Beyond Decoloniality: Discussion of Some Key Concepts1

Receipt: December 07, 2022

Acceptance: December 14, 2022


This essay’s objective is to review some key concepts for initiating a discussion between theoretical approaches of decoloniality and universalism. To do this, the author takes up some empirical cases to exemplify and sustain his thesis based on the idea that indigenous and Afrodescendant movements are as important as democratizing movements are inside and outside their fields of action. 2

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beyond decoloniality: discussion of some key concepts

This essay's objective is to review some key concepts for initiating a discussion between theoretical approaches of decoloniality and universalism. To do this, the author takes up some empirical cases to exemplify and sustain his thesis based on the idea that indigenous and Afrodescendant movements are as important as democratizing movements are inside and outside their fields of action.

Keywords: decoloniality, race, indigenous movements, affirmative action, other epistemologies, cultural mix, interculturality.


According to the decolonial diagnosis, Latin American society is immersed in a system of racialized and polarized domination that has remained intact for almost 500 years. This system would determine from its roots the different relations of power and inequality in the region. This diagnosis functions as a critique of institutions, socioeconomic structures, prevailing ideologies - such as Marxism and liberalism - and racial prejudices rooted in the collective imagination. This approach situates ethnic identities as the keystone and master explanation of all social and cultural structures, as well as their innumerable shortcomings. The decolonial operates as a denunciation of the Marxist nebula for denying the predominantly racial character of domination and as a disqualification of liberalism for its complicity with predatory capitalism and slavery.

The influence of the decolonial in political life intersects with indigenous movements and anti-racist militancy. In this essay, I will present the cases of Bolivia, the Zapatistas and the cric (Consejo Regional Indígena del Cauca in Colombia) to show that, while decolonial theory seeks to deepen ethnic divisions by addressing ideas such as epistemicide and "other epistemologies," in "real" politics the ethnic question translates more into demands for inclusion than into the deepening of differences. This alienation is evident in observing the self-absorption that, according to some disappointed observers, affected the Chilean Constituent Convention in 2021-2022.


Although it is a complex task to fully explain the notion of "universalism", it is necessary to take it up again as a point of contrast to those autonomist and, therefore, non-universalist policies. My interest is to highlight the limitations of non-universalist reparation policies that privilege ethno-racial variables in decisions on the allocation of public resources. I also show that, paradoxically, such policies - as well as indigenous movements - contribute to the realization of universalism both in terms of material redistribution and the democratization of stagnant or limited democracies.

One of my purposes has been to distinguish between a social justice based on social class and gender as drivers of income and wealth redistribution, and another that prioritizes race and ethnicity in terms of disadvantages and ancestral wounds that continue to affect individual performance. This is not to deny the evident interdependence of class, gender and race, but to show that the fight against socioeconomic injustices of class and gender, and the institutional violence and exclusion that these entail, involves reasoning with criteria different from those of the demands for reparations for violence, denials and cultural silencing perpetrated against ethnic and racial groups whose boundaries are subjective and blurred.

I call universalist those reasonings that classify people according to impersonal and objective characteristics, such as socioeconomic status, income, age, gender, place of residence or educational level. I know that this objectivity is not absolute, but these are objective characteristics in comparison with racial-ethnic characteristics, which are defined by self-identification. That is how the legal system works - or should work - and that is why a universalist response to racism is criminal punishment against individuals who commit racist acts. However, we know that such punishments are inadequate when it comes to forms of behavior rooted in structures and institutions (structural racism) and it is incumbent upon the state to address these structural flaws. Consequently, policies to reduce racial inequality must be designed within a framework of a general reduction of inequality.

The scale of affirmative action in Brazil is exceptional. Half of all places in federal public universities, and in most state universities, are reserved for students from low-income families. Within this group, also, a proportion, set according to state census data, is reserved for self-identified low-income students. preto, pardo or indigenous.3 In 2019 alone, federal and state public universities offered 390,000 positions, of which 27% went to the low family income level and 24.6%, to people who also met the racial quota requirements (De Freitas et al., 2020). As background, it should be recalled that in public and media spaces it is assumed that half of the entire Brazilian population is classified as preto, pardo, moreno or blackand that it is increasingly customary to call them collectively black, especially among enlightened youth... If one compares different regions and institutional contexts, the fluidity of racial boundaries becomes more evident (Fry, 2000; French, 2009; Boyer, 2014, 2016 and 2019).

Nevertheless, the fertile Brazilian bureaucratic imagination has constructed semi-legal devices, such as internal commissions, to verify the authenticity of a person's self-identification (an example is the Comissão Permanente de Verificação da Autodeclaração Étnico-racial). 4

There are two contradictory concerns: on the one hand, there is talk of "whites stealing the quota places due to blacks by posing as blacks"; on the other, authorities are accused of unsubstantiated rejection of candidates on the grounds that they are not "really" black (probably many candidates make a tactical decision, motivated by the different probabilities of access to the university by racial quota, socioeconomic quota or open competition).

The black movement, an acephalous network of activists who pushed for affirmative action to maximally broaden the definition of black people and for the adoption of a binary racial classification, has brought a dose of both social and racial justice (Lehmann, 2018). Rather than exacerbating racial differences, they are ameliorated in the great tide of cotistas.5 However, it is not a satisfactory path in the long run, especially in light of the high number of ambiguous or "fraud" cases. Paradoxically, it is possible that multicultural and affirmative action policies are evolving in a universalist direction as they circumvent the thorny problems that arise when delineating racial or ethnic categories in populations that are both mestizo and divided by "chromatic" hierarchies (Telles and Martínez Casas, 2019). We will see that something similar can happen with intercultural universities in Mexico, although by totally different routes.

The democratizing consequences of indigenous movements and policies

Indigenous movements tend to fight for cultural causes, such as intercultural and bilingual education and legal pluralism, and for the restitution of land to dispossessed populations and communities. Their demands meet with a favorable response because the timely and voluminous benefits of infrastructure, education or employment projects aimed at specific collectivities achieve more tangible electoral returns than more costly and longer-term structural changes (such as providing an acceptable level of public education and health for the population as a whole or even for the indigenous population as a whole). Examples are the state secretariats of Indigenous Affairs, where movement activists can find employment, or the eleven Intercultural Universities, which enrolled about 100,000 students between 2009 and 2019. The latter bring many benefits to their students and demonstrate a more favorable teacher-student relationship than the "conventional" massive universities, which only benefit a restricted group (Dietz and Mateos Cortés, 2011; Dietz, 2012; Lehmann, 2015; Dietz, 2019). What we see is that indigenous movements, therefore, are condemned to be minority and without an urban base.

It is important to note that the movements led by Evo Morales at the turn of the century in Bolivia represented coca growers' unions and former mine workers. The base of the mas (Movimiento al Socialismo), the party born out of the cocalero movement, is mostly indigenous, as is the country itself, and although it was nourished by fervent debates among intellectuals and organizations on indigenous and feminist issues and even by the "fundamentalist" Indianism of the Kataristas, it is not properly an indigenous movement, but a national popular movement that encompasses the indigenous cause.

Also in Bolivia, one of the most original figures in anthropology and feminism, Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui, challenges the categorization that divides identity politics and leftist politics; she also rejects identification with any racial or ethnic group in a society that is both predominantly indigenous and marked by the crossbreeding generalized (Rivera Cusicanqui, 2010). This leads us to take up again the notion of the admired intellectual René Zabaleta and his conception of Bolivia as a society variegated. These feminist-ethnic intersections draw our attention to important tools for understanding Latin American society. Perhaps unconsciously, Morales was able to weave such a discourse into her work. variegatedor as the country itself (Gutiérrez Aguilar, 2008). He never wanted to be a liberal democrat, but his movement is another example of how the indigenous issue creates a democratizing dynamic even outside movements that are defined only by identity politics. It is a pity that in 2019 the leader succumbed to the temptation to eternalize himself in power by trying to manipulate the rules of the game established in the Constitution that he himself had devised.

Indigenous movements and initiatives project beyond their base: they sensitize society to indigeneity, weaken the force of prejudice and bring to the fore issues that affect both indigenous and non-indigenous populations - such as mining and deforestation and the violence that accompanies them, not to mention human rights. For these reasons they are a force for the democratization of society as a whole. This situation was observed in Chile in the two years leading up to the Constitutional Convention of 2021 and also in Bolivia at the turn of the century. But the specifically indigenous parties in Bolivia lost ground to the more heteroclite ideology of the mas.

An example of the universalist irradiation of indigenous issues at a more micro level is the Universidad Veracruzana Intercultural (uvi) in Mexico. Starting from a classical vertical style of indigenous language teaching and intercultural management, it evolved into a diversified and decentralized multidimensional operation linked to local authorities and ngowhich succeeded in expanding its curriculum by incorporating representatives of communities and municipalities into its decision-making bodies. The uvi maintains lasting relationships with communities in the areas where its four "sedes" (regional centers) are located, as graduates often become local leaders and continue to collaborate with the university through the formulation of projects and the creation of institutions, for example, for the compatibility of indigenous legal practices with human rights. The case of the uvi -a pioneer of intercultural higher education in Mexico and beyond-shows how an initiative designed to strengthen indigenous capacity and consciousness contributes to the creation of an area of influence that transcends the indigenocentric project to strengthen local democratic institutions and to coin a "different," less authoritarian model of teaching (Dietz, 2020). Indeed, in the previous decade, when interviewing professors at multicultural universities, I had noted that their motivation came as much from liberatory, "Freirian" education and a desire to help female students achieve their potential as from an enthusiasm for the flourishing of indigenous cultures and languages, though of course they were not opposed to this cultural renewal (Lehmann 2015).

Let us not forget that indigenocentrism can also be counterproductive. The design of the Chilean constitutional process was exemplary in many respects. However, the resulting draft constitution was rejected by 62% of voters with a record turnout of 86%. Although the campaign against the "Apruebo" mobilized the usual arsenal of hate, paranoia and falsehood, the privileged attention to the decolonial and indigenist of not a few conventioneers must also have contributed to the resounding rejection. The "progressive" forces enjoyed a two-thirds majority in the Convention thanks to the tide of protests that in 2019 had opened the way to the constitutional process and framed their demands against social injustice and human rights violations in indigenous and class, as well as gender and generational keys. This circumstance led to an overestimation of the sympathy that issues of race, culture, gender and region would enjoy in a society not free of racial prejudice. 6

Some indigenous leaders claim reparations through land restitution, while others claim varying degrees of territorial or judicial autonomy. Their bases are not, and cannot be, clearly delineated. Even when indigenous cultural effervescence finds cutting-edge expressions among the intelligentsia In urban areas, it is unlikely that, except for a minority, the millions of indigenous people living in large metropolitan centers are interested in the restitution of rural lands or in legal pluralism. In Chile, in 2002, only 30% of the Mapuche population, which represents 80% of the indigenous population, lived in their region of historical settlement - Araucanía - and another 30% lived in the Metropolitan Region of Santiago - and this without taking into account the imprecision of such figures in a mestizo population (National Institute of Statistics, 2005). Undoubtedly, these urban indigenous or mestizos suffer from the psychological and social sequelae of racial prejudice and exclusion repeated from generation to generation; but, given that they constitute barely 3% of the urban population in general, it is not feasible to analytically separate their disadvantages from those of the general population. To underline the diversity of situations, it is worth recalling that in Colombia the Afro-descendant claim is more urban in character, while the indigenous population is based in the Amazon and in Cauca and Nariño (Rappaport 2008,) as in Ecuador, where the bases of the indigenous movements are more rural.

Another false dichotomy opposes ordinary state justice to indigenous justice. The systems of indigenous law described in the decolonial and anthropological literature are, for the most part, compatible with the rights prevailing in ordinary justice (at least in principle). Although they adopt different provisions for dispute resolution and their procedures favor consensual decision-making rather than individual judges or juries that proceed by majority vote and are supposed to follow custom or tradition rather than written codified laws, they are equally committed, at least formally, to principles of impartiality, fair procedure, and human rights (Hernández Castillo, 2016; Rappaport, 2008; Sieder, 2017; Sierra, 2002 and 2009; Van Cott, 2000). Moreover, the defense of indigenous justice goes beyond the culturalist argument. Ordinary justice does not always inspire confidence in rural areas because of its slowness, the opacity of its procedures and its recurrent corruption; whereas indigenous justice can be thought of not only in terms of cultural difference, but as a justice closer to the population and, therefore, in principle, more transparent. It should also be remembered that in Mexico, legal pluralism (the regime of usos y costumbres) must answer to the ordinary legal system in terms of its impartiality and its respect for human rights. Not for nothing did the legal anthropologist Sally Engle Merry speak of the vernacularization of women's (universal) human rights (Levitt and Merry, 2009; Merry, 2012).

Eurocentric universalism

I am aware that my notion of the universal differs from that which concerns the gurus of the decolonial. For them it is a question of the hegemony of "Eurocentric" conceptions of "man," of modernity, of democracy and of other key concepts. They start by attributing to Descartes the conception not only of a thinking being, but of a being devoid of temporal or spatial context. A being erected above all human differences.

Quijano writes:

With Descartes what happens is the mutation of the old dualistic approach to the "body" and the "non-body". What was a permanent co-presence of both elements at every stage of the human being, in Descartes becomes a radical separation between "reason/subject" and "body". Reason is not only a secularization of the idea of "soul" in the theological sense, but it is a mutation into a new identity, the "reason/subject", the only entity capable of "rational" knowledge, with respect to which the "body" is and cannot be anything other than "object" of knowledge (Quijano, 2014: 805).

One of the few proper philosophical critics of these theses cites several texts in which Descartes distinguishes the mind (the mind) of the body and affirms, on the one hand, their distinct nature (since the mind does not exist in space and the body does) and, on the other hand, their interdependence, since the "nature of man is composed of mind and body" ("...").the nature of man [...] is composed of mind and body".) (Chambers, 2020: 9).

By speaking of "reason", Quijano distorts the meaning of the English term mind. The Spanish texts refer to the "mind" or the "soul," which is a universal attribute of the human being and encompasses everything that today is called our psychological functioning; whereas Quijano seems to think that Descartes' mind has a specific type of reasoning. The mind is something like our psychology and is a universal category of the human being. In any case, as Chambers says, Quijano does not offer any idea of how Cartesian epistemology would have an effect on Latin American structures of domination.

However, the Cartesian conception would be responsible for the reduction of non-European peoples to the condition of non-human and has served as a banner for colonial conquest. To quote one of many similar fragments in the writings of gurus Walter Mignolo, Boaventura de Sousa Santos and Nelson Maldonado-Torres, Ramón Grosfoguel speaks of "an epistemic subject [that] has no sexuality, gender, ethnicity, race, class, spirituality, language, nor epistemic location in any power relation and produces truth from an inner monologue with itself without relation to anyone outside itself" (Grosfoguel, 2008: 202).

From this position, qualified as "epistemic racism" by the decolonial gospel, Western thought disqualifies the thought of non-European peoples and justifies its conquest and oppression in colonialism. To counter this vertical universalism, they propose a horizontal "transmodernity": "a multiplicity of critical decolonizing proposals against Eurocentric modernity and beyond it from the diverse cultural and epistemic locations of the colonized peoples of the world" (Grosfoguel, 2008: 211). But the content of these "multiple modernities" (to borrow the expression of the very European sociologist Shmuel N. Eisenstadt) remains to be seen (Eisenstadt, 2000). The decolonial position is to criticize without constructing an alternative, an omission justified because they want to leave the field open to the diversity of "epistemic localizations".

According to Amartya Sen, the ideas of tolerance and individual freedom are no less present in the history of South Asian thought than in European thought, to such an extent that Asians even precede Europeans (Sen, 2006: 136). But the decolonial employs crude generalizations about the compatibility or not of "Western" and "Eastern" traditions to justify a skepticism towards the doctrine of human rights that, at least in America, is not shared by any popular, black, Afro-descendant or indigenous movement. In a note, Santos quotes Sally Merry, but he cannot be skeptical of the author's treatment of human rights, since she includes the processes of vernacularization of international jurisprudence. That idea is also taken up in the important comparative research coordinated in several countries by Rachel Sieder (Merry, 1988; Sieder, 2017).

De Sousa Santos' positions lend themselves to some confusion. It is not without reason that he considers that the modern doctrine of human rights is a product of Western thought, since its Asian predecessors did not achieve such global projection. Having emerged in the global North (Atlantic), it is assumed that this doctrine would be hermetic to the initiatives and experiences of countries in the South, so that the demands of resistance movements throughout the world would often be formulated "according to principles that contradict the dominant principles of human rights" and "as resistance to Western domination" (De Sousa Santos, n.d.: 220). It seems to me that at least in Latin America this assertion is erroneous, although it may be that De Sousa Santos was thinking of Asia and the Middle East when he wrote these words.

However, De Sousa Santos (2010: 68), in a chapter entitled "Towards an intercultural conception of human rights", recognizes that the sin of origin is not a good argument to assess the validity of the doctrine at a given historical moment. He also recognizes that, despite the atrocities and military interventions justified with the rhetoric of human rights and the economic interests they hide, the opposition between "West" and "East" or between universalism and relativism are not a satisfactory basis for discussion due to the heterogeneities of each of these cultural areas.

In the light of a "diatopic hermeneutic" that recognizes the "incompleteness" of all cultures, that is, their heterogeneity, De Sousa Santos seeks an "emancipatory multicultural conception of human rights". He acknowledges that, while the "universalist" and "Western" version "is plagued by a very simplistic and mechanical symmetry between rights and duties," the dharma Hinduism -as an example of a non-Western ethic- contains a "strong non-dialectical bias in favor of harmony" and "disregards democratic order, freedom and autonomy [...] [and that] without primordial rights, the human being is too fragile an entity" (De Sousa Santos, 2010: 73).

But the following twenty pages do not provide the basis for this "post-imperial" or "counter-hegemonic" conception of human rights (De Sousa Santos, 2010: 81). However, it is elucidated on various Hindu and Islamic conceptions, from political regimes and international declarations, to diatopic hermeneutics and interculturality. The discussion takes place at the level of culture. This approach allows it to avoid specific pronouncements and to oppose the legal approach to the conception of human rights as rules that, in the end, are susceptible to judicial application. It is precisely for such application that we have the European Court of Human Rights, as well as the (less powerful but equally respected) Inter-American Court of Human Rights.7 And, in an extensive discussion on the post-imperial, the multicultural and the counter-hegemonic, De Sousa Santos finds no alternative in the global South. This is perhaps why, despite his assumption that human rights justified imperial and domestic domination, he does not entirely abandon the current doctrine and limits himself to calling for dialogue.

De Sousa Santos is right in pointing out that, in today's world, a person without citizenship "does not exist", that is, is not endowed with the slightest right (I am referring to Europe and the Americas, and not to China, for example, or to other regimes that reject the very idea of human rights). He refers to what he calls the "abyssal divide", 8 which produces radical exclusions of "alleged terrorists, undocumented immigrants or asylum seekers" (De Sousa Santos, n.d.: 210) and, taking up the famous phrase of the liberal philosopher Hannah Arendt, takes away their "right to have rights". But, then, why criticize the liberal conception of "human nature as individual, self-sustaining" (De Sousa Santos, n.d.: 219)? We have seen in other writings of De Sousa Santos that it is precisely in the name of the inviolability of the individual human being in his most fragile, most defenseless and vulnerable expression, that human rights are indispensable for people who have neither nationality nor citizenship.

Arendt even doubted the usefulness of such rights, since those who most need them are refugees and undocumented people who cannot appeal to any State. Universalism, in the preferred version of De Sousa Santos, consists of "social justice, dignity, mutual respect, solidarity, community, cosmic harmony with nature and society, spirituality", as well as the "prudence" that "underlies the ecology of knowledge" (De Sousa Santos, 2006: 19 and 26). These are laudable sentiments, no doubt, but they do not constitute a basis for thinking about citizenship or universal human rights. Who decides whether the government respects my dignity, let alone cosmic harmony? These are phrases fit for charismatic leaders who disdain judicial impartiality. Hannah Arendt also expressed her distrust of the idea of a community united by such feelings of intimacy or authenticity (Passerin d'Entreves, 2022). For her, citizenship was realized through participation in structured public debates in which impartiality, civility and civic friendship would reign, and private interests would be subordinated to the public interest (Arendt, 1977: 106). Her vision was as utopian as that of De Sousa Santos, but it envisaged institutionalized rights belonging to the individual rather than a community united by mere sentiments.

Decolonialists propose rights belonging to diverse collectivities. However, when it comes to allocating resources or settling conflicts, those same rights ultimately belong to individuals, albeit as members of a collectivity or organization. We know that, when it comes to ethnic and racial groups, such membership is conditioned by nuanced differences and subjective evaluations; therefore, guarantees of citizenship, equality and the civil and human rights it entails are necessary. My examples of affirmative action in Brazil and interculturalism in Mexico show that the tensions between the universal and particular identities, on the one hand, and the collective and the individual, on the other, are manageable because in their application they tend to overlap. What is of concern, and cannot be absolutely guaranteed, is the impartiality of the judiciary and the bureaucracy, threatened from within or from outside. Recent examples in the United States, Poland and Hungary attest to the fragility of these institutions. In light of its recent behavior, Brazil's Federal Supreme Court today seems more resistant to political pressures than its U.S. counterpart, although it too has had its ups and downs. 9

Precursors of decolonialism

My book After the Decolonial: Ethnicity, Gender and Social Justice in Latin America (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2022) offers a genealogy of the decolonial, beginning with three precursors: Edward Said, Frantz Fanon, and Emmanuel Lévinas. I try to show that Said is a universalist occasionally co-opted by anti-Western and binary versions of identity politics. Decolonialists similarly ignore Fanon's universalist values and vulgarize his thought, turning him into an enemy of European culture and a supporter of nationalism, which does not reflect his thought. Fanon is a universalist because he was purely and simply opposed to racism and race per se: he was opposed to the négritude (in the version adopted by post-independence African dictators). 10 His ideal was a world without race. When he sympathizes with violence, he speaks not of race, but of the response of the Algerian peasant masses to the cruelty and violence inflicted by French colonial forces, but he does not provide an unrestricted endorsement of violence. More puzzling is the decolonial invocation of the notoriously complex but renowned French philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas as a precursor. In a case of "forced politicization," decolonials strove to make Lévinas a third world with biased readings of their Talmudic lessons (Talmudic lessons) (Slabodsky, 2014). Pairing these two thinkers so different in style and content is a very strange move that I try to explain and unravel in detail in the book.

The leading philosopher of the decolonial, Enrique Dussel, is a complex figure. Trained in theology and an exponent of liberation theology, during the 1970s he directed the monumental Historia general de la Iglesia en América Latina (Dussel, 1983-1994). Despite its unorthodox organization, in which transcribed documents and narratives are interspersed, the first volume, of 600 pages, demonstrates the depth of his Catholic learning and his vast knowledge of the history not only of the Church, but of religion throughout the continent since pre-Columbian times (Dussel, 1974 and 1983-1994). However, from a certain point onwards his writings bifurcate: in one direction we find highly politicized and polemical interventions; while in the other there are complex philosophical works, inspired by phenomenology and his misreading of Lévinas, and very different from his early stage marked by dialogue with liberation theology.

I do not claim that the decolonial is built around false problems. For example, the "abyssal divide" (or abysmal division) reflects well the dystopian world of hypertrophied metropolises such as Rio de Janeiro or Guatemala City. The abyss divides society between spaces where the law rules (more or less) and the State protects its inhabitants (the respectable classes) and urban peripheries that seem to extend endlessly, where governance is in the hands of unofficial agencies (drug traffickers and militias). In these places, official agencies (sometimes themselves interpenetrated by crime) only enter to inflict repression or arbitrariness; business is conducted with little regulation, certification or taxation, but subject to the tax blackmail of trafficking; and citizens are reduced to the status of feudatories at the mercy of favors dispensed by local bosses. Nor is it an exclusively urban phenomenon, as the inhabitants (or former inhabitants) of towns in Michoacán and northern Mexico that have been depopulated or "taken over" by drug trafficking know all too well.

Although simplified, the idea of the abyss reflects well the stagnation of the State in several Latin American countries. Perhaps it should be explained that the abysmal divide goes hand in hand with the interdependence of these two worlds. Such dependence sometimes links politicians and police with traffickers and militias - a dependence of which Santos is no doubt well aware.

Unfortunately, there is more. Decolonials ignore the surprise that awaits them in the evangelical churches, which teeter on the edge of the abyss and sometimes straddle it. This is the subject of the penultimate chapter of my book. For reasons of space I cannot go deeper into the subject, so I limit myself to say that the decolonial disinterest in the evangelical churches is a serious weakness, given that the socioeconomic and ethnic profile of their followers "should" lead them to sympathize with progressive political and religious forces, while in reality the opposite is true (Araujo, 2022).

The science of the concrete

Decolonial assertions about indigenous knowledge and science tend to assimilate the efficacy of folk remedies and folk wisdom (e.g., as applied to agricultural practices and vernacular medicine) to scientific knowledge. This is not a far-fetched idea: such practices are the fruit of generations of experimentation and observation in agricultural and livestock-based societies and can provide reliable guidance for plant cultivation, animal husbandry and treatment of minor ailments, such as irrigation systems and the classic concept of "vertical control of a maximum of ecological floors" developed by John Murra as a key to understanding the political economy of Andean systems of colonization in the pre-Columbian and colonial periods (Murra, 1972). However, as knowledge it should not qualify as scientific in the usual (Anglo-Saxon) sense because it is not carried out in the (very Western) institutions of science with their apparatus of anonymous review (peer review), doctoral theses, etc., and above all their project to test (or falsify) theories or hypotheses.

In El pensamiento salvaje (1964), Lévi-Strauss explores the difference between bricolage and modern science. The bricoleur operates with a fixed set of already existing objects and questions how to assemble them into structures. Modern scientists have the "project" of understanding what underlies an observed structure by using concepts, which are not observed, as keys to understanding the observable. Bricolage operates by ordering and rearranging visible signs, searching for their meaning by trial and error. Not in vain, thanks to bricolage, humanity reached the Neolithic revolution through countless failed experiments, perhaps over centuries, necessary to discover how to make pottery from malleable clay or how to make bronze from copper. This is what Lévi-Strauss calls the "science of the concrete" and its procedures are essential for social reproduction in all societies, ancient and modern.

We hear contemporary shamans and their adepts or imitators - those who address an urban and even global audience, not those who live in indigenous communities - affirm the causal efficacy of the ritual performances that accompany their practices. Decolonial theorists get distracted by this and fall into the erroneous impression that practitioners "always" attribute causal efficacy to their rituals. People may accompany their agricultural cycle with ceremonies and appeals to divine entities, as well as their medicinal cures with ritual incantations; but healers and shamans do not practice these rites as a guarantee of success in the application of knowledge. Rather, the ritual marks the social significance of the event, or the skill and wisdom of the practitioner, the relationship between the practitioners and others involved, or the consecrated legitimacy of a procedure practiced through numerous generations. Anthropologists once asked the question, "What does this ritual mean?" but they have long since learned, as Maurice Bloch put it, that such a question is naïve and elicits neither a straightforward nor a convincing answer (Bloch, 2004).

Referring to the couvade practiced by many peoples in New Guinea and elsewhere, the explanation offered by Dan Sperber is striking in its reasonableness and simplicity (he calls his approach "epidemiological"). The couvade refers to "a set of precautions (e.g., resting, lying down, observing certain dietary restrictions) that a man must take during and just after the birth of a child" (Sperber, 1996: 36). Apparently, it cannot be explained why people continue to engage in this ritual practice with no causal connection to the misfortunes it supposedly prevents. Sperber assumes that the "purpose" of the rite is to prevent misfortune from befalling the child, and then lists different scenarios in which it may or may not "make sense." If it simply never worked-if, for example, 90% of newborns died within a few days-the practice would no doubt be abandoned. (Recall the presumably high level of infant mortality in New Guinea especially at the time of those ethnographies.) But in many cases the child is born healthy and survives. Interesting contingencies appear when the prophecy seems to be fulfilled: the rite is not fulfilled and misfortune occurs.

Recall also the oft-cited psychological observation that humans are more alert to negative events or disappointments, and that alertness fuels our assessment of risk, as Daniel Kahneman (2012) has shown. "Under such conditions, following the practice [of the couvadeThe "we" (or "we") at least protects against the risk of being held responsible for a misfortune" (Sperber, 1996: 52). This explanation of the persistence of what "we" find inexplicable is no different from how "our" widespread consumption of scientifically ineffective homeopathic remedies could be explained. In short, the simplistic opposition between modes of explanation in indigenous societies and those where institutionalized science (more or less) dominates is misleading and is shared by both decolonialists and modernizing Western opinion. That there has been a destruction of indigenous knowledge is evident, but it does not mean that this knowledge was, or still is, the result of a fundamentally different way of knowing than that practiced in today's laboratories. Differences in culture do not constitute differences between "minds".

These reflections serve to illustrate the erroneous use of the phrase "other epistemologies". The "science of the concrete," as Lévi-Strauss called it, is not tied to any particular culture, ancient or modern. However, in decolonial thought there percolates an idea according to which indigenous cosmologies embody a distinctive type of scientific thought, the science that has been killed by colonial epistemicide. Of course, cosmologies embody conceptions of the supernatural, of gods and spirits that preside over human life, and receive their prayers and cajoling, but they are not attributed with the capacity to intervene with causal force in everyday affairs (unlike individuals with their anathemas and curses). They are part of a complex of fluid and intangible probabilities and risk factors. My book provides examples of the cultural and religious crossbreeding that has mixed elements of these cosmologies with the Catholic pantheon and of indigenous spirits that commune with others derived from possession cults of African origin in the Amazon (Boyer, 2022; Molinié, 2005).

The indigenous and the mixture

The decolonial concept of the indigenous ignores the channels through which indigenous ceremonies incorporate practices of popular Catholicism and how, in turn, popular Catholicism incorporates rites originating in indigenous ceremonies. The discussion becomes more complicated when ethnohistorians tell us that intellectuals or politicians are misinterpreting indigenous concepts such as Pachamama. Or when we learn of the machis Mapuches of Chile, who dispense their medicinal wisdom in public hospitals on people who do not claim indigenous heritage at all, and travel the world to administer their herbal remedies (Bacigalupo, 2004; Harris, 2000). 11 In describing these new twists, it is not a matter of pointing out "mistakes": they continue a centuries-old history of mixing, crossed ethnic boundaries and new interpretations - as seen in all religious traditions.

As much as in the sacred, the racial and the ethnic carry a similar ambiguity. Society is riddled with markers of inequality, sometimes crudely and sometimes subtly manifested in bodies, accents, dress and spatial segregations, but they are porous boundaries. Drawing on Abercrombie's (1992) famous description of the Oruro Carnival, I describe exchanges of ethnic symbols and markers and the ways they still serve to solidify social inequalities and racial exclusion. The greatest polarizing force is the political economy: art, music, dance and civic commemorations cross borders. Evo Morales overcame - or perhaps circumvented - the problem by inventing a pan-ethnic indigenism that brings together all of the country's indigenous peoples, except for the cattle-raising elite of the east.

Like the nationalist revolution of 1952, which gave rise to a mestizo middle class, the new ideology masked the inequalities and internal fractures of its base, marginalizing and even repressing the indigenous populations of the lowlands and the forest, and sponsoring the development of a "creole bourgeoisie" (Rivera Cusicanqui, 1986, 2010 and 2015). Morales built his political career as a leader of the heavily hierarchical coca growers' union that fought for freedom of cultivation and against eradication campaigns (Grisaffi, 2019). The coca leaf was a useful cultural symbol-one of many used by Evo-but their demands were not cultural: they wanted freedom to grow and sell their harvest and the cancellation of the government's agreement with the United States on eradication (Gutiérrez Aguilar, 2008). In any case, an anthropologist colleague with a lot of experience in the country tells me that she does not see Evo as an indigenous leader, but as a populist leader.

Secular "frontier" exchanges of ritual practices and ethnic markers can be conceptualized as a dialectic between the scholarly - or elite - and the popular, in which awareness and definition of what is one and what is the other are subjective and fluctuating. This formula leaves aside questions of authenticity and ethnic heritage to subsume fields such as religion and civic festivities in a broader framework. Néstor García Canclini, drawing inspiration from a Mexican art world aware of the country's popular heritage and attuned to global trends and fashions, speaks of hybridity. His dialectic is wrapped around the endless questioning of the artistic status of popular art and craftsmanship, such as the artifacts bought in popular (and therefore touristic) markets; but then migrates to the postmodern register when considering architecture kitsch of the Americanized cities of the northern frontier (García Canclini, 2001). And in a totally different geographical and historical context - the colonial era in the Brazilian Amazon - Barbara Sommer, for example, speaks of "the adoption, exchange, superimposition and convergence of native and western concepts and the creation of new meanings in the colonial context" (García Canclini, 2001). 12 (Boyer, 2023; Molinié, 2005; Sommer, 2014: 110).

Ethnic movements and democracy

The exclusive focus on what movements achieve for their own bases makes us lose sight of their contribution, sometimes on a small and sometimes on a larger scale, to democratization and democratic culture, as we can see in the Zapatista case. The early days of the Zapatista organization were marked as much by the theme of social justice as by ethnic and racial reparations, which is not surprising given the Maoist and Marxist training of its leaders. Together with catechists sent by the archdiocese of San Cristobal de las Casas, they defended people from different ethno-linguistic groups who had been forced to migrate and colonize the Lacandon Jungle in the humid tropics, as a result of the cattle conversion of the highland farms, where for several generations they had worked in almost servile conditions. These people were Indians, but they had lived more in a regime of servitude than in structured indigenous communities, and their leaders were imbued with the rhetoric of liberation theology and socialism. They were undoubtedly victims of racial oppression. After the January uprising in 1994, the indigenous flag served as a rallying cry, a source of solidarity and a magnet for international opinion, although the restoration or protection of indigenous culture was not their main demand. They were demanding the confirmation of their tenure of the lands they had cleared and the improvement of their quality of life; they were protesting against the repression of the State and the landowners. Since before the armed uprising of 1994 they were building institutions, forming cooperatives in the Lacandon Jungle, but they were not indigenous community institutions. They sought both democratization and "indigenization" (Leyva Solano and Ascencio Franco, 1996; Morales Bermudez, 2005; Tello Diaz, 1995).

Despite the presence of women leaders even as comandantes, the early Zapatistas did not speak much about women's rights to equal treatment. Later, in their research, some anthropologists found women who spread the message of the movement by defending their rights and their bodies. These feminist anthropologists are universalists because, while they insist on the right of indigenous peoples to live with laws that conform to their uses and customs, they prioritize resistance to violence against women and gender equality over uses and customs (Hernández Castillo, 2014; Speed, Hernández Castillo and Stephen, 2006). The Zapatista leaders came from Marxist currents dating back to the 1960s, but discovered their indigenous vocation thanks to the collaboration with the bishopric of San Cristóbal in the Lacandon Jungle and, later, having found, perhaps, a certain glamour in the international media.

The brief 1994 uprising had a seismic effect and advocated initiatives in favor of indigenous populations as much as the constitutional changes that heralded the end of the hegemonic PRI regime in 1999. The broad and structural (as well as cultural or educational) proposals of the San Andres Accords (1996) between the Zapatistas and a delegation of well-intentioned (but not very influential) people, sent by President Ernesto Zedillo, were not heeded by either the government or the Congress. Years later, to prepare for their Other Campaign, they organized a carefully scheduled three-day meeting in their Chiapas redoubt with more than 2,000 participants. ngo220 social movements and 50 indigenous groups. Of the five sessions of the meeting, none dealt specifically with the gender issue; the spokespersons of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (ezln) received harsh complaints from a feminist collective about what "had happened in the Zapatista communities". The representatives of the ezln They asked those present and "all those they had hurt to forgive them" and admitted that "their political-military structure had committed a series of arbitrariness and injustices [...] in all Zapatista zones" (Alonso, 2006). I cite the case not only because of the unusual openness and breadth of the meeting, but also to show that the Zapatista project touched on problems affecting the country as a whole. After the Other Campaign, the ezln returned to its redoubt, where, according to studies (now a bit old) by sympathetic academics, it was trying to practice parity gender representation and permanent consultation, admitting that after 20 years it was still in a stage of experimentation (Harvey, 2016). They are also involved in international campaigns against neoliberalism and the climate crisis. As far as we can tell, the Zapatista model seems to distance itself from both liberal democracy and Leninist democratic centralism, but I doubt that it embraces a properly indigenous system, even if its motto "to command by obeying" derives from the Tojolabal tradition.

Just as the Zapatistas, by creating their own institutions, the cric in Colombia builds democracy. In Peru, the peoples of the Amazon organize their own education system in partnership with the State and international institutions under the aegis of aidesep (Asociación Interétnica de Desarrollo de la Selva Peruana), whose Facebook page describes it as "the Amazonian indigenous territorial government". Demands for territorial autonomy or self-government often go beyond the strictly identitarian: they are democratizing efforts in contexts of routine state violence, repression, environmental aggression, as well as the collusion of security agencies with organized crime or militias. The cric has built an institutional apparatus, almost self-governing, and institutions in the fields of health, education and law (Brunegger, 2011; Rappaport, 2008; Yonda et al., 2019). But there are tensions: attention is drawn to loopholes that allow non-indigenous offenders to evade indigenous justice and to "internal and external demands to produce files and standardize procedures, in the framework of the regulation of the actions of indigenous authorities reinserted in the institutional order" (Campo Palacios, 2020: 132, 141). The institutionalization of "their own", to use the phrase of the Nasa people of Valle del Cauca, as part of the constitutional legal apparatus, is a "double-sided" conquest. The same happens with health and education services because, being financed by the State, they have to comply with the corresponding fiscal procedures (and probably trickery), which may irritate the "purists" for whom such adaptations are concessions to neoliberalism or, in the case of medicine, a biomedical model that subtracts its cultural significance from their own medicine (Cuyul Soto, 2013: 267-268).

When the context is also troubled by militia or trafficker violence, always with distrust of collusion with the State, it is not surprising that, as described by Daniel Campo Palacios, there are proposals for total disaffiliation from normal justice in order to establish an organized system around the tulpawhere "different antagonistic energies - positive and negative - must be kept in balance to ensure communal harmony" (2020: 155). But such initiatives are likely to clash with the demand for fairness and equity, which in turn brings back the formalisms and technicalities of ordinary justice. What remains is the universal and universalist yearning for visible, impartial and transparent justice.

In Chile, the indigenous cause, which was relegated to the margins of the political system until the beginning of the 20th century xxbecame emblematic for the democratization movement ("the outburst") that erupted on a national scale in 2019.13 In the renamed Plaza Dignidad in Santiago, the most prominent flag in the demonstrations was the flag of the largest ethnic group, the Mapuche, and in 2021 a Mapuche woman was elected to preside over the (ill-fated) Constitutional Convention. The yearnings for territorial autonomy or self-government of some Mapuche sectors, sometimes formulated in ultramontane terms, were buried with the Convention - an institution rejected as illegitimate even by some of the same sectors. Although there has been a certain renaissance of their community institutions, with the cooperation of state agencies like the conadi (Corporación Nacional de Desarrollo Indígena), the Mapuches are lagging behind the cric in matters of self-government.

Evo Morales showed his masterly talent in playing this counterpoint between indigenism and democracy, which in his case also included nationalism, ecology and class struggle. He skillfully proclaimed the indigenous vocation of his country in terms that made the very word "indigenous" an ethnic category in itself with a wide range that encompassed (almost) all ethno-linguistic groups, although it diminished the recognition of minority ones (Postero, 2017). The Constitution drafted under its auspices formally recognized a long list of nations with their own languages and legal systems, but translating the recognition of multiple legal constructs and languages into practice proved too complicated (Goodale, 2019). Possibly he feared the fragmentation that so many recognitions could bring, and those whose livelihoods depended on the fragile ecological balance of the Amazon lowlands were an obstacle to mineral resource exploitation and his neo-developmentalist strategy. In my book, I trace the intricate history of Bolivia during the 1990s and the first years of the new century, to conclude that Evo saved the country from total collapse (failed state) (Gutiérrez Aguilar, 2008). It is a tragedy that, after three terms in office, he fell into the trap of wanting to remain in power for ever, violating the Constitution he himself had devised.

This tendency toward institutionalization strengthens my conclusion that however decolonial and anti-Western some leaders and intellectual spokespersons may claim to be, identity pressure itself, once channeled into institution building, in addition to its struggle against racial prejudice, becomes a democratizing force in three ways: for some redistribution of resources, for the recognition of pressing social needs, and for local autonomy. The identity or intercultural aspect is not a facade, but neither is it a challenge to the Western or liberal character of the system, at least of the system as it exists in theory.


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David Lehmann is Emeritus Professor of Social Sciences at the University of Cambridge where he was Director of the Centre for Latin American Studies (1990-2000, 2010-2011). He began his career as a Latin Americanist in Chile with agrarian reform and peasant movements, and in Ecuador with peasant economies; since 1986, he has devoted himself to the sciences of religion, multiculturalism and interculturalism, leading lately to After the Decolonial: Ethnicity, Gender and Social Justice in Latin America (2022), whose argument is summarized in this article. He is the author of Democracy and Development in Latin America: Economics, Politics and Religion in the Post-War Period (1990); Struggle for the Spirit: Religious Transformation and Popular Culture in Brazil and Latin America (1996); (with Batia Siebzehner) Remaking Israeli Judaism (2006); The Crisis of Multiculturalism in Latin America (2016) y The Prism of Race: The Politics and Ideology of Affirmative Action in Brazil (2018).

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