Questioning Development, Transforming Modernity

By Arturo Escobar

As the world confronts an increasingly uncertain ecological future and the accompanying oppressive economic inequality, this is a good moment to take stock of what has happened with the radical critiques of development of the 1990s, and to ascertain the extent to which the idea of postdevelopment, which emerged from those critiques, could still be useful for thinking about Radical Ecological Democracy. The idea of postdevelopment was meant to, both, show the historically constructed character of “development” (and hence, oppose its alleged inevitability) as well as to create the idea that it was possible to displace “development” from its central role in defining social life and social policy. It also proposed that there were many ideas for rethinking life and policy among social movements and communities world wide –in other words, it questioned the regime of truth that only recognized expert knowledge as valid for social action. I believe these insights remain valid today.

Critics often pointed out that postdevelopment advocates were romanticizing the grassroots, or ethnic communities and social movements. They argued that these groups were also had their needs and desires, including those that of ‘development.’ It’s possible to counter this argument with a simple reversal: faced with the social and ecological devastation brought about by capitalist patriarchal modernity, coupled with the fact that things are not getting better (skyrocketing inequality, climate change) isn’t it more romantic to think that ‘more of the same,’ in whatever guise (new World Bank recipes, Green Economy, Sustainable Development Goals, or the new ‘Green Revolution for Africa’ advocated by J. Sachs) is going to lead to lasting improvement? In this context, more genuinely realist and less romantic are the alternatives emerging at the grassroots and with social movements. I would rather bet on them than on the world bankers and mainstream NGOs. Let’s recognize once and for all that development is about poverty creation, not alleviation. It follows the mandate of the current age: “Everything for the corporations! Everything for the super-rich!” Land grabbing and extractivism are the ugliest heads of this model, but they also include growing consumerism and individualism. It is not romantic, in my mind, to come on the side of those who oppose these tendencies, especially when Earth itself is ‘on our side,’ considering the warnings she is giving as we wound her ever more deeply and extensively.

Communities, Development and Autonomy

Communities are of course the site of intense forms of capitalist exploitation, patriarchal domination, and consumerism, etc. They are significantly affected by globalization and yet they are not completely determined by it. They have a capacity to define their own forms of modernity, more convivial than the dominant ones precisely because they also find nourishment in their own histories, intricately weaving indigenous and local practices with those which are not and resulting in worlds made up of different cultural strands without nevertheless fusing into one. They find sustenance in the complementarities among diverse worlds without overlooking the antagonisms, articulating with market economies while anchored in indigenous knowledge and technologies.

I would say that social groups in struggle, at their best, move in several directions at once: adding to, and strengthening, their long-standing practices, while engaging selectively and effectively with the ‘modern world,’ its practices and technologies. This ability is crucial for deepening the autonomous and communalitarian foundations of social life. Now, does well-intentioned development still have a role to play in creating a better world? To answer this question, we need to distinguish between three types of development cooperation:

a) Cooperation as development aid: this is the standard form of cooperation, practiced by institution such as U.S. AID, the World Bank, and mainstream NGOs. It takes for granted the dominant world (in terms of markets, individual actions, productivity, etc.). Cooperation under this rubric might lead to some improvements for some people but, taken as a whole, it can only reinforce colonialist understandings of development and, so, dispossession. To this I’d say: let’s keep the doors tightly closed on them.

b) Cooperation as, or for, social justice: this is the kind of cooperation practiced with the intention of fostering greater social justice and environmental sustainability; it embraces human rights (including gender and ethnic diversity), environmental justice, the reduction of inequality, direct support for grassroots groups, and so forth. Oxfam might serve as a paradigm for this second trajectory. In this case I’d say: let’s keep the door open, while applying pressure on them to move towards the third trajectory.

C) Cooperation for civilizational transitions or, cooperation for autonomy: those practicing this option would be, in my view, radical postdevelopment’s natural allies. What is interesting is that this form would go beyond the binary of ‘us’ (who have) and ‘them’ (who need), and embrace all sides in the same, though diverse, movement for civilizational transitions and inter-autonomy, that is, coalitions and meshworks of autonomous collectives and communities from both the Global North and the Global South. There are no ready-available models for this third kind of solidarity cooperation, but there are groups here and there that approach it (like a few I know in Catalunya).

Modernity and Transition

It’s of course very hard to think seriously about civilizational transition in the age of the increasingly exploitative forms of global capital. To paraphrase: it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of modernity. I would like to attempt two displacements of modernity’s centrism, starting with Ashis Nandy’s telling reversal that the pathologies of science-driven modernity have already proven to be more lethal than the pathologies of tradition. And, yet, we seem utterly unwilling to consider the creative retrieval of traditions’ history making potentiality, a task that Nandy’s ‘critical traditionalism’ embraces. Beyond a handful of philosophical treatises, critical academics rarely entertain seriously the end of modernity; most scholars react disdainfully against such proposition, disqualifying it as utopian or even reactionary. It is, however, implicit (though rarely stated out loudly) in most discourses that speak of the need for civilizational transitions.

The revered Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh has spoken openly about “transition” in his critique of consumerism (he could well be referring to development as addiction): “[T]this civilization of ours will have to end one day. But we have a huge role to play in determining when it ends and how quickly. … Global warming may be an early symptom of that death.” He goes further, inviting us to actively accept the end of our civilization by meditating on this thought: “Breathing in, I know that this civilization is going to die. Breathing out, this civilization cannot escape dying. He is calling us to move beyond a civilization that has become antithetical to the ontology and ethics of interexistence. This idea has found a recent lucid expression in the domain of insurrectionary politics: “The biggest problem we face is a philosophical one: understanding that this civilization is already dead … [its end] has been clinically established for a century” (Invisible Committee, To Our Friends, p. 29). For this group, it is the West that is the catastrophe –nobody is out to ‘destroy the West,’ it is destroying itself.

For us, moderns (I include myself here), actively facing the ontological challenges posed by the idea of the end of modernity –of a world significantly different than the current one– is not easy; it induces a type of fright that is deeply unsettling. How do we articulate this civilizational anxiety in effective ways? After all, most other worlds have had to exist (and still do) with the fear and, not infrequently, the reality of their vanishing.

I have found two responses among European and Latin American academic friends: first, that what they perceive as a condemnation of modernity is not fair because the West itself is plural, inhabited by dissenting voices and plural modernities. This is an important corrective to the tendency, in our critiques, to homogenize the West/modern. We need to acknowledge the many, peripheral and alternative forms of modernity, the non-dominant Wests that exist within the West. At the same time –I say to these colleagues– we need to do it decolonially and post-developmentally, in other words, without disavowing the privileges accorded to all things European (especially white European), and without reinforcing Western modernity as the de facto (naturalized) site of reason, progress, civility, and so forth in contrast to the alleged barbarism or unviability of other worlds. And, in my view, the best way to do so is to see clearly how we are all in this together, that the Liberation of Mother Earth (as the indigenous Nasa people of Colombia put it) and the defense of the pluriverse (‘a world where many worlds can be embraced,’ in the Zapatista dictum) is a project we should all embrace, from wherever we are, whether in the Lacandon forest or in the heart of Europe or Cali or Mexico City, or what have you.

“Living In Between”

So, our critique is not really ‘anti-European’ or ‘anti-West,’ but in pro of the liberation of Modern Earth and the pluriverse. In fact, the Earth and the pluriverse are all of us, not just ‘indigenous peoples.’ The ethnic and indigenous movements have not created these concepts just for themselves, but for all of us. They apply to all of us. It is incumbent upon those of us ‘in the belly of the beast’ who would like to defend those other non-dominant modernities to set into motion effectively their differences with the dominant West, thus joining forces with those opposing the assemblages of patriarchal, eurocentric, and racist capitalist modernity from the peripheries of the Global South; those struggling day in and day out to construct territories for re-existence in mutually enriching ways with the Planet. This is the meaning, for me, of inhabiting ethically and politically the civilizational crossroads in which we are enmeshed at present. And this means that we all need to make serious efforts at vivir entre mundos, to live in-between, with and from multiple worlds, as we attempt the re-communalization of our daily existence.

Another way to say the same thing is that we need to resist endowing ‘modernity ‘with the ability to fully and naturally occupy the entire field of the social, making invisible or secondary other ways of instituting it, including what has been called ‘traditions.’ This brings me to the point about constructing other forms of re-existence. This would include the question of how we might cultivate ourselves as subjects who desire non-capitalist, non-liberal and non-modern forms of life —more autonomous, convivial and communal. In the field of transition visions and narratives, re-localization (of food, energy, transportation, health, etc.) and the re-communalization of social life (reconnecting with other humans and non-humans, including the spiritual worlds) are emerging as two principal criteria for moving in this direction; these are the sine qua non conditions for living beyond development. Autonomía is the name given by Latin American grassroots struggles to this attempt at creating conditions for re-existence and a thoroughly contemporary art of living. Again, this concept is not just for those in the peripheries, but for all. How do we think about autonomous living and communities everywhere, and perhaps particularly in the densest and most consumption-oriented liberal worlds, namely, those of today’s middle classes world-wide? This is one of today’s greatest challenges, and debates on degrowth, postdevelopment, and radical ecological democracy have a lot to contribute to making it tangible and realizable.


Arturo Escobar is Professor of Anthropology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. His main interests are: political ecology, ontological design, and the anthropology of development, social movements, and technoscience.  Over the past twenty years, he has worked closely with several Afro-Colombian social movements in the Colombian Pacific, particular the Process of Black Communities (PCN).  His most well-known book is Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World (1995, 2nd Ed. 2011).  His most recent books are

Sentipensar con la Tierra. Nuevas lecturas sobre desarrollo, territorio  y diferencia (2014),

Designs for the Pluriverse.  Radical Interdependence, Autonomy, and the Making of Worlds (In press).

Pictures – Ashish Kothari


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