Boaventura de Sousa Santos – Fourth Letter To The Lefts

Originally published in Carta Maior on the 11th of January. Translated with reference to Spanish translation by Antoni Jesús Aguiló and Àlex Tarradellas here. There is an additional sentence in the Spanish version that does not appear in the original Portuguese. I have marked its position with an asterisk in the text below and included it at the end.

Fourth Letter To The Lefts

The historical divisions among the lefts were justified through an imposing ideological construct, but in reality their practical sustainability (the credibility of political proposals that allowed them to win followers) was based on three factors: colonialism, which allowed the displacement of primitive accumulation of capital (by violent dispossession, illegal in general and always unpunished, with untold human sacrifice) beyond the central capitalist countries, where the social struggles considered decisive were waged; the emergence of national capitalisms with characteristics so diverse (State capitalism, corporatist, liberal, social democratic) that they lent plausibility to the idea that there would be various alternatives for overcoming capitalism; and lastly, the transformations that social struggles went about producing under liberal democracy, allowing a certain social redistribution, and separating, to a degree, the market of commodities (those values that have a price and are bought and sold) from the market of convictions (those political values and choices which, since they have no price, are neither bought nor sold). If for some lefts this separation was a new event, for others it was a dangerous deception.

Recent years have seen these factors change so profoundly that nothing will be the same for the lefts as we know them. With regard to colonialism, there are two types of radical change. On one hand, the accumulation of capital via violent dispossession has returned to the former metropoles (the robbing of wages and pensions, illegal transfers of collective funds to rescue private banks; complete impunity of financial gangsterism) such that a struggle of an anti-colonial type will also have to take place now in the metropoles, a struggle that, as we know,  has never been governed by parliamentary courtesies. On the other hand, in spite of the fact that neocolonialism (the maintenance of colonial relations between the old colonies and metropoles or their replacements, as in the case of the United States) has until now allowed the continuation of accumulation by dispossession of the old colonial world, part of it is now taking on a new protagonism (India, Brazil, South Africa and the special case of China, which was humiliated by Western imperialism in the 19th Century) and to such a degree that we do not know if there will be new metropoles and, and therefore, new colonies.*

As for national capitalisms, they seem destined to meet their end in the shredder of neoliberalism. It is true that in Latin America and China it seems that new versions of capitalist domination are emerging, but intriguingly they appear to take advantage of the opportunities offered to them by neoliberalism. However, 2011 has shown that the left and neoliberalism are incompatible. One only has to see how stock markets go up just as social inequality increases and social protection is destroyed. How long will it take for the lefts to draw conclusions?

Finally, liberal democracy is dying under the weight of de facto powers (mafias, masons, Opus Dei, transnational corporations, the IMF, the World Bank), impunity for corruption, abuse of power and influence peddling. The result is a growing fusion between the political market of ideas and the economic market of interests. Everything is up for sale and nothing is sold because there is no-one to buy it. In the last 50 years the lefts (all of them) have made a fundamental contribution to liberal democracy achieving a certain credibility among popular classes, and to social conflicts getting resolved peacefully. Since the right wing is only interested in democracy in so far as it serves its interests, the lefts today are the guarantee of its rescue. Are they up to the task? Will they have the courage to re-found democracy beyond liberalism? Will they stand up for a solid democracy against anti-democracy, combining representative democracy with participative democracy and direct democracy? Will they advocate an anti-capitalist democracy in the face of a capitalism becoming ever more anti-democratic?


The omitted sentence: *The lefts of the global North (and, save certain exceptions, those of Latin America) started off as colonialists and later on accepted uncritically that the independence of the colonies eliminated colonialism, thereby undervaluing the emergence of neocolonialism and internal colonialism. Will they be able to imagine themselves as lefts when confronted with new colonialisms and prepare for anti-colonial struggles of a new type?


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