Modernity, eurocentrism, colonialism: the crisis of the left
Today the left is hanging in the ropes and gradually, unnoticed, the door of reformism is closing. Social movements are very weak because of their lack of coordination.
The crisis caused by the coronavirus is an opportunity to think about the future. This article is about 'the left' or ‘progressive forces’ in a very broad sense with implications for political parties and social movements. Will they be able to take this opportunity to propose their alternatives? Will it be lost once again, as happened in 1989 and 2008? And most of all, what is left of the left? Think of the very difficult discussions caused by the coup in Bolivia, ignored by parts of the radical left, or the electoral success of an indigenous candidate in Ecuador. Are there good reasons, then, to think there is no left or right anymore? What about Eurocentrism? Post-colonialism? Post-development? De-Growth? What should and can one do?
What I want to show in this article is how the justified criticism of neo-liberal policies and development practice has led to numerous 'alternatives' that in fact strengthen these policies or at least leave them untouched. In other words, I want to denounce the current dominant thinking of many progressive movements. For however understandable many reactions may be, throwing away the child of development with the bathwater of modernity is not what is needed. Moreover, these developments also show the emptiness of much current left-wing thinking. I will therefore end with some thoughts on the new progressive élan that we all dream of.
Critical development thinking
Development thinking as it emerged after the Second World War, especially with the new United Nations (U.N.), did achieve a certain hegemony but could never go its way unhindered. Not only did the liberal side, and especially the World Bank (WB), offer resistance - the WB initially refused to consider social aspects - but various alternative visions of development emerged, especially on the left. Just as half a century earlier in the Soviet Union and China there were doubts about whether capitalism was indispensable, in Africa an African socialism was advocated. In Latin America, in the wake of Prebisch’s structuralism, 'dependencia' thinking emerged that explained how 'underdevelopment' occurred not before but after 'development', as a result of inclusion in the world trade system. All these alternatives to official development thinking, including the national independence movements, referred to Enlightenment values of liberation, equality, emancipation… even if, at the academic level, this Enlightenment was slowly considered problematic.
In India, 'subaltern' thinking emerged, which accused colonialism of cultural oppression and gave no voice to the colonised (Chakravorti Spivak). The idea of ‘orientalism' was developed in a self-reinforcing discourse of 'othering', the creation of a separate group of people with negative connotations (Edward Saïd).
After May 68 and the burgeoning ecological movement, there was talk of 'post-development'. For thinkers such as Arturo Escobar, Gustavo Esteva, Serge Latouche or Wolfgang Sachs, it made no sense to strive for 'better' development. The idea itself and its intention were all wrong. What was needed was not alternative development, but an alternative to development. It was never made clear what this would be. After the Club of Rome report on the ‘Limits to growth’, the 'de-growth' idea emerged, which after some time was no longer to be understood as 'less growth', but rather as abandoning the objective of growth for the entire economy. To-day, this rather vague concept is used for an alternative economy though it is never made concrete.
At the end of the twentieth century and on the occasion of five hundred years of the 'discovery' of America, a very different vision emerged that had been simmering for some time, with thinkers such as Walter Mignolo and Enrique Dussel. Anibal Quijano, Eduardo Gudynas and others stated that colonialism was in fact the beginning of capitalism and modernity at the same time, and that all three should therefore be consigned to the dustbin at once. They looked at Eurocentrism and made a clear connection with slavery and the oppression of both black and indigenous peoples. The Rio UN conferences on environment and development, along with Rio+20 in 2012, put these theses in extra focus. From now on, we had to work on the 'decolonisation' of our thinking, because we were in the middle of a 'crisis of civilisation'. For these movements, the white man's domination of thought and action in the world was beyond dispute and had to end.
Meanwhile, neoliberalism had led to two major financial crises – 1998 in Asia and 2008 worldwide -, right-wing and authoritarian populism was on the rise, NGOs in the company of Bono and others were only talking about 'making poverty history'. The debt burden of the South was supposed to disappear, but what actually happened was that Africa was de-industrialising, that China industrialised and enriched at lightning speed and that the money flows from South to North increased at top speed. Right-wing forces were happy. Poverty reduction became entertainment. Development was forgotten.
In 1989, the Wall came down. That gave a serious knock to left-wing thinking, although there was only a scant analysis of what could have gone wrong. Across Europe, the radical left slid towards the abyss, green triumphed, social democracy gasped for breath. In Latin America, a 'pink tide' briefly emerged, with leftist and progressive regimes actually advocating a 'socialism of the 21st century', or a philosophy of 'buen vivir' (the good life). Right-wing forces regained power with the help of time-honoured imperialism, and Venezuela's socialist regime became bogged down in corruption, mismanagement and sanctions. The good life paled in the face of the abuses of extractivism.
It took a decade for green and anti-colonial, anti-modernity thinking to reach Europe. Social movements had already begun to organise and prepare for global actions at the beginning of the century. In the World Social Forum, intellectuals and grassroots movements, with NGOs in between, came together to discuss ‘another world’. It was the time when also at the U.N., with the Carlsson report on 'global governance', ideas were spread on how 'civil society' would change the world.
All democratic institutions were stuck, nationally and internationally. Party structures turned out to be too rigid and too power-bound to really listen to what people asked for. Member states of international institutions, from the E.U. to the U.N. over the World Trade Organisation (W.T.O.) had only their own national interest to defend and forgot that environment, development and all social dimensions also represented a global general interest.
Meanwhile, the financial markets were deregulated and financial institutions, together with a few old and new multinationals, gradually took over power. Civil society? You ask, we turn. The State? Outdated, haven't you seen how everything failed in the socialist countries? Freedom, happiness, the market knows better than anyone what you want and what you need.
At the World Social Forum, the intellectuals dropped out in disappointment, leaving only a few believers of the 'open space' to attack neoliberalism with balloons and hip-hop. We don't do politics, seemed to become the motto, we are politics. Full stop. In Europe, the radical left often had excellent members of parliament, but hid in a robust social-democratic armoury, and more often than not the international dimension was lacking. The importance of European integration is not recognised, the old anti-imperialism remains untouched. The need to internationally organise is rarely understood.
This is a far too brief and somewhat caricatural presentation of the situation. For sure, all over the world there are consistent leftwing groups, trying to renew their thinking, but more and more, the majority is shifting towards a kind of ‘green-left’ ideology. It often remains a-political and has its pitfalls. What neo-liberals advocate is not so very different and might even be enhanced with some green help.
Take basic income. Nobody was more in favour of it than a few neo-liberals who wanted to finally get rid of social security and welfare states. An individual sum of money for everyone, an end to collective solidarity. Jeremy Corbyn and Elon Musk on one front.
Care should be taken out of the market. We should take care of each other and not leave that to the state or private partners. But aren't women the ones who do most of the care work? Should they work for free? And again, don't neoliberals love to see all those free volunteers coming? Free labour! Look at how internships and flexijobs have increased in the labour market!
Flight shame! Europeans might as well take the train to Vienna or Barcelona, for example. Or take the boat to America, like Greta Thunberg did? Again, a completely misplaced joke, our internet usage is more polluting than planes and e-meeting is far from easy and efficient, as the lockdown has confirmed. Or take the extremely polluting bitcoin. It seems we are giving up on social globalisation, just when companies are increasingly creating their global market. Yes, there is talk of protectionism again, but does anyone think that Bayer, Google or Rio Tinto will hide behind national borders?
Extractivism has to stop! No more mining that destroys nature and livelihoods. It is easy to agree, but if we want more solar or wind energy, if we want mobile phones and computers, do we not need minerals then? Instead of endangering the credibility of the ecological movement, it would be better to defend a fair and monitored extractivism, with stringent rules.
In short, many social movements are putting somewhat distorted emphases and forgetting the heart of the matter. Moreover, they often retreat to the local level and think that another world can be made with municipalism. Now, you can do a lot in cities, you can indeed build a progressive majority there more easily than at a national or continental level, but that does not save the world by a long shot. Look at two recent examples: the corona crisis and the refugees. Without a national state to issue visas, without global institutions to conduct epidemiological surveillance, you are nowhere. Time and again, many movements fall into the trap of what neo-liberals also want. You only have to read the ten-year-old reports of the World Economic Forum in Davos to see how they want indeed to get rid of States and trade unions – ‘old left!’-, the only counter-power to their dominance.
Illich and Pluriverse
When I told an international conference in Hong Kong last year that I was sceptical about a lot of green thinking - after visiting an alternative farm in Hong Kong! - and that I still considered development and growth to be badly needed, I was immediately told that I was therefore 'eurocentric and ecomodernist'. Full stop.
Maybe so. But I did immediately start reading the then much-praised book 'Pluriverse'. It was just published and was presented as something like a new bible of post-development. It was very informative. But nevertheless, I think, completely wrong. Unless you really want to live in a world without washing machines, cars, mobile phones, drones and aeroplanes. And unless you believe that Buddhism or Hinduism, Ubuntu, Ibadism, Tikkum Olam or Islamic ethics can provide the real answers to existential questions. What is being advocated is a world full of spirituality, without modernity and without universalism. As if we are not all human beings with exactly the same needs.
The book is called 'Pluriverse' because it focuses on the diversity of the human species and this diversity is indeed extremely interesting. The problem is that it differs from the 'universe' which is then equated with uniformity. But, is it not precisely because we are all different that we also need equal rights? Equality is not opposed to difference, on the contrary. Opposite equality there is inequality, and opposite difference there is sameness. Sameness versus difference, equality versus inequality, it is not a language problem but a problem of understanding or, better still, semantic confusion. It is one thing to emphasise diversity, the many ways in which people can look at the world, it is quite another to forget equality. Universalism, says Francis Wolff, is emancipatory and never, ever amounts to uniformity.
And there is more. Many of these pluriverse thinkers are very religious people and many of them think back with nostalgia of Ivan Illich who influenced them with his 'conviviality', the connectedness of being together and the rejection of any institutionalisation, from schools to health care.
Illich, I think, fooled his world. As he admitted at the end of his life, he had only one goal: to arrive at the true church of Christ and not an institutionalised one. He dreamed of the pure church of the incarnation. Schools or hospitals, they were only examples to make his idea clear, it could just as well have been the postal service, he clarified. That is why Illich never came up with any alternatives either, schools or hospitals did not matter, only the pure church mattered. We still live with that influence.
Pluriverse paints a world without development, where people can take care of themselves and where capitalism and class struggle have disappeared as if by magic. There is no more wholeness, only fragments of it.
Capitalism, colonialism and modernity
Ultimately, Illich is irrelevant when compared to the serious school of thought on modernity. As I said, with the 'discovery' of America and colonialism, capitalism emerged and modernity developed. This thinking is wrong, and here too there is a semantic confusion.
Modernity is a philosophical movement that arose in the wake of humanism and is anything but purely 'Western', unless you also call the Arab thinking of the beginning of the second millennium in Spain 'Western'. Why not? According to the historian Jack Goody, modernity began ... in the Bronze Age. There is nothing typically Western about it. Individualism, democracy and science, they are older than our Greek ancestors. But at the same time, the recognition of the individual, the belief in one humanity and in change, the 'sapere aude' (dare to know) and self-criticism, remain desperately needed in today's world that has already surrendered too much self-determination to governments and corporations. And it is true that many ideas of European Modernity have been recuperated by the instrumental rationality of colonialism and capitalism.
Funnily enough, in many cases the confusion here is with the 'modernisation thinking' that was inherent in what development was meant to be in the 1960s. Through economic industrialisation and diversification, education and health care would also be expanded, and we would eventually arrive at identical political democratic institutions as in Western Europe or North America. This was indeed the firm belief and it is not surprising that objections were raised against it, not only because it did not happen anywhere, but also because any alternative was banished from sight beforehand. But modernisation thinking is not modernity.
More serious was the criticism from the new consciousness of the original peoples in America. That they, from a different cosmovision, have difficulty with 'Western' rationalism and the belief in linear progress is perfectly understandable. And that colonialism considered these other cosmovisions non-existent and suppressed them is also a fact. This epistemological colonialism has been rightly denounced, by Boaventura de Sousa Santos among others. Not to argue that we should now live 'in harmony' with nature - who did? Not to give up some elements of rationalism, but to indeed achieve a real 'pluriverse', to take into account diversity, to realise that some peoples do need food and drink, but perhaps not aeroplanes and electric can openers. Mobile phones certainly, yes. And drones to detect illegal logging. In short, what it comes down to, once again, is that people must be able to determine their own modernity. Usually there is a demand for this, and they will have to determine themselves in what way they want to go. Modernity, a philosophical and political movement, began long before the 'discovery' of America and colonialism. So did capitalism, which is neither typically Western.
The fact is that Spain was far from being a capitalist country when it gave Columbus some ships and a crew. And Spain did not introduce capitalism in the Americas at all, but rather a persistent form of feudalism whereby land and people were given to the conquerors, the 'encomiendas'. Strictly legally speaking, it was not even colonialism. The indigenous population was murdered, exploited and largely exterminated, certainly. Gold and silver were plundered, yes. But it took some time for this whole system to become 'truly' capitalist. It was only when the plantation system with the slave trade got off to a good start a century later, with the British, French and Dutch in the lead, that one can speak of an emerging capitalism.
That these three phenomena – capitalism, colonialism, modernity - are inextricably linked and could not but develop together is only the result of an intellectual thought exercise that has little to do with hard reality.
However, and it should not surprise us, this thinking started in Europe itself, first with the postwar analysis by the Frankfurter Schule, blaming ‘rationalism’ for the holocaust, later with a much applauded Michel Foucault and his reflection on ‘normativity’. The so-called ‘French theory’ – Derrida, Deleuze, Guattari - did the rest, though with more devastating consequences in the U.S. than in Europe. This is not to condemn these important scholars, but to indicate their influence in the problematization of ‘modernity’.
The emerging ‘identity’ thinking, the intersectionality approach of radical feminism, 9/11 and the growing influence of Muslim migration (and its backlash) in Europe, all contributed to the development of a strong post-modern perspective.
What is happening to-day in Europe as well as in Latin America, blaming ‘modernity’ for racism and colonial thinking is the (provisional?) result of all this. For many radical groups, class conflicts seem to have been forgotten, all problems are explained by ethnicity – white privilege – and eurocentrism. Blacks, women, migrants and indigenous people are essentialised, representation is forbidden, left and right become blurred categories. The most clear examples of this is the ‘ignored’ coup in Bolivia by part of the radical and/or indigenous left, the choice for a neoliberal banker instead of a social democratic President in Ecuador by these same groups, the announced refusal of a ‘front républicain’ against the extreme right in France. As Stéphanie Roza correctly describes, this anti-modernity movement closely resembles the old, traditional, conservative and never disappearing one.
Therefore, to reject modernity, at the beginning of the 21st century, is a very dangerous step. I keep remembering Goebbels' stand for whom the real aim of Nazism was 'to forget 1789'. Today's authoritarian right-wing populism thinks no differently.
Moreover, questions can be asked about this predominantly Latin American thinking. There is no doubt that colonisation, capitalist exploitation and the oppression of indigenous peoples must be condemned. Hence, 'decolonisation' rightly has supporters in Latin America, Asia, Africa and Europe itself. However, most thinkers come from Latin America and it is striking that they are often much more nuanced than their followers, from Enrique Dussel to Edgardo Lander and Boaventura de Sousa Santos. I would like to make two observations in this regard.
Latin America is a continent with serious identity problems. The majority of its population is white or mestizo, children of the reviled colonisation. It is also the continent that has always stood out for its original thinking, from José Martí to Mariátegui, from internal colonialism to structuralism and dependency thinking. When I study some of the authors, I cannot help but feel that they are looking for a new theory that can finally give them a fixed place and identity, and remove the opposition between the indigenous roots and the white invasion. They are trying to free themselves from the ‘deforming mirror’ of eurocentrism, searching their own path and another Modernity, which looks more like self-criticism than like criticism of ‘the West’. What's more, when you read Dussel or de Sousa Santos and think not of that indigenous past and present, but of, say, Islamic Saudi Arabia or Iran, you soon begin to doubt the relevance of some of the statements on colonisation and modernity. The same goes for the criticism of modern science, because who would think that herbal tea could be as effective as a vaccine against the coronavirus, however important some traditional medicines may be.
And there is more. Several authors have already pointed out that much of the thinking of and about the indigenous peoples of Latin America has taken a very bizarre course. The Europeans who arrived in America thought they had found some kind of 'earthly paradise'. With their stories, Europeans fantasised even more about this 'new world', and everything was explained using the categories available in Europe, especially the Bible. These mechanisms have been brilliantly explained by Jorge Magasich in 'América Mágica' or by Serge Gruzinski in 'La machine à remonter le temps'. And it is precisely this thinking that was introduced into America. Or in other words, what is really considered 'indigenous' is often of European origin. To some extent, this is happening right up to the present day. The whole 'pachamama' story about the nurturing (female) earth has little to do with what the indigenous people think or thought. Today, a whole intellectual and material white industry has started to teach the indigenous people who or what their gods are, how sacred the earth is and how they, the original peoples, can live in harmony with nature. Fortunately, some indigenous groups are now shaking off this harmful influence and are in a process of communicating their own cosmovision.
In short, much of the thinking may boil down to an unconscious psychological need and to a well-intentioned deception of the people. The reality of countries like Bolivia and Ecuador, whose left-wing presidents have not hesitated to continue extracting oil, gas or lithium because they need money for their social policies and to pay off their debts, speaks volumes. Rafael Correa repeatedly pointed out that the extensive cattle farming practised by indigenous people in his country was hardly less polluting and environmentally damaging than the mine he had licensed. You can hardly go begging, he said, when you are sitting on a bag of gold.
A political crisis
That we must decolonise our thinking, that we must throw all Western and certainly white 'superiority' overboard, that we must learn to look at the world from perspectives other than our own, certainly. No one has explained this better than the French anthropologist Philippe Descola who studies the relationship between humankind and nature. He teaches us how different and how equal we are, how we live with different ontologies that are each hybrid and fluid, and each makes 'a world' for itself. The totality is not a pre-existing given, but is shaped daily. He also teaches us how much we can learn from others, realising that no one, neither black nor red nor yellow, has the answer to all our questions. To reconnect humankind and nature, that is what we have to learn and that is urgent, but not in an un-existing and un-attainable harmony with nature, or looking at how the Aztecs cut out the hearts of their enemies. There is nothing to learn from that.
It is always dangerous to attribute one ailment to one cause and predict one consequence. All developments are unpredictable; at any moment, a surprising turn can send history in a different direction. Look at what the coronavirus is doing now! Teleological historiography is risky. People have their future in their hands, that much is certain, but they have to decide to do something together. It is possible that individualism has gone too far, it is certainly true that the neo-liberalism that has plagued us for decades makes us believe that we can only progress individually, in competition with the other. It is also true that we can only really achieve something by working together. The world, society, can be shaped by ourselves, indeed, but it is not on your own that you will change anything. The elites who themselves display the best class solidarity ever will do anything to ensure that those at the bottom never learn to work together, so Yuval Noah Harari tells us.
May 68 brought down many sacred cows. Young people were tired of living in a rigid and hierarchical environment. The old structures had to go, they would do things differently in the future.
This has partly succeeded. Many social movements continue to swear by 'horizontalism', the renunciation of bosses and of majority voting. This works as long as you work in small groups and have plenty of time for discussion. It does not work if you are working in larger contexts and some people have less good intentions than what might appear from those fine principles. The World Social Forum was destroyed by this horizontalism. Power relations exist everywhere; it is good to recognise them and to neutralise them democratically. However, if horizontalism prevails over any healthy democratic reflex, it only serves to hide and perpetuate the existing power relations.
Since the Arab Spring, the Indignados, Occupy Wall Street and Nuits Debout, followed by the Gilets Jaunes and other mass movements, we must also ask ourselves where this could lead. 2019 was a year of protest, from Hong Kong to Santiago de Chile, from Beirut to Algiers and many other cities. They were not one-day protests, but months of sustained occupations and denunciations. Here and there a small concession from a government, but all in all, yet another failure. More and more young people are starting to wonder whether violence might be the only way to enforce something after all. The massive and worldwide actions of the feminists on 8 and 9 March 2020 were an unexpected success. Will this lead to new legislation, rights and less violence? Can the corona crisis change anything for the better? Or will it only lead to more violence and repression? Brazil, the Philippines, India, Thailand and now Myanmar are not the examples to follow.
One thing is all too often forgotten: those who want success, those who want to achieve something, must organise themselves, must have structures, must have spokespeople. Taking to the streets by the thousands is important, it politicises, it is memorised, but achieving something politically, whether from an existing or a new government to be formed, is difficult. The lessons to be learned here can best be found with the trade unions that started organising themselves over a hundred years ago, locally, nationally, globally. Not always with equal success, but they remain to this day the only credible organisations with which one can negotiate, which can enforce something, they are counter-power.
When confronting the two major crises of today, social and ecological, this is the example to follow. We do not need lessons in morality and multi-dimensionality, poor people need income security and public services, the environmental crisis requires another economy.
That is easy to say but difficult to do. Two things are certain: people in rich countries will not automatically lower their living standards. All green promises of 'more happiness' and 'more well-being' sound good, but they will not convince city-trippers, as the lockdown has once again proven. And poor countries need growth, plain and simple. Of course one can talk about what kind of growth this will be, but with a Gross Domestic Product of US$ 500 per capita you cannot jump far. Moreover, a growing population obviously needs more food and more energy.
It means that we have to look for strategies that can convince people and that we have to look for growth that does not endanger sustainability. And that in turn means politics. A government that can make democratic decisions, locally, nationally, continentally and globally. And a political ecology that integrates nature in the governance of society. Because the climate crisis is a crisis of human rights, of social justice and of political institutions. It means that a number of ideas need to be adjusted.
The theft of history
It starts with our history. The aforementioned Jack Goody described very interestingly how 'the West' wrote its own history, overestimating its role considerably. Many of the concepts we live with and regard as 'typically Western' are not that at all, from democracy to colonialism and capitalism. To consider Greece as the cradle of our civilisation is also to ignore the context in which a very diverse Greece was able to flourish, from the Middle East to North Africa. Viewing the past from the perspective of the present has created a lot of unjustified myths and presents it as if the Renaissance and the Enlightenment were really fundamental breakthroughs that gave the West an undeniable advantage and superiority. Nothing could be further from the truth, according to the author.
Now it is precisely that false narrative of history that is used by left-wing and progressive movements to give their critique of 'the West' and to throw all the positive features of humanism, modernity and Enlightenment overboard, as if they just wanted to make the right happy! By throwing their belief in change, the acquisition of knowledge and collective action into the wastebin, progressives are digging their own graves. The Right can then quietly take over.
Again, I am not saying that we should deal uncritically with the legacy of the past. Certainly the ecological crisis makes criticism and re-thinking very necessary and urgent. The current consciousness and activism of indigenous people, all over the world, can be a stimulus to re-think our systems. But we must, I think, move away from the easy black-and-white thinking that burdens the West with all guilt. There is very little that we can say is our 'own' achievement, let alone that we are superior, but our form of society and the discourse behind it may well be heard. Or in other words, the criticism of thinking should not become a criticism of Western Europe only.
I would therefore like to join those authors who leave a door or window open, such as Boaventura de Sousa Santos who argues for the opening of more analytical space, for a non-Western West, for a new interpretation of emancipation. Social justice, he argues, is not possible without cognitive justice. We must therefore learn to listen to what others have to say to us and realise that no 'culture' can absorb new knowledge unless it is compatible with the old knowledge. We must get rid of our 'orthopaedic thinking', he argues. We must learn to look critically at our history and that of others and allow different forms of modernity to develop. Or in other words, we should not so much invent an 'alternative' to the current system, but develop an 'alternative thinking'. In this way, room can be made for diversity and universalism.
It seems to me a good guideline to think about our 'modern values', about development, about economy, the State and, of course, about our relationship with nature. Anthropologists, with their knowledge and insight into the diversity of our world, have an important role to play here.
Have I now, arrived on page 10, said anything new? No, not at all. I have merely warned against dead ends and discouraging defeats. The criticism of development, Eurocentrism and modernity in recent decades has been very relevant and useful. But it has not so far led to any hopeful alternative. Progressive thinking is totally fragmented and partly on the wrong track. The abandonment of universalism and the belief in change, the abandonment of structural approaches and organisations, opened the door for governments and corporations setting the neoliberal law. What all the new-style progressive movements for post-development, decolonisation and de-growth too often forget is that we still live in a capitalist system in which the class struggle, racism, patriarchy and green struggle must be tackled simultaneously. What permanently distinguishes the left from the right is the pursuit of equality, solidarity and emancipation. It is a very serious problem when some people no longer want to see that difference and think, as in Ecuador, that they can also call to vote for a neo-liberal banker, or applaud a right-wing coup against Evo Morales in Bolivia. It is a dangerous development. De Sousa Santos rightly warns of the 'social fascism' that is coming our way.
Maybe, it is less the left right divide that should be questioned as the categories of capitalism and socialism. They are the two sides of the same modernity coin, and rejecting modernity implies rejecting both ideologies. There is no need for this, but we do have to carefully examine how to re-design modernity looking at the changes in today’s world. Capitalism surely still exists, but is moving away from being focused on relations of production to financialisation, middle classes are once again threatened leading to a dualized world of some rich and many poor, economic and political power is being re-united. There are arguments to think we are slowly moving back to some kind of feudalism. As for socialism, with all respect and friendship for the dignified struggle in Cuba, it has, till now, not led to any attractive alternative, let alone any sustainable success. It is certainly not what young people are dreaming of. This task implies more than looking for new names, it means looking for a new emancipatory social and ecological narrative and practice.
I would therefore like to call for a change of course. To learn to think differently about what binds us and what makes us different. What binds us is our humanity, our dependence on nature, not our identity. But what also unites us is a necessary social struggle against all oppressive mechanisms. Therefore, we must not forget the old struggles either. Throwing the baby out with the bathwater is not what we need. We need to realise that nobody has all the right answers.
And above all: social movements that today take so many initiatives, that take to the streets persistently to strengthen their demand for social, economic and environmental justice, must also learn to organise themselves again, locally, nationally, continentally and globally. Without organisation, without structure, nothing can ever change sustainably. The transition may begin in your street, but it will be of no avail without a simultaneous global approach.
It may be useful to read some older authors again, such as Mariategui or Amilcar Cabral. Or to look at what was said in Bandung, the new international economic order, the 'unified concept' of the U.N.
Today the left is hanging in the ropes and gradually, unnoticed, the door of reformism is closing. Social movements are very weak because of their lack of coordination. They are clinging to hopeless strategies that only make the wedge deeper. Trump, Bolsonaro and Duterte love what they see. With the lockdowns of the corona crisis, movements cannot even be allowed to take to the streets anymore.
There is one concept that can unite us, I think, because it implies progress and change and imposes solidarity on us: emancipation. It is freeing ourselves individually and collectively from what limits and oppresses us, materially and philosophically. It is always a story of and and, never of or or. We have to get this emancipation out from under the dust.
- Francine Mestrum, PhD, Brussels and Cuernavaca.
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