The following is primarily a discussion of Walter Mignolo, as part of a larger series on decolonial theory and its incompatibility with Marxism and uselessness as both theoretical analysis and praxis. This is preceded by Settlers: Un-Marxist Nonsense and Decolonial Theory: Modern Day Narodism.
As capitalism sinks deeper and deeper into crisis and discredits itself, new theories inevitably arise from the spokespeople of the bourgeoisie, particularly the intellectuals. Some of these theories are openly reactionary and are blatant apologism for capitalist exploitation, and do not even merit refutation, since their hypocrisy and falsehood is demonstrated daily by the atrocious reality of class relations. Others, however, adopt pseudo-radical terminology in order to mislead and misinform people who seek liberation. Walter Mignolo and the decolonial theorists who follow his lead are unwitting servants of the bourgeoisie who fall into the latter camp. Mignolo attempts to establish a third way in philosophy, which in reality is just his own metaphysical idealism. Marx and Engels pointed out that, “The more their [the ideas about social relations] falsity is exposed by life, and the less meaning they have for consciousness itself, the more resolutely are they asserted, the more hypocritical, moral and holy becomes the language of this normal society.” Life shows us that the tendency of capitalist development is to obliterate the differences among the proletariat, reducing them all to machines and bringing their livelihoods as close to a shared absolute minimum as possible. As production is transformed from small individual producers into giant monopolies, in which labor takes on a social character, apartheid and segregation become more and more difficult to maintain. Even the Zionists struggle to maintain their tiny ethnostate with massive investments of military technology from the wealthiest countries, and are forced to resort to more and more barbaric measures to sustain it. Amid these developments, decolonial theorists only assert stronger than ever the power of “coloniality” and give it a supernatural existence that renders it incomprehensible and develop a totally hypocritical practice for fighting it.
In fact, the notions of settler colonialism and decolonization as proposed by decolonial theorists are totally divorced from the heritage the theorists claim. The era of national liberation wars, which is what the word decolonization originally referred to, began during WW2, whereas settler colonialism was only theorized in 1998 by Patrick Wolfe in the book Settler Colonialism and the Transformation of Anthropology. (Before this it was just “colonialism”.) Decolonization originally referred to the national liberation of the African and Asian colonies and the process of the change in administration. Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, considered a foundational text by decolonial theorists, is often abused and its themes of national liberation and violent class struggle twisted to suit academic purposes. It was only in the 90s and 2000s that decolonization took on the additional philosophic meaning of de-centering the West, and was converted into an epistemic project, influenced by post-structuralism. This turn away from the class struggle and towards discourse was caused by the failure of the bourgeois-led national liberation movements (for example, Algeria, Fanon’s study) to fully break with the imperialist countries. It is this failure that characterizes the entire school of thought, but Walter Mignolo in particular, who posits “coloniality” as an inescapable metaphysical fact that exists independent from any particular political or economic relations.
For Mignolo, as he says on page 81 of On Decoloniality, “In this sense, decoloniality is not a condition to be achieved in a linear sense, since coloniality as we know it will probably never disappear.” He continues on pages 113-114:
Coloniality is not reducible to a concept that could be applied or an entity that could be studied in the existing social sciences or humanities to investigate certain historical facts or issues. […] Decoloniality is the exercise of power within the colonial matrix to undermine the mechanism that keeps it in place requiring obeisance. Such a mechanism is epistemic and so decolonial liberation implies epistemic disobedience. [my emphasis]
Mignolo describes colonialism as, above all, an epistemic project, that exists beyond any individual entity or event, like a ghost or Platonic form. It follows, then, that decolonialism is also an epistemic project, and indeed he says as much:
Thus, economy and politics are not transcendent entities but constituted through and by knowledge and human relations. It is knowledge weaved around concepts such as politics and economy that is crucial for decolonial thinking, and not politics and economy as transcendental entities. It follows then that decolonizing knowledge and being (entity) to liberate knowing and becoming what coloniality of knowledge and being prevents to know and become, is at this point the fundamental task of decoloniality, while “taking hold” of the state was the fundamental task of decolonization. What has to be done is very clear, albeit the means of doing it and what to do after doing it are another matter. [pg 136, my emphasis]
First of all, economics and politics are human relations, so the first sentence is meaningless—it is circular to assert that human relations are constituted through and by human relations. Secondly, Mignolo is proposing “decolonizing knowledge and being” as the mission of decolonial theory, as these elements are constitutive of economics and politics. For this reason, Mignolo’s entire theory and practice are idealism. As Marx and Engels explain in The German Ideology, “Just as philosophers have given thought an independent existence, so they were bound to make language into an independent realm. […] Neither thoughts nor language in themselves form a realm of their own, that they are only manifestations of actual life.” The “knowledge and being” which Mignolo claims to be aiming at are not the root of the problem, but the manifestations of the class struggle. (This will become more apparent later when we examine his political economy.) Politics and economics are not “transcendental entities”, that much is true, but neither is knowledge or being. There is no separation between these elements according to the dialectical method, whereas Mignolo’s metaphysical method tries to separate knowledge and being from each other and from politics and economics as part of his larger project of splitting national oppression from the class struggle.
What do I mean by metaphysical method? Metaphysics is above all the assertion that things have an independent existence with a fixed essence, as opposed to dialectics, which is the study of the interconnections of things and their movement. On page 135, Mignolo appears to be grasping at dialectics:
What matters is not economics, or politics, or history, but knowledge. [Continuation of the theme of idealism from before.] Better yet, what matters is history, politics, economics, race, gender, sexuality, but it is above all the knowledge that is intertwined in all these praxical spheres that entangles us to the point of making us believe that it is not knowledge that matters but really history, economy, politics, etc. Ontology is made of epistemology. That is, ontology is an epistemological concept; it is not inscribed in the entities the grammatical nouns name. If we could say today that beyond Western world-sense that privileges entities and beings (ontology; Martin Heidegger’s Being), there are world-senses that privilege relations. A world-sense that privileges relations cannot be understood ontologically because relations are not entities (they are relations among entities). […] Western civilization was built on entities and de-notation, not in relations and fluidity. […] it is through knowledge that entities and relations are conceived, perceived, sensed, and described.
It would be more accurate to say that relations are properties of entities. No entity is able to exist independently in a vacuum, things only exist in relation to and in tension with other things. For example, there is a relationship between the Earth and myself who is standing on it, but this relationship only exists because the mass of the Earth allows it to have enough gravitational force to prevent things from escaping. The proletariat only exists in relation to the bourgeoisie, based on its property of possessing nothing but its own labor—once the bourgeoisie ceases to exist, the proletariat ceases to exist as a class. (The proletariat is the only class capable of this, due to its own unique properties.) The “West” is only able to exist as a concept because there is a non-West, composed of countries that the Western countries export capital to. However, in this passage, aside from the obvious idealism, Mignolo is embracing the metaphysical method. There is no such thing as “Western civilization” and the notion of a Western civilization united by religious/political ideas is purely reactionary. This concept is peddled by the worst spokespeople of the bourgeoisie, who are desperate to conceal the class struggle in the “West” and scapegoat the rest of the world. The only difference between Mignolo and the reactionaries are in their evaluation of the “West”–his outlook complements theirs, instead of negating it. Mignolo plays at building a worldview around “relations”, but he undermines this project by saying relations are “conceived” by knowledge, instead of knowledge being something capable of reflecting relations. The metaphysical method is clearly outlined here:
Decolonial thinking is akin to nonmodern ways of thinking grounded on cosmologies of complementary dualities (and/and) rather than on dichotomies or contradictory dualities (either/or). In Mesoamerican and Andean civilizations the consecration of the Sun and the Moon was a consecration of the necessary complementarity for the regeneration of life, of all life: the life of organisms that can tell stories and the life of organisms that are not telling stories but belong to the same world. I argue that in the sixteenth century of the Christian era, many civilizations were organized and living within cosmologies that, in contradistinction with Greek cosmology reframed by Christian theology and the European Renaissance, did not operate in accordance with the logic of contradiction and even less with the logic of binary opposition. […] In the next section, we will explore the constitutive acts of coloniality: the invention, transformation, and management of colonial and imperial epistemic and ontological differences. [pg 155-6]
Mignolo appears to be adopting the reactionary philosophy of “two combines into one” with his endorsement of “complementary dualities” in place of “contradictory dualities”–in other words, class collaboration in place of class struggle. This is metaphysical instead of dialectical because he conceives of things as separated from each other instead of existing in tension. No relationship can be characterized as an “and” relationship without stripping the relationship of its real content. For instance, there is no West and non-West. These two entities only exist in tension, defined by the violent oppression of one by the other. The day the West ceases to exploit the third world, it ceases to exist as the West, and west becomes nothing but a direction on a compass. On page 156, Mignolo says, “Decolonially speaking, oppositions are… imaginary entities created by the enunciator and the apparatus of enunciation.” If oppositions are purely imaginary, then it logically follows that class struggle is purely imaginary, and indeed the entirety of natural science is imaginary! Is the opposition between negative and positive charge imaginary, is the opposition between mankind and nature imaginary, as Mignolo implies on page 157? On page 147 Mignolo rejected the notion of a “totalitarian totality”, and says that decolonial theory must be “pluriversal”–so on what authority can he reject the notion of contradictory dualities? Pluriversality implies the coexistence of different outlooks, so why shouldn’t dialectics coexist (or rather, struggle) with metaphysics? This sort of thinking can only arise through a metaphysical separation between thought and matter, and the arbitrary selection of some ideas over others. This arbitrary selection happens on pages 180-181: “For someone like Quijano, who came from Marxism, to introduce race/racism over class/classism was a radical move.” Not only was this not a radical move but a reactionary one, but even Mignolo admits on page 182 that race “does not have a known history before the colonization of America”–if class existed independent of race, but race is not known to exist independent from class, then why choose it as a determining factor? This brings us to Mignolo’s catastrophic distortion of political economy.
Mignolo’s metaphysical and idealist thought leads him to naked hypocrisy in the realm of political economy. Mignolo strips everything of its class content and reduces relations to relations between “institutions” and “people”, such as in this interview, where he states:
The other direction concerns transforming the existing institutions; changing the terms and not simply the content of the conversation. This means that we (and I mean all of us on the planet) need a civilizational horizon that places the life of the planet, meaning our lives, too, first and the institutions second. The point I was trying to make in the 2009 interview, which you mentioned at the beginning of this dialogue, is that currently life is at the service of the institutions, and what is needed is to put the institutions at the service of life. If we achieve this, we will not have environmental catastrophes like the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico and numerous other disasters. We will not have problems with the commercialization of medicine and pharmacology and the commodification of food; that is, people making money off of treating food and water as a commodity rather than as basic human rights.
Are institutions naturally occurring phenomena, like an earthquake or hurricane? Obviously not. There is no separation between institutions and the people that make them up and give it its class character. The problem, then, is not that there exists institutions, or that they do not serve people, but that the institutions serve the wrong people. It is not possible to turn an institution erected for the purpose of exploitation into an institution that value the life of the planet and people. This is not solely a theoretical error, however. What appears to be a minor omission blossoms into full-blown hypocrisy in the same interview:
And I do not see any way out of it, unless you delink from the Western logic that is common to both political theory and the political economy: the invisible hand that privileges the economy (liberalism, neo-liberalism) and the strong state that privileges regulations (socialism, communism). Another logic is needed, and that logic is decoloniality. Sukarno understood this when at the Bandung Conference he proposed neither capitalism nor communism, but decolonization.
Once again, he strips politics of its class content in order to equate capitalism and socialism and reduce them both to a question of regulation versus liberalism. But by stripping politics of its class content, like every third-positionist, he leaves himself open to fascist collaboration, which was what Sukarno did during WW2. Sukarno was a collaborator for imperialist Japan, and during his rule he tried to reconcile the PKI and the bourgeois military leaders, which ended in disaster. The Bandung Conference, and the later non-aligned movement, which he praises in the introduction to On Decoloniality, were also immense failures. The non-aligned movement was established in Yugoslavia, and all it achieved was splitting the communist bloc and allowing Western imperialism to establish an outpost in Eastern Europe. Saudi Arabia, a feudal state and loyal servant of American imperialism is a member—would Mignolo be so delusional as to claim they have anything to do with decolonization? (They are members alongside Yemen, as well—the NAM is as powerless as it is incoherent.) Mignolo even resorts to blatant capitalist apologia on page 223 in On Decoloniality, when he claims, “Capitalist economy has made possible political dewesternization.” Capitalism is responsible for everything he claims to be criticizing, from colonialism to Western hegemony to racism, all of which have depended on the accumulation of capital by the minority at the expense of the immiseration of the majority. At the same time, he attacks communism, both in the interview and on page 222 of the book, by saying, “The defeat of capitalism was intended several times in the name of Marxism. And several times it failed because Marxism remained within the frame of CMP. [Colonial Matrix of Power]” It was only in the communist countries that “political dewesternization” was accomplished, and it was in the countries where the national liberation movements never developed past the bourgeois democratic revolutions that the West continued to dominate. On page 140, Mignolo graces us with his criticism of Marxism:
Coloniality is to decoloniality what the unconscious is to psychoanalysis, what surplus value is to Marxist political economy, and what biopolitics is to Foucauldian archaeology. The difference between coloniality and surplus value or biopolitics is that the latter concepts belong to the inward trajectory of European history and culture and originated in Europe. Coloniality, by contrast, originated in the Third World and belongs to the outward history of Europe.
Mignolo here denies the essence of capitalist exploitation, and even colonialism, by claiming that surplus value as a concept is European and is therefore incapable of explaining the phenomena of “coloniality”. Was colonialism the result of the laws of capitalist accumulation, and is “coloniality” the residue of this ongoing historical process, or is coloniality simply the result of European epistemology? It is here that the limits of decolonial theory, with its lofty aspirations, are laid bare. Despite claims to deepening the understanding of struggles in the Third World and establishing a new theory and practice for the modern age, decolonial theory is nothing but a trend of lazy metaphysical thinking and collaborationism on the part of intellectuals. The only way to liberate the people of the Third World is through the defeat of imperialism, which includes the Third World bourgeoisie who are the allies of the imperialists and oppress their own people and keep their nations dependent on the First World. The national bourgeoisie, regardless of leaders like Sukarno or Qaddafi or Tito who play at establishing a third way, will always prefer imperialist domination over proletarian revolution. So long as capital is allowed to flow freely from the global North to the global South and back, the imperialist countries will remain dominant, economically, politically, and ideologically, and will keep reactionary ideas such as racism alive.
The ideas of “changing the hegemonic knowledge” (On Decoloniality, 178) and “the imperiality of power in the modern/colonial world is written not by guns and armies but by the words that justify the use of guns and armies” (140) are a negation of anti-imperialist struggle under the guise of anti-imperialism. Mao Zedong was entirely correct when he said political power grows out of the barrel of a gun. There is not a hint of utopianism or idealism in this formula, unlike Mignolo’s work, which is nothing but utopianism and idealism and flimsy justification for class collaboration.
To conclude, Mignolo and the decolonial theorists at large do not understand dialectics or even basic political economic concepts. (“Global political society” and many other phrases devoid of meaning are employed.) The same tendencies that have created immeasurable suffering for billions have given rise to the material basis for the emancipation of humanity. But this emancipation can only be brought about through the conscious action of the workers—it is not guaranteed. We must use every injustice, racial, gendered, economic, etc, to rally the workers, expose the material source of these injustices, which is capitalist exploitation, grasp class struggle as the key link, and fight. In the meantime, the intellectuals that have chosen to tie themselves to the bourgeoisie will continue to struggle against their own phantoms parallel to the actual class struggle that goes on outside of academia. It is the proletarian intellectuals’ task to refute the misleading theories before they develop into full-blown trends within the communist movement, as economism and mechanical materialism have. Decolonial theory masquerades as radical and liberatory while only furnishing vague platitudes and weak idealistic criticisms of existing conditions, and for this reason its influence must be fought against.