How to think from the south? The construction of new epistemologies

How to think from the south? The construction of new epistemologies
Roberto Pineda

Thank you very much for this invitation. It is very important in our liberating process the construction of rebel, critical and subversive thinking, of new epistemologies, liberating epistemologies, from beneath and from the south. Our challenge is to stop thinking from the north and to start thinking from the south.

But it is not easy. It is difficult to change, to transform the way of thinking, to get rid of the so called colonial look or colonial brand, because we are talking about 500 years of imperial teaching, of knowledge colonialism, of exclusive universality, of being in the margin, cultural periphery of eurocentrism. And because we are forced to face now three main endings: the end of history, the end of modernity and the end of utopian thinking. And we can add to this triad the end of the subject.
In this framework, we must recognize that we have imitated the thinking of the North, we know how to thing from the North, we have been socialized since childhood to think from the north. And I am not talking about the geographical north, but the historical, epistemic, power relation based north.
Challenged by a thinking located in the dominant north, that owns and constructs the knowledge. How to think from the south? And not only to think but also faced by a dominant language that builds reality. How to speak, how to enunciate from the south?
Defied by an Eurocentric practice. How to create from the south? Faced by individualism and competence. How to feel from the south? Finally, how to be from the south? How to claim the different, the heterogeneous, the plural, the marginal, and the suppressed? These are the main questions guiding our reflections.
To process this it is required to look to ourselves, to our world, to our country and to the challenges in face of the capitalist-patriarchal-racist epistemology ruled by the neoliberal global market. I will deal in my presentation with these four dimensions.
The personal.
Kate Milet, 82, an American feminist, dead a week ago in Paris, teaches us that patriarchy is not rooted in human essence, but it is a historical and cultural fact, and also, she illuminates us saying that the personal is political, that the private is political too.
Based on this, and breaking with the supposedly “scientific” standard of the forced distance between the cognitive subject and the reality to be investigated, the object of study. I will begin with a personal review. It seems to me that I am a typical example of a Eurocentric colonial subject. As part of a heritage from the Spanish colonialism system I am racially mixed, mestizo. I am not Native American, I am not Indian, as I learned in the western province of Sonsonate but I am neither white European. I discovered this in the United States, in New York City, where I was identify as Hispanic, as Latino in the school. I was not White.
There is a difference between Spanish and British colonialism concerning the treatment of colonial subjects. Spanish colonialism promoted the mixed marriages between Indians and Conquerors, giving birth to a racial and cultural syncretism known as mestizaje. The British prefer to exterminate the Indigenous local populations and to keep their racial “purity.”
To be Hispanic was to me a learning process because in El Salvador the racial difference is denied, mystified, because here supposedly there are no Indians or Blacks, there are no poor or rich, whites (cheles) or blacks (prietos), because we are a happy mestizo paradise, completely homogeneous, as it is said in the sarcastically lyrics of Paquito Palaviccini’s song San Miguel Carnival. San Miguel in the eastern part of the country it is in my opinion the Caribbean of El Salvador.
We are also supposedly the Sunrise Country according to an outdated commercial that looked at us with Eurocentric eyes. Today publicity mentions that we are a magical corner. Maybe, but we really are the country of Monsignor Oscar Romero and Prudencia Ayala, Schafik Handal and Matilde Elena López. A country with a long history of popular resistance and we can be proud of this.
To continue with the personal testimony, my religious education is at a first moment Roman Catholic and later changed to Lutheran, even to be ordained as a pastor (although there was a time when I was very young that I considered myself an atheist because of the diamat, the doctrine of dialectic materialism, and because to be a believer was consider by my comrades as a clear signal of an ideological weakness.)
But I am also a follower of what is known as Liberation Theology, that amounts to a theological revolution, announced by Peruvian Gustavo Gutierrez saying that we believe in a God that is closed to the efforts for justice by poor people, and also a faith that denounces the capitalistic idols of death, richness and power.
My political training is Marxist in a Leninist fashion I suppose after many demonstrations, strikes, travels, meetings and study groups when I was young, when in heated clandestine hidings we were lively discussing about Two Tactics, The State and the Revolution, What is to be done and other Lenin’s works.
My academic training is in Theology (not Indigenous but the one produced by German and British monasteries and seminars, reading Luther and Calvin). Human Rights (coming from our dear Enlightenment Age and French Revolution) International Relations focused in the realistic state-centered approach and lastly, the study of English and French, imperial languages, although my mother tongue it is Spanish, another imperial language. I am profoundly ashamed and also it is one of my life challenges to learn to speak Nahuat, the language of my ancestors. I dream that one day in the future in this University there will be a graduation thesis written in Nahuat, the language of my, of our ancestors.
I am an urban and cosmopolitan person (I am not Indian, nor peasant, nor even worker, member of the class that was supposed to be called by history to overthrow the capitalist system). I am a public employee, coming from the middle class, a wage laborer, living in San Salvador, the capital. And my favorite music it is rock and pop in English, from the seventies (Silk &Croft, the Mamas and the Papas, Joe Cocker, Santana, The Who, Woodstock generation).
I am still an active alcoholic (with whiskey and vodka, not even with chicha or chaparro). Many years ago the chaparro was illegal and a chaparro bottle was like a treasure but now it is legal and you can buy it in the supermarket, and how to forget the Muñeco, delicious hard liquor, or how to forget the forbidden grass. At the end I can use the Anonymous Alcoholics teachings to express that only for today.
Besides, I am more devoted of “french” bread than tortillas, but also I liked tamales, atoles, quesadillas, etc. And how to forget the delicious and now transnational pupusas. At the end it is our traditional food our main national identity, particularly the mondongo soup that you can find on Sundays in the McArthur park over there in Los Angeles.
And even my hair cut is Roman. In the ancient past free men used long hair while slaves short hair. Our ancestors used long hair. There was a difference between Roman and Greek related to haircut. Geeks used long hair while Romans short hair, military style, and imperial, linked to colonial wars.
And finally I confess a last sin…I wear imperial brand clothes: Lacoste, Banana Republic, Levis, Tommy Hilfiger, etc., but also from time to time I wear a cotona, a traditional cotton shirt. And when I was young I used the famous Bufalo pants. Well, this is part of my internalized personal trail around the Eurocentric episteme.
To conclude, I live in a little town ten minutes by car from here, it is a pre-Columbian village, with a challenging name, it is called Ayutuxtepeque, the armadillo’s hill.
2. The world that I used to know and the world now
We live in a new capitalism. And this is related to epistemology. There are three aspects that I want to emphasize. One is the character of our times. Second, the key aspects; and third, the new resistances. The first one has to do with the nature of our age. In other words, where are we placed, from where (place and time) we speak. What our philosopher friends as Guillermo called the place of enunciation, the locus enuntiationis.
Before we used to talk about the transit period at the world level from capitalism to socialism. And the world was black and white, as ours TV sets. There were the good and the bad guys. And we were supporting the good ones. And as working class, every Mayday there was a recounting of the new victories, of the new red flags in the world map, of the new nations liberated from the capitalist exploitation. Vietnam, Ethiopia, Angola, Nicaragua…and we were very happy that the world was marching toward socialism. We used to say enthusiastically: If Nicaragua won, El Salvador will win, and Guatemala will follow. It was just a matter of time.
But, suddenly the 1989 earthquake came and everything changed. The USSR was not even militarily defeated but collapsed as a house of cards. The United States government and even the CIA were surprised 30 years ago to wake up with the news that they were the only and absolute planet owners; without any real political or ideological foes, in a real and virtual unipolar world. They did not believe the new reality. And they invented globalization. And we were at shock to hear Francis Fukuyama speech about the end of history. And also listen to Samuel Huntington ideas about a post-cold war new world order, and about the future clash of cultures among nine civilizations. One of them was Latin America.
On ideological terms the impact of this defeat caused by the collapse of the “really existing socialism” is still valid 30 years later. We are nevertheless in need of new paradigms, dreams, utopias that repudiate the colonial and imperial discourse. Marxism as an emancipator discourse to be relevant in this new world needs to be enriched with new analysis categories; it needs to establish a dialogue with other emancipator discourses as feminism and liberation theology, ecological thinking among others.
30 years later, where we are? Giovanni Arrighi, an Italian thinker already deceased; provides us with ideas about today’s world. He proposes that capitalism in its history as a world system, has known three great stages of economic accumulation and political hegemony; Holland, United Kingdom and United States; and that we are now in a historical transition toward a new stage, Chinese hegemony. It is a period of systemic transition. There are changes in what is called the geopolitics of world power. BRIC, with all its contradictions, reflects this global transformation.
Second idea. In what kind of capitalism do we live? There are changes with neoliberal globalization. Changes in our society and changes in our own life styles. The world is technologized and also our life, our jobs. Smart cells and computers are part already of our daily life. Our life elapses in the beaches and mountains of the internet and social networks. It is a new world but yet violent, unequal and capitalist.
We live virtual lives in virtual communities, in temporary and transient relationships, trapped by publicity in the invisible web of consumerism, and fragmentation. In labor end even in education we witness a rupture: Prussian pyramidal model, bureaucratic and vertical, based on rigid chains of command, it is being replaced by a flexible and horizontal model, based on networks, with temporary jobs.
On the other hand, Business and State draw on more in sub hiring of companies and persons, and in this process there are losses of acquired rights, as social security, medical insurance, anti-labor rights, etc. It is a setback in relation to the old Welfare State. We are moving to a culture of precariousness, to a more exclusive world, the world of subalternity. And the aim is to increase earnings, utilities, profitability and forget about democracy.
Trade war reflects today this global geopolitical conflict, but it can be turned to military war. It is a fact that Russia and China, India and Iran, are new players, emerging powers that are challenging the imperial monopolarity.
It is in this framework, that we have to analyze the role of BRIC and the Silk Routes, and also the dispute for Europe. The world is changing. Europe, the cattle of the first imperial capitalist powers is now disputed by the emerging powers.
Besides, in the United States President Trump obeys to a political-ideological force based on nationalism, isolationism, and racism inside the American ruling class, which proposes a solution to its global hegemony crisis, to its decline as world ruling power, in open dispute against the other main political and ideological force, based on neoliberal global finances, main promoter of international trade. Obama and Hillary Clinton are part of this last force. Both forces are represented inside the Republican and Democratic parties.
And there are additionally other proposals, as the “progressive” and even “socialist” proposal represented by Bernie Sanders, inside the Democratic Party, and equally the force represented by independent democratic-popular sectors as minorities, women, etc. Next November we will witness a show down by these fighting forces that are clearly in dispute, in coexistence or even looking for alliances, at the federal, state and local levels. At global level there is a balance of forces in which the United Sates keeps its military supremacy but it is gradually losing its economic supremacy with China. This global dispute is reflected at all levels.
Three. Where are the resistances? They are everywhere, in the North and in the South. There are different events that clearly signalized the awakening of an anti-capitalist and anti-patriarchal world resistance. One of these was the Seattle battle in November, 1999 against the WTO summit meeting; the creation of the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brasil in 2001; the world protest against the war in Iraq in February 2003; the Occupy Wall Street movement in 201. And we can be sure that there will be more actions in the future, the wheel of history maintains its course…
Besides there were other resistances, as the organizations and mobilizations against the privatizations in South America; and then we have the progressive governments in Venezuela, Brazil, Bolivia, and Ecuador. And we have now the resistance against the imperial counter-offensive…and how not to mention Cuba, the Dignity Island…
3. The country I used to live and the country I live now
I was born in a supposedly or formally independent country; I was raised singing the national anthem at the school or repeating the prayer to the white and blue flag. The creoles that headed the process of our independence at the beginning of the XIX century rejected and repudiated the enemy Spain, but they did not rejected the Eurocentric thinking, at the opposite, they were strong followers of the Enlightenment ideas, admirers of the liberal ideas of the French Revolution. The intellectuals and artisans that assume the ideas of socialism at the beginning of the XX century also were influenced by a Marxist, Eurocentric thinking, emancipating ideology, strongly guided by the Great October Socialist Revolution in Russia.
After more than 200 years of resistance, from 1811 to the present, the only event that breaks off with the Eurocentric thinking is the Nonualcan leader Anastasio Aquino that in 1833 rose in insurrection, with a different non-Eurocentric logic, from a distinct epistemic vision. He was fighting for land, and justice for his people, he was fighting for peace, against the conscription to go fighting in the wars between Conservative and Liberals. It is a unique moment, a paradigmatic historical event that deserves our attention at the light of the decolonial thinking.
I lived half of my life under a military dictatorship. And this is also related to epistemic. I am very happy that my three daughters did not get to know the reality of living under a dictatorship. Before, the army runs the State apparatus. The presidents were all generals and colonels. And this was normal, accepted by all. The military were in charge of society. And the landowners, the coffee growers were in charge of the military. And the United States government was very happy because of this situation, they even send us free cereal for our children at school.
But because of this situation of social injustice and human rights violations there was a 12 years long war from 1980 to 1992, waged by FMLN guerrillas and popular movement to transform El Salvador. But war finished with changes in the political system, but without changes in the socioeconomic system.
After 25 years of the Peace Agreements in 1992 El Salvador has changed again. The military returned to their garrisons. And the political parties are now the runners of the political system. The military harsh repressive ruling has been changed by the media soft hegemony. Everything has changed.
Previously to find a new book of Marxism was like finding a hidden treasure and you had to be very careful to read it in secret. Now we live absorbed by our smartphones and very few people read, study, reflect, analyze, discuss.
We have changed at the economics. We are now a society with a tertiary economy, a service economy, basically depending of our United States diaspora remittances. Massive migration to the United States is an act of resistance too. Over there, in the main cities of the empire we continue our struggle for justice.
Here we produce few things. And the main economic vision is the overflow theory, if we produce more we can distribute more. Sounds logical, but in fact it is a myth because in reality if we produce more, we will surely receive less. Because in fact, in the past and now, only transnational corporations has been able to increase their earnings.
Conservative ideas are on the rise in society, at all levels. For example, the violence against women, hate crimes, killing of women and even the killing of police women are increasing, and we need to be ashamed because of the draconian laws regarding abortion. There are many campesino women in jail as a result of this repressive legislation. It is also shameful the situation in which many girls after being raped are forced to marry with the rapists and in this way the rapists are released of judicial charges; and the fact that many poor women have to experience abortion in unhealthful clandestine clinics, putting at risk their life, health and freedom.
There are changes in the political arena. As left political force we have been in charge of the national government for ten years. As a result of this there is an increase in terms of social programs for needed people, for children, old people, women, indigenous people, etc. But these changes are not enough if they are not related to structural changes, to a break, to a rupture with capitalist system. Social programs only are fragile; they are subject to political changes, to setbacks.
How to overcome the survival culture? Most of our people are enrolled in a so called informal economy, without labor rights, living and earning day by day, without a future. Neoliberalism has stolen our tomorrow.
Previously we were willing to risk and give our life for revolution and socialism. Now we are trapped in the present, in the moment problems. And there are three main political dimensions over which we should reflect, to find ways to advance the cause of social justice even in these difficult conditions of a globalized world. First of all, there is the instant culture; the most important thing is the next election.
Then we have that politics now is not the confrontation between two political and historical projects but the territory of negotiations; you give me something and I give you something. It is not anymore the dynamic of social struggle but the dynamics of negotiations calling the shots. This is now called political realism, pragmatism. The end justifies the alliances. And last but not least, social justice efforts are changed into the entertainment culture. Our main concern now it is the candidate not the program as before.
4. Last reflections: the challenges
Quo vadis El Salvador? Which are the main challenges? Which are the levels of popular support? Which are the new epistemologies? We need to research both in our history and our reality of the new ideas, the alternative, subversive, emancipator, rupture, erased, silenced and unknown ideas. And be clear that these kinds of ideas, the decolonizing thinking, the new epistemologies, only grow in the fields of struggle. Hope only comes from struggle, there is no other way.
We need to reflect about what we have done and what we need to do as a left force and as a social and popular movement, even here at this university. One of the most important lessons of this last ten years is that is not just a matter of running for office and winning elections.
There is the need to deepen and institutionalize the social programs changes because elections are a risky business, people can change and this system of representative democracy plays by the rule of alternating. The game said that after my turn, is your turn, and we are all happy because we all win. In fact this game is only possible if you do not touch the interests of real forces as the army, entrepreneur sector, transnational capital and United States government. What we are witnessing regarding the new relations with China it is a clear example of this. It is a clear challenge to the United States Empire.
The political design of the capitalist state is to guarantee the continuity of the system. And that is the reason why the left and popular forces must have a long term program of social and economic transformations, to break with the system. The capitalist state reproduces by its own nature authoritarian and discriminatory measures however the political force in charge of the government. We need not to forget that we live under a capitalist state and that it is a state designed to safeguard the interest of the ruling class.
That is why we as social and political left need to fortify our proposal, our strategic project, our vision, course, horizon, alternative model in all fields, in education, health, international relations, housing, security, etc. We must use our presence in the national government both as a device of social transformations, and also as a device of citizen’s organization, of building what we called popular power.
When you are in the government there is a tendency to repeat the old ways of doing politics. And this is very risky because we need to know that people are not only supporting us but also watching us, analyzing how we behave at the national government. People are confident, but if we fail them, we will pay the price for sure, as it happened in last March elections.
The political support to the left as result of its participation in the struggle against the military dictatorship and the recent social programs, is wearing down. This is a fact. We must be ready for the new challenges. We must be ready to win a third term in the national government, as a strategic move, but also be ready in case of becoming the political opposition.
There is also the need to win the hearts and minds of the people for changes in our attitude towards our traditional authoritarian culture. This is a complex, day by day, responsibility as left political force. There are steps ahead but there are also the chances of setbacks, because we are not the owners of the feelings of the people. We must not reproduce relationships based on Authoritarian rule but to build a dialogue culture, a tolerance culture, a critical culture, a culture based on the international solidarity and the political commitment to social justice.
We must keep dreaming and at the same time building a new society based not in competence but cooperation; and we must begin to live in this society now in our neighborhoods and our offices. It is a dream and can turn into a reality. We can do it. It depends on us. It is very important to open our hearts to the suffering, to the pain of the majority of our people. Only if we respond to the pain of our neighbor, of our comrade, we can reach a new level of humanity, and we will be able to break with the historical individualistic standard, we will be able to break with indifference.
That is why the suffering provoked by this capitalist system is a central category for a new ethic, for a new epistemology from the south. Memory is important too. We are inheritors of a history of suffering, of oppression and exploitation, but also of struggle. Many times we have been beaten, but never defeated.
It is also crucial to know that from above, coming from the capitalist state; it is not possible to perform structural changes without the risk of a setback. Cultural and politic changes occur only if we mix above and below. If changes are only from below they tend to stay in denunciation and protest, while if they are from above only, they contribute to relations of patronage and demobilization. The key is to build popular power.
There is also the question of promoting from the government a request culture instead of a fighting culture. It is very dangerous because at the end if we cannot give them goods, they will look for others. And for Conservatives, for the political right, patronage, clientelism, is part of its political culture, of its history, coming from the historical ruling parties PRUD, PCN, PDC and now ARENA.
Our challenge is to break off with the hegemonic ideology or to coexist with the system of capitalism-patriarchy-racism and this break off , this search for new epistemological ideas, cannot be a formal one, but in our daily practice, in the values of our personal life, in the relationships among our family, with our pets, with our neighbors, with our environment, with our coworkers, party comrades, in the coop, in the church, in the soccer team, in the university, in facebook, etc.
Our family setting is fundamental, and I want to emphasize that is related to the way we deal with the violent influence of what is called hegemonic Masculinity, closely linked to homophobia and to gender violence. Also is related to the way how we process the need of new epistemologies, with new and alternative masculinities.
We need to recognize that some of us are oppressors inside our families, with our wives, children, even with our mother, with our grandpa and grandma, and at the same time we are very liberal, tolerant, smart organized people in the political left, in the university, kin academic circles; also some of us are oppressed husbands in our homes, and oppressors in our classrooms with ours students.
All these are roads that we must learn to walk daily, every moment, to be faithful with our liberating ideas, with our discourses, with new epistemologies, because as Paulo Freire used to say, not one is born learned, but everybody learns together. Thank you!

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