Greg Sharzer argues in his book, No Local, that localist approaches are by no means all progressive. He is right in many ways, yet he applies a very specific definition of localism and misses, or choses to overlook, the ways in which it can be empowering.
His argument is that capitalist economies are just as relaxed about local food initiatives, farmers’ markets, and a “small is beautiful” philosophy as they are with multinational corporations, carbon footprints, and sweat shops. Movements that promote the former set of activities are incapable of challenging exploitation and domination at the national or global level. Indeed, neoliberal capitalism actively encourages decentralisation because it opens up more markets from which to extract surplus value.
This thinking is arguably at the root of the government’s localist agenda. According to Eric Pickles and his colleagues at the department for Communities and Local Government, bureaucracy and red tape stifles the ingenuity and entrepreneurial ambitions of small businesses, volunteers and community activists. Decentralising power and engaging communities in decision-making will “redefine” the relationship between government and citizens, we are told. Critics argue, quite legitimately, that this form of localism leads to a lack of government regulation and widens inequalities between rich and poor neighbourhoods and those most able and least able to engage in this type of local decision making.
A critical focus on localism is timely and Sharzer’s book highlights real problems in social movements with a “be the change you want to see” philosophy. He argues that these types of movement often approach social and environmental problems as though they were caused by individual moral choices. They focus on changing lifestyles, rather than systemic causes of inequality and environmental degradation.
He risks throwing the baby out with the bathwater, however. A lot can still be done at the local level and it can affect a lot of people in a lot of ways. Local planning, for example, can profoundly impact the way people live their lives and, if done well, it can positively enhance their well-being. By shifting the attention to practical tools such as management, planning, and forms of ownership and control we can talk about the concrete ways in which the localist agenda might be progressive and actually empowering.
A lack of appreciation for the impact which small scale, practical concerns can have on mass decision making was a hallmark of Marx’s political writings. Sharzer unfortunately reproduces it in his book by lumping all forms of localism together. Because they are ignorant of, or unwilling to confront, the true nature of capitalist exploitation, he argues, their impact can only be negligible. This is a shame, as there are a number of locally based movements which do highlight how the power of capital can be resisted via the particular interactions that take place in specific localities. The Incredible Edible Network, for example, started as a local food growing initiative addressing the way resources are shared in certain areas. It connects people to the production process, just as engagement in local government, or planning, connects people with the processes that help shape their communities. Like the Transition Network before it, Incredible Edible has grown from a local project into a national and global network for change. Similarly, community energy schemes have the potential to challenge the hegemony of the ‘Big Six’ power companies, change the relationships between producers and consumers of energy and increase the economic autonomy of local communities.These are important methods of participation that can be effective as tools against domination or exploitation if they are mastered.
This argument is evident in David Harvey’s work, for example, and in the support for land value tax (LVT), discussed in a previous post. What makes LVT an attractive idea is the way in which it measures and captures surplus value in a locality and ensures that it remains common, that it is not enclosed. In turn it could encourage participation and democratic accountability because that money is then reinvested locally. It is a practical mechanism that focuses attention on the divergence of interests between the rent-seekers and the community builders, the poor, the public and so on. Sharzer overlooks the ways in which a local focus can be more meaningful than just growing some organic tomatoes.
Localism is a far more nuanced and contested concept than the version set out in No Local. It is important to reassess what we mean when we talk about the “local” or “community”, precisely because the meanings are so slippery. The question posed by No Local- whether the localism we are engaged in is a challenge to neoliberal capitalism or simply an adjunct to it- is an important one for anyone working on local projects. Perhaps another question that needs to be addressed is whether we should be “nudged” into accepting the localist agenda set by those in power, or whether we, the citizens who occupy the local spaces, should be developing our own ideas, using local organisation as a means of self-determination and democratic control. This is an important point for supporters of community-based enterprises to reflect on: Should we have localism for the people or by them?