The world’s eight richest people own as much wealth as the poorest half of the world’s population (3.5 billion people). Countries are destroyed (from Iraq to Afghanistan, from Libya to Syria, and chances are that the next victims will be either Iran or North Korea) in the name of values that are supposed to protect them or make them prosper, whether human rights, democracy, or the primacy of international law. Never before has the possibility of a nuclear war been so much discussed.
North-American taxpayers have paid millions of dollars for the most powerful non-nuclear bomb ever dropped on Afghanistan tunnels, built in 1980 with their own money, which was managed by the CIA, to promote Islamic radicals in their fight against the Soviet occupation of the country, the same radicals who are now fought against as terrorists. In the meantime, Americans are losing their access to healthcare and are misled into believing that their problems are caused by Latin emigrants, who are poorer than themselves. Just like Europeans are misled into believing that their own wellbeing is threatened by refugees rather than by the imperialist interests who are forcing so many people to exile. Just like black South-Africans, impoverished by a badly negotiated end to apartheid, have racist, xenophobic attitudes towards black immigrants from Zimbabwe, Nigeria, or Mozambique, who are as poor as they are, because they believe that these emigrants are the cause of all their woes.
Meanwhile, cute, cuddly images of Silvio Berlusconi bottle-feeding little lambs to protect them from being sacrificed at Easter are disseminated worldwide, but it doesn’t occur to the viewers that during these short TV minutes thousands of children are dying for lack of milk. Or the dismembered bodies buried in clandestine ditches that keep being found in Mexico but do not make the headlines, while the boundaries between the State and drug trafficking become more and more porous. Or the frightening thought that Brazilian democracy is bound to die the day a Congress full of crazed politicians, most of whom corrupt, manages to destroy the rights of workers that took a whole fifty years to be acquired – an aim which Brazilian politicians seem to be achieving too easily for now. There will eventually be a moment when societies (and not just some “enlightened” individuals) will come to the conclusion that this simply cannot go on.
However, the negativity of the present will never suffice for that. Negativity exists only insofar as that which it denies is visible or imaginable. A dead end can be converted into a way out if the wall at the end of it has the false transparency of the infinite or the ineluctable. Because it is false, this transparency is as compact as the dark wilderness by means of which nature, or the gods, used to bar the paths of humanity in the past. Where does this opaqueness come from if nature is now an open book and the gods an airport book? Where does this transparency come from if the more nature reveals itself the more it becomes exposed to destruction, if the gods can be used for trivializing both inconsequent belief and the horror of hate and war?
There is something terminal about the condition of our times which proves to be an endless terminality. It is as if abnormality possessed an unusual energy to transform itself into a new normality and we felt terminally healthy instead of terminally ill. This condition derives from the paroxysm of the radical instrumentalism of Western modernity, socially, culturally, and politically. Modern instrumentality consists in the total supremacy of ends over means as well as in the concealment of the interests behind the choice of ends in the form of falsely universal imperatives, or of falsely natural inevitabilities. Ethically, this instrumentality enables those who have economic, political, or cultural power to present themselves socially as champions of causes while they are in fact champions of things.
This instrumentality has taken two distinct, albeit twin forms of extremism: rationalist extremism and dogmatic extremism. These are two ways of thinking that admit of no counter-arguments, two ways of acting that do not tolerate resistance. Both are extremely selective and compartmentalized, to the extent that their contradictions do not even appear as ambiguities. Caricatural examples provide ample illustration of what lies beyond them. Heinrich Himmler, one of the top Nazi leaders, who turned torture and the extermination of Jews, Romani people, and homosexuals into a science, used to come home in the evening through the back door in order to avoid waking up his favorite canary. Can the canary be blamed for the fact that Himmler’s affection towards him was not shared with the Jewish people? Or the well-known joke about the Argentine communist who was orthodox to the point of using an umbrella on a sunny day in Buenos Aires just because it was raining in Moscow. Is it possible to deny that behind this brainless behavior there could lie a noble feeling of loyalty and solidarity?
The perversities of rationalist and dogmatic extremism have been fought against through ways of thinking and acting that are announced as alternatives but which are ultimately deadlocks, since their purported solutions are illusory, either because they are excessively pessimistic or because they are excessively optimistic. The pessimistic version is the reactionary project which has now gained a renewed vitality. It is all about generally hating the present as being the expression of a treason or a degradation of a golden past, a time when humanity was less comprehensive and more consistent. The reactionary project shares with rationalist and dogmatic extremism the notion that Western modernity has created too many human beings and that a distinction between humans and sub-humans is necessary, although it does not think that this should come from technical engineering interventions, whether they entail death or race improvement. It suffices that the inferiors be treated as inferior, whether they be women, black people, indigenous peoples, Muslims. The reactionary project never questions its own privilege and duty to decide who is superior and who is inferior. Humans have a right to have rights; sub-humans should be the object of philanthropy to prevent them from becoming dangerous and to defend them against themselves. They may have some rights, but they certainly must always have more duties than rights.
The optimistic version of the fight against rationalist and dogmatic extremism consists in thinking that the struggles of the past were able to irreversibly overcome the excesses and the perversities of extremism and that we are now too humane to believe in the existence of sub-humans. This is reverse anachronistic thinking, which consists in imagining the present as having definitively overcome the past. While reactionary thinking aims to make the present return to the past, reverse anachronistic thinking operates as if the past were not yet the present. Reverse anachronistic thinking makes us live in a postcolonial time with post-colonial imaginaries; because of it, we live in a time of informal dictatorship with imaginaries of formal democracy; we live in a time of racialized, sexualized, murdered, dismembered bodies with imaginaries of human rights; we live in a time of walls, trenches dug along borders, forced exiles, internal displacements, with imaginaries of globalization; we live in times of silencings and of sociologies of absences, with imaginaries of a digital communicational orgy; we live in a time of victims turning against victims and oppressed electing their own oppressors, with imaginaries of liberation and social justice. When the great majorities are only free to be miserable in different ways, it is the misery of freedom that reveals itself.
The totalitarianism of our times announces itself as the end of totalitarianism and, because of this, it is more insidious than former totalitarianisms. We are too many and too humane to follow a single path; on the other hand, however, if paths are many and they go in all directions they can easily become a labyrinth or a skein of yarn, a dynamic field of paralysis, anyway. This is the condition of our times. To exit from it we need to combine the plurality of possible paths with the coherence of a horizon that organizes circumstances and gives them meaning. In order to envisage this combination, and, more, in order to even consider it necessary, other ways of thinking, feeling, and knowing become necessary too. In other words, we need the epistemological break that I have called the epistemologies of the South.
*Boaventura de Sousa Santos is portuguese professor of Sociology at the School of Economics, University of Coimbra (Portugal), distinguished legal scholar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School, and global legal scholar at the University of Warwick. Co-founder and one of the main leaders of the World Social Forum. Article provided to Other News by the author