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Interview with sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos "Neo-extractivism is ending Latin America"

Interview with sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos

-Tell us about your book ‘Democracy on the Edge of Chaos’…

-It is an attempt to theorize the crisis of democracy in the continent that designates itself as the continent that invented the ideal of democracy and concretized it historically with more consistency.

The crisis is largely the result of the contamination of democratic politics by economic neoliberalism, which translates into criticism of the social state, the loss of social rights and the privatization of health, education and social security policies.

I am extremely concerned about this loss of fundamental rights.

From the origins of modern democracy there was a tension between democratic values ​​and the accumulation logic of capitalism.

After the second European war the determining factor was the dispute between capitalism and communism.

Thanks to the fear of the advance of communism in the capitalist countries, the capitalist power made concessions to the workers (labor rights and, in general, economic and social rights) and allowed progressive taxation (higher tax rates for the richest ).

-And what changed that scenario?

-When the great communist enemy disappeared in the late eighties of the last century, the concessions of this capitalism with a human face disappeared and the political field and socialization, as well as participation in it, was very complex, especially for citizens because in This scenario of confusion has lost their space for political participation and democratic deliberation.

-Is Europe emerging from the crisis with structural adjustments? - At this moment we do not see a very clear exit, besides that we have other internal tensions.

We are still dominated by conservative governments, the EU and the European Commission are still dominated by a neoliberal logic, German dominance in economic policy continues to be hegemonic, and of a neoliberal nature, which is why austerity continues.

The socialist parties that could be an alternative are not, as evidenced by the resignation of three ministers in France due to the decisions of Francois Hollande, who wants to continue with financial cuts and austerity policy.

There are still movements to the left of the socialist parties that are pointing to some solutions: Syriza, in Gracia, Podemos in Spain, Bloco de Izquierda in Portugal.

But none of them (except Syriza) can have aspirations to be government

-But is there not an alternative and political hope in the face of this gloomy panorama?

-An alternative has emerged in the political mobilization that began with ‘the indignados’ in Spain.

The problem that some social movements face today is that they are very good at protesting, but political practice is difficult for them and therefore they had an interruption.

In Spain they managed to become a new party, ‘Podemos’ and that is having electoral success and is forcing the PSOE, one of the parties that was more to the right in the past, to rethink.

-And what is happening with the European left and specifically in a country like Portugal. Here many remember Gabo's reports covering the 1974 revolution, "The Carnation Revolution."

-In Portugal there are some small parties that are trying to enter a new alternative on the left. This is what I describe in my book in the last section entitled, "eleven letters to the left."

In general, I think that the left has to re-found itself to free itself from the original dogmatisms and fratricidal struggles over decades, which will leave deep wounds. The imprint of divisionism and dogmatism is deep.

-By the news coming from Europe, we know that Greece needs an urgent social and economic rescue ...

-If the European Union was a political and economic alliance, as we were convinced, there would not be a 'Greek' but a European debt and as such it would be assumed.

The Greek debt was very small in Europe as a whole, it was enough that the Greek debt was assumed as European debt and the interest rates would have been much lower, but Germany has decided to reject this proposal to protect its banks.

The new European nationalism was born at that time.

-What you point out is very serious, the sense with which the European Union wanted to be formed has been lost ...

-We are facing the resurgence of old nationalisms within the various regions of Europe, dating from the 15th century and opposing north and south. Leaving in view how countries continue to see others with colonial prejudices, for example conceiving that the Spanish or Portuguese are lazy, lacking in commitment, things of this type.

With the European Union he had already changed a bit, but this communion collapsed.

There are no facts that tell us otherwise.

In addition, there is great distrust of the strengthening of German nationalism, which has already caused two European wars, although this time it is not a military power but an economic power.

- Some propose to eliminate the European Union, what do you think?

Well-known sociologists such as Wolfgang Streeck say that the best thing would be to eliminate the European Union, because the political solutions that were previously had to solve the crisis, including the political management of the currency or the central bank, are inaccessible in it.

We have a critical neoliberal economic crisis but we do not have the instruments to resolve it.

It is a "Catch-22" situation, with no way out, complex and depressing. There are several proposals, some more radical than others: leaving the euro without leaving the EU; delete both.

-This whole scenario becomes more complex with the rise of Nationalist and neo-fascist parties.

Why are parties emerging with ideologies that were believed to have been eliminated from the ideological field?


-This issue is very worrying, especially in France, as an example we have ‘The National Front’ which is constituted in a worrying and permanent narrative that has been going back many decades, and it is taking hold.

Nazism and fascism were experiences that lasted many years and that remained in the European social imagination.

They didn't actually disappear because many of the things that needed to be done to end them were not done for good.

-How do these narratives not manifest but latent manifest themselves in the political life of Europe?

-For example, one of the things that is never referred to is that Germany did not pay its debt to Greece for the occupation and destruction in the Second European War, and currently collects the debt, which constitutes a tremendous historical injustice.

It was enough that he had paid his debt for Greece to move forward, and from there arises all that social imaginary of hostility, of 'sovereignty' and right-wing nationalism, I stress, “too dangerous”, which led to unprecedented bloodshed in the world, making Europe the most violent continent in the world.

Never have so many people died in wars as in Europe in the 20th century. It is estimated that the balance of the Second European War (not world war) is 60 to 85 million people.

-Why do you say they are not worldwide?

-They are European wars, not world wars, while Europe dominated the world had spread this narrative, of course they had theaters of operations in Africa and Asia. Europe is a very violent continent.

The idea of ​​European values ​​is very recent and arises after so much blood from the religious wars of the 16th-17th centuries, then the modern secular states.

-It is clear that the European Union as an organism that generates cohesion has failed, what entity do you propose to replace it?

-I am in favor of a ‘European Union of Peoples’ with democratic equality, both economic and political, where solidarity and reciprocity prevail, which we think was already consolidated, but the crisis in Greece showed us that this is not the case.

For Germany it was very easy to say; 'This has nothing to do with Europe, it is a Greek problem, then tomorrow it will be a Portuguese problem, the day after tomorrow it will be a Spanish problem, and with that attitude I destroy all possibilities of giving a quick response, of giving a response to a crisis that it wasn't that bad.

Portugal did not have an economic problem as complex as the one we are experiencing now, it was really the game of speculation and the late response that aggravated everything.

Some both on the right and on the left once again defend the old European nationalism but, in general, in Europe nationalism was conservative, authoritarian, xenophobic.

-Xenophobia is on the rise, and in many cases those who have the worst problems in the crisis are immigrants ...

-Europe has a historical debt with the countries where it exercised a colonial yoke, and it should be paid off, becoming a setting for welcoming differences, which could begin with the development of a new migration policy, in a true 'intercultural' commitment , not 'multicultural', since while the first refers to the close relationship, interaction and integration of cultures, the second refers to a vague tolerance for difference without any interest in the culture of the other.

-To get out of the crisis, some analysts propose to return to the national currency of each country, does this actually have any viability?

-The exit of the ‘Euro’ is a very hot debate that some have been putting on the table, even so, any exit that is not organized and minimally negotiated will result in great sacrifice for families.

A solution can be seen moderately within three to four years, but in the short term it will be painful, and with bets like these, where your national money will be worth five times less than the Euro, and some debts are denominated in Euros and you money in national currency, then that would be breakout solutions, in my opinion.

-And the emergence of a slow solution?

-Said solution will germinate in my opinion depending on two conditions; due to the emergence of a left-wing political agent capable of changing the course and the other may be when the crisis reaches Germany and France. The crisis is coming some Nordic countries as what we can see with what is happening with Nokia in Finland. The economic growth of Germany and France is almost nil.

-So, you say that the crisis will turn around when it knocks on the doors of Germany?

- Exactly, and it will make rethink things. There is a financial empire within Europe that has positioned itself in a very subtle way and which will be very difficult to dislodge. But on the other hand, when there is a crisis in Germany, things are not very good for Europe, as an example we have the financial crises that we saw in the years before the Hitler era.

So to say that I am a tragic optimist as I always say, I see the difficulties but I refused to see alternatives to this 'status quo' that results in a logic of production of inequality, of eviction and persecution of the peasantry on all continents, the Europe's problem is a miniature problem of the global problem that we are going through and that the peoples of other continents have already suffered.

-What then makes Latin America not go through a crisis as severe as Europe is facing?

-Because it has the natural resources that result in an injection to its economy. The boom in natural resources is the engine of current growth.

-In that sense, what role does Latin America play on the world stage today? -I think it had a very important role in bringing an alternative to capitalist development, in the hands of popular forces, as evidenced by the World Social Forum and it is not by coincidence that this emerged in 2001, of course by that time. Venezuela had been consolidated, but popular governments are going to emerge in Brazil, Bolivia, Argentina and Chile, the same in Uruguay and Paraguay, resulting in the consolidation of the emergence of social and popular movements that really produced a 'post-neoliberal' alternative.

All these progressive governments declare themselves ‘post-neoliberal’ and for that reason they began to do politics with social justice, a social redistribution.

This is the only continent in which it will be possible to speak of socialism of the XXI century, it does not make sense to speak of socialism in Africa or Asia. -And the ‘post-neoliberal’ alternative continues to this day?

-In this second decade these governments continue to declare themselves post-neoliberal and they have some reason but not quite right.

Why could we call them post-neoliberals? Well, partly because the state controls the economy much more, it is an intervenor of it. In addition, many companies were nationalized in the case of Bolivia or Ecuador.

In other words, there is a stronger state activism that goes against neoliberalism and that is why international neoliberalism does not forgive these governments and wants to destroy them.

Now, what is the way of operating in these countries; well, they are 'post-neoliberal' internally to achieve some measure of social redistribution but they do not question international neoliberalism, financial capitalism or the rules of free trade and they will play by the rules of said treaties.

The development model is neoliberal.

-You have touched on a central issue in any political agenda, what possibility did the availability of natural resources play in the consolidation of these progressive governments?

-It was decisive in the unprecedented exploitation of natural resources, the financial capitalism that is driving this entire model of neo-extractivist development that we call this because of its intensity.

There is a regression in everything that was striking as an alternative, for example the self-determination policies of indigenous peoples in Bolivia (which is the majority of the population) or Ecuador.

In the second decade we will face the destruction of a national natural park such as the National Park (TIPNIS) and Yasuní in Ecuador, with a highway and an oil exploitation.

This is how all these constitutional conquests that were strong in the past decades in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Brazil were lost because international capitalism forces them to fall into completely obsessive neo-extractivism. To build these mega-constructions you have to displace the indigenous and peasants, there is no alternative under that logic.

Those governments were left with no alternative and that is why they are ambiguous, they are increasingly neoliberal and less ‘post-neoliberal’.

-It is a very complex dilemma, because many analysts argue that there is no way to get rid of international loans but by growing economically, making use of their own natural resources, of course this has terrible environmental and social costs ...

-The exploitation of resources was to achieve a greater redistribution within the countries using the same development model, which led to no transition to a new model.

All improvements are very important and must be welcomed.

These governments took advantage of this, but there was no industrial reconversion and diversification, on the contrary, what can be felt is the establishment of the primary sector, 'the reprimarization of the economies', which results in something wrong, as in Brazil, which has great industrial potential.

-So nature is the main economic resource in Latin America today?

-What moves the economy in Latin American countries are natural resources.

That is why there are more than 5000 projects in the Amazon that are obviously going to destroy its ecosystems.

All of this thus results in the destruction of a political model that was thought to be alternative and was very credible at the beginning.

-Is there an alternative to reconcile a sustainable productive organization that favors the populations of the countries and takes care of the environment?

- Do not fear us another option, it has to exist. We must think of an alternative form of production to strativism, which is destroying Latin America and the world. Their cycles destroy the fertility of the land, taking it to the limit.

Many regions are already desertified because they do not support such looting.

It is the first time in history that capitalism faces the limits of nature.

We have gone from the contradiction between capital and labor to that between capital and nature, which is demonstrated in global warming and climatic disasters and water scarcity.

On the other hand, we must revalue all the anti-capitalist economies that exist in the world, the peasant, indigenous and solidarity economies that seek reciprocity and respect for nature.

-What can the ordinary citizen do to face crisis and safeguard nature?

-The ordinary citizen feels smaller before the logics of power that transcend him. The power is so strong that you cannot imagine how individually you can do something against it.

There are two levels at which we can think of an alternative, on the one hand, there is no emancipation without self-transformation.

In your life you have, in some way, to give testimony of an alternative, no matter how small, in your family, in your home, in your school, in your place of work, testimony of democracy and environmental awareness because day, power is in the hands of anti-democrats. Individually you can do very little for the reality to which you are subject, what we must do is rethink politics again, actively participate in the formulation of policies not only at the municipal level but also at the national level.

In Latin America some interesting bets were made such as participatory budgets, national sectoral health and education councils, where truly organized civil society participated in the production of public policies.

-And how do you contribute to social change? -I will never be an avant-garde intellectual, but a 'rear guard'.

To do avant-garde theory and be part of it, you have to separate yourself from the society you want to guide.

The rearguard intellectual, on the contrary, goes with social movements, walking at the same time and allowing himself to be surprised by social creativity, he seeks to account for what is past, but at the same time leaving echoes where creativity arises, working with the social movements, peasants, indigenous, women.

At the ‘Popular University of Social Movements’, we hold various workshops and where we seek to bring spaces closer together and for what I call the ecology of knowledge to take place, where scientific knowledge is combined with popular knowledge.

We are discussing a new world, but always taking into account the new factors that arise in society, what I have called the sociology of emergencies, is that sense that we are working on.

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