Why small-scale alternatives won't change the world

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Localism is incapable of displacing capitalism or even effectively challenging it because it fails to understand how capitalism works

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No LocalGreg Sharzer
No Local: Why Small-Scale Alternatives Won’t Change the World
Zero Books, 2012

reviewed by Michael Ware

Against a backdrop of global climate disasters, financial panics, and inequality, localism — the creation of small-scale local systems of production and distribution — seems to make sense. Start small and stay close to home; forge community ties, grow your own food locally, and create alternatives that can eventually replace the current system of global capitalism with a sane, sustainable way of life. By providing this alternative, the local will overwhelm global capitalism. Death by a thousand cuts. But can the power of global capitalism be undone through establishing bike paths, cooperatives, bartering, alternative local currencies, community gardens, and small businesses?

Greg Sharzer’s well-researched book, with the unfortunate title No Local, argues no. Localism is incapable of displacing capitalism or even effectively challenging it because it fails to understand how capitalism works. “It sees the effect of unbridled competition, but not its cause.” By failing to understand how profit drives production, localism is blind to the pressures capitalism applies to its proposed remedies, which rely on the market or involve time and money that most working-class people don’t have. More utopian ideology than political framework, and too often served with a dose of moral superiority, localism never adequately explains by what magic small businesses or collectives can eclipse giant corporations.

Threads from localist authors, stretching back to Marx’s contemporary Pierre Proudhon and forward to modern authors like Barbara Kingsolver, Bill McKibben, Carlo Petrini, Michael Shuman, and E. F. Schumacher are scrutinized in constructive ways to highlight the profound gaps in their utopian remedies. No Local also shines a light on the often-neglected issue of class in the environmental movement.

The title is a nod to fellow Canadian Naomi Klein’s influential No Logo, published in 1999 and highly popular in the global justice movement. Despite the categorical title, Sharzer is not condemning the benefits of local action, but pointing out localism’s inadequacies and contradictions as a model of social change. Beyond Local might have better conveyed the book’s central message. Regardless, anyone who has encountered or explored the politics of localism must read this book. We are living through an unprecedented environmental crisis that requires a global solution of historic proportions. We must reexamine all of localism’s assumptions and place the environmental and social justice movements on a stronger theoretical foundation if we are to mount a serious, viable defense of the planet.

No Local begins with a brief history of capitalism and a cogent explanation of its inner workings, centered on Marx’s labor theory of value. Localism seeks a return to a preindustrial economic model that romanticizes small-scale production. But simplicity and smaller scale will not get rid of the social relations that underlay capitalism. Equal exchange and bartering don’t address the theft inherent even in small-scale capitalism, where workers are still paid less than the exchange value of the things they create, no matter the scale of production. Localists confuse use value and exchange value, forgetting that capitalism prioritizes profit (value) over human need (use value). By ignoring this question, localism leaves the question of exploitation unanswered and fails to root out the capitalist dynamic- accumulation for accumulation’s sake-that leads us to our current dilemma.

Sharzer insists that localism ends up apologizing for capitalism:

“For Marx, this is more than just false: it ‘is accepting the present state of affairs; it is, in short, making an apology… for a society without understanding it.’ Unfortunately, any apology for capitalism gets in the way of finding real solutions. . .. [E]conomists who accept the market always end up back where they began: at an ideal capitalism, with its ugly contradictions hidden behind visions of social harmony. This has a long history.”

Sharzer distinguishes between promarket and antimarket versions of localism. Promarket localism supports local businesses over their global competitors and urges lower rates of consumption. It accepts the market as a permanent feature of life and hopes that small-scale production will, over time, eradicate our current ills. These promarket assumptions are based on the interests of the middle class and small-business owners threatened by corporate competition.

The reality is that no hard line exists between the local and the global. While small may be beautiful for some business owners, it certainly isn’t for most employees, or even the environment.

Locally spent money doesn’t necessarily stay in a community. Business is reliant on tools and equipment made abroad. The cash register, computer, and industrial oven at your local bakery were probably not made down the road. Money might stay in the community for a cycle or two, but quickly moves on. Small-scale local production is usually less efficient and thereby less profitable, which is why small businesses pay only two-thirds of the wages of companies with more than five hundred employees, and often don’t offer health insurance. In addition, 83 percent of US small-business owners in a 2010 study were older, married, white men. One UK study cited by Sharzer concluded that small businesses are the least likely to “safeguard the environment.”

A pillar of promarket localism is the concept of ethical consumption. The idea is that if “consumers buy locally-sourced goods from ethical sellers”-for example, organic produce-“they’ll shrink the economy to a more rational, sustainable level.” A select group pays more for products, propping up businesses that the market would otherwise devour. This doesn’t challenge the market mechanism, nor does it address the question of the means to ethically produce adequate food for the billions who go hungry on the planet and cannot afford to pay more.

The antimarket localists focus on democratic, decentralized, prefigurative communities and methods of production. While anticapitalist, these small-scale experiments don’t realistically challenge capitalism. Antimarket localism’s greatest weakness is the assumption that everything society needs can be produced locally. It fails to address the complexities of modern production and distribution, romanticizing feudalism and precapitalist societies.

A planet with seven billion people and one billion Facebook accounts should never go back to bartering, surviving on grain and root vegetables all winter, or making our own clothes, except for our own individual amusement. Modern humans under capitalism have created an incredibly complex, specialized system of production and distribution. Rather than casting aside modern methods of production and distribution, they should be recast based on human priorities. That requires a difficult, head-on confrontation rather than the fantasy of communes gradually supplanting capitalism.

Both pro and antimarket localism seek to limit technology and transportation, which are seen as energy inefficient. But local food production might not reduce energy inputs. Growing and storing food in colder climates can often use more energy than needed for transportation. As Sharzer notes, 83 percent of food-related carbon emissions come from the production of food, while only 11 percent is due to transportation.

The political orientation of the localists is essentially that of the middle class-defined by Sharzer not only as shopkeepers and other owners of small businesses, but also professionals, “junior executives and office workers” whose mode of work encourages aggressive individualism. Because of their investment in the status quo, the progressive petite bourgeoisie avoids class conflict and longs for social peace. They are drawn to individual actions over collective responses. They look to consumption as the way to express social power rather than class location. They prioritize lifestyle choices, emphasizing morality and selfrestraint. Rather than aiming their fire at the corporations and the US military-industrial complex, they blame the individual consumer. We should stop shopping at Walmart and driving SUVs. Volunteer and strengthen your local community, buy organic food and a Prius. The end result is a narrow, cultural escape built inside the walls of capitalism.

The alternative is class struggle. Sharzer defends Marxism’s orientation on confronting crises, exploitation, and oppression through collective action as the key process by which people gain the knowledge to transform the world and themselves. Struggle can be local or global. Sharzer’s point is that such struggles must be confrontations- one class against another-that pose a challenge to the system rather than localism’s polite resistance, which is like a mosquito biting an elephant.

This review was first published in International Socialist Review.


  • See also Greg Albo’s essay, The Limits of Eco-localism: Scale, Strategy, Socialism, in The Socialist Register 2007.

    Albo’s essay is available free online in .pdf format HERE.

    Albo writes:

    Eco-localism projects the local as an ideal scale and conceives communitarian eco-utopias in a politics that is individualiz­ing and particularizing. Under neoliberalism, eco-localism has evolved into a practical attempt to alter individual market behaviours, and to disconnect and internalize local ecologies and communities from wider struggles and political ambitions. But there is no reason to support, and every reason to op­pose, any suggestion that the national and the global are on a scale that is any less human and practical than the local. This is not to deny the importance of the local in anti-neoliberal politics; nor the importance of the question of appropriate scale for post-capitalist societies. It is to insist, however, that local socio-ecological struggles cannot be delinked from – and are indeed always potentially representative of – universal projects of transcending capitalism on a world scale. This is the meaning that Marx gave to the Paris Commune: at once a local embryonic society being born behind barricades and yet also ’emphatically international’ in its ambitions and implications…

  • I think the book author and the reviewer have it summed up well. I am not against the local initiatives discussed in the review — indeed we should patronize local businesses that give back to the community as opposed to multi-national behemoths and we should organize our communities.

    These actions themselves, however, aren’t going to do anything about capitalist relations and dynamics, which are the real problem, not this or that giant corporation or this or that greedy investment banker. The problem with believing that being a better consumer will solve problems is that it completely ignores that we are, first of all, workers.

    Where do we spend a great deal of our weekdays? Working for somebody else and being paid only a small fraction of what we produce. Having our bodies (our “labor power” to use the technical term) reduced to a mere commodity — a commodity easily dismissed as the eternal search for more profits causes more production to be shifted to ever worse low-wage havens.

    Buying organic food, buying at a local mom-and-pop and using mass transit instead of driving (I do all of these things) may make us feel good, but, as the review so ably points out, remains completely within the capitalist system. Until we act on the necessity of replacing a system in which cruel inequalities are the inevitable outcome, that maintains itself through violence and which has inexorably led us to the present financial disaster, our material conditions will continue to get worse, no matter how much “fair trade” coffee we drink.

  • Although I can’t speak generally for “small scale alternatives”, I am somewhat familiar with the worldwide Transition Movement. As far as I know it holds no pretensions of “overwhelming global capitalism”. Each Transition Initiative (TI) works independently, sets its own goals and charts its own path.

    Sherzer, therefore, appears to be holding small scale alternatives to account for never being able to achieve a goal that he alone seems to have set for them.

    Here, for example, is how Transition Guelph defines its modest transition mission:

    “Climate change. Economic instability. Peak oil and resource depletion. Environmental degradation. These are just a few of the most pressing issues of our time. The Transition movement, which is spreading quickly around the world, provides a foundation upon which to build a promising future together that is more fulfilling, creative and sustainable. Transition is a process for strengthening community resilience and building sustainability that is uniquely designed by each community based on their local needs and resources.” http://www.transitionguelph.org/

    No mention here of overwhelming global capitalism.

    The value of TIs, as I see them, is that that they get people off their butts, away from their keyboards, and, working as a team, actually doing something positive. It’s the “doing” — rather than the endless talking — that is so psychologically invigorating and motivating. You’ll never convince me that small scale alternatives are not fulfilling a vital community-building function.

    Will they change the world? Probably not. But show me another movement that will.

    On a not-unrelated note, here are links to two articles that may have some bearing on the future of capitalism —

    “Death of oil, coal and gas industries within 20 years? Former Greenpeace CEO thinks so.” http://snipurl.com/26qv20g

    “Cure for “bads” of capitalism outlined by economist Richard Wolff in 15-minute video” http://snipurl.com/26qv2ds