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The Philosophy of Liberation: An Interview with Enrique Dussel (Part II)

You speak of de- and re-structuring philosophy. Could you give another example of when you take existing canonical political philosophy and de-structure it? Could you give me a specific example of a thinker where you think this is necessary?
For example, for me, within political philosophy, ethics is the abstract foundation of all practical fields. Economics is a practical field, as is family, culture, and, of course, politics. That is why I needed to develop an ethics of liberation. I began to study political philosophy to clarify this foundational moment for myself, the foundational moment of all practical fields.
For me, the question lay in our practice. And in the last 12 years, Latin America has had very interesting political experiences, or practices. We have a long history of politics, and in books, I clarify this history. To understand where I am in Latin America. But, it was not like this in the past. So in 1999, for example, the revolution was not so strong. This was when Hugo Chavez began the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela.
I focused on the left, or rather, center-left, not the far left. There was a small left… Nevertheless, it was a novelty, because all our governments were right-wing military dictatorships, or populist like the Congress Party in India. Now, they have moved more to the left.
I began to study the experience in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and other countries. And for me, it was revolutionary. The manner in which the Zapatista movement began to speak on politics. For me, it was very original. They think politics like Indian groups, and they express themselves through a man who writes very well, Subcommandante Marcos. He is a philosopher. He studied at the same university where I am a professor. He was a professor there too, and he was 4 semesters junior to me! Afterwards, he went to Chiapas. He is a philosopher, but he engages with the Indians. And he has a very beautiful, very clear, manner of writing.
He has produced an expression which is very interesting. It is in Spanish, and it is untranslatable (intraductible) from Spanish. ”Los que mandan mandan mandando.” Beautiful poetry. Mandan meanscommanding. The dominant groups, the rulers, command commanding. Mandan mandando. Commanding is understood as domination. But, said Subcommandante Marcos, for us, for the Indians, the person that is commanding is obedient to the people. So, Marcos said : “Los que mandan mandan obendenciendo.”
For me that was… [Dussel flicks his hand, and says] Pphm! A theoretical bomb! Because in modernity, from Hobbes until now, power is a type of domination. In political science, from Weber to Marx to Lenin in “State and Revolution”, the left in general has thought that political power is domination. Because of that understanding, Marx said that the state is not the solution after the revolution, but the finishing or the end of politics is. Why? Because politics is domination. That is the position of anarchism. If political power is domination, then the people can never take power. Because they do not want to dominate the other.
We need a positive definition of political power.
This hypothesis, the Zapatista hypothesis, changes the definition of power, and changes the definition of all politics. You see, power can be fetishized, it can be self-referential. But I need to think at which level: At the level of the institution!
I then begin to make a distinction between potentia and potestas. I take this from Spinoza, from Negri. But I changed the definition, because I need to arrive at a positive vision of politics. And not to be an idealist or moralist, because my position is a critical realism. I am not a moralist who thinks politics is very beautiful. No, I say in the majority of cases politics becomes dominating, and fetishized. But it is a negative possibility, you know–the nature of the power.
And with this hypothesis, I can begin to understand what power is. I began to speak of it in the “Twenty Theses on Politics”. But that was after 10 years of struggle. Because I needed to look at all my books on history. The first volume of my 3-volume world philosophy book was a rereading of the history of politics. And in this rereading, I began to reread the text and see the mistakes within this history. This history was not a history. No, I understood the meaning of power in history, and I needed a new vision of a question, of power–a positive vision.
And this vision is… Die Welt ist Wille. A beautiful expression by Schopenhauer, but not with the same meaning that Schopenhauer had. The expression is “a will to live. It is very positive. That is the force of power. It is the will to live of the people. And this concept is in the Indian civilization. In all civilizations. Life is the central moment of all cultures. The most mythical and primitive gift, that the Gods give us, is life.
And life is the only absolute moment in all ethical and political description. I have a universal principal: The affirmation of life. I am not postmodern with a fragmentary rationality. No. I think the affirmation of life is necessary for all humanity. Without the affirmation of life we are finished, no? But it is not only affirmation. Where the will is, is the consensus of practical reason. I am not irrational, I think reason is very important. And, it can be universal too. That means it the community is in agreement about this question: How do we affirm life?
But the third element, that is fundamental, is feasibility. Because the Frankfurt School criticizes instrumental reason. But I need instrumental reason, because people, without technology, wealth, a good economy, have no power. So I am a realist, critical, positive. But afterwards, when this community organizes with force and power, and produces the institutions they have, they begin to do this…
For the left, institutions, like power, are thought as oppressive. I say the institution is ambiguous. It can be oppressive, but it can also be an affirmation of life. Agriculture is one institution. I need agriculture to grow, to eat different plants, it is good for life. Agriculture is an institution. Agriculture opens up the possibility that the owner exploits the worker. But it also opens up the possibility for the affirmation of life. Thus, it is ambiguous. It is not intrinsically bad or evil. In my second volume of “The Politics of Liberation, in more than a 100 pages, I speak on this ambiguity of institutions. I say, the institution can become oppressive when it is fetishized, but at the moment of creation–new institutions–the institution is liberating. At the beginning, a system gives people the possibility to live. Afterwards it becomes oppressive, when it becomes a bureaucracy, when it becomes fetishized and self-referential, persisting for the sake of persisting.
So with this vision of institutions, I can describe different types of institutions. I have a description of all possible political institutions. So about life in the economy, education, culture, etc., and the manner in which it is reproduced. And also the institution that is meant to legitimize the system, i.e. the question of democracy.
After the question of the institution, there is the question of the feasibility of the system: Of technology, economics, etc.
And then, there is a third level. That is, the subjective, principal, normative level, that obliges me to affirm life. Taking a consensus not through violence but through reason, and doing the possible, not the impossible. This is based on subjective, normative principals… It is normative because the ethics in politics is transformed into something political. So, in general, political science of the political faculty speaks on the history of institutions. But it never speaks on subjective, normative principals. Because that is a philosophical question, not a political science question. Democracy is only a procedure of institutions. But at a cultural, subjective level, the agreement of a person with the institution is based on the belief that the masses always make a decision after a consensus based on the semiotic participation of the affected.
That is a subjective culture.
I think democracy is objective, and the latter is subjective. I do a description of almost all ideal systems of politics. It is not ideal in the sense of Plato. It is the actual system in their best aspects. And that is the second volume [of Dussel’s three-part “Politics of Liberation”, which lays out a decolonized political philosophy]. And in the third volume, that is in thesis 11-20 [in Dussel’s Twenty Theses on Politics”], I begin a new time period, and I say that the old system cannot be perfect. Because of the human condition, the old system always produces negative effects. The persons that suffer the negative effects–I will use Walter Benjamin and call them the victims–see the system as unjust. From the point of view of the victims, the system is unjust.
Now, lets take a situation where all the participants have a justice claim… I can have a justice claim, but commit an unjust act, because I do not know the negative effect. But the others, who suffer from my action that I committed with my justice claim, suffers from my act. He says to me, “Yes, you have a justice claim, but I suffered from your act.” So I see it as unjust. I see the injustice of my act, in the negative effect of the other. So, it is from this point of view of the other, that I have deconstructed the entire system. Because, now the political action must begin with a liberation praxis to change the system. That is, the revolution of the transformation. It is liberation praxis. I need to change all types of institutions.
I have new principals, subjective ones, that are not systems that allow the reproduction of the existing system, but new subjective normative principals that oblige me to change the system. To do a new better. And these are critical normative principals. That is the second part. 
With this type of description of politics, I gave courses to, for example, the Indians in Bolivia. I said that is the reality, and they said, “Very interesting!”
They understood it very well. They said, ”Help us in our action.”
And I can explain that in that group, the people understood what politics means. It comes from our experience. And I see in contact with the people how effective this comprehension is. Because the people understand that they are the only siege around power. All institutions, the president, the deputy, the governor, the military. All these people exercise power as delegation, as my delegation. But they are not power. I am the only subject.
When the people understand that, it changes everything.
And that comes from practice. I do not think there is any philosopher in Europe or the United States who expresses all that in such a manner: It is my practice with the people.
I am in exile because the military of Argentina exiled me. But in Venezuela, I gave lectures in the military school. Hundreds and thousands of students in the military spoke with me about strategy and politics, and they were all very enthusiastic. It was effective. And, I cannot take up the questions of any philosopher in the United States or Europe. Though, it is true I am in dialogue with almost all the actual political philosophers in Europe and United States.
You just mentioned a moment ago that a lot of your work is based on a dialogue with the people. Could you speak a little bit about the origins of the ethics and politics of liberation, and of course liberation theology? Could you say a little about the origins of both in Latin America and in relation to your own activism?

ED:It is interesting I have here one book by Ali Akbar Engineer. He is an Islamic thinker in Bombay, and he has an Islamic theology of liberation.
It is exactly like in Latin America. It was Latin American. The theology of liberation was born more or less at the same time as the philosophy of liberation. In 1968. The reading of Marcuse, the Frankfurt School, but more than that, the Cuban revolution, Che Guevara, Camillo Torres, who was a priest who later died in Colombia, were important. The Christian Youth People in the university. Many of them became guerrillas in the 1960s and they gave their life, and many of them were killed. So in these groups, as Christians, and I could say as Islamists, they began to rethink their own tradition. The interesting thing in the theology of liberation was that it was related with Marxism. There are not many Islamic groups that have gone this way. They have gone towards a more fundamentalist, and traditional thinking. In Latin America, the theology of liberation was democratic. First, Christian democrats means capitalists. But these young people read Marx, so there was first a reconciliation between Christianity and Marxism. But it is also interesting that Walter Benjamin, the German philosopher in aesthetics, Jewish, who spoke of a solution as a materialistmessianisme. He combined Marxism with Judaism, exactly the same intuition that underpins the theology of liberation.
It was interesting because the theology of liberation was not a product of the academy. It did not come because the theological faculty was persecuted. It was a product of a popular movement. A struggle against the military and a left consciousness. It was not fundamentalist, it was democratic. It was Marxist in its interpretation and very articulate with the popular imaginary, i.e. a religious imaginary. In Latin America and in the Islamic World too, the popular imaginary is religious. In all the world, and especially the periphery. The interesting thing in the theology of liberation was that within the church it was a critique. It was not that it was from the church, but that it was a critique of the church. Especially a critique against the Eurocentric vision of the Vatican in Italy. That too was critical in relation to the bourgeoisie. It was very easy to understand for the people. The theology of liberation in Latin America was a novelty in world history, because it was the first religious movement that was democratic, left, and against capitalism.
The philosophy of liberation arose in the same moment, with the same experience, but was discovered within the philosophical faculty. I was a professor in philosophy. I am a doctor in philosophy. At that moment I started to, not as a priest but as a philosopher, to study theology, in Paris and in Germany. I did a semester of theology. I know theology academically. I studied in Hebrew because I was in Israel so I speak Hebrew. I can read the Bible in Hebrew. So I have a theological formation, but not as a priest, or as a member of the bureaucracy in the Church, but as a professor in philosophy.
So I developed a philosophy of liberation that was not a theology. Though, I also knew the theology of liberation.
It is easier when I speak to poor people, Indian, Afro, or other popular groups, on the theology of liberation rather than the philosophy of liberation. Because the people know, recognize, this language.
I say, ”You know Moses?”
“He was in Egypt?” “Yes.”
“In Egypt there were slaves.”
They say this, they recognize this, because they know and recognize Christian thought.
Like in Islam, I can say: “You know that Hebrew people were slaves in Egypt?” All people know this as a part of their culture. So I can say, by God, there was the Pharaoh, because he believed he was God. It was idolatry, and God called on the slaves to leave Egypt. But for that, the people had to struggle. They had to give their blood. And the blood of the people arrived at the Nile as a social movement. And then the Pharaoh said, “Go out!” And the people went and founded a new society. And the people know that. We can say, good it is safe for you now like it was then. Mexico is like Egypt and you are a slave here. We must make a new Mexico. Read the text, it is holy for them. And they say, ”Yes, it’s true. That is what the text says.” It is easier, that way to begin to analyze the system of oppression.
MA:So it’s an imaginary that they share?
ED:Exactly! It is the symbolic language of the imaginary of the people. Theology is easier for the people.
But the philosophy of liberation goes deeper. Because we must think of the foundational moment. We must confront European philosophy and destroy its false arguments. But I do not have any problems in my text. There is nothing on theology, it is pure philosophy. I do not need any faith to understand what is said. But if a person has a faith, Christian or Islamic they can understand it too because my thought is Semitic.
Take my first book, that I wrote many years ago: “Semitic Humanism”. For me, Semitic is Babylon, Phoenician, Palestinian, Hebrew, Christian, and Islamic. I have a chapter on Islam. But I say I will speak on the Semitic vision of the human as a philosopher. Not as a believer. I speak on, for example, anthropological unity and ethics. Also in Islam, they think of the unity of the flesh: Head, soul and body. Unity.
I speak of intersubjectivity in the community and in Islam–in the Ummah. There is no individualism, there is community. After that, temporality is not a circular temporality, but a linear temporality, because I don’t just study Babylonia, Christianity, but Islam. And I say, in the beginning, that I studied that because this tradition is part of the Latin American imaginary. So I write thus as a Latin American philosopher, not as a theologian.
At this time I was at the European Institute in Mainz, and I wrote this in Germany while I was there.
Let me quote from the book. “This work expresses the different moments of the constitution of one philosophical anthropology, the human being and the world.”
It is not theology. I speak of the symbols of a culture, of hermeneutics. In the second part you can read about Hellenistic humanism, because I ask: What happened with the vision of Greek philosophy?
The third book looks at the presence of Hellenism in Semitic vision. And it was a question of the 2nd, 3rd, 4th century until the 14th century. The development of that, until the discovery of America. And after that, I begin the history of Latin America, because I have a vision of a world history that is philosophical, not theological. But, I can do theology, which means I can go into a community or in a church of Christians and say, “We are believers and in our text I can speak as a believer.” And in this moment, I do theology.

But in the faculty of philosophy, I never do that. One of my students said to me, “Why are you speaking on theology?” But I’ve never spoken on theology! And they do not know my faith or non-faith. I said it has nothing to do with that. I can play tennis, and I can have a Christian or Jewish faith, but that has nothing to do with philosophy.  
Enrique Dussel is a Professor in the Department of Philosophy at the Iztapalapa campus of the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana (Autonomous Metropolitan University, UAM) and also teaches courses at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (National Autonomous University of Mexico, UNAM). He is also considered one of the founding fathers of the Philosophy of Liberation.     Mahvish Ahmad is an independent journalist and lecturer living and working in Islamabad, Pakistan. She is also the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Tanqeed | a magazine of politics and culture.    Illustration by Ahmad Ali Manganhar   (Part 3 to appear shortly) 

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