A Focus of Anti-capitalist Struggle?

Against the Current, No. 166, September/October 2013

Jan Cox

No Local:
Why Small-Scale Alternatives Won’t Change the World
By Greg Sharzer
Zero Books 2012, 189 pages, $19.95 paperback.

NO LOCAL, THE title of Greg Sharzer’s book, echoes Naomi Klein’s influential No Logo, which examined globalization’s impact and documented the rise of the global justice movement. No Local, in contrast, takes aim at aspects of the localist movements (which have grown up in parallel and in opposition to the effects of globalization), where many of the author’s potential activist readers might expect to find friends and allies.

Instead, Sharzer claims localism is a dead end — no outlet, don’t go there and here’s why. The why is complicated, and that’s what the whole book is about.

Sharzer examines significant threads from the 19th century (P.J. Proudhon) to 21st century proponents of localism (Bill McKibben, Barbara Kingsolver, E.F. Schumacher, among others). It’s an ambitious undertaking and Sharzer must be commended for taking it on and publishing it under such a provocative title, an outright challenge to the feel good, vote-with-your-dollars consumerist focus of many localist projects.

The project of No Local as Sharzer explains in the preface is “to sketch the outline of capitalism and apply it to localist plans for change.” and how they measure up to Marxist analyses of capital, with Chapter 1 defining localism and showing how Marx anticipated localism in debates with contemporaries, as well as providing some basic Marxist concepts and an apologetically brief history of capitalism.

Chapter 2 looks at how localists have applied economic analyses in both pro- and anti-market ways; Chapter 3 examines food politics and the challenges of Urban Agriculture in particular; Chapter 4 labels localism as petit-bourgeois in origin and pessimistic at its core.

Chapter 5 deals with the politics of radical localism (which as Sharzer points out can contribute to and even help implement a neoliberal agenda) contrasted to locally based struggles that offer contributions to, rather than a retreat from, the struggle to end the capitalist system.

The wide net that Sharzer casts in this book under the label of localism includes everything from the smallest “buy local”campaign to the expressly anti-capitalist worker cooperative and democracy projects. Sharzer insists that they all have a common thread: “the belief that small ethical alternatives can build quality communities, out-compete big corporations and maybe even transform capitalism.”

Limitations of Localism

The book’s style is uneven and the tone derisive at times, which can make it a hard read. The meat of the book can be found in the first three chapters.

In Chapter 1 Sharzer looks at Marx’s insights on commodity values (use and exchange), labor power and its value as the source of exploitation in the capitalist system. Here he introduces the concept of SNALT (socially necessary average labor time), to which he often returns in the course of the book to point out the limits (within capitalism) of localist iniatives.

Chapter 2, “Local Visions, Global Realities,” roughly divides localism into two broad groups, “those who support capitalism and those who want to overcome it,” which he labels as pro-market and anti-market localists. There are good discussions and insights here on the limits of ethical consumption, money and capital circulation in the capitalist system, confusion of ownership with production size, and wages as just one source of demand in a capitalist system.

Chapter 3 examines capitalist agriculture and the limits of alternatives. Sharzer’s discussion of how land prices, rent, interest, tax subsidies and labor costs interrelate, impact and limit urban agriculture within the capitalist system is worthwhile reading.

He first looks at pro-market efforts: Hantz Farms in Detroit, which is not a localist but very much a capitalist project; the Markham Foodbelt in Ontario, an attempt to encourage urban agriculture with zoning; and the city of Vancouver’s experiment to allow developers to reclassify vacant lots from commercial use to parkland and lower their property taxes.

Sharzer then goes on to use the caveats from these examples of pro-market urban agriculture to look at the tougher battles facing anti-market efforts like the South Central Urban Farm effort in Los Angeles. His discussion of the impacts of global capitalism on subsistence farming in the Global South focuses on the small-scale model even there, and how fragile and vulnerable it is in a global capitalist system.

This chapter ends with these three sentences — “If localism has little impact apart from marginal projects, why is it so popular? The answer lies in a complex mix of the pessimism, utopianism and life expectations of the localists themselves. In a word, localism is an ideology.”

A little way into Chapter 4, Sharzer says, “Ideology often means a fancy way of saying someone’s wrong: you have the facts, they have the ideology.” Almost all of Chapter 4 is a discussion of ideology and its interplay with the petit-bourgeois layer, the class that Sharzer claims localists come from. This chapter isn’t entirely devoid of insights, but seems overly long and tortuous as Sharzer works at making the point that localism is a “petit-bourgeois ideology” pessimistic at its core about fundamental change.

Accommodating to Capitalism?

In Chapter 5, Sharzer takes this direction a little deeper and examines the politics of radical localist theories such as postcapitalism, Solidarity Economics and Participatory Economics, claiming that they have the potential of bolstering neoliberal ideas.

This argument has some merit, and the dynamics of neocommunitarianism “where states harness the grassroots social economy for economic development” needs examination and followup.

The bulk of Sharzer’s discussion on this topic gets confusing, however; as he moves back and forth between quotes from proponents of these theories, the lines between them get somewhat muddled and it’s unclear exactly where he is going until page 152, where he states that “Radicals have to be flexible enough to see the anti-capitalist potential in all forms of resistance, and theoretically grounded enough to see that resistance, while vital, is not enough.”

The rest of the chapter echoes the same themes and gives some examples of Canadian struggles of resistance that made “demands that build political capacities and show how capital can’t meet human needs at any scale.”

Sharzer acknowledges that localist projects can provide important benefits to those involved in them and their communities, and can be valuable entry points for learning, building relationships and exploring the terrain of struggle in a local space.

He also admits that they can sometimes survive and flourish, much like any small business or enterprise when it finds a market space or niche. But he argues vigorously throughout that such efforts cannot in any way replace or even challenge capitalism.

He doesn’t argue that leftists need to attack these projects, just see them for what they are, a retreat or diversion from anti-capitalist work or worse, an accommodation to and acceptance of capitalism.

This position (and to a large extent the tone throughout the book) provokes resistance on the part of many readers, even fellow socialists, and is reflected in some of the reviews of the book.

It’s hard to accept that localist projects, while pursuing “good” or defending communities from the devastating effects of capitalism, may in effect be detracting from, rather than contributing to the struggle to end the system itself.  But if one reflects seriously on the localist efforts in which many of us have participated, reviews their premises, goals and reach, and determines whether there is room for an anti-capitalist thrust in these projects, I believe we will often come to the same conclusions.

September/October 2013, ATC 166