Swans Commentary » swans.com August 27, 2012  



Questioning Vandana Shiva


by Michael Barker



(Swans - August 27, 2012)   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 may be considered de rigueur in the corporate world, but for a radical critic of the status quo it is highly troublesome to say the least. 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?


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Michael Barker is an independent researcher who currently resides in the UK. In addition to his work for Swans, which can be found in the 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011 archives, his other articles can be accessed at michaeljamesbarker.wordpress.com. Please help fund his work.   (back)


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1.  This quote is from Angus's comment left after the following article, Vandana Shiva, "The great land grab, India's war on farmers," Climate and Capitalism, June 8, 2011. Angus recently served as the editor of the excellent book, The Global Fight for Climate Justice: Anticapitalist Responses to Global Warming and Environmental Destruction (Fernwood Publishing, 2010). One might note that Shiva was included as a contributor to another useful anti-capitalist anthology, The Global Industrial Complex: Systems of Domination (Lexington Books, 2011).  (back)

2.  Regina Cochrane, "Rural Poverty and Impoverished Theory: Cultural Populism, Ecofeminism, and Global Justice," The Journal of Peasant Studies, 34 (2), April 2007, pp.167-206: an earlier version of this article was published online as "'They Aren't Really Poor': Ecofeminism, Global Justice, and 'Culturally-Perceived Poverty'."

Cochrane writes, "it is important to interrogate both the politics and epistemology of seemingly unproblematic anti-globalization arguments circulating in the realm of development studies, especially those that address questions of gender and impoverished rural women. Examined here are a number of such oppositional discourses: ecofeminism, post-developmentism, and Gandhian theory, as projected in the work of Vandana Shiva, Gustavo Esteva and Rudolph Bahro. Identifying subsistence agriculture as the domain of females, much of this discourse projects the same passive images of women that historically are the preserve of (and have been successfully harnessed by) the political right." (p.170)  (back)

3.  Cochrane, p.169. With regards to a definition of populism she draws upon Tom Brass's article "The Agrarian Myth, the 'New' Populism and the 'New' Right," Journal of Peasant Studies, 24 (4), 1997, where he notes that "populism is an 'a-political'/'third-way' ideology that has a long history, and which projects itself in terms of a discourse-against that is simultaneously anti-capitalist and anti-socialist." (pp.172-3)

Cochrane points out that "The prevalence of populism in the AGM ['Anti-Globalization Movement] can be attributed to the ideological casting of the issues associated with contemporary capitalism as 'globalization'." (p.193)  (back)

4.  Cochrane, p.168, p.169. Cochrane adds that also she is critical of subsistence ecofeminism, she is "not dismissing ecofeminism per se." She writes that the socialist ecofeminism of Val Plumwood [1993] and Kate Soper [1995] "is considerably more sophisticated and politically astute than is subsistence ecofeminism." (p.198) Val Plumwood, Feminism and the Mastery of Nature (Routledge, 1993); Kate Soper, What is Nature? Culture, Politics, and the Non-Human (Blackwell, 1995).  (back)

5.  Cochrane, p.172. Drawing upon the criticisms voiced in Meera Nanda's book, Prophets Facing Backward: Postmodern Critiques of Science and Hindu Nationalism in India (Rutgers University Press, 2003), Cochrane adds: "Yet glossed over in the redefinition by post-development of poverty is the fact that 'subsistence economies did not (and still do not) supply all the nutritional needs of all their members at a level that is biologically adequate for maintaining their basic capabilities'. Moreover, the 'basic needs' satisfied by subsistence economies 'did not include access to education, personal autonomy, freedom of thought, and a host of other higher-level cultural capabilities.'" (p.172) " Indeed, since feminism is about equality and emancipation rather than preserving traditions, Meera Nanda insists that Shiva's work should not even be called feminist." (p.174)

For further criticisms of Shiva, see Meera Nanda, "'History is What Hurts': A Materialist Feminist Perspective on the Green Revolution and Its Ecofeminist Critics," in Rosemary Hennessy and Chrys Ingraham (eds.), Materialist Feminism: A Reader in Class, Difference, and Women's Lives (Routledge, 1997), pp.364-94. In this essay Nanda writes: "Shiva, Mies, and their sympathizers have offered ecofeminine support of the status quo, couched as critique of the green revolution." (p.365) Here, the central thrust of Shiva and Mies critique of modernization relies upon placing the blame for violence against women squarely on the shoulders of modern science and the green revolution, an ahistorical stance that neglects the underlying depths of patriarchal violence in the primary areas that their writings refer to (the Northwestern states of Punjab and Haryana in India); thus in the Indian Northwest, the "devaluation of female lives is not a pathology of modernity but an integral part of the traditional cultural order." (p.382)

Also see Victoria Devion, "Is ecofeminism feminist?", In: Karen Warren (ed.), Ecological Feminism (Routledge, 1994). In this chapter Devion examines the work of five authors (Vandana Shiva, Ariel Kay Salleh, Brian Swimme, Riane Eisler, and Marti Kheel) whose work she argues "fail[s] to explore the possible negative aspects of bringing more 'feminine' perspectives to environmental ethics." (p.17)  (back)

6.  Cochrane, p.174, p.175. Regarding Shiva's mythological representation of the Chipko movement, see Haripriya Rangan, Of Myths and Movements: Rewriting Chipko into Himalayan History (Oxford University Press, 2000). With relation to Shiva's Gandhian inspirations, drawing upon Meera Nanda's study Prophets Facing Backward, Cochrane writes: "'Speaking the language of Hinduism and tradition', Gandhi brought together impoverished peasants and urban bourgeoisie in a common struggle for national independence and for 'a preservationist, culturally conservative model of development' -- 'a future India based upon an idealized version of "village republics" and "trusteeship of the rich"'." Moreover, "Grouping Shiva with the 'crusading Gandhians,'" Madhav Gadgil and Ramachandra Guha in their book Ecology and Equity: The Use and Abuse of Nature in Contemporary India (Routledge, 1995), "go on to characterize that position as anti-socialist, anti-science, and oriented almost exclusively toward agrarian environmental issues." (p.175)

On Shiva's later collaborator, Maria Mies, Cochrane writes: "Populist premises and maternal feminism -- a cultural feminism that is structured conceptually by the universal sisterhood of non-differentiated women, and as such is the feminist equivalent of populism -- are even more overt in the work of Mies." (p.177) In a related footnote, Cochrane adds: "For a discussion of cultural feminism, and a history of its rise and eclipse of the radical feminism with which it is often conflated," see Alice Echols, Daring to be Bad: Radical Feminism in America, 1967-1975 (University of Minnesota Press, 1989).

For a critique of Mies and Shiva's Ecofeminsm (Zed Books, 1993), see Maxine Molyneux and Deborah Steinberg, "Mies and Shiva's 'Ecofeminism': A New Testament?" Feminist Review, 49, (1995). For further critiques of Mies see Naila Kabeer, Reversed Realities: Gender Hierarchies in Development Thought (Verso, 1994); and Sylvia Walby, "Post-post-modernism? Theorizing social complexity," In: Michele Barrett and Anne Phillips (eds.), Destabilizing Theory: Contemporary Feminist Debates (Stanford University Press, 1992).  (back)

7.  Cochrane, p.178.  (back)

8.  Cochrane, p.174, p.182, p.179, p.181. For a full discussion of the reactionary nature of Rudolph Bahro's work, see Janet Biehl and Peter Staudenmaier, Ecofascism: Lessons from the German Experience (AK Press, 1995); and Janet Biehl, "Reply to Hart and Melle," Democracy & Nature, 4(2/3), 1998.  (back)

9.  Cochrane, p.182, p.183. See, Richard Lewontin, "Genes in the Food!," New York Review of Books, June 21, 2001, pp.81-84; and Tania Roy and Craig Borowiak, "Against Ecofeminism: The Splintered Subject of Agrarian Nationalism in Post-Independence India," Alternatives: Global Local Political, 28 (1), 2003, pp.57-90. According to Cochrane, Bina Agarwal was "Shiva's arch critic..." (p.183); this is certainly no longer the case, but for examples of her criticisms, see Bina Agarwal, "The Gender and Environment Debate: Lessons from India," (pdf) Feminist Studies, 18 (1), 1992; Bina Agarwal, "Environmental Management, Equity, and Ecofeminism: Debating India's Experience," In: Kum-Kum Bhavnani (ed.), Feminism and Race (Oxford University Press, 2001).

The Shiva-Mies variant of ecofeminism proved especially influential at the 1992 Earth Summit. For a discussion of how such ecofeminism has proved especially desirable for the British Overseas Development Administration and the World Bank, see Cecile Jackson, "Women/nature or gender/history? A critique of ecofeminist 'development,'" Journal of Peasant Studies, 20 (30), 1993, pp.389-419.  (back)

10.  Cochrane, p.184. See, James Overton, "Academic populists, the informal economy and those benevolent merchants: politics and income security reform in Newfoundland," The Journal of Peasant Studies, 28 (1), 2000, pp.1-54.  (back)

11.  Cochrane, p.185, p.186. "In many ways, the anti-development discourse traced here is the mirror image of an earlier, pro-development one: the 'culture of poverty', associated with the work of Oscar Lewis [1959; 1966]. The latter argued that the poor were kept in poverty by their culture, and that it was this disempowering aspect that prevented them from becoming fully integrated into modern urban society. By contrast, those who hold the populist views criticized here -- such as subsistence ecofeminists and post-developmentists -- invert the logic of this earlier theory; they maintain that, because the culture of the rural poor is much rather empowering, economic development is for them an alien experience for which there is now no need. The 'culture of poverty' has accordingly been transformed from an alienating experience for the rural poor to an enabling one." (p.192)  (back)

12.  Cochrane, p.186.  (back)

13.  Cochrane, p.188, p.187, p.199, p.187. The current co-chair and cofounder of the International Forum on Globalization is Jerry Mander, who like Shiva and Goldsmith has, according to Ward Churchill, despite his good intentions, ended up reinforcing the very hegemony he purports to oppose, when he published his book In the Absence of the Sacred: The Failure of Technology and the Survival of the Indian Nations (Sierra Club Books, 1991). See "Another Dry White Season," Ward Churchill, From a Native Son: Selected Essays in Indigenism, 1985-1995 (South End Press, 1996); also see Louis Proyect, "Jerry Mander's 'In the Absence of the Sacred': A Critique," MarxMail, February 2, 1998; of related interest is Wendy Rose's chapter "The Great Pretenders: Further Reflections on Whiteshamanism," In: M. Annette Jaimes (ed.), The State of Native America: Genocide, Colonialism, and Resistance (South End Press, 1992).

For a fairly uncritical discussion of the global relevance of Shiva, Goldsmith, and Mander's activism from a liberal perspective, see Bron Raymond Taylor, Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future (University of California Press, 2010).  (back)


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Published August 27, 2012