During his inaugural presentation titled “Alternatives: A challenge to sociological imagination,” delivered at the 15th Central American Congress of Sociology held at Managua’s Central American University on October 11-14, Portuguese sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos urged his attending Central American colleagues to democratize society by de-colonizing, de-marketizing and de-patriarchalizing it. He also urged universities themselves not to continue cranking out conformists. “The time has come to form competent rebels” were the closing words of his talk, which we present below
A great Guatemalan sociologist, Edelberto Torres- Rivas, whom many of you know and of whose research CLASCO is fortunately preparing a compilation, has written in one of his recent works about “the pessimism of the social sciences.” Well, it seems like there’s not much space for optimistic alternatives. But I’m a tragic optimist. I refuse to not see alternatives and, at the same time, I start from a radical diagnosis of the tragedy of our times. It seems to me, above all in these times we are living, that only a radical diagnosis will allow us to think of the future in a way that will enable us to solve the challenges we’re facing.
My conviction is that the knowledge we’ve been working with up to now isn’t good enough to get us out of this crisis and direct us towards another time, a better society and that other possible world. Perhaps we need to rethink knowledge. And perhaps we also need what that great US sociologist C. Wright Mills called sociological imagination. Yes, today we need a dual imagination: sociological and epistemological.
++++ Never has there been so much talk about crisis
I’m going to start by pointing out some paradoxes of our times so we can see how complicated it is for us social scientists to interpret them and, of course, also for politicians when they try to analyze contemporary realities in depth.
The first paradox is that there has never been so much talk about crisis as there is today. It seems like crisis is a permanent reality. Financial crisis, environmental crisis, social crisis... One hears talk of crisis everywhere. But if we take a look at the root of this Greek word, crisis also means opportunity. It’s the possibility of continuing to move forward but with other solutions and other perspectives. It would also appear that we’re in a situation today in which we don’t have to explain the crisis. Instead it’s the other way around: the crisis explains everything. Among social scientists, among sociologists, the crisis would seem to be going from being a dependent variable to being an independent variable. When salaries are cut back... “it’s because of the crisis.” When indigenous people and peasants are evicted from their lands... “it’s because of the crisis” or “because of the needs of development.” When retired people’s pensions are cut back in many countries... “it’s because of the crisis.”
The crisis justifies everything. And this current crisis, being structural, seems to have no solution within the horizon of possibilities, which keeps us from thinking of alternatives. It locks us in and impedes us from thinking about the future. That’s why I so often feel that by talking so much about our time of crisis, we stop thinking. The crisis keeps us from talking about what we’re missing in our conversations, our debates, our projects. Besides, who defines the crisis? And for whom is it defined?
We know that the number of millionaires hasn’t stopped increasing every year in the world, in every country. The International Monetary Fund was recently in my country, Portugal, and in the four years of crisis the multimillionaires haven’t stopped growing. There’s crisis for the great majority, but for a very few there is no crisis. Those few have never been so well off as during the crisis. That’s why the way we define the crisis and who we define it for is so important.
++++ Never has it been so hard to think up of an alternative
Another paradox is that an alternative has never been so necessary, yet it has never been so hard to envision one. We’ve never had so many realities to criticize in our continent... and never so much trouble formulating a critical theory about them.
Why has it been so hard? What do we lack to be able to find a theory that allows us to continue forward and reach something better? We live in a time of images, but lack sociological imagination. Everything in our times moves through images, but when we take a look at politics and politicians from all the countries—I’m not just talking about any one in particular—what we see is a lack of imagination. We lack the possibility of thinking about how we can attack the problems of our countries’ great majorities with solutions that can improve their lives. The prevailing view is that there are no alternatives that can accomplish it.
Global neoliberalism has become an agent that disciplines us. When a country tries to increase the minimum wage, credit agencies immediately increase that country’s risk rating, and overnight its sovereign state debt—it’s ironic that it’s called “sovereign”—goes up, even without anything happening to the economy. We are in times of a great arrogance of power.
+++++ The dronifying of power
Political, cultural and economic power seems increasingly arrogant. An extreme metaphor I frequently use portrays that power of our times in a way: the “dronification” of politics. Like drones, power kills without taking any risk. Today, the person who’s using drones from a big computer in Nebraska to kill people in funerals, weddings or parties in Afghanistan or Yemen faces no risks and will never die in that war. It’s not even one soldier killing another soldier; it’s a soldier killing civilians. This is something new. For the first time since the end of World War II, more civilians than soldiers are dying in wars.
This dronification is producing a power that doesn’t seem to fear its opposition; it doesn’t fear resistance. That’s why it doesn’t ask us for consent; it just asks for our resignation. And once again the thought imposed on us is that there’s no alternative to resignation. That’s why we often see massive polarization in our societies, but it’s not ideological polarization. It’s another kind. There’s polarization in a society when one side refuses to listen to the side it disagrees with; that’s social polarization. If you watched the debates in the US electoral campaign, you didn’t see political polarization. It wasn’t an ideological debate. It was something else. The same is happening in many of our countries: polarization centers around personal issues and the debates have nothing to do with the different projects of society... in fact it seems like there no longer are projects of society.
++++ Homo economicus and homo sociologicus
Let’s remember that thirty years ago, Britain’s Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said society doesn’t exist, it’s only a concept and instead there are men and women. For quite a while we sociologists have started from the idea that there are two human beings: homo economicus and homo sociologicus. The homo economicus is individualist and selfish, thinking only about its own welfare and moving only based on supply and demand with the criterion of economic reasoning, whether liberal, neoliberal, classic or whatever...
The homo sociologicus is different: a social being who lives by other beings. In South Africa they’ve formulated a wonderful concept, a term that was kept in Nelson Mandela’s first Constitution: that of “Ubuntu,” which means “I am because you are.” I don’t exist alone, I exist because you exist. That would be the best definition of homo sociologicus.
What’s happening in our times is a reduction of homo sociologicus to homo economicus. And everything that happens is as if we were only homo economicus. The concept derived from this selfish idea is that of entrepreneur and entrepreneurship, which is flooding our universities, societies and media. An entrepreneur is, in and of itself, an antisocial being, because in order to win, someone always has to lose, a zero-sum game. For someone to be successful, someone has to have lost... In every society there has always been tension between homo economicus and homo sociologicus, a tension we can’t eliminate.
++++ Every day there’s more personal blame and less collective responsibility
Today we’re in a paradoxical situation: we’re called upon to find individual solutions to collective problems. And we’re held responsible for not finding any. If you fail in your job, it’s your fault; if you’re poor, it’s your fault... There’s increasingly more personal blaming and less and less collective responsibility in our societies. That results in the disappearance of a social contract and its replacement with an individual contract. We’re in a period of contracts, but individual ones, not a social one.
This paradox, which divides society, places us in a reality in which power is very concentrated and at the same time totally fragmented. On the one hand we have drones and on the other we have markets, two arrogant powers. But, what are markets? It seems like a vast number of people, but we know there are five or six institutional investors, currently under Goldman Sachs leadership, that control all international finances. When something happens in the economy of our countries, they always say: It’s the market... Today politicians of many countries, and increasingly more of them worldwide, have to answer to the “market,” i.e. to those institutional investors, and not to their citizens. And that’s a total perversion of democracy.
++++ The end of Eurocentism and a new conversation about the world
With all this, it seems to me we’re up against a reality that demands alternatives from us, yet it has never been so hard to think of any. In some way, the reason is that Eurocentric critical thought basically hasn’t recovered from the fall of the Berlin wall. Up until then there was an alternative—bad, good or debatable, but it existed. Many were happy with its fall because they thought it was the fall of communism. And it was, obviously, but it was also the end of social democracy, a democracy with social, economic and political rights.
And that’s the current crisis in the world. Mr. Mario Draghi, president of the European Central Bank and a Goldman Sachs man, recently said it quite clearly: European social democracy was over. So, what is there then...?
We are talking about European countries that never thought this kind of crisis would ever happen to them. The fact is that with the fall of the wall and the end of the communist and social democratic alternatives, the crisis has become globalized.
With that maybe we can start another conversation about the world with more solidarity, less Eurocentricism, more horizontality. I’m currently wrapping up a great European project financed by the European Research Council called Alice, which can be consulted. It comes from two ideas. One is that Europe no longer has anything to teach the world because it doesn’t know how to solve its own problems. And the other is that Europe also can’t learn from the experiences of the rest of the world due to its still existing colonialist prejudices.
I’m from Portugal, a colonizing country. Europe’s idea is that everyone is less developed than us and even though it recognizes that some countries have gone through some interesting experiences in participatory democracy, they are still less developed in other fields. Because of this prejudice, Europe doesn’t learn. I therefore believe we must start another conversation.
It’s hypocritical to think we have nothing to learn in the crisis all of Europe is currently living through, when the great sea that for centuries united all of Europe, the Mediterranean, has turned into a liquid cemetery, where thousands of people die fleeing hunger, wars, droughts and more. Are the mafias responsible for this tragedy? No, it’s that colonialism never ended. What is happening today is the result of that never-ended historical process.
This diagnosis I’ve shared with you, these paradoxes we’re experiencing force us social scientists to think about what our challenges are and later, after identifying them, to insistently challenge ourselves to formulate alternatives in our universities, our research centers and society. But before thinking of an alternative, I’d like to share with you what, from my experience and in my opinion, are the eight great threats and challenges of our times. A few years back I’d speak of only seven, now I mention eight... because they’re increasing.
* The marketization of the State
The first great threat, and great challenge, is the profound reorganization of the State. Neoliberalism has demonized the State to the point that it dominates it and, through domination controls it. By controlling it, it transforms the State from an agent of non-commercial interactions to a major agent of commercial interactions, which is the privatization of public goods and territorial concessions to investors.
Where there’s a State—capitalist, of course—with any autonomy within the capitalist economy, the possibility opens up for social policies fed by taxes and gives the State the possibility to provide public services to those who don’t have the capacity to access them through the market. Anyone who is sick and can’t pay for health care dies unless there’s a national health care system guaranteed by the State, because the State is the great agent of society’s non-commercial interactions.
What’s happening today is that the State has become the agent of the privatizing of these interactions, the agent that markets then. Take a look at what’s happening in Brazil today, where we thought there were irreversible advances. Education, health, social security, natural resources… all are being privatized. That the State has become the agent of privatizations comes from the fact that we’re in a period of a huge imbalance among the three main principles of modern regulation: the State, the Market and the Community. All modern regulation—again capitalist, of course—needs certain balances between those three principles. Well, today we’re in a moment in which the market principle totally lords it over the principle of the community and of the State. So the State behaves like the market; it’s a sales agent.
++++ How did we get here?
How did this happen? How did we reach this imbalance? It happened for a reason that went almost unnoticed by sociologists. The State had been organizing its public policies through taxation. But for about the past thirty years there’s been a widespread critique of the tax systems that says the rich should pay more than the poor. Can we imagine today that in 1950 the rich in some European countries paid 80% of the taxes the State counted on? That the rich in the United States, after the Great Depression, paid 70% of the taxes the government collected... and still were rich? That the rich paid so much to contribute to the poor? This helped develop forms of social distribution that made democracy compatible with capitalism.
For the past thirty years, however, total war has been waged against taxes. When neoliberalism comes into any country in Europe or Latin America, the first thing it says is: lower the taxes businesses pay; only those of course, not the ones citizens pay. To maintain their public policies in this situation, the States went into debt; what use to be paid for through tax collection became public debt. The problem is that the State is sovereign with regard to the tax resources, but public debt is not sovereign. The State has had to search for resources in the international market, where it’s not sovereign, and this change has caused very important problems.
* The hollowing of democracy
The second great threat is the hollowing of democracy. Today, in many countries, democracy has been kidnapped. Liberal democracy has lost the fight against capitalism and in many countries is currently dominated by anti-democrats, plutocrats, kleptocrats, in other words thieves, even though none of this is really sociological language.
We’re watching this always tense compatibility between democracy and capitalism fall apart in many countries. Since neoliberal capitalism is the anti-social form of capitalism, all of its designs are hijacking democracy. That’s why, as I’ve always written, in our times we’re living in politically democratic but socially fascist societies given that many people have no rights in their daily lives and are either subjected to violence or depend on philanthropy, itself also a form of violence.
This hollowing of democracy is complex. Some political regimes are hard to define today. I don’t have time here to speak about all the different types of democracy that exist today. I’m reminded of an Argentinian political scientist, Guillermo O’Donnell, who while discussing the transitions from dictatorship to democracy in Latin America pointed out that there were mixed regimes that were democracies but weren’t really democracies, they were “limited democracies,” or hard democracies. Were they dictatorships? No, they weren’t that either. They were “liberalized authori¬tarianism,” or soft dictatorships. These very creative concepts were created to classify the transitional nature of some regimes. I wonder if we’re not living these mixed formulas in our own societies...
* The destruction of nature
The third great threat is the destruction of Nature. Capitalism seems to have reached the limit of Mother Earth’s tolerance for the first time, because we’ve never had such an intense exploitation of natural resources as we know it today. And that’s causing many problems, not only environmental, but also social.
What’s happening clearly seems to be giving colonialism some continuity, because for the colonizers the lands of this continent were nobody’s land, they were just landscape, even when inhabited by indigenous people. If we look at the concessions that are being granted to extractivist businesses in Latin America today, and the same in Africa, they are for mega-projects, for mining, for exploiting natural resources, as if there were no people living in these territories, as if they were uninhabited and up for grabs. A big project in Mozambique today, with investments by Brazil and Japan, is going to evict four and a half million peasants from their lands. Clearly this is the continuation of colonialism.
* The devaluation of labor
The fourth threat is the devaluation of labor. Sociologists know quite well that labor was a main instrument for creating citizenry among the grassroots classes during the 19th century, above all in Europe, when they fought for their labor rights, particularly the right to limited work hours... this when even children and women worked 12 to 14 hours.
Since then the concept of labor with rights emerged. But today we’re entering a system of labor without rights. That’s why the United Nations has a work group analyzing slave labor, which is on the rise. And since it’s too shocking to state that slave labor exists in humanity today, they call it “labor analogous to slavery,” but the semantic distinction makes little sense for those living that reality.
Today job insecurity is spreading. There’s a lumpenizing of unpaid labor. In the United States, for example, there’s now a current of research looking at “wage theft,” the extra hours workers put in without getting paid for them. It’s shocking, right? Wage theft in the most developed country...
* The marketization of knowledge
The fifth threat we need to consider in order to seek an alternative is the commercializing of knowledge. This affects universities, which are now being called upon by educational neoliberalism to produce “useful” knowledge. Useful for what? For the economy of course. Knowledge per se is no longer important, what’s important is know-how.
It’s thought that Europe’s great social program, which genuinely supports the social sciences, will no longer have a section for the social sciences after 2020. They’ll be financed only insofar as they support industrial technological innovations. That is to say, they’ll lose their autonomy. We actually have funds for the social sciences today only by orders of the European Parliament, because the Commission wanted the social sciences to be at the service of commercially valuable innovation.
We’re entering a time in which the only knowledge that counts is knowledge with commercial value, the kind that produces patents. In many of the world’s universities, including the University of Madison, where I work half the year, we see biology, nanotechnology and biotechnology departments on the rise. But the humanities, sociology and literature departments are being closed down or reduced due to lack of resources for them. We’re dividing the universities into two types: under-financed and over-financed. And this is going to create a dangerous schizophrenia among and inside the universities.
* The criminalization of protest
The sixth threat is the criminalization of social protest. We’re seeing this increasing everywhere. While the State is retreating from social policies, repression of those demanding them is ever more present.
Let’s remember the UN’s definition of human security, which is a simple and wonderful definition. It’s “to live without fear and without needs.” But now we have a system that’s not one of security but of “security-ism.” We’re so fearful that we accept being monitored 24-7, which is a total perversion of security.
* The recolonization of violence
The seventh threat is the recolonization of violence. Colonialism never disappeared. It just metamorphosed, since it has that capacity. Ghana’s great leader, Kwame Nkrumah, said it back in 1966, when he spoke of neocolonialism. Then, three years later, a great Latin American sociologist, Mexico’s Pablo González Casanova, wrote about “internal colonialism” in his country. All these are facets of a colonialism that lives on today and is manifested in racism. Right now it is manifesting itself in Europe as Islamophobia and xenophobia. It’s also manifested in the United States in the brutality against young blacks, victims of police violence. Colonialism is very present in our societies and is something the indigenous peoples of our Latin American countries know a lot about.
* The re-patriarchalizing of societies
Finally, the eighth threat is the re-patriarchalizing of societies. Organizations that work with women are seeing this with increasing clarity. After years of feminist gains that seemed irreversible, women are becoming victims of a violence that’s increasing around the world as a result of three main factors: war, land and neoliberalism.
War: They are the main victims in wars, and the spoils of war. They are raped in wars and the ones who die in the greatest numbers. Land: Many of the world’s peasants are in fact female. We see great female peasant leaders like Berta Cáceres in both Africa and Latin America, and we also see the violence that persecutes and eliminates them. And, finally, neoliberalism. It causes over-exploitation of women’s labor and life.
++++ Capitalism, colonialism and patriarchy always act together
Sometimes we’re questioned for doubting the concept of progress we’ve been living by. We all certainly want to live better, but when we look at these threats, which are huge rollbacks, it seems as though everything’s reversible in this concept we’ve had of progress.
During the first decade of this millennium, the period we were living in seemed more luminous in Latin America. Yet we’ve seen how in a short amount of time, sometimes a matter of months, almost everything has collapsed. We went from engaging in offensive struggles and trying something new, like recently in Ecuador, Brazil and Argentina, to mounting defensive struggles to avoid losing the little we have. Seeing what’s happening in a lot of our countries, I often remember that great novel by the excellent Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, titled Things Fall Apart.
These threats come from something we sociologists must analyze very seriously. The domination of our times is a process in which three big mechanisms—capitalism, colonialism and patriarchy—which, with our critical knowledge and critical theory we always thought were isolated, are in fact always acting together. They never act alone.
While I respect the political differences in today’s Brazil, it must be said that we saw a huge strengthening of capitalism with the incoming government of Michel Temer this past August and no longer see the participation of women or blacks, as we did with the Dilma Roussef government. When capitalism becomes stronger, colonialism and the patriarchy do as well. The three go hand in hand.
The drama of our thinking and our politics is that they’re separated in the social movements. The labor movement works against capitalism, the indigenous and afro-descendant movements work against colonialism, and the women’s movement works against patriarchy. Do they come together? No. And there are a lot of prejudices among them, between women and indigenous people, between indigenous people and peasants, and between indigenous people and Afro-descendants. We won’t move forward if we don’t shake off those prejudices.
++++ We have to change our minds
After a phase of critical thinking on this continent, of solid social theory we should be very proud of, we’ve recently seen the density of this critical thought in the works of CLACSO. But despite that, the results aren’t so brilliant.
We’re more and more isolated. Perhaps our theory was always isolated from much of the social struggle. We have to acknowledge that much of our critical sociological knowledge was racist. Where were indigenous people in our critical sociology? Where were women? Where were Afro-descendants? Remember José Carlos Mariátegui, the great Peruvian Marxist activist and political philosopher? When he defended indigenous people, the Communists of the Komintern in Moscow strongly criticized him because for them indigenous people were reactionary historical residue, while the workers were the revolutionary force. They called him a romantic, which in the Stalinist context meant deathly dangerous. Only because he was sick, Mariátegui died a natural death and not the way Trotski died. As he states in Seven Interpretive Essays of Peruvian Reality, a work we should all get to know, Mariátegui believed that Latin America’s greatest sin was to construct itself without and even against indigenous people.
If we are to shake off this racism and other discriminations, we can’t continue with the same thought that has brought us to this point. We need an epistemological rupture. We need to change our heads, our methodologies and our theories. Perhaps our universities also need to change.
When we think of any alternative we’re told it’s not realistic. Alternatively, if it seems to us that it’s the dominant politics that has no alternative, it means we need an epistemological rupture to convince ourselves that it’s not so. In other words, a realistic political party offers no alternatives and a political party that offers alternatives isn’t realistic.
I think we have an opportunity to make that epistemological rupture we need right now, when Eurocentric thought, although obviously very rich, must yield and engage with other knowledge of the world in what I call the ecology of knowledge. Why now? Because for the first time in five centuries capitalism’s global dynamism is heading East. The CIA’s research, not mine, says China will be the world’s economically most important country by 2050, which is why so much of what’s going on in international politics has to do with fear of China. It’s also why Russia must be neutralized and China isolated and why Brazil, one of the BRICS countries, has to fall.
++++ Knowledge is forged in struggles
While that’s another issue I can’t go into right now, it means we have to be more attentive today to the diversity of knowledge that exists in the world, to its cognitive diversity. And for that we must seek another epistemology, one I call epistemologies of the South. What do they consist of? They are procedures that validate the knowledge born out of the efforts of those fighting against systemic injustices of colonialism, capitalism and patriarchy.
We in the universities are used to learning and teaching the knowledge of history’s winners. Those who were defeated were always left out of our universities. And that’s precisely why we also have to de-colonize our universities, our history, our sociology. When I teach that one of the great founders of sociology is Ibn Jaldún, a great 14th-century Islamic theorist born in Tunisia, my students are surprised. But, if they read him, they agree that this man should have appeared in books as one of the founders of sociology. Nonetheless, we continue to think we should only talk about Marx, Durkheim and Max Weber. We have to engage in conversation with the world and do it with a epistemological breakthrough.
What do the epistemologies of the South say to us? That knowledge is found in struggles and not in scientific studies; that many different understandings are circulating in the world: traditional, vernacular, grassroots knowledge of women, men, indigenous people, peasants... Different kinds of knowledge are forged and circulate in these struggles. However, we got use to thinking that our scientific thought is the only valid one.
++++ My proposal is to form an ecology of knowledge
Today, my proposal to you younger ones is that you stop thinking that your knowledge, though rigorous, is the only one. My proposal isn’t against science; it’s against the monopoly of scientific rigor. We have to find are other ways of rigor so we can integrate scientific knowledge with other wisdoms, other knowledge. I call this the ecology of knowledge. If you work with social movements you’ll see that there are sometimes enormous possibilities to join scientific thought with grassroots thought, never thinking that scientific thought is the only valid one.
Many struggles are developing in Latin America today. The ones I know best are those in Brazil. One example is the struggle against agro-toxins, the poisons used in agroindustry that are later transferred to food. This is a big problem in Brazil, as it also is in Argentina. Due to those substances being spewed into the air we have a higher cancer rate in northeastern Brazil than in the city of Sao Paulo.
Where’s that knowledge found? Obviously, it’s in the peasants and in the agronomists and chemists who support them... though we know that the great majority of agronomists and chemists today are unfortunately with Monsanto. Some agronomists and chemists, however, are working with the grassroots movement to create an ecology of knowledge that can lead to an effective struggle against agro-toxins. I’m mentioning this today in particular because hearings on Monsanto are currently being held in the Hague Tribunal, trying to get an international court of public opinion to charge Monsanto with the crimes that are harming health through its agro-toxins.
++++ Know “with” the people and don’t be extractivists
Focusing on social struggles while thinking there’s only one valid knowledge and others are invalid is somewhat like being a extractivist. Yes, many of us in the social sciences are as extractivist as the those who extract natural resources. We go into a community to do an interview... For what? To look for knowledge? No, the knowledge is ours; all we’re seeking is information. We reduce people’s knowledges to information. That’s epistemic extractivism. We can’t speak critically against economic extractivism when we sociologists do the same thing in research.
It is possible to learn with people while learning about some social reality. It’s possible to learn by creating subjects while creating a relationship between subject and object. Collaborative methodologies are possible. Today, in the era of the informatics revolution, of Internet, we can go beyond what the great teachers of this continent, Orlando Fals Borda and Paulo Freire, have taught us.
++++ A sociology of absences
We need to see that our Eurocentric scientific knowledge is dominated by what I call an abysmal line that comes from colonialism, establishing a border that’s still here today. It separates what goes on in metropolitan societies from what happens in the periphery, much as it separated what happened in the metropolis from what went on in the colonies, except that nowadays they aren’t territorial colonies, they’re social colonies, epistemic colonies.
We continue living with that abysmal line that’s invisible to us. And because we don’t see it, we can’t do the other part of my proposal: a sociology of absences. We need to study what’s invisible, what’s absent. Because our knowledge doesn’t work and doesn’t help us see what’s absent, we have to take on another knowledge. But it’s almost an oxymoron to think we are going to do a sociology of absences, because how does one do sociology of what doesn’t exist?
++++ We live in two worlds that are separated by this abysmal line
This abysnal line in a given country in which capitalism, colonialism and the patriarchy are present basically distinguishes between two types of social exclusion in that country. There are, of course, exclusions in metropolitan sociability: workers who have rights but are exploited by their bosses; women who work in a company and earn less than men doing the same job... But while there are exclusions, there are also rights. They aren’t abysmal or radical exclusions. On the other side of that line, however, in colonial sociability, there are no rights. What exists is appropriation and violence, abyssal, radical exclusions.
Our societies are divided into these two worlds. One is the world of metropolitan sociability, which has some rights and is dominated by what I call a tension between regulation and emancipation. And the other is the world of colonial sociability, where exclusion is abysmal and there’s no regulation or emancipation; instead there’s just appropriation and violence.
I’ll give you examples of these two worlds using the same person: a woman. She works in a company and if she is a victim of sexual harassment there, she can go to court and the person responsible can be tried. If she earns an inferior salary for the same job men do, she is a victim of wage discrimination and can demand equality. However, when that same woman leaves the company, she crosses the line and can be a victim of rape and even death in the streets, going to her house. In the same day that woman crossed the abysmal line: between the company, where there are some rights, and the streets, where there is only appropriation and violence.
A large number of people experience crossing from a metropolitan society to a colonial one every day. A young Arab man employed in Paris, Madrid or Lisboa has labor rights, even though he perhaps doesn’t earn much. But that young person knows that once out in the street the police will criminalize him for being Islamic; because he could be a terrorist the police can insult him—just as they do an Islamic woman wearing a veil—and might even kill him.
++++ The line of “not being”
We have forms of abysmal exclusion in all our societies, where there’s appropriation and violence. It’s why we see democracy coexisting with fascism today and why we have societies that are politically democratic and socially fascist. Political democracy is coexisting with social fascism.
Analyzing this is difficult for us because our analytical tools have never seen this division. That’s why those of us who scientifically came of age after the independence struggles never thought our theory was colonial. Where’s the colonialism in Max Weber, in Durkheim? And in Marx, about whose understanding of colonialism we have so many doubts?
We’ve thought that everything in our societies moved between regulation and emancipation. But no, there’s regulation-emancipation on one side and appropriation-violence on the other in all our societies. People continuously cross from one side of that line to the other.
A young black man in the United States may have rights in his room and in his school, but when he goes out into the street, he’s a victim of violence every day and can even get killed. The same thing happens every day in Salvador de Bahía, one of Brazil’s most racist cities. Blacks die there every day... when they cross the abysmal line. Crossing it one enters the zone Frantz Fanon called the zone of “not being,” where one is not a human being with rights. A woman victim of rape and femicide isn’t a human being, she’s property for someone’s violence; she’s a victim of appropriation and of violence.
++++ The time has come
Friends, I think we have huge tasks before us. Let’s imagine ourselves using other methodologies and if we do that everything will change.
We can’t separate our lives from our methods. We’re artisans, not mechanics of sociological methodologies. We have to do our work as artisans, to take risks in our work with people. And if we do that we’ll notice right away that our data comes from spaces where we took risks, were there are risks for us.
That’s why our bodies, our gestures, our manners, our senses as sociologists must also be de-colonized. We have to de-colonize our eyes, our ears, our way of touching and feeling. We know how to hear but we don’t know how to listen, much less listen deeply and also listen to the silences. We have to learn to listen to what people can no longer say because oppression has been around for so long that sometimes there are no words.
Remember this when you fill in your questionnaires with people or conduct semi-structured interviews, as you call them. If people are quiet it makes us nervous... But sometimes, when they remain silent it’s when they have a lot to say. But we are engrained with the eagerness of our times, we have what we were taught in the university—what even I taught my own students for so long: the difference between relevant information and information that’s not relevant. The woman you are interviewing who starts to tell you about her children, her husband, her superstitions, her life... But you don’t listen, you’re distracted, because “that’s not relevant to my thesis, to my work”... You clearly have an extractivist mentality. Money and information are relevant for extractivism. Anything ese is worthless.
We have to democratize society, de-colonize, de-marketize, de-patriarchalize it. And we have to do the same with our social sciences. But that demands that we do a lot of work on ourselves. There was a time when we formed rebels in our universities, albeit many times incompetent ones. Today, we’re increasingly forming more conformists, be they competent or not. The time has come to form competent rebels.
* [http://www.envio.org.ni/articulo/5288 envio.org.ni]
* Photograph Flickr [https://www.flickr.com/photos/vpickering/ Victoria Pickering] Creative Commons