No Local

June 27th, 2012

Review of Greg Sharzer, No Local: Why Small-Scale Alternatives Won’t Change the World (Zero Books, 2012) – Published on New Socialist, by Valerie Zink, June 24, 2012.

Sprawling three and a half million square feet, the Packard plant on Detroit’s East Grand Boulevard boasted the world’s largest building when it was erected in 1903. The now-abandoned factory was issued a demolition order in May 2011, decades after it ceased churning out America’s leading luxury car, joining over 10,000 buildings scheduled to be razed in a deindustrialized Detroit.

Once the US’s  fourth biggest metropolis, the City of Champions — as it was dubbed in the 1930s — has waned to roughly a quarter the population of its finest hour and currently claims the highest foreclosure rates in the country.

Amidst entire neighbourhoods being overtaken by encroaching prairie is a growing circuitry of urban agriculture. D-Town Farms, which has staked claim to land in the heart of Detroit’s largest city park, is one of over 900 community gardens that have established themselves in the city’s vacant lots. Malik Yakini, chair of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, describes D-Town as a “community self-determination project” and a “model organic farm… showing how unused and underutilized land in the city of Detroit can be put to productive use both to create greater access to fresh produce, and also to mobilize people to work on their own behalf.”

It is projects like these that are the subject of Greg Sharzer’s No Local, a theoretical analysis of localism: “the belief that small, ethical alternatives can build quality communities, outcompete big corporations and maybe even transform capitalism.” With this expansive definition Sharzer casts an ambitiously broad net, taking on everything from urban agriculture to “buy local” campaigns, alternative currencies and barter economies, in addition to expressly anti-capitalist worker cooperatives and other models of democratic, self-governing workplaces.

While Sharzer grants that localist projects often have important benefits for those involved and can be valuable sites for “alternative learning, creating new relationships and bringing new people into the struggle,” No Local sets out to provide what, in Sharzer’s view, these variant projects together lack: “a critical understanding of the internal drives of capitalism and how they limit the potential for small-scale alternatives” … //

… There seems to be an unspoken assumption in No Local that everything can be categorized as directly challenging capital, and therefore worthwhile, or not directly challenging capital, and therefore unworthy of a place on the radical left. While lifestyle purity projects seeking personal absolution are indeed ineffectual at best (to quote a recent internet meme, “Goldman Sachs doesn’t care if you raise chickens”), can projects like D-Town Farms not exist alongside and as a complement to the campaigns for food regulation and price controls that Sharzer advocates, as sites for deepening collective analysis and equipping communities to mobilize against structural oppression?

Survival aside, the reasons why someone might be drawn to one localist project or another, and why localism more broadly has thrived in recent years, seems to defy a single explanation. As Sharzer himself writes, “the decline of working class movements has created an ideological space for localism.” Absent visible, accessible, and effective social movements capable of actually mattering in peoples’ lives, the success of a localist ideology offering concrete, if in some cases misdirected, ways of taking action is not altogether surprising. Do we not bear some responsibility for the left’s dismal failure to offer examples of meaningful political engagement and mass social movements (Maple Spring notwithstanding)?

To Sharzer’s credit, No Local makes a point of articulating what political alternatives to localism might look like. Beyond a handful of examples limited to Toronto, though, his prescriptions are somewhat nebulous and centre mostly around vague references to “exposing the contradictions of capitalism” (and then what?) and assurances that “if we understand how capitalism works, we can transform it.”

At times No Local reads suspiciously like a doctoral dissertation reconstituted for a vaguely popular readership, with uneven success. While Sharzer seems to undertake a genuine effort to engage the vast numbers of people involved with — or at least sympathetic to — localist projects, those who have arrived at localism as a common entry point into activism and have yet to train their endurance for insufferably stale recitations of 19th century theory, brief albeit painful forays into classical economics, and the requisite shout-out to Rosa Luxembourg, will be forgiven for tapping out somewhere before the sixteenth mention of SNALT (Socially Necessary Abstract Labour Time). Though Sharzer has taken care to ground No Local in specific examples and case studies, the framework of analysis is not eminently relatable, and is unlikely to resonate with the experiences of many involved in the wide-ranging projects encompassed under localism. In this sense No Local has perhaps missed the mark on an important opportunity.

That said, No Local does ask important questions that warrant consideration on the anti-capitalist left. While worker co-ops, collectively-run bookstores or cafes and other alternative spaces undoubtedly provide important sites for strengthening communities and building our bases of power, to what extent do organizers risk exhausting limited energy and resources in sustaining small, self-justifying, and often insular projects? In what ways does this work come at the expense of forming broad-based coalitions with communities we may or may not already be part of, and together building movements capable of effecting lasting and systemic social change?

Still, at a time when the left is so lacking for visible presence and accessible entry points, localist undertakings are important points of connection that can’t be sacrificed until we can offer more promising alternatives. As D-Town’s Malik Yakini explains, “what’s most important always is the people being conscious and mobilized… that’s what really helps to shape reality.”
(full text).

Links:

Bagehot – A Brixit looms: though no big political party wants to leave the EU, it looks ever more likely to happen, on The Economist, June 23, 2012;

Video: To the streets once again, Highlights from Montreal protest, 3.02 min, on rabble.ca, by staff, June 24, 2012;

Tequila, tacos and Starbucks: Mexico tries to tempt a wider range of palates with its pleasures and treasures by hosting the G20 summit, but the Eurozone crisis leaves a bitter aftertaste, on Al-Ahram weekly online, by Gamal Nkrumah, 25 April – 1 May 2012;

Egypt: For a rainy day: seek expert advice on how to manage one’s savings in times of uncertainty, on Al-Ahram weekly online, by Niveen Wahish, 25 April – 1 May 2012;

Knowledge engine: Gehad Hussein touches the realms of Egyptian thinking machine, on Al-Ahram weekly online, 25 April – 1 May 2012.

Comments are closed.