Steve Ellner’s Book Review

My review of Frederick Mills’ book “Enrique Dussel’s Ethics of Liberation: An Introduction”

Marx’s Dialectic teaches that every economic system produces the seeds of its own destruction. In the case of capitalism that seed is the proletariat class. But in Latin America, it’s been those who have been excluded (as well as the semi-excluded) or what Dussel calls “the Other” that have been a key element in liberation struggles. Hugo Chávez also popularized this notion in his “twenty-first century socialism.” The following is my review of Mills’ most interesting and well researched book and its implications for twenty-first century socialism.

Frederick B. Mills, Enrique Dussel’s Ethics of Liberation: An Introduction (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2018), 162 pp. + xxx.  $54.99 hardcover.
Published in Socialism and Democracy, Vol. 3, issue 1, 2019

 

This analysis of the philosophical writings of Argentine-Mexican theorist Enrique Dussel sheds light on the ideological underpinnings of “Twenty-First Century Socialism” embraced by the presidents of Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador. Dussel belongs to the postcolonial school which points to the pervasiveness and destructiveness of Eurocentric thinking over the last five centuries. He rejects both postmodernism and “critical modernism” and in some ways represents a middle ground between the two. Postmodernism’s notion of an infinite number of “truths” is at odds with Dussel’s belief in the capacity of rational thinking to distinguish between good and evil. It also clashes with Dussel’s defense of universal principles, such as the individual’s responsibility to “listen deeply to” (quoted on page 50), achieve “proximity” (51) with, and take action in favor of the most downtrodden. At the same time, Dussel views the “critical modernism” associated with Jürgen Habermas as Eurocentric in that it views modernity as basically a European phenomenon. Dussel’s intention “is to critically combine the wisdom of suppressed ancestral and hybrid cultures with an ecological use of the innovative and scientific rationality of modernity” (150). Consequently, he is not opposed to modernity per se, just the European interpretation of it, which in each historical stage since the sixteenth century has had a nefarious “hidden side” (quoted on page 41).

 

Dussel’s most important formulation is his development of the concept of the “Other,” which builds on the message of Liberation Theology in the 1960s and 1970s based on the New Testament. Dussel’s concept of the Other is an indictment of the European conquest of the New World and elsewhere and Europe’s tendency to ignore the rich cultural heritage of Third World people. In general, the Other refers to the poor and other non-privileged sectors but the examples and references to Dussel provided by Mills indicate a more specific category consisting of the excluded and the marginalized. Thus Mills quotes Dussel’s statement concerning the assertion of the Zapatistas from the remote Lacandon Jungle of Mexico that “another world is possible.” Dussel states: “‘It is no surprise that this declaration originates in the geopolitical South, among the most exploited and forgotten original peoples’” (quoted on page 93). Another example of Dussel’s focus on those on the fringes is his discussion of the victims of discrimination in his analysis of the autobiography of the Guatemalan Indigenous leader Rigoberta Menchú and her journey “from naive consciousness to critical ethical consciousness, and from being a victim to being a protagonist” (58).

 

Throughout the book, Mills explores the “exteriority” of the Other, in which those living on the margins are able to transcend their condition of being oppressed and “critique and contest the negation of the community of human life by the prevailing system” (38). Dussel applies the concept to Latin America as a whole, which he describes as “peripheral exteriority” (quoted on p. 103). Dussel’s writing on the exteriority of the Other, however, does not go as far as the works of Frantz Fanon, who not only celebrated those on the fringes of society but contrasted their advanced consciousness with that of the urban working class, whose members are intricately tied to the established system and unlikely to break with it, at least in the short run.

Dussel’s formulations get to the heart of key issues that divide the left and help define the Twenty-First Century Socialism associated with Hugo Chávez. In the first place, both Chávez and Evo Morales shared Dussel’s preference for those most victimized by the established system. Chávez stated that he prioritized the poor because they needed him the most and for a long time was skeptical of the organized working class’ potential for change; at the outset of his presidency, Morales favored the traditional Indigenous communities over the land-owning peasant population. In the second place, Dussel’s stress on pluralism and cultural tolerance converges with the efforts of Latin American leftist governments to create a “multipolar world” and a Latin American bloc in the form of CELAC, UNASUR, ALBA and other continental organizations. In the third place, Dussel’s writings on the tie-in between ecology, economics and ethics coincide with the view central to Evo Morales’ discourse that “Mother Earth (la pachamama ) is not reducible to a mere object with an exchange value… [but rather] is a subject worthy of respect” (130).

The book discusses Dussel’s interest in Marxism, as well as the convergences and divergences between the two. In the 1980s, Dussel undertook “a comprehensive study and reinterpretation of Marx” that led to an “anti-materialist interpretation” (38). Dussel’s “interpretation of Marxism as an ethics of liberation” (39) led him to the conclusion that Marx’s humanism was not confined to his early writings but encompassed his entire life’s work.

One area of difference between Dussel and Marx is in their conception of systemic transformation. Whereas Marxism, at least in its orthodox expression, views the process as originating from within the system in the form of the working class, Dussel’s focus is on those who in large part are located outside of the system. While for Marx the working class is the revolutionary subject, Dussel points to social movements and the popular sectors in general as “the main protagonists” (154) and “the main impetus for a planetary humanism” (154). More specifically, he views the Other in the form of “‘the marginalized class, oppressed or subaltern’” as “‘positively ‘for itself’ [and] beyond the dominant social order” (quoted on p. 103-104).

A second possible area of divergence is Dussel’s rejection of the linear view of history or “the fallacy of development.” That notion “presupposes all civilizations pass through a period of immaturity and barbarism,” a myth that has served to justify colonialism and (according to Anábal Quijano) lends itself to the “alleged inferiority of the Indian” (43). In contrast, some Marxist movements such as the Second International, have accepted positivist assumptions regarding steady progress and orderly stages. Nevertheless, Marx himself, broke with Hegelianism early in his life and focused his attention more on the analysis of capitalism and other existing and previous systems than on predicting the future.

Mills takes issue with Dussel’s critics who claim that by idolizing the Other his philosophical formulations represent “a new totalizing subject” (146). Mills argues that the “ethics of liberation” embraced by Dussel “does not aim at replacing one totalizing system of domination with another” (xii). As such it shares little in common with the view of modernity as having been initiated by the European Renaissance and Enlightenment while failing to recognize the input of other cultures and civilizations. Contrary to what his detractors contend, Dussel recognizes that “every philosophical tradition is to some degree ethnocentric” (148) but has never claimed that the Other is “pure” or “uncontaminated” (146). In the way of example of the application of the “ethics of liberation,” Mills points out that the Plurinational State established by the movement headed by Evo Morales in Bolivia is “open to dialogue with other cultures without itself pretending to be a master culture” (150).

Those who are unable to read Dussel’s numerous untranslated works and are interested in the broader implications of Latin America’s new left in power will find Mills’s book especially useful. The diverse examples of social and political struggle that Mills offers help connect the abstract concepts developed by Dussel to Latin American reality in the age of globalization.

Steve Ellner
Associate Managing Editor, Latin American Perspectives
sellner74@gmail.com

 

 

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