Christopher Mattison: During an interview that you gave with Madina Tlostanova in 2009, you posed the question (as a response) “Why save it at all?”—in regards to the economic system and the looming financial crisis. You continued by stating that it wasn’t the institutions that required saving, but rather our planet and the entwined human network. Or rather, that the primary concern should be with individuals rather than with institutions. Now, three years later, a great deal of effort has been spent on propping up these institutions, which leaves us where in terms of the individuals tied to the institutions?
Walter Mignolo: Certainly the debate over the relationships between the State and the Market has been revamped by the financial crisis. President Obama was accused of “going socialist” because of his demand to reinforce the State instead of leaving it to “invisible hands,” as corporate politics demands. It is difficult to control, through State regulation and other means of public policy, a civilizational attitude in which success is encouraged, and success has a great deal to do with increasing wealth. When increasing wealth is in play—of people, corporations or nation-states—good morals and good public policy have little effect in the long run. Where are we now? Well, the economic system has to continue working on behalf of those who benefit from it. My point then and now is that capitalism—the economic pillar of Western civilization (now globally expanded)—is an economic system based on the belief that development and growth lead to happiness while many people, myself included, have stated that development and growth is leading us towards death. This is why I believe Western Civilization built a cosmology in which the cart is in front of the horse, and this configuration simply does not work.
We began this conversation in April of 2011 and are now into the first quarter of 2012. We have witnessed revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt and the repercussions in Syria and Libya. We have watched the uprising of the “indignados” in Spain and, more unexpectedly, in Israel. And a few years before Tunisia and Egypt, similar manifestations took place in Bolivia and Ecuador, knocking out two successive presidents of those countries. And then the north of London erupted into another volcano on the global scene. Obviously the economic and political institutions (the State) are not working. After the US’s downgrade from AAA to AA+ status in relation to foreign debt and the EU’s struggles to control the collapse of the Union from the periphery (Greece, Italy, Spain), it has become obvious that things are not working. Not to mention the problems that have continued to plague us for the past 60 years: increased poverty and a growing food crisis, along with global warming and the “war on terrorism,” which consistently has benefited contractors and the arms industry.
The Economist (which was founded at the beginning of the nineteenth century to forward the liberal conception of the economy) recently (February, 2012) featured a debate on State Corporate Capitalism as being the consequence of a crisis that has been with us since the end of 2007, and which continues to devastate the European Union. What is State Corporate Capitalism? It is a State that has its eyes and hands in the market, which distinguishes it from the classical separation of the business of the State and the business of the Market. This classical model—based on the “invisible hand” of a liberal economy and the “weak state” that President Ronald Reagan promoted at the beginning of the neo-liberal era—has turned out to be a disaster. In this debate, China, Malaysia and Singapore are presented as examples of strong States that have delivered in terms of economic growth. In each of these States there is neither liberalism (“the invisible hand” with a regulating State, which Obama proposed at the beginning of his mandate) nor neo-liberalism (a weak State and a free market) guiding the politics of the State. A common expression in the West to refer to this economic development in Asia is “Neo-liberalism the Asian way.” Apart from being Western-Centric this is simply absurd: how can China or Singapore be described as neo-liberal, even in an Asian way, if neo-liberalism strives to dispense with the State and these economies are based on strong State regulation?
Christopher Mattison: If neo-liberalism is a flawed description of the economic and societal movements in these Asian countries—due in part to its monolithic construct—where do we currently find ourselves?
Walter Mignolo: I have argued that we are already living in a polycentric world with a common economy described as “capitalist”; an economy based on growth and development first, disregarding the consequences of achieving these goals: war, poverty, inequality, diminishing levels of education and health care, food crises, poisoning of the environment, etc. However, there is no longer a single ideology (liberalism or neo-liberalism) guiding economic politics. Beyond liberalism and neo-liberalism—which is embraced by the US and the core countries of the European Union, as well as other States on the periphery (such as Colombia and Chile)—China and Singapore have embraced Confucianism as a counter ideology to neo-liberalism. In Malaysia and Indonesia, the question has become how to articulate Islamism and capitalism without becoming liberal or neo-liberal. With less emphasis on the economy, a similar process is currently taking place in Iran. In Brazil and Venezuela, countries where political and economic control is in the hands of people of European descent—whose background is informed by Christianity, Liberalism and Marxism—these individuals are now resorting to a national ideology that is equivalent to Confucianism in China and Singapore and Islamism in Malaysia and Indonesia. In India you will find a State Corporate Capitalism founded on Hinduism and in Russia a State Corporate Capitalism founded on Slavism and the Orthodox Church. The main problem with capitalism in the West is that liberalism and neo-liberalism have collapsed. Western capitalism prospered thanks to European colonial expansion and the US followed that model of colonialism, though without the colonies. The logic of coloniality (economic growth based on the appropriation of land, the extraction of natural resources and the exploitation of labor in the non-Euro-US world) that was established and controlled by the West for 500 years has now spun out of control. China, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brazil are no longer places simply to be exploited, as they have constructed their own economies (and, you might say, have themselves become exploiters). The increased number of players has reduced the capacity of the EU and US to make a profit at the cost of other nations’ losses. The turn toward speculation in the real estate market, and the construction of financial castles in the air, were not random phenomena: these were the necessary consequences of failed attempts to secure growth the old fashion way. This is why the crisis in the EU and US has not replicated itself in other countries.
The defense of capitalism has become a major dilemma: either you’re left with the “invisible hand” that created the conditions for legal corporate corruption like Enron a few years ago and more recently Wall Street (“junk mortgages” and the financial crisis in which we are still enmeshed) or a “strong State” whose regulations restrict the free will of the individual and oppose democracy. This is a serious dilemma. And I do not see any way out of it, unless you delink from the Western logic that is common to both political theory and the political economy: the invisible hand that privileges the economy (liberalism, neo-liberalism) and the strong state that privileges regulations (socialism, communism). Another logic is needed, and that logic is decoloniality. Sukarno understood this when at the Bandung Conference he proposed neither capitalism nor communism, but decolonization.
Today the major economies of Western Europe, the US and China share the assumption that there are no historical future horizons other than “growth and development.” Why should “growth and development” be the only game in town when it has continued to create increased economic inequality, wars to secure natural resources and has incited people to believe that happiness consists of acquiring commodities. A multiplicity of options within capitalism does not really create more freedom. A multiplicity of options does not benefit the client. It is the company making the products that benefits. And then what are the real costs of “growth and development” and consumerism? “Growth and development” is a rhetoric that benefits those who devote their lives to increasing their wealth (either by economic or political means, or both) while hiding the fact that growth and development increases poverty. What should replace it? An economy (non-capitalist) that serves the well-being of the people and the life of the planet, rather than an economy that serves well one sector of the population.
Due to the increasing unsustainability of development, in Latin America we are witnessing a struggle between the political society and the transnational corporations. One of the primary instances of this struggle is seen in the mining sector. And some of the most impressive outcomes have been social organizations such as “Juicio Ético Popular to the Transnational Corporations.” There is relatively little information available in languages other than in Spanish about these processes, but the main point is that mining poisons the land and water, creating lakes filled with cyanide and mercury that have been used to wash metals (gold, copper, coltan, precious stones, etc.) from the rocks. The long-term health-effects in these areas are devastating, not only in terms of the proliferation of cancer and leukemia rates among adults, but in the ever-increasing number of newborns with serious birth defects. We have seen similar results in Congo, as the defense of capitalism and private property brings the additional factor of military intervention. And what is it all used for? Modern technology, from computers to cell phones and ipods, depend on certain types of metals. And of course the expanding “luxury industry,” which is no longer limited to the very wealthy, but has become a market possibility for the middle class in China, Singapore, Hong Kong and other regions with growing economies. Argentina has not reached the level of Congo’s crisis, but the logic is the same: the ethics of capitalism is no longer (if it ever was) the Protestant Ethics invoked by Max Weber to explain the spirit of capitalism.
Christopher Mattison: Shifting from Latin America and Africa, where is China in the midst of these economic developments in relation to the rest of Asia and the US?
Walter Mignolo: China has evolved into a State capitalist economy (or State Corporate Capitalism, as The Economist would have it), but a version that is quite different from the State capitalism of the Soviet Union and Chairman Mao’s project. The Soviet Union and Mao were engaged in a State economy with a communist horizon. China is running a State economy with a capitalist horizon. So, the first difference between the “West”—and here I mean the economic and political heart of the European Union (Germany, France and England) and the US—is that the former privileged free market economy was taken to the extreme by neo-liberalism in terms of the economy and the neo-cons in politics. What the “West” and “East Asia” have in common is capitalism; the State has had much more to say in the “East” than in the neo-liberal West over the past 30 years. You can make a case that China’s economic intervention in Africa is certainly as destructive as US and EU intervention in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo, Libya, etc. Capitalism is capitalism and the related institutions continue to prevail over the lives of billions of people. However, there is no Chinese military intervention in Africa up to this point.
The other difference is that, until recently, China had a strong economy but did not have the ability to confront the UN, the IMF and the G8—it has been overruled by the knowledge, structure and history that created these institutions. This is no longer the case. Yes, China can be accused of violating human rights in Nepal and Tibet; and the US can be accused of violating human rights in Guantanamo, Vieques, Iraq and Afghanistan. And it is true that China and various corporations, supported by the State in the EU and the US, will be fighting for land to “combat” and “profit from” the food crisis. In the first case, you have the political violation of human rights, and in the second the economic violation of human rights. And there is no way out unless the value-horizon of the capitalist economy (which means: succeed, buy more, be first, be bigger and do not let the competition surpass you) is altered to an economy where the final horizon is the well-being of people and the survival of nature. We may be moving in that direction, not because of some form of new global green revolution, but because the infinite growth that is required for a capitalist economy to be able to maintain its values and the dream of continual progress and happiness has ended. It has ended because of the crisis that we’re currently experiencing—the difficulties, if not lack of ability, of the EU to sustain its project and of the US’s sky rocketing debt. Millions of consumers have been forced out of the market because they do not have money to spend. This has a global impact and directly affects imports and exports, which, in turn, affects the production of “more” of anything.
The economy of “more” is no longer sustainable and the un-sustainability of “development” has been pointed out repeatedly, based on developments in Africa, Latin America, even in the US/EU and across the Caribbean. But the critics who have been pointing this out remain largely ignored. Well, now it is history supporting the critique of “development.” There are no arguments or critiques that will replace the capitalist horizon of values—it is simply history as it is currently occurring. Critiques are helpful to understand what’s going on, but the critique itself will not change the minds of those who are making decisions under the belief that the crisis will soon pass and that unbridled growth will continue, employment levels will rise, we’ll all be able to consume again just like in the good old days. We’ll all be happy again, protected by the angel of progress.
Christopher Mattison: Sustainability in any form is difficult to maintain without collaborative partners, which often leads to power differentials in which one side is immediately or eventually consumed, supplanted or at least bruised by the other.
Walter Mignolo: Sustainability is unsustainable in a world of competition. I am beginning to understand, after several visits to Hong Kong and Beijing (and of course, being informed by the literature on the topic), that the Hong Kong/China relationship parallels what I have encountered in Puerto Rico vis–à–vis the US. There are in both places, in Hong Kong and Puerto Rico, many people who feel perfectly comfortable with the current state of affairs. And then there are others who are not quite so comfortable. Furthermore, the history of colonialism in Hong Kong and Puerto Rico differs greatly when comparing the memories of western disruption and the Opium War in Chinese history. The point I want to make running through this quick comparison is that in Hong Kong its memories must negotiate a doubled coloniality, that of the British and China in the past, and of China and the “West” (in the sense I just described) in the present. For Puerto Rico, on the other hand, there is the history of Spanish colonialism up to the end of the nineteenth century and of US colonialism ever since. In other words, Puerto Rico’s past has been shaped by one form of Western coloniality; Puerto Rico hasn’t had to negotiate with China. The bottom line is that the power differential among imperial countries, that is, the complex relations established by the colonial difference (Puerto Rico and Hong Kong vis–à–vis the imperial countries of their past and present) and the imperial difference (the power differential between Western imperialism and the rise of Japan [since 1895] and China) over the past 30 years. There is yet another significant parallel that contributes to the current global world (dis)order. I have noticed that small countries in East and South East Asia fear that China will take over and consequently they are leaning toward the US as a counterbalance. In South America and the Caribbean it is exactly the opposite (with the exception of Colombia, Peru and Chile)—US politics have been devastating since the 1950s, with militarization, the IMF and World Bank generating widespread debt and poverty. China and Iran, which are huge problems for the US, are welcome partners for most South American and Caribbean countries.
Many experts have made the claim that China will take over the leadership of the world in the next 30 to 50 years; some speculate that it will happen even sooner. That is to say, in this scenario China would overcome and supplant the US in the same way that the US supplanted England, and England supplanted Spain. I do not think this scenario will occur, for a couple of reasons. First, the scenario in which China becomes the next hegemon—as Italian historian Giovanni Arrighi suspected based on the history of Western capitalism—would require that historical capitalism, with a precise linear history, must cross ethnic lines with no disruptions. Thus, historical capitalism in the West went from Spain and Portugal to Holland, from Holland to England and France and from England to the US, managed by the same ethno-class of various nationalities. This is the history of a shared ethnicity and religion: white, European and Christian (Catholic or Protestant). China is a completely other story. When capitalism crossed the Pacific to China, the ethno-class managing the economy was no longer contained within the same family: capitalism is divided by the racial lines that Europeans themselves created. Chinese are “yellow” in the Western imaginary. And being yellow and non-Christian, according to European established racial classifications, was to be one level below “normal.” This imaginary is quite powerful since the “West” has been in control of the knowledge base that invented and sustained this classification. In other words, between China’s present and future imperialism and the West’s past and present imperialism, there is the question of race; that is, of racism in the Western cosmology. Thus, this means that negotiations between the EU and the US on the one hand, and China on the other, are not simply political and economic, but racial. And racism (as Kishore Mahbubani in Singapore makes clear), is an enormous factor. Beyond economic and political negotiations, the Chinese government, universities, intellectuals and politicians must, it seems to me, dismantle and overcome the racial imaginary that is interfering with economic and political negotiations.
The second factor has two outcomes. One is that the US and the European Union, even in a time of crisis, will maintain a strong economy and a continued history of political organization. It will be difficult for China to overcome this and replace the US as the next world leader. I think that the era in which one State or group of States (England, France, Germany, Spain) leads the world is over. The future is of necessity polycentric.
Christopher Mattison: What is the basis for this polycentric newer world order and what do you predict will be China’s role?
Walter Mignolo: Certainly China is shifting the world order in the sense that decisions concerning the economy and international relations will no longer be made solely by Western (US/EU) institutions. The struggle here is for knowledge. The promotion of Zhu Min to the IMF is one such example. Thirty years ago, this appointment was unthinkable, and if it had happened, the appointment might very well have been motivated by a “democratic” feeling of involving people beyond the US (and at that time not even Europe), seated in the IMF offices. If this appointment would have happened in the near past, the appointee would have been expected to agree with the decisions made by the western members, who believed they had the authority to decide what is good for the entire world, and specifically for the US and the corporate and financial elites working with and within the government. Zhu Min obviously was not appointed under these conditions and we cannot expect him to be quiet and follow orders. He has already stated publicly that the IMF has historically only paid attention to western interests. Many people have been saying this all along, but now there is a Chinese economist occupying a high position within the institution, backed by a government that has gained enough confidence to warn the US to control their desire for spending and to restrict their defense budget.
What does this all amount to? The world before 1500 was economically non-capitalist and polycentric. From 1500 to 2000, the rise of the Atlantic economy made Europe the center of the World and established an economic basis for the narrative of Western civilization and Western imperial expansion. This was a period of monotopic capitalism that remains an economy based on Christian (in spite of Christian detachment from materiality) and, since the eighteenth century, secular Western values. Although Christianity is an Eastern religion both in terms of its origination (Jesus was from Nazareth) and its institutionalization under emperor Constantine, in Istanbul (Constantinople), it was the Roman Papacy that played a fundamental role after Alexander the VI appropriated and divided the planet—the Tordesilla Treatise in 1494, and in 1529 the Zaragoza Treaty. Alexander VI divided the planet between Indias Occidentales (America) and Indias Orientales (Asia). Western Civilization and capitalism flourished in that frame. Since 2000, the world order has become polycentric and interconnected through capitalist economies. This means that capitalism is no longer attached to the cosmology of Western civilization; that is, to Western history and memories (from the Renaissance on with Rome and Greece as foundational pillars, notice how Istanbul and Jerusalem were erased from the Western imaginary) and to Christianity and its mutation into secular liberalism contested by secular socialism/communism. This is, in part, why Confucianism is being re-inscribed in China, why Islam is being altered to accommodate capitalism (Malaysia, Indonesia) and how African capitalism is invoking a revival of Pan-Africanism. All of this is what I refer to as dewesternization, and dewesternization means that we are already in the process of a present and future polycentric world in which Western civilization is one of the centers, but no longer the leading one.
Parallel to dewesternization and rewesternization (which refers to the US’s and EU’s efforts to maintain the leadership they had for 500 years) is a third trajectory which is being expressed through the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Greece, Spain, London and, before that, in Bolivia and Ecuador (see previously, “Juicio Etico”). I view these insurgencies as the emergence of a global political society and the growing trajectory of a global decoloniality. Now, we cannot expect that of these three trajectories one will end up victorious and ruling over the others. They will co-exist in conflictive relations for a good number of years. China cannot rule the world by itself, the US and the EU cannot rule the world by themselves, and the decolonial global society will continue to exert pressure on global institutions and local governments to remind them that there is 90% of the world’s population beyond the 10% who continue to argue among themselves about the effort to rewesternize the world and the related efforts to dewesternize. There is, of course, more than these three major trajectories, such as the growing movement to decolonize religion and liberate spirituality. The local and global lefts are remapping themselves after the collapse of the Soviet Union, women from the third world and Islamic women are responding to the persistence of the patriarchy, etc. All of this is what I refer to as the global political society, the 80% of the planet left out of the State and the Market becoming more and more aware of what coloniality means. And coloniality is no longer a Western issue; it is also behind Chinese and East Asian capitalism, Islam and capitalism and Pan-Africanism and capitalism.
Christopher Mattison: You have called for a refusal of life rafts to these institutions that are based on capitalism; in part because “People start to believe that success is to be part of an institution and to accumulate wealth. If in order to accumulate wealth you have to destroy the environment, you do it.” This reads a bit reductively to me and places the argument in a tight corner. There certainly are institutional models based on accumulation at all cost, but aren’t there also an expanding number of institutions based on what you refer to as an “economy of scarcity” or “reciprocity,” as opposed to an “economy of accumulation.” Or am I thinking too optimistically here? Wouldn’t it make more sense to convert the existing institutions than to call for their demolition? De-colonial upcycling?
Walter Mignolo: The overall tendency, beyond the defense of capitalism, is that the world is in need of a “new paradigm.” What this calls for is a horizon of life that will guide both the remodeling of the current institutions and the creation of new institutions. Briefly stated, the paradigm of “growth and development” (in its wide diversity, manifestations and gray zones) is being confronted by the paradigm of “life, to live in plenitude, in harmony among people and with nature.” This might seem very New Age and romantic from a hard-core capitalist viewpoint. But it doesn’t actually contain much of the New Age: it is the same formula that has been shifting people all over the world, not just the well known “indignados”—the millions of people in Latin America and Africa that are fighting against governments and their support of transnational corporations, which are exploiting labor, poisoning rivers and fumigating fields with carcinogens. When I talk about putting the horse in front of the cart, I mean that “to live in plenitude and in harmony” should take precedence, and that the economy and politics should follow suit. On a small scale, this is what the Zapatistas in Mexico have been doing for 16 years. Furthermore, there is an ever-increasing number of scholars around the world who are creating institutions and producing knowledge for the purpose of moving in the direction of “life” and abandoning the paradigm of “growth.”
There are various co-existing projects and we should get used to seeing them in their singularity and in their conflictive interactions rather than to think that there is only one world or that the world should be homogeneous. We are already living on a planet in which many worlds co-exist. This coexistence, unfortunately, is not pacifist in nature, but conflictive and violent. There are numerous institutions and organizations that lead to what I will call, following John Rawls’s terminology, “honest liberals”—to which we can add “honest Christians” and “honest Marxists.” This is what I refer to as Western Civilization. But of course you have Christians and Marxists in China (and perhaps you can identify some liberals too), in Africa, Malaysia and Indonesia. What I was attempting to do is to draw different parameters in order to understand the world order. And certainly there are and will be institutional changes due precisely to the conflict between the three trajectories I have outlined, along with the impossibility of the global economy to maintain constant growth and to limit immigration within the nation-states, as demanded by radical capitalism and the extreme right. Dialogue of Civilizations presupposed a single principle: that no rights legitimizing a worldview should become The World View. And once we accept this principle, there will be no need for the States to struggle to impose their views over the other or for the corporations to impose one type of economy that favors the corporations and not the people. Because of this, today we have the financial crisis; the “global outraged” (indignados) and fears about the proliferation of nuclear weapons decades after the US bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
My reference to placing institutions first and life second refers to the agents and institutions that are making the decisions on Wall Street, the European Union, the G8, the IMF and the people who congregate around Davos. The institutions that rule the world are represented at Davos, the G8, the Food Summit and the Environmental Summit. When Evo Morales followed up on the failure of the Summit in Copenhagen with one in Cochabamba, under the principle of putting Pachamama (Mother World) first, it had very little global impact. And in Bolivia it was, interestingly enough, the Left that criticized the summit, calling them “Pachamamicos,” meaning romantics and idealists who are attempting to stifle economic development in Bolivia. Indian intellectuals responded to the white Left by calling them “Modernicos” (a derogatory term that can be translated as “modernistics”).
I am certainly for building; not for destroying. I mean that institutions, like capitalism, destroy nature and human life to increase wealth. But we need both courses of action simultaneously: to create new institutions and to work within the ones we already have. As for “destroying” I did not mean—in your quote—that we have to destroy institutions. The accumulation of wealth in a capitalist economy that requires natural resources leads to the “destruction of the environment.” And here we have the cart in front of the horse again. Now, to change institutions can be interpreted in two different directions. One is within our current civilization, which I referred to in the previous answer—you work toward more regulations and public policy, the intention of which is to prevent legal delinquency, as with Wall Street, Enron or the hundreds of cases that were brought out into the open during the financial crisis such as, for example, this article on corruption as a possible contributor to the financial crisis.
The other direction concerns transforming the existing institutions; changing the terms and not simply the content of the conversation. This means that we (and I mean all of us on the planet) need a civilizational horizon that places the life of the planet, meaning our lives, too, first and the institutions second. The point I was trying to make in the 2009 interview, which you mentioned at the beginning of this dialogue, is that currently life is at the service of the institutions, and what is needed is to put the institutions at the service of life. If we achieve this, we will not have environmental catastrophes like the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico and numerous other disasters. We will not have problems with the commercialization of medicine and pharmacology and the commodification of food; that is, people making money off of treating food and water as a commodity rather than as basic human rights.
The debates taking place in Bolivia today are helpful as part of this conversation. One of the arguments of the debate is to “refund” the State. That is, in Bolivia the State is a modern/colonial State funded after “independence” from Spain, which transformed the Viceroyalty of Peru into several republics (Peru and Bolivia among them). This was the moment of the “fundation” of the State. Now, Indian nations have taken their destiny in their own hands, a “refundation” of the State is being called for. That is, working within the existing institutions. The other position of the debate is “to decolonize the State” and decolonizing the State means to create new institutions and to accept that the State is not the unavoidable form of a peaceful and just government. New institutions must be created which serve the purpose of a civilizational horizon that puts life (and not wealth and managerial political and economic control) as the sovereign goal of human existence on the planet. More interesting in this debate is that the Bolivian State has recently turned toward dewesternization: State capitalism of a leftist persuasion.
Walter D. Mignolo is William H. Wannamaker Distinguished Professor and Director of the Center for Global Studies and the Humanities at Duke University. He has been working for the past 25 years on the formation and transformation of the modern/colonial world system and on the idea of Western Civilization.
Christopher Mattison is a Visiting Fellow at the Hong Kong Advanced Institute for Cross-Disciplinary Studies (HKAICS) and co-curator of its Hong Kong Atlas — an online archive of Hong Kong writing.
Originally published by the HKAICS.