Questioning Vandana Shiva

Swans Commentary

August 27, 2012

by Michael Barker


Vandana Shiva is an international phenomenon on the environmental scene and a well-known eco-socialist activist and writer. Ian Angus recently observed that while Shiva “isn’t a socialist,” nevertheless “she has done more to advance the cause of environmental protection and human liberation than many self-declared radicals who stand on the sidelines proclaiming their ideological purity.” (1) This is no doubt true, but given the extent of her influence across the global environmental movement it is critical to subject her ideas to ruthless criticism, especially when serious concerns have already been raised about the political implications of her work. With this in mind, this article will review the problems raised for discussion by fellow feminist, Professor Regina Cochrane, in her highly critical article, “Rural Poverty and Impoverished Theory: Cultural Populism, Ecofeminism, and Global Justice,” which was published in 2007 by the Journal of Peasant Studies and was subsequently awarded their prestigious Krishna Bharadwaj prize. (2)

Fundamentally, Cochrane takes issue with Shiva’s “left” populist notion of “culturally-perceived” poverty, which she argues “is not only elitist but also complicit with globalized capitalism and reactionary currents that are on the rise worldwide.” (3) According to Cochrane, as a highly regarded subsistence ecofeminist, Shiva attempts to make the case “that much of what is thought to be rural poverty is not poverty at all, but simply manifestations of culturally ‘other’ forms of ‘difference’.” Within feminist literature this notion was “first employed” by Shiva in her book Staying Alive: Women, Ecology and Development (Zed Press, 1989), and is now “widely used” by various ecofeminists and post-development thinkers aligned with the so-called anti-globalization movement. (4)

After providing a brief summary of Shiva’s ideas vis-à-vis poverty, Cochrane highlights how her work “contains many overt references that are in keeping with a post-development framework.” A framework that not only provides a useful critique of capitalist development theory, but “goes far beyond a critique to insist, as Shiva does, upon a ‘total rejection of development’ without offering any alternative other than the revival of ‘surviving [subsistence] economies’ and local traditions.” Such an approach presents a problematic and highly romantic view of the real-existing poverty of subsistence economies. (5)

In staking out a populist position, Shiva is following the well-worn path of privileged ‘Third World scholars abroad’ who, upon graduating from metropolitan capitalist universities — and sometimes even obtaining positions there — become the voice for Third World nationalism. Fuelled by a ‘radicalism [that] is cut off from the real struggles of ordinary peoples’ [Nanda, 2003: 25, 33] and thus identifying nation rather than class as the victim of a globalizing capitalism, this scholarly elite reject a socialism that is internationalist in scope for a nationalist capitalism ‘with a human face’. In so doing, they end up ‘adopting the standpoint of traditional elites who feel threatened by the new cultural attitudes and the demands of their traditional subordinates’. Given the prevalence of liberal guilt and the hegemonic identity politics of the metropolis, the ‘local knowledges’ of this scholarly elite are readily validated, explains [Meera] Nanda [2003: 131, 248, 265], as ‘”epistemologies of the oppressed” …[rather than as] part of the ruling ideologies in many non-Western societies’. Challenging this view, she insists instead that ‘Western friends of the Third World have an obligation to understand the complete social history of ideas in situ in other cultures’. (p.174)

To gain a better understanding of the evolution of Shiva’s ideas on “culturally-perceived” poverty, Cochrane determines that the “two prefiguring sources that provide Shiva the general foundation for her work are the ideas of on the one hand Mohandas Gandhi, and on the other Western feminism, especially the work of American historian of science, Carolyn Merchant, and of German sociologist and later collaborator, Maria Mies.” Here Cochrane also draws our attention to Shiva’s “‘mythical’ account of India’s Chipko — or ‘tree-hugging’ — movement which she portrays endorsingly as having Gandhian roots.” (6) Another problem identified by Cochrane is that Shiva’s critique of development draws largely upon the work of Gustavo Esteva, a writer whose more recent book (co-authored with Madhu Prakash), Grassroots Postmodernism: Remaking the Soil of Cultures (Zed Books, 1998), likewise adopts an “anti-modernist stance… reinforced by Gandhian populism.” (7)

While Shiva claims that her concept of “culturally-perceived” poverty was “derived from an ‘African writer’,” it appears that this notion “actually originated with the late East German Green, Rudolph Bahro.” With regard to this source, Shiva cites Bahro — “whose ‘intellectual’ framework is New Age spirituality” — who in turn refers to a book called Poverty: The Wealth of the People. In the interview that Shiva cites, Bahro said that the book had a “title I liked very much…” “From this remark,” Cochrane observes, “it is not clear whether Bahro — let alone Shiva — has even read the book.” Indeed, this book does not even appear to exist, and it seems more likely that the book they refer to is Poverty: Wealth of Mankind (Pergamon Press, 1979), published by “Beninese political scientist, administrator, and politician, Albert Tévoédjrè.” This oversight helps explain the “dissonance between the arguments outlined in Bahro’s text and the ones made by the ‘African writer'” who, as it happens, “actually outlines a strong critique” of “culturally-perceived” poverty. (8)

In this superbly written, carefully researched, and cogently argued text, Tévoédjrè [1979: 2-3] does distinguish poverty as ‘destitution and misery’ from ‘the rehabilitation of poverty… as a positive value’. However, instead of post-development he calls for an ‘endogenous development’.

… In keeping with his call for endogenous development rather than the rejection of development, per se, Tévoédjrè [1979: 85, 153] opts for a ‘co-operative republic’ oriented around political liberty, justice, participation, and solidarity rather than for a populist revival of tradition. Finding it ‘distasteful to hear well-fed people extolling the virtues of peoples that suffer from poverty’, he warns that a ‘religious and poetic idealizing of poverty… has been widely used and exploited by many with the aim of dominating, subjugating and becoming wealthy by making others even more wretched’ Tévoédjrè [1979: 8, 10]. (p.180)

Shiva’s sloppy scholarship maybe considered de rigueur in the corporate world, but for a radical critic of the status quo it is highly troublesome to say the least. But unfortunately this is not a one-off complaint, and Cochrane further illustrates Shiva’s “lack of intellectual rigour” by citing Richard Lewontin’s cutting criticisms of her book Stolen Harvest: The Hijacking of the Global Food Supply (South End Press, 2000). Furthermore, on a more fundamental level Tina Roy and Craig Borowiak take Shiva to task for “‘remain[ing] willfully uncritical of the economic, social, and political cleavages within and across rural communities’ and of the continuities between her views and agrarian populism.” Cochrane, however, points out that a “more basic problem… is the unquestioning manner in which academic feminists and others in the West have made Shiva into the global celebrity she is while ignoring the excellent work of other Indian feminists.” (9) Yet the “situation gets considerably more complicated” when the thesis of “culturally-perceived” poverty…

…is examined in relation to the current historical conjuncture of neo-liberalism and rising fundamentalist and right-wing nationalist currents, North and South. Hence the concept of poverty as ‘culturally-perceived’, together with its populist baggage, readily lends itself to complicity with contemporary globalized capitalism in a number of significant ways. Moreover, in terms of political practice, Shiva and the main populist currents/mentors feeding into her thesis of ‘culturally-perceived’ poverty have all ended up moving onto the same ground as Hindu fundamentalism, nationalism, and/or the European New Right. (p.183)

Moreover, drawing upon the work of James Overton, Cochrane adds:

In both North and South, populist ideas like ‘culturally-perceived’ poverty can also have the unintended consequence of justifying the wage cuts associated with neo-liberalism and of helping legitimate neo-liberal discourses focusing on the issue of ‘dependency.’ All in all, by pushing most of the responsibility for solving social issues back onto the rural poor themselves, subsistence strategies can end up serving as a political safety-valve for the crises and unrest generated by neo-liberalism. (10)

Cochrane warns of the problems that can result from “the entanglement of notions like ‘culturally-perceived poverty’ with cultural identity and cultural difference…” Here she cites Tom Brass, who writes that such confusion may eventually lead to a situation whereby “[T]he rich and the powerful are simply culturally ‘different’ from the poor and powerless and the economic ‘difference’ of the latter is not merely part of their culture but much rather a form of empowerment.” (11) Such a conflation of ideas whereby “culturally-perceived” poverty is interpreted as cultural identity creates yet more problems by “facilitat[ing] the reduction of capitalist globalization to ‘globalization’ and thus to modernity.” “In this manner,” Cochrane continues, “post-development populism assists in the colonization of the ‘Anti-Globalization’ Movement by an academic poststructuralism/postmodernism with politically quietistic implications.” (12)

Additionally, while Shiva opposes some international aspects of capitalist domination, her politics are far from anti-capitalist and more closely approximate those of a nationalist, and so it is fitting that she has “worked closely with nationalist groups” in India. Likewise it is no coincidence that her close colleague and benefactor, Edward Goldsmith, “favours uniting left and right in a movement against ‘globalization'” — which, as one might expect, has led to his own dalliances with extreme right-wing nationalists. On top of this, Goldsmith, who is “a Bija guru at Shiva’s Bija Vidyapeeth (Centre for Learning) in India,” is the founder of the “elite think-tank” the International Forum on Globalization, where Shiva herself is counted as a long-serving board member. (13) The Forum is in-turn supported by Douglas Tompkins’s elitist eco-philanthropy, and as I explored in a previous article (see “Saving Trees and Capitalism Too“), the Forum is closely linked to Tompkins’s other pet project, the highly problematic Foundation for Deep Ecology. Questions clearly need to be urgently raised about Shiva’s so-called progressive credentials. Do we really need people like her providing sustenance to progressive movements all over the world, especially when there are so many other marginalized writers and spokespeople who are better placed to do so?