Latin American critical thought: theory and practice
Si la libertad
sería un verbo.
Si el puño
sería un mástil.
Si la causa
sería una esperanza...
A. L. B.*
The resurgence of Lat in American critical thought in the late 1990s and the early twenty-first century has brought about some discoveries that distinguish it from the sociological production of the world. It is a scientific framework that has taken on the features of a new social scientific paradigm. A growing number of authors have aligned themselves with this perspective, with visions that include critical readings geared to contributing to transformative social change, in a Latin American context. Thus, we ask ourselves: What are the characteristics that distinguish Latin American critical thought and give it its identity? What are its germinal features and what are its unresolved matters?
A distinguishing feature of this thought is its belonging to social sciences, particularly sociology and its traditions of critical theory, whose roots, as Gramsci said, do not come from fundamentalist opposition but rather from the acquisition of scientific certainty on the basis of critical analysis.
In scientific discussion […] To understand and to evaluate realistically one’s adversary’s position and his
reasons (and sometimes one’s adversary is the whole of past thought) means precisely to be liberated
from the prison of ideologies in the bad sense of the word — that of blind ideological fanaticism. It
means taking up a point of view that is ‘critical’, which for the purpose of scientific research is the only
fertile one 1.
Here, scientific convergence is not about repeating, reiterating or translating, but, above all, about re-signifying and reversing the meaning of science on the basis of a new objectification agreed by consensus.
This is also a debate on the consensus about social thought, a debate on the intellectual foundation of hegemony. Latin American critical thought is resurfacing after the long period that followed the impasse, or rather the decline, of the ‘Dependency Theory’ of the 1970s and the emergence of the intellectual and ideological domination of neoliberalism, its political apparatuses and governmental technologies that prevailed from the 1980s on. This new critical thought has called into question the hegemonic forms of understanding the capitalist market, the colonization of power and Eurocentric assumptions. It has gained strength in line with the development of democratic political forms. When critical Latin American authors refer to the previous decline in critical scholarship / literature, thought point at the role of the genocidal dictatorships in the region. They also find parallels between their own work and social movements, especially the peasant, the indigenous and the urban unemployed movements of the late twentieth century, as well as the landless workers, the Zapatism and the piqueteros, and class fractions that do not have a central place in classical theory. Beyond this consensus, authors seem to differ on the magnitude of the democratic gains in / for the popular sector and the restitution of rights as sources of expansion / in an expansive fashion (1990-2010). There are also disagreements about the ‘populist’ character of these democratic gains when the fragility of the processes of democratization and the close links between these electoral democratic systems and the transnational capitalist market is considered.
This book, a collection / anthology of critical Latin American thought, aims to present a sample of the knowledge produced in the South, in line with international productions, and takes the Second ISA Forum of Sociology Social Justice and Democratization to be held at the University of Buenos Aires (2012) as an initial opportunity for this. It puts together the views and analyses of outstanding authors from Latin America, recognizing that their work represents that of a huge number of authors from the region, and also acknowledging the existing language barriers. This collection does not cover the broad range of topics brought about by the re-emergence of critical thought but its outstanding features. With this, we expect to encourage the fluid and symmetrical exchange between peers throughout the world. We also expect to encourage discussions that cover theoretical contents, empirical references as well as epistemological foci.
This is a necessary and urgent dialogue in the context of the current crises in the core nations, taking into account that the concentration of power and wealth in both the North and the South makes them comparable, not so much in their singular aspects as in the nature of the systemic questions that includes and connects them. Speaking at this particular moment in history, in which the very biological existence on the planet is at risk, a question which concerns us (as the type of questions required by the sociological imagination do) arises. Is sociology an applied science, a social resource for a more just and sustainable society? Is the knowledge it produces transferable to society? Which are the adequate instruments for this transfer? Is it not the case that we still have many deficiencies and insufficient knowledge to address fundamental questions? We can see that social theories have the greatest difficulty to become instruments for change, and at the same time, we see that critical thought can go through — travel across — the networks of collective intellect. The Latin American social phenomenon has as part of its recent experience (2011-2012), university student mobilizations in Chile, Peru, Honduras and Mexico. We intend to read them as elements that converge with critical thought, not only as a critique of the system of exclusion but also as a form of inclusion in critical intellectual activity.
As already noted, the epistemic turn, the paradigm shift is necessary, but what is at stake is not only its denunciation or activist content but the alteration in the ways in which scientific knowledge in the social sciences is produced, as well as the individual collective intellectual praxis. This is why a mutation in the epistemic basis of the scientific paradigm is necessary. The transfer of knowledge (the trickling down from the intellectual elite) seems to have reached its limit. The social actors become authors, we see them taking part in national and international meetings, making their influence felt against institutional barriers, fighting to participate. This is a new intellectual sovereignty and a renewed creative autonomy. Thus, we assume that the subordinated / subaltern subjectivity fades away when the collective self / subject places itself as a form of inclusion, and each subject is able to create as a singular author, both diverse from, and in common with others. This participative sociological imagination has yet to be achieved. The task ahead is to lay the foundations for a productive force. Critical thought, we think, is taking steps in this gregarious and plebian direction. We still do not know whether it will be able to dissolve the matrix of domination that keeps us from dealing with the crisis as a productive intellectual force, comparable or equivalent to the religious formation of / education in the capitalist system.
Here we can quote Aníbal Quijano’s remarks about the lineage of José Carlos Mariátegui in the seminal pages of Siete ensayos de interpretación de la realidad peruana [Seven Interpretative Essays on Peruvian
Reality] (1928) which are still fundamental:
This original theoretical and epistemic subversion can be recognized as a source for the production of
the Latin American idea of historical-structural heterogeneity, thus breaking with Cartesianism’s radical
dualism, which is at the origin of Eurocentrism and the positivist propensity to reductionism and
evolutionism. And without this new starting point we would be unable to come to terms with the new
theoretical and political debate about the nature and history of the current world power, especially the
lively debate about the theoretical proposal of coloniality and decoloniality of power in Latin America
and beyond 2.
The authors in this book, all of them from Latin America, focus on different topics. However, there is a shared logic that goes through the entire work: the awareness that sociology in Latin America is produced between two types of tensions: internal tensions inherited from coloniality, and external tensions that result from the global reach of Latin American critical thought/the developments of Latin American critical thought at the global level. A. Quijano’s contribution to the critique of development from the point of view of the heterotopy of the buen vivir (live well), built on the basis of the experience and knowledge of the Andean World; García Linera’s reflection on the original multinational state that acknowledges the autonomy of the indigenous peoples as a nation within the developmentalist state; and the analysis of Jaime Preciado and Pablo Uc on the role of Cuba in the context of inter-American relations, and the alliances between it and some countries of the region in undermining the US government’s attempts to isolate it and challenging the long-standing Pan-American power structure are important examples that call attention to the internal changes experienced by Latin American sociology.
Similarly, internal change has effects and is affected by external factors that cannot be neglected. First, there is a tradition that takes in the contributions of some European intellectuals to the critique of coloniality. This sheds light on the existence of a critical thought in the North that aims to challenge colonial domination, and is important to recognize the Other in the building of the social world. Thus, in the context of what seems to be the crisis of late capitalism and the concomitant death of the so-called postmodern thought, Eduardo Grüner
offers us a stimulating ‘anachronism’ that keeps the intellectual legacy of two outstanding thinkers: Jean-Paul Sartre and Pier Paolo Pasolini, who were able to anticipate current debates in the field of postcolonial theory and subaltern studies. On the other hand, it is necessary to bring up to date the debate on culture and democracy in the context of the changes produced by peripheral globalization. In this regard, Marilena Chaui’s work is crucial, as she reconstructs the meaning of the word culture on the basis of different intellectual and political contexts, explores the relations between culture and democracy in light of the Brazilian experience and outlines the connections between democracy and socialism.
On the other hand, in the current scenario, and as a part of the theoretical challenge facing the Latin American left, it is worth paying attention to Emir Sader’s remarks about the absence of strategic thinking in line with the current political challenges for the region, and the ardent call to produce theory out of the practices of the region. Regarding this, Rafael Correa’s speech proposes a balance of Social Sciences in Latin America, mapping the Latin American intellectual heritage, wondering about the meaning of the scientific and social work, and arguing against influences of the neoliberal hegemonic thought, and in favour of a theory which implies corollaries that enable the improvement of our reality. In order to address the regional challenges, the intrinsic complexity of the world system has also to be taken into account. In this vein, Theotonio dos Santos argues that such complexity calls for economic and political coordinated action on global issues, rather than the ‘invisible hand’ of the market and the illusion of the law of comparative advantages in world trade. The search of economic and social justice in the context of globalization needs shared development strategies located within a scientific framework built at the global level. Finally, José Vicente Tavares dos Santos presents a typology of the development of Latin American sociology and calls for a deeper dialogue with Chinese sociology in the search of a sociology of transformation. His work focuses on the role of sociology in analyzing processes of social transformation in Latin America, in the effects of the globalization of social conflict and in the possibility of an intellectual dialogue with the Asian giant’s sociology.
The debates presented in this book attempt to contribute to a new way of thinking from the South, that it should also be put in the context of broader South-South relations that also integrate other countries producing original and important reflections in several continents of what we call the South and what we call the North.
* I f freedom existed, it would be a verb. / If the fist persisted, it would be a flagpole./ If the cause did not expire, it would be a hope. / If fists persisted, they would be flagpoles. / If causes did not expire, they would be hopes. A. L. B
1 G ramsci, Antonio 1971 Selections from the prison notebooks of Antonio Gramsci (London: Lawrence & Wishart) p. 657. It is recommended the translation and edition by Hoare, Quintin & Nowell-Smith, Geoffrey (London: ElectBook, 1999).
2 M ariátegui, José Carlos 2010 La tarea americana (Buenos Aires: CLACSO) p. 21.