Gustavo Esteva and Madhu Suri Prakash – Grassroots Postmodernism: Remaking the soil of cultures

Esteva, Gustavo, and Madhu Suri Prakash. Grassroots Postmodernism: Remaking the Soil of Cultures. London: Zed Books, 1998.

This book is a passionate defense of local alternatives to neoliberal globalization.  These authors are rooted primarily in the “Third World” (specifically Latin America and India) but they are in conversation with the “First World.”  They argue that the reclamation of local tradition, and the (re-)rootedness in place is the only real alternative to neoliberalism and other permutations of “global forces.”  They insist that to defend localism is not parochial; this doesn’t preclude alliances and coalitions, but it means that the strength of these alliances (and their reason for being) will always be to defend locally-rooted, autonomous ways of living.  There’s no way to describe all the characteristics of these local alternatives, as if they could be subsumed under one big movement.  This is why Esteva and Prakash say that they can’t “speak from nowhere” (as universal intellectuals) (7).  Instead, they draw primarily on experiences and movements from India and Mexico: these are the places they know, and they continually insist that knowledge (and theory, by extension) needs to root itself in the places where we live and struggle.  Written 15 years ago, this book still seems current today.  This is because of the continued relevance of the currents that Esteva and Prakash are charting.  In some ways, this text is more relevant today, because of the continuing failure of protests and global summits, and the continuing relevance and dynamism of locally-rooted traditions.

They take on three “sacred cows” of modernity: global thinking, the universality of human rights, Homo oeconomicus (the modern individual self).  From the perspective of the radical intellectual “Left,” it’s the first take-down that is most compelling.  Most radical intellectuals seem to have dispensed with human rights and individuality, but global thinking has been a lot more resilient.  I think it’s more deeply engrained in Western thought than the other two.  In the first chapter, “From Global to Local,” they attack global thinking and defend localism.

“Grassroots post-modernism,” they explain, isn’t an attempt to invent a new school of post-modern thought.  It’s an attempt to “give a name to a wide collection of culturally diverse initiatives and struggles of the so-called illieterate and uneducated non-modern “masses,” pioneering radical post-modern paths out of the morass of modern life” (3).  They’re describing processes of detachment–happening all over the world–from the global order of dependence and control by capitalism and the state.  They also point to the “inevitable breakdown of modernity,” which is opening up spaces for this exodus, creating “opportunities for regnerating their own traditions, their cultures, their unique indigenous and other non-modern arts of living and dying” (5).  As they explain, it’s often claimed that local thinking is necessarily parochial or ineffective against the global Empire, and that it’s too parochial, “taking humankind back to the dark ages when each was taught only to look after his/her own” (21).  They insist, on the contrary, that global thinking is parochial and ineffective (and impossible).  “We can only think wisely about what we actually no well,” they explain, it’s arrogant to think that anyone can “know the globe” (22).  Even problems that seem to demand global thinking (like climate change) are poorly posed, they argue, because they encourage us to think we can transcend our culture, and play God (23).  These concepts have become reified as facts, which hide “all the socio-political and ecological dangers inherent in the illusion of the “Global Management” of planet Earth (23).  They praise authors like Wendell Berry, Gandhi, Ivan Illich, Leopold Kohr, and Fritz Schumacher, who emphasize the importance of thinking little: “on the proportion and scale that humans can really understand, know, and assume resonsibility for the consequences of their actions and decisions upon others” (23).  As I read this in a university in the hypermodern global North, it seems completely intuitive yet so detached from my everyday experience.  Almost everything, and everything I depend on for my daily life, is totally detached from my own control, and this makes it impossible for me to take meaningful responsibility for my actions.  This doesn’t mean that their argument is unrealistic, it just shows how vast this task is for those of us living in “post-industrial” contexts where we’re almost entirely dependent on globalized capitalism for everyday existence.  The only way to begin this task is through local action to regain some independence from the global system, by making us dependent and connected to our local communities.

In contrast, many alternative organizations refuse to “think little” and so engage in global campaigns, but in doing so these globalists “inadvertently function on their enemies’ turf” (24).  They indict anti-globalization protests here too, which might mobilize millions of people, but ultimately do little or nothing to stop the forces like the WTO or GATT that they are protesting (28-29).  Even if they succeed in impeding neoliberal plans of austerity and privatization, “they will only get more or less of the same from the machinery of the state to which they are presenting their “rights” or demands (29).  Furthermore, concentrating on these emblematic institutions,t hey say, “render even more opaque the technological system that maintains the myth of global power” (30).  Protesting the World Bank or the WTO, in this sense, concedes authority and legitimacy to it.  In contrast, they advocate “turning away from political structures… to spaces where they [ordinary people] can exercise their capacity for self-rule” (30).  This “renders redundant” these institutions by short-circuiting their authority.  This doesn’t mean ignoring the WTO or its implications.  This is extremely useful, they insist (31).  I think they’re making a distinction here between an analysis of institutions with global reach and their local impacts, on the one hand, and the idea that there can or should be a global resistance to these institutions or that they should be challenged on their own turf, on the other.  These institutions, along with states and corporations, “have no more power than the power people give them by “believing” in what they offer” (31).

Empires don’t go away because of some equally powerful challenge to their dominance.  Discussing the former Christian Empire, they explain, No global challenge to its world-wide domination ever succeeded.  But sooner or later, most local challenges to its domination can and do succeed” (32).  Embracing localism isn’t about “blindness, parochialism, or anti-intellectualism” (32).  Allies are important: “local peoples often need outside allies to create a critical mass of political opposition capable fo stopping these forces.  But the solidarity of colitions and alliances does not call for “thinking globally.”  In fact, what is needed is exactly the opposite: people thinking and acting locally, while forging solidarity with other local forces that share this opposition to the “global thinking” and “global forces” threatening local spaces” (33).  These local alternatives follow their own traditions of reprodcution and self-government, avoiding universalizing claims (35).

They clarify this in a discussion of autonomy.  The concept of autonomy “does not exist in any of the hundred languages spoken by the Indian peoples of Mexico” (36).  In this sense, they borrowed a concept from the dominant order to resist its force, but they also revalued this concept, because these concepts of autonomy “do not imply separatism or fundamentalism.  But neither can they be reduced to a mere search for democratic decentralization of the functions of government” (37).  This is about the autonomy of while ways of life from control and dependence of the market and the state.  The modern Western conceptions of autonomy and self-government are misleading, they explain, because these concepts tend to express the “process of absorption and integration of local or indigenous patterns of government” (39).  This isn’t about secession or creating a new state, either.  Instead of grafting local traditions onto capitalism and the state-form, these struggles aim at autonomy from the state form as such.  And they’re diverse: “local autonomy has a hundred, a thousand, a million incarnations.  In a pluriverse, there can be no one dominant notion of autonomy.  In a pluriverse, there are local spaces for endless diversity” (41).


1 thought on “Gustavo Esteva and Madhu Suri Prakash – Grassroots Postmodernism: Remaking the soil of cultures

  1. Pingback: A Zapatista Prophet Comes to Berea Pointing the Way to a New World | Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog: ". . .about things that matter"

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