It seems that every few decades the dominant paradigms in social theory start to crumble and are replaced by paradigms that supposedly correct for the deficiencies of the former.  Then the new paradigms are revealed to be insufficient and are themselves displaced. Over my forty years in academia, for example, I have seen how existential Marxism gave way to poststructuralism; psychoanalysis evolved in response to feminism; cognitive psychology and sociology turned to consider affect and embodiment; and so on. Recently, I have been very intrigued by a wave that has been called the ‘decolonial turn.’  This perspective has been emerging in the humanities for twenty years, but only more recently has found some traction in psychology. I’d like to convey my understanding of this development because it feels like a mega-change of paradigm that all psycho-social scholars need to think through.

To explain the decolonial turn, we need to start with the concept of ‘modernity,’ a concept that serves many useful purposes even though it has been defined differently by various disciplines. For historians, the modern period begins in the 1500s. Modern art and architecture are twentieth century phenomena. The concept’s usefulness, however, has been limited by a narrow vision of its scope and impact.  Modernity generally refers to the ensemble of social, political, legal, technological, and cultural practices that emerged as capitalist industrial economies in Western European nation-states displaced feudal agrarian monarchies. For example, modernity is associated with scientific rationality, secularization, literacy, and political liberalism.  In turn, these developments have been linked to alienation, anomie, bureaucracy, and existential crises. Yet scholars trained in European and North American critical social theories that focus on such problems of ‘modernity’ tend to neglect or ignore how modernity has been connected to major historical and social realities at the global level.  This Eurocentrism comes with a set of blinders that has affected those of us interested in psychoanalytic theories of subjectivity and its sociopolitical contexts.  Many of us have turned to the work of the Frankfurt School (Adorno and Marcuse) with its challenging syntheses of Hegel, Marx, and Freud.  Given their location as Jewish scholars in 1920s and 1930s Germany and then in 1940s and 1950s USA, they struggled to make sense of Fascism and the Holocaust, and later, the cultural politics of authoritarian-consumerist North America.  Others of us have been oriented by Foucault, whose keen eye for the play of power in modern institutional (prisons, clinics, asylums, etc.) exposed ongoing oppression disguised as humanitarian or scientific practice.  It also contributed to our understanding of how those practices constitute ‘individuals’ as objects of administrative surveillance and control. This is all very important, not only for Europe and North America, but also because these ‘modern’ institutions and practices have also been imposed on and exported to the rest of the world for a century or two.

What are these blinders then, and what have they prevented Eurocentric psychosocial scholars from seeing more fully?  In short, most of us in that category have tended to see the history of the last five hundred years from a narrow and privileged perspective and have drastically underestimated the effects of what Mignolo (2011) has called the ‘dark side of modernity’: the colonialism, imperialism, and ongoing ‘coloniality’ everywhere, each shaping and sustaining European modernity itself.  Personally, I have found that taking this ‘dark side’ fully into account requires a long rethinking, and a reversal or surrendering of many assumptions about reason/knowledge, experience/subjectivity, and society/power (Maldonado-Torres, “Outline of Ten Theses …”).  Here I’d simply like to share briefly the counter-perspective that has been unsettling my worldview and also share a few of the readings that have been very helpful in getting oriented within decolonial studies.

It will be hard to capture all of this in one paragraph, but below are some of the core elements.  Taken separately, these may feel like facts educated people are aware of, but viewed as a whole, one can only be stunned by the power of the modern, liberal Enlightenment narrative to ignore, mask, or justify the incredible amounts of violence, exploitation, dehumanization, and destruction that have been associated with the rise and expansion of European capitalist ‘development’.

The European colonization of Africa and the Americas in the 1500s and 1600s was rationalized by the Christian invaders and their royal funders as a benign civilizing process for peoples who were defined as savages or subhuman, thus denying and destroying their cultural lifeworlds. In fact, the motives driving colonization were almost entirely economic and carried out in the name of monarchies or early capitalist investors seeking expansion of territory, access to natural resources, and exploitation of labor.  The explorers and armies of Western European monarchs encountered roughly twenty million indigenous inhabitants of the Americas, some ninety percent of which died from imported diseases such as smallpox.  The invading armies had no qualms carrying out massacres of hundreds of thousands and enslaving the rest. Later the slave trade brought over ten million people from Africa to produce sugar, coffee, rice, tobacco, and cotton for European markets.  Some of this wealth went to pay for the continuous wars between the Dutch Republic, Portugal, England, France, Spain as they jostled for power, resources, and control of the seas and new territories. It can be argued that without the ‘capital’ of slaves in the Americas, capitalism would have grown much more slowly.  The accumulated wealth built up major European cities such as Glasgow, Liverpool/Manchester, Bristol and London, Sevilla and Amsterdam – cities that would otherwise not have become such powerful centers of industry and finance. Cities in the Americas also surged on the energies of the slave trade – for example, Rio de Janeiro, Charleston, New Orleans, Baltimore, and New York City.  So, instead of seeing industrial capitalism as mostly energized by the steam engine and bourgeois financing, it would be more accurate to call it racial capitalism, fueled by cruel exploitation of black and brown labor.

In the 1800s, industrialization and nationalism fueled the imperialism of England and France, and to a lesser extent, Germany, Italy, Belgium, and Austria.  Millions more lost their lives in those waves of expansion, now including much of Asia, and, again, the human cost and the economic boost associated with these empires tends to be ignored in Euro-American philosophical and sociological debates.  The politic-economic consequences alone are so vast they are hard to grasp.  The current immense inequality of wealth between rich and poor nations is a direct outcome of colonial and imperialist exploitation.  Yet the past and ongoing psychosocial consequences are equally profound for those who have been caught up in the dynamic of what is called coloniality, or often ‘modernity/coloniality’ (Mignolo). Frantz Fanon, of course, charted this psychological territory in his writings on colonialism and racism – Black Skin, White Masks and The Wretched of the Earth.  The writings of Aimé Césaire (Discourse of Colonialism) and Alberto Memmi (The Colonizer and the Colonized) also energized the condemnation of colonialism. The theorists of “decoloniality,” standing on Fanon’s shoulders, see the reverberations of recent centuries in the ongoing oppressive social structures of Western societies and former colonies.  These structures set up conditions, mentioned above, that are catalogued variously as alienation, exclusion, marginalization, psychopathology, incarceration, anomie, insecurity, domestic violence, abuse, addiction, and so on.  For the oppressed, especially brown and black formerly colonized peoples of the world, the decolonial theorists speak of a certain soul death, a non-being, the product of direct and structural violence, racist-classist micro-aggressions, and social exclusion.  An isomorphic soul pathology affects the oppressors and the privileged: isolation, anxiety, depression, and meaninglessness, but these conditions pale in comparison to the suffering caused by coloniality in the lives of the vast majority of humanity.

Why should this perspective matter to us as we do social theory and engage in political organizing?

Basically, the rational subject-citizen assumed in much European political and economic thought – even though this concept of the subject is already a wild abstraction from actual actors – looks even more far-fetched when we take into account the capacities of ‘rational’ Europeans and US Americans to dehumanize others, commit massacres, enslave, and exploit other humans.  What the decolonial theorists brought home to me so convincingly is that even the fundamental philosophical questions about epistemology and ethics find very different answers when one has the entirety of humanity in mind, and not just the individualistic concerns of the middle-class intelligentsia of the 19th and 20th centuries. An example of such rethinking would be to question the North’s (hypocritical) insistence on representative democracy in the Global South while ignoring a nation’s ability to feed and house its poor (as with some leftist governments in Latin America).

For me, the works listed below each contributed to my own major rethinking that is still in process.  This is just a partial list of my favorites.  There is no best starting place since all these works overlap.  To give some sense of what one will find in an exploration of this literature:  Dussel argues that the Northern ethical emphasis on civil rights would shift toward an emphasis on hunger and survival in the Global South, requiring a reworking of ethic thought in general.  Mignolo lays the groundwork for thinking about the inseparability of modernity and coloniality.  Wynter brilliantly traces the rise of racism in religion and science since the sixteenth century. McCarthy systematically repositions and opens up Habermas’ critical theory in light of the history of racist imperialism.  Maldonado-Torres provides a powerful overview of the concepts of coloniality and decoloniality and explores their relevance to rethinking power, knowledge, and experience.  Mbembe’s passionate and powerful recent book is a challenge to any perspective that ignores how Africans and Africa have been thought about.

The bottom line?  Basically, the dialectic of the Enlightenment, so aptly analyzed by Adorno and Horkheimer to account for the Holocaust in Europe, must be seen much more broadly.  Enlightenment reason continued where Christianity left off, justifying European colonization and imperialism globally in the name of a hypocritical ‘civilizing’ process.  Decolonial theorists help us see how Reason rationalized genocide, slavery, and exploitation; how Coloniality still seriously constrains human possibilities long after geopolitical decolonization; and what forms of praxis will be necessary if we are to achieve just societies.

Dussel, Enrique.  Ethics of Liberation: In the Age of Globalization and Exclusion.  Duke University Press, 2013.

Maldonado-Torres, Nelson.  Outline of Ten Theses on Coloniality and Decoloniality.

Mbembe, Achille.  Critique of Black Reason. Duke University Press, 2017

McCarthy, Thomas.  Race, Empire, and the Idea of Human Development.  Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Mignolo, Walter.  The Darker Side of Western Modernity: Global Futures, Decolonial Options. Duke University Press, 2011.

Wynter, Sylvia.  Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom.