Localism, Homogeneity, and Networks

by Monty Neil

N.B.: This is Section 4 of a longer piece called Class Composition and Developing a New Working Class Strategy.

The Zapatistas and their words, ideas and actions have been the subject of much analysis. Their struggle has also furthered discussions on an existing array of topics pertaining to methods of struggle and the desired shape of post-capitalist society(ies).

During the Encuentro in Chiapas, substantial time was spent in the various mesas (tables, discussion groups) on what the alternative to capitalism would look like. Localism was strongly supported. Respect for and acceptance of diversity was a major component of all those discussions. As a means of connecting all these diverse localisms, networks were proposed. In this section, we will address issues of localism, diversity and homogeneity within the class, and networks. In the final section, we will return to these issues in the context of deepening a class composition analysis.


In bolo'bolo (P.M., 1985) and many other descriptions of post-capitalist possibility, local is presented as the means by which exploitation and hierarchy can best be avoided. Yet clearly a pure localism is insufficient (as bolo'bolo recognizes). Harry Cleaver suggests thinking about the Mississippi River system as an example of how extensive cooperative activities need to be: perhaps a fifth of a continent and 100 million people affect and are affected by the Mississippi and its tributaries. Deciding how to live with it, use it and preserve it requires vast cooperation. Mere localism could be reduced negatively to wanting clean water to reach you, but pissing in it yourself.

Politically, one of the more obvious points facing the working class is the realization that local struggles, even national struggles, can be isolated and defeated: there are no successful cases of socialism in one country. If there are such cases for one village, it is only because capital doesn't find it important to absorb or destroy.

Strategies of localism face the problem of how to defend themselves against capitalism. Some appear to conclude that capital will be willing to allow village socialism, autonomous small areas of self-production and self-rule. Often such conclusions rest on an incorrect conception of capitalism: that capital has gone beyond the law of value and therefore does not need humans as workers. Thus, the argument goes, since capital no longer needs workers to produce surplus value, capital will accept allowing the reserve army of labor to provision itself outside of capitalist relations -- that is, to escape working for capital. Alternatively, the autonomous village approach suggests that while the law of value does hold, at this time capital cannot make use of all its potential labor power (it has brought too much of a reserve army of labor within its direct control), and so must concede to let these people provision themselves. The EZLN appears to agree and disagree, arguing both that capital needs Chiapanecan labor and that capital can discard Chiapanecans.

Midnight Notes rejects the idea of the end of the law of value. As Caffentzis (1992) showed in "On Africa and Self-Reproducing Automata," the law of value operates with more, not less, rigor, even where it appears most absent. That is, capital depends on labor that is apparently "outside" of capital as part of the accumulation process. This perspective develops further the work of Wages for Housework which, itself building on the theoretical and practical recognition of the social factory, understood unwaged work as pivotal to capitalist accumulation (see esp., Dalla Costa and James, 1975). (This also underlies our conception of the new enclosures).

Our conclusion, then, is that capital most certainly will not allow development of a localism outside of capital. For example, the deliberate starving and promotion of slaughter in Africa should make clear that even this presumably least capitalistically integrated continent is zealously attacked in order to ensure that it does not develop non-capitalistically and that its people and resources are available or are made available through structural adjustment for capitalist accumulation. But even an end-of-the-law-of-value perspective could argue against the notion that capital would allow any escape from its control: bad viruses of alternative life might infect the areas under control.

While we conclude from the histories of "real" socialism and "market" capitalism that local control is substantially desirable, the goal of localism cannot be left as a political possibility independent of the means to defend it on a world scale. More, unless the working class develops means whereby all local resistances are connected against capital, the locals will not succeed and the rule of capital will not be abolished. The working class does not yet know how to accomplish these possibly contradictory tasks of local and planetary revolution and so must learn. Further, given the effects of five centuries of capitalist development and underdevelopment and the resulting organization of production, massive changes are needed in production and distribution of whatever humans decide ought to be produced -- changes that cannot be carried through on a purely local basis.

Parenthetically, in this discussion of localism we are not addressing the obvious point that local can incorporate all forms of exploitation, of women, children, slaves, serfs, and waged workers, by a variety of forms of local bosses. Much discussion of localism appears to ignore this. Indeed, placed in the middle of the nineteenth century, localism becomes the right of the U.S. slavocracy to continue slave-based production. Should combatting racism, etc., devolve entirely to the localisms that are hooked to networks? We suggest only that there are not easy answers to these questions. (But we reject capital's claim that its intervention in Africa against African slavery in the late 19th century gave it the moral high ground; this was essentially a pretext for colonization, much as capital's "concern" for current African problems is a pretext for controlling the continent.)

The primacy of localism poses implicitly if not explicitly the question of the state. In the economics mesa at the first Encuentro, coordinated activity over large areas was recognized as inevitably necessary. To some, this seemed to pose the utility of the state as a positive national force supporting local development. However, such a proposal reasserts the social democratic vision of the benign state and appears to call for a restoration of capitalist social democracy, only with more localism. In a similar vein, at least most of the leadership of the International Forum on Globalization offers such proposals, many explicitly maintaining that they are not anti-capitalist, but against globalization and neoliberalism (see Caffentzis, "Many Names..," this volume). In economics sub-mesa A, however, the report recognized that capitalism itself must go. Similarly, if the state is understood as a part of society separating itself above society to facilitate class exploitation within society, then there will not be a benign state -- and the state too, should go, including the falsely benign social democratic state.

However, the proposals raised at the Encuentro for what the "state" might do often did not sound at all like a state, but rather means to address the needs for coordination of some activities over large areas and ways to address the actual planetary inequality of access to various kinds of wealth. If this latter is actually intended, it would be better not to use the term state or government at all. Once again, though, anticapitalists find themselves without useful, clear terminology that can satisfy both theoretical and popular discussions.

Localism, presuming the elimination of world capitalism and of local exploitation, is materially feasible, as bolo'bolo shows; politically desirable, at least as gauged by working class unhappiness with various forms of state socialism and social democracy; and perhaps ecologically necessary as well. In terms of opposition to capitalism, however, this in itself solves very little. Before turning to the discussion of networks as a possible means of overcoming the limits of localism, however, we should look also at diversity, which complexifies the working class planetary project.

Diversity and Homogeneity

In light of previous anti-capitalist strategies, localism poses yet another set of problems, these around the issue of how to unify opposition to capitalism. Our perspective, summarized in Part II, above, is that a leveling of wages and the struggle against work supported and reflected a high degree of political homogeneity within the working class. In "The Work/Energy Crisis" (Caffentzis, 1980), this was expressed metaphorically via physics: increased homogeneity (uniformity, lack of difference) in the working class produces entropy in the capitalist system, resulting in the eventual death of capitalism. In political terms, homogeneity means the identity of political interests and hence unity against capital. The construction of difference within the working class, resting on the division of labor, is essential to capital, because without difference capital cannot obtain work from the working class.

In the current period, this formulation is subject to questioning, particularly from the perspective of difference or variety within culture. This perspective has two aspects. On the one side (not explored here) is the problem of cultural homogeneity produced by capital via such things as mass media on a world scale: the production of an undifferentiated proletarian cultural lump as homogeneity used by capital against the working class. (This topic received substantial attention at the first Encuentro.)

On the other side is the expression of difference as struggle against capitalist culture and control exercised by the capitalist state. In this, autonomy expresses itself as a demand for cultural space, for "real" multiculturalism, and as a demand for territory, that is land which is outside of the state. It could be, to return to the physics model, that the working class itself needs variety in order to prevent entropy within the class. Thus the working class on a planetary level needs diversity to keep itself alive as a class against capital, but must be homogenous with respect to capital, thereby creating entropy, decay and death for capital.

On the cultural terrain, then, capital demands homogeneity (of a marketable and controlled variety), while economically it asserts vast difference and hierarchy, and socially it perpetuates race and gender divisions. From the proletarian side come the demands for cultural variety, "authenticity," while rejecting race and gender hierarchy and calling for leveling of wages and wealth (homogeneity). The environmentalist arguments for biodiversity, and the linguists awareness of the richness of linguistic diversity, reinforce the social desirability of cultural diversity.

In part II, we posed the weaknesses of the strategies and deals of the working class as aspects of hierarchical divisions of work, wages, race, gender and nation within the working class. A proposal to respect diversities potentially suggests a means to overcome the hierarchies, but does not directly deal with them. In the US, we can perhaps see a parallel in "multiculturalism" versus "anti-racism." The former recognizes differences, the latter both recognizes differences and confronts the reality that difference has been used for and sometimes emerges out of hierarchical divisions as part of capitalist exploitation. Participation in revolutionary democracy can become a space for attacking racism, etc., while deepening the very participations and overcomings of hierarchy that are necessary to overcome capitalism. The self-organization of the class to overcome its internal contradictions is simultaneously its self-organization to oppose capital.

bolo'bolo (P.M., 1985) resolves the question of diversity and homogeneity by posing a world of immense cultural variety resting on a base of shared, minimally necessary labor which is, therefore, substantially homogenous. Whether the particulars of bolo'bolo are appealing, the recognition of the relationship between diversity and uniformity is important. The idea and practice of creating autonomous spaces in Italy in the late 60s and early 70s, ideas that certainly influenced bolo'bolo, suggested the possibilities of variety and uniformity.

In another vein, Zerowork (1975), among others, understood the unification of the working class internationally through cycles of struggles, recognizing this as a fact of proletarian history in the twentieth century and proposing it as a model of struggle. How the local or national or regional or sectoral struggles could be deliberately coordinated in a cycle of autonomous and thus diverse struggles was only posed, not answered. The discussions around networks attempt to move these questions ahead.


The Encuentro in Chiapas addressed this issue, but inconclusively, through a call for networks. The EZLN's "Second Declaration of La Realidad" proposed two kinds of networks: one for resistance, one for communication. The first is "the medium in which distinct resistances may support one another"; the second allows for "alternative communication against neoliberalism... [and] for humanity... [in which] distinct resistances communicate with one another." The Declaration states that neither will have "a central head or decision maker... no central command or hierarchies. We are the network, all of us who resist."

The proposal emerging from the Encuentro, for moving ahead against capital through networks, is not new. Presuming networks do begin to form, then activists must rapidly push them to discuss networking itself, and organizational forms in general, as part of strategizing to overcome capitalism.

As with any tool used to facilitate coming together and developing struggles, it has its uses and its limitations. Perhaps through the actions of the networks, in establishing means of supporting resistances and strengthening communications, further capacities for unified action will come. (The creation of two networks seems rather an arbitrary distinction: should they not mostly be communicating about struggle?) Hopefully, through the networking, the dialogues and debates, practices successful and unsuccessful, analyses and actions, will be analyzed and developed in ways that will lead to incremental gains in unity of thinking and action, and then the greater leaps to unified, widespread cycles of struggle. The posing of the network as the means of political development suggests simultaneously that non-centralized but coordinated activity is itself a goal, and that the planetary working class cannot yet see how to act in a more unified manner. Thus, the network is both an end and a means of developing a more coherent strategy (which does not imply that the goal is a centralized decision-making apparatus).

But before charging uncritically down the road of networking, let us step back a moment to reflect on the bases of this term and conception. In the U.S., the term "network" seems to have become popular on the left after the arrival of the term in the computer information industry.(13) In the early days, less so now, the populace was subject to a lot of capitalist rhetoric about how the computer would enable horizontality, new kinds of decision-making, etc., via "networks" of various sorts. On the capitalist side it did enable the elimination of some kinds of middle management, but of course it hardly produced horizontality in decision-making.

Still, the term resonated among a left weary of the old centralist dogmas and practices. The left also seemed in large part to accept the idea of computers as aiding horizontality and decentralized, shared decision making. It seemed compatible with consensus-oriented group processes. (Parenthetically, we are not persuaded that all centralized decision-making is always bad; we suspect that the Zapatista army has its centralized aspects -- but these are moments within an overall structure of a participatory democracy.)

Over time, the notion grew that the ideal political form was the "network." Like the corporate employees, the left was to network itself to its goals. Thus, the calls for networking at the Encuentro found acceptance and support from the US, as well as European, left.

The left has a long history of organizing itself on a capitalist production model. Lenin was most overt about this, praising capitalist factory discipline as an end in itself and modeling the party in part on the capitalist factory with its "iron discipline." Of course in theory there was to be democracy before centralization, but in practice democracy was at best limited and often non-existent in the Leninist-Stalinist models. The social democrats usually relied heavily on unions for their political power, and at least in Western Europe, the US and Mexico, unions became central command structures for controlling labor for capital, with a veneer of democracy.

Parallel to the Leninist or social democratic emulation of the capitalist factory, we might also consider the network's relationship to emerging capitalist structures. The capitalists now claim that the market solves everything. Clearly this is not so -- the capitalists organize themselves as a class, through the military and police, as well as in the structures of the market, to guarantee their market, their class rule, their accumulation. They peddle the ideology of the market to mask the attempted totalitarianism of capital: the more they preach the gospel of the "free market," the more they seek to control every corner of life (c.f., Midnight Notes Collective, 1990; Neill, 1995).

"Networking" may be a left version of accepting the market, creating the danger of presuming that "the network" will do it all. This is no more true for the working class than for capital. The lesson to be learned here from Leninism and social democracy is to not construct organizations against capital that reproduce capital; but the class also should not construct non-organizations that parallel capitalist illusions.

Even within networks, questions of organization cannot be ignored. One of the networks proposed by the EZLN is to facilitate communication. Abstractly this is fine, but it begs essential questions: what is to be communicated, by whom to whom? In the "information age," it is all to easy to be deluged with information. This is not helpful unless the information is well organized for some use -- which only raises the question, who will organize the information? The EZLN and its supporters have been marvelously inventive in using networks, but multiply Chiapas by even 10, never mind the thousands needed: how many channels can the mind consider? This is not the individual's problem. Sorting information requires political collectivity. It implies calculated division of labor and aspects of centralization: someone else will decide for you (presumably with your consent) what reaches you and what is the most important information. It also poses the related problem: what struggles deserve what attention, and who decides?

Networks, particularly if they are highly dependent on computer connections (e.g., the internet), also reflect class composition within capitalism. India has something like one telephone per 100 inhabitants. Who will get on the internet? Those favored by the international foundations or the NGOs or the World Bank? What happens to the class composition of the discussion?

This issue re-poses the problem of hierarchy -- of race, gender, nation, work, wages -- within the class. Will the networks simply reproduce those hierarchies? How, beyond any subjective desires of network participants (a valuable and necessary ingredient), can networks be used to overcome these hierarchies when their very use reproduces them?

Certainly, networks are not and will not be limited to electronic networks. Further, as participants on some electronic networks, we are not opposed in principle to them -- but we do see the need for serious work on the issues of how to construct and use networks as a political means, not simply as ends. Networks are not a substitute for politics nor a political end in themselves. We recognize these issues are not new, but in our experience, we see a limited capacity thus far to do more than simply pose these problems (c.f., Cleaver, 1996).

Thus, networking does not in itself resolve the question of how the working class is to organize itself. While we reject traditional centralism, we are unpersuaded that networked localisms will in themselves be able to overcome capitalism: something more, beyond any existing conceptions or practice of networks, will have to develop out of the struggles -- both for overcoming capitalism and for establishing communism.

This issue may well be addressed strongly at the Second Encuentro, to be held in Spain in the summer of 1997. As a statement for the Second Encuentro explains, "If we are unable to construct a relationship between struggles, giving to them harmony, a learning process, a system to grow together from the idea that they are connected to all the questions, we won't go beyond simple political discussions." The discussions at the Second Encuentro are intended to analyze experiences of struggle to see how they oppose neoliberalism and support new forms of social life; and it is from analyzing those concrete experiences that discussions of networks should proceed, in order to develop the network as a counter power.

Strategizing forms of working class organization and unification of struggles is thus, for this historical period, in its infancy. In hopes of pushing ahead the development of strategy, we turn in the concluding section to a discussion of class composition and some modest proposals, sparked in part by our experiences at the Encuentro and by our reflections on the Zapatistas.