After days in downtown Oaxaca, its streets clogged with fumes, the air up here was a release. Twenty-five years earlier, when Gustavo Esteva and his partner left Mexico City to settle here, they must have felt that same contrast. For Gustavo, it was a return to his grandmother’s village: the grandmother who, in his childhood, was not allowed to enter his parents’ house by the front door, nor to speak to her grandson in Zapotec.
‘For my mother,’ he told me, ‘the best thing that she could do for her children was to uproot us from any connection with our indigenous ancestry, to avoid the discrimination she had suffered.’
Despite this, the summers he spent with his grandmother on her stall in the market in Oaxaca planted stories that would come to life much later.
Meanwhile, as a young man, he took refuge from the cultural confusions of his family in the promise of ‘development’. The term which would frame the relation between the countries of the post-war world, embodying a unifying model of global economic progress on which even Cold War opponents could agree, was first used in its modern sense by President Truman in his inaugural address of 1949. At 15, following his father’s death, Gustavo found work with the first wave of global corporations bringing the reality of development to Mexico. Before too many years had passed, he would become the youngest ever executive for IBM; but instead of taking his place at the centre of this grand narrative of economic progress, he found himself standing on one side, the side of the bosses, being asked to cheat the workers.
So, in his early 20s, he walked away from that career and before too many years had passed, he had become a Marxist guerrilla. This was the era of Che Guevara and the Cuban Revolution: if capitalism could not deliver the promise of economic progress for everyone, it was time to fight for the alternative. Marx would remain a deep influence on his thinking, but this phase of his life ended, again, in disillusionment: he parted with the idea of violent revolution after one of the leaders of his group shot the other in a row over a woman. ‘It was a revelation of the kind of violence we were imposing on ourselves and we wanted to impose on the whole of society.’
For a second time, he walked away from what had looked like a means of making a better world. In the years that followed, he continued to read, study and write about economics and social change, and before too many years had passed, he had become a senior official in a government agency. By the early 1970s, he was running programmes to control the market in basic staples, providing food security to millions of the urban and rural poor. Yet this phase, too, would end in a decision to walk away, one that would shape the rest of his life.
In 1976, due to the success of these programmes, he was in line for a ministerial post in the new administration. ‘By that time, I knew at least two things: first, this is not what the people want, these beautiful development programmes. I did not know exactly why or what it is that the people want, but I knew that it was not this. The second was, the logic of government and the logic of the people are completely different. Even this populist president – I was in the presidential house, many times, in cabinet meetings – how they take decisions and what the people need and want are two different planets.’
I knew the outline of this story, but as we talked on the porch of the house that they had built, what struck me was his willingness to trust in his own uncertainty. At each of the turns in his journey, he had been willing to renounce the security of existing structures, structures he had come to find intolerable, even though he had no answer as to what else could be done. Willing to go and wait in the wilderness, with patience, to see what new things might come into view as a result of that letting go.
Having walked away from the prospect of high office, he went to work at the grassroots, in the villages and on the urban margins, with peasants newly arrived in the city. He talks about this as a time of happiness and confusion: among those with whom he was now working, those who were supposed to be the underdeveloped, he found what seemed to him a good life. Yet none of this made sense within the frameworks of economics, anthropology, sociology or political science. It was as if he had to choose between the whole theoretical frame of development which had shaped his life and the evidence of the lives of those around him. This was pushing him to a crisis.
‘Suddenly I said, one day: I will take off the glasses, the lenses I am using, all the different lenses of development. To abandon those categories, it was like the moment when you come from the darkness into the light, and you are just seeing shadows.’
Two things, he said, helped him to make sense of his experience. The first were the memories of his grandmother that began to surface again, the stories that she had told him in those childhood summers. Lessons which he had not understood at the time now took on meaning. It was this, he says, that made it possible to connect with the people around him.
The second was his encounter with Ivan Illich. On the Marxist Left in the early ’70s, in the years of his most famous work, he had been no more than a reactionary priest, not worth reading. His critiques of schooling and health systems were beside the point: of course, in a capitalist system, these things would be bad, but after the revolution we will have good schools!
When they met in 1983, what struck Gustavo was that the terms of Illich’s thinking made sense in the light of the lives of the peasants and migrants with whom he was working. I had heard this before, but it was brought home to me later that month at a conference in Cuernavaca: after two days of dispiriting academic presentations, the one talk in which Illich’s ideas actually came to life was given by a woman from an indigenous community who had only come across his books a few months earlier.
It was in Cuernavaca, five years earlier, at a gathering to mark the fifth anniversary of Illich’s death, that I had first met Gustavo. Then, the following year, he came to London and I saw him polarise a room full of social entrepreneurs and young NGO workers with his stories about the paradoxes of development. Somewhere around that time, I began to meet up with a guy called Paul Kingsnorth who had an idea for a journal called Dark Mountain, and it turned out that the one person we knew in common was this old Mexican who called himself a ‘deprofessionalised intellectual’. Paul had interviewed him in Oaxaca, when he was writing about the Zapatistas, and it was Gustavo who gave him the title of his first book, One No, Many Yeses.
That is not the only way in which Gustavo’s thinking is entangled with the roots of Dark Mountain. The life out of which that thinking has grown is a story of faith in progress, the loss of that faith, and the finding of the kinds of hope which remain on the other side of loss. Then there is the willingness to walk away, even though you have no answers to give when people ask what you would do instead, to walk away with only your uncertainty, rather than to stay with certainties in which you no longer believe. Finally, the distinction he makes between ‘the better life’ promised by universal visions of progress and development, and ‘the good life’, which has to be worked out on a human scale, improvised, in the times and places where we find ourselves.
The conversation reproduced here was recorded by Nick Stewart as part of a film on which we are collaborating. His is the unspoken presence in what follows: not only because he was moving about with a handheld camera, finding the angles from which to catch our expressions as we talked, but because he then produced the initial transcript on which this text is based.
One is, we are now forced to put limits to our hospitality, because of hospitality abuses. The people here in this area of the world are very, very hospitable. They open their minds and their hearts and their arms to everything. But then, the occupation of Mexico by the Spaniards started with an abuse of hospitality. Montezuma was hosting Cortez as a great guest and then Cortez took him hostage in his own palace. Well, this kind of hospitality abuse we can see for the last 500 years. All the time, we open our minds and our hearts and our arms, and then something horrible happens. And this can be a person, a country, invading us. Or it can be the Green Revolution, or whatever kind of technology. Then what we are saying, now? It’s not closing ourselves, no, but let’s be careful. We cannot be so hospitable to anything that comes. We need to first examine what is coming and then define if we want it or not. That is being careful, particularly about these technologies.
But there is another point in your observation: for many years we accepted that something like poverty or underdevelopment was objective. We were underdeveloped. There were ‘the poor’, as something very clear. And then, after years, we discovered that poverty is just a comparison. ‘These people are poor because they don’t have what we have!’ Because they lack the family car or the college degree, or the beautiful house, or a certain kind of shoes, or iPod, or whatever…
That is the problem with ‘poverty’. Who are really the poor? One thing the anthropologists are all the time asking themselves is: why are the people in these very poor villages laughing so much, celebrating life so much? They should be very sad, because they are so poor. They are not so sad. Let’s try to see them for what they are, who they are. Not just comparing them: oh, they don’t have this or have that.
Part of what I’ve been wondering about, as I think about this phenomenon of undevelopment, is how people find the clues that it might not work out like that. That, in the process of losing many of the things that people like me grew up taking for granted, we might catch some of the threads that we dropped further back in time, find new ways of picking them up. Becoming part of the world again.
I would say the most important point for me, in this kind of conversation is, first, let’s be brave enough to see the horror in which we are today. It’s a real horror. We must not qualify it, it is a horror. We are destroying everything. The idea of trying to keep, only to keep, what we have today in the world: this is to continue the destruction on a bigger scale. And because we are in that condition, and because the people are reacting to that condition, the powers-that-be are reacting in a horrible way. And that means you are seeing a lot of violence, a lot of control of the population and many terrible things.
So first, we need to be aware of the horror, and not just falling into a kind of apocalyptic randiness and saying, December 21st will be the end of the world. It is really discovering in our own societies, in our own beings, every one of us, the elements of that horror.
And then, in that same observation, discovering the absolute irrationality of our desires: how we define our wants, what kind of definitions of the good things we have. If we begin the reflection of ‘What is it that I really want?’ Not what the market is telling me to want, not what the state is telling me. What is it that I really want? Then we start saying, ‘Oh, I want love!’ I want a very close relation with someone, I want to laugh all the time or I want to cry all the time…
But if you want to abandon that feeling of precarity, then it’s to rediscover that the only way to have a kind of security is at the grassroots. With your friends. With the kinds of new commons emerging everywhere. Then, together, the people themselves, with their neighbours, we can create the kind of social fabric that can really offer us security, protection and a good life. The possibility of living well.
To me, I think that is one of the greatest challenges to the emergence of a new commons taking root within countries like mine: people have bought into so much of what they’ve been told to believe about themselves. Even what we think we know about science and evolution, so much of it is entangled with projections of these economic stories about the competing lone individual. How does that begin to break down? Where do new-old concepts of the self begin to emerge?
I have been using one example. I don’t think that in Europe it is so famous, this book of Dr. Spock that is basically prepared for young couples who don’t know how to raise a child. It has a magnificent index about how to discover anything happening to the baby. For five years, the book has the catechism, the commandments for the young couple. First commandment: the parents’ bed is forbidden territory for the babies. They should never be there. Second commandment: it is very good, it’s really necessary, for the child to be alone in his or her own room as soon as possible. If possible, the day they come back from the hospital. Third commandment: it is very good for the physical and mental development and psychological development of the child to cry alone, at least half an hour a day. I imagine at some point the poor mother saying, ‘Oh god! Twenty minutes…Twenty-five minutes…I cannot bear this suffering of my poor child!’
Well, what kind of being is this baby? The very first day he is in the house, he’s being raised as an individual. Then you go to India, you go to Mexico and you see that fantastic invention of the shawl, the rebozo, in which the baby is attached to the body of the mother for months. But the mother is doing many things, is doing her own life with the baby, here, on her breast, close. That is a different kind of relation.
So, how do we go from societies like Britain or Sweden or the United States, where most adults have had an upbringing that was calculated to produce the atomised individual? How do those atomised individuals re-learn the belonging within the larger we?
But, there is … an opening. That gap is the place through which, when people then find things which help them make sense of their experience and don’t simply accept that sense of lack, there is a coming-alive that you see in them. I’ve certainly experienced that a lot in the work that I’ve been part of in Europe over the last few years.
Again, though, I come back to the anxiety which I think a lot of us feel: ‘But this is so small!’ This is little cracks in the corners, against the vastness of the ideology and the structures that exist to tell us that this, the horror as you call it, is all that there is or could be.
[interview id="person-2" initial="GE"]That is why it is important to discover that we are not alone. We don’t see in the news the examples of people reclaiming the commons. From Peru, we did not hear that the indigenous people reclaimed one million hectares, one by one. One million hectares is a lot of land. Now they are producing 40% of their food in Peru within their own traditional system. That is reclaiming the commons.
But the most important thing, I think, for people in Europe is creating new commons. It is the people, particularly in the cities…We know we all have a thousand ‘friends,’ but real friends we have only two, three, four or five, perhaps eight friends. Here, I remember Illich again, he was talking all the time about his polyphilia, that was his thing, the need to be with friends. He elevated friendship as the main category for the reorganisation of the society, for reconstructing our society in a different way.
What I see in global warming, and the other horrors, this is a formulation that implies the continuation of the manic obsession of industrial man to be God. And, he failed. We are not gods.
To put this in a provocative way: it is, I would say, equally arrogant to affirm or deny global warming. In both cases, we pretend that we really know how the Earth is behaving. That we have all the information. First, that we know from the past how the Earth behaves. Second, that we know how the Earth will react. And third, that we know how to fix the problem.
That is too arrogant. To say, yes, there is global warming, or to say, no, there is no global warming: both positions are absolutely arrogant.
What we do know for sure, however – you and me and your friends and everyone – is that we have been doing something very wrong. That our behaviour is wrong. That our behaviour every day is wrong.
But we need to see the alternative picture. First, one figure that is not well known: more than half of what we eat today in the world is produced by the people themselves. Not by Monsanto, not by agribusiness, not by the big companies: it’s by the people themselves. The Via Campesina, the biggest organisation in history, they have been talking about this figure. They know it, because they are part of these millions that are producing their own food. They defined the idea of ‘food sovereignty’: it’s not the market and it’s not the state that must tell us what to eat, but we must find it and produce it by ourselves.
But this is not going to be the back-to-the-land movement of the ’60s. First of all, because now more than 50% of the people on Earth are urban, we cannot produce food for everyone in the countryside. We need to produce food in the cities. And the beautiful thing is that it is absolutely possible. One hundred years ago, Paris was exporting food. Today, people are discovering that producing food in the cities is not only very simple but it is very beautiful.
Another story that usually is very counterproductive, I don’t know if you can include this. I was visiting a magnificent group of people in Mexico City after the earthquake, reconstructing their houses. It was really an incredible group of 48 families working together for the reconstruction. I came one day to visit them with a colleague from my office, a woman, and then we found them very excited, in an assembly, discussing the problem. That morning one guy, one of them, attempted to rape a four-year-old girl of the community. He could not conclude the thing because they found him when he was trying to do that. They of course immediately examined the girl, the girl has no physical harm, and then they had him in a room and they were discussing what to do.
My colleague and I say, ‘But what are you discussing? You need to call the police to put this guy in jail!’
And then they immediately reject this, saying, ‘What is the purpose? To transform him into a criminal?’
Then my colleague did not know what to say. ‘Well, at least you need to send him to a psychiatric clinic because he’s a very sick guy. It’s a clear pathology.’
‘What is the purpose? To transform him into a fool?’
She did not know how to react and they continued discussing and then someone suggested, ‘Let’s send him to another neighbourhood.’ And then the others say, ‘No, that will be absolutely unfair for the other neighbours, because they will not know what was happening.’
And then, after four hours of discussion they came to the conclusion, let’s keep him, if the mother of the girl accepts. Then the mother accepted and the guy stayed.
Ten years later, I came back, I saw the girl was flourishing with an incredible amount of love that she got in the neighbourhood. The guy had married with another young woman of the place and they said she had already two children and they said they became the best neighbours of the group.
I’m telling this terrible story just to ask this question: are we ready to deal with our own shit? Because it is not just the physical shit, it’s the moral shit.
This conversation was originally published in our fourth book which came out in the summer of 2013. Next month, Dougald is moving on, after ten years at the core of Dark Mountain. Friends and supporters of this project are warmly invited to join him and the rest of the Dark Mountain team to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the launch of our manifesto. We will gather on the evening of Wednesday 17th July, 2019 at the Isis Farmhouse pub, near Iffley Lock, Oxford. For more details and to book your free ticket for the party, see the Events section of this site.