Unlike birds, human beings fly with roots. Part of the roots is in the concepts we have inherited to analyze or evaluate the world in which we live. Without them, the world would seem chaotic, a dangerous conundrum, an unknown threat, an unfathomable trip.
Concepts never portray exactly our experiences, as they are much more variable and diverse than those at the base of dominant concepts. The latter are, after all, the concepts that serve the interests of the social, political, economic and culturally dominant groups, though toned down by the modifications introduced by the social groups that resist the domination. These not always resort exclusively to those concepts. Many times, they have others that feel closer and truthful, but that they preserve for internal consumption.
However, in today’s world, plowed through by so many contacts, interactions, and conflicts, they cannot avoid taking into account dominant concepts, even at the risk of seeing their fights made more invisible or more crudely repressed. For example, native peoples and peasants do not have the concept of environment because this reflects a culture (and an economy) which is not theirs. Only a culture that separates in absolute terms society from nature to put the latter at unconditional service of the first one, needs such concept to realize the potentially fatal consequences (for society) that might result from such separation. In sum, only a culture (and an economy) that tends to destroy the environment needs the concept of environment.
Indeed, to be dominated or subordinated means, above, all, to be unable to define reality in our own terms, on the base of concepts that reflect our true interests and aspirations. Concepts, as rules of the game, are never neutral and exist to consolidate power systems, being those old or new. However, there are periods in which concepts seem particularly unsatisfactory or imprecise. With the same conviction and reasonability, opposing meanings are ascribed to them, in such a way that in spite of the richness of their content they seem empty concepts. This would not be a major problem if societies could easily substitute these concepts for others more clarified and in accordance with new realities.
The truth is that dominant concepts have unfathomable periods of validity, either because dominant groups want to maintain them to better conceal or legitimize their domination or because dominated or subaltern social groups cannot run the risk of throwing the kid together with the water to bathe him. Especially when they are losing, the most paralyzing fear is losing everything. I believe we live in a period with these characteristics. A contingency hangs over it, one that is not the result of any tie between antagonistic forces, far from that. Rather, it seems a pause at the verge of the abyss and looking back.
Dominant groups never felt so much power and never had so little fear of dominated groups. Their arrogance and ostentation has no limits. However, they have an abyssal fear for what they still do not control, an unbridled greed for what they still do not possess, and an uncontained desire for preventing all the risks and having protection policies against them. In the end, they suspect being less definite history winners as they pretend to be, being masters of a world that can turn against them at any time and in a chaotic way. This perverse fragility, that corrodes them inside, makes them fear for their security as never before, they obsessively imagine new enemies, and they feel terror when thinking that, after so many beaten enemies, ultimately, they are the enemy to defeat.
On their part, dominated groups never felt so beaten as today; the abyssal exclusions they suffer seem more permanent than ever; their more moderate and defensive demands and fights are silenced, trivialized by the politics of the show and the political show, when they do not imply potentially fatal risks. However, they do not lose the profound sense of dignity that allows them to know they are being treated indignant and undeservedly. Better days are to come. They do not give up, because giving up might be fatal. They feel the fighting weapons are not calibrated or have not been renovated for a long time; they feel isolated, unjustly treated, lacking competent allies and efficient solidarity. They fight with the concepts and weapons they have but, in the end, they do not trust either. They suspect that as long as they do not have confidence to create other concepts and invent other fights, they will always run the risk of being their own enemies.
Like everything else, concepts also are at the verge of the abyss and looking back. Just as an example, I will mention one of them: human rights.
In the last fifty years, human rights have transformed into the privileged fighting language for a better, fairer, less unequal and excluding, and more peaceful society. Existent international treaties and conventions regarding human rights have been strengthened by new commitments in international relations and constitutional law while the catalogue of rights has expanded to encompass injustices and discriminations that were less visible before (rights of natives, afro-descends, women, LGBTIQ, environmental, cultural rights, etc.). Social movements and NGOs have multiplied at the pace of mobilizations of the base and incentives given by multilateral institutions. In a short time, human rights’ language became the hegemonic language of dignity, a consensual language, eventually questionable for not being sufficiently broad, but never impugnable for some defect of origin. It is true that there have been denounces regarding the distance between the declarations and the practices, as well as the duplicity of criteria in the identification of new violations and reactions against them; but none of that altered the hegemony of the new official culture of human community. Fifty years later, which is the balance of this victory? Are we living in a fairer and more peaceful society? Far from that, social polarization between rich and poor was never this large; new wars, nouvelle, regular, irregular, civil, international keep on being carried out with military budgets immune to the austerity and novelty that fewer and fewer soldiers but more and more innocent civil populations die in them; men, women and, especially, children. As a result of these wars, global neoliberalism, and environmental disasters, never as today so many people were forced to move away from regions or countries where they were born, never as today was the humanitarian crisis so severe. Even more tragic is the fact that many of committed atrocities and attacks against wellbeing of communities and peoples were perpetrated in the name of human rights.
Of course, there were many achievements in many fights, and many human rights’ activists paid with their lives the price of their generous commitment. Did I not consider myself and still do a human rights’ activist? Have I not written books about counter-hegemonic and inter-cultural conceptions of human rights? In spite of that and faced with a cruel reality that can remain unseen just by the hypocrites, is it not the time to rethink everything again? In the end, whose victory was that of human rights and what did it win? Whose defeat it was and what did it lose? Would it have been a coincidence that the hegemony of human rights was accentuated with the historical defeat of socialism symbolized in the fall of the Berlin Wall? If everybody agrees with goodness of human rights, do dominated groups as well as dominant ones equally win with that consensus? Would human rights have been an artifice to center fights around sectorial issues while leaving capitalist, colonial, and patriarchal domination intact (or even aggravated)? Would it have intensified the abyssal line that separates humans from sub-humans, being those blacks, women, natives, Muslims, refugees or undocumented immigrants?
If the cause of human dignity, noble in itself, were entrapped by human rights, would it be time to untangle the concealment and look towards the future beyond repeating the present? These are hard questions; questions that destabilize some of our mostly rooted beliefs and practices that show the more ethical way of being contemporaries of our time. They are hard questions to which we only have weak answers. What is more tragic is that, with some differences, what is happening with human rights also happens with other equally consensual concepts. For example, democracy, peace, sovereignty, multilateralism, primacy of law, progress. All these concepts suffer the same erosion process, the same easiness with which they are allowed to be confused with practices that contradict them, same fragility against enemies that kidnap, capture, and transform them in docile instruments of the most arbitrary and repugnant ways of social domination. So much inhumanity and chauvinism in the name of the defense of human rights; so much authoritarianism, inequality, and discrimination transformed in the normal exercise of democracy; so much violence and warlike apologia to guarantee peace! So much colonialist pillage of natural, human, and financial resources from dependent countries, with only formal respect for sovereignty; so much unilateral imposition and blackmail on behalf of new multilateralism; so much fraud and power abuse under the costumes of respect for institutions and law enforcement; so much arbitrary destruction of nature and social living as inevitable price for progress!
None of this has to be inevitably like this forever. The origin of this confusion, induced by those who benefit from it, of this contingency disguised as fatalism, of the vertiginous standing at the abyss’ edge, resides in the erosion, well plotted in the last fifty years, of the distinction between being left or right, erosion carried out with the complicity of those who are the main affected by it. Through that erosion, the anti-capitalist, anti-colonialist, anti-fascist and anti-imperialist struggles disappear from our political vocabulary. It was conceived as an overcome past what in the end was the present, more than ever determined to be the future. This is what being at the abyss and looking back was, convinced that the future’s past has nothing to do with the past’s future. It is the greatest monstrosity of the present time.
* Published in Pagina 12, August 20th, 2018.
If you like this text, by filling out the form that appears in this page you can subscribe to receive once a month a brief summary of Opinion Sur English edition.