The other voices of decolonialism. Commentary to "Beyond decoloniality: discussion of some key concepts" by David Lehmann.

Receipt: March 14, 2023

Acceptance: May 29, 2023


This brief commentary seeks to engage in a dialogue with David Lehmann's proposal to go beyond decolonialism. It is emphasized that decolonialism is more than an academic fad in Latin America. Decolonialist thought presents political and ethical dimensions critical of Western universalism, necessary to understand the claims for recognition of subaltern groups.

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the other voices of decolonialism. comments on "beyond decoloniality: discussion of some key concepts," by david lehmann

These brief comments seek to open a dialogue with David Lehmann's proposal to go beyond decolonialism. It is underscored that decolonialism is more than an academic style in Latin America. Decolonialist thought introduces political dimensions and ethical critiques of Western universalism, necessary for understanding the demands for recognition of subaltern groups.

Keywords: subalternity, otherness, indigeneity, social justice, rights and knowledge of the people.

David Lehmann presents a critique of Latin American decolonial thought and shows us, through the use of his own and other sources, that the processes of change - even those promoted by the decolonialists themselves or by the native peoples - contradict it, leaving the decolonial critique as a mere ideological discourse. The decolonialists, for Lehman, reduce the problem of inequality to colonial origins or to a colonial situation that originated 500 years ago, thus simplifying the processes of change, the mixtures, the struggle for equality and the recognition of Latin American subjects. The article presents a brief and schematic synthesis of his book, which is undoubtedly polemic and provocative.

One could not agree more with Lehmann that it has been economic policies that have generated the greatest inequalities, as well as that the movements of subordinated groups - be they ethnic, gender or even religious - have in the end succeeded in broadening democratic participation. For him, "democratizing democracy" (as demanded by indigenous organizations) means the institutionalization of basic protection against abuses of power, corruption, impunity and, consequently, the defense of human rights, which must be expressed in redistributive policies based on universal and objective criteria, such as class and gender, and not on the recognition of particular identities. In his proposal, decolonialism and universalism represent two clearly opposed categories. In Lehmann's perspective, decolonialists essentialize ethnic and racial identities, and fail to see that their detractors are within the same civilizational complex of what they consider the colonized or the "other". Latin American nations, peoples and communities are also internally diverse and unequal, so he proposes a return to universalism as a notion opposed to the particularism of decolonialism.

For Lehman, "decolonialism" is no more than a political ideology, but not a consistent theory based on firm premises (as his review of the precursors shows). This is well exemplified by the use and manipulation that Evo Morales and the Movement Toward Socialism (more) made of the indigenous notion of Pachamama and of the very concept of "decolonial" when they emptied them of their meaning and turned them into an instrument of political legitimization of their actions, some of which even went against respect for Mother Earth and the environment. Nor is it a system of thought because, finally, the colonial subjects also wish to insert themselves into the modern world, such as the Pentecostals and Evangelicals, the feminist movements or the students of the intercultural universities of Mexico, among whom the decolonialist discourse is absent. Undoubtedly, the decolonialist proposal has clear limitations, some not very evident, which Lehmann exposes and specifies. Its link with the political struggles of certain cultural minorities has given it an ideological aspect that makes it a totalizing, coherent and hermetic proposal. When in fact it is one among other possible ways of interpreting the differences and inequalities between hegemonic and subordinated cultures.

However, taking liberal (Western) democratic institutions as an alternative has shown its clear limits to recognize political expressions or forms of indigenous or native peoples' collective participation. From the liberal perspective, which is presented as universal, none of them could be considered democratic. It is precisely this questioning that is made by post- and decolonialist proposals. How, then, can we understand the nature or cultural logic of indigenous policies or those of other subordinated groups if not in their own terms? And if we continue to deny the feasibility and veracity of their own proposals, are we not falling into the reproduction or vindication of a colonialist theory or a colonial vision?

The non-recognition of the values or particularities of those who are not considered Western or are considered "other" also produces forms of exclusion that are imbricated or interwoven with existing class inequalities. It is precisely in the full recognition of the other, which includes their subjectivity, that is, how they express themselves and want or wish to be recognized, that the universal finds its clear limits, because the universal when applied or put into practice is translated as the only thing, the legitimate thing, the effective thing. In a society that pretends to be democratic and to efficiently apply redistributive policies, the problem of the recognition of the "other" in its multiple dimensions: cultural, economic, political, legal, etc., comes first. That is, redistributive policies that do not start from the recognition of the existence of significant differences, which are not reduced to the merely economic (class) or political (citizenship), generate new forms of inequality (Frazer and Honneth, 2006).

Until now, behind the discourse of universal or universalist values lies a system of domination that sustains economic inequality through racist and epistemicidal clothing, which decolonialism denounces and questions. We have suffered from universalist discourses for two centuries and distributive policies based on universal criteria that have caused greater inequality, ecocide, epistemicide and the reproduction of inequalities or social differences justified by racial and ethnic criteria; a single model of integration that led to the homogenization of the population and the denial (non-recognition) of their forms of knowledge, their beliefs, their worldviews and, in general, of the value system of the subordinates.

Lehmann gives too much importance to the Latin American "academic world"; I would say that before and after the decolonial academic discourse is the discourse of the actors themselves (who are not academics and may never have encountered or will encounter any of the specialized works of the decolonialist authors), the original peoples and their spokespersons, the community councils, the indigenous or excluded youth and elders who confront that regime of domination that masks the differences and inequalities with its exclusionary discourse hidden in the discourse of universal values. The denunciation of a colonialist mentality that permeates the dominant classes appears in the 1970s (perhaps even earlier in Bolivia and other Latin American countries) in the speeches of some Latin American indigenous intellectuals, such as those compiled by Guillermo Bonfil (1981) in the book Utopia and revolution. The contemporary political thought of the Indians in Latin America.. Bonfil's approaches show clear coincidences with the so called subaltern studies (promoted by Ranajit Guha1 and predecessors of the so-called postcolonialists), who since the 1970s and 1980s have made a definitive critique of Western theories, both Marxist and liberal, for their limitations in explaining peasant movements and those of other subordinated groups. They also drew attention to the exclusionary dimension of modernizing and developmentalist narratives, presented as universalist or with the garb of universal values, but which are nonetheless Eurocentric, such as individualist, procedural democracy, devoid of content, as opposed to other forms of collective participation, effective at the local level. This problem gives rise to a series of issues and nuances that need to be considered in order to broaden the discussion.

Racist prejudices persist in Latin American societies that include all subordinates, especially those of African descent and indigenous people (with or without particular ethnic characteristics, as well as specific racial characteristics or not). Although the concept of race is unusual, racism remains. But racism is only an external manifestation of the persistence of colonial relations within Latin American nations. For Latin American authors, this racism is heir to the colonial system. Pablo González Casanova, one of the pioneers in the formulation of "internal colonialism", says the following: "In effect, 'colonialism' is not a phenomenon that only occurs at the international level -as is commonly thought-, but occurs within the same nation, to the extent that there is an ethnic heterogeneity in it, in which certain ethnic groups are linked to the dominant groups and classes, and others to the dominated" (González Casanova, 1982: 89). An alternative way to explain the persistence of racial ideology in Mexico is presented by Claudio Lomnitz, who affirms that in independent Mexico class distinction was once again expressed in racial terms (Lomnitz, 1992: 276).

From the critical perspective of internal colonialism, what is definitive is not race but racism (the racist discourse or mentality) that denies and subjugates the values and contributions (equality and recognition) of non-Western cultures or that assigns negative characteristics to those who do not appear Western or who do not adhere to a pattern of behavior defined as civilized. This denial is at the very basis of racism and is expressed in multiple ways in class and interpersonal relations. The substantialization of racism is not the work of decolonialist discourse, but of the dominant classes that present themselves as bearers of universal values. Just as there are racial mixtures (mestizaje) and cultural mixtures (hybridization), new categories also appear to refer to the subalterns. A few years ago the term "nacos" was used, now the term "pata rajada" has reappeared. In the same way there is hybridization and syncretism, including the expansion of Protestantism and Neo-Pentecostalism, but is the meaning the same, for example, among the indigenous and the urban middle classes?

The colonial or colonialist mentality present in the discourses of the dominant classes is subtly introduced even in leftist intellectuals, as well as in social assistance programs and even more so in development programs, which become paternalistic practices and in the conformation of political clienteles.

A few weeks ago in an interview with a leader of a Purhépecha community recently recognized as autonomous, a clear formulation of this colonial mentality appeared; when I asked him about the problems they were facing, he answered me as follows: "The main problem we have now is that neither the people of the municipal capital nor some people in the community accept that we indigenous people are capable of governing ourselves and that we do not need neither politicians nor political parties". In addition, of course, there are the problems of services, public works and security that must also be addressed with the budget that has been allocated to them.

Lehmann questions the equating of Western science with indigenous science and disagrees with the use of the term "knowledge". He also questions the talk of epistemicide or epistemic plurality. The people of the communities do not use the term "science" or scientific, but simply other "knowledge" or "knowledges" and it is clear that these other knowledges have been constructed based on a rationality different from the scientific one and have a foundation in their own cosmovision. Recognizing an epistemic plurality refers to the existence of different rationalities and ways of producing knowledge. In certain contexts, these other rationalities may have the same value as scientific ones. Stanley Tambiah (1990), who could hardly be categorized as a decolonialist, shows that even Western science has foundations in magic and religion, that the production of scientific knowledge is not always the product of the application of the so-called scientific method. It would seem then that the supremacy of Western science is also sustained by power relations. Again, the non-recognition that there are other ways and possibilities of constructing knowledge leads to the denial of knowledge and its oblivion, which could be considered epistemicide.

On the other hand, it cannot be denied that there was and there is extractivism of indigenous knowledge by capitalist companies, not only pharmaceutical companies, but also agroecological companies or those that now promote green capitalism. There is also epistemicide, such as the one that is almost achieved after decades of denial of traditional medicine and all its baggage of knowledge or practices such as midwifery, now claimed by urban alternative collectives and recognized by the same official instances.

Lehmann opposes indigenous justice to justice dispensed by the State. When we speak of indigenous justice, we think of the legitimization of an authoritarian and arbitrary system at the service of a political faction, violating fundamental human rights, especially those that concern the individual. Human rights is currently the hegemonic discourse on human dignity and has become a grammar of universal humanism. For this reason, it can be considered a form of global governance, even though its implementation is the responsibility of the States themselves. The problem lies in the fact that state apparatuses hardly act in a neutral manner. The dispensation of justice is generally mediated by the criteria, evaluations and interests of the dominant culture. Hence the importance of the recognition of governments by uses and customs, which has been a historical demand of the native peoples.

So far, the recognition of "usos y costumbres" has meant the expansion of the possibilities to demand and apply justice. In the cases I have been aware of, mostly domestic violence or violence between neighbors, people can go to the municipal authorities, the Public Prosecutor's Office or local authorities and accept their sanctions. In the most serious cases of federal crimes such as robbery, murder, the same traditional authorities go to the federal authorities. There is no contradiction between justice imparted by the State and justice imparted by local authorities, but rather different possibilities that can be accessed according to the decision of the affected person. However, appeals to international human rights bodies and organizations have also allowed indigenous communities to advance in the recognition of their rights as collective subjects.

The issue of the recognition and application of universal rights and the churches - be they Christian or of any other creed - is not resolved because almost no religious system recognizes universal rights to those who do not belong to its creed and, from my point of view, it cannot be considered as an alternative that escapes decolonial critique. In fact, Boaventura de Sousa Santos (2014) discusses the contradictory relationship between universal human rights and the rise of Islamic and Christian fundamentalisms. Both discourses, which have grown a lot in recent decades, refer in a contradictory way (and offer different alternatives), precisely, to the recognition of human dignity and the provision of justice.

Applying redistributive policies without recognizing the particularities of collective subjects leads to an increase in inequalities, which is manifested in the abandonment suffered by communities. The historical problem has been that whenever attempts have been made to apply universal values in stratified societies with marked cultural differences (whether ethnic, religious or racial) through public policies, they end up further accentuating differences and deepening inequalities.

A clear example of non-universal redistributive policies or those based on the recognition of the rights of collective subjects, which are more effective in terms of social justice, is the recognition of autonomy and the right to enjoy their direct budget for communities and native peoples. In this way, they have been able to intervene in the definition of public works, the creation of community guards, education and health programs for the communities themselves, which they were not allowed to do before. The allocation of the budget is made through a combination of universal criteria (number of inhabitants of the community) and particular criteria (being recognized as an indigenous community). Official recognition is achieved through certification of the community by the National Institute of Indigenous Peoples (Instituto Nacional de Pueblos Indígenas (inpi), when it is quite evident, or by means of a lawsuit before a federal court and then an investigation is carried out by the judge to verify the existence of elements characteristic of an indigenous community. Especially in these times, having their own guard or community police has allowed them to face the siege of private individuals, transnational companies (mining, logging, commercial monocultures) and organized crime, predatory agents that now threaten the communities. The universalist justice that has been applied up to now does not guarantee them security, not even a minimum remuneration for what is extracted.

Some small communities such as San Benito or Ocumicho, in the Purhépecha plateau, until a few years ago received, from the municipal budget, at most 10% of what they were entitled to per year (between 150 and 250 thousand pesos per year, and now they must receive between two and two and a half million pesos per year). In addition, it was the municipal government that decided which works would be carried out, which companies should be contracted and how they would be carried out. In case of any conflict, such as when organized crime groups appeared in the communities, they were hardly supported by the municipal police; that is, their particular condition and their ethnic, not class-based, self-ascription had to be recognized in order for the application of redistributive policies to be effective.

Until now, the main demand of indigenous communities has been the defense and conservation of their territory and, only in second place, cultural demands, especially those linked to their heritage or what they consider their tangible and intangible heritage. The contemporary indigenous movement is not a restorationist movement or a movement for cultural recovery or safeguarding, but in those communities that have achieved autonomy there is a rebirth of local pride. There are no closed or pristine communities. But change and transformation (the adoption of new cultural practices, mixtures) do not mean the denial of their particularities, nor of their rights as collective subjects. Indeed, as Lehmann argues, what is sought is an expansion of democracy and inclusion in modern life, although this cannot be achieved without also dismantling the colonial structures that sustain the current system of domination. Perhaps Mignolo, Dussel and Maldonado, or Santos and Quijano, are representative of decolonialist theory; but the decolonial critique transcends them because it originates in the actors themselves, in indigenous intellectuals, including a growing number of indigenous feminists, a large majority of basic school teachers and only a few university-trained, much less with postgraduate degrees. Here it is pertinent to return to Emmanuel Lévinas, who, both in Totality and infinity (2006) as in Humanism of the other man (1993), vindicates the ethical primacy of recognizing the Other in its totality in order for the Self to finally recognize and emancipate itself. Undoubtedly, this is an anthropological problem that must continue to be discussed and to which decolonialists offer some answers, not definitive I believe, but necessary to advance the discussion.


Bonfil, Guillermo (comp.) (1981). Utopía y revolución. El pensamiento político contemporáneo de los indios en América Latina. México: Nueva Imagen.

Frazer, Nancy y Axel Honneth (2006). Redistribución o reconocimiento, un debate político-filosófico. Madrid: Morata.

González Casanova, Pablo (1982). La democracia en México. México: era.

Guha, Ranajit (1982). Las voces de la historia y otros estudios subalternos. Madrid: Crítica.

Lévinas, Emmanuel (1993). Humanismo del otro hombre. México: Siglo xxi.

— (2006). Totalidad e infinito. Salamanca: Ediciones Sígueme.

Lomnitz, Claudio (1992). Exits from the Labyrinth. Stanford: University of California Press.

Santos, Boaventura de Sousa (2014). Si Dios fuese un activista de los derechos humanos. Madrid: Trotta.

Tambiah, Stanley (1990). Magic, Science, Religion, and the Scope of Rationality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

José Eduardo Zárate Hernández D. in Anthropology (ciesas). Last books published: Eduardo Zárate and Jorge Uzeta (eds.) (2016). Languages of political fragmentation. Zamora: El Colegio de Michoacán; Eduardo Zárate (2017). The celebration of childhood. The cult of the Child Jesus in the Purhépecha area.. Zamora: El Colegio de Michoacán; Verónica Oikión and José Eduardo Zárate (eds.) (2019). Michoacán. Politics and society. Zamora: El Colegio de Michoacán; Eduardo Zárate (ed.) (2022). Communities, utopias and futures. Zamora: The College of Michoacán.


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