The Diversity of Resistances

Manish Bapna <mbapna@worldbank.org>

Each story in this anthology is individually inspiring. But the collection of stories together presents an even more insightful and nuanced understanding of what, why, when, and how people resist. What I find especially powerful about these narratives are not only the shared and systemic critiques of the dominant Ideology and Institutions in the world today but also the incredible diversity of personal struggles to expose and displace them.

This diversity of resistances is critical if the existing Ideology is to be overcome and another totalizing ideology is to be avoided. The stories illustrate how the authors conceptualize the System in which we live and create space for people to question and consider alternatives. For me, these human-scale forms of resistance and renewal provide faith that anyone – whether in the South or North, schooled or unschooled, old or young, poor or rich – can meaningfully resist and help create more vibrant, people-centered societies. Not surprisingly, people are resisting and doing so in different ways — from small farmers refusing to participate in industrial agriculture, to mass popular protests against globalization and war, to questions on progress or quality of life being increasingly raised around kitchen tables in middle-income homes. However, it will take more vigorous resistance from even more people to dislodge the existing System – a tribute to the tremendous powers bestowed by it on a small segment of society.

This raises fundamental questions for me as to how the current System can be deposed. Is the System – its ideology and institutions – crumbling under its own inherent fallibilities? Or is the System so powerful that it may emerge stronger than before? Can localized resistances actually displace this hegemonic System? Will these resistances have to join together in some fashion to present a more formidable challenge? And if so, will the diversity of these resistances and the creativity fostered by small alternative spaces be compromised? I am not sure of the answers to these questions but they are issues I consider important to reflect upon.

I would like to shift a bit at this juncture and offer a brief glimpse into some of my own attempts to resist, how this has evolved over time, and what I have learned from my experiences. I should first point out that I work for the World Bank. I have done so for five years. The World Bank is indeed an institution that actively promotes a dominant ideology and does so from a position of power. So you may ask why do I work there, or alternatively, why am I writing here?

I joined the World Bank after graduate school as a skeptic, with clear ideological differences from the growth-oriented paradigm promoted by most development practitioners, but with a generous dose of optimism about human nature and the ability of people to change. I believed that if people became aware of the direct or indirect consequences of their actions, they would take steps to change the institutions that cause them. My objective was simple: to expose the inherent contradictions in the dominant System and help people re-examine its underlying assumptions: an unwavering belief in economic growth and increases in personal consumption as the ultimate aspiration of all people; the role of the Market and State, underpinned by Western science and technology, as the engines of economic growth; and the reduction of nature, knowledge, well-being, relationships, traditions, to ‘capital’ or ‘assets’ that purely serve as inputs to this growth equation.

After several years of trying to disabuse my colleagues and others of these flawed and oversimplified assumptions, I realized that I had some limited success at an individual level, but was unclear whether this resulted in any systemic impact on larger institutions. If human nature is based on compassion (which I firmly believe) and if my logic was compelling (which I thought it was), why were not more people willing to critically reassess the System for what it is?

It took me some time to realize the powerful and tantalizing ability of this ideology – and the institutions that reinforce it – to condition its adherents. Interestingly, the capacity of my colleagues to unlearn was not determined by age or education but by the nature of their life experiences – in particular from those outside of the office. Unfortunately, the ‘job-for-life’ security offered by the World Bank and long distances between Washington, DC, and areas affected by World Bank policies and projects isolate staff from real-world experiences. Even well-intentioned colleagues are quickly indoctrinated when little space is given for self-reflection.

In order to avoid the same fate, I remind myself of the impacts of this dominant ideology every day. Some of my strength and courage to do so, I believe, is derived from my own personal worldview — which is premised on a different set of assumptions developed during childhood travels to India and around the United States and conversations with family on a wide range of topics including religion, nature, and economics. In particular, I can remember the stark contrast between my affluent lifestyle in suburban US and the material deprivation I observed all around me while visiting India. I hastily concluded that ‘poor’ countries must catch-up and develop in the image of ‘rich’ countries. However, subsequent discussions with my father and uncle (and later with close friends) forced me to re-examine this rushed conclusion and led me to adopt a more critical consciousness in analyzing such problems. This constant dialogue with friends and family has been crucial in enhancing my capacity to learn and unlearn.

My persistent search for open spaces to discuss and debate has helped me strengthen my convictions, even while working in the World Bank. It has also proven to be invaluable in helping some of my colleagues reassess their own beliefs. People are more willing to engage in critical reflection, I found, if they could relate the abstract theory and discourse (as perceived from afar) to their own personal experiences and realities. In this way, I have had some success in helping other ‘development practitioners’ to resist and articulate their own distinct worldviews.

Even with this knowledge, however, it has been difficult to sustain critical spaces within the World Bank, as a more fundamental problem is at hand. The System itself thrives on a single, all-encompassing ideology unwilling to acknowledge, much less foster, alternative concepts of Growth, Development, Sustainability, etc. In fact, the very survival of the System (which reifies competition) ironically depends on the complete absence of alternative worldviews. This inability to accept diversity, I realized, prevents the construction of any meaningful public spaces. Ultimately, I believe that the Ideology and Institutions in pursuit of a homogenous, global society will be overcome by the popular appeal of more vibrant, personal, and contextualized social, economic, cultural, political, and environmental relations. The (re)construction of these relationships will emerge from the multiple, local resistances taking place today. As I consider my own role in this movement to liberate ourselves, the intrinsic power of the diversity in these resistances, and the many open spaces it creates, is what guides me.