Venezuela’s Decolonial School: Rethinking Revolutionary Horizons Beyond Modernity

By LUCAS KOERNER & JOSÉ ROMERO LOSACCO

On October 8-14, hundreds of Venezuelans attended in Caracas the first ever Eco-socialist School of Critical Decolonial Thought of Our America. Featuring world-renowned intellectuals from across Latin America including Mexican-Argentine philosopher Enrique Dussel, Puerto Rican sociologist Ramón Grosfoguel, Bolivian philosopher Juan José Bautista, Mexican feminist theorist Karina Ochoa, Argentine-Brazilian sociologist Hector Alimonda, as well as Venezuelan anthropologist José Losacco Romero, the school was a unique opportunity to debate the decolonization of revolutionary theory and practice in the context of the region’s left-wing political processes, most notably Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution. 

The School was broken up into two parts. First, there was a series of public conferences and fora from October 8 to 12 dedicated to a variety of key themes, including “Marx and Trans-modernity”, “Decolonial Feminisms”, “Decolonization of Knowledge and the Paradigms of Political Economy”, “The Coloniality of Nature in Latin America”, among others. The final two days of the School were devoted to closed seminars reserved for delegates from diverse social movements, who worked directly with the guest professors in applying the decolonial theory to their concrete socio-political practices. 

In order to get a better picture of the School, VA sat down with Dr. José Romero Losacco, who is a professor at the Bolivarian University of Venezuela as head of the Laboratory of Decolonial and Geopolitics of Knowledge Studies at the Venezuelan Institute of Scientific Investigation. As coordinator of the School, Professor Losacco has been a pioneer in promoting debate on decolonization in Venezuelan social sciences, social movements, and within the Bolivarian state. Professor Losacco’s research focuses on the “great divergence” debate concerning the rise of the West and historical and current role of China in the world economic system. 

Can you explain what is the proposal of the Decolonial School? 

From the beginning in 2008 and 2009 when we began to think about the idea of holding a series of schools of this type in Caracas, we have been driven by what we see as the necessity of debating what social transformations mean in the context of the 21st century, in light of what happened in the 20th century under “really existing socialism”. How can we think beyond the limits that encapsulated “really existing socialism”? We consider this debate necessary in Venezuela because here we are promoting the idea of “21st Century Socialism”– in contrast to the political processes in Argentina, Bolivia, or in Ecuador, which march under different banners, and for whom socialism has other connotations. In Venezuela, we are openly talking about 21st century socialism and we consider it necessary to come to terms with the limits of 20th century socialism, but not only in terms of the political errors or the disaster of Stalinism, but also understanding that that there was a deeper problem that was not addressed and this had to do with the question of expectations: 20th century socialism promised to fulfil the expectations of capitalism by other means, by other methods. And what capitalism proposes as a future are the privileges of a very particular sector of society, privileges that cannot be democratized. In this sense, 20th century socialism placed the idea that we are all going to live like the bourgeoisie as its horizon, that we should aspire to be like this privileged class. This is a contradiction that ends up reproducing everything we don’t want.

Reminds me of the old Soviet slogan that the socialist countries had to “catch up with the West”. 

Exactly, and in the Venezuelan case this is deeply difficult to address. I’m not saying that it’s easier to take on this question in other regions, but I do believe that in contexts like Bolivia this type of discussion– though hardly smooth and expressing deep tensions within the Bolivian state and its relationship with indigenous movements– is more acceptable in the sense that it’s a country that is still composed of a indigenous demographic majority. There is another civilizational horizon– not something that was leftover from the past– but one that is reproduced in the everyday life practices of the indigenous majority. That is, in places like Bolivia it’s more feasible to address this discussion– though by no means easier. In contrast, in Venezuela, our daily life is reproduced not just from within the horizon of modernity/coloniality, but particularly within the framework of Venezuela’s petroleum-fueled modernity. In this sense, it’s doubly complex to address these issues, which we believe must be urgently examined outside of the media diatribes that reduce these formulations to propaganda in the context of public opinion.

And you have sought to critique this capitalist modernity not only in Venezuela but in Latin America more broadly from the perspective of a “decolonial thought of Our America” [pensamiento decolonial nuestroamericano]. Can you explain what this means? 

For starters, decolonial thought– beyond the academic jargon we started using to describe ourselves in the last few years– is not new. What I mean is that just because this or that author has coined a term that is now used to draw together a form of critiquing the modern capitalist world-system, that doesn’t mean that this type of critique didn’t exist beforehand. I refer for example to “coloniality”: just because we began to speak of coloniality a short time ago, that doesn’t mean that the critique of colonality didn’t exist, although it would not have used that term. In this sense, the idea of a “thought of Our America” [pensamiento nuestroamericano] has to do precisely with how we valorize as a valid form of knowledge production those concrete and more theoretical practices that were being developed from 1492 onwards, against modernity’s advancing tide. From the very moment that colonization began, there also began a process of struggle against colonization, and this meant not only a struggle in terms of the practice of military revolt or anti-colonial war, but also the production of knowledge that allows us to situate ourselves in a colonial context based on the ethno-racial classification of world populations. It’s no longer just about thinking exclusively from the standpoint of social class as if the working class were going to save us– which didn’t take us very far in the 20th Century. Rather, the dispute is much more complex. In this sense, the idea of “Our America” calls on us to think from the other side of the equation, no longer from the standpoint of the ships that arrived on the continent– as we’ve seen until now. But rather, we leave the ships and we view the process of colonization from the waves, from which forms of evading, escaping, and transgressing the colonial order were and continue to be born.

Evidently there’s a continuity of counter-hegemonic struggle and intellectual production since 1492. However, in the last 15 years, the modernity/coloniality network has succeeded in situating this debate once again on a much more prominent level in Latin America and even in the US. Can you talk about the significance of this intellectual movement of which you form a part? 

I like to think about what we call the modernity/coloniality network in light of a debate that was very vigorous in the mid-20th century: Dependency Theory. Today there is still very little appreciation of the significance of Dependency Theory for social theory in general, not just in Latin America. Dependency Theory is perhaps one of the most important antecedents in social theory– in philosophy one could go a little farther back– of the critique of Eurocentrism. There would have been no Wallerstein and World-Systems Theory without Dependency Theory, without demonstrating the center-periphery relationship that is fundamental for the dependency theorists. This critique of Eurocentrism, which began 50, 60 years ago with the debates by Enrique Dussel and Leopoldo Sea regarding whether a Latin American philosophy exists or not, at a certain moment became interlaced with the debates of Dependency Theory.

Six decades later, after having entered the debates of really existing socialism, Latin America after 1989 finds itself like the rest of the international left, without a foundation from which to critique the world. After the fall of the so-called socialist bloc that occurs in the context of the colonial celebration of 500 years of so-called “discovery” of America in 1992, I think we found ourselves in a new moment of great theoretical production that accompanied the resurgence of popular movements in Latin America. If Dependency Theory was created in a very difficult moment for Latin America, in the midst of dictatorships enveloping the continent, in this case decolonial thought was elaborated in the face of advancing neoliberalism, not only as a critique of neoliberalism, but also critical of postmodernism and a critical revision of really existing socialism. In that moment, doing all that revision, I would say that the modernity/coloniality network has been, following Dependency Theory, the greatest contribution made by Latin American philosophy and social theory to anti-capitalist emancipatory thought on a global scale. And not only because of the impact that it’s having in the US academy, but also its impact in Europe, Africa, Asia, radiating beyond the geographies of this continent. In Europe there are various summer schools associated with decolonial thought. In South Africa, they are holding summits on the decolonization of knowledge, as well as in Malaysia. There is a global network of people working on these issues.

I still can’t tell what will be the conclusions of this process. To be optimistic, I would say that this is the place from which we are challenging ourselves to really think about alternatives to capitalism as alternatives to modernity. Because if we are not conscious that modernity has a hidden face that has to be made visible, and we ultimately continue to believe that modernity is an objective to be pursued, we’ll end up trapped. Perhaps the novelty of decolonial thought has to do precisely with its possibility of opening our eyes to the fact that the problem goes beyond capitalism, which is just an economic sub-system. Rather, the problem is the civilizational model that hides behind a refined, white face, but has a dark past and a darker present. Modernity is the visible face of the West, and coloniality is the condition for the West to emerge as a civilizational identity.

In your own research, you take up the line of investigation that emerged in the context of the debates between Immanuel Wallerstein and Andre Gunder Frank with regard to the so-called “Great Divergence” that saw Europe become the center of a new capitalist world-system. In particular, you focus on the historical role of China, which was only surpassed as the hegemonic world economic power in the 19th Century. Why is this debate important for us in this conjuncture marked by systemic crisis? 

In the 1970s, there was a very arduous debate in Latin America during the effervescence of Dependency Theory– when Gunder Frank was still on the continent– regarding transitions. Basically, they were trying to take stock of what were the conditions for a supposed transition from the feudal mode of production to a capitalist mode of production, and on that basis account for the historical conditions arising in the world for a transition from the capitalist to a socialist mode of production, as it was expressed in the language of that period. In the 21thCentury, 40, 50 years later, these debates were the first steps in what today we call the critique of Eurocentrism. That debate continues to this day, though I don’t think the question of the transition of so-called feudalism to capitalism will ever be resolved. Rather, I think it’s a much more complex discussion that I don’t think we have time to touch on here. I wanted to focus on the fact that for the first time in the history of the capitalist system, of the form of organization of life around capital, a non-Western power has taken the baton and marched to the front of the world economy. This makes us rethink the question of transitions, because all of the data indicates that at least in the economic sense we are apparently experiencing a hegemonic transition. But hegemony is not only economic centrality, but also the centrality of the cultural values of the elite that sustains hegemony. The elite must convince everyone else that their values benefit the rest of the world. We’ll see up to what point China represents a de-westernization of the capitalist economy, an orientalization of capitalism, a westernization of China, or all of these things at the same time.

In this scenario, we have to review what we’ve said about previous transitions in order to look for keys that can help us to comprehend the secular tendencies of the system and to try to take stock of how transitions are proceeding in this moment. And there the data becomes very difficult, because the history of capitalism has always been the history of Europe expanding itself to the rest of the world, which only appears when it is coopted by Europe. What is lacking is a history of how the rest of the world viewed the European expansion– this history has not yet been written, but the data is beginning to emerge that allows us to begin to elaborate the criteria for thinking through this history. This data places in tension the economic hegemony of the West and ergo its cultural hegemony.

This economic data indicates that the West has only been hegemonic for 200 years.  

Or even less, because the manuscripts of Andre Gunder Frank are saying that the European economy only managed to become central in the second half of the 19thCentury. This would mean no more than 150 years of Western hegemony, if we include the United States in that history, since there are debates regarding whether to include it or consider it as its own category. These facts not only call into question the economic hegemony of the West, but also its cultural hegemony that is less than a century old. Personally, I maintain that the 20th century was the century of the Westernization of the planet, concluding a long-term process that the modernity/coloniality network agrees began in the long 16th century. More and more it seems to me that we have to push back that date further: if the four genocides/epistemicides of the long 16th century created the conditions for Europe’s long term assault on the planet, these genocidal conditions were already present before the period. But it is in the long 16th century that these conditions come together for Europe to begin its long march that allow for the Westernization of the planet in the 20th century. It remains to be seen if the 21st century is the century of the de-westernization of the planet, or at least the beginning. De-westernization of the planet does not necessarily mean the end of capitalism– it could be a capitalism with a Chinese face, it could be something else, or it could be something much more terrible than this system. There is no way to predict in this moment exactly what’s going to happen, but I agree with those who say that we are at a point of bifurcation. There are sufficient conditions to think that we facing a limit situation that must resolve itself over the course of this century. It will be resolved in any number of ways: the extinction of the species, the reformulation of capitalism, a global genocide on a scale never before seen, capitalism may continue functioning. Steven Hawkings has said that if we don’t begin the colonization of another planet before the end of the century, humanity will be extinct. Not only elements of social theory and economic theory, but even physics itself is saying we are in a limit situation.

And speaking of limit situations, there has been a lot of controversy in the Decolonial School concerning the Orinoco Mining Arc, a transnational open-pit mega-mining project being promoted by the government in 12% of national territory. Some activists have critiqued the international guest intellectuals for not speaking out against this project. What is your take on this issue?

The school had six professors– five international guests and one Venezuelan, which was me. I find it remarkable that during the question and answer (people wrote their questions on pieces of paper that were handed to the presenter) on the day of my presentation, there was not a single question about the Mining Arc. All of the other guests were pressed in a very vehement manner to take a position on the issue, but the local professor was not asked. This seems very much a case of coloniality of knowledge: “let the international come and sanctify my argument, because if he or she agrees with me, my argument has more weight internally in the country, and therefore I don’t care what the Venezuelan says, nor do I even ask him.” That’s the first point.

Then I would say that the situation of the Mining Arc– just like the Orinoco Oil Belt– is very complicated, and I say this as someone who has public positions against the Mining Arc, it’s not that I’m in favor of the project. I think the state should act with greater transparency. That is, in order to placate the criticism– not to censure it but in order that the criticism is constructive– the state should reveal the details of the agreements, how the negotiations are being carried out. Citizens should know what are the terms of the negotiations with these companies.

Now, Venezuela continues to be a rentier, extractivist state, and if this framework hasn’t been overcome in 17 years, it won’t be in 50 years– which doesn’t mean that we don’t fight to overcome it, but we have to understand the contradictions that we are submerged in. As someone who is against what has been publicly said regarding the Mining Arc– the government’s creation of an Ecological Mining Ministry is a contradiction– I would in the first place request greater transparency in order to have a truly sincere discussion in the extremely complex context in which we find ourselves. Because otherwise the issue of the Mining Arc ends up being instrumentalized by right-wing people or by people who stood beside President Chávez in one moment as ministers, including a minister of the environment, yet said absolutely nothing about the concessions granted in the Orinoco Oil Belt, nor did they ever speak out against coal mining in the Sierra de Perijá. And now they have become the spokespeople of the Platform Against the Mining Arc. Moreover, they blend criticism of extractivism with the political intentions of a right-wing that is demanding a recall referendum. This same right-wing has recently attempted a parliamentary coup against President Nicolas Maduro, which in any country in the global North would have led to the executive dissolving congress without thinking twice and convening new elections with the backing of the international community. Here absolutely nothing happens.

So we are in an extremely complicated situation in Venezuela. There are decisions that we wish weren’t taken, but in a scenario in which you only have a choice between a bad option and a less bad option, you end up choosing the less bad option, although you know it’s not the ideal choice. But scenarios are never ideal and as someone against the Mining Arc I would say that the debate needs to be internal, never situated outside of the process of anti-capitalist, anti-colonial transformations in the country. The comrades who have demanded that the international guests pronounce themselves against the Mining Arc are putting these intellectuals in a very difficult position. If you are invited to the house of a friend and another person comes and asks you to pronounce yourself against that friend, it puts you in a very uncomfortable situation even though you know that your friend has contradictions. The tone of this debate seems to me very disrespectful, above all when I see that they have not asked the Venezuelan. If they had asked me, I would have said that there was a real interest in the issue, but since they only asked the international guests, I question their intentions. Moreover, they had the opportunity to not only ask me as the national professor, but since I also coordinated the school, they would have had a sort of official opinion of the organizers of the school regarding the Mining Arc. But they decided not to, and missed the opportunity.

Although– and it’s important to note– the debate was held in the public sessions of the school, the questions were asked and the international guests responded as they saw fit to respond– I am in no position to judge their answers. If someone doesn’t like how you answered their question, that’s their problem, they shouldn’t have asked the question. Now if I ask a question waiting for the answer I want and I get angry when I don’t get it, that’s problematic. Also in the seminars with the social movements, the Mining Arc was openly discussed, and in one of the seminars, two out of three sessions were dedicated exclusively to the issue in a very critical way. So they can’t say that it wasn’t discussed and many of the comrades who signed the public letter [critiquing the school for allegedly sidelining the issue] knew beforehand that they were going to participate in the seminar and knew that they were going to be able to discuss the issue, because they were chosen to participate on the basis of their activism on the issue of the Mining Arc. So there was a chance to discuss the issue. I leave on the table the question of what were their intentions in having debate in the terms that they sought to frame it.

In light of the success of this first school, what are the next steps? Will you organize more schools in the future?

We are doing an evaluation as a team in terms of how the first school went in order to see what are our future projections. We are already working on what would be our sources of financing for the next school to come. It should be held in October of next year again in Venezuela. We are looking to resolve the issue of financing, with the most difficult part being the airline tickets, which are very expensive due to the international blockade against the Venezuelan economy. Flights originating in Venezuela are much more expensive to the effect that it’s actually cheaper to buy a round trip from Barcelona to Caracas and back then to buy a round trip from Caracas to Barcelona and back. This time we had the support of the Ministry of Eco-Socialism, which bought the airline tickets, but we’ll see what we can do for the next school.

We are also looking at the possibility of building on the networks that have been created a more internal national circuit that doesn’t wait for the international guests in order to meet, but rather develops a methodology to have meetings in the middle of the year or in four months. Everything that I’m saying is speculative because we are in the process of evaluating this possibility to continue driving forward this debate, taking advantage of all the people we’ve mobilized. We had an average of 300 people working every day for 7 days, and it’s important to take advantage of this human capital– this mass of people interested in the discussion. And moreover, many people said during the school that spaces like this are really needed, spaces where we can discuss constructively the problems we are facing together with others who are thinking along the same lines but are trying to build from other places. Perhaps if this school had been held in 2009 when we thought about it for the first time or in 2010, I don’t know if it would have had the same energy as this one had in terms of the moment we find ourselves in.

And what is the significance of this Decolonial School within this historical moment?

In the first place, it shows us that on the margins of the official discourse there is a Chavismo that not only tries to be critical, but doesn’t position itself outside of Chavismo to make the critique. Because we understand that given the polarized character of our political process– which the Venezuelan people decided was going to be a peaceful, electoral process from the start– we have objectively two electoral options. There are two forces that dispute the administrative control of the state on election day. And to situate oneself outside of Chavismo to make the critique is– despite all attempts to quarantine oneself against the effects of polarization–to automatically place oneself in the other camp and give arguments to those with very clear neoliberal intentions.

So in the first instance, the school is the possibility of saying through a platform of international intellectuals that we are here debating: here we are not silencing critique despite the fact that there may be an official sector that doesn’t like that critique. Here there is a Chavismo that is ready to criticize itself and think about alternatives, and moreover considers it urgent to do so. It’s not just a question of intellectual sophistication, but rather of the political urgency of critically taking up some of the decolonial perspectives and practices we’ve discussed up until now in order to push ahead with the transformations in Venezuela. We have to seize on this moment as a leap forward, to give impetus to the transformations to give new hope to the population and not surrender to absolute pessimism. Because a critique that doesn’t propose alternatives leads to absolute pessimism that ends up channeling the discontent towards votes in favor the neoliberal opposition. In this moment, we have a choice between rebuilding the discourse that allows us to rediscover the hope Chavismo embodied in its moments of greatest effervescence or on the contrary descending into an irresponsible critique that ends up being the platform on which the opposition wins the presidency through the ballot box with the all of the implications that would have for the gains of these years. For this reason, I don’t think we could have held the school before. We consider this experience so valuable– and we saw it in the faces of the people, in the comments made by people who came up to thank us for having made this type of space possible.

It’s very important that the revolutionary process has these spaces financed and supported by the government that at the same time serve as platforms for sharp critiques of that very government.  

Yes, it’s a debate. All of the publicity has been provided by the state. All was done with state resources, both financing as well as personnel working on the production of the event. State media were openly covering the event, recording the lectures and interviewing the international guests. In fact, there was very little time for the quantity of outlets that wanted to interview the international guests. One of our guests, Enrique Dussel, appeared on one of the most important programs on Venezuelan public television, which is Walter Martinez’s Dossier. And then in the context of the week– since the school was held on the week of October 12 [Day of Indigenous Resistance]– the president spoke on October 12 of creating a commission for decolonization.

So the school demonstrates to the international community that Chavismo is prepared to build critically from within. This doesn’t mean that this construction is easy or without tension. There are tensions on the inside: there are those who are won over by a debate of this kind and there are those who are opposed. Just as the world elite is not homogenous and one has to exploit disputes among the elite in order to open rifts in capitalism, Chavismo is not homogenous either. Chavismo has multiple viewpoints about what is happening in Venezuela and it has multiple proposals for resolving these problems. But the important thing is to open up spaces like we had in the Decolonial School– it’s not the only space and the solutions can’t be exclusively found there– and that the state be willing to provide resources for it to happen. We hope that despite the difficult economic situation we face that we can guarantee continuity. With the purchase of the plane tickets we resolve 90% of the problem because if we don’t obtain support in terms of lodging for the international guests, we can have them stay in our houses. And four days in the house with Dussel is not a sacrifice.

1 – While Venezuela, like the rest of Latin America, was integrated into Euro-centered modernity following its colonization in the 16th century, over the course of the 20th century, this modernity became inextricably linked with the civilizational project of petroleum extraction, which has remade every aspect of Venezuelan state and society in its own image. See Miguel Tinker Salas’ The Enduring Legacy Oil, Culture and Society in Venezuela and Fernando Coronil’s The Magic State Nature, Money, and Modernity in Venezuela.

2 – The term “coloniality” was coined by Peruvian sociologist Anibal Quijano in the 1990s to describe the continuity of colonial practices of domination following the end of formal colonial rule. See Quijano, A. (2000). Coloniality of Power, Eurocentrism, and Latin America. Napantla: Views from the South, 1 (3). For Quijano and other theorists of the modernity/coloniality network, coloniality is constitutive of modernity, which emerged with the conquest of America in 1492.

3 – The idea of “Our America” can be traced back to an 1891 text by the Cuban revolutionary writer José Marti, who expounded a vision of Latin American cultural and political unity in contraposition to US and European imperialism.

4 – World-systems theorist Immanuel Wallerstein was the first to argue that the modern capitalist world-system emerged in the course of an over 150 year process that began with the conquest of America in 1492 and concluded with the establishment of the modern state system following the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. Puerto Rican sociologist Ramón Grosfoguel has contributed to this historical narrative by arguing that the conditions for the emergence of the modern world-system were established via four “genocides/epistemicides” in which entire non-European peoples and their knowledge practices were exterminated in order to pave the way for the supremacy of West and the “universality” of its theories. These genocides/epistemicides included the destruction of the Muslim civilization of Al-Andalus in the Iberian Peninsula by way of the so-called “re-conquest” and Spanish Inquisition, the conquest and extermination of the indigenous peoples of America, the African slave trade, and the murder of hundreds of thousands of European women in 16th and 17th century witch hunts.

5 – Immanuel Wallerstein explains the concept of bifurcation in the following way: “The key point is that all systems (from the very largest, the universe as a whole, to the very smallest nano-systems), have three moments: their coming into existence, their “normal” life during which they are constructed and constrained by the institutions they have created, and the moment in which their secular trends move too far from equilibrium and bifurcate (their structural crisis). Structural crises cannot be overcome. The existing system cannot survive. The period is one of chaotic wild fluctuations in everything. There is a very fierce political battle over to which of two alternatives (the forks of the bifurcation) the world collectively will tilt. The two alternatives can be broadly described. On the one side, there are those who wish to replace capitalism with a non-capitalist system that will retain all of capitalism’s worst features – hierarchy, exploitation and polarization. And on the other side there are those who seek to create a historical system that has never yet existed, one based on relative democracy and relative equality.”

6 – In the course of the Decolonial School, two open letters were circulated regarding the Orinoco Mining Arc. The first, authored by the eco-feminist collective La Danta Las Canta, criticized the response of Puerto Rican sociologist Ramón Grosfoguel to a question concerning the Mining Arc during the Q&A period following his public lecture. The group called for a public forum on the Mining Arc to be held at the closing of the school. The second public letter, signed by various small leftist groups and individuals including La Danta, likewise criticized the international guests for, in their judgment, “staying silent” vis-à-vis the mega-mining project.

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