The Bandung Moment

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Scholars working on decolonisation have all in one way or another touched on the Bandung Conference. Bandung was a pivotal moment in the 20th century that signalled a new way of doing things; a new postcolonial world in which nations of the Global South were staking their claim in the international sphere. Bandung has been widely criticised—and sometimes rightly so—for a variety of reasons, ranging from its lack of concrete goals to some of the uncritical rhetoric that was used around modernisation and development. Like so many other aspects of decolonisation, Bandung seems to have been held up to exceptionally high standards. In many ways, Bandung became symbolic of the process of decolonisation as a whole. Bandung was more than just a conference; it was the ultimate symbol of anti-imperial resistance and its success in dismantling the various European empires. For this reason, Bandung should always be placed within that particular moment. The hopes and dreams of billions of people that things were changing; that they were now able to participate in the global, in politics, in economics. This was an attempt not to fit into politics as it was—politics that was thoroughly colonial—but rather to change politics; to create a new international form of politics.

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Underneath all of this was the hope that this was a new world; a postcolonial international. Bandung and decolonisation were about more than simple self-determination. Sovereignty was at stake, yes, but a new type of sovereignty. Sovereignty did not mean indirect rule; it did not mean controlling resources and people on terms set by the West; and it certainly did not mean being sovereign in an emerging neoliberal world order. The question of a postcolonial international hints at a different understanding of nationhood and sovereignty; one whose ultimate aim was to transform the international; to create a new form of world politics; to create an economic system in which sovereignty meant economic sovereignty above all.

We can see beginnings of this project in different parts of the world. The drive towards industrialisation as a way of delinking from a dependency on Western capital and expertise; the move to create social welfare policies; the massive investment in indigenous culture, arts and education. Focusing specifically on Africa, these trends were clear across the continent. Kwame Nkrumah, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Kenneth Kaunda, and others were not simply mimicking a Western project of modernisation and development. Nor were they simply power-hungry dictators who wanted to enrich themselves. To simplify the politics of these nations to this extent is to reproduce racist assumptions about the capabilities of Africans to partake in politics and to—ultimately—govern themselves.

That said, we also know how the moment of decolonisation ended. The projects that were started were let incomplete; and many nations ended up worse off decades later. The authoritarianism of many of these leaders has also been highlighted—excessively, I believe—and it is often they who have been blamed for the way things turned out. And yet this is to turn a blind eye to two things: the massive hopes that were placed on this historical moment; and the structural limitations these nations faced by the very international sphere they were trying to change. Because of the symbolic importance of decolonisation and all it stood for; because of the incomprehensibility of events like Bandung just twenty years earlier; and because of the continued attempts at neo-imperialism by European, American and Soviet states; because of all of this, this was a historical moment that was heavy with expectations.

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I think many post-independence leaders were aware of the heavy weight of these expectations, and that they did try to fulfil them; I also think this was—from the start—a doomed project. Because while this was a moment of hope and freedom for many, it was also the beginning of a shift in imperial exploitation. Empires as they had existed for centuries were no longer tenable; instead we see a move towards free market capitalism as a means of imperial domination from afar. This was only to get worse with the start of the neoliberal revolution in the 1970s. Aside from this shift in imperial strategy, there was also the ropes that still bound these nations to older forms of imperialism. Take a country like Egypt, whose economy had—for over 100 years—been structured to serve the needs of Britain; where cotton was the main export to the benefit of few Egyptians; where there was a chronic over-reliance on foreign capital in Egyptian business ventures; where the majority of the population were in debt, servitude, or generally repressed. Given these conditions, and given new forms of imperial domination, what were the odds Nasser was up against? What happens when we contextualise his years in power through this lens? What happens when we take into account the formation of the state of Israel, the continued British, French and US imperial attacks, the refusal to allow Egypt to industrialise on its own terms? How have these become footnotes in the story of Nasser, of Nkrumah, of Lumumba?

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Frantz Fanon once asked: don’t African leaders have the right to govern themselves badly? It is this question that was at the heart of Bandung. It was a space in which postcolonial nations were—for the first time—talking about what they wanted the world to look like. It was a space where imperial powers were unwelcome (much to their anger!) and where racism and imperialism were openly condemned. After centuries of European colonialism, this must have been a truly momentous event. I can’t think of any event like that since then. There have been many conferences; many events. We have the BRICS. We have the East Asia Tigers. We have the UN and their many annual conferences. But these are all clouded by the neoliberal moment we are in. indeed it is these conferences that very much reproduce the rhetoric of modernisation and development. Given what existed before and what came after it, Bandung seems like a breath of fresh air.

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This post was inspired by two books on Bandung that recently came out:

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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.