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Pluriversal Peacebuilding: Peace Beyond Epistemic and Ontological Violence

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The field of international peacebuilding increasingly recognizes that violence is not a unitary phenomenon, but an array of constraints on human flourishing spanning physical, structural, cultural, and symbolic registers (Galtung 1969; 1990; Jabri 1996; O. Richmond 2012; 2016). This recognition provides corollary insights that building peace requires, at the very least, the reduction of violence in its complex and interlocking forms. But despite a normative commitment to reducing diverse forms of violence, the field of international peacebuilding has struggled to address the potentials for epistemic and ontological violence following from the inherent Eurocentrism of its own disciplinary origins and orientations (Walker 2004; Jabri 2013; Sabaratnam 2013; Goetze 2016). As a result of its exclusion of ways of knowing and being not authorized by Western academic discourses, the theory and practice of international peacebuilding frequently presumes the universalizability of Eurocentric modes of social, political, and economic organization viewed as ontologically destructive by Indigenous and other communities that continue to suffer under conditions of global coloniality (Azarmandi 2018; Maldonado-Torres 2020).

To address the paradoxical danger of perpetuating epistemic and ontological violence while seeking to promote peace, critical scholars of peacebuilding have begun to grapple in substantive and sustained ways with various strains of decolonial thought (Sabaratnam 2013; Hudson 2016; Azarmandi 2018; Brigg 2018; Rodriguez Iglesias 2019; Shroff 2019; Omer 2020). While vital for excavating the field’s participation in harmful ideological, economic, and political formations, these encounters have produced lamentably few practical tools for unsettling peacebuilding’s problematic epistemic politics or mitigating their material consequences (Tucker 2018). The following discussion advances the encounter between decolonial theory and the field of peacebuilding by considering the decolonial concept of pluriversality as a resource for imagining peacebuilding beyond epistemic and ontological violence.

Pluriversality and the Peaceful Violence of Modernity

The concept of pluriversality is associated primarily with the modernity/coloniality framework of decolonial thought. Originating from the work of Peruvian sociologist Anibal Quijano, modernity/coloniality names the inextricable bond between a Eurocentered modernity and its ‘darker side’ of coloniality (Quijano 2000; 2007; W. D. Mignolo 2011). Modernity here reflects the historical emergence and self-narration of a Eurocentric modern/capitalist world-system with material and ideological roots in the European colonial conquest of the Atlantic basin. Coloniality denotes the co-constitution of this Eurocentered modernity through patterns of enslavement, dispossession, and genocide against differentially racialized, gendered, sexualized, and territorialized peoples constructed as Europe’s constitutive ‘others’ (W. D. Mignolo 2000; Wynter 2003; Maldonado-Torres 2007; Lugones 2007; 2010). A key aspect of modernity as a discursive formation is the erasure or subalternization (‘epistemicide’) of the knowledge of non-European peoples (Grosfoguel 2015). The discourse of modernity naturalizes the violences of coloniality by eradicating resources for imagining and enacting possible alternatives to a world structured through modernity/coloniality’s intersecting, Eurocentric hierarchies.

Pluriversality, by contrast, denotes the existence of irreducibly plural ways of knowing and being that have survived the on-going violences of coloniality (Escobar 2018; Reiter 2018). Pluriversality carries both ontological and ethical implications. In its ontological sense, pluriversality names the survival of myriad ways of knowing and being in the world that deny the authority of any knowledge system claiming universal validity or a transcendent grasp of ‘objective’ reality (W. D. Mignolo 2011, 70–71). Pluriversality thus affirms the existence of ‘multiple ontologies, multiple worlds to be known—not simply multiple perspectives on one world’ (Conway and Singh 2011, 701). Because the universalizing discourse of modernity imperils the survival of other ways of knowing and being, embracing the ontological fact of pluriversality impels a corresponding rejection of epistemologies, discourses, and political projects that view the world as knowable and governable from within any single system of knowledge.

This ontological or descriptive aspect of pluriversality directly informs the concept’s ethical or programmatic sense, which consists of dismantling systems of power that threaten the survival of diverse ways of knowing and being. Pluriversal ethics minimally entails resistance to the violences of modernity/coloniality through efforts to build ‘a world in which multiple cosmovisions, worldviews, practices and livelihoods co-exist, a world where no one particular way of living shuts down others’ (Dunford 2017, 380–81), a world often described through the Zapatistas desideratum of un mundo donde quepan muchos mundos—’a world where many worlds fit.’ In this ethical or programmatic sense, pluriversality provides a touchstone for imagining the proliferation of irreducibly plural, situated alternatives to the violently universalizing tendencies of modernity/coloniality (Querejazu 2016; W. D. Mignolo 2018; W. D. Mignolo and Walsh 2018; Reiter 2018; Escobar 2018).

This two-fold understanding of pluriversality offers critical and constructive insights into peacebuilding theory and practice. On the one hand, pluriversality provides a lens for assessing how peace discourses perpetuate modern/colonial logics and promote ends hostile to pluriversality in its ontological sense. These dynamics become particularly apparent when examining how hegemonic peace discourses overdetermine the content of ‘peace’ itself, delegitimizing alternative meanings and promoting social, economic, and political transformations experienced as destructive to some communities’ ways of knowing and being (Rodriguez Iglesias 2019).

In its programmatic sense, pluriversality also provides insights into how the concept of peace might still function on a decolonial register when delinked from such hegemonic discourses. The cultivation of pluriversality is closely linked to dialogical practices that take shared concepts, or ‘connectors,’ as the discursive grounds for encounters that bridge epistemic and ontological differences (Delgado, Romero, and Mignolo 2000; W. D. Mignolo 2011; Querejazu 2016; Dunford 2017; Hutchings 2019). Pluriversal dialogue that centers peace itself as a potential connector opens possibilities for constructive encounters around modes of peacebuilding attuned to the dangers of epistemic and ontological violence too frequently perpetuated by the field.

Analyses of the epistemic politics of peacebuilding clarify the urgent need for praxis delinked from modern/colonial logics. In The Distinction of Peace, Catherine Goetze demonstrates how the field prioritizes ‘Western, liberal, neocapitalist forms of knowledge’ that presuppose white, Western, male supremacy in constructing expertise (Goetze 2016, 221). But Goetze also shows how these intra-disciplinary biases are externalized and reified at scale as the field’s exclusionary politics of knowledge are translated into expert policy in conflict-affected societies that naturalize racist, sexist, and heteropatriarchal ideological formations within oppressive social, political, and economic systems—all in the name of promoting ‘peace.’

Partly in response to these exclusionary dynamics, critical scholars of peacebuilding have advocated for a ‘local turn’ in the field (O. Richmond 2012; Mac Ginty and Richmond 2013; Hughes, Öjendal, and Schierenbeck 2015; Paffenholz 2015; Leonardsson and Rudd 2015; O. Richmond 2016). At its most pointed, the local turn depicts international peacebuilding efforts of the last several decades as thin veneers for cultural imperialism that use violent conflict as pretext to enforce social, economic, and political transformations in postcolonial states. By contrast, local turn advocates highlight the indispensability of local peacebuilding resources and agency, and describe how contestatory interactions between local conceptions of peace and prevailing ‘liberal peacebuilding’ approaches can produce ‘hybrid’ forms of peace offering ‘emancipatory’ alternatives to both violent conflict and the violent impositions of unreconstructed liberal peacebuilding interventions (Mac Ginty 2011; O. Richmond 2012; 2015).

However, critics employing decolonial approaches demonstrate how international peacebuilding’s enduring epistemic Eurocentrism limits the constructive potential of such immanent critiques of the field. Meera Sabaratnam shows how local turn advocates fall prey to a ‘paradox of liberalism’ that cannot fully de-center the liberal/modern peacebuilding approaches they critique (Sabaratnam 2013). As a result, the local turn’s emphasis on hybridity constrains the emancipatory potential of peacebuilding by presuming liberal interventions whose necessary hybridization predetermine limits for ‘peaceful’ modes of social, economic, and political........

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