Alternatives to what?: From “The Divide” towards the “Pluriverse”

by Julia Schöneberg

Postdevelopment proponents offer the most radical critique of past and present development policy and cooperation: It is failed. Rather than thinking about alternative development approaches, reforms and refinements, they call for a full abandonment of “development” as a discourse, as a vision and as a practice. Proponents like Escobar, Esteva, Sachs and many others have been challenged as merely offering critique, but no construction. Indeed, the vision for alternatives to development remains blurry. Almost 25 years ago, Escobar proclaimed that truly just alternatives can only source from the grassroots, the local, the communities. This may be right to some extent, yet realising that grassroot alternatives are not existing in a vacuum, but in a system of globalised, neoliberal capitalism makes it hard to imagine how these alternatives can claim their just and legitimate spaces.

Alternatives to what?

I have stated elsewhere that alternatives must be thought simultaneously from what one might want to call in, admittedly, broad and sweeping terms, the “top” and the “bottom” (i.e. the global and the local). However, before thinking through what that might entail, it is important to clarify “alternatives to what” are in demand. In postdevelopment literature and beyond, “Alternatives to Development” have been called for, but this call may not comprise the full picture. After all, “development” more than once has been identified as a container term, an empty signifier devoid of any meaning and vulnerable becoming co-opted for and filled with dominant, euro-hegemonic political discourses and agendas. At the same time, it continues to be seen as something normatively good that somehow only needs to be fixed and made better to eventually work. In this regard, Anibal Quijano’s conceptualisation of the “coloniality of power”  serves as a helpful tool for getting to the core of what is meant by demanding “Alternatives to”. Quijano has traced the roots of current and persistent divides and structural inequalities. He has mapped how race as a category of global, social classification remains closely intertwined with eurocentric and hegemonic rationalities of power and capitalism. The coloniality of power is made up of a racialised regime of rule and a regime of exploitation. It becomes clear: what is ultimately required is breaking the power of and building alternatives to coloniality. Postdevelopment (or post-development) may be one aspect, but not the only one. Since “development” is merely an instrument linking regimes of power and regimes of exploitation a more holistic frame as to what “alternatives to” seek is post-coloniality. Alternatives must aspire to break and overcome the structures and logics of power and exploitation and not remain (semantically) confined to “development”.

From “The Divide” towards the “Pluriverse”

Here, we need to turn to the practical application of critiques and arguments that are rooted in oftentimes abstract de- and postcolonial traditions. Connecting this with the call for practical alternatives, I want to link two books that recently have sparked discussions in one of my classes: Jason Hickel’s “The Divide” and the edited volume on “Pluriverse. The Post-Development Dictionary”.

In “The Divide”, Hickel tackles the unwaivering belief that poverty is a natural phenomenon that can and must be countered through aid. He sharply dissects how structures of the global economic system work to produce and maintain inequalities. Under the heading “From Charity to Justice” (Chapter 8 of “The Divide”) Hickel makes propositions to counter structural divides. These include debt cancellation, the democratization of the institutions of global (financial) governance, fair trade, just wages, tax justice, land sovereignty among others. Yet, he also admits that as long as GDP growth remains the universal yardstick, proposed reforms are unlikely to be achieved.

“Pluriverse” offers a bunch of concepts, cosmovisions and practices showcasing the utopia of a “world in which many worlds fit” in contrast to western-propagated universalism. The editors make a distinction between “reformist solutions”, merely aiming at universalizing the earth, and what they frame as “transformative initiatives”, seeking to unfold a pluriverse of alternatives.
While the alternatives described source from all parts of the world, they share fundamental commonalities as to what a good life and well-being entails: unity of human and non-human, community and interdependence, sovereignty and self-government. All of them critique the logic and impact of the anthropocene, (neo)-extractivism and uncritical belief in euro-modernist ideologies of progress and growth. As Walter Mignolo has argued, “a Pluriverse is not a world of independent units (as is the case with cultural relativism) but a world entangled through and by the colonial matrix of power.” Mignolo (2018), in proposing a  project of pluriversality to counter the universal project of “development”, pinpoints: “Pluriversality as a universal project is aimed not at changing the world […] but at changing the beliefs and understandings of the world […], which would lead to changing our (all) praxis of living in the world. Renouncing the conviction that the world must be conceived as a unified totality […], and viewing the world as an interconnected diversity instead, sets us free.”

Connecting the dots

Hickel sets out to propose reforms of the existing system of global governance that is deeply rooted in the idea of the nation state and that requires fora such as the UN where representatives of states rather than of communities or groups come together. The “Pluriverse”, on the other hand, focusses on the grassroots and maps the very context-specific and localised alternatives that are already existing and that continue to be imagined. Some of them demand radical autonomy and self-rule. The idea of radical democracy as well as the role of the state remains to be explored further in this context, but is certainly in opposition to the existing frames of global governance. It is important to point out that contrary to the common strategy in “development” practice to name and identify “experts” for finding solutions, these alternatives need not be thought up, they already exist in communities and are alive, but oftentimes silenced. Postdevelopment alternatives can exist alongside and in respectful interdependence with each other, yet they need a space for being able to unfold.

I wonder if we can think Jason Hickel’s propositions in combination with the more utopian outset of the pluriverse. Reading “The Divide” and the “Pluriverse” alongside each other demonstrates how much they work in complementarity. The alternatives and solutions sketched out are by no means comprehensive, but they illustrate not only the need, but also the options for alternatives to coloniality – both from the “top” as well as from the “bottom”. Thinking and working for alternatives is not an either/or question. It is not of any help to argue in disciplines and silos. What is needed is a movement of (intellectual) work and practice combining post- and decolonial critiques of coloniality and asymmetric power divides, similarly on local, regional, national and global levels . This transformative practice takes place in the global North and South likewise. The compass is clear. As Ashish Kothari formulated in a recent keynote in Kassel: “There is one ‘no’, but many ‘yeses’.”

I thank the participants of my “Introduction to Postdevelopment” course at Kassel University that have, in the most respectful way, challenged each other and myself as to what it means to think through and practice truly transformative alternatives to “development”.

Julia Schöneberg is a post-doctoral researcher at the Department for Development and Postcolonial Studies at Kassel University, Germany. She can also be found on Twitter.

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