by Tessa Lewin
It seems that despite the pandemic, and despite the very visible and multiple impacts of climate change, we have much to learn about interdependency – both with other people, and the natural world.
Imagine if our metrics of success were not about individual achievements, if our schools were designed to emphasise interdependency above independence, if we put all our energy into thinking about and designing architectures of care? If we valued things differently. Why isn’t reducing inequality a higher priority than promoting growth? Why are we still not placing more import on our connections to each other, and to our planet? What ideas might help us employ a more interdependency-inclined lens?
Jessica Taft’s writing on “children’s protagonismo” as a foundational concept in the Peruvian children workers movement articulates individual empowerment as relational, and inherently collective, against the individualising rationale of rights-based paradigms and neo-liberalism. She outlines three distinct historical phases that have shaped the theorisation of “children’s protagonismo” in Peru over the last 40 years – the liberation theology of the 1970s, children’s rights frameworks of the 1990s, and more recently, indigenous theories of interdependence. She writes about a political vision rooted in ‘collectivity, community, and relationships of solidarity.’
The concept of ‘Ubuntu’, globally popularised in the wake of South Africa’s independence in 1994, holds a similar ethic – I am because we are. We are born intertwined with others. We are human through our social bonds, and our mutual obligations (1).
It is this understanding that also runs through Lynne Segal’s writing in ‘Radical Happiness: Moments of Collective Joy’ in which, revisiting Arendt’s notions of ‘public happiness’, she reflects on happiness as collective – as ‘entwined with our ties to the world’ both in terms of other people, and in terms of what we are able to do and are conversely restricted from doing.
Segal suggests that any notion of happiness needs to move beyond the person and engage with broader social change; with the utopian pursuit of building alternatives, with tackling social inequality. Like Sedgwick, Cvetkovich, Segal recognises feelings as public and therefore political.
Recent work on the natural world, like Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees, and Sheldrake’s Entangled Life point to social networks in nonhuman life, and the ‘ancient tendency for organisms to associate’. Sheldrake references the work of anthropologists Natasha Myers and Carla Hustak who prefer to think of the ‘involution’ of organisms – from their tendency to involve themselves with other organisms, than ‘evolution’ (rolling outwards).
Imagining ourselves as involving rather than evolving, is a useful exercise, and might better-allow us to prioritise an ethic of care – to think of individual success as dependent both on our collective well-being, and the well-being of our natural world.
How do we shift out of systems that are fundamentally caught up in notions of growth and reorientate them towards redistribution?
At the very least we urgently need new measures of success that include recognition of the environmental and social impact of economic performance (2). But clearly, given how antithetical our current paradigms and structures seem to be to change, we need so much more. Fully recognising the implications of our interdependence – on each other, on our planet – must be where we start.
bell hooks, in encouraging us to think of love as a verb, rather than a noun, suggests a recognition of the daily labour required to first establish, and then maintain, functional architectures of care. We need to rethink and unlearn so much, and it will not be an easy task.
Tessa Lewin is a creative facilitator and researcher with Southern African roots. She currently works as a research fellow in the Participation, Inclusion and Social Change Cluster at the Institute of Development Studies, at the University of Sussex, where she is part of a team that runs Rejuvenate. She also co-convenes the MA in Gender and Development. She has run numerous photography, film and digital storytelling projects in many different places. She likes making complicated ideas accessible, often using drawings. She managed the communication for the research consortium ‘Pathways of Women’s Empowerment’ during which she set up the ‘Real World’ documentary film scheme. In a past and future time she is an animator and sometimes musician.
Taft, J. 2019. ‘Continually Redefining Protagonismo: The Peruvian Movement of Working Children and Political Change, 1976–2015’, in Latin American Perspectives, 228, 46.5: 90–110.
(1) Cornell, D. and Van Marle, K. 2015. ‘Ubuntu feminism: Tentative reflections’, Verbum et Ecclesia 36(2), Art. #1444
Segal, L. 2017. Radical Happiness: Moments of Collective Joy. London: Verso.
Wohlleben, P. 2016. The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate. London: Harper Collins.
Sheldrake, M. 2020. Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures. London: Random House.
(2) Stiglitz, J., J. Fitoussi and M. Durand (2018), Beyond GDP: Measuring What Counts for Economic and Social Performance. Paris: OECD Publishing.
hooks, b. 1999. All About Love: New Visions. New York: HarperCollins.
“The act of engaging in free-improvisation will become a liberator, and emancipator, for many people to touch into their emotional lives in a non-verbal and non-judgemental way. We must introduce this healthy way of life.”— LaDonna Smith