Shiva on Freedom, Separation, and Surveillance

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A review of Vandana Shiva and Kartikey Shiva, Oneness vs the 1%: Shattering Illusions, Seeding Freedom (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2020).

 In her latest book, Oneness vs the 1%: Shattering Illusions, Seeding Freedom, Vandana Shiva, with Kartikey Shiva, offers an expansive critique of the most recent iterations of colonization around the globe. The book constitutes a call to action in support of freedom and democracy as well as cultural and ecological diversity, and against control, separation, reductionism, and greed. Focused largely on the last two decades, Oneness weaves together sweeping theoretical sections with empirically detailed and extensively referenced chapters. Kartikey Shiva is listed as a contributing author, though it is unclear who our author is at given points in the book, with “I” transitioning to “We” on page 83, and then returning to “I” in the final chapter. Therefore, I refer to the authors as Shiva and Shiva below.

The first and fourth chapters, “1% vs One Earth, One Humanity,” and “How the 1% Subverts Democracy,” present the theoretical basis of the book. In the authors’ words, “The story of the 1% is the story of greed without limits, without respect for the rights of others, without responsibility for the consequences of their actions. It is this contest between sharing and greed, between interconnectedness and privatization, between Oneness and the 1% that lies at the crux of this volume” (11). Conversely, chapters two and three, “The Money Machine of the 1%,” and “The Technology Machine of the 1%,” are packed with empirical evidence backing Shiva and Shiva’s diagnosis of the problem: the power of the 1 percent.

The book begins by outlining in broad terms what is at stake in the struggle between the 1 percent and achieving the ideal of “One Earth, One Humanity.” Arguing for an embrace of the interconnected nature of freedoms, Shiva and Shiva position the wealthiest 1 percent as a force of greed, violence, and separation. The latter gets more play in this chapter as the authors articulate “three big separations” including the separation of humans from nature, humans from each other, and the Self from our “integral, interconnected being” (16). This first chapter prepares the reader for the more extensive empirical discussion of these concepts in chapters two and three. However, the early chapters do not give adequate definitional precision to the complex, contested, and dynamic terms, especially the concept of freedom. Fortunately, chapter four does address the meaning of freedom and the varieties of freedoms more fully.

The second chapter introduces the “money machine” of the 1 percent and describes “an economic system shaped by the rich and powerful, where unbridled greed and accumulation are seen as virtues to be rewarded by society, instead of aberrations that must be kept within limits through social and democratic processes” (30). Here, the book turns away from the “real economy” as a whole and toward the financial sector and financialization—“tools of money-making, money making money” (30). It links this trend to increasing wealth inequality and to less freedom for most people. The reader is introduced to the book’s antagonist, Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates, as well as to Warren Buffet and the private investment institution Vanguard Group. Shiva and Shiva write that, “No matter which giant corporation we look at, Vanguard owns the highest shares in it” (49). This chapter lays the groundwork for the focus on concentration of economic power later in the book.

Chapter three, by far the largest and most substantial, explores the “technology machine” of the 1 percent. It links corporate giants of today, including the biotech industry—“the chemical-military-industrial complex of our times” (58)—to the Toxic Cartel, which “evolved the tools of killing” in WWII, the Vietnam War, and others. For example, Shiva and Shiva describe Monsanto and Bayer’s business dealings with “both sides” in the world wars, and they link the companies’ products to Nazi war crimes. Moving forward in time, they write that “the Toxic Cartel of the war has come together, once again” (57), and includes BASF, Bayer, DuPont, Dow Chemical Company, Monsanto, and Syngenta. “While the different corporations that came out of the war years are presented as separate, they are one in terms of past and present partnerships, and their common ownership. Their biggest investors are the new financial giants, with Vanguard Group in the lead” (58).

In addition to the Toxic Cartel, two related themes are discussed: corporate doublespeak, which equates theft and biopiracy with creation and innovation, and the misuse of the term “science” to veil anti-scientific defenses of dangerous products. The Shivas point out that these corporate actors “have no knowledge—they only have ‘data’” (63) and are guided by a reductionist, mechanical mindset. Shiva and Shiva offer a brief history of the development of social psychology, molecular biology, and their foundation of genetic reductionism and determinism to argue that what looked like an objective approach was in fact a “political project of domination and control.” “Then, as now,” they conclude, “the issue is control. Then, as now, the prejudice of the super-rich, and their fear of women, the poor, the migrant, and the coloured, shapes what they call ‘science,’ as the ultimate objective truth, when in reality it is the articulation of subjective prejudice, of fear of the other, of the uncontrollable urge to dominate” (64-65). That urge to dominate is demonstrated through case studies of Monsanto and others’ efforts to impose their products—including Golden Rice and Roundup Ready Flex Cotton—into markets. The authors describe sprawling efforts, including those of captured academics, journalists, Nobel Laureates, and others who coordinate to protect and defend genetically modified organism (GMO) technologies against scientific evidence. Going further, Shiva and Shiva label corporate technology an “instrument of power and control” instead of a tool whose usefulness can be assessed with science.

Shiva and Shiva “tell the story of Big Wealth and Big Money in our times by focusing on Bill Gates and his role in destroying self-organization in nature and society to engineer monopolies through mastery, conquest, invasion and dictatorship by the tools he owns and controls for rent collection, which in his double-speak, he calls innovation” (83). Shiva and Shiva consider Gates to be a proxy for unveiling the workings of the new Toxic Cartel because of his role in co-opting collective knowledge, enclosing the food commons, and funding geoengineering projects. Other tech tycoons are not spared in this critique, though Shiva and Shiva offer an especially scathing attack on Gates, calling him, “the modern day Columbus” (80), a bio-pirate (94), and a philanthrocapitalist “who did not invent anything” himself (83).

The focus on Gates and the critique of the Toxic Cartel points toward the alternative vision of oneness. By oneness Shiva and Shiva mean “living and celebrating our many diversities, interconnected through bonds of compassion, interdependence, and solidarity” (148). This is the antithesis of the technocratic worldview of the Gates-style one-size-fits all approach informed by corporate pseudo-science. However, there is a tension—to my mind unresolved—in this book between the call for oneness and the authors’ forceful advocacy for cultural, ecological, and biological diversity, and their rejection of universalized approaches.

In the final chapter, Shiva and Shiva return to an imperative to “break free of the 1%” (149). To this end, they explore three Gandhian principles: “Swaraj: self-organization, self-rule, freedom as autopoiesis; Swadeshi: self-reliance and creating local economies; and Satyagraha: the force of truth, of creative civil disobedience” (150). In this chapter they also offer strong definitions of both freedom and democracy. The book as a whole is a call to action with a vision of both the means and the ends of achieving a shared future worth fighting for.

Throughout the book, there are two opposing narratives: one that identifies this historical moment as exceptional and singular alongside the recognition that it is also just the latest in a pattern developed over decades. Shiva and Shiva provide rich histories connecting current corporate tech, chemical, and agriculture giants to their predecessors as far back as the 1930s (and in some cases drawing deeper connections to five hundred years of colonization) and often explicitly link the agents of exploitation, who are separated by decades but employ essentially the same techniques of oppression. For example, they observe that “the groundwork for genetic engineering was created with funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, with profits made by Standard Oil. Today, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is playing that same role” (64). And when speaking of the “biopiracy” of seed diversity, Shiva compares the assembly of genome databases to the use of maps to “claim and steal territory in an earlier colonialism” (99). Much of the second and third chapters, moreover, is dedicated to highlighting how the Toxic Cartel, first assembled to wage war, is re-emerging with increasingly important new tentacles in information technologies and surveillance.

The two opposing narratives are occasionally sewn together:

Humanity stands at an evolutionary crossroads. We can either choose to continue to walk towards our extinction on the path shaped by the 1 per cent over the last 500 years, or we can choose to sow the seeds of the future as members of the earth community, with a consciousness and conviction that extinction is not inevitable. (148)

Nonetheless, the rhetorical variation—Is this moment novel or simply the latest manifestation of a century-long development?—is striking. The former serves to amplify the urgency of the call to action, but the latter provides more clarity and thus more opportunity to better understand the moment.

The book can be read as a powerful critique of the currently influential ideology of neoliberalism and the mode of reason it privileges, yet the term itself and any explicit discussion of its meanings are rarely explicit in the book. Indeed, one wonders if the authors consider it a useful category and focus for radical thinking and change in the future. They argue:

Many intellectuals wonder how we got into this mess. A fashionable answer is ‘neoliberalism.’ But neoliberalism is nothing more than the economic paradigm naturalizing the violent imposition of corporate rule and the rule of the 1 per cent. It is true that contemporary corporate globalization, based on the neoliberal paradigm, has created the huge power of a handful of corporations. But corporations have not always existed. They were created as an instrument of colonization. They do not come into existence ‘out of thin air,’ they are born out of contexts created by just the right amount of power and money, in the absence of democracy. (40)

Indeed, so much of the problem described—the closure of the commons, privatization, upward concentration of wealth, and the shift from public sphere to private sphere decision making—are key elements of neoliberal theory. Many commentators take neoliberalism to be a newer ideology for a new global phase of capitalism. But Shiva and Shiva’s discussion raises the question whether the term neoliberalism offers us something new or instead simply stands in for ongoing iterations of the age-old problem: colonization.

Another interesting tension in the book lies between individuals exercising power and a system of power. At times, the book stresses the “greed” of the 1 percent, thus focusing on the personal desires of individuals, and later it talks about their “uncontrollable urge to dominate” (65). On the other hand, though, Shiva and Shiva identify a system—which they define as an “economic model” paired with a reductionist, mechanical worldview—as the vehicle for human and ecological exploitation. “The 1% is not just a number,” they write, but “an economic system shaped by the rich and powerful, where unbridled greed and accumulation are seen as virtues to be rewarded by society, instead of aberrations which must be kept within limits through social and democratic processes” (30). The question remains, then, is the problem that there is a class of innately greedy people, or that a system divides and enforces classes of people, freeing some from accountability while trapping others with the consequences?

The book punches, with an assertive and passionate call to action. It occasionally veers into hyperbole, such as in the first line of the book: “For the first time in human history, our common future as a species is no longer certain” (2). But it also offers, especially in chapters two and three, a carefully presented analysis of how the 1 percent continue to amass wealth and control. Its claims and arguments are extremely well referenced almost without exception, and it draws on a wide spectrum of expertise, including farmers, microbiologists, lawyers, and activists.

The 2020 edition of Oneness adds an epilogue, doubling down on the book’s criticism of Bill Gates, this time for his rhetorical and material responses to the Covid-19 pandemic. Interpreting the meaning and consequences of how society has managed the crisis, Shiva and Shiva write that:

[The] pandemic and lockdown have revealed even more clearly how we are being reduced to objects to be controlled, with our minds and bodies as the new colonies to be invaded. Empires create colonies, colonies enclose the commons of the indigenous living communities and turn them into sources of raw material to be extracted for profits. This linear, extractive logic is unable to see the intimate relations that sustain life in the natural world. It is blind to the diversity, cycles of renewal, values of giving and sharing, and the power and potential of self-organising and mutuality. (179)

Oneness would be a welcome addition to upper-level high school and lower-level college courses, especially in environmental, sustainability, or technology studies programs. It would serve well as both a compliment and critique of ecological economics and environmental economics. Its coverage of financialization, concentration, and corporate control would serve sociology or politics classes on markets and political economy. It will satisfy readers interested in a global perspective on the relationship between wealth inequality and concentration of power on the one hand, and human freedom and ecological diversity on the other.

  • Kate Clark

    Kate Clark is the Director of the Environment and Sustainability undergraduate program at Western Colorado University in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, where she also teaches in sociology and the Master of Environmental Management program. She studies social movements, environmental justice, and electricity policy.

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