DECOLONIAL THINKING AND DOING IN THE ANDES: A CONVERSATION BY WALTER MIGNOLO WITH CATHERINE WALSH: A PROPOS OF HER BOOK INTERCULTURALIDAD, ESTADO, SOCIEDAD. LUCHAS (DE)COLONIALES DE NUESTRA EPOCA/ Interculturalism, State, Society. (De)Colonial Struggles of Our Times1
Catherine Walsh, born and educated in the U.S. and residing in Quito since 1995, is one of the key thinkers of the project modernity/(de)coloniality. Her contribution is unique in many respects. As a U.S. citizen who decided to migrate to the South and engage as she does in epistemic, political and ethical struggles in the Andes, Walsh’s thinking and doing transcend the limitations, as well as the short-sighted critics, of identity politics. What Walsh does instead is to engage in identity in politics. Identity in politics closes the possibilities of dialogue in defense of a national or ethnic identity. Identity politics is shared by both the hegemonic nation-state as well as by the “minorities” within a nation-state. Both sides of the coin are the legacies of Western modernity, from the earlier Christian identity politics to the secular identity politics of the modern nation-states (e.g., France, England, Italy, Germany). The formation of modern/colonial nation states in 19th century South and Central America mainly followed the European model of the nation-state based on identity politics (e.g., national identity by birth and by citizenship). The struggle toward future plurinational states in the Andes, to which Walsh has devoted a lot of attention, is a consequence of the crisis of identity politics. Identity in politics assumes the historicity of identities, but uncoupled from the state. Thus, the concepts of interculturality and plurinationality, that come from Indigenous thinking and doing, open up identity politics toward identity in politics.
Catherine Walsh’s work in Ecuador and in the Andes (Bolivia and Colombia, mainly) – as an academic and public intellectual – has been outstanding over the years. She has worked and continues to work with Indigenous and African descendent communities and organizations, not as an anthropologist or “expert,” but as an ally. This has included collaborations with the Intercultural University Amawtay Wasi, support of community-based efforts in Afro-centered education, recent collaborative work with African descendent women’s and youth organizations in the project “Mirada Negra” (Black Gaze), and the development of a national report for the state institution CODAE (the Council of Afro-Ecuadorian Development) on reparations and affirmative action. She also has a number of shared endeavors with the Afro-Ecuadorian historian, thinker, leader and activist Juan Garcia, known as the “grandfather of the black movement” and the “worker of the process.” With Garcia, a key figure in epistemic and political debates about territory, ancestrality, rights and knowledge, Catherine has engaged in several publications, public presentations, and above all, the building of the Afro-Andean archive held at the Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar in Quito.
At the Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar, where she is a senior professor in the department of Social and Global Studies, Catherine has created – with the support of its Rector, Dr. Enrique Ayala – a regional Andean PhD program in (Inter)Cultural Studies where the project modernity/(de)coloniality is the original Latin American orientation that supplants the common tendency, in Third World universities, of “importing” models of the social sciences and the humanities from Western Europe or the U.S. This program is the only one of its kind in Latin America.
The investigations that led to the publication of the book that prompted this interview form part of Catherine’s support, dialogue and work with Ecuador’s Constituent Assembly, particularly on issues related to Afro and Indigenous rights, interculturality and the plurinational state (issues that are extensively developed in her book). They are also reflective of dialogues with advisors and key actors in Bolivia’s Constituent Assembly.
Although the content of Walsh’s investigation and political-intellectual work is located particularly in the Andean region of South America, the logic of coloniality and process of decoloniality go beyond the continent and the region: they resonate in all local histories on the planet that, at different moments over the past five hundred years, have had to endure the interference of Western European and U.S. local histories carrying their global designs. “The former Eastern Europe” is not an exception, as it faces its absorption by the magical transformation of “the former Western Europe” into the European Union.
MIGNOLO: Catherine, the strong arguments you put forward in the book are persuasive and at the same time provocative. Persuasion and provocation are the consequences, in my reading, of the combination of new and fresh information on the one hand and a novel conceptual apparatus that owes not much, if anything, to mainstream social sciences (since you deal with “estado y sociedad”), owes not much to cultural studies either (since you deal with “interculturalidad”), and owes little to Marxism (since you deal with “luchas”). At the same time, the book is the result of many years of research, thinking and doing (your activism in and with Indigenous and Afro-Ecuadorian communities). That is to say, you did not plan, say five or six years ago, to write this book and consequently began doing research toward it, but, on the contrary, the book came out at the junction of your research and activism, on the one hand, and the historical events unfolding in Bolivia and Ecuador in the past 3 to 5 years.
Would you like to comment on the processes that ended up in Interculturalism, State, Society. (De)Colonial Struggles of Our Times (Interculturalidad, Estado, Sociedad. Luchas (de)coloniales de nuestra época)?
WALSH: Your question points to what I understand as a central concern in intellectual-activist work: How and why do we do what we do, and what for? That is to say, what are the intentions and pretensions behind this work, how are we engaged and with whom, and with what responsibilities, purpose and motive. But also fundamental is the consideration of what we do with such work, how such work can end up not just in a written text, but also, and more importantly, contribute to the struggle and to a more reflective and informed praxis.
As you know, such questions and concerns have guided my work both previously in the United States and now in the last 15 years in Ecuador. The way I came to such work cannot be separated from my activist roots or the years of dialogue with Paulo Freire. Yet here in the America of the South, it finds reason in the relations of collaboration built over time with Indigenous and Afro-descendent movements, relations that came at the initiative of these movements and leaders. To research or study about these movements has never been my method, approach, desire or goal. And this is probably what characterizes my work and writings as distinctive. This latest book is reflective of this positioning.
Let me first contextualize a bit. In the spaces of dialogue and collaboration with indigenous and Afro movements, particularly in Ecuador and the Andean region, but also elsewhere, my interest has been on understanding and supporting political, social and epistemic struggles and projects, particularly those that push not only for community-based vindications but also – and many times from these claims – for a broader interculturalization and decolonization of institutions, structures (including knowledge) and society at large. In this sense, my intellectual concern has been with how these struggles, projects, practice and thought enable a deeper understanding of what the historic indigenous leader Luis Macas has called the “colonial tare” and, subsequently, of decolonial paths and possibilities. But such concern for me is not separate from engagement, agency and action; it is part and parcel of what I assume as my praxis. As such, in my teaching, writing, and in my work with movements, communities and organizations, my attention is toward facilitating, making visible and giving credence to such possibilities and paths. That is to say, it is to enable and take seriously the understandings, comprehensions, transgressions and disruptions made possible by a thinking from and with social struggles and actors.
So how does this connect to the processes that resulted in this book? For quite some time, I had been feeling the urge to write a text that brought together my reflections and work over a number of years related to “interculturality,” an urge brought about in large part by the petitions of various groups in the region for such a text. My idea initially was to write this book in order to then begin to move on in future work to other concerns of interest.
Interculturality in Ecuador, as you well know, has a meaning quite different from that in operation in North America and Europe; in fact, it is this latter signification adopted by multilateral and transnational institutions that is increasingly becoming hegemonic in the South. But that is the subject of another conversation. What I want to point to here is interculturality as a political project of the movements. In the late 80s, the National Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador–CONAIE, named interculturality as an ideological principle in its political project. Such naming carried the definition of interculturality as a social and political process and project aimed at transforming social structures, institutions and relations, and of course such transformation has implied the constructing of a Plurinational State. This is the understanding of interculturality that has guided my work, one that conceives interculturality as fundamental to decolonial insurgence and struggle.
However, it was the urgencies of a rapidly changing political climate and the emergence of Constituent Assemblies both in Ecuador and Bolivia in 2007–2008 that had issues of interculturality and plurinationality at their base that made for a shift in my initial book venture. As movement leaders and activist intellectuals directly and indirectly engaged in the Assembly processes made clear to me, there was a need to deepen understandings related to the notions of a plurinational and intercultural State and to afford some points of comparison between the emergent processes in Ecuador and Bolivia within the broader frame of decolonization. The book then became part of a broader project to support and contribute to these processes and initiatives.
In fact, as I was writing the text, I was actively involved in Ecuador’s Constituent Assembly. In addition to the invitation by the president of the Constituent Assembly to give a presentation to assembly members and their advisors about the significance of these terms and what they could afford for a refounding of State and society, I informally supported several assembly members, working most closely with the assembly woman representing the Afro-Ecuadorian movement. Being in touch on almost a daily basis with the debates related to interculturality, plurinationality and correlated concerns in Ecuador, and in frequent dialogue with folks engaged in the same processes in Bolivia, made me think, interrogate and write from a situated and involved position. While the book is not only about these debates and processes, the perspectives, analysis and considerations presented in the text are necessarily informed by this lived experience.
But there is also something more to add in answer to your question and that is with regards to the difference I intend to mark with the typical ways of understanding and doing “research.” In contrast to a book that presents the results of a research study – which of course presupposes distance, objectivity and neutrality – my book was conceived as a kind of pedagogical tool of analysis, debate, dialogue and reflection that intends to actively engage the reader. As I explain in the Introduction:
“An analysis and reflection that not only demonstrates the struggles entailed and on which the project of interculturality is constructed, but that also provokes social, political, ethical, and epistemic considerations regarding society, State, life, and even ourselves. An analysis and reflection with the vocation of intervention, with the desire to engender a thinking with distinct knowledges, beings, logics, cosmovisions, and forms of living. I refer here to the possibility to set in motion an inter-thinking and inter-relating that does not pretend to assume the perspective of the other, but instead permits difference to intervene within oneself, opening in this way new intercultural perspectives of living ‘with,’ of co-living or co-existence.”
As such, research for me is a pedagogical enterprise that is necessarily tied to praxis.
MIGNOLO: Thanks, Cathy. Your answer rehearses and at the same time enriches the arguments and it gives them a context in which to understand why you insist on the epistemic dimension, next to the ethical and the political. Let’s bracket the last two for the moment, and come back to them later. While going through your arguments, and particularly when they engage the State, I was thinking that the State was monopolized by the social sciences, particularly sociology and political sciences. You have been trained in sociology, and therefore, in the frame of the social sciences. But you have delinked from the social sciences’ normativity in a very creative way. Therefore, I surmise that when you engage the State you are also committing an act of epistemic disobedience. What I mean is that when you talk about activism in the context of your book, that activism shall not only be understood as engaging in debates and solutions set up by the epistemology of the social sciences. One example, your brilliant critique of the white-mestizos/as leftist intellectuals mapping a solution for Bolivia that preserves their comfortable epistemic belief in the principle of the social sciences, recognizing the “Indian nations” but dismissing the epistemic principles upon which they base their arguments and claims. It is clear that you are not only supporting the content of Indigenous arguments, but mainly you are supporting and engaging their own epistemology. Would you like to comment on the links between epistemic disobedience and scholarly activism?
WALSH: The social sciences have, since their beginnings in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Europe, served the interests and project of the State. Such complicity is evident in Latin America as well, despite critical tendencies – particularly in the 60s and 70s – that worked to question and transgress the hegemonic and imperial frame. As you suggest, my point of departure is not the social sciences nor is it the State per se. In fact, the State has never been my focal point of interest or concern; I have rather considered it a structure to work against.
While it is true that part of my academic formation was in sociology, it was by no means typical. In the 1970s, sociology was in fact a terrain of sociopolitical activism in the U.S. university in which I was enrolled, a university known for its radicalism with regard to the Vietnam war, the struggles of women and people of color, and for its strong Marxist tendencies and search for alternatives to the capitalist system. My study and formation was not just in the classroom, but in other circles where political and intellectual militancy were intertwined. Such experience taught me from the outset about the limitations of the epistemology of the social sciences and its frame for studying and interpreting the social world. In essence, it began to make evident what I now consider to be central: that is the radical difference between epistemology understood in a positivist sense as a closed system of knowledge and reason that interprets and gives meaning to the world (having us believe that we get to the world through knowledge), and epistemology understood from an indisciplined and decolonial stance. It is from this latter perspective that epistemology takes on another meaning: open, plural and grounded in the belief that from the world – and from the multiple logics, cosmologies and life systems therein present – we get to knowledge, to knowledges in their pluriversal forms.
My perspective or stance is obviously this latter one. As such, and returning to the subject of my book, the challenge I assume is to think with epistemological frames that do not originate in the State but in the struggles of ancestral peoples and movements, and that take visible form in their arguments, demands and claims. This is not to presume a cultural relativism or essentialism, nor is it to argue “purity” in terms of indigenous and Afro knowledges. Instead, it is to put in evidence other epistemological premises – premises “otherwise” – for (re)thinking such things as nature, justice, coexistence, authority and life. It is these premises that challenge the monocultural and uni-national structure of the State and its institutions, but also the epistemic frames for society and State historically put forth by white-mestizo intellectuals and elite, frames that, as you say, find their base in the social sciences. But such frames also resonate true in the nationalist-state projects – of the past and present – of history, art, literature and education. My intention then is not to assume an indigenous or Afro thought, nor is it to negate or deny other intellectual production. Rather it is, on the one hand, to make visible and evident the colonial complicities of “official” knowledge and epistemic agendas in constructing and securing the monocultural and uni-national State, its hegemonic structures and institutions. And, on the other hand, it is to make present the emergence in Ecuador and Bolivia of radically different frameworks that enable a rethinking and refounding of State and society for all, recognizing the intense conflicts that these frameworks engender.
Does such intention mark an epistemic disobedience and scholarly activism as you suggest? I guess I would have to say yes.
MIGNOLO: I would like to connect what you just said with the exploration, in your book but also in other places,2 of the concepts of “development” and “sumak kawsay” in Kichwa (“sumaq qamaña” in Aymara). Since you have addressed the issue and the reader can consult your arguments in Spanish, Portuguese and English, I would like to pursue one specific topic that seems to me central today not only in the Andes but in the world, and particularly in every country beyond the G7 where the notion of “development” applies. What I mean is that “development” doesn’t seem to be a problem for the U.S., Germany or Japan. These countries are assumed to be already “developed” and in charge of leading and showing the way to the rest of the world how to “develop.” Now, “sumak kawsay” (which is a concept of Indigenous epistemology and was included in the Constitution of Ecuador) is being enthusiastically endorsed (or appropriated) by the right and by the left. One can find today the expression “Sumak Kawsay” in the web page of the United Nations and also in a wealth of articles in which the expression is linked to “socialism.” It seems to me that it is becoming clear that beyond the liberal “common good” and the socialist “common,” now we have another option, that is neither a third way nor a universal substitution of the previous two (Western) concepts (the common good and the common), but something altogether different, which is “the communal” (as it was clearly described by Felix Patzi Paco). Patzi Paco explicitly argued for the communal as an alternative to the liberal system (the common good), but one can say that the communal cannot be subsumed under socialism either. We seem to be at the junction in which a seismic epistemic shift is taking place, an epistemic Pachakuti.3 This seismic epistemic shift is also taking place in between the Western concept of “Nature” and the Andean concept of “Pachamama” or “Madre Tierra.” They cannot be mutually translated although they are “entangled,” as you said and as has been the case since 1500, between Western consolidation and expansion and the epistemologies “superseding” them.4
In sum, the epistemic shift is a shift in the geopolitics of knowing, understanding and reasoning. Since this conversation will be published first in Reartikulacija and the most immediate reader will be the reader of Eastern Europe (for whom notions such as “commons” and “communism” are in their immediate history), how would you explain the global dimension of what is going on in the Andes today? What I mean is that the communal is a regional concept (like the common good and the common), but it is also a global one as global as the common and the common good). Consequently, next to liberalism and socialism as two Western political philosophies and visions of the future, there is the communal, and the communal is the decolonial, which means that it is a political philosophy and vision of the future that cannot be subsumed either by liberalism or by socialism.
WALSH: Your question brings to the fore a series of issues and concerns that, in essence, reveal not only the operation of radically opposed logics and frameworks of civilization, but also, and more importantly, emergent efforts that seek articulations, interculturalizations and more plural modes and constructions of co-thinking, co-existence and co-living. The fact that these logics, frames and efforts are being made visible in the Andes does not limit them to this region; they can, as you say, also be understood from a global dimension.
The elements set forth in the new Ecuadorian Constitution serve as a clear example. This Charter is the first in the world to recognize nature – understood not as natural resources but more broadly as Pachamama, Mother Nature or Mother Earth – as the subject of legal rights, including the right to restoration or reparation. It is also the first to identify knowledge as plural, to include ancestral knowledges as also technological and scientific, and to make these knowledges a necessary and obligatory component in education. And it is the first to make “buen vivir” or “sumak kawsay” its transversal axis. In fact, there are more than 75 articles that directly take “buen vivir” as their focus, including in areas as diverse as water, food, culture, science, habitat and housing, health, education, work, legal rights, territory, economy, participation, and Latin American integration, among others.
As I have argued in my book and elsewhere, such incorporation cannot be understood as a sort of multicultural “add on.” Rather, it is indicative of an effort to “think with” the logics and civilizatory frames of indigenous communities (and also, in a somewhat different way, of African descendent communities). It is the result of the years of struggle and mobilization of these movements, and most particularly of the force of the indigenous movement that, since 1990, has pushed forth shifts in the traditional homogeneous and monocultural view of the country and transgressed the hegemonic projects and paradigms of a mestizo nation.
In this sense, and while keeping and extending the collective rights established in the 1998 Charter, the new Constitution takes a much more radical step; it makes ancestral-cosmological logics and frames part of the fabric of the building a new intercultural and plurinational country for all. In essence, it affords a new conceptualization as public policy, an answer to the urgency of a radically different social contract, an alternative to – or maybe better said, a way away from – capitalism and the “culture of death” of its neoliberal project.
Here I see a clear connection to the “global dimension” that you mention above. That is to say, the issue and concern at the fore are not so much the recognition of “other” logics and frames and the support of their continuance for ancestral peoples, which could result in little more than parallel models of society, community, and State, with the ancestral still in a subordinate and marginal position. Rather, the advance and ongoing challenge that the Ecuadorian Charter affords is that it begins to think and act with these logics and forms of reason that give centrality to Mother Earth and to life, an important step not only for Ecuador, but for the planet. This seems particularly imperative in today’s world increasingly defined by capitalist crises, rampant xenophobia and racism, death and destruction.
However, the problem is when such logics, frames and designs become co-opted and diluted of their real and radical significance. Said different, the problem is when they are collapsed into new liberal, humanistic, and even socialist paradigms and frameworks, a kind of re-coloniality under the guise of humanism and of progressive and leftist politics.
Let me start with the issue and concept of development. As I have argued elsewhere, the last decade has seen a shift in Latin America in the notion of development from economic progress towards a more humanistic (and Western Eurocentric) view focused on the individual and the quality of life. Such notion – typically referred to as integral and sustainable human development – finds ground in four key criteria: liberty, autonomy, coexistence and social inclusion. The first two emphasize individual agency, will power and determination: the capacity of the individual to exercise control over his or her own life. The second two are complementary; they anchor individual welfare and assure conformity within a social system that increasingly works to control cultural diversity and make it functional to the system. Together, these criteria pretend to weave in Latin America a new sense of common welfare and common belonging.
1 The book, written in Spanish, is divided into three parts and seven chapters. Published by Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar-Ediciones Abya-Yala, 2009.
2 The topic of this question has been addressed in the book that motivates this conversation, and also – in English – in another interview for Developments 53.1 http://www.sidint.net/interview-with-catherine-walsh-human-development-and-buen-vivir/. See also her articles in the same issue, “Development as Buen Vivir: Institutional Arrangements and (De)colonial Entanglements.”
3 The Indigenous Pachakuti Movement (Movimiento Indígena Pachakuti) is a left-wing indigenous party in Bolivia founded in November 2000.
4 By Western epistemology here, I mean basically, the epistemology built on the six modern imperial languages (Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, French, German and English) founded in the two classical languages (Greek and Latin), which became part of the West during the Renaissance.