The Failure of Neoliberalism and the Roads to the Future

Walter Mignolo
Walter Mignolo is William H. Wannamaker Professor and Director, Center for Global studies and the Humanities, Duke University (USA)

The first week of October of 2011 I had the chance to attend the 9th Edition of Rhodes World Public Forum for the Dialogues of Civilization. Among the 600 invitees few of us were based in Western Europe or the US. The vast majority came from Russia, India, China, North Africa, and the Middle East. That is to say, from the non-Western world. The following week, I attended the 11th Edition of the Biarritz Forum “European Union-Latin America Relations: Where are we and where are we going.” The overwhelming presence here was from France, Spain and Spanish American countries. Scholars, journalists, NGOs, Foundations and former Presidents of Spanish American countries were present. I was surprised by the consensus of the two Forums, particularly because there was no connection between the two. I was also pleased that I was the only person attending both back to back--the first during the first week of October and the second during the second week. The surprising consensus was about the failure of the Washington Consensus and the Neoliberal Doctrine. Curiously enough, the War in Afghanistan and the invasion of Iraq were the political counterpart of the economic liberalization promoted and the victorious chant to the final triumph of globalism. Globalism was the imperial designs of the Washington Consensus and the Neoliberal Doctrine that was sold as “globalization.” The signs of the failure were obvious and painful enough to provoke the “indignation” of the participants of both Forums. Not surprising then that the US is looking for a new orientation for its global designs. Albeit no doubt the presence of the US in the global orders is and will be very important, it is also obvious that its global leadership is ending.


Similar sentiment became evident in the majority of Latin American countries (with the exception of Colombia under ?lvaro Uribe and Peru under Alan Garcia. That was the moment in which the “Latin American turn to the left” was celebrated and signs of concerns about it were manifested in both Western Europe and in the US. In Latin America itself they were doing what they were doing, but “turning to the left” was not the main concern. The main concern was to delink from the Washington Consensus and the dictates of the IMF. The result of this turning away from the US was seen as “turn to the left.” However, while Ignacio Lula in Brazil and Evo Morales in Bolivia shared a common concern of stopping the US bullying in the regions, their local histories, the specific concerns in each country took them in different, although complementary, directions. Brazil is the larger county in Latin America and the richest. Bolivia is a small country, and poor.

In the most recent meeting of the Cumbre de America Latina y el Caribe, 33 presidents decided to move quickly toward economic integration to prevent the region from the effect of the financial crisis of the EU and the US. This is indeed unprecedented and highly meaningful for the future of the world order. It was only two decades ago that President Saul Menen in Argentina and Presidente Sanchez Gonzalo de Losada in Bolivia, endorsed the Washington Consensus and the Neo-liberal doctrine whose first ?window case? was Augusto Pinochet in Chile. In fact, Milton Friedman was invited to Chile to set up the new economic development after the road to socialism inaugurated by Salvador Allende. And Sanchez de Losada in Bolivia, when he was minister of economy in the mid 80s, invited Jeffrey Sachs to offer advice to orient Bolivian economic development. Today the neo-liberal period inaugurated by Pinochet and followed by Menen and Sanchez de Losada has been closed. It was indeed closed toward 2005 when Latin American and international observers were celebrating a turn to the left in the region. Those where the first signs indicating the end of the confidence on the Washington Consensus and the Neo-liberal doctrine but the overall panorama was far from homogeneous. Today, the consequences of the apocalyptic failure of neoliberalism, of which both the EU and the US are paying the consequence, have had some interesting responses in Latin America.

The first response, after the election of Evo Morales as President of Bolivia and shortly after of Rafael Correa as President of Ecuador, contributed to build confidence among Indigenous intellectuals, political leaders and activists. The consequence of the growing influence of the Indigenous sector of the population can be seen in the transformations they forced in the two Andean countries and the influence they had in the region.

The Bolivian and Ecuadorian Constitutions, approved in 2009 and 2008 respectively, states that both are ?plurinational states. What does it mean? The modern nation state that emerged in Europe after the French Revolution was a model that worked well within territories with homogeneous ethnicities. As we know, the Greek word ethnos was translated into natio. Both words refer to communities of certain homogeneity of birth, languages, habits and memories. But when modern European-nation states where “transplanted” to the colonies gaining independence (whether in the Americas in the nineteenth century, Africa or Asia in the twentieth), many territories where multi-ethnic, that is, formed by several nations within one state. In the Americas, the states were formed and controlled by nations of people of European descent. Indigenous, peasant communities were marginalized from the mono-ethnic nation-states. Now, many of those communities who have lived for more that two hundred years under the rules of a mono-national state demanded their participation and ended with the idea that the state is an administrative entity that transcend nationalities. In states like Bolivia or Ecuador, that means that the “Bolivians” shall be hyphened: Euro-Bolivian, Aymara-Bolivian, Quechua-Bolivian, Chiquitano-Bolivian, etc. While up to now “Bolivian” was supposed to be an identity that “represents” everyone in the state while hiding the fact that “Bolivian” is an identity created by Euro-Bolivian (or white-mestizos/as). This is indeed a radical move in decolonizing modern political theory underlying the formation of modern nation-states. Not by chance, the first president of Bolivia to be demoted by popular uprising (like in Egypt) lead by indigenous people, was Gonzalo Sanchez de Losada, who was “an agent” in Bolivia of the Washington Consensus and the neo-liberal doctrine.

Now the very idea of the plurinational-state that originated in the Andean region of South America is extremely relevant for the future of the US and the European Union. In the US, Native American nations, whom were here much before the Anglos arrived; the growing political and philosophical consciousness of the Afro-American population, the Asian-American and the close to 50 million Latinos/as are indeed telling us that the US is a plurinational State still controlled by Anglo Americans. Although Barack Obama is a black person, the overall structure of the state is Anglo-white; it is the US that we inherited from the Founding Fathers who dismissed Native Americans as well as Afro-Americans from the citizenship of the mono-national state.

The European Union ha s been following that path since the massive migration from the Third World that started in the 70s. Contrary to the US, where Natives, Afro forced migrants and Anglos who migrated to the New World on their own will, lay down the foundation of the United State of America, Europe has a more homogeneous ethnic and ideological foundation: basically Europe came to be what it is from the majority of Western Christians residing in the lands of Japheth and the emergence of a secular sector (the bourgeoisie that lead the revolution of the levelers in England and the French revolution in France, and the with Christian Foundation in friendly relationship with the protestant ethics that Max Weber identified with the spirit of capitalism). If Europe remained nationality homogeneous and the mono-national state was never brought into question, the time has arrived in which the European Union is already facing, next to the financial crisis, a crisis of the mono-national state. Racism and immigration are telling signs of the civil and legal problems facing the European Union after the financial crisis is solved.

The situation and the global order have changed at the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century. The proof of the failure of the Washington Consensus and the neoliberal dream, have been the series of scandals and corruption cases in the US and Europe (Enron, Madoff, DSK, etc) and the financial crisis of the EU and the US. Now South, Central American and Caribbean Countries are no longer responding to the failure of neoliberalism but to its consequences. In the last Cumbre de America Latina y el Caribe, in Venezuela at the beginning of December 2011, the main topic was the need of economic integration to confront the dangers and the risks that the EU and US crisis represents. Now, this new direction promoted by the drastic shift in the global order, is another indication that we are in the middle of a historical earthquake and to the point of non-return. [1]

Toward the end of the twentieth century, Kishore Mahbubani, then Singapore Ambassador to the United Nations and shortly after Dean of the School of Public Policy Kwan Yew, was already announcing that in the twenty-first century there will be three centers of power: the EU, the US, and East Asia. He added that during four centuries there was one, Western Europe; in the twentieth century there were two, Europe and the US. In the twenty first century there will be three, East Asia and China most likely will be the core leader, not of the world, but of the BRICS. It is no longer possible to think that in the future one hegemonic country will be leading the world, as Europe did and the US, with the support of Europe, was able to continue. The hegemony of Western Civilization (1500-2000) is over, and we are already into a polycentric world. Latin America and the Caribbean are responding to that new situation.

In sum, three major orientations seem to be taking shape beyond specific countries and regions, orientations that connect countries and regions in different parts of the planet.

Rewesternization is the global politics that Barak Obama has been leading since the beginning of his mandate. The European Union (basically, France, England and Germany), are his strong supporters. In other words, Europe and the US want to preserve the privileges that made them what they are during five hundred years of raising, consolidating and leading the world order. Now rewesternization is no longer geographic but political. It refers to the formation and spread of Western Civilization during the past five hundred years of global history. Rewesternization is no longer limited to the geographical areas of Western Europe and the US but includes Canada, Australia, New Zealand, countries like Colombia and Chile at this moment, that are totally aligned with rewesternization.

Dewesternization is the political orientation that emerged with the economic rise of China and the rise of Islam, beyond the politics of “terrorism”. There was a great deal of promotion during the Bush-Cheney’s presidency to rebuild arguments of “national security” that have been lost after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Dewesternization has two main orientations. One is politico-economic, and is lead mainly by BRICS countries. The other is politico-religious and it is not (yet) associated to specific States, but it is being deployed in the sphere of the political society. It is only recently, and we shall see what will be the directions that the elections of Islamic parties in Tunisia, Egypt and Marruecos will bring. In any event, these three elections signals to the triumph of democratic ideals beyond Western countries and the fact that the future can no longer be ruled by one single ideological system. Neoliberalism was the closing moments of the Western dominance over the world. Its failure is a civilizational failure; it is the failure of the imperial project of Western modernity since the Renaissance, since the expulsion of the Moors from the Iberian Peninsula at the end of the fifteenth century, to the French and British invasion to the Mughal, Ottoman and Safavid Sultanates since the early nineteenth century).

Decoloniality is the third trajectory toward the future. Its historical roots go back to the formation of imperial/colonial relations since the sixteenth century and the conquest and colonization of America. Decolonial movements and intellectuals, little known so far, responded to the invasion and to the imposition upon them of European ways of life, political, religious, economic, artistic, philosophical, etc. But the anchor of the project of decoloniality was the Bandung Conference that took place in Indonesia in 1955. What the Bandung conference introduced, under the leadership of Sukarno, was that neither capitalism nor communism was the route that people of color and believers in non-Western religious shall imagine for the future. It was a third-way they proposed, but not a third way that combined two secular ideologies (liberal capitalism vs. state capitalism). It was something totally different; it was delinking from both of them that the Bandung Conference proposes. It was also the recovery of religious dignity that the secular European enlightenment dismissed. During the Cold War, the projects of decolonization were erroneously focused on “taking the State without questioning the political economy and political theory” in the formation of modern European state now being transplanted to the colonies. Today, decoloniality is basically an epistemic, political and ethical project. It is based on the belief that you cannot change the world if the people who rule and those who acquiesce to how the world is ruling do not change. And it is not only a project with adherents in the ex-Third World. It has its adherent in the US and in the European Union among people of color, migrants and sexual and racialized minorities. Decoloniality is one option next to Rewesternization and Dewesternization. The first half of the twenty-first century will be oriented by these three major global trajectories. Each of one diverse, but at the same time very distinctive in relation to each other by history, power relations, dignity, imperial/colonial entanglement, racism/sexism and above all a vision of life in the planet.

[1] Another recent sign of Latin America moving toward dewesternization is the recent project to break away from the US control of communication technology. This project state-supported and oriented, will contribute to reproduce marginalization of indigenous and afro populations and to increase the exploitation of natural resources as we have seen recently in TIPNIS, Bolivia; open sky mining in Colombia and Argentina, oil in Ecuador, etc.

La Unasur (Union Sur Americana) aprob? un importante proyecto estrat?gico que comienza a desatar los lazos de dependencia con Estados Unidos: la creaci?n de un mega-anillo de fibra ?ptica que har? que las comunicaciones internas de la regi?n no pasen m?s por suelo estadunidense. La decisi?n de la primera reuni?n de los 12 ministros de Comunicaciones y Tecnolog?as de la Informaci?n reunidos en Brasilia el martes 29 es m?s importante a?n, desde el punto de vista geopol?tico, que los proyectos de infraestructura aprobados por el Cosiplan (Consejo Suramericano de Infraestructura y Planeamiento) al d?a siguiente en la misma ciudad.

December 1, 2011

This article is also availiable in Italian - published on the national Italian quartely MedideaReview, directed by the WPF DoC ICC member Giovanni Cubeddu:
Italian Original Version