Oscar Guardiola-Rivera, author of What if Latin America Ruled the World? makes the case for modeling the world’s political/economic future on the ‘diverse and plural form of leftism’ that is taking hold in Latin America – which acknowledges the asymmetries and ‘incompleteness’ of reality and avoids reducing every value to a set of commercial interests. He discussed these ideas, noting their long heritage in the historical south-to-south cooperative movements of the past…in an interview with Pritha Kejriwal at the Jaipur Literature Fesitval 2014.
What is it that you would call the Latin American philosophy?
Well, there is a very old tradition, which one could trace back to the pre-Columbian times. Take for example, the Tlamatinime, the so called Nahuatl philosophers among the Aztecs and the Mayans, who would, very much like the pre- Socratic philosophers in Greece, reflect not just on existential matters but also mathematics. It is well known, and a very interesting fact of common history between India and Latin America that we both discovered the number zero in different or parallel ways. And that tradition continued to develop and included the encounter between the cosmologies and the reflections of Amerindians with the ideas of Europeans when they arrived in Latin America. Let me tell you for instance, an interesting anecdote. It is well known that from the 16th century all the way into the 18th century, many European countries, Spain, Portugal, France and Britain would send research commissions to the Americas to establish whether or not the Amerindians had a soul, which of course, would define whether or not they also had the capacity to govern themselves and if it was established that they didn’t, then that would justify governing the Americas for them, thereby of course, taking over their lands and resources and so on and so forth. That is well known. What is less well known, is the fact that while the Europeans were trying to establish whether Amerindians had a soul, the Amerindians were conducting experiments of their own. They would take their Western European prisoners and drown them in cold and hot water, solely to establish whether or not they would rot after death, thereby verifying whether or not they had a body. And that perhaps marks the difference between the Latin American philosophy, or philosophy in the Americas and Western philosophy. Western, particularly Western European philosophy has been impacted by Christianity, it even to this day continues to define itself as the purification of thought and even in the most materialistic sense, is still trying to establish, the rules of cognition and clarity and certainty and so on. On the other side, Latin American philosophy, even before the arrival of Europeans, was already very concerned with the body, whereas Europeans were trying to establish philosophically, the commonalities and differences between cultures. In Latin American philosophy, the concern, again even from the time of Amerindians has been the plurality and multiplication of nature. To put it in mathematical terms, whereas Europeans were very concerned with symmetry and with the unity of the cosmos and to make sure that everything and everyone would stay in their place, in Latin America, there was an emphatic concern on realizing that not everything could be symmetrical. You should always leave room for novelty, for newness, for that which seems awkward or truly different. And in that respect, actually, Latin American philosophy has a lot in common with reflections taking place in Japan in the 14th century. I’m thinking about the very well known document – reflections on the Japanese ‘Essays on Idleness’. But also here in India, most cosmologies again, express precisely the realization that reality is incomplete. That incompleteness has ontological, mathematical and political importance. In the sense, I would like to think that’s where our political orientation comes from – our sense of dissidence, a sense of always making sure that there is something which expresses the incompleteness of reality, which is exactly what the number zero stands for. That in a sense also explains the specific politics of the region – always on the side of dissidence more often than not trying to innovate politically and that is still the case even now.
Where do you think lie the roots for this sort of a unique resistance to the onslaughts of capitalism, which in mostly all other parts of the world is being successful in capturing and co-opting everything – even all kinds of resistance or dissidence.
That is a very important question, in fact this morning, during the panel on ‘Who will rule the world’, I was pointing out at the necessity to rekindle a conversation between the history of capitalism, imperialism and neo- imperialism on the one hand and on the other hand, the history of mankind as a species and even beyond that, the history of the earth, of the world as such and of nature, precisely because it is that view of reality which includes not only humanity or man at the centre which has characterized capitalism. As you pointed out correctly, capitalism is not only an obsession with symmetry that wants to flatten everything, make every single difference a case of its own, and we can see how effectively that has happened all over the world. You have capitalism with Asian values or with Western values, capitalism nonetheless. But at the same time, we recognize the effectiveness of that homogenization of reality and politics. At the same time, we also know that these are the very same processes, which created the freedoms of capitalism, the freedom of entrepreneurship and so on.
It is a common mistake mainly made by those who defend the current state of capitalism, to think that some will have to lose for others to win and that this win-lose game is a part of the natural order; As a matter of fact, if we allow that process to continue – it is precisely the natural order, it is precisely the capacity of nature to multiply itself and recreate itself which will be ended, and I think it is on that basis that a form of a very diverse and plural form of leftism is being reinvented in the Americas.
Those same processes are nowadays also turning us into more than mere historical agents. We are now geological agents, we are capable of changing the climate; we are capable of inflicting damages upon the entirety of the planet and nature and such. So it’s not merely our freedom, our freedom as humans or as it happens in capitalism, that freedom reduced to the freedom of entrepreneurship and commerce because if you let loose those spirits, you can end up with a result in which we all lose. It is a common mistake mainly made by those who defend the current state of capitalism, to think that some will have to lose for others to win and that this win-lose game is a part of the natural order; As a matter of fact, if we allow that process to continue – it is precisely the natural order, it is precisely the capacity of nature to multiply itself and recreate itself which will be ended, and I think it is on that basis that a form of a very diverse and plural form of leftism is being reinvented in the Americas. We can see that in the very concrete example of the social movements and governments of countries like Bolivia, Ecuador or even in Brazil in which in spite of its contradictions and tensions of its own there is a real sense of a necessity to begin a serious conversation about the moral, ecological and even cosmological limits of capitalism.
But all over the world right now, there is this whole idea of the breakdown of all kinds of meta-narratives, breakdown of big ideologies, and that we are living in a post-ideological, postmodern world. But Latin America has emphatically emerged as an ideologically driven block, which has achieved results by adapting some concrete policies based on definitive socio-economic principles…
There is a sense according to which, we would have entered into a postmodern era or a postmodern condition, which has been made equivalent with a sort of ‘everything goes’ ethics, [a] relativistic standpoint, a very mistaken idea of tolerance in which every single possibility must be left on its own; and I would like to think that what we are seeing in Latin America, both in terms of Latin American philosophy and also in terms of its ethics and politics, tells us something very different. It is telling us that actually, those divides between universalism and particularism, those divides even concerning multiculturalism, may be the wrong way of going about things, they may be red herrings, in the sense, that it is not only the case that there are diverse cultures in the world and we must all simply allow that diversity of culture, which in the end boils down to a diversity in the consumer cultures with that homogeneity underlying all of them. But, actually, we should rather consider the possibility that there are more worlds than the one that capitalism is prescribing. It is very often forgotten that capitalism is not realistic, in the sense that it is also very prescriptive. It prescribes a certain order and a certain world, a very limited and a very strict scenario for every society on planet earth. And as it happens with the existence of biological species, if you limit all cases to one and the same, that in the end will go against the very possibility of further evolution and creativity. And it is again on the basis of that realization that we can rekindle a sense of leftist, dissident politics. I would be ready to argue that that’s precisely what we have been witnessing in Latin America, at least since the end of the 1990s.
You have said that Latin America would be the focal point in the unfolding history of globalization. Could you take us through some of the specific political and economic measures that the Latin American block has taken, which would ultimately change the course of history?
I would mention three very specific policies. The first one is the realization that nature also has rights of its own, this has been posited in the constitution of several countries of Latin America – mainly in countries such as Ecuador, Columbia and Bolivia – and that’s a very important innovation. Following from that innovation is the second policy which realizes the plurality of the nations of Latin America, the plurality inside the characters of the nation state; not only in terms of a diversity of populations or cultures, but actually a diversity which goes beyond that. It is also the diversity of cosmologies, of ethical principles and political principles, and what is derived from that; and this would be the third important question; it is not a sort of relativism or liberal tolerance but rather the realization of what is required now … a sort of a battle between the different conceptions and between these different ideas. To put it in more concrete terms, the question of the nation state is still very much with us. That, in spite of what theories of globalization have told us, the very question of the institutions of the state and whether or not the institutions of the state can be transformed from within – precisely in order to account for the plurality of the people’s views, cosmologies and even worlds – that is what will define the politics that is to come. Certain other very concrete policies follow from that, particularly the policies that are aimed at putting an end to the big inequality and the widening gap between the haves and the have-nots; that, in the rest of the liberal dominated world has been seemingly accepted as if it were a natural phenomenon. In Latin America, we are decisively inviting other parts of the world to take into account that widening gap between the rich and the poor is actually part and parcel of other processes such as the one that is destroying the atmosphere, such as the one that continues to suck resources from all corners of the planet and that in itself also serves as a self-criticism. Because it is still the case, even when leftist governments are in charge, the development and the temptation to quickly make profits from the extraction of natural resources. That temptation is still there; it characterizes, for instance the model of development in China.
But, actually, we should rather consider the possibility that there are more worlds than the one that capitalism is prescribing. It is very often forgotten that capitalism is not realistic, in the sense that it is also very prescriptive. It prescribes a certain order and a certain world, a very limited and a very strict scenario for every society on planet earth.
But we must acknowledge that the terms of the conversation have changed; that, to put it in very brutal terms, globalism has failed in the sense that the promise of trickle down riches, the promise of the many countries joining the privileged club of the few, have been left empty, have been revealed as purely ideological. In that respect, what we need to do now is to experiment with new forms of commonality, not communalism, but rather with new forms of acknowledging the fact that not everything is up for sale, that there are very important sectors of the life of society that should be kept outside of the imperatives of the rich …of the monetary markets.
There is a certain kind of alliance between the Latin American nations themselves, then there are these different alliances with the emerging economies of the world…like the BRICS… how would you fundamentally differentiate these collaborations?
They are complementary in many ways. Consider, for instance, the case of the community of Latin American and Caribbean states, which is allowing the countries of Latin America to present themselves as a united bloc, vis à vis the failures and excesses of, say, the United States foreign policy. That is very important because it has meant that it is nowadays much more difficult for the United States to practice the kind of interventionism that has been characteristic of its foreign policies since the 1970s. And that explains to a great extent, the relative absence of the US– of the worst forms of US interaction and intervention – in the region, and there is a complementary relationship between that kind of a unification of institutionality, which, of course includes the projects for unification of political as well as economic institutions and the kinds of emergent conversations between south- south partners such as the BRICS [and] also the augmented version of the BRICS which now also includes South Africa.
We have seen very concrete and important results of that policy; most people have forgotten that the first ones to propose that Iran should be brought back to the negotiating table in order to take care of the nuclear question were precisely two countries of the south: Brazil and Turkey. In a way this is not as new as we think it is, in the sense, it is the return to the project of non- alignment and to ‘third world-ism’, which was incredibly crucial in the 1960s and the 1970s – which was interrupted by force, in fact – and kind of forgotten thereafter during the 1980s and 1990s. There is a real sense, a really heartfelt sense, both in Latin America and I also know for a fact here in India, of a need for a sort of non- alignment 2.0, to quote the title of a book that was published here in India, which gathers the writings of many intellectual Indians’ work precisely acknowledging the necessity of the moment. The hope is, and this is not just an abstract hope; I think we are witnessing the concrete political occurrence of that kind of an alignment taking place nowadays, hopefully that will impact upon certain institutions, such as the United Nations, the Security Council and so on which are in dire need of an overhaul, if not a radical transformation. And that will be applied mainly for the operation of financial institutions and global commerce which is – has been – the bone of contention since the 1970s. So in a sense, what I’m trying to say here, is that there is a continuity. In fact, we’re witnessing the remembering and the rekindling of a south-south conversation, that, if the history of the 20th century serves us as a guide, was the one and only real challenger to a history that otherwise goes in one direction and one direction only; the direction of the annihilation of not only the peoples but the planet as a whole.
Lastly, culturally speaking, so much of literature from Latin America has been magic realist in tradition. So, do you think…. this fabric of a certain kind of absurdism or this wilderness– which runs through the social and cultural fabric of Latin Americas – is that what gives them the ability to resist the materialistic assault of capitalism?
One should distinguish between the exoticism or the temptation to bring, read exoticism into a magical realism. I think that is a view that is very popular in the United States…
I wouldn’t call it exoticism at all; it is somewhere very real… that magic is real, right?
You’re right. It’s absolutely real. One should distinguish between an understanding of magical realism that emphasizes wrongly on a form of exoticism and another one which emphasizes precisely the incompleteness of reality and that incompleteness is what magical has always stood for. If we look into the writings of those who coined such terms originally, people like Alejo Carpentier, the Cuban writer. or Oswaldo de Andrade in Brazil, what one gets is precisely this sense which one can trace back to the Amerindian legacy of reality as something incomplete rather than as a creation that is already made, which is the cosmology which underpins capitalism. And you are absolutely correct in pointing out, that is the source of strength of the dissident, the plurality of dissident movements in Latin America. And it is also important to insist on the plurality of those movements because sometimes-even voices of dissidence such as canonical Marxism can in the end become a straightjacket. There are many examples of that in the history of the 20th century in Latin America and in a sense I find it very healthy that current leftist movements are revising themselves, their own history; they have taken stock of their own limitations without giving up their idea, that transformation is possible and the reality of that transformation is very important because that marks a very stark contrast with what we see in Europe nowadays. I was very surprised this morning when two members of the panel1 insisted on the necessity to continue to see Europe as a model. I think that if that was ever the case then it is clearly no longer the case and here I speak as someone who lives in Europe and sees what is happening in Europe. Europe is colonizing itself; you don’t have to be a very keen observer for you to notice that there is a chasm between the north of Europe and the south of Europe. In fact the north of Europe, Britain, Germany, France to a certain extent, relate to countries such as Greece, Portugal, Spain, even Italy, very much in the same way in which in previous centuries those peripheries of the then imperial orders related to the commoners. If that is the case then, to me it’s absolutely clear that that’s not a model that we would like to repeat either in the Americas or in the Indian subcontinent or elsewhere.
Rather, what we need to repeat, and here I use the term in the sense that Félix Guattari, partner of the French philosopher Deleuze used. We need repetition, we need to change the meaning and the terms of the conversation. And that is what we see happening in Latin America, there is a sort of renewal of creativity and you see that both in the concrete politics of governance, social movements, movements that struggle even against the odds and very difficult conditions – for example the Zapatistas in Mexico – and we must give them plenty of credit, this year marks the 20th anniversary of the Zapatista revolt. Most of the things that have now become current in the vocabulary of dissident politics, we owe to them. That example also makes clear the fact that it is the position and legacy of our very own cultures, even the legacy of Amerindians, that might become, is becoming, the most potent source of transformation. There is a wonderful Brazilian writer, he is an anthropologist, his name is Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, he has been leading a re-reading of French post-structuralism and from the point of view of Amerindian perspectivism and in doing so, without simply denying the contributions of European culture, he is helping all of us in making it very clear, that in the end it is the creativity of our own legacies and ultimately the very incompleteness of reality that pushes us to go beyond the limits of the possible and, if I was asked to summarize the potential of both the Latin American philosophy and Latin American politics nowadays, I would do so in a phrase that – that potential is precisely the potential of acknowledging that if reality is incomplete, then our work is not done yet.
1. Oscar Guardiola is referring to a panel he took part in at the JLF titled, ‘Who will rule the world?’