RED Conversations Series – The Emerging Idea of “Radical Well-Being”

This conversation is based on Paul Robbins’ reading of Ashish Kothari’s article “Radical Well-Being: Alternatives to Development” (forthcoming in Research Handbook of Law, Environment and Poverty, Philippe Cullet and Sujith Koonan (eds), Edward Elgar), and in response to the latter’s keynote presentation on ‘Eco-swaraj: Radical Ecological Democracy – Alternatives to Unsustainability and Inequity’ at the 2nd Biennial Conference of the Political Ecology Network (POLLEN) held in Oslo, June 2018.

Paul Robbins: Let me start by saying how resonant Ashish Kothari’s vision is with me. Once, many years ago, and I don’t remember exactly where or when, I was asked what I would do if I was given a month to live. My answer at that time, and it remains the same now, was that I would take my last 30 days on Earth to travel the planet and record things that WORKED – social-ecologies that ran athwart of, or orthogonal to, the crushing devastation we see more typically across the world. That would not be time wasted, and now, in a sense, I know why. Providing a road-map to “Radical well-being,” Ashish Kothari has corralled countless cases of success and distilled them into principles whose political ecologies go beyond critique.

It is precisely in this way that Kothari’s is an inspirational manifesto, and by no means merely an aspirational one. What makes this paper tick is its deluge of success stories; actually existing socio-ecologies that work, that cut against the hegemonic order, and fit into the complex political jigsaw puzzles presented by local politics. After all, every local solution, especially ones with collectivist vision, has to fit the peculiar matrix of its context. But here we have a litany of visionary projects, from Venezuela’s neighborhood assemblies, to Rajasthan’s watershed governance, to Barcelona’s social currency. None of these contexts are simple communitarian ones, and Kothari’s effort to document success amidst labyrinthine local contexts is what makes the essay sing. This can be done! In dark times; so much light!

Kothari’s call in particular for an economic localization that must include “local control over the means of production, trade and reproduction, and the re-commoning of privatized lands” got an AMEN out of me in my margin notes! And I’m like… an atheist. I would volunteer my own local case for addition. In the early 1970s, a proposed mega-dam project on the Kickapoo River in southwestern Wisconsin failed, in the face of organized environmental opposition and skyrocketing costs. But, by then the damage had been done. Countess families had been put off their land, and now the valley fell into silent neglect with half a giant berm still jutting out across the waterway (it can still be seen today). The land became a destination for competing users: hunters, foragers, campers, and horse rider. Its governance, however, dissipated, leading to conflict, invasive species, and land degradation. And then, something happened! From the ashes of this ruin came the Kickapoo Valley Reserve; a locally devised partnership between residents, dispossessed families, and the sovereign native Ho Chunk nation, a community who had been displaced long before this failed federal effort. Unique in the US, this reserve is community-managed, autonomous from federal authority, and collaborative between Anglo settler communities and sovereign indigenous ones. Its rules make no pretense to a “wilderness” but do parse out rights and responsibilities for locals and visitors, making it one of the most welcoming landscapes in the US Midwest. It exists in Kothari’s state of radical well-being. You are all invited to come and canoe its waters, meet its leaders, and learn its lessons. And this in the United States! To borrow from Frank Sinatra – if it can make it there, radical well being can make it anywhere.

This is a long way of saying that there is little to criticize here, since Kothari paints a picture not only of the world I would want to live in, and indeed also one that sometimes exists, piecemeal, but also cookbook for making it so; this is the essay’s specific genius.

But, that doesn’t mean I don’t have questions. I’d like to ask six.

PR: First, I’d like to query the role of science and expertise in Kothari’s utopia. As someone who has spent his career undermining scientific authority and its pernicious role relative to marginalized ways of knowing, I often get the question: “hey, Paul, in the post-truth era, don’t you think undermining the authority of experts is a regressive project?” I certainly don’t think so, and Kothari appears to agree, making his direct and delegated democracy one where the power of experts is balanced with other epistemologies. Even so, I think the explicit calling out of “modern science and technology and ‘experts’” to be pretty provocative. You have called elsewhere in the essay for certain kinds of technological interventions, however, including those that “revolutionize energy and material efficiency” (you sound like an eco-modern there). So, who decides what technology is allowed or forbidden in a world of radical well-being, and if an autonomous community collectively chose, say GMOs and nuclear power – because I’m here to tell you that some will! Would this align with your thinking or oppose it?

Ashish Kothari: I think the role of knowledge is crucial for a just world, and is very much part of the key spheres of transformation that I put at the core of Eco-swaraj or Radical Ecological Democracy. However, as you also note, this cannot be the only form of knowledge; indeed, part of the transformation is to decolonize our minds, academics, education, and other aspects, to get away from the dogma that the only form of knowledge worth having or using is modern science. We need to bring back into respectful co-existence various forms of knowing; and of course with this the wisdom that we so often ignore or lack in our relationship with the rest of nature or with each other.

You raise two other issues here, which are crucial. One, are we falling into a trap if we discard modern science in an era where ‘post-truth’ politics is deliberately ignoring it or even demonizing it (e.g. in the discourse on climate change)? Yes, I think we are. I have no problems re-asserting the importance of modern science, fighting off the cynical manipulations of the ‘post-truthians’; but even as we do this we must assert always the equally important role of other forms of knowledge.

Which leads to the second issue you’ve raised; what if a self-governing community decides to adopt GMOs, or set up a nuclear power or coal-fired power station? They could well assert that their knowledge base tells them it’s fine. I think this is where eco-swaraj / RED would say, OK!, but does what you are proposing, meet the values of direct democracy, social justice, ecological resilience and sustainability, knowledge and cultural diversity, and economic democracy? Your decision may be based on the principle of autonomy, but does it meet the values of interconnectedness, responsibility, respect of the rest of nature, etc.? Are you sure that what you are proposing, will not negatively impact some other community of humans, and/or some other species? Where will you mine the materials you need for your power stations from, will this violate the rights of autonomy of a community, there? If you use GMOs, can you ensure that their genes will not travel across your boundaries and affect the crops of a neighboring community that believes in organic, non-GMO agriculture? Essentially, autonomy and direct democracy cannot be seen in isolation of other spheres and values of eco-swaraj.

Thirdly, your question raises the more general issue of who decides what ‘sciences’ (or more broadly, forms of knowledge) and ‘technologies’ are OK? Assuming that we are in agreement on the criteria for deciding what is OK (i.e. sustaining or furthering the goals of justice etc. laid out in the eco-swaraj framework), we still need to figure out how we will ensure that knowledge and technology, indeed, develop in this way. This is especially hard to conceive of in a world where technology appears to have taken a life of its own (and indeed may well do if we believe in Black Mirror or I Robot kind of scenarios … entirely plausible given what’s happening in AI technologies). But like other aspects of human life, knowledge/technology are also subject to the social, political, cultural, economic forces that are dominant in society. So, if we can conceive of (and begin to practice at least in some of the ‘nowtopias’ existing around the world) fundamental systemic changes in these realms, we can also conceive of knowledge/technology being much more in the public or commons domain, much more subject to democratic assessments and

Technology has to be subject to democratic assessments and governance rather than continuing to serve the interest of the 1%.

governance, much more able to empower the currently marginalized, much less capable of being the slaves of capitalists, statists, patriarchs, and other holders of power in an unequal world. Wiki kind of platforms, open source software, books published with creative commons or Copyleft, and so on, are examples of this. As more and more people also look for fulfilling work (more on this below), the realm of democratically governed knowledge/technology will, I think, grow. Not that these are not subject to capitalist and state take-over … they are, and it will take very vigilant peoples’ movements to resist this.

PR: Your vision of power is deeply decentralized (like that of apparently everyone at this meeting), providing convivial autonomy from the violence of stateism. All, to the good! Do you think that highly localized power has any risks of its own? The history of the United States is fairly instructive on this front, especially during the era of Civil Rights struggles, where centralized power was wielded by minority communities to break the back of localities demanding “autonomy”. Indeed 620,000 Americans died horribly in the 19th century, doing what you call: “facilitating the resolution of conflicting norms”. Does localism have any risks and how are they mediated or ameliorated in “radical well-being”?

AK: This ties in well with the question and my response above. For the same reason that autonomous governance or radical democracy cannot be seen in isolation in the case of a community wanting to use GMOs/nuclear power etc., exclusionary autonomy or localization which violates another community’s autonomy and well-being, or indeed violates the autonomy of its own members, becomes questionable. Hence the importance of other aspects of eco-swaraj, especially the stress on interconnectedness and responsibility, and on basic human rights and the rights of other species or the rest of nature. The argument of the resurgent right-wing in Europe, against immigrants, would not fit in a RED world. Nor would an approach in which local governance enables a few powerful amongst the community to violate the rights and well-being of others within the same community … for instance in India, which is highly patriarchal and casteist, of women or the so-called ‘lower’ castes.

This raises, of course, the question of when does an intervention into a local self-governed collective’s affairs, by ‘outsiders’, become justified, and how is such an intervention to be made? It would be difficult to provide any general approach to this, as local situations can be so diverse. But if we look at the possible approaches to democracy that are encompassed in the eco-swaraj or RED framework, we realize that locally autonomous collectives are also inextricably networked or linked into governance institutions at wider landscape level, and up the geographic scale to the entire globe. All such communities even as they practice autonomy, are or should also be part of these wider relationships, and therefore part of dialogues and agreements (or disagreements) on basic values and principles. And at various levels there would then also be institutional mechanisms for redressal and resolution, including possible interventions where collective’s actions are violating the fundamental rights and well-being of some other collective or of their own members. Note that such mechanisms are in themselves a concession to the need for some form of centralized power in a world where everyone has not yet internalized the values of eco-swaraj; as the latter happens more and more, the need for such regulations and interventions will also go down. I’m reminded of William Morris’s News from Nowhere in which an elderly man explains to a befuddled time traveller who has woken up sometime in the future, how society has come to treat ‘crime’ and conflict … with regulations becoming less and less necessary as more and more people live satisfactory lives, and as some crucial roots of conflict such as private property, are done away with.

I recognize, of course, that in actual practice all these things are messy, and very, very difficult to argue and implement … and we are still quite far from such scenarios … but at least let’s be clear on what our stand would be with regard to the limits of local autonomy, if we care for justice.

PR: How big is too big and how would we know? Your vision of confederation is interesting. The new world begins with autonomous collectives that then aggregate through limited “ecoregional” trade and social relations. When is such aggregation in violation of anti-stateism. How can these be managed?

AK: I think we need a lot more conceptualization and experimentation on this; I’m not sure anyone has completely figured out the relationship between direct democracy collectives on the ground, and the larger level governance mechanisms at landscape to global levels. And, indeed, the question of when these larger structures could assume the shape of a state looms large? This also rests a bit on our notion of state: are we talking of a governance mechanism (which all collectives, even anarchic ones, will have) which is meant for coordination and collective functions that individual communities cannot perform on their own), or are we

The contours of direct democracy are still taking shape and will become more defined and detailed with experimentations at the grassroots level, and through interactions with larger governance structures.

talking of fixed institutions with centralized powers that rule over units of direct democracy (including the current form of nation-states)? If it’s the latter, then, indeed, we need to fight for statelessness, actively encouraging the state ‘to wither away’. If it’s the former, however, then it should be possible to conceive of mechanisms and institutions, which are fluid in terms of their composition (e.g. where the delegates or representatives from on-ground communities and collectives are constantly rotating), and subject to methods of ensuring accountability (e.g. delegates/representatives being recallable, having to report back to their communities, having to keep all records and documents in the public realm, etc.), that adhere to the principles of eco-swaraj or radical democracy.

Even as we struggle towards such a future, of course, in the here and now we are confronted with the ‘state’ in its various manifestations of centralized power, and will have to be part of movements to make them more democratic, accountable, and capable of performing the crucial functions of coordination and safeguarding the interests of those currently marginalized or exploited.

PR: Your notion of democratic participation includes a strong dependency on something you refer to as “maturity”, “needed to overcome other distortions, such as majoritariansm”. Now, I live, for reasons that escape reasonable explanation, in the United States, where such maturity is currently in short supply. Does depending on maturity to foster democracy, as you see it, undermine the project to any degree? And, if an autonomous local collective behaved in an immature way…. say, undermining minority rights, how would our world of radical wellbeing correct this very likely aberration?

AK: I think these are ‘learning by doing’ and ‘doing by learning’ processes. The maturity to take decisions that are ecologically sensitive, socially just, and so on, cannot be a pre-requisite to experimenting with radical ecological democracy, but should certainly be something crucial to strive for through this experimentation. For instance in India, processes of self-governance have started as assertions of a community vis-à-vis the state, but have realized over time that there are internal fault-lines that disable some sections of the community, e.g. women, from participating. The community may then forge corrective pathways, e.g. establishing special forums to facilitate women’s empowerment eventually leading to their being able to participate on equal terms with the community’s self-governance institution. This kind of evolution, of course, also requires the other 3 ingredients of radical democracy: rights of participation, accessible forums for participation, and the capacity to participate meaningfully. An initiative may take off based on one or two of these, and gradually build in the others (or not, in which case it will fail or only partially succeed in creating a truly emancipatory democratic process).

The question of what should be one’s response if a community (or country!) does not display such maturity is similar to the one above about a community that uses its autonomous powers to accept GMOs or nuclear power. The community is not isolated, it is networked into larger processes, and these processes need to have mechanisms of dialogue and facilitation to enable the community to realize mistakes it may be making. I’ve already mentioned some elements and challenges with this approach, above.

PR: The vision forwarded here heavily assumes some things about labor. Time-sharing and labor equivalence have been called for since Marx’ time and certainly help us imagine a world of use values rather than exchange values (though Marx directly critiques time currency efforts as insufficient). All to the good. But you go farther, actually calling for a “renewed emphasis on labor-intensive industries and infrastructure”. Even Kropotkin imagined a move away from such an economy, with technology offsetting drudgery in fields, factories and workshops. Is this an essential, or merely a good-feeling-swadeshi part of this economic matrix? Does this model work in a world where machines and energy do the work formerly assigned to laborers? Because, if it doesn’t, then the model runs not only against the state and capital (which is awesome), but also against the tilt of history. Hand-made cane furniture could, in theory, be the foundation of a 22nd century economy? But why – from an economic theoretical point of view – should it be?

AK: I’m afraid I have no idea why this would be needed from a “theoretical economics’ point of view … unless one takes a radically different economics than the one in sway right now, such as the ‘economy of permanence’ propounded by JC Kumarappa, following Gandhian principles. As an aside, it’s surprising that no one has yet come up with a comprehensive alternative macro-economics to challenge the currently dominant neoliberal one, though of course there are brilliant contributions to the making of one by several ecological economists.

Coming back to your question, earlier this year, I was at Schumacher College in UK, and noticed a sticker about an initiative in the town of Totnes whose slogan was: “The Future is Handmade”. In 2008, I went to a community fair in Maine in the USA, and was happily surprised to see stall after stall of people doing things with their hands (or feet) … stitching clothes, making furniture, cycling to produce electricity, and more. IT industry folks in so many parts of the world, including India, are eager to get into farming. Of course, these are still small numbers of people compared to those who’ve succumbed to the ‘remote control’ world where machines do everything for us except eat and make love. But I think these numbers are growing. Now, if people in the most mechanized societies and sectors on earth are getting back into producing things with their hands … with human labor … when they have all the machinery around them to produce these things, what does that tell us? That, perhaps there is an urge in us to take back control over production from machines (or in effect, though this may not be an explicit goal for many such people, from those who design, make and control the machines). If the need to work, to labor (in its positive sense, not its connotation of drudgery), to have meaningful livelihoods, to use not only our heads but also our hands and feet, are basic human needs, why be shy of asserting that labor-intensive production has to be a crucial part of eco-swaraj?

This does not mean that this is a future without machines, not at all. For the vast majority of people in countries like India, labor-intensive production processes are a matter of sheer survival, just being able to hold on to some livelihood. Gandhi was clear when he said that he was not against machines per se, but against machines, or mechanization, that displaces livelihoods. Most of the capitalist-led mechanization we are seeing in recent times has been at the cost of livelihoods and jobs; hence the infamous ‘jobless growth’ that economies like India (growing at an average of 5-6% per annum for the last couple of decades) have seen for

Machines that allow people to escape dehumanizing and degrading work will always be necessary and welcome.

many years. Machines that reduce meaningless drudgery, or that free exploited sections like Dalits in India from doing degrading and abusive jobs like cleaning up human waste, are welcome. So, for me, human labor is as important as the dignity we attach to it.

Ultimately, what we do with our own hands and what we do through machines are choices society will make. My bet is that the more democratic our decision-making processes and our economies become, and the more our educational institutions are able to create learning environments in which there is a balance between head, hand, and heart, the less likely it is that people will give over to a predominantly mechanical, robot-run world.

PR: Finally, you dedicate a single paragraph to policy, consigning it a less important role than the “social contract”. I get that. Two questions: One – what policies do you need now to get from here to there, in concrete terms. The case of the Forest Rights Act in India is an interesting one, which cuts both ways, I’d say – where central authority is needed to assure autonomy. We could spend all day on the FRA. And Two – to what degree does dispute resolution without the rule of law exist in the myriad excellent examples you have provided, currently?

AK: People’s movements have this constant tension between struggling for fundamental, systemic change in which the notion of the state itself needs to be challenged, and fighting for greater spaces within the existing system. I’ve, myself, had to straddle the two, and I’m not sure I’ve succeeded! But while I deeply believe in the need for revolution along the lines outlined in my presentation, and try to join movements that are pushing for transformations, I also have been involved in advocacy for policy changes. The tricky part is, when does the latter lose sight of the former, and end up lending further legitimacy to the state or to other structures of domination?

You mention the Forest Rights Act (FRA) in India, and I can add the Right to Information Act. Both are ‘progressive’, as they provide considerable powers to citizens and communities towards reducing the hegemony of the state on issues like people’s relationship with nature and access to information. The FRA has the potential to reverse 200+ years of centralized forest governance, and for a few hundred million people the potential for secure, sustainable livelihoods. We certainly need more

Officials conducting spot verification of “Individual Forest Rights”. The “Forests Rights Act” in India is a long awaited move in the direction of decentralized forest governance. Pic. Ashish Kothari

policies and laws of this kind; and I would include here, on top of my wish-list, a law that gives all of us the right to participate in any decision that affects our lives (reference, above, the ingredients of radical democracy I laid out). Or policies and laws facilitating organic agriculture, moving us towards sustainable consumption patterns, putting a ceiling on salary levels, radically redistributing land, making all nature and natural resources a part of the commons, and so on … the wish-list is long!

But, there are limits to what all this can achieve. The two laws mentioned above, require having to apply to the state for getting the information one needs, or the recognition of forest rights. We are therefore legitimizing the nation-state, even as we are trying to make it more accountable. To my mind a movement on the right to information needs to go beyond the right to access information in government files, to a regime where all information (other than that which is strictly personal or private relating, e.g., to our bodies) is automatically in the commons. Or in the case of forests, the struggle for rights to forest land has to be deepened to a struggle for autonomous self-governance in general. And, eventually all this would lead to questioning the nation-state itself … but I guess we’ll have to wait for another conversation to go deeper into that!

On the 2nd part of your question above: indeed many of the initiatives that we have documented in India, and I know of many in other parts of the world, do have strong mechanisms of dispute resolution (or to use a stronger term I recently learnt from colleagues in Venezuela and Bolivia, “conflict transformation”). They use either traditional customary law, or newly established rules governing the community and its commons. Institutions of self-governance like village assemblies (or in an example I recently visited, Christiania Freetown in Copenhagen, neighborhood assemblies), are regularly tackling disputes and conflicts within and between collectives. We have even come across communities who impose a fine on members who go to the police before first coming to the local institution! Of course, and I emphasize this, not all of these mechanisms are equitable and fair, many can be the locus of hierarchical power dynamics, and this relates to the earlier question about the limits of autonomy. But they do exist, and in many cases are much faster and fairer at achieving resolutions or transformations than are statutory processes. Currently, I suppose we need a balance of these different forums, but in an eco-swaraj future, the principles of anarchy would mean the absence of the state as we know it now, and therefore the absence of centralized statutory law. And I’m going to leave it at this tantalizing thought, before you ask the 7th question: ‘how do we get there’?!


Ashish Kothari is a co-founder of Kalpavriksh Environmental Action Group.

Paul Robbins is Director, Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, University of Wisconsin – Madison, USA.

 The interviews in the RED Conversation series are not an exact transcription of the recorded interview. They are an approximation based on an interpretation as well as a summation of the original interview. A video of the POLLEN presentation by Ashish and a part of Paul’s remarks as a discussant are available at

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