Thinking about the post/pandemia- Notes from Latin America

By Arturo Escobar

The COVID-19 crisis has brought to the fore a renewed awareness of the possibility –for many, an absolute imperative—of a radical eco-social, economic, political and cultural transitions in every society and in the world at large. This notion has found powerful expression in a slogan that has been circulating in Latin America in relation to the crisis: No volveremos a la normalidad, porque la normalidad era el problema (“We shall not go back to normal, because ‘normality’ was the problem to begin with”). A recent “Eco-Social Pact from the South,” issued by Latin American social movements and intellectuals, attempts to give form to this desirei. ).

In this short text, I would like to share my sense of strategies for such transition, in the context of the pandemic and beyond. While many narratives of transition have focused on the relation between the pandemic and capitalism, the most interesting in my view tackle this relation through the broad lens of civilizational ruptures and transitions, which have been prominent in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAAC). What follows is a schematic rendition of the tentative argument to which I have arrived, based on current debates in LACC. It suggests five axes or principles for thinking about strategies for transitions.

Returning the Communal to Social Life

This first axes calls for the re-communalization of social life by actively resisting modern capitalism’s ever more efficient way of making us feel as if we are individuals isolated from kin, society, and the nonhuman realm. Intent on creating consumers who see themselves as individuals making decisions solely in market terms, globalization has entailed an uncompromising war against everything that is communal and collective. Yet history teaches us that human experience has largely been placed-based and communal, lived at the local level. A locally-oriented life is one lived in relationship with the entire range of humans and nonhuman beings, including in the spiritual domain. Living with awareness of our constitutive interrelations fosters the symbiotic co-emergence of living beings and their worlds, resulting in “communitarian entanglements” that make us kin to all that is alive. Oaxacan activists refer to this dynamic as the condición nosótrica de ser, the we-condition of being. If we see ourselves nosótricamente, we will adopt the principles of love, care and compassion as ethics of living, rather than competition and personal gain, starting with our home, place and community.

Returning the Local to Social, Economic, and Cultural activities

Human communities have historically experienced movement and regroupings. Displacement pressures, however, have increased exponentially with global capitalism and development, causing the dramatic dispossession of people and their communities linked to large-scale extractivist projects, such as the expansion of oil palm in rain forests or mining in indigenous lands, with high social and ecological costs. Covid reestablishes the importance of the local. The re-localization of many activities is not only possible, it helps us regain our rootedness and return life-essential activities to the places where we live. Food is one of such crucial areas, and it is also where communalitarian and locally-focused innovation is already occurring. Food sovereignty, agroecology, seed saving, commons, and urban gardens are instances of this renewed turn back to the local, particularly when they also break with patriarchal, racist, and capitalist ways of living. These changes could lead to revaluing commons and to re-weaving ties that once flourished between cities and the surrounding countryside. Re-grounding activities locally means recuperating a range of active verbs-strategies: to eat, to learn, to heal, to dwell, to build, to know (as opposed to being passive customers of services such as health, education, food, housing). This reorientation involves a change in how we subjectively think about and understand the worlds we inhabit.

The strengthening of autonomies

Autonomy is the political aspect of returning to the communal and the local. Without autonomy, movements toward the local would only go half-way or might be re-absorbed by newer forms of delocalized re-globalization. Since the1994 Zapatista uprising, autonomy has been conceived as a new manner of enacting politics, based on the whole entanglement of humans among themselves and with the earth, but oriented to reconfiguring power in less hierarchical ways, and using principles such as sufficiency, mutual aid, and the self-determination of the norms of living. In world regions, autonomy is at the crux of a great deal of political mobilization but also of less openly political practices. At its best, autonomy is a theory and practice of inter-existence and of designing for and with the pluriverse.

These first three action-thinking orientations aim to create dignified lives in the territories; they require us to re-imagine the economy and technology in terms of everyday solidarity, reciprocity, and conviviality. There are many clues for this project among groups who during the Covid-19 pandemic have continued to produce their own lives, constructing instead of destroying, reuniting instead of separating. They constitute tangible and actionable principles of re-designing for a selective but substantial de-globalization. It is thus that we can intuit the end of globalization as we know it, or the beginning of a globalization in different terms, such as the paradigm of cuidado, or care, and an impetus towards the pluriverse, or a world where many worlds fit.

De-patriarchalizing, beyond racism and colonialism

Patriarchy and racism are so entrenched in our personal thoughts and desires, that it seems impossible to dismantle it. If we are to practice new ways of living we must first question and challenge the patriarchal, gender-normative, and racist assumptions that are part of our daily lives. We are reminded of the stakes by the Latin American feminist dictum that there is no decolonization without depatriarchalization and deracialization of social relations. To depatriarchalize and deracialize requires repairing the damage caused by the dominant social order, practicing a “politics in the feminine” centered on the re-appropriation of collectively produced goods and the reproduction of life, as Latin American feminists put it. The depatriarchalization and deracialization of social existence imply repairing and healing the tapestry of interrelations that make up the bodies, places and communities that we all are and inhabit. Mayan and Aymara indigenous communitarian feminists highlight the potential of the communal as horizon for the struggle and as a space for the continuous reconstitution of life. From this perspective, the reconstitution of life’s web of relations in a communitarian manner is one of the most fundamental challenges faced by any transition strategy. A feminist path is one that recovers a feminine praxis centered on the historical project of being community. This radical feminist relational politics needs to be incorporated into all transition strategies.

The re-earthing of life

We arrive, finally and necessarily, to the Earth (Gaia, Pachamama, co-emergence, self-organization, and symbiosis). I speak of Earth drawing on indigenous cosmovisions as well as contemporary scientific theory. We live on a planet of profound interdependence. According to Gaia theory and many indigenous cosmovisions, Life is an unceasing unfolding of changing forms, behaviors, and relations, an interweaving network that is alive and conscious to various degrees in all its cells, bodies, and societies. This need to return to an Earth-focused existence has been lucidly expressed by the Nasa indigenous people of Northern Cauca in Colombia’s southwest through their concept-movement of the Liberation of Mother Earth, as part of their strategy of “weaving life in liberty.” As they say, Earth has been enslaved, and as long as she is enslaved, all living beings on the planet are also enslaved. The Nasa struggle involves both the active recovery of their traditional lands but also a different, relational mode of existence on those reclaimed lands. As they hasten to clarify, this is a project for everybody, since we are all Earth and pluriverse. The Liberation of Mother Earth, conceived from the cosmocentrism and cosmoaction of peoples-territory such as the Nasa, invites us to disoñar (“dreamagine”) different ways of being in the world, propitious to the reconstitution of the entire web of life, the sustainment of the territories, and communalized forms of economy, wherever we are. This question has attained an incredible urgency. There is, in indigenous, Black, peasant, feminist, ecological and urban popular struggles world-wide, an entire archive of categories and practices to think paths towards concrete modes of re-earthing life.

Concluding thoughts

These five axes and principles, stemming from below in LAAC (and no doubt in many other parts of the world), help us imagine ourselves as designers of everyday life, as people who could begin to intuit differently what the possible is and then bring it into practical reach. What profound rearrangements are we yearning for? What could our families, our communities, our daily lives be like if they were to come to fruition? Let’s heed this question with all our hearts and minds. Let’s join our deepest yearnings with those of others and together create new worlds with new ways of being, thinking and doing.