The other philosopher

Enrique Dussel has developed a distinctively Latin American political philosophy that puts liberation of the “Other” at the heart of the pursuit of power


Twenty Theses on Politics
Enrique Dussel
2009, Duke University Press
184 pages

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

AS THE ideas of Karl Marx again become sexy, this time to a generation of youth fired by the injustices of the world and enlightened by the desperate efforts of the economic elite to reinterpret the parameters of capitalism, Enrique Dussel can only become more prominent.

As probably the most important Marxian scholar of our era, Dussel is perhaps best known for his philosophy of liberation, which has gained worldwide prominence. In this, he has, over a long career, articulated ethical principles based upon a de-colonised and post-occidental, yet cosmopolitan, history of moral philosophy. These command us to look at every ethical system from the position of its victims, and to then transform that system to allow for coexistence with them.

It is highly significant that such a philosopher has emerged from Latin America and, from the region, and has targeted his voluminous work at precisely those key themes that have dominated “post-modern” thought – he rejects the term – and the apparent collapse of Marxist alternatives: the Eurocentric flavour of “modernity” and the universalist pretensions of the Frankfurt School; the absence of an ethical substrate to Marxian economics; the notion of the “Other” at the heart of ethical debate.

It is this “Other” that lies at the root of Dussel’s thought, derived from Emmanuel Levinas’s rather beautiful ideas about the privileged encounter with another. Like Levinas, Dussel aims to interpret reality from the position of the Other, and in particular those excluded from political and cultural systems. His own personal story reveals much about sources of inspiration for this task. An Argentinian of Austrian descent, Dussel was forced to flee the military crackdown in his homeland in the 1970s and to settle in Mexico City, where he now teaches.

Latin American philosophy

It is his emphasis upon exclusion and his interpretation of history and social structures from the perspective of the poor that makes his a distinctively Latin American philosophy, one bolstered by his blistering critiques over the years of the “conquest” of the region based upon the brutality of the Eurocentric perspective that has dominated interpretation of this historical event.

According to Dussel, the conquest marked the origin of modernity and hence both the establishment of Europe as a world system and the associated creation of the world’s first “periphery”, America. The myth of modernity, he has suggested, derives from the civilising discourse that characterises Eurocentrism, but by relocating the origin of modernity in the conquest, its violent and exploitative nature can be exposed. A more appropriate term to post-modernity favoured by the philospher, with Latin America very much in mind, is “transmodernity”.

It is from this position – a re-reading from the perspective of, say, Levinas – that Dussel has developed a novel and comprehensive interpretation of Marx that seeks to assert the rights of capitalism’s “Other”. To Dussel, Marx was engaged in an ethical interpretation of the capitalist system and its impact upon “living labour” and the excluded who are forced to sell themselves to the highest bidder and ditched at the moment of crisis. It is this philosophical Marx that is of such relevance to Latin America, by providing the region with a deeply meaningful critique of capitalism that can simultaneously avoid the dangers of totalitarianism etc posed by Marx’s historical determinism.

For this reason, Dussel has paid close attention to Marx’s economic manuscripts, about which he has compiled a pioneering series of reinterpretations based upon close reading of the original, handwritten texts that chart a new course in the discipline. The last in his trilogy (1990) was titled El Ultimo Marx y la Liberación de Latinoamericana (The Ultimate Marx and the Liberation of Latin America). Dussel’s unique contribution to this field has been the degree to which he has employed his philosophical knowledge in understanding Marx’s work, especially in terms of how Marx’s thinking evolved throughout his life.

Some of these ideas become apparent in Twenty Theses on Politics, which represents Dussel’s most important statement on political philosophy and a response to the abolition of the political under neoliberal globalisation. In twenty short theses, he presents a rationale for the development of political alternatives to the exploitative institutions of neoliberal globalisation and lays down the foundations of a politics of just and sustainable coexistence. First published in Spanish in 2006, this work was inspired by recent political developments in Latin America such as the shift to the left and the creation of the World Social Forum in Brazil to which Dussel himself has become something of a poster boy.

He is not without his critics, who brand his philosophy of liberation as populist and even fascist, and accuse him, among other things, of uncritically supporting the positions of the Catholic church.

But Twenty Theses on Politics reveals that, if anything and against the odds, politics as it is now being understood in Latin America has become the art of the possible. It is a short book, but may take a long time reading, mainly because of the depth of knowledge, insight and experience that Dussel has brought to bear in compiling it.

In the language of the WSF itself, it represents a manifesto for a plural, diverse, non-governmental and non-partisan politics seeking a more solidary, democratic and fair world. It is perhaps the most important statement for many years of the degree to which de-colonial theory – and Latin America itself – is now providing a real source of intellectual leadership in debates that have floundered in the post-industrial world.

Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books

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