Review of the book “Gustavo Esteva: a critique of development and other essays”
Gustavo Esteva remains one of the most committed post-development thinkers and public ‘deprofessionalized’ intellectuals of our time.
By Carlos Tornel 1)
He is perhaps best known for his work on post- development: his 1991 essay entitled ‘development’ became the central piece in Wolfgang Sachs edited volume that would embody Gustavo’s thought and action towards reclaiming, defending and creating commons throughout his life. However, Esteva contributed greatly to several schools of thought. I met Gustavo Esteva in 2015. My first encounter with him was one of the most profound intellectual and existential transformations of my life. I remained in contact with Gustavo until March 2021, when he sadly passed away. However, his work remains one of the most critical and comprehensive propositions of post-development and pluriversal thinking.
In the latest book published by Routledge –Gustavo Esteva: A Critique of Development and other essays (2022)– , a book that Gustavo personally oversaw at the very end of his life, is proof not only of Gustavo’s unwavering commitment to a pluriversal autonomous transformation beyond the state, market and formal democracy, but a testament to his relentless pursuit of the possibility of creating a radical plurality of conviviality between worlds. The book, which consists of a series of essays written by Esteva throughout his intellectual life, embodies a body of work and an intellectual path that is difficult to summarize in one volume, much less on a book review. However, the care that Gustavo, his editors and translators invested into these texts, each one carefully selected and presented in a particular order (some of them translated into English for the first time), along with introductory notes by Esteva himself, provide a systematic and comprehensive view on his work expanding over the 5 decades.
The book begins with Esteva in a conversation that took place in 1992 with Theodore Shanin, a few months after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The conversation is led by a sense of the political urgency of transformation and autonomy (the interview is accurately titled Re-thinking Everything), as Shanin reflects in the dialogue: “Communities appear to be a solution to this problem we’re discussing” (p.16). The dialogue is, as Gustavo argues, an accurate and assertive view of the multiple crises of the collapse of Western civilization, as capitalism devolves into a state of permanent crisis. This is a key point Esteva retakes in the second essay, Beyond Development. In it, Esteva explains how he himself became ‘underdeveloped’. A process that originated on January 20th, 1949 with Harry Truman’s inaugural speech, development transformed needs, from something you do – like shit-, to something you require or you lack. The myth of development quickly became embedded into people’s lives, eliminating otherness and humiliating those that resisted. In a small introduction to the text by Ivan Illich – who was a key influence in Gustavo’s thought and a friend throughout the rest of his life-, he notes how the work of Gustavo with ‘marginales’ in zones like Tepito -a peripheral neighborhood in the center of Mexico City-, became the basis of a moral economy, a process that begins by resisting the humiliation of government housing programs after the earthquake that shook Mexico City in 1985, and inaugurates multiple communitarian possibilities of liberation leading them to reclaim and regenerate their commons, opposing the supposed ‘need for experts’. As Esteva argues ‘for them, detaching themselves from the economic logic of the capitalist market or the socialist plan has become a matter of survival: they are trying to put the economic sphere on the margin of their lives; interaction within these commons prevents scarcity (in the economic sense of the term) from appearing in them, which implies the redefinition of needs’ (p. 286).
In the 1970’s, Esteva, still a committed marxist, saw Lennin’s questions (what is to be done?) from a different perspective. In Mexico, The Protagonists of Social Change were not the workers, but peasants. Esteva saw a new class emerging, one that could very well still be exploited by capital through wage or through colonial forms of exploitation, but again he saw the marginals as a possibility for emancipation – as a new form of communal configuration that could create communitarian support to liberate themselves from the subordination to capital. His work on the commons and the notion of comida became a point of entry into this transformational approach. Quoting Galeano (1998: 54), Esteva used to say that we live in paradoxical times, where ‘whoever is not afraid of hunger is afraid of food’. Esteva saw development as the source of both scarcity and the producer of hunger. To transform ‘food’ into ‘eating’ or comida (because ‘there is no English word for ‘comida’’ (p.60)), the notion is intended to show that by embodying the simple idea of going from nouns to verbs, people can reclaim their own paths, and shatter the myth of development.
In a third section of the book, Esteva engages with the notion of plurality as the key towards autonomy. In The Radical Otherness of the Other, Esteva explains how he was able to toss the tinted glasses of development to open his thoughts to other realities or worlds. From his encounters with Ivan Illich and Raimon Panikkar, Esteva explains that the radical differences that separate us as human beings are constantly denied (i.e. we are all humans) and paradoxically, through the myth of inclusion or recognition erases otherness creating only condescending forms of hospitalities. His answer to this paradox is what Raimon Panikkar called “dialogical dialogue” or the position of radical pluralism. Estava asks: how can we, after acknowledging the radical otherness of the other, engage in a dialogue with him or her? (p.107) The key, Gustavo argues, is hospitality. Gustavo used to say that he remembered a conversation with Illich, who asked him if he could identify a word to describe the era after development, what would it be? ‘I quickly answered ‘hospitality’’ (O'Donovan, 2015). To be hospitable, he argues, is not to follow the other, to adopt his/her views, to affirm him/her, or to negate him/her. Hosting the other simply means to open your own doors for him/her and to accept his/her existence in his/her own place. Hospitality is the opposite of tolerance, which is just a more discrete form of intolerance (p. 122).
To learn to listen is to be able to be transformed by the other without losing yourself in the process.
In The Path towards a Dialogue of Vivires, Esteva argues that, while important contributions are still being made by decolonial thinkers to recognizing that otherness, most notably through the idea of a dialogue of knowledges (Santos, 2014), a true convivial path would require acknowledging not only that there is no supraculture, but that we will not be able to completely and fully understand the other. Gustavo used to capture this attitude in a phrase by Zapatista Comandante Tacho: ‘to dialogue is not simply to hear the other but to be willing to be transformed by the other’ (p. 146). To learn to listen is to be able to be transformed by the other without losing yourself in the process. Or as Gustavo would argue, with reference to how Indigenous communities in Latin America maintain their Indigeneity, it entails ‘the tradition of changing tradition in a traditional way’ (p.135). Listening to and having a dialogue with the other not only shifts the fetishization with ‘seeing’ in Western Eurocentric modernity, but also allows us to recognize the inherent incommensurability of cultures, which is essential to resist the superficial and co-opted notions such as multi or interculturality.
The Zapatista uprising in 1994 was to Gustavo a collective awakening. From the call to say Enough! (¡Ya Basta!) The zapatista formula became one of the most important socio-political movements of our time. The seven Zapatista principles, from listening while we walk, walking at the pace of the slowest and ruling by obeying, became means of showing a disinterest in taking power and governing a state or country, demanding instead a radical form of recognition on their own terms, towards autonomy, freedom and radical democracy. ‘Hope is also called dignity’ (p. 170) Esteva argues, reflecting on how the Zapatista challenges the Modernist insistence on the vanguardism of struggles against the state, which quickly led to a struggle for the state, replacing one intelligentsia with another. As he writes “we must recognize that the nation-state, be it the most ferocious dictatorship of the gentlest and purest democracy, has been and remains a structure for dominating and controlling the population, to put it at the service of capital. The modern state is the ideal collective capitalist” (p. 171).
In the final section of the book Esteva lays down the basis of a pluriversal path forward. Starting with an Archipelago of conviviality, an idea he relates to the Zapatista metaphor of the sinking boat of capitalist modernity: when the boat is sinking a few, seeing the futility of taking control of a sinking ship, choose to swim to other shores to see other possibilities. The Insurrection, he argues, is not coming (The Invisible Committee, 2009), but is in fact ongoing. It consists of everyday forms of resistance in these archipelagos, of rebellious dispersion embodied in communal forms of disobedience that begin by substituting nouns for verbs like eating, learning, healing, dwelling, and exchanging. These processes create multiple paths towards other knowledges, those that have been historically oppressed and that are now resurging. Here, Esteva’s critique of capitalism, drawing on other thinkers like Anselm Jappe (2011), focused on recognizing the fact that capitalism has no real need for people anymore – people are literally ‘good for nothing’ he would say, a process that is quickly descending into a form of universalized barbarism (p. 133), an awareness that is quickly becoming visible as millions of people are on the move against the multiple symptoms of a system in crisis.
Esteva’s unyielding commitment to hope manifests again here when he argues that, despite this generalized state of exception, people also woke up. Like in many other moments of crises, solidarity emerged. ‘People begin to see their places again, the specific persons around them, even those neighbors who barely said hello’ (P.252). It is in the face of such great challenges that hope, friendship and surprise, the three words Gustavo identifies as the Keys to the New Era, emerge as the political concepts that enable us to look towards other horizons of possibility. Esteva sees these keywords as much more than simple attitudes, but he sees them as the ways in which people can root their struggles in convivial forms, as he argues: ‘rooted in our social and cultural soil, nourishing hopes with friends at a time in which all of us, inspired by the Zapatistas, are creating a whole new world, open to the surprise of another era’ (p. 279).
Throughout his life, Esteva remained committed to thinking-doing-feeling from and with the grassroots. He saw himself as part of a weaving of multiple experiences, a knot on a network of concrete relationships (p.99), both personal and communal from the margins, where he saw the emerging paths towards conviviality, autonomy and Buen Vivir. In his obituary, Brend Reiter shares a piece of correspondence with Esteva where he reflects on his own positionality as being in-between – that is inhabiting different worlds-. Despite his initial hesitance to accept the label, he accurately recognized how he was able, like only a handful of others, to experience many worlds, and to actually embody a path towards radical pluralism: Gustavo is perhaps one of the few thinkers that embodied throughout his life's experience the Zapatista motto: we learn as we walk.
Esteva’s work remains essential and critical because it continues to ask the most essential questions that should worry all of us: “how to change a reality that is unbearable, how to dismantle a regime capable of continually destroying both the planet and the social fabric, how to transform a reality which maintains increasingly intense forms of confrontation and violence as a new status quo.” (p.vii). As we continue to experience the civilizatory crisis of capitalist Modernity, the motto that Esteva embodied should resonate with any society in movement, with any one experiencing dignified rage and with anyone that yells Enough!: “Against fear: Hope!” Hope is the anchor that roots us to the world, to a place, to our friends and what gives way to hospitality and solidarity. It is only with and through hope that paths towards autonomy and conviviality actually become possible. This is indeed the time for radical hope.
Esteva, G. (2022). Gustavo Esteva: A Critique of Development and Other Essays. Routledge Decolonizing the Classics. London and New York: Taylor and Fracis.
Galeano, E. (1998). Patas arriba: la escuela del mundo al revés [Head Over Heels: School World Upside Down]. Madrid: Siglo XXI.
Jappe, A. (2011). Ante la descomposición del Capitalismo y sus críticos [Before Capitalism Decomposition and its Critics]. Logroño: Pepitas de calabaza.
O’ Donovan, O. (2015) Conversing on the commons: an interview with Gustavo Esteva—part 1. Community Development Journal, 50(3): 529-534.
Panikkar, R. (1990). Sobre el diálogo intercultural [On Intercultural Dialogue]. Salamanca: Editorial San Esteban.
Santos, B.de S. (2014) Epistemologies of the South Justice Against Epistemicide. Routledge. London and New York: Taylor and Fracis.
The Invisible Committee. (2009). The Coming Insurrection. Los Angeles: Semiotext.
“Gustavo Esteva: A Critique of Development and other essays”. Routledge [Decolonizing the classics series], London and New York, 2022
1)Carlos (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a doctoral candidate in geography at the University of Durham, England. His main research interests focus on the process of transition, justice and energy sovereignty. A more detailed version of this review appeared on [[https://antipodeonline.org/2023/04/11/gustavo-esteva-a-critique-of-development-and-other-essays/|Antipode website]