There Is No Humanity Without Sub-Humanity: A Modern Eurocentric Condition

Boaventura De Sousa Santos | Portugal

There Is No Humanity Without Sub-Humanity: A Modern Eurocentric Condition

I start with two observations that may summarize the specific turbulence of our time.

Fear and hope

According to Baruch Spinoza – who, in 1656, when he was just twenty-three years old, was excommunicated by the Amsterdam Portuguese-Jewish congregation – the two most basic emotions or affects of human beings are fear and hope (Spinoza, 2002: 345). In my view, the specific turbulence of our times lies in the radical uncertainty of the life chances for the overwhelming majority of the world’s population, caused by an extremely unequal social distribution of fear and hope.

Fear and hope have never been evenly distributed among social groups but today we can safely venture that the distribution is more unequal than ever. By far the great majority of the world population lives in conditions of too much fear and too little or no hope at all. To members of the majority, fear outweighs hope to such an extent that the world happens to them beyond their control, with devastating consequences for their sense of agency or capacity to exercise it, whether individually or collectively. They live in expectancy but with no expectations; they live in waiting without knowing what they are waiting for, except that it will most probably aggravate their already miserable condition. They are alive today but, given the social conditions in which they live, they could be dead tomorrow by a stray bullet. Today they can feed their children, but they do not know whether they will be able to do so tomorrow. Today they till their land, as their ancestors had always done, but tomorrow they may be expelled from it in the name of a development project or simply due to land grabbing by corporations or the state.

In scandalous contrast with this, a tiny minority lives with too much hope and without any existentially meaningful fear. This minority has a sense of having defeated historical enemies – such as communism – and is now actively inventing new ones. The arrogance of such people is a sign of their confidence in overcoming all obstacles that may generate fear. The world is offered to them as a field of possibilities for them to manage at will.

What best signals the specific Geist of our time is the extremely unequal and unjust social distribution of fear and hope. We are living in a period in which the balanced interdependence of fear and hope seems to have collapsed as a result of the growing polarization between the world of hopeless fear and the world of fearless hope, i.e. a world of impoverished, powerless, and oppressed majorities, and a world of enriched, powerful, and oppressor minorities. A growing percentage of the world’s population is faced with imminent risks for which there is either no insurance or, if it existed, would be financially unaffordable, such as the risk of death in the new armed conflicts whose victims are mostly innocent bystanders; the risk of disease caused by mass use – whether legal or illegal – of hazardous substances; the risk of violence caused by racial, sexist, religious or other forms of prejudice; the risk of having one’s meagre resources plundered, whether salaries or pensions, in the name of austerity or “structural adjustment” policies over which people have no democratic control whatsoever; the risk of being expelled from one’s land and home by land grabbing and the dictates of development policies which never bring any benefits; the risk of job precariousness and the abrupt collapse of any expectations of sufficient stability to be able to plan for oneself and one’s family; the risk of being called upon to be autonomous in the very same process in which the conditions for exercising real autonomy are removed.

In contrast, increasingly smaller social groups are accumulating such an excess of economic, social, and political power that, having captured the three instances designed by Western modernity to control it, namely the principle of national sovereignty, the principle of democracy, and the rule of law, they are literally beyond any form of control. There is a long history behind this polarization, but it is now more transparent and perhaps more virulent, since it is linked to the financial capital, the most antisocial and globalized form of capitalism, the insidious permanence of colonialism despite the political independence of the European colonies, and the permanence of patriarchy despite the victories of the feminist movements.

Should such a situation lead us to the pessimism of Albert Camus who, in 1951, wrote these bitter words: “After twenty centuries, the sum total of evil has not abated in the world: there has been no Parousia, whether divine or revolutionary” (Camus, 1951: 379). Such radical pessimism is the privilege of the few in our world whose everyday life is still more or less stable, the minorities that have not been seriously affected by the devastating consequences of dronified power. Most people in the world cannot afford to be so pessimistic, given that their struggle for survival, an urgent and inescapable everyday task, is at stake. Their struggle will be all the more successful, and their revolt all the more likely to attract followers, if more and more people come to the realization that the hopeless fear of powerless majorities stems from the fearless hope of powerful minorities. In other words, the extreme imbalance between fear and hope must be brought to an end. How can it be done?

Reform and revolution

The Eurocentric world began the twentieth century with two models of progressive transformation against social injustice: legal reformism and social and political revolution. It begins the twenty-first century without either of them. There is neither a revolutionary nor a reformistic transformation on the political agenda. Indeed, our time configures a historical condition of counter-reformism. Everywhere in the world the people are on the streets protesting not to conquer new rights but rather to recover the rights they once had and have recently lost since neoliberalism became the dominant version of capitalism.

 The idea of bringing about progressive social change through law was for many centuries a European and North American story: it was only after World War II that it branched out to other continents. Its origins may be traced back to the reception of Roman law in the twelfth century, a first attempt by the emerging bourgeoisie to tailor the law to the needs of growing economic activity. However, legal reformism as the legal dimension of a broader political process – reformism – only emerged historically after the French Revolution and, more specifically, after the violent social turmoil of 1848 that swept across most of developed Europe. It was then that the binary opposition of law versus revolution fully unfolded: piecemeal and peaceful social transformation through law versus sudden, all-encompassing and potentially violent social revolution.

Both reform and revolution are therefore part of the same modern paradigm of social transformation based on the idea of progress, through which society is envisaged in constant, forward movement towards the betterment and expansion of life chances for ever larger populations. While revolution conveyed the idea that this movement included discontinuities, the sudden, radical and often violent breaks with an existing social and political order, reformism conveyed the idea of sustained continuity through gradual, incremental, piecemeal transformations (Santos, 2002; 2023a; 2023b).

In spite of the lack of reformistic and revolutionary encompassing frameworks, oppressed people across the globe go on resisting against oppression, proposing alternatives of a better life and fighting for them. They rarely capture the attention of politicians, policy makers, or international good doers.

Why? This question will be addressed as subdivided in two questions: what is to be known and how? And what is to be done?

What is to be known and how to know it?

At the core of the troubles of our time there is an epistemic issue. The dominant ways of knowing, the dominant western-centric epistemologies, are not fit to identify the roots of the problem nor to help us find a way out. In fact, they are part of our problem rather than part of the solution. Such epistemologies are based on the Hegelian paradigm that knowledge must emerge after the struggles: “the owl of Minerva flies at dusk”. The problem with this paradigm is that, after the struggles, the only knowledge that can possibly be retrieved is the knowledge of the winners of the struggle. The knowledge of the losers vanishes or is discarded. This explains why dominant modern history is the history of the winners as told by the winners. Most academic and university knowledge and the education system are based on this bias. That is why the alternatives being struggled for by the oppressed and excluded populations remain invisible.

For a long time, based on my experiences while participating in social struggles and collaborating with social movements, I have been proposing the epistemologies of the South (most recently, 2014, 2018). The epistemologies of the South call for the identification and validation of knowledges born in struggles against capitalism, colonialism, and patriarchy carried out by the people that have suffered most under such domination. The south as conceived of by the epistemologies of the South is an epistemic south, not a geographic one. In fact, the geographical south abounds in little Europes – and not so little Europes, as witness Australia, where the western-centric dominant epistemologies prevail inasmuch as in Europe and North America.  

There is no anti-science stance here since modern science has often been used in social struggles against domination. The basic claim of the epistemologies of the South is that modern science is a valid way of knowing, but not the only one. There are other ways of knowing with which modern science must interact in light of the pragmatic political purposes aimed at. If I want to go to the moon, I need science; but if I want to know the biodiversity of Amazonia, I need indigenous knowledge. At the core of any epistemology there is politics. From the perspective of the epistemologies of the South, modern science must be conceived of as part of a broader landscape of knowledges – an ecology of knowledges – and to the extent that it engages in mutually enriching dialogues with other ways of knowing in order to strengthen the social struggles against domination. Modern science, together with modern law, were key components of the expansion of capitalism and colonialism; in this process they encountered an immense diversity of peoples and knowledges. The encounters were for the most part violent and included extermination, enslavement, pillage of resources, dispossession, expulsion from ancestral territories, forced evangelization and epistemicide, and much more.

In spite of the extreme inequality of power there was resistance and struggle, the latter being generated by or grounded on non-western knowledges or counter-hegemonic appropriations of western knowledge. Such knowledges had never been accounted for by Eurocentric critical thinking. Moreover, taking the world and the modern era as unit of analysis, many social classes and groups other than proletarians had been resisting oppression, such as slaves, women, indigenous peoples, and peasants. The epistemologies of the South make two basic claims of interest in this context: a broad conception of domination and the conception of the abyssal line. I venture to say we don’t need alternatives, we need an alternative thinking of alternatives.

The specificity of modern domination

Marxism conceives of capitalism as the defining characteristic of modern domination. It is based on a structurally unequal relationship between two legally free and equal individuals (the capitalist employer and the worker) which makes possible the extraction of plus value from the worker (the value of non-paid labor force). Marx designated this relationship as exploitation. He was aware of other forms of domination, such as colonialism and primitive accumulation, but none of them had the same theoretical and political status as exploitation. Marx’s position on colonialism has been a source of controversy for many years, as primitive accumulation was conceived by him as an initial, particularly violent form of accumulation on the basis of which the “monotony of exploitative economic relations” was made possible. The privileged status granted to exploitation led Marx to maintaining that the proletariat was the only historical subject to be entrusted with the struggles that would bring about the end of capitalism. Throughout the twentieth century, the need to account for other forms of domination led to the distinction between exploitation and oppression. While exploitation called for a direct relationship between the exploiter and the exploited, oppression did not require such a direct relationship between the oppressor and the oppressed, and whatever relation there existed between them was not at all based on the abstract freedom and equality of two individuals. That’s why only exploitation could generate the historical subject capable of overcoming capitalism. Any other forms of oppression were to be understood as secondary vis-à-vis exploitation; indeed, they would wither away once exploitation were no longer in place.

Focusing on the knowledges born in the struggles against domination a broader conception of domination was called for. The resistance of oppressed groups or classes throughout the modern period painted a broader landscape of struggles and called for a broader conception of domination.

Based on my social and political activism with the social movements, for the last thirty years I have been proposing that the three main modes of modern domination are capitalism, colonialism, and patriarchy. They are not the only ones, as in several contexts or periods religion, the caste system, political use of religion or ableism have been crucial modes of domination as well. But the said three main modes seem to be present everywhere. The novelty of capitalism as a mode of domination is that it only sustains itself in articulation with colonialism and patriarchy. The reason is that in modern historical formations free capitalist labor cannot reproduce itself without the parallel existence of extremely devalued labor and non-paid labor. Colonialism and patriarchy provide these other forms of labor. They are premised upon the ontological degradation of the worker, be it the racialized worker or the sexualized worker. Three main implications of this conception are to be mentioned.

Firstly, colonialism and patriarchy existed long before capitalism, but they were reconfigured by capitalism in order to legitimize the ontological degradation of the worker and, consequently, the extreme devaluation of labor (slave labor) or even of the provision of non-paid labor (domestic family care).

Secondly, colonialism did not end with the processes of independence; it only changed its operational code. The independences brought an end to a specific form of colonialism, the historical colonialism based on territorial occupation by a foreign country. But colonialism continued under different guises, all of which involving the ontological inferiority of the people subject to colonial domination. Racism, internal colonialism, neocolonialism, imperialism, white supremacism, anti-migration and anti-refugee policies, as well as xenophobia (most recently, islamophobia) are some of the forms under which colonialism has been perpetuated as a mode of domination. On the other hand, patriarchy continues to operate through sexual division of labor, ideological distinction between productive and reproductive work, sexual harassment, femicide, etc.

The third implication of this theoretical proposal is that it offers a key to explaining the frustration that currently pervades the anti-systemic struggles and movements. It is such a deep frustration that the youth around the world, confronted with the possibility of an imminent ecological collapse, more easily visualize the end of the world than the end of capitalism. The underlying reason for this frustration lies in the fact that, while the three modes of domination operate in conjunction, the resistance against them has historically been fragmented. Anti-capitalist, socialist movements (parties and trade unions) have often been racist and sexist; anti-colonial or anti-racial movements (black, indigenous, Roma movements) have often been pro-capitalist and sexist; and feminist movements have often been racist and pro-capitalist. As long as domination operates conjunctly and the resistance against it fragmentedly, there will be no prospect or hope for liberation.

The abyssal line

The second finding of the epistemologies of the South is that, given the inherent combination between capitalism, colonialism, and patriarchy, modern domination generates free, fully human beings in the same process that it creates sub-human beings, ontologically degraded racialized and sexualized bodies. Whatever is valid and applies to fully human beings is not valid and does not apply to sub-human beings, and vice versa. The abyssal line is the line that separates the world of fully humans – the world of “us” – from the world of sub-humans – the world of “them”. As Frantz Fanon eloquently states, modern societies are divided between zones of being and zones of non-being. Under modern western-centric conditions there is no humanity without sub-humanity.

Building on this, I conceive of modern social transformation as divided in two modes of sociability: metropolitan sociability and colonial sociability. Metropolitan sociability, restricted to fully human beings, is run by the tension between social regulation and social emancipation; whereas colonial sociability, imposed on sub-human beings, is run by the tension between appropriation and violence. Most emancipatory ideas generated by western modernity, from political independence to human rights, from democracy to rule of law, have ignored the abyssal line, applying exclusively to metropolitan sociability, while claiming universal applicability.

In the zone of metropolitan sociability there is social exclusion, but it is not a radical or abyssal exclusion, since the victims of exclusion have at their disposal means to defend themselves. On the contrary, in the colonial zone, regardless of the ideology claims to the contrary, such means for minimizing or attenuating social exclusion are not available; the exclusion is radical or abyssal. It is indeed regulated by both formal and informal legal, social and political norms and practices that apply to less-than-human human beings. Irrespective of the legal or political mask or façade, such norms or the application of such norms are geared to either appropriation or violence.

Examples of appropriation and violence abound: forced and slave labor; forced sterilization of women; extra-judicial elimination of grassroots movement leaders; women’s bodies as objects or spoils in civil wars or in rivalries among criminal gangs; horrific and banalized drowning of thousands of immigrants in the Mediterranean sea; internment camps for refugees, immigrants and their children; sexual assault of young girls as “part of the culture”; apartheid and neocolonial state regimes; electrified walls against undesired populations; continuing plunder of natural resources and the consequent expulsion of peasants and indigenous peoples from their ancestral territories; ethnic profiling; genocide of black youth in the peripheries of large cities in Latin America; domestic violence and femicide; and so on and so forth.

In sum, the western-centric political tools to minimize social exclusion and make possible emancipation have thus been premised upon a false universality promoting deluding promises. Means of social emancipation that only apply to the zone of metropolitan sociability have been promised as being universally valid. However, in the colonial zone, the idea of social emancipation is unthinkable; the tension between appropriation and violence prevails, inscribed in the life experiences of racialized and sexualized bodies and populations.

Modern domination is a global, uneven, and combined mode of articulation between abyssal and non-abyssal exclusions that are generated by a combination of mainly three modes of domination: capitalism, colonialism, and patriarchy. This has led to two fundamental traps that have boycotted and disabled the social struggles against domination.

The first trap consists in the elusiveness of the abyssal line and the consequent difficulty in recognizing the two types of exclusion (abyssal and non-abyssal). It is due to the fact that the ideology of universal metropolitan sociability, as well as all the juridical and political apparatuses that go with it, hovers above the world of colonial sociability as an ever renewed and always betrayed promise. The illusion created by this powerful ideology has led to considering as legitimate only the struggles designed to resist against non-abyssal exclusions. The resulting difficulty in disentangling abyssal from non-abyssal exclusions has often contributed to make invisible and worsen the abyssal exclusions affecting racialized and sexualized social groups.[1]

The second trap, already briefly mentioned above, is the apparent, phenomenologically credible autonomy among the three modes of domination. On the surface of social experience, it is indeed easy to distinguish a practice of capitalist exploitation from a practice of colonialist (racist) or patriarchal (sexist) discrimination. But when we take into account the global operations of modern domination and the structural connection among the different practices, we conclude that the different types of exclusionary practices feed on each other in order to stabilize the overall reproduction of western-centric domination. If dealt with in isolation of the tripartite domination, alleviation of injustice in a certain area may serve to disguise or even to aggravate injustice in another, either nationally or internationally. The drama of our time is precisely the fact that while domination operates in combination, the resistance against it tends to be fragmented. This means that the growing interest in focusing on colonialism and decolonization without engaging on the critique of capitalism and of patriarchy may be a way of distracting us from focusing on anti-capitalist struggles and on anti-patriarchal struggles. It may also promote divisions and discourage aggregation among those social groups fighting against different dimensions of domination. A similar reasoning is valid for contemporary focus on patriarchy and on feminist and anti-heterosexist movements that very often lose sight of the need to struggle against capitalism and racism.

Is it possible to overcome these traps? I think it is, and my conviction is immensely reinforced by counting on the support of Pope Francis. Concerning the first trap, suffice it to cite from the Encyclical Fratelli Tutti, a masterpiece of progressive theological-political discourse: “One effective way to weaken historical consciousness, critical thinking, the struggle for justice and the processes of integration is to empty great words of their meaning or to manipulate them. Nowadays, what do certain words like democracy, freedom, justice or unity really mean? They have been bent and shaped to serve as tools for domination, as meaningless tags that can be used to justify any action… today’s world presents us with many false rights and – at the same time – broad sectors which are vulnerable, victims of power badly exercised.” More radically yet, in 2013, in his first major document, the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis states that an economy of exclusion and inequality is an economy that kills.

Concerning the second trap, Fratelli Tutti states: “‘Opening up to the world’ is an expression that has been co-opted by the economic and financial sector and is now used exclusively of openness to foreign interests or to the freedom of economic powers to invest without obstacles or complications in all countries. Local conflicts and disregard for the common good are exploited by the global economy in order to impose a single cultural model. This culture unifies the world, but divides persons and nations, for as society becomes ever more globalized, it makes us neighbors, but does not make us brothers. We are more alone than ever in an increasingly massified world that promotes individual interests and weakens the communitarian dimension of life.”

What is to be done?

1. Intercultural understanding of liberation

There is a need to decolonize as there is a need to decommodify and depatriarchalize society. This is the true meaning of liberation in our time.

Liberation is needed by those classes, ethno-racialized and gendered social groups that are excluded by modern domination, and is most needed by those that are victims of abyssal exclusion. After five centuries of modern domination and of resistance against it, the bottom line is that, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, there are social classes and groups whose single (and most radical) need is the guarantee of the right to life, to fully human life.

 The abyssally excluded social groups are those whose lives and livelihoods are fatally affected by capitalism, colonialism, and patriarchy. They are the most deprived of conceiving of the world as their own, and consequently prevented from transforming it according to their own aspirations. Their utopia is the ideal of a society in which they will be treated as fully human, a society as free of capitalist domination as of colonialist and patriarchal domination. In sum, full humanity. But their conception of humanity does not necessarily coincide with the one that prevails in the metropolitan sociability, humanity as the universe of formally equal and free individual human beings. They have their own conception of humanity that very often is either anchored in non-western values or combines western and non-western worldviews. The claims of such populations to full humanity entails the recognition of their own conceptions of humanity, their own ways of knowing and evaluating what counts as a full humanity. Otherwise, such inclusion will be another form of exclusion. The visions of an ideal society are therefore bound to be imagined in intercultural plural terms if they are to ground social struggles that confront not only capitalism but also colonialism and patriarchy. In the absence of such intercultural understanding, the visions of an ideal society guiding social struggles in the metropolitan zone may be quite inadequate to guiding the struggles of the classes and social groups on the other side of the abyssal line – in the colonial zone. In sum, an intercultural and pluralistic conception of full humanity is needed.

 As I said above, only knowledges born in struggle – the epistemologies of the South in my conception – will be able to retrieve such visions and the ways they guide social struggles. Understanding the visions of an ideal society imagined by bodies of population that are subjected to abyssal exclusions requires an epistemological break with western-centric modes of thinking. After all, such modes of thinking have been responsible for the invisibility of such bodies of population as political subjects. Knowledges born in struggle are complex assemblages of knowledges that often combine western and non-western cultural premises, scientific and vernacular or popular knowledge, reason and emotion, experience from past struggles (and even ancestral ways of knowing, particularly in the case of indigenous peoples’ struggles) and reflexive creativity in the face of new challenges. Anchored in knowledges born in struggle, new alternatives emerge, new ways of being in society ruled by principles of reciprocity, mutuality, and relationality. In sum, there is no global social justice without global cognitive justice (justice among different ways of knowing and of good living).

In a letter addressed to Pope John Paul II in 2015, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador, CONAIE, after mentioning the ambiguous role of the Catholic Church vis-à-vis the indigenous peoples throughout the centuries following the European colonial expansion, wrote:

“We vindicate above all the presence of Liberation Theology and Monsignor Leonidas Proaño in Ecuador, since they constitute a transcendental contribution in the defense and struggle of the oppressed and exploited peoples, particularly the indigenous peoples. The Church has a great debt with them, their contribution and commitment, and we believe that they should also be vindicated by Rome. We agree with them that the world of justice and equality in diversity cannot wait passively for another life, but must be built here and now, the Bible calls it the Kingdom of God, for us it is the community and the Sumak Kawsay.” I take this as a call for an intercultural understanding of liberation.

2. Nature does not belong to us, we belong to nature

Particularly after the 1990s, the indigenous movements and struggles have gained a new strength and visibility in different continents, from the Americas to Asia and Oceania. Their struggles combined extra-institutional mobilizations (public protests, blocking roads to defend their territories, boycotting the operations of mining companies, etc.) and institutional ones (constitutional and legal reforms). Two of the most prominent radical institutional changes achieved by them are, on the one hand, the new Constitutions of Ecuador (2008) and Bolivia (2009) and, on the other hand, the declaration of a sacred river for the indigenous peoples in New Zealand as a subject of human rights.

In many ways, the new Constitutions of Ecuador and Bolivia amount to a profound refoundation of the modern state. For the first time in modern Constitutions, the guiding principles of state and social organization are formulated in a non-colonial language, in quechua and aymara. I am referring to Sumak Kawsay and Suma Qamaña, principles of good living and harmony with nature. Moreover, the Constitution of Ecuador grants rights to nature, nature understood according to the Andean worldview as Pachamama (Mother Earth). Nature thus ceases to be capitalist nature (natural capital) to become a source of life and natural heritage. Art. 71 states: “Nature, or Pachamama, where life exists and reproduces itself, has the right to have its existence respected in its entirety, including the maintenance and regeneration of its vital cycles, structure, functions and evolutionary processes.” As a result, a solidary and sovereign economic-social model is privileged, a model based on a harmonious relationship with nature. This does not preclude capitalist economy from being protected by the Constitution, but it does prevent capitalist relations from determining the logic, direction, and rhythm of national development.

 On the other hand, after decades of social struggles by the Maoris, the main indigenous people in New Zealand, in 2107 the New Zealand parliament approved a law that grants human rights to the Whanganui river, a sacred river to the Maoris. It is a very robust declaration. It establishes the river as a juridical person in line with the ancestral law of the indigenous peoples and, in doing so, it recognizes the indigenous law as a source of national jurisprudence. Moreover, millions of New Zealand dollars have been granted to repair the damage caused to the river by pollutant industries and to defend (as a kind of legal fund) the “health and wellbeing” of the river in the future.

As illustrated by these two examples, the visions of an ideal society and the real utopias emerging from them presuppose an intercultural understanding in which non-western cultures, ways of knowing, and values are decisively present. From the perspective of a monocultural western-centric conception of law and nature, to grant human rights to nature or to a river is a contradiction in terms, an utter nonsense. On the contrary, from an intercultural perspective, such constitutional and legal innovations amount to the recognition of a non-western, anti-Cartesian conception of nature, a conception that refuses both the dichotomy humanity/nature and the sub-human character of whatever is closer to nature, such as racialized and sexualized bodies. Such innovations are complex because they combine western and non-western conceptions. From an intercultural point of view, the concept of the rights of nature or of granting human rights to a river is a legal hybrid. It combines the western-centric concept of right and legal personality with an indigenous-centric concept of nature and river, as sources of life, and even sacred entities. As a real utopia they point to the need for new universal declaration of human rights in which the rights of nature are recognized.

   Both examples aspire at overcoming the abyssal line whereby they combine anti-capitalist objectives with anti-colonialist and anti-patriarchal ones. They preclude the continuation of extractivist, pollutant industries, and fully recognize the full human dignity of indigenous peoples and the maternal, caregiving concept of “mother earth.” Above all, they show that, contrary to conventional neoliberal wisdom, there is no lack of alternatives. They are there, but they have been made invisible or blocked by dominant ways of understanding reality and organizing political action. In sum, and as stated above they show that we don’t need alternatives, we rather need an alternative thinking of alternatives. Alternative thinking consists in building an ecology of knowledges between the western-centric conception of rights and indigenous conceptions of the mother earth: nature does not belong to us, we belong to nature.

This sounds like a Spinozian theology – Spinoza’s distinction in Ethics between natura naturata and natura naturans. The Encyclical Laudato si’ approximates this conception, but not quite. Inspired by the teaching and life of Saint Francis, the Encyclical states that “These situations [ecological damages] have caused sister earth [mother earth for the indigenous peoples], along with all the abandoned of our world, to cry out, pleading that we take another course. It is significant that the harmony which Saint Francis of Assisi experienced with all creatures was seen as a healing of that rupture.” And it adds that “Each creature possesses its own particular goodness and perfection... Each of the various creatures, willed in its own being, reflects in its own way a ray of God’s infinite wisdom and goodness… every creature has its own value and significance.”

But it stops there and refuses any idea of an encompassing Spinozian Substance when it affirms that “at the same time, Judaeo-Christian thought demythologized nature. While continuing to admire its grandeur and immensity, it no longer saw nature as divine. In doing so, it emphasizes all the more our human responsibility for nature.” But it cautions: “Yet it would also be mistaken to view other living beings as mere objects subjected to arbitrary human domination. When nature is viewed solely as a source of profit and gain, this has serious consequences for society.”

3. Forging alliances

The difficulties in forging alliances among social struggles is one of the most intractable questions haunting progressive politics. Such difficulties stem from a plurality of factors whose weight varies according to the time and the political context. Such factors may be as diverse as the historical trajectory of the different political movements, the styles of organization and the inertias or habitus of resistance they generate; the divergent visions of emancipation or liberation; the specific narratives of domination and of what counts as a successful resistance; the differences in reading the political context and the concrete correlation of forces. As mentioned above, the persistence of modern domination is in part due to the fragmentation of struggles resisting against it. Victories in some sectoral struggles often coexist with defeats in other sectoral struggles. For instance, a victory in an anti-capitalist, trade union-based struggle may result in aggravating racial or sexual discrimination.  There is abundant evidence of the frustration deriving from such fragmentation.

 From the perspective of knowledges born in struggle, two basic types of articulation among struggles are required to strengthen anti-capitalist, anti-colonialist, and anti-patriarchal resistance: the articulation between struggles against abyssal exclusions and struggles against non-abyssal exclusions; the articulation among struggles resisting against the different modes or vectors of domination.

Articulation does not mean that the different struggles lose their identity or specificity and much less that all the struggles must resist all dimensions of domination. Moreover, alliances will always be limited in scope and pragmatic in purpose. Articulation only means that a broad and comprehensive conception of domination is generally shared and that anti-capitalist, anti-racist, and anti-sexist struggles are all equally important, even if some may be more urgent than others in a specific political context.

The articulation between struggles confronting non-abyssal and abyssal exclusions is complex, particularly because, as I mentioned above, in the last seventy years, social struggles have been dominated by the idea that all forms of social exclusion are non-abyssal (among formally equals, the metropolitan zone) and that, therefore, they should rely on the institutional tools of the modern state, that is, the legal and political system, both based on the idea of the formal equality among human beings. But, as I argued before, the efficacy of such tools is severely impaired when dealing with modes of domination grounded on the “natural” inferiority of some social groups, that is, colonialism and patriarchy, the zone of non-being. As a result, the resilience of racism (and all the other manifestations of contemporary colonialism) and of patriarchy and, most strikingly, its intensification in the most recent period with the rise of extreme right forces, has been minimized and relatively trivialized, thereby adding to the deep frustration of racialized and sexualized populations. In light of this, the struggles against abyssal exclusions should be able to combine institutional and extra-institutional tools and strategies. Moreover, concerning institutional strategies, the modern state form must be confronted at its core, that is, at the level of the Constitution.

Articulation among struggles that confront different dimensions of domination is equally complex. In critical progressive politics, the idea that anti-capitalist struggles are more important than anti-colonialist or anti-patriarchal struggles has prevailed for a long time. The abstract priority granted to anti-capitalist struggles has meant, among other things, that organizational resources, programmatic focus, and media visibility should be concentrated on such struggles. The tacit assumption is that a society free of capitalism would also be a society free of colonialism (more often than not narrowly conceived as racism) and patriarchy. This idea has led to deep divisions in the progressive camp. Just to give an example: for a long time, indigenous peoples were not even recognized as political subjects; the historical and cultural identity of their struggles was denied and diluted in the broad category of peasant struggles; their claim that colonialism, rather than being eliminated with the political independence of European colonies, had only changed form (internal colonialism, neo-colonialism, land grabbing, etc.) was accordingly suppressed or ridiculed by progressive forces (trade unions and left parties).

In more recent times, particularly after the Zapatist uprising (1994) and the World Social Forum (2001), and as feminist, indigenous, anti-racist, ecological, peasant or human rights struggles became more visible, the idea of abstract hierarchy among social struggles has undergone significant changes. A more complex notion of modern domination has emerged. Accordingly, the idea of abstract hierarchy among struggles is being replaced by the idea of situated and contextualized hierarchies and timeframes.

A paradigmatic example maybe retrieved from the feminist struggles in Chile throughout 2019. Massive and resilient mobilizations managed to amplify the struggles by building alliances among different grassroots movements involving large strata of the middle classes (metropolitan zone) and indigenous Mapuche movement (colonial zone) with a comprehensive political agenda that included anti-capitalist, anti-colonialist, and anti-patriarchal demands. It combined extra institutional strategies and institutional ones. Concerning the latter, it refused the confines of liberal democratic politics and demanded an authentic refoundation of the modern Chilean state to be designed in a popular, feminist, and plurinational constitutional assembly. Unfortunately, the constitutional project emerging from the constitutional assembly was subsequently defeated in a referendum, but the seed of political innovation has been planted and may bloom in another social and historical context.

4. If God were a democratic revolutionary or a revolutionary democrat

 Some years ago, I published a book at Stanford University Press provocatively titled If God Were a Human Rights Activist (2015). It was, of course, a metaphorical question that could only be answered metaphorically. Following the teachings of Christian, Islamic, and Hinduist liberation theologies, I submit in that book that, if He were a human rights activist, God would be pursuing a counter-hegemonic conception of human rights. Let me expand the metaphor. Today I would ask about God’s view and practice of the two models of progressive social transformation that existed at the beginning of the twentieth century, but that have since vanished without leaving us with credible alternatives. I would claim the two models are linked together in such a way that one cannot survive without the other. With the Fall of the Berlin Wall (1989-1991) the revolutionary model came to a bitter end; at that precise moment, no matter what the dominant ideology says to the contrary, democratic and legal reformism also came to an end. Since then, we live in post-democratic, post-reformist, and post-revolutionary times. Our time, rather than an inaugural time, is a posterior time. In Fratelli Tutti Pope Francis states rightly that we are living a period of social and political retrogression.

Nonetheless, the current situation is not a condition of loss only. It is also a condition of gain. The three points above about what is to be done summarize what the world of the oppressed has been learning in the past decades. By the same token, even if we lack the two models we do not lack the memory of them, of their limits and possibilities. In the absence of new models, we can try to do something new. Instead of keeping them separate, we should bring them together so that each one radicalizes its possibilities and minimizes its deficiencies. Democracy is in essence a feature of any social process aimed at replacing unequal power relations by shared authority relations. Unequal power relations occur in all spheres of social life, and not just in the political sphere. The liberal theory of democracy restricted democracy to a single sphere, the political sphere, an important sphere but far from being the only one. In this way it fatally limited the possibility of democratizing social relations. To revolutionize democracy means to extend democratic principles to all the major spheres of social life, namely the domestic sphere, the production sphere, the community sphere, the citizenship sphere, the world sphere, and the global life sphere, that is, the sphere of the relations between human beings and non-human beings, between human life and life in general. Democratic participation and deliberation will take different forms in the different spheres of social life. In sum, to revolutionize democracy means to consider that democracy is at risk as long capitalism, colonialism, and patriarchy remain in force. Democracy will be revolutionized to the extent that capitalism, colonialism, and patriarchy will be jointly and gradually eliminated.

To democratize revolution entails considering that dismantling these three modes of domination is the ultimate goal of democracy, while never replacing democratic means (shared-authority) by authoritarian means (means that increase the inequality of power instead of reducing it) in order to reach such a goal. It means to replace vanguard thinking by rearguard thinking, recognizing the priority of both epistemic justice – by giving voice to those that have been most silenced – and historical, racial, and sexual justice – by protecting those that have been most excluded for the longest period of time and suffering from cumulative dimensions of oppression. To democratize revolution implies giving full priority to the idea of the commons and of the common good without nullifying individual and communitarian autonomy and creativity. 

This is not a general recipe. It is a mere guideline that must be contextualized according to the circumstances. In some instances, it may be recommended to strengthen the democratic component, while in others, the revolutionary component. The basic idea is that in our crepuscular time, a time rich in complex problems and poor in complex solutions, gathering all the good energies of our recent past is probably the most sensible option. Putting together democracy and revolution may be the only way to build a post-abyssal society, that is, a society aspiring to a full humanity without sub-humanity. The two together may help us to aspire to a post-abyssal society.


Decolonizing, decommodifying, depatriarchalizing, as dimensions of the same historical task, may be an impossible utopia. But the possible demands a vision of the impossible and utopia is the impossible guiding the possible. The impossible is different from the unthinkable. In each epochal time we can only imagine as impossible what is somehow already out there as an aspiration, an idea that grounds true hope.

The specificity of our epochal time has been the ideology of reducing the possible to whatever already exists, the ideology of “there is no alternative” or “the end of history”. Deprived of utopia, politics plunged into myopia, and has indeed been dominated by myopic political leaders. A Venezuelan colleague, the late Fernando Coronil, formulated this quagmire in this way: “we have capitalism for a present without a future and socialism for a future without a present” (2014: 19; 2019: 145). From the perspective of the epistemologies of the South, the concept of socialism may be interculturally translated and reconstructed as the indigenous concept of Sumak Kawsay (buen vivir), as the austral African concept of Ubuntu, or as the Gandhian concept of swaraj.

I metaphorically conceived of God as being a democratic revolutionary and a revolutionary democrat, the ideal of mending this unfathomable gap between a closed and fearful present and an open and hopeful future.


Albert Camus (1951) L’Homme révolté. Paris: Gallimard.

Coronil, Fernando (2014) “El futuro en el ruedo: historia y utopía en la América Latina (1989-2010)”, Revista Casa de las Américas, 276 julio-septiembre: 3-31.

Coronil, Fernando (2019) The Fernando Coronil Reader. The Struggle for Life Is the Matter. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, pp. 128-162.

Santos, Boaventura de Sousa (2002) Toward a New Legal Common Sense: Law, Globalization, and Emancipation. Third edition, 2020. London: Butterworths.

Santos, Boaventura de Sousa (2014) Epistemologies of the South: Justice against Epistemicide. Boulder, CO: Paradigm.

Santos, Boaventura de Sousa (2015) If God Were a Human Rights Activist. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Santos, Boaventura de Sousa (2018) The End of the Cognitive Empire. The Coming of Age of Epistemologies of the South. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Santos, Boaventura de Sousa (2023a) From the Pandemic to Utopia. The Future Begins Now. New York: Routledge.

Santos, Boaventura de Sousa (2023b) Law and the Epistemologies of the South. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Spinoza, Baruch (2002) Spinoza: Complete Works. Edited by Michael L. Morgan. Translated by Samuel Shirley. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.


[1] A topic to be pursued with further research is the impact of the convergent rise of neoliberalism and extreme right ideology on the “position” of the abyssal line. It may be argued that the abyssal line has been moving in recent decades in such a way that the colonial zone, the realm of abyssal exclusions, has been expanding by encompassing ever larger bodies of populations, while the metropolitan zone has been shrinking. The rise of cultural racism (including islamophobia and, more recently, sinophobia) and of other beliefs in intrinsic and insurmountable cultural differences may be leading to the ontological inferiorization of more and more people. In an authoritarian dystopia, even extreme left dissident political activists or uberized “self-enslaved” workers could be looked upon as sub-humans.