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.