books

Book review: No Local, by Greg Sharzer

With an interest in Transition Towns and an admiration for E F Schumacher, I suppose I fit the bill of being a localist. On the whole I believe that building local resilience is important, that greater (but not absolute) self-sufficiency is advisable, and that devolving power is a good thing. It makes sense to me, but I’m open to other perspectives and hence my curiosity about No Local – Why small scale alternatives won’t change the world, by Greg Sharzer.

Sharzer is a Marxist, and his critique of localism is pretty savage. Essentially, he argues that localists are naïve. They oppose capitalism, but lack the analytical tools to get to the root of the problem and are thus doomed to only ever tinker around the edges. Marxists understand capitalism, he argues, and only socialism can be effective at changing the status quo.

That claim comes from Marx’s explanation of how value is created in the economy. In a capitalist society, value is added by workers. By paying employees less than the value of the goods they produce, capitalist owners are able to harvest the surplus as profit. The capitalist class lives off the workers and that is the fundamental injustice of capitalism. That will continue until the workers own the means of production. Since localism has no alternative theory for explaining the workings of capitalism, it can only create small pockets of resistance. “Class struggle,” says Sharzer, “is the only force that can overturn capitalism.”

So says the theory. I have further questions. For starters, I think Sharzer lacks a clear definition of localism. So do I. Localism is a very general set of principles and completely unlike Marxism, which is definitive and non-negotiable. Marxism is unapologetically modernist, a big social theory of everything. Localism is the opposite, a fluid and relational idea that emphasises the practical over the theoretical. It lacks a central figure and a coherent literature. It makes it up as it goes along and believes in getting on with it, whereas Marxism calls for a revolutionary all-or-nothing.

Marxism and Localism, it turns out, are pretty poorly equipped to talk to each other. What Sharzer does is just lump everything together, and that means lots of generalising. ‘Localists’ think this, he will say, and then quote Barbara Kingsolver or Bill McKibben. If one person is utopian, all localists are utopian, or Malthusian, or middle class snobs. This is rather wearing, heckling a caricature of ‘a localist’ in the absence of a defined movement.

Unhelpfully, Marxism has a category for that middle class do-gooder caricature. These are the ‘petite bourgeoisie’, an intermediate class between the workers and the rulers who believe they can make progress as individuals and won’t commit to the revolution. Localism is a petit bourgeois philosophy because it avoids conflict, believes in the small scale and most importantly for Sharzer, it is individualist. Except that it isn’t. The localists I know are passionate believers in community. Still, Sharzer ploughs on, asking bizarre and patronising questions like “why do localists want their shopping trips to include personal conversations?” (Because they’re lonely in their petit bourgeois world, obviously.)

No Local isn’t without insights. Sharzer effectively dismantles the pretence that ethical consumption can genuinely undermine big business, and there are some interesting ideas on topics like nostalgia or catastrophism. He is right in his central premise that capitalism has to grow, and it is set up against small alternatives. There will never be a quorum of small businesses and local initiatives that can overthrow capitalism.

The book is subtitled ‘why small-scale alternatives won’t change the world’. That’s true, in that localism won’t bring about a socialist revolution, which is what Sharzer wants. But perhaps that’s not what localists are out to do. When I put my energy into a local project, it is because I can make a visible difference to the place where I live, not because I want to overthrow capitalism. I am not asking how I can inspire my fellow workers to break their chains, I am asking how I can make myself useful. The whole point of localism is that you aim to change one specific place, according to the specific needs of that community. That makes sense to me. From the ivory tower of Marxism, it does not, and it leaves No Local tilting at windmills.

16 comments

  1. Jeremy – I have always felt some of an instinctive feeling of unease when I’ve read anything about transition towns (though I could never fill a book on it), and it seems this may be echoed and elaborated by this book. Transition has a ring of self-survival for the select few about it, but Marxism brings its own concerns. Though I do agree that the gap is really in the goal, not the methods. Transition does not try to deal with, (or even see?), the root of the problem. Marxism may try, but, if it truly understood the root of the problem, I believe it might well see it in itself too! By the way, you worrying about the quality of your wine in the future did cause my heart a momentary dip!

    1. Interestingly, the book doesn’t mention Transition Towns once, which is a big weakness – it’s the biggest movement in localism and he ignores it entirely. I would have mentioned it in the review, but I felt like I’d been critical enough already.

      Have you got a Transition initiative near you? I’m sure they vary in character a little, but I’ve found them to be very open, friendly and encouraging projects to be part of, and really holistic in their approach, bringing together environmental, social and economic ideas. I’ve helped to start two different Transition Towns, and both have been very positive experiences.

  2. As you began in your review, Transition Towns are surely part and parcel of Localism and perhaps he wanted to avoid pointing out specific areas.
    To answer your question. Having left London and surburbia in recent years in order to purchase some land to manage for wildlife, I find that there are not any Transition Towns around us, though some definitely ‘tinker’ in a very small way at making life better for their area. My sense of unease about TT is not due to me not being part of one, if this thought crossed your mind. Of course, shared projects do generally produce some positive experience, but my unease is not about that either. Like Sharzer (according to your review), I would like, as a priority, for people to realise the root of the problem more than we do and it is when Localism appears to claim that it is an answer or even a good alternative, that I feel uneasy as I know it, ultimately, steers an equally unsatisfactory answer. I do see though, that Localism may present some lesser evils for some, just a Marxism and Capitalism surely do. Sorry to be general, but my ‘instincts’ or ‘insights’ are not easily conveyed in short comments and do not have the ‘appropriate’ form for a book. In any case, you put to me long ago, something along the lines of what else do we do, and that remains the question for each of us. However, this book review has ignited the matter again and your question has prompted my response.
    (Ps. You didn’t respond to this – Are you seriously concerned about the quality your wine may have in the future!?- You’ll veer me towards Sharzer’s arms at this rate!! ).

    1. I’m not actually worried about future wine supplies, that’s just an example of how not everything can be local. Anyway, I’d be happy to call France local, if necessary…

      Sharzer goes into some detail about other movements and writers, so it surprised me that he didn’t mention transition towns.

      And no, I didn’t think your unease was because you aren’t part of one. If I understand you correctly, you feel that they’re not getting to the heart of it and are therefore perhaps not worth investing in. If you haven’t got an active group near you, I guess there’s no way to find out, but you might be surprised – much of the transition thinking is about the transition we need to make in our own minds, an internal change of attitude.

      1. Jeremy, Sorry to go back when you’ve got more ahead, but I couldn’t leave this unanswered. I don’t think, (as you suggest above), that localism is not worth investing in. I accept it because there is no alternative, as David Fleming says. But, I feel that it may well encourage a poverty of thought (a type of exclusiveness), and have occasionally needed to question this in some way or other.

        1. I suppose that’s a possibility, but we live in a highly globalised world and that can’t be undone, so it’s not something I’m too worried about. You can re-localise goods and services without becoming parochial in your culture and thought.
          Where that does emerge, then you’re absolutely right to challenge that.

          1. I ought not to have said it ‘may well’ encourage a type of exclusiveness. More precisely, unlike you, I believe it to be an inevitable part of localism. Therefore, I would like to hear more mention of this exclusiveness angle, (even as a mere possibility), before the horse has bolted, in an effort to avoid it as much as possible or to make it more readily evident if/when it occurs (the same use of a good religion, I believe). I do not have the answers. Moreover, I also dream of a better solution being out there and feel that localism does not incorporate it, perhaps even works against it. I know we must be practical that is why I accept it, but practicalities sometimes push dreams completely out of view and forget other issues. I think this will have clarified my feelings sufficiently, I’ll be able to drop it now!

          2. Actually Jeremy I’m not sure that is true, there is a danger we will become inward looking again. It depend on factors such as how intra-continental travel will be possible by high speed trains and how much internet will survive etc. However, we are going to become much more localised its just how we manage it…

  3. Interesting review agree with what you have said (having not read the book). I don’t suppose Greg Sharzer takes into account peak oil. As David Fleming said “Localisation stands, at best, at the limits of practical possibility, but it has the decisive argument in its favour that there will be no alternative”.

    Neil co-author “No oil in the lamp”

    1. It’s a good quote, and that’s largely why I’m involved. Must read your book – didn’t make it to Greenbelt this year or I’d have come along to the launch.

      1. Thanks check out our blog and book we do not claim to have all the answers but we do have some of the questions, we are just going have to feel our way through this as a community.

  4. Does localism make us inward looking? It inevitably does, to a certain degree. It’s also going to be slightly exclusive by nature – preferring to buy locally grown carrots to Dutch carrots is excluding Dutch farmers, for example.

    That’s not a problem for me, but it’s a matter of degrees. Some things should be local and some things shouldn’t, so it’s not an all-or-nothing proposition. We should get to work in the places where we live, but we shouldn’t ignore everything else that goes on in the world.

    For me, localism is vital, because it’s where we are. It’s where we can make a visible difference, today. It’s the bit of the problem we can and should take responsibility for. It’s where we start, but we’d be making a very big mistake if we decide to stop there.

    I don’t see any great fear of slipping back into a little inward looking world, but then I live in a large town with a big immigrant population and lots of different cultures intermingling on a daily basis. It might be different in smaller towns and villages.

    1. I may have seen where there has been some confusion between us Jeremy. From the start, I have not been referring to within Localism itself (eg. local shopping v. global, less travel etc), its methods, or its groups of people. I am mainly referring to the increased social and economic divides that would occur between pockets of areas, if some places can develop the best of localism and the power it brings, but others cannot. I imagine this could occur. Division of this sort is what I have been questioning (as we naturally want plans which enhance cohesion in the larger society not division). I wondered whether someone would be able to contribute further on this aspect, not the ones you have mentioned, on which, there is basically agreement.

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