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.
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.