The decolonial option

Ramon Grosfoguel is one of the most important decolonial thinkers in the world today. I recently went over one of his readings on modernity & the decolonial option, and wanted to share some of it with you.

Unlike other traditions of knowledge, the western is a point of view that does not assume itself as a point of view. In this way, it hides its epistemic location, paving the ground for its claims about universality, neutrality and objectivity. The decisive difference between this essay and neo-liberal, neo-marxist, marxist, weberian, wallersteinean or globalisation political-economist academic production is, then, that I am not hiding the epistemic location from where I am thinking.
Border thinking, one of the epistemic perspectives to be discussed in this article, is precisely a critical response to both hegemonic and marginal fundamentalisms.
Far from having overcome the linear evolutionist and paternalistic model of Europe being the developed and the rest being underdeveloped, academics continue labeling the conceptualizations of subaltern subjects as ideas that belong to the past, which, unsurprisingly, Europe has long-gone overcome.
We always speak from a particular location in the power structures. No one escapes the class, sexual, gender, spiritual, linguistic, geographical, and racial hierarchies of the ‘modern/colonial capitalist/patriarchal world-system’.

In western philosophy and sciences the subject that speaks is always hidden, concealed, erased from the analysis. The ‘ego-politics of knowledge’ of western philosophy has always privileged the myth of a non-situated ego, ego meaning the conscious thinking subject. Ethnic/racial/gender/sexual epistemic location and the subject that speaks are always decoupled. By delinking ethnic/racial/gender/sexual epistemic location from the subject that speaks, western philosophy and sciences are able to produce a myth about a Truthful Universal knowledge that conceals who is speaking, as well as, obscuring the geo-political and body-political epistemic location in the structures of colonial power/knowledge from which the subject speaks2.

Just because one is socially located on the oppressed side of power relations, does not automatically mean that he/she is epistemically thinking from a subaltern epistemic location. Precisely, the success of the modern/colonial world-system consists in making subjects that are socially located on the oppressed side of the colonial difference, think epistemically like the ones in the dominant positions.

Rene Descartes, the founder of modern western philosophy, inaugurates a key moment in the history of western thought in which he replaces God – as the foundation of knowledge in the theo-politics of knowledge of the European Middle Ages – with western man as the foundation of knowledge in European modernity.

We went from the 16th century characterization of ‘people without writing’ to the 18th and 19th century characterization of ‘people without history,’ to the 20th century characterization of ‘people without development’ and more recently, to the early 21st century of ‘people without democracy’.

We went from the 16th century ‘rights of people’ (the Sepulveda versus de las Casas debate, in the school of Salamanca in the mid-16th century), to the 18th century ‘rights of man’ (the Enlightment philosophers), and to the late 20th century ‘human rights’. This changing nomenclature is part of global the strategies articulated to the simultaneous production and reproduction of an international division of labor of core/periphery that overlaps with the global racial/ethnic hierarchy of Europeans/non-Europeans.

The global gender hierarchy is also affected by race: contrary to pre-European patriarchies where all women were inferior to all men, in the new colonial power matrix some women (of European origin) have a higher status and access to resources than the majority of men in the world (who are of non-European origin). The idea of race organizes the world’s population into a hierarchical order of superior and inferior people that becomes an organizing principle of the international division of labor and of the global patriarchal system. Contrary to the Eurocentric perspective, race, gender, sexuality, spirituality, and epistemology are not additive elements to the economic and political structures of the capitalist world-system, but an integral, entangled and constitutive part of the entangled whole European modern/colonial capitalist/patriarchal world system.

The old national liberation and socialist strategies of taking power at the level of a nation-state are insufficient to the task because global coloniality is not reducible to the presence or absence of a colonial administration or to political/economic structures of power.

We continue to live within the same colonial power matrix. With juridical-political decolonization we moved from a period of global colonialism to the current period of global coloniality.’ Although colonial administrations have been almost entirely eradicated and the majority of the periphery is politically organized into independent states, non-European people are still living under crude European/Euro-American exploitation and domination. The old colonial stratifications of European versus non-Europeans remain in place and are entangled with ‘the international division of labor’ and accumulation of capital on a world-scale.

Herein lies the relevance of the distinction between colonialism and coloniality. Coloniality allows us to understand the continuity of colonial forms of domination after the end of colonial administrations; such domination is produced by colonial cultures and structures in the modern/colonial capitalist world-system. Coloniality of power refers to a crucial structuring process in the modern/colonial world-system that articulates peripheral locations in the international division of labor with the global racial/ethnic hierarchy and third world migrants’ inscription in the racial/ethnic hierarchy of metropolitan global cities. Peripheral nation-states and non-European people live today under the regime of global coloniality imposed by the United States through the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the Pentagon and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (see for example Lander, this issue). Peripheral zones remain in a colonial situation even though are not any longer under any particular colonial administration.

The mythology of the decolonization of the world obscures the continuities between the colonial past and current global colonial/racial hierarchies and contributes to the invisibility of coloniality today.

The global racial/ethnic hierarchy of Europeans and non-Europeans, is an integral part of the development of the capitalist world system’s international division of labor (Wallerstein, 1983; Quijano, 1993; Mignolo, 1995).

Nationalism provides Eurocentric solutions to a Eurocentric global problem as it reproduces an internal coloniality of power within each nation-state and reifies the nation-state as the privileged location of social change.

Struggles above and below the nation-state are not considered in nationalist political strategies.

On the one hand nationalism is complicit with Eurocentric thinking and political structures. On the other hand, third world fundamentalisms of different kinds respond with the rhetoric of an essentialist pure outside space or absolute exteriority to modernity. They are anti-modern modern forces that reproduce the binary oppositions of Eurocentric thinking.

If Eurocentric thinking claims ‘democracy’ to be a western natural attribute, third world fundamentalisms accept this Eurocentric premise and claim that democracy has nothing to do with the non-west.

Critical border thinking is the epistemic response of the subaltern to the Eurocentric project of modernity. Instead of rejecting modernity to retreat into a fundamentalist absolutism, border epistemologies subsume/redefines the emancipatory rhetoric of modernity from the cosmologies and epistemologies of the subaltern, located in the oppressed and exploited side of the colonial difference, towards a decolonial liberation struggle for a world beyond eurocentered modernity. What border thinking produces is a redefinition/subsumption of citizenship, democracy, human rights, humanity, economic relations beyond the narrow definitions imposed by European modernity. Border thinking is not an anti-modern fundamentalism; it is a decolonial transmodern response of the subaltern to Eurocentric modernity.

We cannot assume a Habermasian consensus or an equal horizontal relationship among cultures and peoples globally divided between the two poles of the colonial difference.

Instead of a single modernity centered in Europe and imposed as a global design to the rest of the world, Dussel argues for a multiplicity of decolonial critical responses to eurocenteric modernity from the subaltern cultures and epistemic location of colonized people around the world. In Mignolo’s interpretation of Dussel, transmodernity would be equivalent to ‘diversality as a universal project’ which is a result of ‘critical border thinking’ as an epistemic intervention from the diverse subalterns (Mignolo 2000).

Diverse forms of democracy, civil rights or women liberation can only come out of the creative responses of local subaltern epistemologies.

The international left never radically problematized the racial/ethnic hierarchies built during the European colonial expansion and still present within the world’s coloniality of power.

Liberal or radical democracy cannot be fully accomplished if the colonial/racist dynamics treat a large portion or, in some cases, the majority of the population, as second-class citizens.

Development projects that focus on policy changes at the level of the nation-state are obsolete in today’s world-economy and they lead to development illusions.

A system of domination and exploitation that operates on a world-scale, such as the capitalist world-system, cannot have a national solution, and inversely, a global problem cannot be solved at the nation-state level — it requires global decolonial solutions.

Thus, the decolonization of the political-economy of the modern/colonial capitalist/patriarchal world-system requires the eradication of the continuous transfer of wealth from south to north, and the institutionalization of the global redistribution and transfer of wealth from north to south. After centuries of ‘accumulation by dispossession’ (Harvey 2003), the north has a concentration of wealth and resources inaccessible to the south.


4 thoughts on “The decolonial option

  1. Pingback: Neo-colonialism and its Discontents | Garden of knowledge/ Il Gnien ta l-Gherf Malta Association

    1. Thanks for sharing!

      Your work was some of the first I read when I started reading about the decolonial option, and remains my favourite! This post was just to highlight some of Grosfoguel’s work, even though decolonial thinking is a much bigger field.

      Thank you for commenting, I’m honoured! 🙂

  2. Ibn-i-Afsos

    I’m a bit phased here by this whole decolonial thing. I haven’t read the canon yet, so I apologise for making mistakes and generalisations.

    While I appreciate the value of Grosfoguel, and others like him, have written I don’t think delinking is realistic. For example, in the Indian subcontinent, donning jeans, t shirts and learning English is part of ascending the social ladder. The more English nouns, idioms and verbs you can squash into a sentance is a symbol of prestige, a sign of personal worth. As a person at the bottom rung of society, or someone from the fringes who was far less affected by the changes brought by the onslaught of modernity, you must deal with it. It’s something you must inavoidably encounter. Delinking, in the here and now, simply isn’t useful for such people. Reading someone like Grosfogoul or Mignolo or hell even Said, isn’t for everyone, and people in the colonial hierarchy are not going burst out and delink as a result.

    Secondly, delink how? If one studies Arabic literature, Persian, or philosophy or jurisprudence in a Madrasah, they will come out regardless of the knowledge they have gained with a ‘qualification’ that is recognised by no one, let alone become employable. They will always be brutally disadvantaged to someone who has studied a similar subject in a University. In today’s world it isn’t really permissible to think outside of the dominant languages, nor are spaces outside the European style school, colleague and university legitimate sites of knowledge production. Nor can ‘natives’ be allowed to produce legitimate knowledge that isn’t limited to taking some element of ‘Western’ thinking and giving it a nationalist veneer. How then is it possible to delink? No matter how critical you can be of this system, you have no choice but to be a part of it. No matter what people say, decoloniality, to me, seems to just be something internal to academic circles.

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