by Jorge Garcia-Arias and Julia Schöneberg
Ontological transitions from the ‘one’ world to ‘a world in which many worlds fit’
There can be no doubt: revolutionary steps are needed to build just alternatives to the failed mainstream model of hegemonic ‘development’ and the universal conception of the ‘one world’ that have proven themselves to ultimately be destructive (Büscher 2019). ‘Pluriverse. A Post-Development Dictionary’ and ‘The Case for Degrowth’ provide clues and inspiration as to where, how, who, with whom, and by what means to start walking. Neither book disappoints, although they leave important questions open.
We are engaging with both books from very specific and sheltered positions in the global North, as white, European, educated, and privileged scholars, comfortably living in what Audre Lorde has described as the Master’s house. While we commit to the need to (re)approach the question of what a ‘good life’ for all may mean from ‘other’ cosmologies, we are also aware and cautious that it would simply be another act of co-optation and knowledge-extraction in demanding, as Breny Mendoza points out, the ‘subaltern to save us’. Each pluriversal alternative has its autonomous capacity to be self-narrated without the need to fit into Western-centric ones. The main role of the global North must be to radically scrutinize and uproot its own underpinnings. Our review of both books departs from this situatedness.
We are facing multiple civilizational and environmental crises. The self-proclaimed ‘universal’ world, with its many destructive neoliberal, financialized, patriarchal, ecologically predatory, neo-colonial, and capitalist faces is based on a very specific liberal, secular, bourgeois, modern epistemological underpinning. The Covid pandemic and the climate crisis visualise the ultimate destructiveness of what Ulrich Brand and Markus Wissen’s 2021 book denominates ‘The Imperial Mode of Living’. While it is obvious that the Euro-modern conception of a ‘good life’ cannot be sustainable, the Agenda 2030 has made claims to ‘transforming our world’ while ‘leaving no one behind’. But what transformations, and towards what? For us not only an epistemological transition is needed, but one of an ontological nature – of modes of thought, of ways of life, of ways of feeling-thinking, of ‘other’ knowledges. In attempting to navigate this space, reading ‘Pluriverse’ provides us with hope by showcasing practiced and practical alternatives to the patriarchal, capitalist, neo-colonialist, extractive ways of being that are deemed ‘universal’, while ‘The Case for Degrowth’ reminds us that revolutionary changes must first happen ‘at home’.
A Decolonial Transition in the South…
Postdevelopment proponents offer the most radical critique of ‘development’: it has failed. Rather than thinking about ‘alternative development’ approaches, reforms and refinements, postdevelopment calls for a full abandonment of ‘development’ as a discourse, as a vision and as a practice. The ‘Pluriverse’ offers a rich variety of existing and practiced alternatives showcasing the Zapatista’s utopia of a ‘world in which many worlds fit’. The editors distinguish between ‘reformist solutions’ – ‘green’ economy, ‘development’ aid, ‘smart’ cities –, merely aiming at universalizing the earth, and ‘transformative initiatives’– autonomy, civilizational transitions, popular solidarity, radical ecological democracy –, unfolding a pluriverse of alternatives from all parts of the world. from all parts of the world. They share fundamental commonalities as to what a good life entails: unity of human and non-human; conviviality and interdependence; prefigurative mutualism, autonomy and self-government. All of them critique the logic and impact of Capitalocene, (neo)-extractivism and the uncritical belief in euro-modernist ideologies of progress and growth. While this deliberate exercise of unfolding the pluriverse is needed and valuable, there are three issues that remain to debate.
Firstly, the overall narrative of the ‘Pluriverse’ is based on highlighting cultural and discursive positions, even superstructural ones (the plurality of cosmologies, worlds, social constructions, education). In addressing economic questions, the emphasis is placed on consumerism, industrialisation and extractivism. Post-developmentalists proclaimed that truly just alternatives can only emerge from the grassroots, the communities. This may be true, but global, racialised capitalism, makes it hard to imagine how these alternatives can claim their just and legitimate spaces. Despite being presented as an overall anti-capitalist ideology, ‘Pluriverse’ alternatives do not sufficiently address central aspects of exploitation inherent in the capitalist system: labour/capital relations, the ownership of the means of production, unequal global supply and production chains, appropriation and accumulation, The defence of the ‘global tapestry of alternatives’ (p. 339), of local and diverse responses, while much needed, will hardly be able to constitute a sufficiently solid alternative to challenge the capitalist system at the global level.
Secondly, postdevelopment propositions have long been criticised for cultural relativism and a certain degree of romanticising poverty. Non-Western societies are by no means free from power divides, oppression, discrimination and exclusion and there is no pure or untainted way of life that is entirely untouched by modernity. But ‘Pluriverse’ exhibits a certain idealisation of traditional societies, thereby hiding internal tensions and contradictions.Thirdly, a core argument is the promotion of a radical plur(ivers)ality of a multiplicity of worlds, thereby rejecting any ‘universalism’ of principles or forms of living. At the same time, the editors provide us with a list of values (p. xxix) they see as core. While we are certainly sympathetic to these values, to some degree they are also proclaiming universalism of values, a claim to the ‘universality of pluriversality’. The pluriverse can only truly flourish if the many worlds entailed in it agree to these values, and the book fails to give hints as to what happens if some of these worlds simply refuse to be part of the pluriverse. In a present of rising nationalism and racialised exclusions, this is a vital question to be responded to should the pluriverse claim to be more than just a utopia.
…by Repoliticizing (and De-Developing) the North
‘The Case for Degrowth’ does a commendable job of explaining why economic growth, with its insatiable use and extraction of resources and labour, is incompatible with both environmental sustainability and the sustainability of life. The book analyses the impossibility or inoperability of some proposed ‘solutions’ that aspire to simultaneously guaranteeing unlimited (‘green’) growth and a ‘good life’ for all.
The authors argue that a simpler and more frugal life, and a dematerialisation of the economy are perfectly compatible with higher levels of well-being for all. Emphasizing the imperative urgency to avoid a civilizational collapse, the book advocates (re)considering old and new forms of conviviality, strengthening collaboration and reclaiming commons.
The most interesting part of the book consists in five main policies proposed for the implementation of degrowth: a Green New Deal (without growth); Universal Basic Services (education, healthcare, food, transport) and a Universal Basic Income; reclaiming the commons (by cooperative provision or by remunicipalizing water, energy, transport, infrastructures); reducing working hours; and a very broad ‘Public Finance that Greens and Equalizes’, which includes environmental taxation, taxing externalities, progressive taxes on income and wealth, minimum (and maximum) wages and so on. To implement these measures, the authors advocate for a co-evolutionary strategy aiming to articulate the personal, the communitarian and the political through a loose and ethereal alliance between workers, feminists, anti-racists and low income communities.
Indeed, the proposed measures constitute an excellent compilation of the most relevant ‘progressive’ proposals in the literature of recent years. Nevertheless, several questions remain debatable, even contradictive.
Firstly, is the end goal a ‘greener’, more solidary and cooperative, more frugal capitalism, or a transcendence of capitalism? Most measures proposed in The Case for Degrowth aim to ‘negotiate’ with the system and aspire to reform it in order to smooth out some of its edges and show its more ‘human’ face. The Case for Degrowth proposes a collection of measures within capitalism, to make it greener, progressive, … better – seemingly more sustainable –, while continuing operating under the capitalist episteme. While these measures have our support and sympathy, they may be considered as starting points, ‘in-the-box’ policies which, while rightly questioning the core problem, seems to aspire to a progressive and inclusive improvement of the capitalism, not its transcendence. Can we give birth to a post-capitalist, post-growth, non-predatory and pluriversal and convivial system with an ‘evolution’, or is ‘revolutionary’ change (Büscher 2019) needed? May both?
Furthermore, and regarding the ‘in-the-box’ measures, it is worth wondering how we will finally make progress, seeing that some of them have been demanded for decades with applications of little relative relevance (environmental taxation). Others have been moving in exactly the opposite direction (tax harmonization, progressive taxation). Or others in which rhetoric is not accompanied by facts, and which are opposed by enormously powerful neoliberal forces installed in the very heart of the Master’s house (i.e., the EU Green New Deal).
Additionally, of all the measures proposed, those that seem most likely to be implemented are ‘individual’ solutions (to collective problems): eco-villages, communal housing, co-parenting, vegetarianism, renewable energy, fair trade, ‘fair’ finance (an oxymoron, just like ‘green growth’), cooperatives, time banks, and so on. Although ‘The Case for Degrowth’ is asking for ‘the personal to become political’ (p. 64), they may be seen as alternatives for ‘the political to become personal’: individual actions taken by urban Western-centric well-educated petty-bourgeois non-racialized feminist (fe)males, who can afford to spend time and money. Regarding more collective actions, those seems to be channelled by ‘consumers’ organized in alternative and local exchange systems, eco-farmers and peasant cooperatives, self-managed cooperatives, neo-rural communities, eco-villages, time banking associations, ‘ethical’ banks (!), co-parenting associations, … which opens up an additional question: who is the political subject of degrowth? And even further, who is the political subject of post-growth and post-capitalism? Can those ‘conscientious consumers’ become the historical subject of ‘revolutionary’ change?
Negotiating Reform and Utopia
Arturo Escobar and others assert that degrowth and postdevelopment must be read as part of the same discourse about ‘transitions’, but with different origins: degrowth has permeated eminently in the global North, especially in the sphere of scholars and intellectuals related to ecology, while postdevelopment has been linked to ancestral practices and ‘other’ ontologies and epistemologies from the global South, although, admittedly, also having become a somewhat intellectual debate.
The divide is visible, and important for two reasons. Firstly because degrowth claims are not applicable to the global South. It would simply be unjust and paternalistic, speaking from a position of privilege, to deny the global South claims to material prosperity that most in the North have enjoyed for so long. Secondly, the dismissal of non-Western philosophies of living and being as romanticised ‘ancestral’ and ‘traditional’ practices with no applicability to the modern-rational world devalues them and depoliticizes their struggles.
There are obvious intersections and cross-references between the ‘Pluriverse’ and ‘The Case for Degrowth’ (not least some of the authors): both aspire to re-politicize (environmental) politics and illustrate pathways towards alternative futures. Nevertheless, the proposed means contradict each other in three main regards:
1. The differentiation between reformist and transformative alternatives
Alternatives such as ‘green’ economy, smart cities, circular economies, and so on are considered in Pluriverse as insufficient and invalid ‘reformist alternatives’; they aim to transcend capitalism and ‘development’. The Case for Degrowth tries to establish policies that negotiate with the capitalist system and the Capitalocene, as the first step to be taken in privileged North societies reluctant to question their own privileges.
2. The epistemological basis
There is a clear epistemological contradiction between both books. Pluriverse implies a break with ‘development’ – and consequently with capitalism, Western epistemologies and ontologies –: it is fundamental and radical in its dismissal of the substantive (development) before the adjective (‘sustainable development’). Pluriversal alternatives declare themselves autonomous and in a rebellious dignity with Western/modern cosmologies. The Case for Degrowth, though critical, postulates measures that do not overthrow capitalism as such: ‘green’ new deal, basic income, public finance(s),… These operate from Eurocentric standard capitalist logics, although presenting itself as an alternative.
3. The imperatives
Pluriverse is not prescriptive or imperative; it showcases the ‘global tapestry of alternatives’. The Case for Degrowth is more urgent and prescriptive: if the North does not abandon its imperial mode of living, neither is postdevelopment possible in the South, nor is it possible to have long-lasting pluriversal alternatives.
This last point is decisive in pinpointing why the two books should be read together and complementarily, especially for a readership in the global North, and despite obviously diverging epistemological underpinnings. The alliance between the pluriversal alternatives (those deemed as heterodox, radical, even ‘revolutionary’) and the degrowth ones (of which some are orthodox and mainstream, while others may be more radical and heterodox) is fundamental and more necessary than ever to avoid postdevelopment being co-opted by different interpretations of reactionary populism. It banishes the possibility that postdevelopment a simplified and superficial post-Marxist vision ignoring the fundamental elements of class and power, and which, on the contrary, reinforces the idea that any decolonial and anti-imperial alternative for the global South must be an alternative that responds to the capitalist model, that confronts the rampant global inequality, that offers an alternative to the environmental depredation that, therefore, confronts the central idea of contemporary capitalism – ‘green/sustainable growth’ (and ‘sustainable development’) – as an empty signifier reinforcing the status quo.
The clearest consequence of this is that pluriversal alternatives are not issues that concern the global South exclusively (despite the fact that it is their feeling-thinkings and knowledges that have generated many of their own ‘alternatives to development’), but postdevelopment (as well as tax justice, or environmental justice) begins, paradoxically, in the North, by renouncing the ‘right’ to an imperial model of production and consumerism, the insatiable desire for long-term growth and extraction; in short, to a colonizing, heteropatriarchal, racist, neoliberal and financialised political, economic and cultural system.
Without a model of degrowth and un-development of the North, the multi-faceted alternatives proposed in Pluriverse risk being smothered by the civilizational and ecological crises, or crushed by its irresistible expansion. It is precisely degrowth and the ‘un-‘ or ‘de-development’ of the North (Ziai in ‘Pluriverse’) that will give degrees of freedom to the consolidation in the South (and ideally in the North) of the already existing pluriversal ‘others’ and to the emergence of a ‘global tapestry of alternatives’ that offer worldviews, knowledges and alternatives to the current economic, environmental and developmental model.
Jorge García-Arias is Associate Professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Leon (Spain) and a Research Associate in the Department of Development Studies at SOAS, University of London (UK). His research is focused on issues in the realm of Critical Development Studies (neoliberalism; development finance; Latin America) and International Political Economy (financialization; EU crisis; political ecology).
Arsel, M., 2020. The myth of global sustainability: environmental limits and (de)growth in the time of SDGs. ISS WP no. 662. International Institute of Social Studies, Erasmus University, NL.
Büscher, B., 2019. From ‘global’ to ‘revolutionary’ development. Development and Change, 50(2), 484-494.
 We thank Aram Ziai for raising this point.
This is an Author’s Original Manuscript of an article published by Taylor & Francis Group in Environmental Politics on 13 Apr 2021 available online:https://doi.org/10.1080/09644016.2021.1911443 It is reproduced here with kind permission of the publisher.