“We live in politically democratic but socially fascist societies”
Taking advantage of his participation
in the 15th Central American Congress of Sociology
at Managua’s Central American University on October 11-14,
we interviewed Portuguese sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos
to situate his theoretical views in the context of our region,
shed light on Central America’s past and present
and suggest future paths.
José Luis Rocha
Boaventura de Sousa Santos has a doctorate in Sociology of Law from Yale University and is a sociology professor at Portugal’s University of Coimbra and at the Institute for Legal Studies of the University of Wisconsin. His thoughts have revolutionized the categories that we in the South use to think about and fight against oppression. Books like The Orphan Millennium, A Critique of Lazy Reason and Critical Legal Sociology are classics that are read and circulated in tattered versions proclaiming their many readings. His battles against colonial sociability and the waste of experiences have awakened long-winded echoes. His contributions to epistemological and social change—from academia, the World Social Forum and his accompaniment of new forms of protest—are part of a new and effective ecology of knowledge against the multiple incarnations of domination. This is his first visit to Nicaragua and to Central America. We hope doors will open here for a fraternal and long-lasting relationship.
Central America needs a “made to measure” mirror
JLR: What is being said about Central America in the social forums you’ve supported with your conviction and imagination? Is it a region that stands out in any way or is it only mentioned as the United States’ ‘backyard’?
BSS: Central America is one of those regions of the world with very contrasting images: a region of exciting victories and devastating defeats. For example, it’s common today to say that Central America is the world’s most violent region, which seems like an exaggeration to me when we take a look at what’s happening in the Middle East. At least, we should specify what kind of violence we’re talking about. It’s clear that the particularly oppressive presence of US imperialism has created a lot of violence, injustice, suffering and authoritarianism in this region.
Central America has experienced forms of imperial and counterinsurgent dominance that were later used in other contexts, like the Contra for example. And the coup against President Manuel Zelaya in Honduras in 2009, which was a trial run for later coups such as the one in Paraguay in 2012 against President Fernando Lugo and this year against President Dilma Roussef in Brazil. However, this region is also one that has had progressive political processes that mobilized the whole world, like the Sandinista revolution, and also credible attempts at democratic re-establishment of the State.
Central America produced some of the most brilliant as well as some of the most tragic processes of liberation theology, which was a progressive contribution to the world. I won’t mention names or refer to well-known men and women who justifiably have titles as our martyrs because I don’t want to risk feeding the idea that what happened in those countries wasn’t a vast social movement in which most of the heroes were anonymous.
Central America has to reclaim its right to history and to the memory, in all its complexity, of overcoming stereotypes that when repeated so many times turn into truths for Central Americans themselves. Central America needs a “made to measure” mirror.
We need other ethics, other politics and a lot of imagination
JLR: You have characterized the current period as one of transition. Is the fact that we in Central America are now seeing the resurgence of old mechanisms of oppression and old regulatory patterns a paradoxical aspect of this transitional character—or maybe only an apparent one? Among those old mechanisms and patterns is a re-militarization, in which resorting to fear is again the main mechanism the elite use to maintain their power, with an occasional populist bonapartism and also the killing of social leaders, electoral frauds, submission to Washington’s dictates, land expropriations and the like.
Are these simply still the elite’s non-modern solutions to modern problems? Are there new elements of this transition that we can see or should seek beneath the varnish of formal democracy that gives a halo of legitimacy to those forms of oppression? Or should we seek them in some of the mass reactions of the oppressed, for example in emigration and in self-employment or informal labor?
BSS: We are in a period of great aggressiveness by global neoliberalism; we’re seeing the most anti-social and savage face of capitalism in the past hundred years. Countries are destroyed to save the dollar and guarantee access to natural resources, like in Iraq and Libya, or to guarantee that the gas pipeline of Qatar and Saudi Arabia crosses Syria and reaches Europe. Individually, the European countries had some autonomy from the United States for some time, but today, as the European Union, they are totally subordinate to the US imperial plans, as we’re seeing in Ukraine, in the dangerous ascent towards a nuclear war, in a constant provocation of Russia, in the free trade treaties with Latin America...
During the first decade of the new millennium, Latin America was a place of hope, from Venezuela to Bolivia, from Ecuador to Brazil, from Argentina to Paraguay and Uruguay. And suddenly we’ve gone from offensive struggles to build a high-intensity democracy to defensive struggles to avoid losing the low-intensity democracy we have. The southern part of Europe is another tragic example. The antidemocratic forces of the Right, be it Latin America’s oligarchies or Europe’s far Right, are currently on the offensive, supported by financial capitalism, which is the advance guard of neoliberal globalization, and under the attentive presence of US counterinsurgency and warmongering.
Violent and illegal primitive accumulation is using retirees’ pensions and workers’ salaries, not to mention the land and forests. Sociologists are good at foreseeing the past and never the future, which depends on thousands of contingencies and insurgent creativity mixed with some obstacles and inertias we call structures. The modern problems (freedom, equality, fellowship) are ever farther from being solved and the modern solutions (revolution and reformism) seem exhausted. We need other ethics, other politics and a lot of epistemological imagination to face these challenges. Franz Fanon said that each generation has its mission and it either achieves it or betrays it.
Successes at the cost of ecological devastation
JLR: Like other Latin American regimes, the Central American one became nominally formal democracies during the 1990s. Have you found any non-State normative structures in other Latin American countries that strengthen democratization and make it viable and deeper than mere procedural formality?
BSS: The Latin American progressive governments of the first decade of the millennium had great successes in redistributing wealth, education and health. But they did it within a development model based on unprecedented natural resource exploitation. Without redistribution of wealth there’s no credible democratization. There were enormous advances in citizens’ participation, but it depended on social policies and came at the cost of the social organizations’ own autonomy. Unfortunately, that participation was kidnapped by the government parties’ temptation to control it. That development model ended after causing a lot of very unjust suffering to peasant populations and indigenous peoples, in addition to ecological devastation. Today the precarious middle class that emerged as a result of the social policies are frustrated and protesting in the streets, many times against the very parties that created them.
The real democracy that indignant people are demanding
JLR: Central America is suffering—not as risks but as increasingly explosive realities—what you identify as social fascisms. For example, the fascism of social apartheid (very visible in the proliferation of gated and even self-sufficient condominiums equipped inside with schools, cinemas, stores and restaurants). Or populist fascism (distribution of zinc roofing sheets or basic grains to produce the illusion of participation and nation-building controlled from below by political functionaries). There is also the fascism of insecurity (economic models built on remittances as the panacea, and the proliferation of private pension funds), and the parallel State in either its territorial version (the feudalism of the lumber mafias and drug lords) or its contractual version (selective application of laws applied by the greed of the corrupt who pardon only the ones who pay and by the punitive populists who punish the marginalized).
And that’s not to mention para-state fascism, which in our case involves polymorphic applications of labor flexibility, the entry into an old age that doesn’t depend on pensions but on remittances and their own savings, reduction of people to the condition of clients given the privatization of electricity distribution and conventional telephone services.
All these fascisms are a reality in Central America. In other latitudes of the planet, what ways have social movements found to face them? What ways might be viable for Central America, a region where, as you have said referring to other fields, neither reformism nor revolution led to the promised emancipation?
BSS: We live in societies that may be politically democratic but are socially fascist, which is more than ever the ideal regime for global neoliberalism. But this duality creates instability. Will the future be more democratic or, to the contrary, will fascism move from a social to a political regime? It will depend on us. Each generation fights with the weapons it has. We live in a time that’s still very close to the historical defeat of real socialism. And so far we haven’t recovered. A fact the Western media hides is that all opinion polls done in the once-socialist European countries reveal that the majority of their populations would prefer to return to the socialist system. In some countries like Rumania and Bulgaria the majority yearning for that is overwhelming.
Our generation still has a weapon it didn’t have a hundred years ago and the youth of the indignant people’s movement remind us of it when they talk about “real democracy,” i.e., not what we have, which lives comfortably with social fascism, but a high-intensity democracy that, among many other things, requires the democratization of the media, a tax reform in which the rich pay more than the poor to fund public policies, States that can be funded with taxes and not indebtedness, a political reform that allows citizens to participate outside of political parties and without party guardianship (the fourth body of sovereignty), an agrarian reform and public control of natural goods, common goods.
Capitalism is aided by colonialism and patriarchy
JLR: Do those changes require the seizure of state power? Or do you think, as John Holloway does, that the State is itself demobilizing and determines the process and results of the action?
BSS: The characteristics of real democracy that I mentioned demand the seizure of state power to be able to transform it. Holloway’s dilemma isn’t important. The problem isn’t the power of government through the State. The problem is the social and economic power the State controls. During the last thirty years that the Left has been in government, it has controlled the government but neither the social power nor the economic power. And that’s why it ends up either being expelled from the government or being distorted until it becomes the Right disguised as the Left.
JLR: You have explained that modernity’s paradigm rests on two pillars: regulation and emancipation. Regulation stabilizes expectations and emancipation pushes towards possible futures that break from what’s established. Where do the economic conditions fit within this scheme? Do they have a dual purpose? Do they both stabilize and open new horizons?
BSS: In my most recent work I show that modern regulation is even more complex. Capitalism is a mode of domination that can’t act on its own. It always does it with the help of colonialism and patriarchy.
This linkage creates a vast invisible and radical line that divides our societies into two immeasurable types of sociability: metropolitan sociability, governed by the tension between social regulation and emancipation (which allows social expectations to be stabilized); and colonial sociability, governed by the tension between appropriation and violence (where the stabilization of expectations isn’t possible).
The end of historical colonialism didn’t mean the end of colonialism. More and more people live under colonial sociability (the social fascisms). Our leftist political theories were created under the presupposition that colonialism no longer existed and everything would be solved through social regulation and social emancipation. It’s not like that and we’ve paid a high price for not knowing it.
I propose to democratize knowledge
JLR: One of the most intriguing notions of your theory is that of successive good sense that breaks from the Gramscian idea of good sense as opposed to common sense. Your perspective shows the dynamism of emancipation and breaks with that Gramscian elitism linked to a vision of vanguards that educate and lead the masses. However, Gramsci’s dichotomy had the advantage of denouncing false consciousness and in that way avoiding a type of epistemological populism that per se identifies the actions of the masses with a movement that’s always positive. What alternative does your theory offer to explain the actions of the masses restricted to the horizon of possibilities the elite stake out for them?
BSS: The epistemologies [theories of knowledge involving investigation of what distinguishes justified belief from opinion] of the South that I propose are an attempt to radically democratize knowledge, as a precondition to democratizing society, the economy and politics. There’s no populism or relativism in this proposal. The epistemologies of the South are processes of constructing and validating knowledge based on the experiences of resistance and struggle of those who suffer systemic exclusion by capitalism, colonialism and patriarchy. Those experiences are culturally and epistemically diverse because the interaction between capitalism, colonialism and patriarchy takes on very different forms in different contexts and times.
The dual consciousness of migrants
JLR: Central America’s main trade partner is still the United States, which is also the main—and now massive—migratory destination for an increasing number of Central Americans, currently over four million. That makes the US a partner of the elite and a refuge for the masses. What is there of stabilization and emancipation in this migratory movement?
BSS: The migrants live in colonial sociability in the US (they are treated as colonized) and in metropolitan sociability when they send remittances or return to live in their country of origin (because in those cases they are citizens). They have a dual consciousness, something similar to the dual consciousness Du Bois identified in the Blacks in the US at the beginning of the 20th century. Du Bois said that, contrary to the whites in US society, the blacks had no problems, they were a problem. The Central American immigrants in the US are a problem for the dominant society. Here at home they have problems just like any other citizen.
The key question is: “Which side are you on?”
JLR: There was a revolution in the 1980s in this country you’re visiting. The country is divided into those who saw that revolution as “the dark night” and those who sang it as the time when “the dawn no longer was a temptation.” The revolution produced disenchantment in numerous members of both groups which now is being harvested as skepticism in response to conventional politics.
Using as a reference the political effervescence that polarized passions and positions back then, some of the guerrillas and activists of those times reproach the new generations for a certain level of political apathy, scant willingness to take to the streets and a focus on personal betterment. Some millennial youth, Y generation or Peter Pan generation members have spoken out in the media to explain the different forms of political expression and ways of contributing to the country, like by being a good professional, taking a stand on Facebook, defending different sexual options or expressing their positions through art.
Is there a possibility of overcoming this, which threatens to become a generational dialogue of the deaf? Is there a part of truth that belongs to each party? Are we looking at a challenge by the youth to renew the Left or only justifications to dodge a more militant social commitment?
BSS: Each country lives in its own specific historical present. Amilcar Cabral, Guinea-Bissau’s great liberator during Portuguese colonialism, said that revolutionary theories aren’t export merchandise. The only thing that seems valid for all is that we’re intensely living the fact that there are no modern solutions to the modern problems. The youth are generally the ones living this contradiction and this absence most poignantly. They’re searching for solutions that our theories don’t even consider political.
I work a lot with young rappers in Portugal, Brazil, Cape Verde and Mozambique because for me the best revolutionary texts are in their rap or hip-hop lyrics. They are doing today what protest singers did fifty years ago. Of course there’s a lot of reactionary and commercial rap and, as with everything else, one needs to know how to tell the difference. The key anti-relativist and anti-populist question is: which side are you on?
Our reseach methodologies are a form of extractivism
JLR: Lastly, a question whose answer is of interest to young researchers. What are the core issues in Latin America? Which ones should researchers dedicate more attention to because of their emancipating potential?
BSS: In the last ten years I’ve reached the conclusion that all through the last century we built a lot of critical thinking in Latin America whose objective was to develop the social sciences into a potential emancipator. The results aren’t too enlightening when we put them up against the realities lived by the great majority of the continent. I don’t think we need another theory of revolution. What we need is to revolutionize theory, which can’t be achieved without an epistemological interruption.
All modern science is Eurocentric and that’s why the social sciences also come from an epistemological privilege that gives them a monopoly over rigorous knowledge. That monopoly has had two negative consequences. On the one hand, we easily became vanguard intellectuals and theorists. and when the theory failed, the blame was always placed on the practice, not the theory.
On the other hand, there was a massive waste of social experience that resulted in scorn or total contempt towards the knowledge that circulates in society, mostly in communities, among the grassroots classes, in social movements and organizations that are fighting against the exclusion, discrimination and unjust suffering caused by capitalism, colonialism and patriarchy and against all the satellite modes of domination that link up with them (sometimes religion or the generation...).
What’s worse is that when this popular, traditional knowledge was considered, it wasn’t for its own epistemological value, but instead for information based on which we social scientists created scientific knowledge. That generally makes our methodologies one more form of extractivism, not much different from that of natural goods.
I propose another, more balanced relationship between scientific knowledge and traditional knowledge, and that is precisely what I call the epistemologies of the South. They allow us to construct more effective ecologies of knowledge in the struggle against oppression. The epistemologies of the South call upon the social scientists to be rearguard intellectuals and not vanguard intellectuals.
Jose Luis Rocha is a researcher for the Institute of
Research and Projection on Global and Territorial
Dynamics at Guatemala’s Rafael Landívar University.