Is the old world really dying while the new one struggles to be born? Or does it merely mutate, gorging on technology and the intensification of social fear?
Antoni Aguiló is a political philosopher and professor at the University of Coimbra Centre for Social Studies (Portugal). Together with Boaventura de Sousa Santos, he has published Global Learnings: Decolonize, decommodify and depatriarchalize from epistemologies of the South,1 a reflection on the dark times we live in. In this interview, Aguiló helps us understand how the global establishment subtly naturalizes the interests of the powerful whilst marginalizing the rest, and how social movements can engender coherent, inclusive and radically democratic alternatives by incorporating learnings from feminism, LGBTI collectives and decolonial perspectives.
You say that, starting in the 15th century, the West has imposed and globalized a vision of culture and reality dominated by eurocentrism. What’s your understanding of eurocentrism?
Eurocentrism is like a second skin, encasing our bodies so closely that we hardly notice it. It’s a supremacist ideology shaped by beliefs, attitudes and practices, which have long since turned into destructive customs. In his essay Of custom, and that we should not easily change a law received 2 Montaigne tells the story of a woman who, from a young age, had learned to carry a young calf in her arms. Over time it grows into an ox, but the woman still carries it in her arms. We have been nursing from the milk of custom since the day we were born. Eurocentrism works similarly and is reinforced in a number of ways. Education would be one example — it imposes a powerful influence that conditions our way of seeing and understanding the world. It’s the mortar that cements the walls of discrimination.
It is true that ethnocentrism, imperialism and patriarchy are not solely European “original sins”. Non-western cultures (Aztec, Persian, Ottoman Chinese, etc.) also built their own empires. Still, European modernity pandered to an obsession with European superiority and the conquest of the Earth like nothing before, all under the unquestionable certainty that Europe was the engine of history. It was believed that Europeans possessed distinctive, referential qualities unlike or in greater measure than any other peoples or cultures, including rationality, freedom, inventiveness, curiosity and tolerance, among others. It followed that these would then translate into considerably superior achievements in civilization: science, technology, bureaucracy, capitalism, industrialization, etc.
Eurocentrism also produces dichotomies that naturalize and hierarchize inequality, such as center and periphery”, “superior and inferior”, “civilized and barbaric”, “developed and developing”, among other examples. Eurocentric dominance promotes these inequalities, shapes social imaginaries and smothers the possibility of a cultural process capable of positively valuing diversity. It’s our duty to push back against the imposed legacy of eurocentrism. To do this, we have to reverse the questions: instead of “are we racists?” we should ask ourselves, “how can we eliminate the racism within us?”
Since the 1980s, Europe has suffered great economic and social harms (growing inequality, concentration of wealth, social exclusion, the rise of the far right etc). In keeping, is this crisis also a crisis of the dominant eurocentric worldview?
Eurocentrism is in crisis, but it’s not dead. Its logic still dominates global knowledge production and constitutes our perceptive and relational habits. It’s the logic that continues to reproduce itself through schools, secondary education, and the mass media. This logic allows people to be tortured and killed for being transsexual. A logic presently renewing itself through discourses loaded with supremacism, racism, machismo and xenophobia, as evidenced by the global surge of the far right. This is the very logic that incites us to reclaim global lessons and to explore the possibility of building other worlds that are not only possible, but also necessary and urgent.
What’s really in crisis is the idea that the key to understanding the world is to be found in the Western point of view, despite its continuing hegemony. The crisis of Eurocentrism can be partly explained by the rise of the great emerging economies, such as China and India, but also by a plurality of intellectual frameworks emerging in the Global South which highlight the endemic contradictions of Western modernity. This critique comes from a non-Eurocentric perspective of the lived realities of peripheral populations, with their knowledge, ways of life and strategies for conflict. Among these frameworks, we could highlight Liberation Theology, Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Subaltern Studies in India, Dependence Theory, Fals Borda’s participatory action research, Latin-American decoloniality, Patricio Guerrero’s corazonar,3 decolonial feminism and the epistemologies of the South.
In Global Learnings, you and your coauthor highlight a number of strategies for challenging the hegemonies of capitalism, colonialism and the patriarchy. These last three have historically been built on what you decry as an “abysmal line of thinking” that legitimizes oppression, exploitation and conquest. Why is it that, even though its ideological bases are debilitated, this Eurocentric abysmal line of thinking is still at the root of certain political parties, as well as supranational institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the European Union?
For one simple reason operating under a false guise of anachronism: colonialism did not end with the processes of independence. That marked the end of a specific form of colonialism, the formal colonialism of occupation. Now, taken as a sociocultural process, colonialism has remained in the minds of colonizers and colonized alike, but camouflaged under several cultural and everyday aspects. Sometimes even excused away under grandiloquent but, essentially, empty statements such as “democracy”, a humiliated word which the FMI and World Bank find quite comfortable. Why? Because they refer not to a democracy willing to redistribute wealth, but to a purely formal, procedural democracy fit for the neoliberal, privatizing nature of the State. We have seen this in the austerity-based economic prescriptions recently applied in Europe and in the structural adjustment programs imposed by the FMI in Africa and Latin America during the 80’s, all of which increased social inequalities. We saw it in the Greek tragedy of Syriza.
The European Union, organized under the French-German axis, has leveraged debt as a form of internal colonialism with which to subjugate different States, depriving them of sovereignty and dictating national policies. It has turned democracy into a tool at the service of the economic, political and social model of European neoliberal globalization (which abandons productive economic activity in favor of speculation, fosters trade agreements that eliminate the already weakened sovereignty of States, demophobia, etc). Electoral solutions will be insufficient for true social and political transformation.
What do the old and new forms of colonialism have in common?
They both outline what Boaventura calls “abysmal lines”: a type of division, either physical or symbolic, representing a radical separation between true and false, what’s right and what’s wrong, normal and abnormal, beautiful and ugly, civilized or obsolete and, above all, between human and subhuman. Abysmal lines are drawn so colonized social groups can be turned into inferior, invisible and disposable beings, turned into populations to be domesticated, exploited and controlled in concert with the interests of capitalism, colonialism and the patriarchy. For example, when one the leaders of Vox 4 declared that women might have the right to eat more or less, cut their hair or trim their nails, but don’t have the right to abort, he’s treating all women as inferior beings unfit for making their own decisions. It’s the same when Matteo Salvini referred to migrants rescued at sea as “human meat”. Specifically, they are reproducing the colonial obsession of stigmatizing those who are different and characterizing them as useless, inferior, despicable, etc
The colonialism of today isn’t carried out with crucifixes and swords, but through much more sophisticated mechanisms and institutions. Drones, algorithms, big data, fake news, hedge funds, toxic mortgages, casino economies, Goldman Sachs, debt, social fascisms, preventive warfare, green capitalism, pinkwashing, free trade treaties, whitewashing, extractivism, land grabbing, transgenic agriculture, immigration laws, etc. These are some of the forms of domination and control deployed to safeguard the interests of the powerful. In the book we talk about some of Europe’s current colonial aspects: racism and xenophia in the face of the refugee crisis, internal colonialism, financial fascism, far right populism, multiculturalism, etc
Because of neoliberal globalization and an ideological shift in social democratic parties, the last few years have seen the rise of extreme right movements in Germany, France, the United States, Spain and Brazil, among others. How should progressive forces deal with the emergence of different types of social fascism?
Social fascism is an expression of what Achille Mbembe calls “necropolitics”, a form of social and political control that excludes certain lives from basic protections and exposes them to death. This comes from practices that lead to abandonment, exclusion, criminalization, etc. Social fascism declares war on the lives that are disposable to the interests of the system: precarious lives, racialized lives, lives inhabiting the poorest fringes, homeless lives, migrant, undocumented lives and, potentially, lives that transcend the hegemonic subjects: white, western, middle-class, Christian and heterosexual.
Overall, the social fascism endorsed by today’s global far right combines the radical defense of capitalist market interests with the dissemination of reactionary misogynist, racist, sexist and homophobic ideologies. All of this from fiercely anti-left and anti-progressive stances, as we’ve seen in Brazil with Bolsonaro, where social fascism favors alliances between different social sectors: neoliberals, evangelical fundamentalists, conservative Catholics, those nostalgic for the dictatorship, etc.
How do we fight social fascism? There’s no definite answer, but there are some urgent indications. First, progressive sectors should not underestimate the threat of fascism. To minimize the growing influence of authoritarian and regressive positions would be a grave error. The problem is that today’s left is steeped in a tradition of combatting the political fascism they faced in the 20th century, but in large part have been myopic, even complacent, towards social fascism — social democracy’s turn toward neoliberalism would be a good example. Secondly, leftist movements have to reclaim the centrality of political debate, a debate that presently favors the right and the far right and heightens their influence in the discursive agenda. Third, it’s essential to broaden alliances while articulating antifascist resistances at different scales, raising the banners of feminism, anti-capitalism, ecology, sexual and gender diversity, human rights, epistemic diversity, laicism, freedom of expression, the fight against repression, the democratization of democracy, antimilitarism, racial equality and critical education.
What role do the global learnings you propose in your book play in this context?
In 1950 Aimé Césaire began his Discourse on Colonialism stating that, after centuries of capitalist development, western civilization had been unable to solve problems related to questions of class and colonialism. He characterized it as a “decadent”, “stricken” and “dying” civilization. We need to create byways to help us out of the civilizational crisis that Europe is trapped in and those global learnings we refer to could be part of the roadmap. They’re an attempt to cross borders or, as Gloria Anzaldúa would put it, to find common ground and create practical, subversive, dissident and creative spaces of resistance, ones that reconstruct social relations, widen the cracks, renew hope and make life more bearable. Spaces that highlight the need to inscribe in our memories, our bodies and our skins values that point toward other civilizational horizons, such as oral tradition, interdependence, the nosotros,5 complementarity, pluridiversity, etc
The nineties saw the rise of various counter hegemonic resistance movements, like the Zapatistas or World Social Forums. More recently, we saw the whole Occupy/15-M cycle. What role does philosophy play in the construction of a subaltern cosmopolitanism that can transcend eurocentrism?
The first step is to be humble and acknowledge the level of arrogance and sense of superiority in Western philosophy, often presented as a pretentious universal knowledge with no regard for non-western realities and knowledge. Kant and Hegel, for example, would go so far as to question the capacity of non-western knowledge to engender philosophical thought. Nicholas of Cusa taught us that humility, understood as the existential recognition of one’s ignorance, is the necessary starting point for any philosophical perspective. Antonio Machado, through his fictitious character Juan de Mairena, said that the true encyclopedic dimension of a human being resides in their ignorance, not their wisdom. We’re encyclopedic ignorants. Encyclopedism was a construction of the Enlightenment. We must reclaim humble, anti-dogmatic ignorance. Without humility, there will be no decolonization at all.
Philosophy is an activity that lets us amplify humanity’s inexhaustible capacity to think, subvert, create, love and resist. In this sense, philosophy is in love with rebellion, rebellion grounded in everyday struggles to denaturalize oppression and practice other ways of being in the world more in accordance with egalitarian societies. Philosophy needs to be decolonized for this to happen. This, among other things, calls for the creation of practices to visibilize everything placed outside the western philosophical canon. It also asks us to value the experience of human beings excluded from western philosophy (women, indigenous, black and LGTBI people, etc.) and to favor exchange with other philosophical learnings and languages (music, graffiti, popular dance, etc.)
What are the most urgent challenges for feminism and the LGTBI movement, and why must they be decolonized?
It depends on the contexts. What they have in common is that they’re the expression of a political culture fighting against heterosexist and patriarchal regimes. The challenge is to establish a politics that can transcend circumstantial alliances and works toward a pluralistic and open-minded project able to harvest the needs and aspirations of each movement. It should also build knowledge and practices attentive to the connection between racism and colonialism, compulsory heterosexuality, machismo and capitalism, while following the practices of decolonial and intersectional feminism.
In Europe, the most urgent challenge shared by both movements is to face the recrudescence of misogyny and LGTBphobia brought on by the rise of the far-right. Feminism and the LGTBI movement are two ways to combat fascism. They challenge the narrative that asserts gender as the bedrock of family structures, and the family as the foundation of nation and tradition. Classic antifascist organizations were riddled with machismo and homophobia. The antifascism of today has to be transversal, diverse and inclusive.
Original interview text published in La Pensante.
- “Aprendizajes globales. Descolonizar, desmercantilizar y despatriarcalizar desde epistemologías del Sur” is the original title in Spanish. Find out more about the book here.
- Montaigne’s essay can be read here.
- “Corazonar” in Spanish could be translated as “heartening”. Guerrero’s work speaks of an “anthropology bound to life” and an “insurgent political response to colonialism”.
- Vox is a far right party, populist party in Spain. Practically irrelevant until 2017, it leveraged outrage at the Catalan process of independence to form a more stable electoral base, levelling at around 10% of the votes in the 2019 General Spanish Elections. Read more here.
- “Nosotros” is the first person plural in Spanish, or “us”. In Latin-American emancipatory movements the expression is used to signify the pluridiversity and the socio-historical context that surrounds every subject. In this sense it is similar to the concepts of Ubuntu or the Nested-I.