Five axes of transition: Imagining “alternatives” for the post-pandemic future

Arturo Escobar

Transitions and transition design have been an active focus of research and practice for me since Designs for the Pluriverse (2018, but published in Spanish in 2016), particularly through transition- related projects in Colombia and, more recently, in the context of the intense debates on the post-pandemic, as they have been taking place in Latin America. I mentioned the latter aspect because while many narratives of transition have focused on the relation between the pandemic and capitalism, the most interesting in my view tackle this relation through the broad lens of civilizational ruptures and transitions, which have been prominent in Latin America. I would like to share my own sense of strategies for transition in the context of the pandemic and beyond, and what follows is a schematic rendition of the tentative argument to which I have arrived. It takes the form of suggesting five axes or principles for thinking about strategies for transitions, whether through design or through many other forms of collective action.  Each of these five axes is easily connected to pressing issues and open questions in anthropology and design, including ontologically oriented inquiries.

The recommunalization of social life

This first axis of action thinking begins with a resounding no to individual solutions at any stage of the continuing pandemic or coming crises; they obscure their roots and promote the stigmatization of particular groups. Generally speaking, it is decisively important to actively and explicitly resist the ever more efficient individualization of subjectivities imposed by modern capitalism in its global phase. Intent on creating subjects who see themselves primarily as individuals making decisions in market terms, globalization has entailed an uncompromising war against everything that is communal and collective. History teaches us that human experience has largely been placed-based and communal, carved out at the local level. This condition of existence is an important dimension of relationality and responds to the symbiotic co-emergence of living beings and their worlds, resulting in “communalitarian entanglements” that make us kin to everything that is alive. Oaxacan activists refer to this dynamic as the condicion nosótrica de ser, the we-condition of being.  If we see ourselves nosótricamente, we cannot but adopt the principles of love, care and compassion as ethics of living, starting with home, place and community – this not in order to isolate ourselves but to prepare for greater sharing rooted in autonomy, for communication and compartencia (“sharingness”). These emphases might be translated into design guidelines, even to deepen the insights of existing notions, such as those of “resilient communities.”

The relocalization of social, productive, and cultural activities

Human history has always seen movement, flows, regroupings. Delocalizing pressures, however (often times imposed by force, as with the various experiences of enslavement throughout history, and with today’s dramatic dispossession of peoples and communities by large-scale extractivist projects), increased exponentially with the development of capitalism and even more in the age of development and globalization. Given their high social and ecological cost, we need to oppose these pressures; the pandemic has fostered a new awareness that capitalist globalization is not inevitable when life is at stake. As Gustavo Esteva stated, the crisis reestablishes fully the importance of the local and of real people, many of whom are abandoning the role assigned to them by society in order to re-communalize. It is imperative to relocalize multiple activities in order to regain the rootedness in the local. Food is one of the most crucial areas; it is also one of the domains where there is greater communalitarian and relocalizing innovation, that is, innovations that break with the patriarchal, racist, and capitalist way of living; the emphasis on food sovereignty, agroecology, seed saving, commons, and urban gardens are instances of this renewed will. These relocalizing activities, even more if they take place on an agroecological register and from below, might foster transformations of national and transnational production systems, revaluing the commons, and reweaving ties between country and city. Emphasis is placed on relocalization on the basis of a series of active verbs-strategies: to eat, to learn, to heal, to dwell, to build, to know. This involves a significant reorientation of the worlds we inhabit. There is a plethora of re-localizing activities worldwide, which can be tapped into through active anthropology/design interfaces (for instance, in transition movements, and debates on degrowth, commons, energy transitions, and so forth).

The strengthening of autonomies

Autonomy is the political correlate of recommunalization and relocalization. Without the former, the latter would only go half way or might be re-absorbed by newer forms of delocalized re-globalization. There has been a vibrant debate on autonomía in Latin America since the Zapatista uprising of 1994. Autonomy is thought at times as the radicalization of direct democracy, but also as a new manner of conceiving and enacting politics, understanding politics as the inescapable task that emerges from the entanglement of humans among themselves and with the earth, oriented to reconfigurations of power in less hierarchical ways, on the basis of principles such as sufficiency, mutual aid, and the self-determination of the norms of living. All of this requires thinking about strategies of “overturning and flight” in relation with the established orders of capitalist modernity and the state. In many parts of the world, autonomy is at the crux of a great deal of political mobilization but also of less openly political practices. At its best, autonomy is a theory and practice of inter-existence and of designing for and with the pluriverse.[1]

These first three areas aim at the creation of dignified lives in the territories, rethinking the economy in terms of everyday practices of solidarity, reciprocity, and conviviality. There are many clues for this project among those groups who, even during the Covid-19 pandemic, have continued to be dedicated to the production of their own lives, constructing instead of destroying, reuniting instead of separating. These are tangible and actionable principles of “dream-designing” (disoñación) and re-design required for a selective but substantial de-globalization. We can intuit the end of globalization as we know it, or at least the beginning of a globalization in different terms, such as the paradigm of cuidado, or care — in which case it might not be called globalization–, and an impetus towards the pluriverse, or a world where many worlds fit. They could be seen as an antidote against destructive globalization, against a normative middle-class way of life marked by agonizing consumption, against the ever deeper grafting of bodies onto ubiquitous digital technologies, whether cell phones, laptops, earphones, “apps” or “alexas,” that subvert our personal and collective autonomies with our complicity and seemingly to our liking.[2]

One final comment: to relocalize, recomunalize, and strengthen autonomies necessarily involves the reconstitution of the naturalized concept of the economy: on the one hand, to decenter it, that is, to see it as one of the most influential civilizational onto-epistemic operations of capitalist modernity, which separated the economy from the rest of life, assigning it the central role in society (Quijano 2012); second, to undertake in earnest the task of constructing other economies on the basis of relationality, centered on livelihoods, the commons, and the reproduction of, and care for, life. There is much to be done along this crucial path, which involves the decolonization and de-economization of social life, labor and markets. We find clues for this endeavor in popular economic practices that, operating in multiple worlds at the same time, inter-weave processes of communalization with capitalist processes, thus de-globalizing economies through their “persistent disobedience to capitalist markets”, albeit in a tense and contradictory way. Contemporary movements in defense of the commons, social and solidarity economies, and degrowth point in one way or another in this same direction.[3]

The depatriarchalization, de-racialization and decolonization of social relations:

The worlds, ontologies, and civilizational projects associated with patriarchal capitalism are seemingly immune to attempts at dismantling them. Its power assemblages are strongly naturalized in our desires and subjectivities and in the concrete designs of the worlds that we inhabit and that entrap us. It is necessary to go through them, day in and day out, in order to etch out other ways of inhabiting the world. We are reminded of the stakes at hand by the Latin American feminist dictum that there is no decolonization without depatriarchalization and deracialization of social relations. To depatriarchalize and deracialize requires repairing the damage caused by the heteropatriachal white capitalist ontology, practicing a “politics in the feminine” centered on the reappropiation of collectively produced goods and the reproduction of life. In places inhabited by racialized and ethnicized women, such politics involves following the peaceful routes they travel as they reconstitute their territories and maintain dignified lives, as the Afro-Colombian philosopher Elba Palacios suggests in her work with poor Afro-descendant Black women in Cali, Colombia. “In their territories, women give birth to life and to modes of re-existence”, says this activist-researcher; the women teach us that “to re-exist means much more than resist; it involves the creation and transformation of autonomy in defense of life, through a sort of contemporary urban maroonage that enables them to reconstitute their negated humanity, reweaving communities in the historical diaspora”. This feminist and antiracist optic is essential to understand and strengthen the processes of recommunalization and relocalization in many places.

The depatriarchalization and deracialization of social existence imply repairing and healing the tapestry of interrelations that make up the bodies, places and communities that we all are and inhabit. This emphasis is particularly well articulated by the diverse movement of communitarian feminisms led by Mayan and Aymara activist-intellectuals, such as Gladys Tzul Tzul, Julieta Paredes, and Lorena Cabnal. Tzul Tzul highlights the potential of the communal as horizon for the struggle and as a space for the continuous reconstitution of life. Her perspective is absolutely historical and anti-essentialist; it designates the complexity of thinking from and living within entramados comunitarios (communitarian entanglements), with all the forms of power that traverse them.[4] From this perspective, the reconstitution of life’s web of relations in a communitarian manner is one of the most fundamental challenges faced by any transition strategy; as stated by Argentinean anthropologist Rita Segato: “We need to advance this politics day by day, outside the State: to re-weave the communal fabric as to restore the political character of domesticity proper of the communal,” she says. And continues: “To choose the relational path is to opt for the historical project of being community. . . . It means to endow relationality and the communal forms of happiness with a grammar of value and resistance capable of counteracting the powerful developmentalist, exploitative, and productivist rhetoric of things with its alleged meritocracy. La estrategia a partir de ahora es femenina” (the strategy, from now own, is a feminine one; my emphasis).  This feminist and radical relational politics needs to be incorporated into many, or all, designing practices and into anthropology designed.

The re-earthing of life.

We arrive, finally and necessarily, to the Earth (Gaia, Pachamama, co-emergence, self-organization, symbiosis). By “Earth” I mean – based on indigenous cosmovisions as much as on insights from contemporary biological and social theory — the profound interdependence of everything that exists, the indubitable fact that everything exists because everything else does, that nothing preexists the relations that constitute it.  Earth signals the capacity of life for self-organization, life’s ceaselessly unfolding flux of changing forms, forces, behaviors, and relations, and the fact that entities, processes, and forms are always in the process of dependent co-arising.  As the great biologist Lynn Margulis put it, “Gaia, as the interweaving network of all life, is alive, aware, and conscious to various degrees in all its cells, bodies, and societies”. I take this notion of Earth as the horizon for a renewed living praxis, and as the basis for the essential act of human dwelling. There are many expressions of the intensely felt need of re-integrating with Earth at present, from liberal and economistic notions of sustainability to amazingly lucid frameworks in terms of a “Commonsverse” –the commons as pluriverse–, to mention one of the most recent.

One of the most politically and onto-epistemically radical proposal in this regard has been offered by the Nasa indigenous people of Northern Cauca in the Colombian southwest. For nearly two decades, their Social and Communitarian Minga has been articulating a powerful project around the concept-movement of the Liberation of Mother Earth, as part of their strategy of “weaving life in liberty.” As they say, Earth has been enslaved, and as long as she is enslaved, all living beings on the planet are also enslaved.  Their struggle involves both the active recovery of lands and a different mode of existence. “This struggle”, they say, “comes out of Northern Cauca, but it is not Northern Cauca’s struggle. It comes from the Nasa people, but it is not the Nasa people’s. Because life itself is at risk when the earth is exploited in the capitalist way, which throws the climate, the ecosystems, everything out of balance.” As they hasten to clarify, it’s a project for everybody, since we are all Earth and pluriverse. “Every liberated farm, here or in any corner of the world, is a territory that adds to reestablishing the balance of Uma Kiwe [“Mother Earth”]. This is our common house, our only one. Yes, indeed: come on in, the door is open.”  What does it mean to accept this invitation, whether in the countryside or in the city, in the Global South or the Global North? The Liberation of Mother Earth, conceived from the cosmocentrism and cosmoaction of peoples-territory such as the Nasa, invites us to disoñar (“dreamagine”) different worldings and designing, ones propitious to the reconstitution of the entire web of life, the sustainment of the territories, and communalized forms of economy, wherever we are.

The liberation of Mother Earth, as an imaginary for peoples and collectives, wherever they happen to be, is not as utopian a project as it might seem. For historical reasons, Latin America has been preparing for this fundamental project at many levels, generating little by little an entire onto-epistemic and political space where the Earth-centered struggles, knowledges, and critical thought, all converge. This convergence has become more noticeable in the wake of the multiplicity of struggles triggered by resistance to the brutal extractivism of the past few decades, in the conviction that the devastation of the planet is not an inevitable destiny. The Earth question has attained an incredible urgency, powerfully expressed by environmental philosopher-activists such as Mexican Enrique Leff and Colombian Ana Patricia Noguera. For Noguera, to the “geometries of atrocity produced by a calculating world,” Latin American and Abya-Yalan environmental thought responds with a “geo-poetics of weaving-dwelling” geared towards original modes of inhabiting the planet.  There is, in these expressions of environmental discourse, as in indigenous, Black, peasant, feminist and ecological struggles, an entire archive of categories and practices to think paths to concrete transitions.

Concluding thoughts

The anthropology/design interface may be considered a space in which to visualize the huge challenges faced by all human action in the current planetary/political conjuncture: how to re-situate such action, design and anthropology included, within communality and the Earth, without overlooking the multiple power relations that circumscribe such open-ended onto-epistemic and political horizon. “Can there be a design culture and practice that stops being anthropocentric… and embraces the idea of radical interdependence … and capable of operating in the reality of the contemporary world?” ask Manzini and Tassinari.[5]  What does it mean to live, act, and design within a living Earth, one deeply traversed by fierce destructive forces, ontologies, and political economies, according to the insights of interdependence? What tools, collective inquiries and concrete actions can we imagine from the perspective of communality, relationality, pluriversality? Which communalitarian and re-localizing innovations can we imagine that break with the state- and market-dependent patriarchal, racist, and capitalist way of living and re-center human praxis on the defense and care of life and Earth, thus opening up novel paths for existence?

“When we think with the audacity of world builders,” the practitioner-theorists from the Design Studio for Social Intervention tell us in their “Letter to Our Readers” in a recent book “we begin to see not just new ways of fighting for a more just and vibrant society, but whole new ideas about what that world might be like.” In their view, this requires seeing ourselves as designers of everyday life, interested in what’s possible at the level of social life. What profound rearrangements are we yearning for? They ask. Let’s heed this call with all our hearts and minds, so as to give collective form and impetus to our deepest yearnings for other worlds and worlds otherwise. 

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Arturo Escobar was professor of anthropology and political ecology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, until 2018, and is currently adjunct professor with the PhD Program in Design and Creation, Universidad de Caldas, Manizales, Colombia, and with the PhD Program in Environmental Sciences, Universidad del Valle, Cali. He is an activist-researcher from Cali, Colombia, working on territorial struggles against extractivism, postdevelopmentalist and post-capitalist transitions, and ontological design. Over the past three decades he has worked closely with several Afro-Colombian, environmental and feminist organizations on these issues.  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: Designs for the Pluriverse: Radical Interdependence, Autonomy, and the Making of Worlds (2018), and Pluriversal Politics: The Real and the Possible (2020).  He is currently working on a book on relationality (Designing Relationally: Making and Restor(y)ing Life) with Michal Osterweil and Kriti Sharma. He was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in April, 2021.


References:

[1] For a European view based on a related notion of autonomy at the place/communal level, see Manzini (2019).

[2] The challenge of de-digitalization and the slowing down of the intensification of the virtual is huge; as a recent Spanish text put it, “digital life cannot be a permanent substitute for real life, and the surrogate debates that take place today on the internet will never be able to replace the presence in flesh and blood and the live dialogue.” See https://ctxt.es/es/20200501/Firmas/32143/riechmann-yayo-herrero-digitalizacion-coronavirus-teletrabajo-brecha-digital-covid-trazado-contactos.htm

[3] We may quote Vaneigem, the Situationist, to bring home the civilizational stakes in rethinking the economy: “The economy is everywhere that life is not…. Economics is the most durable lie of the approximately ten millennia mistakenly accepted as history…  There is only one terror: For most people it is the fear of losing the last illusion separating them from themselves, the panic of having to create their own lives. … Civilization was identified with obedience to a universal and eternal market relationship… Nature cannot be liberated from the economy until the economy has been driven out of human life. … As the economy’s hold weakens, life is more able to clear a path for itself” (pp. 17, 33, 36; my emphasis).

[4] Contrary to common thinking, indigenous communitarian formations are not homogeneous but plural; neither do they suppress personal expression: “The communal does no place limits on the personal, it rather potentiates it. The communitarian entanglements provide the grounds on which personal and intimate lives are sustained” (Tzul Tzul 2018: 57), even if the organization of life, of politics and of the economy is realized collectively and every family has to engage in these practices.

[5]  Prompt for the session on “The Politics of Nature: Designing and the Ontological Turn” organized  by the DESIS Philosophy Talks, International Participatory Design Conference, PDC2020, June 18, 2020; see https://www.pdc2020.org/programme/conversations-2/).

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