Pluriversal Politics: The Real and the Possible, by Arturo Escobar (Durham: Duke University Press, 2020).
Reviewed by Alexandra Cotofana, Zayed University Abu Dhabi
Arturo Escobar’s new book continues his reflections on the concept of the pluriverse. The book is a series of essays written over several years (2014-2017), some for academic audiences, others in dialogue with activists. The essays were initially written in Spanish (some have seen revisions since their initial appearance, others incorporate new ideas). This book thus serves as a vehicle for Escobar’s latest thoughts and ideas to reach English-speaking audiences. Escobar argues for a politics predicated on multiplicity, and thus a plurality of realities – “another possible is possible.” The concept of a pluriverse is that of a world in which many realities exist, as opposed to the current extractivist, globalist, neoliberal reality that has convinced us that any alternative is narrow, even impossible, and built in its own hegemonic language. Escobar’s use of the concept of sentipensar (a way of sensing that does not separate thinking from feeling) is particularly important, as it aims to dilute Western dualisms, and create an alternative epistemology that allows for plurality in thinking and being.
Escobar helps his readers start to imagine a pluriversal world by suggesting the term radical relationality, referring to the deep interconnectedness that all forms of life have. As is clear to those interested in the ontological turn, this term aims to oppose modern epistemology and its many dualisms, including one of the most dangerous ones: human/non-human. Through the chapters, Escobar differentiates between and compares pluriversal and progressive politics, and suggests that a plurality of answers is possible to the singular political questions of our times. In so doing, he is acutely aware of the compromised position held by moderns who aspire to foster a progressive form of politics while at the same time living in the heart of heteropatriarchal capitalism. Escobar understands that the position of such activists is layered and plural in itself and invites each us to ask ourselves if our politics do much by way of destabilizing individualisms, or working towards recommunalization. He also encourages us to ask whether communalization might itself do the work of oppression.
The volume starts with a rather long preface to the English edition, which introduces the notion of pluriversality, explains why the world might need it, and then moves on to discuss those theorists and practitioners of pluriversality with which the book dialogues. Escobar then outlines the theoretical propositions of the book in the Introduction, and sets forth his manifesto for sentipensar as a way to imagine that another possible is possible. One way to think outside of the dominant reality is to understand that it is conjunctural, both in terms of the moment and in the longue durée – here Escobar refers to both the heightened right-wing manifestations of recent years, on one hand, and the multifaceted Western colonial legacy, on the other hand.
The book is then divided into eight chapters, each written at a particular time as an accompaniment to Escobar’s academic and activist engagements. The first chapter tries to make sense of how another possible could be imagined with examples ranging from indigenous ontologies to cybernetics. The second chapter discusses Latin American ways of thinking and how they provide models of thinking and doing from below, meaning from communities that have traditionally been at the margins of capitalist extractionist culture. He argues here that the crises we experience are simultaneously environmental, social, economic, political, etc., so the solutions we have to seek must also be imagined as plural, as coming from different world views. In the third chapter, Escobar engages Michel Foucault’s concept of archaeology of knowledge as method, to analyze indigenous ideas about liberating a feminized, maternal understanding of the planet as ontology. The fourth chapter, “Sentipensar with the Earth: Territorial Struggles and the Ontological Dimension of the Epistemologies of the South,” discusses the concept of sentipensar at length to help decolonize pluriversal thinking from Eurocentric dualisms.
In the fifth and perhaps most consistent chapter, “Notes on Intellectual Colonialism and the Dilemmas of Latin American Social Theory,” Escobar discusses the thorny issue of indebtedness to Western ways of thinking and considers the conditions necessary to create a new, independent epistemology. Escobar is not critical just of the market and the realm of the politics, but also extends his criticism to academia and its indebtedness to ontological dualisms, which has long inhibited imagining pluriversality. Chapter six, “Postdevelopment @ 25: On ‘Being Stuck’ and Moving Forward, Sideways, Backward, and Otherwise,” emerges from academic dialogues Escobar had on the topic of how international political actors engage with the concept of development, and how better strategies could be created. The seventh chapter is Escobar’s take on the transformations suffered by land and water. Escobar defends a relational understanding of life as opposed to an objectifying one, which latter he understands to be represented by patriarchal capitalism with all its many gendered, raced, and classed forms of violence. Lastly, chapter eight, “Beyond ‘Regional Development’: A Design Model for Civilizational Transition in the Cauca River Valley, Colombia,” focuses on Escobar’s home region in Colombia, and is an exercise in imagining another possible, non-extractionist economy. As the last chapters show, Escobar sees Latin America as the space with the ideal political topography to help him articulate a pluriversal worldling, considering the fact that Latin American peoples have managed to ontologically resist being fully absorbed by colonial capitalism.
Even though the notion of pluriversal politics is extremely seductive, the book does not do much in the way of formulating what this might look like. Even in speaking against heteropatriarchal capitalism, Escobar falls back on feminist, indigenous, and inclusive notions that are already articulated as alternatives, and the promise to help the reader open their mind to a new pluriversal sentipensar might leave some readers dissatisfied. In fact, Escobar notes from the get-go that the book does not analyze crises, nor develop new solutions, but instead begs the reader to imagine a non-dualist pluriversality from which to operate. Even so, those expecting to find a Derrida-like method of deconstruction are left with an important but by now rather well-rehearsed argument: Western capitalism is bad, it destroyed good worlds, and we can best resist it by recuperating feminine, indigenous, or queer logics. This perspective can be attributed to Escobar’s long-term activism.
Even though Escobar discusses ontology and the ontological turn quite extensively, he seems reluctant to engage with the main thinkers of the field, and the treatment of theory in the book is on the whole uneven. While Marisol de la Cadena, other important Latin Americanists, and race scholars of the Americas are well represented, Escobar seems to dedicate the book to a rather narrow regional dialogue. This would be fine, were it not for the very inclusive title of the book. Ultimately, readers might find themselves worrying whether the promise of pluriversal politics has itself been reduced to a dualism of bad versus good.