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Sunday, 23 April 2017 00:00

"There are more emotions than arguments in today’s politics"

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In an interview for Colombian news outlet SEMANA, Boaventura de Sousa Santos, one of the most important sociologists in the world for his analysis on the crises of contemporary democracies, spoke on the current world political context, democracy and the Colombian peace process.

He has published works on globalization, sociology of law, epistemology and human rights. He will be present at the Bogotá Book Fair to present his latest book “Democracy and Social Transformation”, a text in which he exposes among other things the possibilities of the left despite their failure, the possibility of social transformation by the peaceful means, and devotes a special section to the peace process in Colombia.

Given the recent electoral results around the world there is a sense that democracy is at risk. Do you share this appreciation?

Boaventura de Sousa Santos: Although the recent electoral processes are very different, they all point to the same crisis of democracy. In the case of Trump and Brexit we have the “post-truth” phenomenon. That is to say, processes where there is manipulation of emotions, through lies, where facts and reality do not count because arguments are not used to convince, but rather the emotions of citizens. Somehow, the same happened in Colombia during the plebiscite because many misconceptions were spread: such as that the Special Jurisdiction for Peace would be a way of impunity in relation to all crimes attributed to the insurgency.

But post-truth is not the only problem to democracy ...

B.S.S.: No, there is another risk, the use of scapegoats: to try and find groups of people to blame them for a particular situation and create national unity through fear of a common threat. For example, in Europe, they created the idea that refugees and migrants are the source and cause of all the continent's problems. Likewise the United States used Latin migrants and later Muslims were used as scapegoats to blame them for unemployment, poverty, and insecurity. In Colombia the same occurred with the FARC, the alleged culprit of the country's ills.

You said that Europe needs migrants ...

B.S.S.: Yes. The average age of Europeans is much higher than in other countries. That is why public policies aim toward a generational balance. There have to be younger people who work and pay taxes in order to finance social security, education, pensions and health. The calculations say that we need between 1,000 and 30 million young people. For that reason, we should have another position toward migrants and refugees: many of them are skilled labor. However, political parties want to use the fear of insecurity that citizens have in order to govern.

How will history judge this moment, especially when it comes to dealing with migrants and refugees?

B.S.S.: History will be quite critical because it is a time in which societies are politically democratic, but socially fascist due to inequality and the fact that the State is increasingly dominated by powerful economic groups and criminal enterprises. It is a time where for the first time capitalism and the economy threaten to destroy nature, and there is increasing irresponsible talk about nuclear war.

Can environmental problems cause new challenges for democracy?

B.S.S.: Many the refugees for next decade are going to be environmental refugees. In Africa it happens and in India as well. We are not finding solutions to solve an ecological problem because the development model goes through an unprecedented exploitation of nature and industrial agriculture, which will be soon a danger to Colombia: all countries support the peace process because they have interests in the territory to exploit industrial agriculture.

How do you define populism and why is it spreading throughout the world?

B.S.S.: Populism for me is always right-winged. I don’t consider that there can be left-wing populism, although it is said that Chavez was a populist of the left. Populism is a form of politics that is based on the manipulation of citizens' emotions because it impedes the political mediation of the parties, because there are no political mediations or programs between citizens and rulers. There is no discussion, not reasoning, no arguments in populism, there is always manipulation.

Do you think that the re-emergence of the right in Latin America is a failure of the left?

B.S.S.: Yes, of course. But there are two fundamental causes for which the left failed. One was to assume political power without transforming economic power and without making a political reform, which led, for example, for President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil to be dismissed by the right. There was no political reform because there was no new development model; the extractive, colonial model has been maintained. On the other hand, these governments emerged at a time when the United States was concentrated in the Middle East and disregarded Latin America which has always been its “backyard”.

Why is there a proliferation of fascism and nationalism in today's world?

B.S.S.: The economic crisis in Europe in 2008 generated cuts in wages and public services. This was not produced by migrations, but by financial capitals that are completely deregulated. Then the crisis of Greece in 2011 occurred, and this generated discontent and frustration of citizens who were accustomed to have more protection. But the far right will not say that we need to fight the International Monetary Fund and financial capitals. It rather creates scapegoats. Marie Le Pen said "our borders are trenches", that is, we will close the country like Trump, who wants to close the border with Mexico. It blames others for the crisis and does not address the real problem.

Are social networks useful or useless for democracy?

B.S.S.: This is one of the contradictions of our time. We greet social networks and the internet as platforms, as a form of democratization of knowledge and information. But in recent times, in the regime of the “post-truth”, social networks and the internet are used to manipulate public opinion. Algorithms are the mechanisms by which the success of a message can be measured, not based on the truth of the facts. That is why it is useful for these networks if the lies work and are spread.

Do you consider that part of the crisis of democracy is due to the fact that media has lost credibility?

B.S.S.: In the regime of the “post-truth” refuting doesn’t work because the damage is already done. In recent times, many mass media have opted for non-rigorous journalism because they are dominated by large economic conglomerates.

How to move in a context of such uncertainty?

B.S.S.: Democracy and socialism failed. I propose to reinvent democracy: the political regime must be given by the participation of the people and not by financial capital.

How can civil society act so that peace is democratic and not only for the benefit of the powerful as you stated in your last book 'Democracy and social transformation'?

B.S.S.: My fear for Colombia -which is a country that is very close to my heart because I have studied it for more than 15 years- is that if democratic peace is not achieved then this will be another event will trigger other periods of violence and that can be harmful to a civil society that has impressed me for its resistance capacity. This year we are seeing that human rights leaders in Cauca or Antioquia are being murdered, maybe the paramilitaries know about that. This year violence against socio-political leaders is bigger than last year and so I think that peace will be very difficult.

But you have also said that Colombia could be an example for the world...

B.S.S.: I think Colombia is the country that can be good news for democracy. The only good news that can come from Latin America is the success of the peace process and that is a big responsibility.

Source: Semana