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The communal and the decolonial |
Walter Mignolo

Thoughts on modernity/coloniality, geopolitics of knowledge, border thinking, pluriversality, and the decolonial option.

The communal and the decolonial

Published in Turbulence and in Analyse und Kritik

Imagine the world around 1500. It was a polycentric and non-capitalist world. There were many civilizations from China to Sub-Saharan Africa, but none of them dominated the other. There was a radical change in global history that we can summarize in two points: the emergence of the Atlantic commercial circuit and the fact that the West began to control the writing of global history. From 1500 to 2000, Western civilization was founded and formed. There was not of course Western civilization before 1500 and the European Renaissance. Greece and Rome became part of the narrative of Western civilization by 1500, not before.

Around that time a double movement began: the colonization of time and the invention of the European Middle Age; and the colonization of space and the invention of the America and of the Old World. There was no Old World without a New one. And the Old World was later divided between the imperial Old World (Atlantic Europe) and the colonial Old World (Asia and Africa).

The first civilizations to suffer the consequences of the formation and expansion of Western civilization were the Incas, the Aztecs and the Mayas. One of the drastic consequences was the dismantling of the communal system of social organization, that today indigenous nations in Bolivia and Ecuador are working to reconstruct and reconfigure. From the European perspective, the communal may sound like socialism or communism. But it is not: socialism and communism were born in Europe as a response to liberalism and capitalism. Not the communal system. The communal system in Tawantinsuyu and Anahuac, as I imagine social organizations in China before the Opium War and the arrival of Mao Zedong, were not created as responses to liberalism and capitalism. They had to adapt and still are adapting to capitalist and (neo) liberal intrusion.

A recent proposal to re-inscribe (not to recover or to go back to the past) the communal into contemporary debates on pluri-national states is “El sistema communal como alternativa al sistema liberal” by Aymara sociologist Félix Patzi Paco. But there are others as well. Evo Morales’s discourses are full of references to the communal. Nina Pacari, ex-chancellor of Ecuador and recently appointed to Evo Morales secretary of foreign relations is another example as well as the collective work of CONAMAQ (Consejo Nacional de Ayllus y Markas del Colasuyu). No need to explain this in the same way that there is no need, for example, to explain a reference to the Jakobins or the French commune, in the re-orientation of the European left.

Therefore, the communal shall not be confused with “the common”, which is becoming the new keywords and the re-orientation of the European left. Now the idea of the “common” is part of European history imaginary. It could be taken up of course by Marxist oriented left in non-European parts of the world who would prefer to be “modern” instead of taking the bull by the horn, and without fear, to think from their own histories instead of adapting and adopting solutions that emerged from other historical trajectories.

The communal, on the other hand, is indeed a form of social organization that was disrupted, as I said, by the European invasion of what became America. It subsisted for 500 years, and the Zapatistas are re-inscribing it in the form The Caracoles. The reconfiguration of the Ayllu as is being advanced in CONAMAQ in Bolivia, doesn’t mean to go back to the past. The reorganization of the Ayllus and Markas means to re-inscribe the social organization of one of the four Suyus of Tawantinsuyu. In this case Qollasuyu which is the Suyu “underneath” the soil of the Bolivian nation. When Alain Badiou talks about the common and refers to Jean-Jacques Rouseau, the Jakobins and the Chinese Cultural Revolution–but only the Marxist side of Mao Zedong. But there is another side of Mao Zedong, one cannot surmise that he is proposing to go back to the Enlightenment or to Mao. One may regret, in the second case, that Badiou is only taking into account the genealogy of European thoughts and not asking what Chinese are thinking today in terms of dealing with the invasion of the West. What is relevant for Badiou and the European left may not be relevant for Chinese thinkers, leaders and the civil and political society. Or if you wish, the European left can celebrate Mao and Evo Morales, although what Mao was trying to do and Evo Morales is doing, has not much to do with the European left, but with their own histories, memories, subjectivities.

The point being that an idea of the “common” that goes back to eighteenth century France and twentieth century China, is not necessarily “preferable” to the idea of the “communal” that goes back to the socio-economic organization of Indigenous civilization, in the Americas, disrupted by European civilizers who created the conditions for eighteenth century France to happen.

The idea of the communal is not grounded in the idea of the “comuna”, although in Bolivia the idea of the “comuna” was taken up, not by Aymara and Quechua intellectuals, but by members of the Creole and Mestizo/a population, which is an important aspect of the debate in Bolivia, between the colonial left (meaning, the left of Marxist bent that unfolded in European colonies) and the Indigenous projects of decoloniality. Not that one is good and other is bad, for we know that there is no safe place; but we should know that the left of European genealogy of thought (and the same genealogy in modern/colonial states) doesn’t have the monopoly to imagine and dictate how a non-capitalist future shall be. The communal is an-other story which cannot be subsumed by the common, the commune or communism. This is not of course my decision, but the way I understand the dignity of people who do not want to be civilized either by the right nor by the left.

Aymara sociologist Félix Patzi Paco is a controversial figure in Bolivia and in the current process of thinking and working toward a pluri-national state. Creoles and Mestizo intellectuals suspect that Patzi Paco is working toward the hegemony of Aymara’s people which means on the one hand a project that is not pluri-national because its aim is to reverse the white (mestizo/creole) hegemony and, on the other, it ignores the many nations that currently exist in the state of Bolivia, including other indigenous nations as well as peasant organized communities. Since the objection is coming from leftist voices (generally whites by South American standards) seriously engaged in building a pluri-national state–and not, for example, from the right wing of the low land–the tension between the left ingrained in European traditions and decolonial indigenous voices ingrained in a long history of confrontations with European traditions reveals a common threat: the dividing line between leftist and decolonial subjectivities and genealogies of thought; briefly the difference between the diversity of the population of European descent (spiritually white) and the diversity of the population of Indigenous descent. Mixed of course but always through power and the colonial difference.

Patzi Paco launched a proposal toward the re-conceptualization of a “communal system” as an alternative to the liberal system. In the Indigenous intellectual tradition shall be distinguished from the common proposed by the European left. The genealogy of thoughts, history and sensibility are far apart in these two proposals. It shall be seen how and if they can work together in the future. The commons is being thought out as the pressure of the multitude to transform, through increasing and radical demands, the current complicities between the state and the market (capitalism). The communal comes from a non-western cosmology and sensibility, entrenched some how with western cosmology where the European left is inscribed, but endowed with particular visions of the organization of the economy and of governability. Notice that “sistema liberal” here means the advent of the modern/colonial state in Bolivia (and other regions of the non-western world), after independence from Spain, controlled by an elite of creoles and mestizos that lasted until the election of Evo Morales as president of Bolivia, in December of 2005.

Patzi Paco’s proposal, published in 2004, did not loose its relevance and its insights. I will risk a summary, in a few pages, hoping to do justice to a proposal that deserves to be further debated. I will make some changes in the vocabulary. I will substitute “workers/trabajadores” by “persons.” In spite of the fact that Patzi Paco makes clear distinctions between “communism” (in the Marxist trajectory) and “communal” (in the indigenous experiences in the Andes), he remained attached to the word “workers” that detracts from his proposal. Indeed, what he is proposing demands a different characterization of social roles. For that reason, the communal system is open to “persons” (Indians or not) as well as to different types of “works:” in a communal system the distinction between owner and waged worker as well as boss and employee in administrative organizations (banks, state organizations) vanished as well. To understand the scope of Patzi Paco’s proposal it is then necessary to clear our heads of the image of “Indians = peasants” that the coloniality of knowledge and of being imposed upon all of us, over five hundred years of control of knowledge and rhetoric of salvation.

One motivation of the proposal was to redress the image of Indian nations that prevail among social scientists, in Bolivia and from other countries and to provide a vision of Indian society and nation that is not shaped by disciplinary concerns but that comes from the history and memories of Indians themselves. As sociologist, he is not rejecting the disciplines, and particularly sociology, but he reverses his role. Instead of listening to the dictates of sociology, he uses sociology to communicate and organize his argument. The end result is a clear case of border epistemology.

Patzi Paco’s main objection to disciplinary studies of Indian nations is that they limit their investigations and report to:

–The common culture
–The language
–The territorial space

By so doing the “core” of communal organization, that in the Andes is the Ayllu, is bypassed or ignored comes to the fore. The proposal is then basically a description of the system of economic management and the system of political management, that he considers as the “core” of the communal system while the elements just mentioned constituted the “context” (e.g., entorno). So basically, most of what we know about Aymara and Quechuas in Bolivia is knowledge of the “context” but not of the “core” of their socio-economic organization.

There are several disclaimers that precede the presentation of his main thesis. One is the common myth among non-Indians that Indians are a homogenous community. Patzi Paco dispels the myth by drawing on class distinction. Among Indians there are professionals, retailers, manual workers, etc. On the other hand, there are Indians industry owners who exploit Indian labor. In a society where the communal system co-exists with the liberal one and market economy, industry owners have re-functionalized Andean reciprocity in order to obtain longer labor journeys (12 instead of 8 hours) for low salaries. That this would happen is not surprising and it doesn’t offer a counterargument against the communal system but rather support arguments against the mythical view of Indian society by the Creole-Mestizo society.

Identity is another issue that requires clarification. Both “indigenistas” (non-Indians who are pro-indians) and “indianistas” (Indians themselves who engage in identity politics like forms of identification with Indigeneity through clothes, long hair, rituals) operate at the level of the “entorno” (environment) rather than at the level of the two basic nodes of the system: economic and political organization.

Thus when Indianistas and Indigenistas refer to the ayllu, their reference is made to “territorial geographic organization” (which is a state conception) rather than to the “core” of the ayllu which is the economic and political organization. Patzi Paco’s proposal will focus precisely on this. The question Patzi Paco asks: how to solve the paradox between, on the one hand, the denial of Indigenous identity and its reinforcement, on the other? He mentions some positions among Indianistas and Indigenistas who argued for the need of a mental revolution in order to solve the paradox. Patzi Paco’s opinion is that this position is utopian since it is impossible to revert the process when nations are traversed by global flows (music, television, cinema, videos, internet).

Patzi Paco will address all these issues through his theory of communal system. In personal conversation he mentioned that has has been observing for several years that there was an incongruence between the attention paid to surface symbols of Indians (whether they have cell phones and adapt symbols of not Indian culture) but less attention was paid to the fact that the ayllu remained, changed, but remained as ayllu. The reason why they survived for three hundred years of Spanish colonialism and two hundred years of Bolivian republic, was not taken into consideration.

The question was how to structure the argument to make it effective. One night the light came in the name of Niklas Luhmann, Social Systems. Patzi Paco draw on two concepts, system and environment (e.g., entorno), that he also renders in terms of “center” and “periphery” (not in the geopolitical sense of the terms but to characterize a given social organization). As I suggested before, this is not a case of application of Luhmann’s theory but its reversal. This is one of the obstacles that decolonial thinking has to solve. One way to go is border epistemology or border gnosis, a problem that is not a problem for the re-orientation of the European left in thinking “the common” since the re-thinking takes places, internally, within their regional genealogy of thought. Badiou doesn’t need to deal with “Chinese thoughts” but Sun Yat-sen and Mao Zedong had no choice but to be confronted with “European thought” from the right and from the left.

As Patzi Paco explains, Luhmann is concerned with social stability while he is interested in social transformation; furthermore, Luhmann’s analyzes modern society in which different fields are self-constituted (the political field, the economic field, the religious field, the artistic field), while in the ayllu this situation doesn’t obtain. In his own words:

“Asi una sociedad organizada en subsistemas, para Luhmann, es una sociedad que no dispone de ningún órgano central. Es una sociedad sin vértice ni centro. Mientras mi planteamiento consiste en que toda sociedad tiene su esencia o centro y una periferia. Esta diferencia es sin duda comprensible debido a que la preocupación de Luhmann es la de preservar la sociedad moderna, por eso podemos ubicarlo dentro del paradigma de una teoría general de la estabilidad. Mientras que nosotros proponemos una teoría de transformación.”

If then, social organizations are structured around two pillars of the system, which constitute its core (political and economic management) and its environment (or entorno), then both the liberal state in Bolivia and the Indian organizations around the ayllus are both characterized by their system and their environment. This hypothesis explains that state multiculturalism (or the pluri and the multi as the expressions went) was an attempt from the Bolivian state to co-op the environment of the ayllu while ignoring, at the same time its core: the political and economic management. Here resides the second strong motivation to bring to the foreground the communal system and to confront it as an alternative option to the liberal system.

We can see now that both the “common” and the “communal” describe two horizons of expectations, one coming from the history of Europe and concocted by the European left and the other coming from the colonial histories of the Americas and concocted by Indigenous decolonial thinkers. What counts here is that a break through took place: the awareness of the indigenous leaders, Indian communities and non-Indian middle class supporters, that a de-colonial path to the future was opening and global futures cannot longer be though out in terms of “good” universals that shall replace the “bad” universals of official Christianity and liberal capitalist civilization.

I can anticipate two kinds of smiles here: a) Romantic Indianism for the first case (Bolivia) and b) Imperialist pretensions of having a world homogenized by the communal system (global reach, not globalism or globalization in the neo-liberal sense of the word). Whoever has been following the events in South America since the Zapatistas uprising, and in the Andes in the past 15 years, would have a hard time convincing me and others that this is romantic political theory. The second, we (all on the globe) are at the point in which abstract universals are no longer tenable: global reach of communal systems (which will not necessarily be based on Aymara-Quechua experiences if the system is worked out in China or South Africa) doesn’t mean monotopic universality. What it means is that de-colonial options toward global futures have in the communal system both a philosophy of life, a non-capitalist economy where the main reward in life is to accumulate wealth, a non-liberal voting system to elect the candidate who propose themselves as candidate; and a non-communist organization in the hand of a omnipresent state. But what is it the communal system?

Briefly stated:

Entendemos por concepto comunal o comunitario a la propiedad colectiva de los recursos y al manejo o usufructo privado del mismo. Por eso esta categoría debe ser entendida no sólo como algo referido a las sociedades rurales o agrarias, aunque son las que han sabido adaptarse muy bien a los cambios contemporáneos. De ahí que, sin duda, nuestro punto de partida para el análisis de los sistemas comunales son las sociedades indígenas. A diferencia de las sociedades modernas, las sociedades indígenas no han producido los esquemas de diferenciación ni tampoco han generado la separación entre campos (campo política, campo económico, campo cultural, etc.).

I would like to propose here a change in the vocabulary. Patzi Paco remains within a sociological vocabulary shared by liberal and Marxists: “property” albeit with the modifier “colectiva.” But “collective property” may be a confusing expression if we want to clearly distinguish between a communal system and communism or the commune. I would rather look for an expression like “collective rights to resources and group/family rights to use the fruits of their labor” (which means that people are not exploited by other people who appropriated the fruits of their labor as is the case in capitalist economy).

As I observed before, Patzi Paco looks at both the liberal and the communal systems in their core and their environment or “entorno”. In their core, there are both organized and consolidated on two pillars, economic and political/administrative managements. The difference lies in the type of economy and the political organization, both constituted by two types of “entornos” that Patzi Paco describes as “internal” and “external.” Internal “entorno” is generated within the system itself, liberal or communal. Crucial here is how both the system and the entorno are “coupled.” Patzi Paco introduces the concept of operational coupling and structural coupling. Through operational coupling a system, communal or liberal, can appropriate elements from the “entorno” of other systems. Thus, actors living by the rules of a communal system can appropriate elements of the entorno of the liberal systems, for example technology. Indian insurgencies that controlled the city of La Paz on a couple of occasions that ended with the presidency of Sánchez de Losada and later on of Carlos Mesa, were organized following the habits and the logic of the ayllu using cellular phones. The liberal system can, by means of operational coupling, appropriate elements from another system, the communal, and “include” them next to the elements of the “entorno” internal to the liberal system. This is a common strategy to build the rhetoric of “inclusion” without modifying the core, political/ administrative and economic management.

Thus, the two pillars of the communal system (as of any other social system, sultanates, kingdom, modern-European liberal societies or modern/colonial societies in British or independent India or colonial or independent Bolivia) are then “the system of economic management” and the “system of political/administrative management.” The fact that the two systems of management could be distinguished doesn’t mean that the economy and the government of the Sultanate shall be equal to the British State; and that the current organization of the modern states shall remain forever the model for the management of the community. Theoretically then the questions are how the Andean communal system differs from the Bolivian version of the liberal system, but how it could be similar to any other social systems in the present that has been affected and disrupted by five hundred years of Western expansion.

Now, I am not suggesting here that Patzi Paco’s modeling of the communal system shall be like the architect design for either remodeling an old building or building a new one. We know that people can be pushed to do what they do not want to do to a certain point. José Carlos Mariátegui saw it clearly and distinctively when he referred to building national-states grounded in liberal principles, in Peru after independence, in early nineteenth century. He stated:

“A society cannot be transformed artificially, still less a peasant society (here he is referring to Indians society indeed) deeply attached to its traditions and its legal institutions. Individualism has not has not originated in ay country’s constitution or civil code. It must be formed through a more complicated and spontaneous process. Destroying the “communities” did not convert the Indians into small landowners or even into free salaried workers; it delivered their lands to the gamonales and their clientele and made it easier for the latifundista to chain the Indian to the latifundium.”

Patzi Paco’s conceptualization of the communal system cannot be thought out as a replacement of the current modern/national state for it will not result on a plurinational but on a mononational state with different configuration. But for the same reason, it should count in the discussion for a pluri-national state for the current modern/colonial and mononational state could not offer a solution for a pluri-national state. Ignoring Patzi Paco’s proposal by the progressive left may end up in an excuse to prevent Indigenous and peasant leaders and communities to intervene in de-colonizing the current mono-cultural state that have been disputed by the white (creole-mestizo) right and left. A pluri-national state cannot be the left in power with the support of the Indians against the extreme right of the lowlands with the support of the international market.


The United Nations will honor President Evo Morales with the title of “Defensor de la Madre Tierra.” In fact Evo Morales has been very vocal and clear advancing de-colonial views of Western conceptualization of Human/Nature relations, particularly since Francis Bacon’s Novun Organum (1620). The move by the United Nations support recent conversations and celebrations of the declaration of “the rights of nature.” But the “rights of nature”, like “human rights” are necessary in a society in which “mother earth” is indeed “exploited” as provider of “natural resources” for a society based on the Industrial and Technological Revolutions, both part and parcel of a liberal and capitalist civilizations. There was no need of “the rights of nature” for example, in Tawantinsuyu or in Ancient China for there was not Industrial Revolution that needed to deplete natural resources to produce artificial commodities and to dump the waist and the dirty the water on “nature” whose rights have been violated to produce artificial commodities, industrial and technological. The United Nations’ move responds to honest liberal intentions but at the same time silencing the process of the de-colonial Pachakuti (a Andean philosophical concept meaning a radical turn around of time and space) that the idea “of the communal system” is bringing to Bolivia, South America and to the world: the communal system doesn’t propose a more equitable distribution of wealth, but an horizon of life where wealth is not the goal. The goal, as it is being repeated today and inscribed in the Ecuadorian constitution is “el bien vivir” and “el bien vivir” cannot be attained through an economic system the promotes gains and accumulation at the expenses of human lives and of all living systems simplified under the name of “nature.”

[1] ) http://www.conamaq.org.bo/

[1] ) http://www.lacan.com/essays/?page_id=99).

[1] ) See for instance the recent conference at Birbeck College, London, on “The Idea of Communism,” http://www.lacan.com/essays/?page_id=99.

[1]) For the contextualization of “grupo comuna” see http://www.scielo.cl/scielo.php?pid=S0718-090X2005000100006&script=sci_arttext. Four names associated to it are Alvaro Garcia-Lineras, current Vice-President of Bolivia, Raquel Gutierrez, Raul Prada, also working in the government and Luis Tapia..

[1] ) Sistema Comunal. Una propuesta alternativa al sistema liberal. Una discusión teórica para salir de la colonialidad y del liberalismo. La Paz: CEA (Comunidad de Estudios Alternativos), 2004. I will refer particularity to chapter V that contains the proposal.

[1] ) During his visit to UNC-Duke Consortium of Latin American and Caribbean Studies, in November of 2004/

[1] ) Translated by John Bednarz, Jr with Dirk Baecker. Stanford: Stanford U.P., 1995.

[1] )  Since the book by Patzi Paco, published in Bolivia, is not of easy access, I am quoting here from the reproduction of the main chapter (chapter 4), printed as “Sistema Comunal: Una propuesta alternative al sistema liberal,” in Las vertientes americanas del pensamiento y el proyecto des-colonial

[1] ) op.cit, 70.

[1] ) These concepts were introduced originally by Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela El árbol del conocimiento. Santiago de Chile: Editorial Univrsitaria, 1984. They were used without explicit reference by Niklas Luhmann.  But this is issue is for another discussion.

[1] )  Esteban Ticona, personal communication.

[1] ) Jose Carlos Mariategui, Seven Interpretive Essays on Peruvian Reality [1927]. Translated by Marjori Urquidi. Austin: The University of Texas Press, 1990.

[1] ) At the time I was writing this article, no information is available in English, in Google. But it is all over the place in Spanish. http://spanish.china.org.cn/international/txt/2009-08/28/content_18419184.htm

2 responses to “The communal and the decolonial”

    • walter says:

      Gracias Camilo por sus comentarios y preguntas.

      A la pregunta 1, no solo afecta la dimension epistemologica sino que todas las otras cuestiones, (politica, economomia, genero, sexualidad, esteitcica, religion, subjetividad, “naturaleza” –estoy usando aqui todo los t’erminos canonicos que hay que descolonizar) dependen de la cuesti’on del conocimiento. Es el control del conocimiento lo que permitio montar, transformar la Civilizacion Occidental y su
      control del mundo hasta hoy. Los BRICS, y China en particular, no son solo desafios economico/politicos sino fundamentalmente epistemicos. Si China hubiera pensando en termoinos de la subjetividad, conocimiento y economia olitica de occidente, no estaria donde esta. El problema es que el liberalismo y el conservadurismo (Schmitt) nos acostumbraron a poner lo politico en el centro, el Marxismo la economia y la lucha de clase, el Christianismo la religion. Lo que propongo y proponemos en el proyecto MCD, es que todo lo demas dependen de conomiento y de la subjetividad que el conocimiento *tantnto en la universidad como en al television* genera y controla. No es posible cambiar el mundo sin cambiar la manera en que las personas piensan el mundo. Y eso no se consigue con slogans, con transacciones economicas, con mejoras de salarios o con politicas publicas.

      A la dos, la tareal del intelectual de frontera, del ciudadano/a intelectual es doble: la analitia de la colonialidad, mostrar como funciona y se oculta bajo la retorica de la modernidad y segundo trajabar juntos y juntas a quienes en distintas esferas y en distintas historias locales han ya comprendido que no hay soluciones a los problemas que la modernidad ha creado aceptando las premisas aunque disidentes de la modenridad.

      En cuanto a LatinoAmeria, bueno, cada vez mas es necesario pensar que Latino America es el proyecto de las elites criollas y mestizas. Hoy Abya Yala y la Gran Comarca coexisten con el proyecto Frances-Latino Americano de los descendientes de Europeos, entre quienes me cuento como hijos de inmigrantes italianos.


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