When I hear the word ‘postmodernism’ outside of a seminar room, it is usually spoken with distaste. It has come to signify a deliberately impenetrable intellectual jargon, cliquish, fashion-conscious, its fashions suspected of coming straight from the Emperor’s New Wardrobe. For many, its chief characteristic is a radical relativism that leaves no ground for the kind of value judgments that make it possible to act for change.
Whether or not this is fair to the thinkers most closely associated with the term, it is certainly unfortunate for Gustavo Esteva and Madhu Suri Prakash’s recently reissued book Grassroots Postmodernism, first published in the late 1990s. For this is a book that will bemuse those expecting a contribution to the esoteric discourses of the seminar room, yet one that may prove more satisfying to those whom the title might put off.
The idea that we are living ‘after modernity’ reflects a sense that the future has failed. The origins of academic postmodernism lie in the retreat into the university of activists and thinkers whose hopes for revolution had been disappointed in the events of 1968. Since then, a more general disillusionment has spread through the Western world, beginning in the crises of the 1970s, muddied by the neoliberal boom years, then given new clarity by the systemic crisis that broke out in the autumn of 2008. Opinion polls confirm that the basic assumption of economic progress – that each generation will grow up more prosperous and with greater opportunities than their parents – no longer rings true for most of us. The failure of the promises of modernity is no longer a theoretical matter, but part of the everyday experience of people in Western societies.
Despite its radical roots, the postmodernism of the seminar room has little to offer to people trying to make sense of their lives in the absence of progress. But another set of voices may be more helpful: the voices of those of the same generation who retreated not to the universities, but to the mountains, the villages and the slums, where their thinking was challenged and deepened by encounters with the stubborn refusal of peasants and Indigenous people to be confined to history. This is the source of the other postmodernism, which Esteva and Prakash seek to articulate, whose echoes can also be caught in the words of John Berger, Subcomandante Marcos, or Vandana Shiva – who has written the introduction to this new edition.
In both Grassroots Postmodernism and The Future of Development – Esteva’s most recent collaboration – the failure of modernity is exemplified by the failure of the promise of international development, as experienced in countries such as Mexico and India. The unravelling of this promise leads to the questioning of a number of concepts previously held to be beyond criticism. These include the fantasy of ‘thinking globally’, which always in practice means attempting to extend a way of seeing the world with roots in a particular time and place into a framework into which other cultures are required to contort themselves. In the case of international development, the most problematic aspect of this framework is the idea of the atomised individual, possessed of a set of rights. The question of how we can challenge injustice within our own and each other’s cultures without appealing to this kind of individualism is one of the major discussions in Grassroots Postmodernism, while The Future of Development offers advice for those who want to know how to put their idealism into practice.
Both of these books belong to a larger set of conversations particularly associated with the friends and collaborators of Ivan Illich, and they represent an ongoing improvisation around themes that are recognisable from Illich’s own work. Of particular value is the contribution of Salvatore Babones to The Future of Development, drawing on his background in quantitative social policy to provide a forensic analysis of development statistics.
The greatest strength of both books is that they avoid the academic trap of treating critique as an end in itself. Rather, they are the work of people engaged at the grassroots, for whom thought and action are inseparable. They deserve to be read widely within the international development sector, but they also contain important clues to finding our own ways beyond the dead ends of modernity in the troubled societies of the post-industrial West.
Published in Resurgence: Issue 289.