Capitalism, Development and Western Hegemony – Looking Beyond to the Pluriverse



Many words are walked in the world. Many worlds are made. Many worlds make us. There are words and worlds that are lies and injustices. There are words and worlds that are truthful and true. In the world of the powerful there is room only for the big and their helpers. In the world we want, everybody fits. The world we want is a world in which many worlds fit…Our words, our song and our cry is so that the dead will no longer die. We fight so that they may live. We sing so that they may love. – Fourth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle (1996), Zapatista National Liberation Army. Cited as epigraph in Pluriverse: A Post-Development Dictionary.

The New Grave-Diggers of Capital?

‘The world we want is a world in which many worlds fit’. This neatly sums up the idea of the ‘pluriverse’. Reading it, I was reminded of an interview of ‘Subcommandante Marcos’, ‘leader’ of the Zapatistas, some years ago. In that interview, Subcommandante Marcos (then anonymous) recounted that he and his colleagues at the Autonomous Metropolitan University in Mexico, who joined him in the Chiapas mountains in 1984, were Marxists and had basically gone there to organize the indigenous people. And for Marxists that bascially meant to ‘raise their awareness’ about capitalism and exploitation.

Editors: Ashish Kothari, Ariel Salleh, Arturo Escobar, Federico Demaria, Alberto Acosta

What transpired there was something else, said Marcos. For the language they knew made no sense to the indgenous people and it was simply not possible to ‘inject’ Marxism into their veins, for their ways of thinking were their ways of being as well. Not only did they have to unlearn their own years of social science training and their Marxist vocabulary, they slowly learnt to make sense of the ‘world’ of the indigenous people and discover the huge gulf that separated them.  Stories they narrated could have happened yesterday, a week or a month ago or perhaps in some other time, long long ago.

Not very long ago, these modes of being were seen as belonging to the past whose historical destiny it was to simply perish, in order to make way for the modern. Their ways of being, their knowledge systems, their animist ‘beliefs’ and their relation to their world – the forests, the mountains, the rivers – all were seen as some quaint remnants of a past long gone by. Moderns would dub any reference to the destruction of these life forms as mere ‘romanticization of a mythical past’. It was not that long ago when Evo Morales wrote in his public letter on Climate Change in November 2008,  that ‘Everything began with  the industrial revolution in 1750, which gave birth to the capitalist system’, to which he was taken to task by a communist philosopher in the following words:

Fidelity to the communist Idea [thus] means that…we should remain resolutely modern and reject the all too glib generalization whereby the critique of capitalism morphs into the critique of “instrumental reason” or “modern technological civilization”.[(Zizek 2009: 97), First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, emphasis added]

I uderline the words ‘morphs’ in the quote above, for the book Pluriverse: A Post-Development Dictionary, which occasions my reflections here, shows clearly that the two – ‘capitalism’ and ‘modern technological civilization’ – are but one and the same thing. The critique of the one does not morph into a critique of the other; they are intrinsically tied together for the fundamental point at issue is something more fundamental. It is what Zizek calls a ‘substantial unity’ in this response to Morales and his affirmation to the ‘communist fidelty to the proletarian position’, which unambiguously  rejects ‘any ideology implying a return to any kind of prelapsarian substantial unity‘ (Ibid: 96)

What the entries in Pluriverse, encompassing a vast range of movements and practices that have grown significantly over the recent past, show is that the ‘indigenous people’ are not a figure of the past but of the future, inspiring as they do, a range of critiques of capitalism as such. I also read another stark fact in the numerous entries to the volume though its editors do not foreground it. They clearly show that if historically, in the 19th and 20th centuries, it was the industrial proletariat of Europe that was the prime figure of opposition to Capital, in the 21st century it is the figure of the peasant and the indigenous people who occupy that position. The languages of their opposition too is therefore bound to be fundamentally different. The industrial proletariat, uprooted and dispossessed and thrown en masse into urban labour markets, is a product of modern capitalist development and has no links to the supposedly ‘pre-capitalist’ life forms of the peasant or the indigenous people. The situation in most countries in the Three Continents of the Global South is vastly different – even industrial  workers here are in part peasants. Indigenous populations with their deep connections to their world and with no notion of ‘property’ and ‘ownership’ with regard to their forests, mountains and rivers obviously present an altogether different figure of alterity to capitalism and ‘modern techological civilization’. Indeed, this squares with our own late 20th and  21st century experience in India as well where alongside the dissipation of the industrial working class, the mantle of anticapitalist resistance has shifted the peasants and adivasis at the point of dispossession.

Zizek may be right in one respect when he taunts Evo Morales saying that the ‘only good thing about capitalism is that Mother Earth no longer exists’. For, from the point of view of Evo Morales and from the point of view of the contributions to Pluriverse, the entire world had to have become ‘disenchanted’ in Weber’s sense, for it to be ready for commodification. And insofar as most people like Zizek still think that socialism can only arise on the basis of this groundwork done by capitalism, they can only be thankful that now, modern technological civilization can do its job with a clean conscience, in the name of socialism. That is why most contributions to Pluriverse simply see no redemption in the socialist vision. Even the one single entry, ‘Ecosocialism’ by a Marxist, Michael Lowy steers away from the old, productivist understanding of socialism. And while we are at it, let us also underline that Zizek’s invocation of the Biblical metaphor (the ‘prelapsarian substantial unity’) is utterly misleading as many contributions to the volume by scholars and activists, some of them from indigenous backgrounds, show. The Christian idea of the Fall is not their reference point at all. The ‘substantial unity’ that they talk of – and I can think of at least ten such contributions – do not do so with reference to some mythical past but to the present. It is the deep spiritual bonds with their ‘enchanted’ world that constitutes the themes of some of these contributions, while others deal with the relational, non-individualistic, communitarian cosmovisions  that define the relations among members of the  groups themselves. Thus entries like ‘Oceania’s Kastom Ekonomi’ by Kirk Huffman, ‘Agaciro’ by Eric Ndushbandi and Olivia Rutazibwa, ‘Agdals’ by Pablo Dominguez and Gary Martin, ‘Buddhism and Wisdom-based Compassion’ by Geshe Dorji Damdul, ‘Buen Vivir’ by Monica Chuji, Grimaldo Rengifo and Eduardo Gudynas, ‘Hurai’ by Yuxin Hou, ‘Kametsa Asaike’ by Emily Caruso and Juan Pablo Sarmento Barletti, ‘Kawsak Sacha’ by Patricia Gualinga, ‘Ubuntu’ by Lesley Le Grange and ‘Zapatista Autonomy’ by Xochitl Leyva-Solano, either focus on such modes of being or bring out living concepts from within those lifeworlds and rework them for our times. This is obviously possible because there is a deeper connection of such cosmovisions with non-capitalist modes of being. The ‘susbtantial unity’ they embody has to be understood not with respect to the Biblical Fall but something far more recent in human history: that moment in history – call it Cartesian or whatever you prefer – which philosophers from Martin Heidegger (with his concept of Dasein) to Bruno Latour (with his reference to the ‘Great Divide’) continuously grapple with. This is the moment of the rise of the modern subject in opposition to and separate from the world; this is the moment of the formal insitution of the ‘Nature’ versus ‘Culture’ and the ‘Nonhuman’ versus ‘Human’ divides.

Decolonization – Beyond the European Espiteme

Pluriverse: A Post-Development Dictionary (edited by Ashish Kothari, Ariel Salleh, Arturo Escobar, Federico Demaria and Alberto Acosta, Tulika Books and Authors Upfront, 2019) is a remarkable volume that seeks and put together resources that will enable us to close the divide. Pluriverse calls itself a dictionary but like its predecessor, the Development Dictionary edited by Wolfgang Sachs (1993), is more a resurce book of key concepts in the field. Pluriverse makes a direct connection with the volume by Wolfgang Sachs and it is only fitting therefore that the volume begin with a ‘Foreward’ by him. And Sachs begins by underlining the great irony of that book for it announced that ‘(T)he idea of development stands like a ruin in the intellectual landscape’. Already by 1988, ‘we proclaimed the end of “the  development era”‘ but  ‘while we were ready to sing good-bye to the era of development, the world history did not follow suit.’ (xii) For at the precise moment, ‘the Berlin Wall came down…The Cold War was over and the epoch of globalization began. The gates for transnational market forces reaching into the Earth’s furthest corners were thrown wide open. The  nation-state became porous; the economy as well as culture was increasingly determined by global forces.’ (xii)  Sachs indeed puts it succinctly:

Development, erstwhile a task fo the state, was now de-territorialized. Transnational corporations spread out and on every continent lifestyles aligned with one another: SUVs replaced rickshaws;  cell phones superseded community gatherings; air-conditioning supplanted siestas…The global middle classes – white or black, yellow or brown – have  profited the most. They shop in similar malls, buy hi-tech electronic goods, watch  the same moves and TV series. (xii)

Looking back Sachs however, notices that two and a half decades down  the line, the downfall of the development idea is now obvious, even though it seemed for a brief while, to prove its critics wrong. It is evident, he says, in the UN Agenda 2030 programme for Sustainable Development Goals. ‘Everyday life is more often about survival now, not progress’. No more are the industrial nations being seen as the shining examples for poorer countries to emulate. (xiii)

What has happened in the meanwhile, is a long term tectonic shift whose effects are often hidden beneath the apparent hurly burly of political life of states but which must become apparent in time. The  tectonic shift is that of the passing of the idea central to the ‘European episteme’ (if one may call it that) – that the ‘Economy’ is the centre of human  existence and human beings are central to that of the universe; ergo, Economy is the centre of the universe. Innumerable contributions to the volume bear testimony to it as well as to the fact that a whole series of terms from ubuntu to sumak kawsay and buen vivir from different parts of the world are now invoked to uderline that ‘living well’ or ‘life in plenty’ or ‘humanness embedded in the nonhuman’ are not fundamentally about economic well-being.

Even if this is not said in so many words, we do have the editors open the volume with a short ‘Preface’ that ‘invites readers to join in a deep process of intellectual, emotional, ethical and spiritual decolonization.’ Our shared conviction, the editors tell us, is that the idea of ‘development as progress’ needs to be deconstructed to open the way for ‘cultural alternatives that nurture and respect life on Earth’. This is seen as urgently necessary because the ‘dominant Western development model is a homogenizing construct’ that people across the world have been forced to adopt ‘under material duress.’ (xvii)

There are any number of entries in the volume that deal with the economy, with issues of the commons and commoning, of agroecology, of degrowth, ecosocialism, development, nature’s rights and of course, neo-extractvism, all of which together tie up into the larger critiques and inerrogations of the ‘economic’ vision. I should particularly underline the ‘neo-extractivism’ issue here – lest one get the impression from our earlier discussion that such movements and practices are simply allied to the sympathetic regimes like those of Bolivia under Evo Morales or Ecuador under Rafael Correa who were both crucial in enshrining certain laws like Rights of Nature in the 2008 Ecuadorean Constitution. As Monica Chuji, Grimaldo Renfigo and Eduardo Gudynas underline in their entry on ‘Buen Vivir’, the ‘sharp contradiction between these original ideas of buen vivir and the development strategies of the Bolivian and Ecuadorian governments, who have promoted extractivism like mega-mining or Amazon oil extraction has become evident.’ (113) Though these positions, they argue, have been supported by some state agencies, by intellectuals and by non-South American intellectuals, such people, despite their intentions, only rehearse the coloniality of ideas. (113)

Samantha Hargreaves in her entry on ‘Neo-extractivism’ underlines that it defines a variant of extractivism employed by these states [the progressive, pink tide regimes] to finance social reforms. She also underlines that ‘resource nationalism is a relative of neo-extactivism in Africa, understood as an assertion of government’s control over, and benefit from, natural resources in its territory.’ (62) Neo-extractivism as well as resource nationalism have been held up by proponents as ways of mobilizing resources for ‘alternatives that support national development, safeguard the environment and benefit local communities’, but beyond  this supposed progressismo, she argues,  ‘the capitalist model of accumulation remains unchanged.’ (62) There is little doubt that this serious limitation of the radical progresssive governments in Latin America is a consequence of their inability to mount a thorough-going critique of the ‘Economy’-centred understanding, lodged firmly in the hegemonic sructures of the European episteme and the epistemic machine that propels it. This machine is of course most powerfully embodied in the institutions of higher learning, of universities and the social science knowledge that they continue to teach, but more importantly, it is embodied in the powerful global economic and financial institutions. It is one of the lessons of the entries in this volume that we need to urgently break free of such hegemonic knowledge.

It is virtually impossible to do justice to the immense variety of issues touched by so many different contributors, and one is at a loss as to how best to give a sense to its potential readers about the volume. One should underline, of course, that as the editors say, ‘the visions and practices’ contained in it ‘are not about applying a set of policies, instruments and indicators to exit “maldevelopment”‘ but about ‘recognizing the diversity of people’s views on planetary well-being and their skill in protecting it.’ In that sense the volume does a remarkable job simply in terms of the great variety of perspectives and practices that it puts together. At another level, it is also a resource that anyone wanting to quickly look up and understand an idea from this vast field can immensely benefit from. The volume has contributions from the stalwarts who have edited the volume but also from innumerable scholars and activists – some equally well-known but many relatively less-known but that has not lessened the weight of the contributions.

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