In this article, I offer a critical historical analysis of modernity, identifying tensions between logics of modernity that rely on premises of colonial and capitalist modernity as a universalizing project, and those that instead propose an alternative decolonial project. As part of the latter, I outline the contours of an emergent and distinct political project premised on deep relational ontologies between humans, and humans and nature. I develop the analysis in three interrelated parts. I begin by critically reconstructing the justifications for the universal project of colonial and capitalist modernity and the “method of rule” through which it has been realized. In part two, drawing on case examples primarily from Latin America, I identify and discuss the opening toward an alternative political project of negotiating between worlds with the potential to challenge fundamentally the logics of universal modernity. In part three, I conclude with some critical insights into the colonial logics of modernity, emphasizing that they have always been contested. I argue that, given the inequalities and crises of modernity, there is an urgent need to reflect critically on the concrete possibilities afforded through an alternative political project, at the core of which are struggles for social justice without nature–culture distinctions. Ultimately, this project fractures the international and, instead, aspires toward the pluriverse.
In a beautiful essay entitled “Our Sea of Islands,” Hau‘ofa (1994, 152) stated that “there is a world of difference between viewing the Pacific as ‘islands in a far sea’ and as a ‘sea of islands.’” The first perspective denotes “dry surfaces in a vast ocean” that are “far from the centers of power.” The second “is a more holistic perspective in which things are seen in the totality of their relationships” (Hau‘ofa 1994, 153). The first perspective, explains Hau‘ofa, was introduced by Europeans, and, later on, continental men—Europeans and Americans—drew imaginary lines across the sea, making the colonial boundaries that confined ocean peoples to tiny spaces for the first time. These boundaries today define the island states and territories of the Pacific. I have just used the term “ocean peoples” because our ancestors, who lived in the Pacific for over two thousand years, viewed their world as a “sea of islands,” rather than as “islands in the sea” (Hau‘ofa 1994, 153).
In identifying core contradictions integral to ordering social and political life through the modern international system, Hau‘ofa explicates much more than the fracturing effects of territorial demarcations; he also identifies how colonial logics of the universal devalue (and undermine) ways of being and their connections, including what he refers to as the “ancient practice of reciprocity” (Hau‘ofa 1994, 157). And yet, as Hau‘ofa (1994, 154–55) notes:
Hau‘ofa’s rendition of these alternative social and political life-worlds—at odds with the ordering principles of colonial and capitalist modernity—provides us with an access point that captures the core of what I identify as an integral part of modernity. As an ordering principle, the project of capitalist and colonial modernity arrogates for itself “the right to be ‘the’ world, subjecting all other worlds to its own terms or, worse, to non-existence” (Escobar 2015, 3). Yet, as Robbie Shilliam (2015, 7) argues, in spite of the colonial project, alternative ways of “knowing” and “being” have persisted as the “living knowledge traditions of colonized peoples” who have “retained a tenacious thread of vitality that provides for the possibility of a retrieval of thought and action that addresses global injustices in ways otherwise to the colonial science of the gaze.”
The highest chiefs of Fiji, Samoa and Tonga, for example, still maintain kin connections that were forged centuries before Europeans entered the Pacific, to the days when boundaries were not imaginary lines in the ocean, but rather points of entry that were constantly negotiated and even contested.
In this article, I offer a critical analysis of the colonial logics of capitalist modernity by examining its universal logic that eliminates entire life-worlds, declaring them non-credible alternatives. The article examines as well the interruption of this logic and the increasing visibility of the life-worlds denied by modernity. It argues that this visibility inaugurates a pluriversal politics that claims a more just co-existence of worlds that exceeds what is possible under a colonial and capitalist logic. In what follows, I seek to explicate the contours of this politics both conceptually and with reference to some case examples. Contesting the colonial and capitalist logics of the universal challenges the modern foundation of the international as a plurality of equivalent and unrelated units, or “dry surfaces in a vast ocean.” This paper shares with international political sociology the call to analyze boundaries and limits, making visible the arbitrariness of separations and differentiations (Bigo and walker 2007). The paper suggests a “decolonial impulse” away from a sequential and linear process of ostensibly discrete units, and toward living otherwise-relationally. Following Verran (2012, 144), “cultivating a postcolonial impulse” involves learning to recognize difference, learning to refuse the step that requires reducing this difference to a shared category, and accepting that we are not metaphysically committed to a common world.
Colonial and Capitalist Modernity as a Universal Project
In this section, I reconstruct critical arguments about the colonial logics of modernity/coloniality in its pursuit of a universal project, underpinned by three divides: the first establishes a division between nature and culture; the second divides moderns from non-moderns;2 and the third establishes progress along a linear conception of time (Latour 1993; Escobar 2008; de la Cadena 2010, 2015; Blaser 2013). These divisions, based on epistemic and ontological premises, have significant consequences that include a hierarchical ordering of human and non-human beings, and their exclusion from politics.
Thomas Hobbes was a central figure in creating the modern imaginary. Hobbes’s concept of the “state of nature” places the savage people of America3 in proximity to nature, declaring their life-worlds as the negation of modernity:
The “state of nature” endorses the ontological distinction between nature and culture by locating certain humans closer to nature and depriving their life of value. On the contrary, moderns are provided with the legitimate right to improvement and the right to destroy those that do not exercise this right, which is seen as equivalent to their failure as humans. In the words of Anthony Pagden on John Locke’s understanding of this failure:
In such condition [the state of nature] there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no Culture of the Earth … no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of time; no Arts; no Letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short. (Hobbes 1968, 186)
The division of culture and nature accompanying the project of colonial and capitalist modernity is a universal project, as it claims that the laws and forms of government of one (European) culture apply to people as distant as the natives of America (Pagden 2003, 177–78). Explicating the universal logic of colonial and capitalist modernity, Antony Anghie (1996) argues that Francisco de Vitoria (1486–1546), who was concerned with “relations between the Spanish and the Indians,” wanted to create “a system of law which could be used to account for relations between societies which he understood to belong to two very different cultural orders, each with its own ideas of propriety and governance” (Anghie 1996, 321–22). Vitoria recognized that the Indians were “governed by their own political system” and “possessed reason” (Anghie 1996, 325).4 But even in such contexts, it was held that indigenous peoples could only reach their potential by adopting Spanish practices, which were understood as the standard of civilization and therefore universal; through these colonial logics, the Spanish sought to justify “a powerful right to intervention” (Anghie 1996, 327). The concept of jus gentium assumes that all humans possess rights based on their humanity and, at the same time, claims that the Spanish must intervene to prevent the violation of their rights by the indigenous peoples of America. As Pagden (2003, 177) argues, this kind of cosmopolitanism implies the universalization of European rights. For example, the notion of a common human identity gave origin to the “right to hospitality,” which granted Europeans the right to visit and travel in the Americas, which under the jus gentium is a natural right; thus, indigenous Indians were obligated to love the Spaniards, and when they prevented the exercise of this right, the Spaniards had the right to seize indigenous property and goods in compensation (Pagden 2003, 185) As Anghie demonstrates, “‘jus gentium’ naturalizes and legitimates a system of commerce and Spanish penetration,” and with that, “particular cultural practices of the Spanish assume the guise of universality as a result of appearing to derive from the sphere of natural law” (Anghie 1996, 326). Any attempts to deviate from or resist their rights were declared by Vitoria to be acts of war (Anghie 1996, 326–29). Anghie (1996, 332) concludes that Vitoria’s work enacted a “series of maneuvers by which European practices are posited as universally applicable norms with which the colonial peoples must conform if they are to avoid sanctions and achieve full membership.”
Since the right to unclaimed land was a natural right, any attempt to prevent it from being exercised, by vicious aboriginals, constituted a violation of the natural law. As such they could, in Locke’s celebrated denunciation, “be destroyed as a Lion or a Tiger, one of those wild Savage beasts, with whom Men can have no Society nor Security.” … Furthermore, it could also be argued that even if the aboriginals offered no opposition to the seizure of their lands, by failing to exercise their natural rights to improvement, they have also failed as people … Simply, the arguments came down to the claim that those who do not have cultures which perform as we assume cultures should perform can be dispossessed by those who do. (Pagden 2003, 183)
Central to colonial logic is the superiority granted to modern reason over pre-modern Western knowledge, as well as knowledges of the non-Western (Seth 2013, 139). This privilege is founded on the divide between culture and nature, which separates the subject that knows from the object to be known. In this division, nature is the object to be known, and truth depends on the accurate representation of a reality that is external to the subject that knows. The existence of a nature that is “out there” makes possible the consideration of representational knowledge as universal, since observers belonging to different cultures share a universal nature that guarantees the equivalence between different representations of reality (Blaser 2010, 150). This representational knowledge undermines relational knowledges that do not abide by the nature–culture divide; what is nature can be society, as happens when nature, or earth-beings, are brought into politics (de la Cadena 2015, 99). The interaction with non-representational practices is considered equivalent to absence of reason, and especially of political reason (de la Cadena 2010, 344). Because of their closeness to nature, indigenous peoples are objects of study, and not subjects of knowledge. As Maori anthropologist Linda Tuhiwai Smith (1999, 25) states, “we could not use our minds or intellects. We could not invent things … we did not know how to use the land and other resources from the natural world … By lacking such virtues we disqualified ourselves, not just from civilization but from humanity itself.” The “epistemological hegemony” that Europe abrogates for itself eliminates other ways of producing knowledge and makes possible the management of non-Western populations and their territory (Said 1979; Castro-Gómez 2007, 433; Escobar 2015).
The universality of modern reason also founded historicism by telling a story of how, in the past, things were wrong, and in modernity, they are right; this point is summarized by Seth (2013, 142) as the “once was blind, but now can see” narrative. Chakrabarty illustrates this point using Locke’s fable of the fraternal contract, where political freedom is reached when the brothers are free from the rule of the past, or “command” of the father. Locke’s individual began life from “a zero point in history,” as historical possibilities are created “by reason alone” (Chakrabarty 2000, 245–46). Chakrabarty, like Seth, associates the neglect of the past with historicism as it regards rationality, the “spirit of science,” as the “progressive” part of modernity and as the weapon against “pre-modern” beliefs and superstition, which are relics of another time that connote backwardness (Chakrabarty 2000, 238–39). Moreover, those in the past are declared in need of a period of preparation before entering into politics, confining them to “an imaginary waiting room of history” (Chakrabarty 2000, 8–9).
Contesting the Colonial Episteme: Continued Political Struggles for Decolonization
I have critically reconstructed the links between the colonial project—including its historicist, dualistic, and anthropocentric logics—and the declaration of non-modern worlds as unacceptable alternatives to modernity. In this section, I invert the analysis to foreground thoughts and practices that fracture the modern episteme and ontology. Here, I also consider the possibilities and limiting conditions that these struggles face by drawing on examples from the Latin American context.
Challenging the universal project of colonial and capitalist modernity has been a long-term aspiration of intellectuals and activists, and an ongoing motivation for the everyday struggles of many indigenous and Afro-descendent peoples in the world.5 In the Latin American and Caribbean regions, dependency theory offered early criticisms of the main premises of twentieth-century capitalist modernity, including the concepts of an international empty space divided into separate units, and a linear progression of history that moves from tradition to modernity. These concepts have confined non-Western countries to a “waiting room of history.”
Dependency theory emerged, on the one hand, in the context of the Cold War, the spread of national liberation movements, and the penetration of American corporations and military interventions. On the other hand, the Cuban revolution provided a counter to such a climate, and increased the hope for an independent government facing the United States (Slater 2004, 128). Scholars focused on making visible relations between a powerful North and a dependent South. The concept of structural dependency developed by Cardoso and Faletto (1971 , xvi) is one example of the identification of the relations between “external and internal forces as forming a complex whole whose structural links are not based on mere external forms of exploitation and coercion.” The critique of the dualist divide between modernity/tradition was replaced by depicting Latin America as socially heterogeneous, given the coexistence of social relations (González Casanova 1965) between mestizo and indigenous communities (Stavenhagen 1974) or modes of production (Frank 1978).
Without doubt, dependency theory provides an opening for considering diversity and connections that shed light on the relations of domination between nations in the center and periphery. Despite this, dependency theory’s emphasis on economic issues and class relations overlooked colonial structures of domination; colonialism, if considered, was reduced to a legacy from the past6 or interpreted within the narrow limits of the articulation of modes of production.7 Moreover, dependency analysis did not question whether modernity would be—or even could be—the solution to the problems that modernity and capitalism created. Marxism was questioned for its limited ability to understand the life-worlds of indigenous and Afro-descendent communities and subsistence economies. This criticism extends further to the under-theorization of the conditions of production of things that are not produced as commodities, including nature, human life and communal conditions of production, and relations of care and reproduction (Escobar 2008, 93). Federici points out how Marx’s concept of primitive accumulation ignores the transformation that capitalism introduced in the reproduction of labor power and the social position of women; in her view, forcing women to do reproductive work was part of the process of capitalist accumulation (Federici 2004, 12). The same could be said for the imposition of slavery and forced labor on indigenous populations in the Americas (Federici 2004, 64), and the war fought against women accused of witchcraft, aimed particularly at eliminating their animist conception of nature that did not separate matter and spirit, and their vision of a cosmos “where every element was in ‘sympathetic’ relation with the rest” (Federici 2004, 141–42).
The failure to address the coloniality of modernity had detrimental political consequences, as demonstrated by one of the most important revolutions in the twentieth century, Bolivia’s Marxist-inspired revolution of 1952. The agrarian reform and the universalization of citizenship transformed indigenous peoples into campesinos (peasant farmers), and Ayllus (indigenous life worlds) into state-sponsored peasant unions. As Aymara intellectual Rivera Cusicanqui contends, Marxist intellectuals were as skeptical as liberals of the capacity of indigenous peoples to lead a process of transformation. Ayllus were perceived as “archaic,” forms of organization to be “swept away on the road to ‘progress’” (Rivera Cusicanqui 1987, 93); they were transformed into trade unions and assigned a colonial-civilizing mission geared toward a transition to citizenship conceived according to Western principles (Rivera Cusicanqui 1987, 19). In response, indigenous leaders issued the Tiwanaku manifesto, expressing that, after twenty years of reform, they still felt like “foreigners in our own country” (quoted in Rivera Cusicanqui 1987, 118).
This section distinguishes, for analytical purposes, two different moments in the decolonial contestation of modernity: the “epistemic” and the “ontological.” The first targets the epistemic logic of modernity–coloniality by making visible the mechanisms through which modern rationality manages the world and legitimizes the universality of modern knowledge. Scholars forming part of the modernity/coloniality/decoloniality (MCD)8 research program commit to “an other way of thinking” that counters the main narratives of modernity (Christianity, liberalism, and Marxism) (Escobar 2007, 180). The “ontological” moment, on the other hand, aims to interrupt the modern commitment to the existence of one world. In Latin America, this interruption, unlike the epistemic moment that is carried out in academic circles, is voiced, among others, by indigenous men and women, including the Zapatistas, who call for “a world where many worlds fit”; the indigenous and Afro-descendants, who claim territory as a space for life; and the World Social Forum, which claims that “another world is possible.” What is new here is the visibility of realities proscribed by modernity that provoke a rupture in the nature and culture divide, calling for an otherwise-conversation between worlds. Scholars working with a political ontology paradigm engage in such conversation by focusing on the conflicts and negotiation between worlds.
Fracturing the Modern Episteme
Scholars committed to epistemic decolonization continue the world perspective proposed by dependency and world-systems analysis. They deviate from this perspective, however, in that they concentrate on the consequences of a world that has Europe as its geo-cultural center, and knowledge as the main mechanism through which two-thirds of the world population are dominated. An early critique of the colonial logic of the world system, formulated by the Argentinian philosopher Dussel, focuses on “totalization” as a category to apprehend the world (1999, 148–49). Dussel points to the “inadequacy” of Marxism for Latin America; while it contributes to the analysis of the function of the capitalist system, Marxism is less adequate when it comes to thinking about the “exteriority” of this system. For Dussel (2002, 240), decolonial theorizing comes from this “exteriority,” which he defines as “the place of the reality of the other.” This place is occupied by the proletariat, the unemployed, the marginal, the pauper, and the “living labour not yet subsumed by capital” (Dussel 2002, 240–41). Consequently, critical thought originates in the negativity (negatividad) of the victim (the worker, Indian, African slave) (Dussel 1998, 309).
A similar criticism of “totalization” is charged against “eurocentrism,” which, in Dussel’s view, gives origin to the myth of modernity. According to this myth, Europe’s modernity originates internally, from their own history. Based on this myth, they claim to be the “reflexive conscience” of world history. The myth of modernity explains the disdain that thinkers like Hegel felt for non-Europeans, a sentiment motivated by the thought that Europe has its own origin and, consequently, has nothing to learn from other cultures. Dussel concludes that the “totalization” of Western thought halts the possibility of an exchange of knowledges. Moreover, this myth hides the other side of history: Europe’s centrality was built upon a colonial project premised upon conquest of the Americas (and, of course, Africa and parts of Asia). Accordingly, there is no modernity without coloniality.
Dussel further argues that the myth of the internal origin of modernity as a project of emancipation covers (encubre) the violence that is integral to European expansion (Dussel 1993, 66). For Dussel, modernity initiates with the Conquest of America, and the “I conquer” precedes the ego cogito and the emergence of the bourgeoisie. The “I conquer” naturalizes “a non-ethics of war,” which in turn naturalizes enslavement, the use of rape as a treatment of sexuality and femininity, and provides freedom for the exploitation of nature (Maldonado-Torres 2008, 216; Lugones 2010). The enlightenment, as an emancipatory project, “authorized violence in the name of civilization” (Rojas 2002, xiii). Pratt (1992, 39) demonstrates how the planetary consciousness that looked at the world through science did not aim to discover new trade routes, but rather was meant to conduct territorial surveillance, and facilitate the appropriation of resources and the expansion of administrative control. According to her, the “innocence of the naturalist” shows the desire to escape the “guilt of conquest” (Pratt 1992, 57). In the contemporary context, Eurocentrism is connected with the “fallacy of developmentalism,” which asserts that the path of Europe’s development “must be followed unilaterally by every other culture” (Dussel 1993, 68).
Dussel argues that the cultures located in the “exteriority” of modernity survive to the present and give birth to a “trans-modernity” that does not emerge within modernity, but includes cultures from places “other” than North American or European modernity; that is, they emerge from modernity’s exteriority, or what “modernity excluded, denied, ignored” (Dussel 2002, 234). For Dussel, these cultures are not recent but are returning “to their status as actors in the history of the world system” (Dussel 2002, 224). He compares trans-modernity to the variety and richness of tropical jungles; these cultures would have immense capacity for invention that would be “needed if humanity is to redefine its relationship with nature based on ecology and human solidarity” (Dussel 2001, 235). The task is philosophical and political, and importantly, must entail a constructive dialogue between the philosophies of formerly colonized peoples as well as European and North American modernity:
Peruvian sociologist Quijano (2000, 533–34) also follows a world-systems perspective in his concept of the “coloniality of power” to convey the idea of a system of global power that is sustained on and through racial classification, and whereby race codifies the differences between conquerors and conquered, and structures the system of labor, subjectivities, and knowledge. This global model of power covers the entire global population:
It is in this way that Arab philosophy, for example, could incorporate the hermeneutics of European philosophy, develop and apply them in order to discover new interpretations of the Korán that would make possible a new, much-needed Arab political philosophy, or Arab feminism. It will be the fruit of the Arab philosophical tradition, updated through inter-philosophical dialogue (not only with Europe, but equally with Latin America, India, China, etc.), oriented towards a pluriversal future global philosophy. This project is necessarily transmodern, and thus also transcapitalist. (Dussel 2009, 514, italics original to the text)
For Quijano (2007, 169), coloniality is felt in the system of knowledges and in the “colonization of the imagination” of the dominated, as cultural Europeanization was transformed into an aspiration for the colonized, who wanted to reach the same benefits and hold the same power as the Europeans by conquering nature and reaching “development.” Quijano identifies how mechanisms of coloniality change historically, as evidenced in the use of systematic repression and the expropriation of knowledge in the case of mining and agriculture. This was followed by the imposition of the colonizer’s beliefs and images, and their own patterns of producing knowledge and meaning. European culture was made seductive and thus aspirational for the colonized; subsequently, for Quijano (2000, 170), coloniality continues existing after colonialism as a political order is destroyed.
In the control of labour and its resources and products, it is the capitalist enterprise; in the control of sex and its resources and products, the bourgeois family; in the control of authority and its resources and products, the nation-state; in the control of intersubjectivity, Eurocentrism. (Quijano 2000, 545)
Mignolo (2000, 21–22) introduces the concept of global designs to complement the universalization that is central to the making of the modern/colonial world. These global designs emerge from local histories and are hegemonic projects to manage the planet. The three main global designs are the Christian mission in the early colonization, the civilizing mission in the nineteenth century, and development and modernization after World War II. Mignolo proposes to build narratives from the perspective of coloniality that search for a different logic. Santos (2006, 15) further claims that “what does not exist is in fact actively produced as non-existent, that is, as a non-credible alternative to what exists.” His proposal is to move from a monoculture of knowledge to an ecology of knowledges; this is a movement for social justice, as it grants “equality of opportunities” to other knowledges, creating broader epistemological disputes and maximizing their contributions to building “another possible world” (Santos 2006, 21). In this direction, Icaza and Vázquez (2013, 684–85) rightly argue that struggles for social justice not only fight against economic or political oppression, but against the knowledges that legitimize oppression.
Mignolo, Quijano, Dussel, and Arturo Escobar9 united to formulate a modernity/coloniality/decoloniality (MCD) research program aimed at producing “worlds and knowledges otherwise,” thereby changing “the terms and not just the content of the conversation” (Escobar 2007, 181, my italics). This group specifically worked toward such ends by bringing critical theory to “the negated side of the epistemic colonial difference” (Mignolo 2007, 487). In this regard, scholars like Mignolo distance themselves from the postmodernist internal critique of modernity, and call for an engagement with intellectuals from the south like Waman Puma de Ayala, Amilcar Cabral, Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon, Rigoberta Menchú, or Gloria Anzaldúa (Mignolo 2007, 452). Equally important is their call to “take seriously the epistemic force of local histories,” histories that include experiences of decolonization, like the Tupac Amaru rebellion, the Haitian revolution, and the 1960 anti-colonial movements (Escobar 2007, 184–85).
Notwithstanding its progress in bringing to the fore the importance of decolonizing knowledges and making visible alternative ways of knowing and thinking, the MCD program reached an impasse, which was, in fact, acknowledged in Escobar’s account of the research program as remaining a “disembodied abstract discourse,” thereby affecting its treatment of gender, nature, and the environment, and stifling the production of new economic imaginaries (Escobar 2007, 192). This impasse, I suggest, is a direct consequence of this line of inquiry’s neglect of the nature and culture divide. Specifically, this research program neither questions nor challenges substantially this binary. In fact, they remain on the side of culture and, in so doing, the program cannot effectively explain the relation between modernity and its “exterior,” as proposed by Dussel. Escobar (2007, 186) rightly claims that this exteriority is not a “pure outside, untouched by the modern.” Yet, at the same time, he contends that exteriority “does not entail an ontological outside,” but is “constituted as difference by a hegemonic discourse” (Escobar 2007, 186). Again, one sees that here, (human) knowledge trumps ontology. This difficulty is compounded by the challenge of explaining the existence and agency of alternative worlds in terms of the “self” and “other,” or “inside” and “outside,” both of which are modern dichotomous distinctions that rely on the nature and culture divide. These scholars thus still assume that the distinction is representational, where a “self” generally provides the reference of what is different and what can be recognized as its “other.” Second, I consider the call to limit the engagement between Western and non-Western scholars to be problematic. For example, Mignolo’s initiative (2011) to bring the indigenous concepts of sumak kawsay and suma kamaña10 to “non-indigenous readers” takes for granted the difficulty of translating between worlds. Particularly, the call for translating by identifying commonalities and differences assumes that concepts are cultural and partially equivalent. Thus, my criticism here is not a call for the abandonment of translation; rather, my aim here is to move toward a different kind of translation, to engage in translation as “an activity of openness to the other (a displacement from one’s location), [as] in such a transaction identity and alterity are inevitably intertwined, making the act of translating a process of continuous dislocation” (Costa 2013, 79).
An additional problem is that without engaging in ontological conversation, and therefore limiting the exchange to “ideas,” we create what Rivera Cusicanqui (2010, 65) denominates a “political economy of knowledge” akin to the global trade of commodities, whereby “ideas that are exported as raw material return regurgitated in a grandiose mix as a final product.” In her view, this results in a recolonization of knowledge, where indigenous peoples living in the South are clients of their counterparts in the North. In the following and last section, I point to new ways forward by explaining how an “ontological turn” addresses the shortcomings of the MCD research program.
The Ontological Turn11 and Its Political Implications for the Pluriverse
The ontological turn questions the existence of modernity as the only alternative possible. Modernity is one way of enacting reality. Alongside modernity, there are other ways of enacting multiple realities, a pluriverse. For Blaser (2009, 877), “ontologies perform themselves into worlds.” This means that “what exists” is always the effect of practices or performances. Latour summarizes how modernity is enacted in two great divides:
Indigenity is one of the realities constituted in this divide—not as the “other” of the modern “self” but as its “radical difference,” which according to de la Cadena (2015, 63), is a “relation,” not a “belief”; it is “a condition that ma[kes] us aware of our mutual misunderstandings but d[oes] not fully inform us about ‘the stuff’ that compose[s] those misunderstandings.” For example, she discusses a conversation that took place between her—a Peruvian anthropologist born in Cuzco (Peru) and a professor of anthropology at the University of California—and Quechua Nazario Turpo. The conversation happened when they attended a protest against a mining operation that would destroy a mountain near Nazario’s home (de la Cadena 2010, 339). Nazario expresses that Ausagante, known as “the mountain” to de la Cadena, does not want the mine: “Ausagante would get mad, could even kill people.” In this conversation, the mountain, Ausagante, enters into the political stage as an “earth-being,” and disavows the separation between “nature” and “humanity” that lies at the foundation of modernity and political theory (de la Cadena 2010, 342). In this case, modern concepts are not sufficient to bridge the misunderstanding. Nazario’s story exceeds what is possible to think about within modernity. Mariano’s use of the phrase “not only” challenges the limits of modernity and reveals that a modernity “that sees itself as ‘everything’ is insufficient” (de la Cadena 2015, 15). This situation is similar to what Troulliot (1995) narrates about Haiti’s revolution led by slaves. This revolution was perceived by French intellectuals as a non-event because it was beyond the limit of the “thinkable.” The concept of the limit is taken from Ranajit Guha, who defines “limit” as “the first thing outside which there is nothing to be found and the first thing inside which everything is to be found” (quoted in de la Cadena 2010, 14). De la Cadena concludes that “radical difference” is not something that people have because of the color of their skin or their gender but, rather, it is the relational condition that arises because of the equivocal condition of what is being enacted (de la Cadena 2015, 275).
[T]he Internal Great Divide [between Nature and Culture] accounts for the External Great Divide [between Us and Them]: we [moderns] are the only ones who differentiate absolutely between Nature and Culture, between Science and Society, whereas in our eyes all the others—whether they are Chinese or Amerindians, Azande or Barouya—cannot really separate what is knowledge from what is society, what is sign from what is thing, what comes from Nature as it is from what their cultures require. (Latour 1993, 99)
Through stories like these, de la Cadena conveys the message that the concepts used to translate other concepts matter and have consequences. That Ausagante “gets mad” is not a cultural belief; it is a “presence enacted through everyday practices through which runakuna12 and earth-beings are together” (de la Cadena 2010, 339). The condition of “earth-being being mad” as not a belief is an “equivocation” which, according to Brazilian anthropologist Claudio Viveros de Castro (2004, 8), is a type of communicative disjuncture that occurs when two interlocutors using the same word are not talking about the same thing and do not know or realize this. Equivocations should be taken seriously, as they “avoid transforming what is dissimilar into [what is] the same” (de la Cadena 2015, 27).
An ontological turn also reveals that the encounter between worlds is not between units constituted in discourse as “self” and “other,” but instead, they are that which takes place through “partial connections,” a concept used by Strathern (2004) that understands entities not as independent, but instead, with relations integrally implied, thus disrupting them as singular units (de la Cadena 2015, 32–33). As explained by de la Cadena (2015, 100), practices of runakuna (Quechuas) and tirakuna (earth-beings) are connected to modernity without being contained by the epistemic requirements of representation. This view coincides with Hau‘ofa’s claim that in a relational perspective, beings are seen in their relationships.
An ontological turn differs from the MCD program in its conceptualization of agents of transformation and politics. As long as worlds are not “outside” modernity, but rather enacted in relation with modernity, agency comes from the excess or the “not only” that is beyond the limit of a modernity that sees itself as “everything” (de la Cadena 2015, 14). This is what happened in the territorial claims for territory in Bolivia, when in 1990 the people marched, demanding, “We don’t want land, we want territory.” Struggles for territory like this interrupted the meaning of territory as commodified land; territory became instead a “place for the social production of life”. This understanding of land in relational terms is prevalent among indigenous communities like the Dene Nation in Canada as well, as it encompasses people and animals, rocks and trees, and lakes and rivers (Coulthard 2014, 61). A similar understanding is described by Escobar for the Afro-Colombian communities living along the Yurumanguí River in the Pacific, where “the mangrove forest is intimately known by the inhabitants who traverse with great ease the fractal estuaries it creates with the rivers and the always moving sea” (Escobar 2015, 5). Escobar refers to “this dense network of interrelations” as a “relational ontology,” which he defines “as one in which nothing pre-exists the relations that constitute it. Said otherwise, things and beings are their relations, they do not exist prior to them” (Escobar 2015, 5, italics original to the text).
The onto-epistemic perspective also engages with colonial knowledge; however, this engagement is not about “delinking”13 from Western knowledge. Instead, it sees such an engagement as an opportunity to challenge the limits of what modernity can conceive of as within its limits. De la Cadena borrows from Stengers (2005) the invitation to “slow down reasoning” (de la Cadena 2015, 280) by creating a different awareness of problems. A similar invitation was formulated in the Zapatistas’ call to “walk at the pace of the slowest to give secure steps, that take us further, firmly, so that each step would be a safe step” (quoted in Ceceña 2010, 87).14
Last, but certainly not least, de la Cadena’s relational onto-epistemic approach opens the world to ontological disagreements and, importantly, calls for a politics contaminated by excesses that Europe could not recognize as fittingly political (de la Cadena 2015, 282).
Conclusion: Disrupting International Politics
This paper calls attention to the coloniality of modern international politics. The paper makes a call to replace the modern narrative of “once was blind but now can see” with the proposal that the modern world “sits alongside other ones” (Seth 2013, 150). Santos’s (2006, 21) “ecology of knowledges” is a way to challenge the violence of universal knowledges. Escobar’s “thinking otherwise” means enabling thought “to re-engage with life and attentively walk along the amazing diversity of forms of knowledge held by those whose experiences can no longer be rendered legible by Eurocentric knowledge in the academic mode, if they ever were” (Escobar 2015, 1).
Disrupting the familiar demands a process of “unlearning” that, according to Chakrabarty, is an invitation “to learn to think the present—the ‘now’ that we inhabit so to speak—as irreducible not-one … At the core of this exercise is a concern about how one might think about the past and the future in a nontotalizing manner” (Chakrabarty 2000, 994).
De la Cadena’s proposal is about “radical difference” as a condition for disrupting the familiar and “slowing down reasoning” (de la Cadena 2015, 275–77). Radical difference is not a condition attached to bodies marked by gender, race, or ethnicity; it is a relation that brings disagreements into the conversation and forces the mechanism that proscribe from politics earth-beings and relational ontology to become visible (de la Cadena 2010, 346; 2015, 275). This politics does not require sameness, but is “underpinned by difference” (de la Cadena 2015, 286). In this view, practices of runakuna, like the ones that Nazario describes, present an excess that challenges modern politics by including other-than-human beings. They provoke ruptures within the world of modern institutions and reveal divergences between worlds (de la Cadena 2015, 282).
Engaging in conversations between worlds offers hope for responding to the urgent global problems that modernity has created and cannot solve, including climate change, monocrop agriculture, perpetual accumulation, and the will to “progress” at all costs. As Shilliam has argued, alternative ways of “knowing” and “being” have persisted as the “living knowledge traditions of colonised peoples” who have “retained a tenacious thread of vitality that provides for the possibility of a retrieval of thought and action that addresses global injustices in ways otherwise to the colonial science of the gaze” (Shilliam 2015, 7). Shilliam’s project is precisely on rendering how colonized peoples have continued to “cultivate knowledge ‘sideways’ so as to possibly inform a decolonial project” (Shilliam 2015, 3).
As I have argued elsewhere, bringing the pluriversal is an ethic-political project asking for subjectivities able to disidentify from capitalism and instead desire and create diverse worlds. These subjectivities are enhanced through collective projects of solidarity, new forms of sociability, and alternative visions of happiness (Rojas 2007, 585). These approaches, as they are oriented toward alternatives to colonial logics, constitute a distinctively different political project (in their diversity), and have come to be broadly captured in terms of a politics of pluriversality. As I have illustrated, this is not a commitment to a form of relativism premised on indifference, but instead should be thought of in terms of “emancipation-decolonisation.”