Interview with Greg Sharzer on Localism

Originally published here. 

Greg Sharzer has a Ph.D. in Political Science from York University, Toronto, Canada, where he studied political economy and social movements. His activism includes participating in anti-poverty, trade union and migrant rights campaigns. When not thinking about politics he enjoys cycling, films with subtitles, gourmet coffee and all the other trappings of a petty bourgeois lifestyle.  He currently lives in Seoul, South Korea.


C.Derick Varn.: Why do you think Localism rears its head so regularly in times of capitalist crisis?

Greg Sharzer: I think it’s a natural reaction to defeat to turn inward and try to control what’s around you. Marx describes it happening in the 1850s, as a reaction to the defeats of the 1848 revolutions. Workers can’t overthrow the state, so they form cooperatives and try to make life a little easier for themselves. Some believe that they don’t need to overthrow anything: that their alternatives will form a critical mass and carve out spaces away from capitalism.

The psychological imperative to form a virtue out of necessity is understandable; but I think it’s incumbent upon us as historical materialists to critique it. I don’t think this means denouncing localists as naive, utopian, etc.: many share our dislike of the symptoms of capitalism and are therefore potential allies. But localism, as I argue in No Local, is a fundamentally petty bourgeois phenomenon – it can’t solve the problems it identifies, because it harkens back to an ideal pre-capitalist time (that never really existed in the first place.) Particularly during a crisis, we have to assert some home truths about capitalism: that capitalist firms have to grow – or at least, shrink less quickly – than other firms or die; that the problem isn’t one of scarce resources but of irrational and unequal resource use; and that, far from retreating into some mythical local space, we have both the chance and the tools to create a truly international workers’ movement.

There’s no lack of things to be angry about, and there are plenty of mobilized people willing to give a systemic critique a fair hearing. It may be the case that, due to the degeneration of the workers’ movement, localist ideas will gain greater traction; but that just makes the task of promulgating Marxist arguments all the more pressing. If we’re smart about our interventions, we can have results. I think Syriza in Greece is one example of this.

C.D.V.: You have been in South Korea for the past few months.  What do you think South Korea can teach us about Global capitalism?
G.S.: South Korea can teach us how flexible capitalism is. Ultimately, we know that capitalism can’t solve the crises of profitability, overproduction and ecology that it creates. However, it’s very good at using the raw materials it has at hand to graft itself onto, and shape new societies. Two features of South Korean society illustrate this dramatically for me.

One is the sheer pace of change. In the developed world, we’re used to decay and stagnation. Infrastructure gets repaired, at best – no new public goods are built, and a lot of existing public goods, like health care and transport, are abandoned or given to the private sector. It’s like capital’s collective leadership has given up trying to create the necessary conditions for accumulation and is just engaged in warfare between its various fractions and with the working class. Now, clearly this happens in South Korea – president-elect Park wouldn’t be talking about chaebol reform otherwise – but it remains striking how much South Korean capitalism, freed of longterm institutional barriers and prior infrastructure, can remake space.

The ongoing development of Korea’s high-speed rail network, and the continuing expansion of the metropolitan Seoul subway, are two examples. I’m often struck by the comparison with Toronto, where I lived on and off for 20 years, during which time successive governments failed to build an extra five subway stops. They’re finally doing so, to be open by 2015 after many years of construction. A developmentalist state appears to be much more willing to respond to the needs of accumulation. This isn’t a straightforward process: Park Bae-Gyoon, whose work as a critical geographer I’ve recently encountered, writes on how different coalitions vie for investment in their corners of the country. The outcomes of development aren’t inevitable: but the state appears firmly committed to shaping and reshaping South Korea as a regional hub for capital. That this is possible, and even seen as desirable by a firmly neoliberal government, puts paid to the notion that capitalist crisis means stagnation, or that Keynesian stimulus is necessarily a progressive phenomenon.

The second feature which I find fascinating is how capital treats the existing social-cultural terrain. It’s not true that capital has to destroy previous forms in order to impose a bland, homogenous corporate version of globalization. Rather, capital is clever – or just rapacious – enough to take pre-existing forms, commodify and sell them back to the Korean working class.

The impact of the pace of change appears, naturally enough, to be a level of anxiety about the future among Koreans themselves. 30 years ago, Korea was largely a peasant society: today it’s a highly industrialized, fully capitalist one. From a relatively insular place – a peninsula effectively made into an island by the Korean War, as a friend told me – Korean capital is successfully globalized, to the extent that other poor countries are sending experts to study its development model.

But rather than eliminating old cultural forms, this process has reinvigorate them. For lack of a better term, I’m calling this ‘neoliberal hybridity’: the ability of capital to reinvent, repackage and sell the culture that capital’s very presence has eliminated. For example, I went to a friend’s wedding, which was billed as traditional. And indeed it was: bride, groom and families wore traditional Korean hanbok, the groom asked for the bride’s hand in marriage from her mother, and the bride was bundled into a box to be carried to the reception afterwards. This all took place in a lavish, traditional Korean home… on the fifth floor of Lotte World, a giant mall run by a chaebol. Everything had been reconstructed as a better version of an old Korean home. You could buy souvenirs and rent outfits; the house was painted in wonderfully bright colours which would never fade, since they’re not exposed to the elements; the acoustics were marvelous, since there was no wind. After the reception, you could go shopping at a luxury department store or visit a multistory indoor theme park shaped like a giant dome – all within the same building.

Later I asked the (Marxist) groom whether he found it strange that such a traditional ceremony could take place in such a contemporary place; he responded, “Capital will sell anything.” It struck me that the reason capital can sell history back to a people is because it’s constantly undermining that history. What it takes with one hand, it gives with the other – and makes a profit on it. We see the bolstering of cultural forms to the degree that they’re threatened, while at the same time the progressive elimination of any claim to authenticity those forms once had.

Whether this is new or not – postmodernism has been around in many guises for decades – it’s something that I think we in the west could learn from. Used to a more sedate pace of change – or, less charitably, the slow decay of our society – our cultural changes are easier to handle. Those of us with a cosmopolitan bent can believe we delight in absorbing new forms. I think it’s easy to forget that, when those changes are sudden and intense, there can be an equally intense desire for the past, which capital is only too happy to commodify.

This applies to Korean culture; but, I’d argue, it also applies to localism in the west. Nostalgia, or more fundamentally, fear of the future, can be channelled into either giant malls or farmers’ markets by capital. As Marxists, our task is to be as rigorous as possible about our political economy and the strategic questions that flow from it, lest we fall prey to that kind of easily-commodifiable desire for stability. We may lack the resources and creativity of capital, but we don’t have to solve its crises, and therein lies our advantage: we can focus our energies on resistance.

C.D.V.: Do you see localism as having a romantic or even reactionary characteristics?

G.S.:  Localism absolutely has a romantic side. This is clearest in the idealization of rural life and small communities that pervades localist literature. And this has political consequences as well. In No Local, I identify localism as a form of petty bourgeois politics: a desire to evade the class struggle and find a ‘small’ way out. But Marxists have long argued there is no opt-out, no neutral ground. By trying to impose a false harmony on the irreconcilable antagonisms of capital and labour – neither left nor right but small – localists in fact serve the needs of capital. They disorient the workers’ movement by suggesting confrontation can be avoided, delaying the necessary strategic thinking that needs to happen to build the fight-back. The only people who benefit from this are the capitalists, who find potential opposition directed away from making demands on the state and corporations, instead turned inwards towards self-help.

This romantic idea isn’t new: one of the things I find so depressing about localism is it rehashes debates that were settled 150 years ago. Take the famous passage from the Communist Manifesto, where Marx takes on the localists of his day. Note that he’s sympathetic to denunciations of capitalism’s excesses:

This school of Socialism dissected with great acuteness the contradictions in the conditions of modern production… It proved, incontrovertibly, the disastrous effects of machinery and division of labour; the concentration of capital and land in a few hands; overproduction and crises; it pointed out the inevitable ruin of the petty bourgeois and peasant, the misery of the proletariat…

But Marx was a historical materialist: for him, social organization was based on a specific mode of production, a way of organizing how wealth is produced and used. That form – capitalism – already dominated. The property relations that buttressed small, local production had disappeared. To try and recreate them meant imposing an old form on new content – the proverbial bolting the stable door after the horses have fled:

In its positive aims, however, this form of Socialism aspires either to restoring the old means of production and of exchange, and with them the old property relations, and the old society, or to cramping the modern means of production and of exchange within the framework of the old property relations that have been, and were bound to be, exploded by those means. In either case, it is both reactionary and Utopian.

Marx saw the writing on the wall: petty bourgeois forms of production would persist but would never dominate the economy again. The rise to power of capitalism meant the end of small-scale ownership, of production for use, of artisanal production as a means of social production. This was fast disappearing by 1850; to promote it meant being “reactionary and Utopian”, an unworkable politics of nostalgia.

He was being a little triumphalist when he predicted petty bourgeois socialism’s demise: “Ultimately, when stubborn historical facts had dispersed all intoxicating effects of self-deception, this form of Socialism ended in a miserable fit of the blues.” It appears that, like the petty bourgeois themselves, localist politics make peroidic comebacks – in times of crisis, as your previous question pointed out, and then they serve a purpose.

To take one example, the Wall Street Journal recently posted a feature on up-market chicken coops and garden tools. Aside from showing that capitalism will commodify just about anything (for those willing to spend $258 on a shovel!), it speaks to the nostalgia driving localism: ‘“It’s what I did with my grandmother—the chickens, the gardening, the canning, the bees,” Ms. Zimmerman says. “It is my Zen—a memory of what made me feel safe and good and warm.” And jars of homemade honey make great gifts, she adds.’

I want to emphasize that this is a completely understandable, emotional reaction to turmoil: if the world is beset by crisis, go back to an imagined past – your own or what you’ve read about – where things were simpler and in balance. Or, put more historically materially, a time when fewer aspects of daily life were commodified, and there was more room for ‘independence’. The WSJ focuses on those willing to pay top dollar for this petty bourgeois fantasy, but of course that’s not all localists: many are poor, trying to save money in their own lives and be gentler to the earth while they do it. There’s no shame in being romantic! – except that, as a basis for political strategy, it fails to understand how the capitalist economy works and what to do about it. The only reason localism is prominent now, is because of the continuing paucity of alternatives posed by the workers’ movement and the revolutionary left. The pull of romantic anti-capitalism is a symptom of our historical weakness.

C.D.V.:  Why do you think Marxist organizations have been so ill equipped to offer an alternative in the developed nations?

G.S.: The failures of Marxist organizations have been cast in particularly sharp relief lately, thanks to the ongoing crisis of the SWP. Its mishandling of rape accusations against a leading member, in a way that would make Stalin blush with flattery, have led, first of all, to the trauma of the woman raising the issue and the distress of those trying to support her. In turn, this has led to right-wing smears in the media against the entire project of Marxism and to dogmatic defences of ‘Leninism’ by the party leadership.

But if there’s a silver lining to this pitch-black cloud, it’s that a principled minority are taking the opportunity to link the scandal to a broader critique of left organizing. Tom Walker, Richard Seymour, China Mieville and others have suggested that Leninism is a method, not a blueprint for the future. Lenin can teach us about the nature of capitalism and the rapacity of the ruling class – but how to become a clandestine party under a Tsarist dictatorship, or how to be a tight cadre organization in the midst of civil war, are less relevant lessons.

This debate gives me cautious hope that Marxists organizations haven’t failed in the First World* – or at least, they’ve failed in useful ways. It’s true, we haven’t made the revolution. However, a revolution has too many variables to predict in advance. Even in hindsight, the political, economic, cultural, historical, etc. factors that create a revolutionary movement are hard to understand. We can learn from the past and apply those incomplete answers to an even more incomplete present. (And it’s worth adding that although the revolutionary record in the Third World is certainly better than the First – most were brought down by the low level of material development and the resulting idealism of revolutionary elites, leading to corruption and dictatorship.)

So, given that context, where did we go wrong? I think Marxists applied lessons from the past too mechanically, modelling revolutionary groups on what appeared successful in Russia, China, and elsewhere. This led to inflating the successes of those revolutions, becoming blind to their failures, and a lack of attention to understanding the First World variety of capitalism. Some Marxists have tried valiantly to understand what’s different about developed capitalism – I’m thinking of those inspired by Gramsci, the Frankfurt School, the James-Dunayevskaya groups, the Situationists – but often they were split off from workers’ and social movements, for reasons outlined succintly in Perry Anderson’s Considerations on Western Marxism: the retreat into academia and the rise of successful reformism.

I think those groups had valuable pieces of the whole, while circumstances prevented them from influencing the broader movement and putting those pieces together. That’s the main reason for a mass revolutionary party in the first place: to bring the uneven experiences of the class’s vanguard fighters together, to learn from each other. Marxists weren’t together and failed to learn those lessons. We didn’t understand the Cold War as a major contributor to reformism and got sidelined by social democrats; we didn’t understand the significance of the ‘new social movements’, a particularly egregious failure considering how seriously earlier socialists took movements against sexual, gender and racial oppression. And this separation from the bulk of social movements meant that Marxists were powerless to lead the opposition to neoliberalism when its cold winds blew into town, atomizing and institutionalizing what remained of the 60s and 70s upsurge.

On one hand, many critical leftists are learning these lessons. On the other, context matters. It’s not an accident that, post-WW2, there was a layer of trade union bureaucrats able to provide real material benefits to their members, in the process splitting them from more exploited sectors of the working class. Why make a revolution when there’s tangible evidence that things can get better if you don’t rock the boat? I don’t think austerity breeds resistance – there’s nothing more demobilizing than poverty and unemployment. But the opposite may be true: the historical compromise between labour and capital, involving labour relinquishing control over production in return for regular raises, may have led to communism appearing obsolete. That’s not strictly a battle of ideas – rather, it’s a way to explain how the material world is being re-organized. Marxists could have the most logical critique of capitalism, but that wouldn’t mean much when capitalism appears to be making everything better, at least at home.

In fact, considering these pressures, I’d say that Marxists did pretty well; we rescued Marxism from the cold, dead hands of Stalinism and experimented with any number of different organizational forms. We broadened our theory, and re-acquainted ourselves or learnt anew about women’s liberation and gay liberation. Yes, we have lots more to learn, but my point is that the record is not one of constant defeat. We were outmaneuvered but did the best with the small forces at our disposal, making plenty of mistakes along the way. Now, when our forces are scattered and marginalized, those mistakes become magnified.

What can we do better? We can question and resist oppression in broader society, and if necessary in our own organizations, if we’re lucky enough to have those organizations. This doesn’t mean reinventing the wheel: there’s plenty of evidence that building mass, democratic, militant social movements are what build people’s confidence to transform capitalist society.

We need to retain political organization by socialists, whether that’s called a party or something else. This is a major weakness of all localist theory, left or right: it believes economic and political spaces can be detached from broader political economy. Then, when small-scale experiments achieve even the slightest success, they’re either coopted or destroyed by the state and capital. (It goes without saying that small-scale experiments that challenge nothing at all, like community gardens or farmers’ markets, are allowed to exist in perpetuity, unless they raise land rents.) Independent, from-below political organization helps fight that coercion and cooptation, by posing the question of resistance and how to win reforms. Marxists should be proud of that legacy.

The past is important, but so is the present. We face attacks from all sides – capitalist austerity, fascist reaction, and so on – and we have to learn how to organize through fighting back. These questions are always concrete: we can only answer ‘how to build a revolutionary party’ while we’re figuring out how to fight the cuts, oppose Zionism, fight for indigenous liberation, and so on. Done right, those movements pose broader questions of how to overturn oppressive power structures. At this point, Marxists become relevant – not as bearers of a programme, but as historical investigators and political strategists. We can say to those activists, “We know in broad outlines how capitalism works; can you help us to refine and correct that picture? Can we help each other to fill in the gaps?” I think that if a modest, questioning Marxism emerges out of the present political and economic crises, then there’s hope for our tradition, in both the First and Third Worlds.

(* I’m using the old ‘new left’ terminology of First & Third here because I still think it’s the best way to describe imperialism, as an unequal relationship of whole regions subject to combined and uneven development. I think “developed/underdeveloped” risks sounding neutral, while “Global South/Global North” lacks precision.)
C.D.V.: What do you see that is concerning you about the “left” in North America after Occupy?

G.S.: I think the Occupy movement had a kernel of truth in it: the desire for direct action and a willingness to organize and protest differently. The left’s failure to have any significant impact on imperialism in Afghanistan and the Middle East, and the intense disillusionment with the Democratic Party after Obama’s first election, led to a novel circumstance: an upsurge in radical anti-establishment sentiment and absolutely no organizational or political place for it to go. As a response to the usual ‘marches to nowhere’ of the Left, Occupy’s willingness to question traditional organizing was a welcome development. Any leftist group worth its salt was at Occupy, not because it agreed with everything the movement did – there was lots to disagree with, from the voluntarism and moralism to the drug abuse and even murder that marred some Occupys – but because serious leftists know a new movement comes from struggle, and it’s not up to us to dictate the forms that struggle takes. A formally correct leftist criticism, about the lack of revolutionary organization and trade union focus at Occupy, was sectarian and irrelevant in that context. Our task was to debate and participate in the many real questions Occupy posed, from the meaning of work to the occupation of native land, and many groups deserve praise for that engagement.

It’s true that without ongoing organizational expression, Occupy was doomed to fail. But we should get no joy from pointing that out. Rather, I think the task is to harness that energy to the more concrete, place-based struggles that continue to erupt after Occupy. The Quebec student strike of 2012 is the best example: it took a bread-and-butter issue – tuition rises – and married it to the sweeping social criticism of Occupy. Thanks largely to its socialist organizers, the strike was able to identify the context of tuition rises: neoliberalism in education and commodification in society at large. The strike was neither economistic nor flaky: it was a recognition that the working class is open to both leadership over ‘real’ issues and radical change. To oversimplify and continue the food metaphor, if a strike is the ‘bread’, and Occupy was the ‘roses’, the Quebec student strike, and its radical leadership, gave Quebec students both.

The latest example is Idle No More, which displays many of the same characteristics: a focus on the brutal realities of native life in Canada, with a willingness to experiment with new forms of protest and make ‘maximum’ demands that would require vast changes in the state and capital to carry out. It’s been successful to the degree that it refused to be limited to partial demands: while resolutely local, Idle recognizes the shared circumstances of indigenous localities, linked by national state oppression and exploitation by international capital. You can’t get either more grounded, or more visionary, than that.

So, that’s where I see the future of the left after Occupy. Participating in, and if possible, leading the many struggles against austerity across North America, while recognizing that new approaches are needed to engage new activists, across generations. I’d be concerned if utopianism or business unionism predominated; but Maple Spring and Idle No More are hopeful signs that radicalism can be grounded in real-world struggles.

C.D.V.:  Anything you’d like to say in closing?

G.S.: A friend of mine put me onto these timely t-shirts. I think they’re a cautious sign that the sheen is starting to wear off localism. A backlash was inevitable, particularly when localism is taken up by the well-off and lifestylist petty bourgeois. That backlash can degenerate into a right-wing populism directed at so-called cultural elites, or it can be an opportunity to question how capitalism works and what resistance is. The localist project was bound to be popular as an end-run around the contradictions of capitalism, a wish-fulfilment for those who want to believe in a non-contradictory modernity, that we can deal with the capital-labour antagonism by avoiding it. Of course that was never going to happen, but it takes time for the evidence to accumulate that piece-meal reforms – local consumption, local farming, local money – don’t have any impact on capitalist crisis. The longer economic turmoil continues, the more the evidence begins to mount. So people are searching – not necessarily for answers yet, but at least the right questions. If growing your own chickens doesn’t change the crisis in food production, doesn’t end factory farming and doesn’t alleviate hunger, what will? If providing community garden space doesn’t boost nutrition for poor communities, why not? If, despite your best efforts, the world is still getting rapidly worse, that can be disillusioning for activists, not to mention terrifying. But in that case, there are two options: abandon any attempt to change the world – in which case, localism will become a fall-back, ‘at least I’ve got mine’ pre-occupation of the comfortably afflicted – or go deeper and explore how the economy and ideology really work. I hope that my critique of localism can contribute to the latter process. So that when thousands of localists realize that their fresh vegetables and farmers’ markets make them feel better but do nothing to stop economic and ecological decline, they won’t give up; instead, they’ll move beyond localism to struggle.


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