The cycle of fear

Image: Mohamed Abdelsadig
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By BOAVENTURA DE SOUSA SANTOS*

The dynamic continuity of colonial relations is based on the permanence of three main modes of domination: capitalism, colonialism and patriarchy.

One of the most intriguing features of societies that have been subject to European historical colonialism is the permanence, following independence, of colonial-type relationships in old and new forms, both internal and international. Two of these types have long been identified. These are internal colonialism and neocolonialism/imperialism.

The concept of internal colonialism refers to the way in which the elites that succeeded the European colonizers – who in the case of the Americas, New Zealand and Australia were their descendants – appropriated the power and lands that had previously been usurped by the colonizers. They did so in such a way that native/original peoples or those brought in as slaves continued to be subject to the same type of colonial domination, when they were not exterminated, which happened particularly in North America.

The concept of neocolonialism refers to the mainly economic (and sometimes military) dependence of the new countries on the former colonizing power, while the concept of imperialism refers to the same type of relations between the hegemonic countries of the global North (center world system) and the dependent countries of the global South (periphery and semi-periphery of the world system).

I think that the dynamic continuity of colonial relations is based on the permanence, over the last five centuries, of three main modes of domination: capitalism (class inequality), colonialism (ethno-racist inequality) and patriarchy (sexist inequality and reduced gender diversity). to men and women). All these modes of domination were concomitant with epistemicide (disqualification of non-Eurocentric knowledge as residual, backward or even dangerous and blasphemous).

Both colonialism and patriarchy existed long before capitalism and were exercised by peoples other than Europeans, but they were profoundly reconfigured from the moment they were articulated with capitalism. On the other hand, these forms of domination also prevailed and still prevail within the former colonizing countries, although in very different ways. Political independences altered (with different intensities) these three dominations, but did not eliminate them. The way in which dominations were arranged in colonies and former colonies had the following general characteristics:

Epistemological Suppression: The suppression or denial of all knowledge that differs from the religious and scientific knowledge brought by the colonizers, even if such knowledge existed from time immemorial and was what gave meaning to the lives of populations. When not suppressed, this knowledge was transformed into information to be appropriated and validated by science.

Myth of development: The history of peoples prior to the colonial invasion was violently interrupted and the invaded peoples were forced to forget their history and enter the history of the colonizers, world history as a metonym for the history of European expansion. Regarding the latter, the invaded and later independent peoples were considered backward, less developed, and encouraged to mobilize to modernize and develop. Not in the way they wanted and for the purposes they decided, but in the way followed by the colonizing or ex-colonizing countries and for the objectives they adopted. One day they would all be equally developed, a day that never came.

Predominance of abyssal exclusions: The way in which the three dominations were articulated globally meant that in the colonies and former colonies the unequal power generated by colonialism (racism, land theft, division of populations between assimilated and indigenous) and patriarchy (sexism, feminicide , homophobia) was particularly violent and affected more populations. Power was based on the idea that the populations that fell victim to it were composed of naturally inferior beings, to whom, for that reason, it was not conceivable to apply the same law that regulated relations between colonizers and their descendants. This legal duality could be formal or informal, but it would always configure an exclusion without guarantees of effective protection of racialized or sexualized populations.

Confinement to the particular and local: The practices and knowledge of the colonial and ex-colonial populations were always considered local or particular exceptions in relation to the practices and knowledge of the colonizers and their descendants, both considered universal and global, however much they were, in its origin, Eurocentric particularisms and localisms.

The myth of laziness: Finally, colonial and ex-colonial populations were considered lazy, unproductive, averse to hard work, which "justified" slavery and forced labor, models of overexploitation of work that, in other forms, continue to take effect. Throughout the XNUMXth century, the ways of life of these populations acquired a special glamor that was transformed into a commodity by the global tourism industry.

All of this resulted in what is now called a colonial wound, a wound that, in reality, stems from a specific articulation between capitalism, colonialism and patriarchy, characterized by the extent and intensity with which majorities (often designated as minorities) are treated as inferior beings and objects of unpunished violence. In the last one hundred and fifty years, the peoples and populations that were and continue to be subject to the colonialism of Europeans and their descendants have lived a harsh experience of endless oscillations between periods of expectations of liberation and a dignified life and periods of frustration at the return , sometimes aggravated, of the most violent forms of domination and subjection by the elites and their triple class, racial and sexual supremacy. Private appropriation, often violent and illegal, of common goods – be they natural, human, institutional, cultural resources – seems to continue with no end in sight.

 

Struggle without cure?

The colonial wound prevented populations oppressed by the triple domination from considering their past as closed and, on the contrary, conceiving it as a task or mission to be accomplished. This is how the future was constituted as a promise of healing the colonial wound and the violence it constituted. However, given the vicious cycle between expectation and frustration, the near future became distant. Until we reach our paradoxical time, both vertiginous and stagnant, in which the healing of the colonial wound seems destined to be a mirage.

Are there no alternatives? This question makes very little sense for those who have to look for alternatives on a daily basis to continue living with dignity, feed their children or survive violence with impunity. The reason is that the vicious cycle of expectations and frustrations is never vicious for those who fight and while they fight. There is always hope that this time will be different. After all, history never repeats itself. It is hope that creates struggle and, paradoxically, it is also struggle that creates hope.

Hence, domination, however unjust and violent, only becomes intolerable when there is resistance and struggle. Has there been progress? Yes, but there has been no progress. The abolition of slavery was progress, but it has been persistently replaced by “work analogous to slave labor” (a UN proposed designation) which today continues to increase.

That is, many of the transitions that were imagined as a passage to a fairer, qualitatively better society were, in fact, almost always moments of a cycle, moments of hope, progress and justice, which were soon followed by the conservative reaction and even violent by the new and old ruling classes and their elites, jealous of their privileges, with the consequent series of setbacks, be they the return of hunger, authoritarianism, war, chaotic violence against oppressed populations. Does everything go back to the beginning or is this idea just a construction of pessimistic intellectuals?

If we take Brazil as an example, we see that the country is currently going through a conservative political cycle of frustration and social regression for the popular classes, which is the response of the ruling classes and elites to the progressive and hopeful cycle that was inaugurated with the first government of Lula da Silva. Advances in income distribution, the democratization of education, labor rights, and social policies in general began to be challenged from 2016 onwards and to be actively neutralized from 2018 onwards.

This phase of the cycle today has its most radical expression in Bolsonarism and is far from being exhausted, whichever winner of the October 30 elections is. The measures of the progressive period that most bothered the conservative elites (and the middle classes that identify themselves in them) had to do with policies in which capitalism, colonialism and patriarchy were most visibly articulated, as with regard to the labor rights of women domestic servants (mostly black and poor women), the quota system (affirmative actions) in accessing universities, which mainly benefited the children of poor Afro-descendant families, or even the laws that altered the regime of sexualities and the impact they had on traditional conceptions of family (same-sex marriage). Somehow, this cycle change had another version in the past when the progressive phase of the governments of Juscelino Kubitschek and João Goulart (which included agrarian reform) had a conservative response in the 1964 coup and the military dictatorship that would last twenty years.

It has been like this until now. Will it continue to be in the future? For those who suffer setbacks and violence firsthand, the fight starts again and so the parents of despair give birth to children of hope. It turns out that in recent decades there has been a significant change in the way in which the cycles of hope and fear, of expectation and frustration, are experienced by oppressed populations.

This change was due to two new historical conditions. On the one hand, liberal democracy, which until the 1980s was conceived as a regime that required certain preconditions for its implementation and consolidation (agrarian reform, existence of middle classes, level of urbanization), has since to be conceived as not requiring any preconditions and, on the contrary, as being the precondition of legitimacy for any political system.

Democracy, once emptied of its social objectives, allows for a temporally delimited oscillation between expectation and frustration. The choice between parties, however apparent its impact on people's real lives, always takes on the great drama of election nights, which gives it a renewed reality.

On the other hand, the revolution in information and communication technologies created conditions for an unprecedented ideological control of subjectivities, which right-wing and extreme right-wing forces, almost always associated with fundamentalist evangelical religions (especially Pentecostals), were able to exploit a lot. more intensely than the progressive forces. Fear and hope, frustration and expectation have become psychic commodities incessantly produced by the profane and religious industries of subjectivity. The attempt to destroy memory aims to transform fear and hope into positions in video games.

 

The fight for the cure

This table shows the scale of the tasks needed to reverse the conservative movement of cycles and, above all, to convert cycles into spirals in which free, fair and dignified life practices are consolidated for increasingly large population groups.

As abstract as it may seem, at the center of the tasks is the fight for epistemic justice so that the populations most harassed by capitalist, racist and sexist domination can represent the world as their own and thus fight for the transformations that best defend them from businessmen from the manipulation of the fear and hope.

*Boaventura de Sousa Santos is full professor at the Faculty of Economics at the University of Coimbra. Author, among other books, of The end of the cognitive empire (authentic).

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