Meaningless gibberish and decoloniality

“Radical universal decolonial

anticapitalist diversality,”
and other adventures in
academic mumbo-jumbo

Been reading various exponents of so-called “decolonial” theory of late — Enrique Dussel, Walter Mignolo, Anibal Quijano, and Ramón Grosfoguel, etc. So-called because its parameters are somewhat unclear. As far as I can tell, it didn’t really crystallize as a distinct discourse until the 1970s or 1980s. Even then, it wasn’t named as such. Only in the late 1990s and early 2000s did this designation emerge, promoted principally by scholars of Latin America. It was then retroactively applied to figures like Aimé Césaire and Frantz Fanon, who are today treated almost as decolonial theorists avant la lettre. Personally, this seems a rather sneaky operation. Césaire and Fanon weren’t academics, to begin with, and understood their own work as part of a project to literally decolonize the remaining colonies of European empires. That is to say, in other words, the removal of all colonial administration and oversight, withdrawal of colonial armies, usually within some sort of national liberation and self-determination framework.

Here a few distinctions might help to clear up the confusion. First of all, the distinction between “decoloniality” and “decolonization.” Decoloniality doesn’t refer to colonialism per se, but to a peculiar postcolonial condition dubbed “coloniality.” Quijano has theorized this in terms of “the coloniality of power”: “Coloniality of power is thus based upon ‘racial’ social classification of the world population under Eurocentered world power. Eurocentric coloniality of power has proved longer lasting than Eurocentric colonialism. Without it, the history of capitalism in Latin America and other related places in the world can hardly be explained…” Nelson Maldonado-Torres also riffs on this theme, only he ontologizes it, invoking Heidegger even as he criticizes the Nazi philosopher’s “forgetfulness” of “the coloniality of being”:

Coloniality is different from colonialism. While colonialism denotes a political and economic relation in which the sovereignty of a people rests on the power of another nation, making such nation an empire, coloniality instead refers to longstanding patterns of power which emerged as a result of colonialism, but that define culture, labor, intersubjective relations, and knowledge production well beyond the strict limits of colonial administrations. Thus does coloniality survive colonialism. It is maintained alive in books, in criteria for academic performance, in cultural patterns, common sense, the self-image of peoples, aspirations of self, and so many other aspects of our modern experience. As modern subjects we breath coloniality all the time and everyday.

Coloniality is not simply the aftermath or the residual form of any given form of colonial relation. Coloniality emerges in a particular sociohistorical setting, that of the discovery and conquest of the Americas. For it was in the context of this massive colonial enterprise — the most widespread and ambitious yet in the history of humankind — that capitalism, i.e., an already existing form of economic relation, became tied to forms of domination and subordination that would be central to maintaining colonial control first in the Americas, and then elsewhere. Coloniality refers, first and foremost, to the two axes of power that became operative and defined the spatiotemporal matrix of what was called at the time America.

This rhetorical sleight of hand solves a number of tricky problems for decolonial theorists. Latin America was already decolonized, by the end of the nineteenth century at the latest. Spain underwent a series of revolutions during that time that made it far too unstable to maintain substantial overseas holdings. Mexico enjoyed several decades of autonomy, losing a bit of territory to the United States before being invaded by Louis Napeolon’s France. But that lasted only six years, between 1861 and 1867. A few Antillean islands changed hands with the Spanish-American War, and Europe along with the US have consistently meddled in the domestic affairs of Central and South American countries since then (e.g., Pinochet’s 1973 coup in Chile, the Falklands War in 1982), but that’s more or less been the situation.

Regardless, I have to admit it has not been easy slogging through this dreck. Not because the concepts are all that difficult, nor even because the terminology is unfamiliar to me. Generally speaking, I think the difficulty is semantic and not syntactic, so once one gets past the clunky neologisms their arguments generally make sense. Everything falls into place. What is more frustrating, rather, is how hackneyed and predictable it is (not to mention intellectually lazy). Despite decolonial theorists’ nagging complaint that Europeans are ill-equipped to interpret non-European phenomena, and commit a kind of hermeneutic “violence” when they import categories from a foreign context or seek to apply them elsewhere, authors such as Grosfoguel have no qualms whatsoever in repeating warmed-over anti-communist platitudes about communism (e.g., Simone Weil’s quip “Marxism is the opium of the intellectuals,” subsequently the title of a book by French sociologist Raymond Aron). For example, Vladimir Lenin’s famous polemic against Karl Kautsky is somehow reducible to a religious dispute between Christianity and Judaism, as Grosfoguel writes:

Lenin’s vanguard party sets out from a messianic Christian understanding of cosmology. When Lenin tells us that “without revolutionary theory, there is no revolutionary movement,” he is using Karl Kautsky as his model. Lenin cites Kautsky to argue that workers are incapable of producing class consciousness or revolutionary theory because they don’t have the capacity to spontaneously produce either their own theory or class consciousness. As a result, these can only arrive to them from without, that is to say, by preaching to them. And who is it that produces this theory and goes forth to preach it? For Lenin, following Kautsky, it is only bourgeois intellectuals, critical of their own class position, who can produce the consciousness and theory that the proletariat needs in order to emancipate itself. Hence the need for a vanguard party.

This is another old debate which must be reconsidered through decolonial lenses. In Lenin via Kautsky, we see the old colonial episteme reproduced, in which theory is produced by white-bourgeois-patriarchal-Western elites and the masses are passive beings, objects rather than subjects of theory. Behind a purportedly atheist secularism, this perspective reproduces Judeo-Christian messianism embodied in a secular, leftist Marxist discourse. The difference between Lenin and Kautsky lies in the type of messianism. Lenin reproduces in a very crude manner Christian messianism, whereas Kautsky reproduces in a very crude manner Judaic messianism. In the latter, since the Messiah never arrived, what is important is the message rather than the messenger. On the other hand, in Christian messianism, since the Messiah is believed to have not only arrived, but also resurrected and still lives, so the messenger is more important than the message. In Jewish messianism, the prophets announce the arrival of the Messiah and the end of earthly empires. In Christian messianism, the Messiah is there and the task is not so much to question what he said, but rather to give oneself over to the Truth (the Holy Message) of the Messiah unquestioningly. From this Leninist Christian messianism, we arrive at Stalin, a Christian seminarian converted to Bolshevism. Stalin is the result of Lenin.

What happens when politics abandons this Judeo-Christian cosmology in favor of other cosmologies? Without denying the possibility of other messianisms, in the Zapatistas the decolonial turn appears in an “Other” form of doing politics which, setting out from various Indigenous cosmologies of Southern Mexico, proposes alternate forms of political practice. The Zapatistas thus set out from “walking while asking questions,” and from there propose a kind of “rearguard movement” which contributes to linking together a broad movement on the basis of the “wretched of the earth” of Mexico as such. “Walking while asking questions” leads to what the Zapatistas call a “rearguard movement,” against the “walking while preaching” of Leninism, which gives rise to the “vanguard party.” The vanguard party sets out from a canned, a priori program which, through being characterized as “scientific,” is self-defined as “true.” From this premise follows a missionary politics of preaching in order to convince and recruit the masses to the truth of the vanguard party program. Very different from this is the post-messianic politics of the Zapatistas, which sets out instead from “asking questions and listening” and in which the “rearguard” movement becomes a vehicle for a critical, transmodern dialogue which is epistemically diversal, and as a result, decolonial.

Zapatismo? …Really, that’s your punchline? Even leaving aside the shoddy analogy and faulty historical claims, Grosfoguel has a lot to answer for. Lars Lih or Mike Macnair, or indeed anyone who knows the first thing about the historiography of international Marxism, would likely have an aneurysm if they tried to read this nonsense. Beyond the poor scholarship, however, there are other aspects of decolonial theory which make it tough to endure and get through. Sorry, but the following lines — excerpted from the last section of an article by Grosfoguel with the quaint title of “towards a ‘radical universal decolonial anticapitalist diversality’ project” — are simply meaningless gibberish:

The need for a common critical language of decolonization requires a form of universality that is not any longer a monologic, monotopic imperial global/ universal design, from the right or the left, imposed by persuasion or force to the rest of the world in the name of progress or civilization. This new form of universality I will call a “radical universal decolonial anti-capitalist diversality” as a project of liberation. As opposed to the abstract universals of Eurocentric epistemologies, that subsume/dilute the particular into the same, a “radical universal decolonial anti-capitalist diversality” is therefore a concrete universal that builds a decolonial universal by respecting multiple local particularities in various struggles against patriarchy, capitalism, coloniality, and eurocentered modernity from a diversity of decolonial epistemic/ethical historical projects. This represents a fusion — between Dussel’s “transmodernity” and Quijano’s “socialization of power.” Dussel’s transmodernity lead us to what Mignolo has characterized as “diversality as a universal project” to decolonize eurocentered modernity, while Quijano’s socialization of power makes a call for a new form of radical anticapitalist universal imaginary that decolonizes Marxist/Socialist perspectives from its Eurocentric limits.

Grosfoguel is decidedly “anti-”:

A common language should be anti-capitalist, anti-patriarchal, anti-imperialist, and against the coloniality of power. It should be toward a world where power is socialized, but open to a diversality of institutional forms of socialization of power depending on the different decolonial epistemic and ethical responses of subaltern groups in the world system. Quijano’s call to socialize power could become another abstract universal that leads to a global design if it is not redefined and reconfigured from a transmodern perspective. The forms of anti-capitalist struggles and socialization of power that emerged in the Islamic world are quite different than the ones that emerged from indigenous peoples in the Americas or Bantu people in West Africa… All share in the decolonial anti-capitalist, anti-patriarchal, and anti-imperialist project but provide diverse institutional forms and conceptions to the socialization of power according to their diverse, multiple epistemologies. To reproduce the Eurocentric socialist global designs of the twentieth century, those that departed from a unilateral eurocentered epistemic center, would just repeat the mistakes that led the left to a global disaster. This is a call for a universal that is also a pluriversal, for a concrete universal that would include all the epistemic particularities towards a “transmodern decolonial socialization of power.”

If this should turn out to be the “common critical language” that’s adopted, I’ll gladly take a vow of silence right now. Jargon such as this is hardly even known in Western European academia — where Martin Heidegger spun new nouns out of gerunds, Jacques Derrida played with signifiers/substitutions, and Gilles Deleuze produced a nearly endless supply of fresh concepts… But Theodor Adorno laid bare the device behind this obfuscatory prose long ago: “Whoever is versed in the jargon does not have to say what he thinks, does not even have to think it properly. The jargon takes over this task and devalues thought. Communication clicks and puts forward as truth what should instead be suspect by virtue of prompt collective agreement.”

Suspicion — sober, thoroughgoing, relentless — is precisely what’s needed in times like this. Quite often one learns the progenitors of a theory are better than their inheritors.

7 thoughts on “Meaningless gibberish and decoloniality

  1. What might be for American readers just a theoretical puzzle here has terrible practical consequences. Mr. George Ciccariello-Maher is small potatoes and a nullity but Enrique Dussel is a mercenary. And Mariategui, poor Mariategui, has been used to justify the worst of our “left”. Not that I like the guy, he has some very questionable texts (specially about blacks) but he was not the idiot they want to make of him. Good article Ross..

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