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12.10.09

Vandana Shiva's "Earth Democracy"

I recently finished reading Vandana Shiva's Earth Democracy. If you've read a bit of her work, there probably won't be much in this book to surprise you. It's a longer -- but not necessarily deeper -- manifesto of the overarching political-cultural-ecological perspective she has been advocating for some time. If you haven't read much of her work, this is a good overview of what she has conlcuded (her Reith lecture covers most of the same ground in far fewer words but without citations).

The book is organized around a contrast between corporate-dominated globalization and "earth democracy," her term for a form of localized, compassionate, communitarian, sustainable way of life that globalization has attacked but which is seeing a resurgence in anti-globalization activism. The obvious criticism here (and one that's somewhat ironic, given that she condemns globalization for its Manichean either-or logic) is that the world is a lot more complex than this. Those who have lambasted her for romanticizing pre-colonial India will find little in this book that responds to their concerns (and they may scratch their heads when in the same page she lauds India for being the world leader in textile manufacturing and exports until the 1700s, then blasts the British for imposing abstract faceless commerce on the country). Whether this criticism is persuasive depends on the reader, and thus whether the simple contrast functions as a useful polemical device to clarify the kind of society she's calling for, or as a rose-colored glass obscuring the difficult navigation of the world's hybridities.

When discussing any social trend -- whether corporate globalization or earth democracy -- it's necessary to answer the questions of why and how. That is, why is this trend occuring, and how does it work. Shiva spends a lot of time on the how of globalization, describing the means by which, for example, free trade rules and US/European agricultural subsidies drive Indian farmers into crushing debt. But the why is left unanswered except for occasional references to "greed." Thus the structural forces driving the rise of capitalism are reduced to an apparent policy choice by evil individuals. On the other hand, while the why of earth democracy is apparent (who is going to say no to compassion and diversity?), the how is glossed over to a great degree. Thus Shiva calls for important resources like water and farmland to be managed as commons rather than privatized. That's fine as far as it goes -- but there's a huge literature on commons management because successfully managing a commons is a complex sociopolitical project. It's not enough to say (though Shiva doesn't even explicitly go this far) that as long as it's a commons it's good and the details can be left up to local communities. I doubt the problem is that Shiva doesn't know this, since she's worked extensively with a variety of local and global social movements. Rather, she just doesn't talk about it in this book.

Shiva's overall analysis of the state of the world sometimes reads like a compendium of left-leaning criticism of modern trends, from Karl Marx to Markos Moulitsas. She moves from fundamentally questioning the institution of private property as it emerged during the 1600s in England, to blasting specific policies of the Bush administration. Many of these criticms are gone over in an offhand way, such as her occasional references to the "Cartesian worldview" in a way that presumes the reader is familiar with it and why it's bad despite the fact that she never stops long enough to say "Rene Descartes." I agree with most of these criticisms, but in Shiva's book there are clearly times when the seams show. For example, she presents the National Parks as a government effort to protect the commons that's under seige by neoliberalism, without acknowledging how the parks were built on the disposession and destruction of Native American (and in a few cases, poor white) ways of life. Having spent a lot of time in the progressive blogosphere, it also jumped out at me -- though it plays a very minor part in the book -- that she accepts the "obestity crisis" narrative as straightforwardly true. It would have been nice to see her grapple a bit more with the complexities raised by critics of that narrative (even if she didn't ultimately agree with the fat acceptance movement the way she endorses every other leftist movement she mentions) rather than just saying #oh, and globalization makes you fat, too!#

The overall evaluation of this book depends on what its purpose is. As an overview of Shiva's philosophy in particular or left-wing criticism of globalization in general, it's quite apropos. As a rallying cry for people who have already signed on to earth democracy but could use a pep talk, I expect this book is useful as well. As a detailed analysis of the workings of the global market, I think there are better places to turn, even for people (like myself) who are disposed to share much of Shiva's political leanings and conclusions.

1 Comments:

Blogger Alon Levy said...

The problem with the plug for communitarian ways of life is that they're inherently exclusive. There are plenty of communities in New York and California based on close-knit community and sharing; they're all uniformly rich and white, because when you have to tend the same garden as your neighbor, you're probably not going to be able to cooperate with him unless he's exactly like you.

If you want to see an absurd example of where this leads, read Stanley Fish's paean to the community of Andes, New York, a picturesque town of 1,356. He calls the community strong and diverse, whereas in fact, it's 97% white; to show that the community is strong, he points to a NIMBY fight against wind power. That's the sort of social structure that you get with those self-sustaining communities - rich whites get gated rural communities, the poor get Appalachia or the Mississippi Delta.

6:13 AM  

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