on 3 November 2012
Greg Sharzer is a Marxist, and this diatribe against localism essentially boils down to this: localism isn't marxist enough to be useful. It is doomed to tinker around the edges. "Class struggle," says Sharzer, "is the only force that can overturn capitalism."
It's fairly predictable that a Marxist would dislike localism, since they are almost opposite approaches. Localism is a very general set of principles, 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. Marxism and Localism, it turns out, are pretty poorly equipped to talk to each other.
So 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.)
I'm giving No Local two stars rather than one because it isn't without insights. Sharzer shines a light on the optimistic idea that ethical consumption can genuinely undermine big business, and there are some interesting ideas around nostalgia or catastrophism. He is right in his central premise that capitalism has to grow and it is set up against small alternatives.
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. 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.