“Resisting Global Capitalism”: Lessons from the Asoke Alternative

“Resisting global capitalism” is one way to frame efforts to create conditions that oster socially just and environmentally sustainable economic activity. Far from being passive victims of global processes, individuals and social groups across the globe endeavor in diverse ways to resist, reshape, appropriate, and create alternatives to the dominant neoliberal economic model.

Alternatives that hold the most promise for enhancing quality of life are those that are culturally and locally situated, embody ethics that are more caring of the human-nature base, and increase local control of processes of change.

The Santi Asoke Buddhist Reform Movement of Thailand offers one such alternative. Lessons can be learned from the Asoke movement’s specific development approach as well as their refusal to buy into the predominant view of capitalism as a unified, singular totality so powerful that it cannot be resisted or transformed. Thus the project of unmaking capitalist hegemony in favor of economic heterogeneity and plurality is both conceptual and practical.

Lessons for just and sustainable development: situatedness, ethics, and control

The following lessons can be learned from the Asoke development approach as to how to elevate quality of life in a just and sustainable way. First, development that is culturally and locally situated allows individuals to pursue a life they truly have reason to value, such as the path to spiritual freedom rather than a high material standard of living.

Second, development according to ethics that are more caring of the human-nature base ensures that all members of the global society have equal capability to pursue their valued life now and into the future. Asoke ethics that improve upon the values of the dominant economic model were discussed in the post on social and environmental ethics.

And third, development that emphasizes self-dependence increases local control of processes of change, in this case through self-sufficient agriculture and related value-added production instead of reliance on fickle market forces. Control is a vital aspect of the development process, often facilitated by participatory methods but really only achievable when development is endogenously instigated, implemented, and maintained.

The Asoke movement falls into a larger category of grassroots and NGO movements striving for their own just, equitable, and sustainable livelihoods that may succeed in uniting developmental and environmental interests where mainstream efforts have failed.

Liberation ecologists Richard Peet and Michael Watts observe, “Indeed, it is striking how indigenous rights movements, conservation politics, food security, the emphasis on local knowledges and calls for access to and control over local resources (democratization, broadly put) crosscut the environment-poverty axis” (Liberation Ecologies 35).

They propose that social movements offer diverse “visions of those forms of social and individual practice which are ethically proper and morally right with regard to nature” (263). They also suggest that these “environmental imaginaries” are prime sites of contestation.

The Asoke movement’s Three Professions to Save the Nation may be considered such an environmental imaginary, as their Buddhist ethics of chemical-free agriculture and waste management stand in opposition to conventional, environmentally harmful, export-oriented agriculture in Thailand.

Similarly, social movement studies by feminist political ecologists clearly demonstrate the interconnection between people, their environment, and development.

According to Rocheleau, Thomas-Slater, and Wangari (Feminist Political Ecology), the sustainable development of everyday lives emphasizes survival; the rights to live and work in a healthy environment; the responsibility to protect habitats, livelihoods, and systems of life support from contamination, depletion, and destruction; the determination to rehabilitate what has already been damaged; and the social organization needed to accomplish these things.

The Asoke movement exemplifies “everyday sustainable development” by advocating a way of life appropriate to and conservative of Thailand’s environment.

In sum, the “everyday sustainable development” approach is an improvement over conventional sustainable development for a number of reasons:

1)    sustainability is an issue of particular people-environment-development problems rather than abstract global management;

2)    it does not prioritize economic growth;

3)    it accounts for cultural conceptions of the environment; and

4)    it is more empowering to ordinary people.

Thus, anthropologist Arturo Escobar argues that “instead of searching for grand alternative models or strategies, what is needed is the investigation of alternative representations and practices in concrete local settings, particularly as they exist in contexts of hybridization, collective action, and political mobilization” (Encountering Development 19).

Discursive re-imaginings of global capitalism

However, the investigation and promotion of alternatives cannot be successful without letting go of the predominant view of capitalism as a unified, singular totality so powerful that it cannot be resisted or transformed.

Feminist geographers J. K. Gibson-Graham argue that in order to bring about the “end of capitalism (as we knew it)” a cognitive transformation is required. They explain, “It is the way capitalism has been ‘thought’ that has made it so difficult for people to imagine its supersession. It is therefore the ways in which capitalism is known that we wish to delegitimize and displace” (The End of Capitalism 4-5).

Some representations they take issue with are capitalism as hero, the pinnacle of social evolution, a bounded system, an omnipresent force, and the global capitalist economy as the new realm of the absolute—all these conceptions results in the construction of capitalism as a naturally and necessarily hegemonic entity that must be deconstructed to liberate the possibility of economic difference in theory and practice.

As a bit of a digression, I would also suggest in the same anti-essentialist vein that framing alternatives as “resistance” limits our understanding of these processes that also include appropriation and hybridization of positive aspects of globalization (such as western environmental concepts); it also reinforces the notion of capitalism as an omnipresent totality by theorizing economic alternatives in relation to it.

Back to the idea of cognitive transformation, J. K. Gibson-Graham spur this by demonstrating how diverse our economic activities actually are, using an iceberg as a metaphor. The tip of the iceberg, what is visible above water, is what is usually considered to be the economy: wage labor, market exchange, and capitalist enterprise; meanwhile, what is beneath the water is less visible but far more vast: the multitudinous other methods of economic production, transaction, and distribution we all engage in every day.

Gibson-Graham provide lists to illustrate these alternatives. For example, instead of, or in addition to traditional market exchange, individuals might practice fair trade, use alternative currencies, barter, give gifts, or hunt and gather. Instead of mainstream capitalist enterprises, we might do business with cooperatives, non-profits, green businesses, or socially responsible ones. By revealing the entire body of the iceberg, Gibson-Graham disrupt capitalocentrism—the tendency to define all economic activities in terms of their relation to capitalism (e.g., compatible with, contained within, the same as, etc.), thereby paving the way for a potentially infinite array of economic practices, relations, and identities.

Thus the project of “resisting global capitalism” must combine both discursive reimaginings and local practices to effectively unmake its “hegemony” and replace it with a heterogeneity and plurality of economic forms. In this way, it is possible to reconstruct our economic world(s) to minimize social and environmental costs and reorient our global economy toward the freedom to survive, or even better—the freedom to be well.

*A version of this post was originally a conference presentation by Juliana Essen: “Resisting Global Capitalism: Lessons from Thailand,” presented as part of a panel discussion organized by Focus on the Global South at the International Association for Feminist Economics Conference, Bangkok, Thailand, 2007..

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