ISBN 978 1 84694 671 4. “No Local – Why Small-Scale Alternatives Won’t Change the World” by Greg Sharzer as published by Zero Books in 2012. This is a small book by a relatively unknown author. Its cover and title attempts to ape Naomi Klein’s “No Logo” but there is no comparison. At first glance the concept was very attractive to us: a critique of re-localisation. Yes, it is a critique but one by a devout Marxist. As such it is tortuous reading. It is like studying the work of an 18th Century Catholic theologian who argued that Buddhism was the work of the devil because Buddhists didn’t care how many angels could be stood on the head of a pin. The critique only makes sense if you are a Marxist.
I really would like to be kinder but it is so very hard. We have nothing against the economics of Karl Marx. He did some good work. Indeed some elements of his work were used quite convincingly by Steve Keen in his book “Debunking Economics“. Keen was able to construct a realistic model of how the economy failed in 2008 with a theory part constructed with some elements of Marxist Theory. However his book also successfully debunked Marx. Although Marx may have been part-genius he was also a product of his times. His worldview died in the Siberian gulag and was buried beneath a collapsing Berlin Wall. For anyone, in the early 21st Century, to attempt to deconstruct re-localisation with an economic theory from the 19th or 20th Century simply beggars belief. Sharzer has spent a serious amount of his time in an academic ivory tower.
So, what is his beef with “small scale alternatives”? Why won’t they “change the world”? Well, because… [Deep breath] re-localisation is an invention of the middle classes (the “petite bourgeoisie”). It has nothing to do with the “working classes” and their “class struggle” with something called “capitalism”. Hence localisation is irrelevant until we bring capitalism crashing down.
It is difficult to know where to start. Indeed it is difficult to know whether to laugh or cry. I haven’t seen such absurd extremist left-wing view since I met a Marxist Student Union rep in about 1990. It is an ideology from a museum. It repesents the fantasies of a tiny minority of “activists” who still entertain the delusion that class war against capitalism is still relevant in the 21st Century. And this is very frustrating because the many flavours of localism deserve a thorough shakedown. This is a topic that deserves critique. Politicians of all colours embrace localism to their chests for a whole variety of reasons. It seems to tick every box and offer solutions to every problem. If we could only get it right. Sharzer reasons that it fails because it doesn’t challenge capital.
He misses the point. It succeeds because it doesn’t challenge capital. Its purpose is not to challenge capital. It isn’t an ideology in that sense. It isn’t born of dogma, it is a practical solution to real-world problems. Those problems have been around since the dawn of industrialisation. They are as old as Marxist theory. But, as Marx could only offer theory, localism offered pragmatism.
Marxism became infused with Leninism and was tried in countries around the world. All unsuccessfully. Why? There is an old joke from the Soviet Union that explains it all very neatly. It goes something like this “Capitalism is the exploitation of one man by another. In Communism it is the OTHER WAY AROUND.” All such ideologically-based “isms”, when taken to their logical conclusion, are the road back to serfdom. Any system in which power becomes focused in a narrow class of society is likely to reinforce & enhance this status quo at every opportunity. The growing disparity this creates leads to the system imploding. Maybe it even leads to revolution. It matters not whether it starts with Marxism or the works of Milton Friedman. The result is the same. Powerful people always abuse their position. This is a Hobbesian reality that localism challenges in a very indirect fashion. It is NOT about the collectivisation of resources and power into the hands of a minority who can magically conjure up some economic utopia. That was NEVER going to work. It is about exploding the centralised power systems so that decisions are taken at the lowest level of responsibility.
And all this takes a new form in a world of tight oil supplies. A world where the carrying capacity of the land is threatened by climate change. THIS is an over-populated world that Karl Marx never knew. As mentioned above, this drive towards the local is not new. It as the main aim of the inter-war Distributionists in Britain. Similar movements have existed in space and time. Since the 1970’s the Permaculture movement was born and it took a new twist. But nothing essentially interesting happened to localisation until Peak Oil became of interest after 1999. Sharzer only mentions Peak Oil and Climate Change roughly once or twice in the book. He sees them as inconsequential. For Sharzer it is not Marxism that is the ideology. In a bizarre twist of self-serving logic it is Localism that is the ‘ideology’.
For many in the Transition movement this will be slightly irritating. Rightly so. Sharzer makes no reference to Transition. None of his citations show he has read anything about the topic. A browse through this book’s bibliography reveals a lot of authors we have never heard of. Certainly he is well read, as every academic should be, but how can he seriously critique relocalisation without reading Heinberg, Hopkins, Campbell, Greer, Meadows, Daly, Tainter et al? The few references we recognised were by Malthus, Schumacher, Orwell and McKibben. He is well read but he isn’t reading the books that you and I would believe define the modern localism movement. In short, he is writing a book about a movement few would even recognise. He is not treating localism as a pragmatic solution to anything. He is treating it like it is an ideology alone – as if relocalisation is simply another piece of academia, the result of something from somebody else’s ivory tower. Another dry piece of dogma?
In essence he has already made his mind up. He has chosen an irrelevant & obscure range books that treat localisation only as an academic approach to economics. That is how he sees it and all he needed was his own ‘confirmation bias’ to back up everything he believes to be true of the world. His world is an inversion of reality: localism is ideology and Marxism is truth. Maybe he should read a lot more Orwell?
A topic he returns to again and again is the belief that “small projects” by localists can stop ecological degradation. Let’s be very clear about the track record of Communism on this one: yes, Capitalism can exploit the environment and destroy it, but if you really want to drain entire seas then you need a centrally planned economy. The economies of eastern Europe before 1989 where a text book study of ecological devastation. Indeed, apart from Marxist economic ideology, Sharzer seems quite bankrupt in the ideas department as to how he would do anything differently. [Of course we could all sit and await the rise of the glorious proletariat. They will shake off their chains and build utopia for us.... No sniggering at the back.]
Sharzer believes that Localism is built upon a deep pessimism. A pessimism that believes we cannot make large scale changes or collective social change. He is wrong. The “pessimism” he identifies is simply realism. There is no such thing as “the workers” or the “capitalists” or the “middle classes” any more. Trying to drive economic theory through class struggle is like trying to fire a missile at right-angles to reality. There can be no “collective social change” if you believe in class warfare. That is idiotic. Localism is built upon a deep seated realism and pragmatism. It’s proper definition is simply “that which works”. The definition of Transition is simply one of “social experiment” – something that could be different in every place it is tried. This is not a one-size-fits-all ideology. It may have been that twenty years ago but localism has grown up now.
In “No Local” you will learn that the world is really simple; there are localists who are “pro-capitalism” and localists who are “anti-capitalism”. Sharzer, of course, conveniently forgets that even larger constituency: the people who don’t-give-a-shit-about-which-“ism”-is-in-charge-today-as-long-as-it-doesn’t-get-in-the-way. Most localists are busy promoting localism. They don’t care for anyone else’s ideology. They believe that you should lead, follow or get out of the way. If Marxism of Capitalism can lead then it is useful. If it can’t lead then it can follow. If it can’t follow then get the heck out of our way. Few of us localists have any such agenda as being “pro” this or “anti” that. Only somebody up-to-their-armpits in ideology can only see the world in such a distorted way; as if everything is politics.
Mostly nothing is politics. Mostly everything is a “do-ology”. We lead.
Can we learn anything from Sharzer? Well, ideology to one side for a moment; the one argument he has that does resonate it this – small business cannot generate the economies of scale to compete with big business. This is a fair point but it ignores the grand sweep of history. Since the industrial revolution the increasing availability of cheap fossil fuels has pumped up the sophistication of our economies to the point of diminishing returns. We can only maintain this complexity with bigger and bigger hits of cheap energy. If that fix isn’t coming then we face a long decent into something simpler.
If it is very cheap to move your products and services around the globe then you will build the biggest factory you can in the country with the cheapest labour. In a world where energy is expensive you will move your factory to be closer to the market. Which moves it further away from all your other markets. So you split your factories up into smaller and smaller units to serve each market place. This will continue so long as the cost of bringing your product to market is under pressure from energy costs. The reason why the Roman Empire never covered the entire globe was that it could only go as far and as fast as a horse could travel. Since Sharzer only sees Peak Oil as the latest excuse for localism then he fails to see the inevitability of the economic changes it will bring to globalisation. Re-localisation is an unstoppable consequence of the hand of history and the geological limits this planet places upon us. These cannot be wished away.
Sharzer is fond at pointing out that the modern supply chain just makes re-localisation too complicated. So why bother? He is confusing self-sufficiency with simple sufficiency. Nobody is seriously asking towns, villages, cities or islands to become self-sufficient. Modern localists believe in a re-balancing or our supply chains in favour of the local. All our basics should come from nearby to build in community resilience. Only the luxuries should come from further afield. Sharzer’s attempts to belittle experiments in local food diets does nothing to explain the complex economic dynamics of what localism is trying to achieve. It is rebuilding the local economy to give it back the resilience it will need in testing times. Again, we have to ask, what is the alternative?
Sharzer moves on to make a classic mistake in confusing localism with ethics. What is “ethical” is open to interpretation and, although some may use ethics to justify their own brand of localism, this is nothing but subjective. Ethics cannot form an objective analysis of localism. For example, the Fairtrade movement is largely at odds with localism; localism treats local production as being more ‘ethical’ than production from the deserving far-away poor. These are different forces. However a belief in “ethics” as a driver for some people’s localism leads Sharzer to make a sweeping assumption. He rapidly moves on to make a generalisation about WHO localists are: the middle classes. The middle classes are not the working classes hence they must be treated with disdain. For these middle classes localism is imply a lifestyle choice and we are maliciously forcing our localist ideology upon the poor working classes.
Sharzer quotes George Orwell’s “The Road to Wigan Pier” at length and to some effect. However Orwell was talking about socialists not localists, not the middle classes. Orwell was very well describing the joke about how both Communism and Capitalism are defined by their exploitation of our fellow man. Of course there has always been well-meaning do-gooders who seek to raise up the lower classes, but these days this job has been left to Government not the middle classes. And even Government no longer sees this as their job.
In truth nobody is forced into being a localist: but Sharzer does make a few fair points about localism becoming a hobby only for those who can afford it. (Just look at the cost of organic food he points out.) Sharzer writes:
“Traditionally these strata were called small, or petite bourgeois, more as an epithet than as a term of analysis. But its a useful term to describe the roots of localism.”
So the roots of localism can be best described by an “epithet” – a label free from any meaning, not a “term of analysis”. And there-in we have defined the very problem of defining class struggle. What is “class”? Surely in post-industrial Britain it is more useful to think of everyone as middle class? What kind of world do we live in when the definition of “working class” is normally the poor unemployed? How come the people of society who normally work for their entire lives suddenly are not “working class”? It is all semantics. We are all individuals. If you wish to stratify us then put one poor person at the bottom and but Bill Gates at the top. That leaves the rest of us in the middle. And we are all different. To Marxists we are just “the masses”: a bunch of sheep to be directed like morons into a direction that the Marxists tell us to go. Where is the difference between Sharzer’s Marxist ideology and the description of Socialists in Orwell’s “The Road to Wigan Pier”? How can localists, who work inside & with their communities, be likened to such Socialist theorists?
And just who are these “Capitalists” that Sharzer writes about? Anybody who owns a business? Any employer? Anyone with money? Anyone not in the working classes? What exactly? In truth if you have money in a Pension fund you too are a Capitalist. The world Sharzer imagines no longer exists. He may write wistfully of the “direct democracy of the 1871 Paris Commune” and the “February 1917 revolution is Russia” but these were not utopias. They all failed and will continue to fail until those who organise them understand the brutal nature of mankind. The Transition movement is made up of whoever turns up to do the job. It is not a “class”.
There are case-by-case examples within the Transition movement itself that shows how diverse the concept has become. How many rich, white, middle class people would you find in Cuba for example? Sharzer does cover Cuba in some detail, however he does not see the contradiction between Cuba and his localism-as-class theory. Of course he would not. His critique is ideology, thus:
The experience in Cuba “delights localists who rely on the peak oil thesis to predict the growth of small scale production. [...] However, stripped of its emotive appeal, Cuban urban agriculture was a response to a crisis…”
Quite: “a response to a crisis” that Sharzer quickly dismisses as being politically motivated. For him Cuba only pulled through their Special Period because the Marxists were in charge – NOT because of WHAT they did. It worked because of WHO did it. Despite dismissing the “Peak Oil thesis” Sharzer goes onto describe the Cuban blockade that stops it trading with its neighbours.
“Its political and economic isolation allowed the Cuban state to determine land use…”
Yet, despite this, Sharzer still cannot see how the Cuban Special Period endorses localisation. For him it is simply a matter of successful Marxist ideology. For him somehow Cuba is different and cannot prove the success of the small-scale solutions that Sharzer so despises – despite the opposite being abundantly true from the actual record of what happened in Cuba.
After Cuba “No Local” moves onto the “Arab Spring” in the middle east which Sharzer sees as further proof that
“…revolution, and not subsistence gardening, is another possible outcome to the crisis of agriculture…”
Once again he fails to see the paradox in his own words. Did the Arab Spring put one loaf of bread on anyone’s table? No. People growing food put food on people’s tables. Revolution may make the streets run blood-red and appeal to romantic Marxists out there, but revolution will not feed my children. Sharzer makes the same mistake again in analysing the 1995 Ontario Government’s “Special Diet Campaign” where he claims government action
“…gave poor people more money for food, but it also helped create food security by freeing income…”
Once again Sharzer argues that growing food doesn’t feed people: government handouts give people food security. I can just feel every localists and Transitioner out there gnashing their teeth in disbelieve. As if we could seriously expect the government to wade in and create our utopia for us? Sharzer really believes that localism is puny and it needs BIG government to simply wave its magic wand to make the problems go away, put oil in the ground and stabilise our climate.
Thus a million tiny jobs done by localists seem pathetic to Sharzer. Sometimes he has a point. I might even agree with him the when he wrote:
“Members of the petite bourgeois assume that the sum of their voluntary choices creates social change. Put together these choices equal a lifestyle, which both legitimises those who practice it and models behaviour for others.”
But seriously you have to ask: by what other way does social change happen? Sharzer would argue “revolution” but we would then ask: which revolution put in lasting change? Where has there been a revolution that built utopia? It has never happened. But Sharzer is right only in the sense that change cannot be made by simply imploring people to be more like “us”. We can supply the example but that example must be aspirational. Living in a Yurt with open-toed sandals and chewing on Muesli may feel good but this is a lifestyle NOT an aspiration for most people.
Transitioners MUST put themselves in OTHER people’s shoes and NOT assume that everybody just thinks like us. They don’t. We must not get lost in nostalgia for some long-gone past in which poor man and rich man alike were ‘noble’. Human nature is the problem only when given inadequate choices. We can make better choices, but they must be choices. We cannot force our lifestyle upon other people in the belief that this was how it was in the “good old days”. People don’t want the good old days, They want jet bikes and holidays on the moon. Localism cannot offer that. It can only offer security. It isn’t exciting in a world full of high energy excitement. We are the safety net for when all the dream of jet packs and hover cars are dashed against the rocks of reality.
Localism will fail if it is unrealistic and romantic. If localists embrace only nostalgia then it is destined to go the same way as Marxism – the garbage bin of history. As I have always said: nobody trusts a hippy, and nobody listens to a Marxist. Read this book if you must. It is occasionally fun for those who wish to engage in a spot of navel-gazing and circumspection. It supplies very occasional insight. Maybe the localists are all middle classes, but maybe everyone is middle class these days? Time will tell. Marxism can no longer change the world. It is a dead ideology. Let us hope that localism does not follow it into obscurity. There is so much riding on its success.
There are times when Sharzer comes so close to a decent analysis of the many faults and weaknesses within localism. If he could only strip out his obsession with class warfare and the evils of capitalism he could have written a good book. There are problems legion with Transition. Indeed it really is often the private hobby for a few well healed middle class professionals. This isn’t a reason to give up and embrace Marxism though. Sharzer’s Marxism blinds him to the simple realities of what modern localism has to offer communities. His analysis is dressed up in sophisticated language but lacks concise killer arguments. To use his own words: there is too much “abstract theorising”. It is a short book but it needed to be so much more succinct. It is a work that genuinely deserved closer attention.