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Home > 2024 > Democracy, Distrust and Epistemic Disobedience | Cássius Guimarães (...)

Mainstream, VOL 62 No 16-17, April 20, April 27, 2024

Democracy, Distrust and Epistemic Disobedience | Cássius Guimarães Chai

Saturday 20 April 2024


The prestigious Academy of Social Sciences of China, its Legal Institute, and other Sino-Republican institutions invited us to participate in the critically important 3rd International Forum on Democracy and Shared Human Values, a significant event held on March 20 in Beijing. Professor Ash Narain Roy and other illustrious social scientists, humanists and think tank representatives also took part in the forum. This gathering of about three hundred researchers and professors of law, economics, social communicators, political scientists, diplomats, anthropologists, and sinologists was a platform for in-depth discussions on democracy, its challenges, its ontology, its inconsistencies, and social results.

At this event, Professor Mo Jihong, director of the Legal Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, unveiled the findings of the 2023 Global Survey Report on China’s Democratic Practice and Modernization Development. This comprehensive study, spanning over 20 countries with diverse age, economic, and gender demographics, presented a remarkable insight: Chinese governance is not only trusted and respected more than the countries of the global north but also internally and externally when it comes to social indicators, decent life, and freedoms. This report, a testament to the evolving landscape of global governance, is a must-read for all those interested in the future of democracy and societal development.

With its impressive adaptability and commitment to societal norms, Chinese society offers a unique engagement model. Its collective pursuit of a dignified life is a unifying force, generating outcomes that uphold a shared sense of dignity. A blend of Confucian moral principles, such as social harmony, hierarchy, loyalty, filial piety, and integrity, coexist with aspirations of equality and liberal individual liberties to foster this cohesion.

Notably, the profound influence of Confucian moral values supports the cohesiveness of Chinese society. The value of social harmony, which underscores the significance of interpersonal relationships and maintaining order, is instrumental in fostering a cohesive and harmonious society. Hierarchy, which emphasizes the importance of respecting authority and seniority, contributes to social order and stability.

Loyalty, which emphasizes devotion to one’s family, friends, and community, is crucial in building trust and social cohesion. Filial piety, which stresses the importance of respecting and caring for one’s parents and elders, helps to forge strong family bonds and social cohesion. Lastly, integrity, which places a premium on honesty, truthfulness, and ethical behavior, is pivotal in building trust and social cohesion.

It is important to note that this process of social cohesion is not achieved at the expense of individual rights and freedoms. Chinese society aspires to achieve a balance between collective and individual goals, recognizing that both are essential for a healthy and prosperous society. Ultimately, it is crucial to acknowledge that there is no absolute right, not in the Americas, among explorers, or in harmed Africa.

In this regard, in the work Democracy and Distrust, John Hart Ely notes that democracy is a system in which everyone can participate and express their views. At the same time, distrust arises when institutions fail to reflect this pluralism.

The failure of democratic institutions to reflect pluralism can lead to a lack of trust in the system. This can stem from practical challenges that lead to severe multidimensional inequality and inequity. As a result, it is crucial to ensure that Western democracies’ promise to protect human dignity is achieved coherently. This can be succeeded by bridging the gap between conceptual assumptions and practical implementation, thereby restoring trust in the democratic system and ensuring that everyone’s voice is heard.

For example, in a democracy where only certain groups have access to political power and decision-making processes, marginalized communities may feel unheard and disenfranchised. This can perpetuate systemic inequalities in education, healthcare, and employment opportunities, widening the gap between different social groups. By promoting inclusivity and engaging with marginalized voices in the decision-making process, democratic institutions can work towards creating a more equitable society where all individuals have equal opportunity to thrive.

To achieve this goal, it is essential for policymakers and leaders to actively seek out and amplify the voices of those who have been historically marginalized or oppressed. This can involve creating platforms for these individuals to share their perspectives, providing resources and support for their participation in political processes, and addressing the root causes of their exclusion.

By focusing on the experiences and needs of marginalized communities in decision-making, democratic institutions can better understand and address the systemic barriers that prevent equal access and opportunity for all. Additionally, by actively working to dismantle these barriers and create a more inclusive society, democratic institutions can help to build trust and solidarity among all members of society, fostering a sense of shared responsibility and collective well-being.

Argentine semiotician and professor at Duke University Walter Mignolo’s prediction about the reasons for epistemic disobedience is an essential reminder that colonized people must break away from the rhetoric and logic of colonizing modernity. Mignolo,who is best known for his work on colonialism, decoloniality, and border thinking, suggests that under the charm of neoliberalism and the fascination of the media that support it, modernity, and modernization, together with democracy, are marketed as a tourist package to the promised land of happiness.

However, this package is not available to everyone. Those who reject this package or have differing views on the organization of the economy and society become vulnerable to various forms of violence, both direct and indirect. He argues that the modern world system is rooted in colonialism and that the logic of modernity is built upon a Eurocentric view of the world.

Mignolo advocates for epistemic disobedience as a means for colonized peoples to reject the dominant logic of modernity and reclaim their own ways of knowing and being in the world.

Mignolo’s warning is lucid and remains relevant today. He reminds us not to think that the distorted rhetoric that presents modernity as a universal, global, and inevitable process hides its dark side: the constant reproduction of colonialism.

Therefore, it is essential to unravel the perverse logic of modernity and colonialism and the political and economic structure of imperialism and colonialism, as pointed out by Fanon. To do this, we must consider decolonizing our knowledge and our existence, that is, our mind and imagination.

For example, the ongoing economic exploitation and disenfranchisement of Indigenous communities in Latin America by multinational corporations is a direct result of colonialism and imperialism. This process requires a shift in our understanding of history, power dynamics, and how knowledge is produced and disseminated. It also involves amplifying Indigenous voices and perspectives and centering their experiences and knowledge in our education systems and institutions.

By decolonizing our understanding, we can begin to dismantle the systems of oppression that have been perpetuated for centuries and work towards a more just and inclusive society for all.

It is important to note that while Western democracies often promote equality and human rights, history has shown that these principles have not always been upheld in practice. The colonial governments in Canada, Australia, and the United States forcibly removed Indigenous children from their families and communities, leading to the loss of language, culture, and identity for generations of Indigenous people. Similarly, the legacy of slavery and racism in the United States and in Brazil is rooted in the history of colonialism and the forced labor of African people in the Americas.

Furthermore, Western colonial powers exploited natural resources and labor in Africa, which has resulted in environmental degradation, poverty, and social unrest in many African countries. These actions were not only immoral but also contradictory to the principles of democracy and equality that are often upheld by Western democracies.

It is, therefore, essential to acknowledge that Western democracies have also struggled with prejudice and racial and Indigenous disenfranchisement of economically vulnerable populations. The principles of democracy and equality must be upheld in practice, not just in rhetoric, and those in power must be held accountable for their actions.

Criticism of Asian democracies for their supposed "lack of freedom" often fails to recognize the complexities of the situation, particularly the unique historical and cultural contexts that shape these societies. Moreover, such criticism frequently overlooks the economic, social, and political disenfranchisement experienced by marginalized populations in Western democracies.

It is crucial to engage in critical discussions that acknowledge and address these contradictions rather than making superficial critiques based on narrow assumptions.
Mignolo’s prediction is a call to action that invites us to question the status quo and challenge the dominant narrative of modernity and progress.

It reminds us that the epistemological frameworks we use to understand the world shape it and are not neutral but rather rooted in power relations. Therefore, to achieve true liberation, we must engage in epistemic disobedience and decolonize our minds and imaginations. Doing so will pave the way for a more just and equitable future.

And if the Brazilian poet Manuel Bandeira, listening to Hart Ely in inter-temporary dialogue with Walter Mignolo, pontificated on China today, I think he would say:

In the vastness of Beijing, under silk skies,
Where the dragon wakes up and the story tells itself,
The minds gathered, in the 3rd open forum,
To weave the threads of democracy and trust, and,
The sense of realizing human values.

Ely, in his wisdom, spoke to us of mistrust,
Questioning is the foundation of a democracy.
Among those who actively participate, insist, and persevere,
By challenging itself, governance improves.

Mignolo, the rebellious, cried out for disobedience,
To create a new, decolonized episteme,
From the perspective of psychosocial self-recognition,
Where do the East and the West engage in dialogue?
Where the South Cartesian is also the steering wheel of its ship,
And China, in its growth, reinvents itself and,
It moves the paradigmatic axis of power expression away from its territory.

People witness events on the streets of Beijing.
The quality of life is rising.
The confidence indices are rising.
And governance to consolidate,
But, in the end, is it possible to reach the Promised Land by another route than that of the discoverer?

From analog to digital, a transition is made,
With AI and IoT, the vanguard is established,
And China, in its technological march,
To the world, a new citizenship offers, and,
What appears to reduce the risks associated with the absence of absolute rights?
Functional patient discipline.

And in the end, the data tells us stories,
More than 750 million lives,
Withdrawn from poverty and sheltered at the forefront of the civilizational process,
of economic and psychosocial power,
Of military forces and advanced science,
Of the political leadership that becomes essential,
Supported by the Confucian ontology of collective value and,
For the democracy of results that dignifies the individual at the end of the day.

In industrialization, in technological disruption,
China stands out prominently,
And the world observes, attentive and curious,
The rise of a new power.

(Author: Cássius Guimarães Chai is Associate Professor of the Federal University of Maranhão (MA/BRA) and the Faculty of Law of Victoria (ES/BRA))

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