to call a halt to the entire project than I am in to be in charge of it. As such, there are innumerable concrete actions we might take in the name of justice, or love, or faithfulness --actions that recognize the realpolitik of our present circumstance and yet refuse to accord it ontological ultimacy or epistemological priority. 

Some of those actions, no doubt, will have a "localist" or micropolitical character. Some might take the shape of temporary or tenuous alliances with larger projects in the interest of a shared vision of the good. The goal is not the pursuit of an elusive ethical purity but the cultivation of a particular patience and the realization of a kind of political humility. 

To seek to change the world is to presume to know how the world should change, and how best to change it. It is to pretend to the knowledge of good and evil -- something that our mythology tells us has always been a bad idea.