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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 42, New Delhi, October 3, 2020

Requiem for a Decolonial Discourse: Revisiting Walter Mignolo in the Times of a Pandemic | Sruthi Kalyani

Friday 2 October 2020

by Sruthi Kalyani

“The third kingdom is the kingdom of consequences. This is the kingdom where the three almighty powers show their true face. This is the layer the vast majority of people are able to see, even if with some difficulty. At present, this kingdom possesses two main landscapes where it shows itself at its most visible and most cruel: the scandalous concentration of wealth / extreme social inequality; the destruction of life on the planet / imminent ecological catastrophe. With these two brutal landscapes, the three almighty beings and their mediations offer a glimpse of where we are heading if we persist in viewing them as almighty. But are they really all-powerful? Or is it the case that their omnipotence is just the mirror of the induced incapacity of human beings to fight them? That’s the question.” —Boaventura de Sousa Santos[1]

In a rather radical piece written two decades ago, Richard Levins, in his article ‘Is Capitalism a Disease?’[2], warned us of an existing ‘self-imposed intellectual constriction’ that prevailed in the then scientific community. He was concerned about the myopic visions of healthcare systems that merely focused on the agent of a disease, failing to move beyond to investigate the structural fallacies that made victims vulnerable to the disease. Levins’ critique of the public health system still holds disturbingly true, only to be realized by the ongoing pandemic. Public health systems, by surrendering themselves to reductionism, have failed “to look at world history, to look at other species, to look at evolution and ecology, and, finally, to look at social science”, he worried. He put forward a way ahead stressing a need for the existing institutions to shift from ‘epidemiological transitions’ and move towards an integrated system that considers aspects of ecology, justice, and other social determinants of health. Levins’ twenty-year-old article brings in two themes to focus on — one, the perils of capitalism and its associated agencies in perpetuating disasters, and second, the intellectual constraints we face that demand epistemological reconstitutions and alternative options to the rescue. Amidst the pandemic are our ruminations — on how capital is the actual problem, and definitely not the solution. Is the pandemic mediating a reconfiguration of the world order? Is Covid-19 an anti-capitalist agent, urging us to rethink options and modes? A plethora of questions surrounds us.

Every day since the pandemic is a reminder of the benign neglects of the neoliberal policies and the resulting structural fallacies that mutated in ways mightier than the virus. On the front of knowledge production, despite the Western media’s attempts to territorialise and stamp the origins of the virus, the failure of the so-called saviours to effectively respond to the crisis is a call for emancipation from the Eurocentric politics of knowledge.

An ‘evolutionary pressure cooker’[3] of capitalist agriculture and urbanisation, as rightly noted by an article put forth by the Chuang Collective, is lying beneath to be burst. Only an academic unraveling that is free of intellectual biases can disseminate accounts on how disease outbreaks are perpetuated by a system that supports capitalistic industrialisation. However, more often, the trend is that the ideological high seats which view pandemics as a characteristic feature of underdeveloped societies, miss to bringing the role of the westphalian state and its institutional (in)capacities to critical discourse. Our tasks, as scholars, are now plenty. With the help of Walter Mignolo’s decolonial option, we must revisit certain alternative thoughts — first, rewesternisation’s task of “reimagining the future of capitalism” and dewesternisation’s task of confronting the western frame of capitalism, and second, more importantly, the necessity of epistemic disobedience and a de-colonial freedom as a possible road of the future. Throughout, shifting the attention from ‘the enunciated to the enunciation’ should remain the ultimate motive and lesson.

The Pandemic and the Metabolic Rifts

First, let us look at the ‘evolutionary pressure cooker of capitalistic agriculture and urbanisation’. Capitalist production, according to Marx, tends to disturb the metabolic interaction between man and nature. To him, “all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time is a progress toward ruining the more long-lasting sources of that fertility”[4]. Extending this theory of metabolic rift to the realms of climate change, biodiversity, and other forms of man-nature interaction, scholars like John Bellamy Foster have worked to warn us how the dynamics of capitalistic production and its drive to accumulate capital have caused most of today’s ecological crises. This is now discerned by the etiologies of how virulent stains massively spread due to capitalist production, and consequently through the global commodity circuits. It is now doubtless that globalisation remains a means that has aggravated the circulation of viruses, not only by facilitating rapid spatial spread via the value chains it has created, but also the temporal sustenance of the virus by facilitating its mutation and resilience. The history of pandemics, as the authors of the Chuang Collective have observed, has a vivid pattern. First, the disease breaks out on a massive scale that is triggered by the capitalist modes of circulation. Then comes the Western/modern knowledge which aims to inhibit the spreading for the short term by initiating mass culling of the vectors. The killing of the vectors (mainly the cattle) and the consequent ecological imbalance would cause a famine, thereby making the land infertile and incapable of being restored to an agricultural set-up. The vacancy of the land attracts colonial forces to step in and expand. A web of interlinked issues opens up in such a scenario. The problems are manifold in this capitalist mode of production that is backed by the logic of coloniality — (1) An irreversible rift between man and his ecosystem is created (2) Ecosystems are destroyed, and anything that is non-human on the way is sanctioned to be destroyed. (3) Agricultural land is converted into industrial clusters (4) Appropriation of land and colonial expansion takes place, only to continue the cycle of capital accumulation. Furthermore, more importantly, these capitalist interests, having control of authority and knowledge, falsely attribute the disease outbreaks, not to the change in ecological patterns caused by them, but to the “uncleanliness” of the other world.

Mignolo comes in here, with his decolonial option. The decolonization process started during the Bandung Conference in 1955, has proved to be insufficient in the sense that the pressure cooker of capitalistic agriculture and urbanisation keeps steaming even in today’s outbreak. Mignolo makes a deliberate distinction between decolonisation and decoloniality, and proceeds to advocate the latter. He makes it clear — while decolonialisation clung to the western ideas of political theory and economy, decoloniality aspires to detach and rethink everything that was vested with the logic of coloniality. Hence, capitalism, even after various trials and projects of decolonialisation, is still being the single type of economy that prevails throughout the Western and Non-Western horizons. What we need now is decoloniality — a road that would lead not only to question the logic of coloniality but also will provide pathways for epistemological disobedience and independent thought processes. The fundamental political structures that produce knowledge have to be questioned. The global capitalist system that normalised the politicisation of the natural sphere has to be confronted and contested with explorations of alternate options. This is the main idea of decoloniality.

The Ailing State and its Repressive Behaviour:

Putting the state to the primacy is another aspect of Western/modern legacy. For Mignolo, the Westphalian notion of a nation-state in which we are stuck for centuries now is a major hindrance that confines epistemological explorations. The state forms the primary element of the colonial matric of power. Decolonisation projects in Africa and Asia, albeit sending back the coloniser, retained the structure of nation-state at their very homes. The political elite of the colonised states, after independence, adapted the colonial structures of governance, as if there were no better alternatives. Repression by the state was then legitimised, for it provided an ‘order’.

Statecraft, they say, is best gauged at the times of a crisis. Take the case of this pandemic. When a crisis prolongs, states tend to become repressive, with an underlying obsession of ‘restoring normalcy’. A repressive state does harm in two ways — one, it diverts and dilutes the imminent crisis that ought to be given prompt attention; and second, it curtails alternative modes of authority, voices, knowledge, and practices, thereby circling authority to the established colonial matrix of power. This pandemic is an exposure of state incapacity and its repressive behaviours. From arresting the whistleblowers, hiding infrastructural inefficiencies, to violating international law, the state of China clearly mishandled the pandemic. Our case back home is no different. We are in a mess stuck between the pandemic and the state-sanctioned forces within. International institutions have further worsened the situation by creating a set of norms and bodies that remain silent owing to the safe ‘principle of non-intervention’. These bodies are again dominated by the erstwhile colonisers, and hence the habits of colonial administration are well-evident in their political organisations. Therefore, the state, despite its incapacity, comes out clean and unquestioned, neither by its people nor by the inter-state system.

A decolonial intervention aims to delink the state of affairs from the existing system of the nation-state. Looking beyond and away from the frame of histories, languages, knowledge, and authorities that the Western modernity constructed for us, decolonial options nudge us to actively engage in border-thinking.

The Sociology of Absences as a Decolonial Option:

With capitalism backed by neo-liberal policies on the one hand and a repressive state that contains its subjects on the other, we are now double-trapped. An important aspect to scrutinise at this juncture is the growing number of discourses embedded in the rhetoric of modernity. These are the market forces that would have the audacity to view a human tragedy not as a systemic problem, but as an opportunity to accumulate capital. Markets consider the pandemic as yet another ‘black swan’ moment, making way for parochial policy processes that would focus just on the bulging point of the curve, ignoring the fatality of the flat tails.[5] Capitalists take the stage, again, by formulating proposals that aim to “create opportunities”, to diversify supply chains, to shift their epicentres of production, and thus bring out a new urbanisation process that is fundamentally rooted at the idea of accumulation of capital. The capitalist economy, according to David Harvey[6], never cares for disease prevention and/or disaster preparedness. It focuses more on the cure and pharmaceutical options because only that adds to the accumulation of wealth, not the preventive healthcare structures. What’s disturbingly fascinating to note are the capitalist aspirations of utilising the pandemic to build on consumerism, that is both experiential and compensatory in nature. ‘Netflix economy’, as Harvey terms it, is now flooded with Western narratives of pandemic anxieties and exaggerated portrayals of the “dirty” lifestyles of developing economies. This is typical of a hegemonic capitalist structure and its impact on the cultural and the epistemological paradigm. Boaventura de Santos calls this the ‘celebratory postmodernity’ wherein the dominant classes make portrayals only of their particular experiences, making the dominated classes either invisible or ignorant. With the economy and polity serving the elites, the experiences of the suppressed go unnoticed. To overcome this, de Santos comes up with the concept of the ‘Sociology of Absences’, which may serve as an effective decolonial option. The Sociology of Absences is a procedure that “invents or unveils whatever social or political conditions, experiments, initiatives, conceptions have been successfully suppressed by hegemonic forms of globalisation”.[7] Consider the pandemic situation, where the voices of migrant labourers, daily wage workers, frontline healthcare and sanitation workers, victims who cannot afford out of the pocket healthcare expenditure are all excluded in government responses to the crisis. Erasure of the local in name of going global is one form of hegemony that western capitalism brings into the system. By accounting the silences of the marginalised, the sociology of absences opens up scope for counter-hegemonic narratives that can venture to think beyond the linear engagements. De-linking from the concept of capitalistic globalisation, de Santos discusses two other forms of globalisation — cosmopolitanism and the common heritage of mankind. Epistemological rethinking stems from his argument for transnational sub-politics — which would de-territorialise borders and move away from the concept of the nation-state. This is an option that can break away from the colonial matrix of power.

We are now in a system akin to societal fascism. The importance of revisiting constructive decolonial options cannot be stressed more, with uncertainty haunting us within and around. We need anti-capitalist narratives that will expand our epistemic horizons and propose decolonial alternatives that are viable in the long-term. Will we produce counter-hegemonic knowledge, will we factor in indigenous voices, and will we reinvent communism? Or, will we fall for nationalistic emotions of closing borders, succumbing to the mighty pretensions of a colonial logic that is behind every promise of crisis management? That’s the question.

(Sruthi Kalyani is an independent researcher. She holds a Master’s degree in International Relations from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.)


 [1] Boaventura de Sousa Santos. (2020, April 10). Intellectuals must come to terms with the tragic transparency of the virus. The Wire.

[2] Levins, R. (2000). Is Capitalism A Disease? Monthly Review, 52(4).

[3] Social contagion. (2020, July 11). Chuang.

[4] Marx, Karl. 1976. Capital (vol.1). London: Penguin (p. 637-8)

[5] Avishai, B. (2020, April 21). The pandemic isn’t a Black swan but a portent of a more fragile global system. The New Yorker.

[6] Harvey, D. (2020, March 22). Anti-Capitalist Politics in the Time of COVID-19.

[7] Boaventura de Sousa Santos. (2001). Nuestra America: Reinventing a Subaltern Paradigm of Recognition and Redistribution. Theory Culture Society, 18(2-3), 185-217.

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