Pluriversal Politics: The Real and the Possible

Arturo Escobar, 2020, Durham: Duke University Press.

Keywords: ontology, modernity, Latin America, pluriverse, transition

Arturo Escobar makes a clear and striking case that we are at a civilisational impasse, where modernity operates to structure our thought and action in a way that causes planetary devastation and precludes and strangles alternative ways of living, dismissing them as impossibilities. Pluriversal Politics is attenuating the certainty of modernity, making a rousing call for meeting this enclosure of the imagination by fostering a world where many worlds can fit — the pluriverse — and transitioning to a new episteme founded on a radical relationality with Earth and all life. He draws from an array of movements and currents throughout Latin America, particularly from the Nasa of the Cauca Valley in Columbia, in accounting for present challenges to modernity throughout the continent and plots some theoretical and practical guidance for fostering anti-modern modes of being.

The book consists of eight separate chapters, intended to work in conversation with each other rather than be read in a linear order (having originally been independent pieces). Each advance arguments that bounce from a central postulate: broadly, that modernity has failed to protect life by ontologically segregating humans from nature and subject from object (among other dichotomisations), effectively externalising that which we are intrinsically imbricated with (the Earth and all life), rendering the natural passive and manipulable, and promoting a domineering ethos over it. Critically, this modernist episteme additionally operates to discredit and smother the emergence of alternative modes of being, creating “a single reality from which all other realities and senses of the real are excluded, thus profoundly limiting the scope of the political” (p.3).

Escobar diagnoses this as a ‘civilisational crisis,’ quoting Boaventura de Sousa Santos, where “we have modern problems for which there are no modern solutions.” We then are faced with the need to plot a path away from this asphyxiating episteme, which Escobar suggests comes in the form of pluriversal politics. Conceptually, this works to unveil the world as ontologically diverse and continually changing, where many ways of living and knowing are possible, inverting the idea of a universalised and static ‘real’ modernity upholds (p. 26). It also works to recast struggles against modernity’s trends and agents as ontological struggles, fundamentally about how to relate to others and live with the Earth, altering the frame by which scholars can approach these issues.

Escobar is careful to state that there is no definitiveness in what will come after or through these struggles, but throughout he offers many sources for inspiration, some principles for thinking toward transitions, and some broad premises of a new episteme premised on an interrelation with the Earth and all life. Generally, these are located in three ‘currents’ he identifies, summed up in the second chapter’s title from Below, on the Left, and with the Earth, those being pro-autonomy thought, thought on the Left, and Earth-thought. Not lingering too much on the Left, apart from noting positive trends that go beyond the materialism and anthropocentrism of modernity and underlining the Left’s need to undergo an “epistemic opening” to better understand the present plurality of thought and action (p. 36), the author devotes most space to developing the other two currents: pro-autonomy thought, and Earth-thought.

Autonomism, or pro-autonomy thought is premised on communality, emphasising the communal as essential to autonomous communities, in opposition to the state and modernity.  Exemplified by the Zapatistas, autonomism is a political-theoretical banner that has united many diverse subaltern groups throughout Latin America – or, Abya Yala/Afro/Latino América, an alternative naming Escobar suggests in order to better portray the continent’s multiplicity – in their resistances against the “onslaught of neoliberal global capital and individualist and consumerist modernity” (p. 38). This is the more well-known of the two currents Escobar dwells on, while Earth-thought is more diffuse and older, referring more widely to the fundamental understanding “every community that genuinely inhabits a territory knows is vital to its existence: the indissoluble connection with the Earth and with all living beings” (p. 31).

These currents, together, are asserted as theories and practices that contest modernity’s hegemony by emerging from within their own contexts, not from a detached rationality. This is where Escobar argues for an alternative conception of territory as “the space for enacting relational worlds” (p. 41), where defences of territories become a defence of life and the commons, understood as one in the same (p. 73). As a collective space for existence, territory is presented as the apogee of Escobar’s three currents, where people both ground their conceptions of the world and recover their ability to make their own worlds, making it “the pluriverse in given form” (p. 58).

Integral to this argument, too, is Escobar’s repositioning of struggles on the part of indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples in Columbia and beyond as ontological struggles, contesting ways of knowing and being rather than the conventional framings of lands and rights. He suggests their territories have been ‘ontologically occupied’ by an order “that arrogates to itself the right to be ‘the world’ and refuses to interact with all these other worlds,” asserting a singular view of progress and cancelling out other modes of living (p.39). Asserting ontology as the fundamental dimension, then, Escobar highlights the potency of ‘political ontology’ as a sub-field to both understand the conditions allowing for the continued dominance of a single conception of the world, as well as “the emergence of projects based on different ontological commitments and ways of worlding” (p. 75).

Escobar is careful to add that this pluralisation is not intended to divide worlds, but rather highlight the resonance between the various challenges to the ruling episteme. In the fifth chapter, there is a focused exploration of the potential for the formation of a new episteme from the combined challenges to hegemonic modernity from these ontological struggles, where the figure of the Earth would dominate instead of that of ‘Man.’ This, he states, would “serve life and the complex human and nonhuman meshworks that incessantly, despite the hierarchy-loving and homogenizing strategies that seek to dominate it, have always constituted life” (p. 96). This is the more hopeful projection of Escobar, a postulation that necessarily follows from his conviction that “the world that the moderns created is killing us, and thus we can assert, anthropologically, that ‘the modern tribe’ is destined to disappear, for it has been unable to invent ways of life for coexisting with the Earth” (p. 124).

A final, but essential, dimension to the work is the focus on ‘actually existing communities’ that are themselves presently engaged in struggle, such as the Nasa. It is emphasised that “knowledges derived from subaltern groups are more appropriate to the profound social transformations needed to face the planetary crisis than many forms of knowledge produced in the academy” (p. 9). This conviction is clear throughout, as the theories and practices advocated come directly from those who “are the cutting edge in the search for alternative models of life, economics, and society.”

Overall, Pluriversal Politics is a valuable contribution to conversations around politics in the Anthropocene and potential transitions. Its regional focus makes it of particular interest to those engaged in Latin America, but should be stimulating to anyone interested in environmental or political anthropology, more-than-human anthropology, or the ontological turn more widely.

Gabriel Urlich Lennon is from Aotearoa/New Zealand. He is a graduate of the MA programme in the Department of Social Anthropology at Stockholm University. His thesis focused on the process of constructing fictional worlds and the ontological disruptions this generates. 

© 2022 Gabriel Urlich Lennon

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