Democracy in dispute. An interview with Boaventura de Sousa Santos

In Latin America, oligarchies and advanced sectors of the highly internationalized industrial and financial bourgeoisie, lost much governmental political power, but instead saw their economic power increased. Español

Roque Urbieta Hernandez Fabiola Navarro Boaventura de Sousa Santos
26 October 2016

Protester waving a Guatemalan flag sits on a column at the Metropolitan Cathedral during a national strike in Guatemala City, 2015. Luis Soto AP/Press Association Images.

An economic crisis

Fabiola & Roque: From your words it is clear that global capitalism is facing a permanent  growth crisis, and that the model based on continuous increase of consumption has become obsolete. Do you think that economic decline and depletion of resources will trigger a shift to a less savage, less utilitarian economy? Is there a way out of the capitalist hook?

Boaventura de Sousa Santos: Today, it is clear that capitalist development is pushing the limits of planet Earth's capacity. Several climate risk records have been broken in the US, in India, in the Arctic, and extreme weather events are being seen with increasing frequency and severity. There are droughts, floods, food crises, speculation on agricultural commodities, an increasing scarcity of drinking water, agricultural land being used instead to develop agro-fuels, deforestation... We see that the elements of the crisis are increasingly linked and are, ultimately, manifestations of the same crisis, which owing to its large scope presents itself as a civilizational crisis.

It is all linked: the food crisis, the environmental crisis, the energy crisis, financial speculation on property and natural resources, the ownership and concentration of land resources, disorderly expansion of the agricultural frontier, the voracious exploitation of natural resources, the shortage of drinking water and water privatization, violence in the countryside, the expulsion of people from their ancestral lands to make way for large infrastructure projects and megaprojects, the diseases induced by a degraded environment, which is dramatically evident in the higher incidence of cancer in certain rural areas, GMOs, consumption of toxic agroproduce, etc..

In various Latin American countries, the international valorization of financial resources enabled a new type of negotiation between democracy and capitalism. Putting an end (it seemed) to an inevitably unequal exchange of goods -with raw materials always less valued than manufactured goods- that had shackled to the peripheral countries of the world system to dependent development, allowed progressive forces that had before been seen as “enemies of development" to free themselves of this historical burden, transforming the boom in a singular opportunity for social and income redistribution policies. Oligarchies, and in some countries, advanced sectors of the highly internationalized industrial and financial bourgeoisie, lost much governmental political power, but instead saw their economic power increased. These countries changed sociologically and politically to the point that some analysts saw the emergence of a new regime of accumulation, more nationalist and statist, a neo-developmentalism on the base of neo-extractivism.

Be that as it was, this neo-extractivism is based on intensive exploitation of natural resources and, therefore, raises the question of the ecological limits (not to mention the social and political boundaries) of this new (old) phase of capitalism. This is all the more worrying as this model of "development" is flexible in its social distribution, but rigid in its accumulation. The motors of mining, petroleum, natural gas and the agricultural frontier are increasingly powerful and everything that stands in their way and blocks their path tends to be destroyed as an obstacle to development.

What will happen when the natural resource boom comes to an end, and when it becomes evident that investment in natural resources was not properly offset by investment in human resources? What will happen when there is no money for generous compensation policies and sudden impoverishment creates a resentment difficult to manage in a democracy? When levels of environmental illnesses become unacceptable and overload public health systems to a point that makes them unsustainable? When water pollution, depletion of land and destruction of forests hits an irreversible point? When indigenous Afro-Brazilian Riparian and Quilombo peoples who were expelled from their land commit collective suicide or roam the urban peripheries claiming a right to the city that always will be denied to them?

These questions are considered by the dominant economic ideology and politics as dystopian, exaggerated or irrelevant scenarios, the result of critical thinking trained to give bad omens. In short, a line of thinking very unconvincing and unattractive to the dominant media.

Only a conscience and robust and anticapitalist ecological action can successfully face the maelstrom of extractive capitalism. The "environmentalism of the rich" must be opposed by an "environmentalism of the poor" based on a political economy not dominated by a fetishization of infinite growth and individualistic consumerism, but on the ideas of reciprocity, solidarity and complementarity, in force as much within relations between human beings as in relations between humans and nature.

F & R: At what point do non-governmental voluntary associations substitute the State in meeting its obligations?

BDSS: The set of social policies that give effect to social and economic rights, and consolidate the idea of sovereignty in the popular imagination, now became anathema, seen as an obstacle to free trade and globalization. Perhaps to the surprise of many, it should be noted that this conservative and anti-democratic attitude was supported by international human rights activists that arose in that period, advocating that the state stop investing in social benefits, considering it inefficient, corrupt and abusive, and that the administration of these benefits be transferred to civil society through local non-governmental organizations linked to other international ones, which after that point proliferated like mushrooms. Ninety per cent of international non-governmental organizations now in operation were created after 1970. From there, the emergence of failed states, one of the most evil creations of neoliberalism, is only one step away.

F & R: Can we re-present the global economic map in terms of struggles for the dislocation of hegemonies of power?

BDSS: There is a struggle between powers in the European Union and the United States that have discovered that they express different interests, but have common interests when it comes to Russia and China. So, they must come together to prevent the dynamics of capitalism moving from that Europe-North America axis to a Russia-China-India-Brazil axis. Therefore it is clear that there is a struggle for hegemony in the world system.

On the other hand, the United States is doing what powers in decline always do, that is to drag down the others, so these Transpacific and Transatlantic Partnerships are created (Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade  and Investment Partnership, TPP and TTIP respectively, in their English acronyms), joining weaker countries so as to slow down its decline. That is the logic of treaties.

F & R: In that context, how can we think of a decolonization of the economy?

BDSS: To begin with it is necessary to de-commodify. This means showing that we use, produce and exchange goods, but we are not goods nor do we agree to relate to others and with nature as if we were a commodity. We are citizens before we are entrepreneurs or consumers, and so that this be the case, it is imperative that not everything is bought and sold; there must be public goods and common goods like water, health and education.

De-commodifying from the perspective of the epistemologies of the South is the unthinking of the normalisation of capitalism. It is to subtract vast fields of economic activity to the valorization of capital (the law of value): social, communal and popular economy, cooperatives, public control of strategic resources and services that depend directly on the welfare of citizens and the communities. It means, above all, preventing the market economy from extending its scope to transform society into a market society (where everything is bought and sold, including ethical values and political choices), as is happening in democracies of the market State. It also means giving credibility to new conceptions of the fertility of the earth and the productivity of men and women which are not at odds with the life cycles of Mother Earth: living well while always living better.

The crisis of human rights

Ema and Roque: It seems that an economic crisis is also emerging forcefully in Latin America, and we see as a result a danger of democratic regression and pullback from achievements made in recent times. Is there a link between the crisis of representation and the human rights crisis in the region?

BDSS: Today there is no dispute that the global hegemony of human rights is a discourse of human dignity. However, this hegemony coexists with a disturbing reality: the vast majority of the world's population is not a subject of human rights, but rather the object of discourse on human rights. There is always a part of our people – be they women, indigenous people, Afro-descendants - that are the subject of human rights speeches, because they are not able to exercise their rights. If they come, for example, to a court to represent an indigenous cause in Mexico - and I'm talking about concrete experiences - in Veracruz, if you are an Indian, and you go to speak to an officer or an official, surely you will be at the end of the queue. The whites will have their chance to speak, then the mestizos, and then finally perhaps the female mestizo will be able to speak. She has no rights. She lives in a civil society, which is uncivilised, it is not a society of rights. This is tolerated by the law. The weaker representative democracy is, the greater social exclusion will be.

E & R: Given the human rights crisis and the absence of rights, what is the challenge in bringing together global networks of international solidarity?

BDSS: That's what we've been trying to do since 2001 when we created the World Social Forum. Despite its limitations and internal and external criticisms, the Forum has been established as a credible, open, global space, a meet-up place for the most diverse movements and organizations, from the most distant places on the planet, and involved in most diverse struggles, now, is this mix of weakness and strength offered by the Forum as a response sustainable in the long run? Expressing itself in a Babelic number of languages, anchored in Western and non-Western philosophies and forms of knowledge, defending different conceptions of human dignity, demanding a variety of other worlds that must be possible?

The answer is: the forum does not answer the question of why this diversity or for what purpose, under what conditions and for whose benefit it is, but it has had the good sense to make this diversity more visible and more acceptable to diverse movements and organizations. It has made them aware of the incomplete or partial character of their struggles, their policies and philosophies, it has created a new need for inter-knowledge, inter-recognition and inter-action; It has fostered coalitions among movements that were until now separated and suspicious of each other. In short, diversity has become a positive value, a potential source of energy for progressive social transformation.

Later the forum lost a bit of its momentum, but there were many organizations of indigenous women, Afros and landworkers who organized into international partnerships. For example, the Via Campesina, is one of the strongest landworker organizations in the world. I myself was with them in Zimbabwe and we participated in a workshop of the People's University of Social Movements, so yes, they really were getting things done.

E & R: Are we witnessing the end of the nation-State? 

BDSS: I think that in the time we're living through in Latin America, there is a context that's necessary to keep in mind and that's related to the emergence of the concept of plurinationality. The idea of plurinationality is now consensual in many states of the world. There are many states that are plurinational. Canada is plurinational, Switzerland is plurinational, Belgium is plurinational. So, historically, there are two concepts of nation. The first concept of nation is the liberal concept that refers to the coincidence between nation and State; ie. nation as a set of individuals belonging to the geopolitical space of the state and therefore in modern states they are called nation-states: one nation, one state. But there is another concept, a non-liberal Community-based concept of nation, which does not necessarily carry with it the State.

For example, we know how the Germans were, in Central and Eastern Europe for a long time, a nation without a state because their identity was a cultural identity and not a political identity. Here we can see that this second tradition of nation, the community tradition, is the tradition that indigenous peoples have developed. This concept of nation implies a concept of self-determination, but not independence. Indigenous peoples have never claimed, not even in Canada, independence. They have demanded stronger or weaker forms of self-determination. So here is the idea that plurinationality obliges us, obviously, to refound the modern state, because the modern state is a state that has a single nation, and now you have to combine different concepts of nation within the same State.

E & R: So claims of minority cultures respond to a weak state?

BDSS: First you have to know what a minority culture is. For a long time it was considered, for example in Bolivia, that the indigenous Bolivians were a minority culture when they were 62 percent of the population. What is a minority? Minority is a social construction. You can't say that African culture is a minority culture because 54 percent of the Brazilian population consider themselves black or mulatto.

I think that society, capitalism, have their origin in a very strong element of barbarism, of great destruction, which was domesticated some way through social struggles, and the liberal state and liberal democracy are contradictory. There are many things within the state, within democracy, that are in flux, like the one we're seeing today: neoliberalism trying to separate capital from political ties, that are all national. We do not have political ties that are transnational. There is international law, but is very weak; as we have seen in Afghanistan, in Iraq.

So, barbarism is the ever-increasing destruction of these political ties, which somehow restrain the power of the strongest people. When the power of the strongest has no brakes, we have barbarism. Barbarism is when we have an employment contract between a worker and a businessman, but there is no labour law to protect workers. I think this is a situation of barbarism that I call social fascism. We are moving towards societies that are politically democratic and socially fascist, because the strongest are increasingly able to dominate the weakest; they are moving beyond the previous rules. Therefore it is necessary to reinvent the state, democracy and social emancipation.

E & R: What role does citizenship play in building human rights?

 BDSS: From the beginning, inherent in human rights is the ambiguity of belonging to two large collectives. One is supposedly the most inclusive, humanity, and from there, human rights. The other is a much more restricted community, the citizens of a particular state. This tension has since then been present within human rights.

The purpose of adopting international human rights declarations and international human rights regimes and institutions was to ensure people a minimum of dignity when no rights linked to belonging to a political community exist or when these are violated. During the last two hundred years human rights have been incorporated into the constitutions and legal-political practices of many countries, they were re-conceptualized as civil rights, guaranteed directly by the state and coercively applied by the courts: civil, social, political, economic and cultural rights.

But the truth is that the effectiveness of full protection of civil rights was always precarious in most countries, and bringing up the issue of human rights occurred more frequently in situations when citizens' rights had eroded or had been particularly seriously violated. Human rights emerged as the lowest level of inclusion, as a downward movement from the densest community of citizens toward the most diluted community of mankind. With the advent of neoliberalism and its attack on the state as a guarantor of rights, particularly economic and social rights, the community of citizens is diluted to the point of becoming indistinguishable from the human community and the rights of its citizens are brought down to human rights.

In the present context, the priority given to the rights of citizenship as regards human rights, while before was meaningful, now slides into a legal void. In this process, immigrants, especially undocumented immigrant workers, descend further down, into the "community" of the subhuman. For me, this represents a historic defeat.

Translated from Spanish by Katie Oliver, member of Democracia Abierta's Volunteer Program.

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