Dussel Now: The Transmodern Alternative (Essay)

By Frederick Mills  –  Nov 3, 2021

The philosophy of liberation, and its most prominent voice, Argentine Mexican philosopher Enrique Dussel, provide a critical-ethical framework for decolonial theory and praxis that has inspired several generations of scholars and activists in Latin America and beyond. This critique is more urgent than ever as the forces of recolonization and neoliberalism clash with the struggle for national sovereignty, social and economic justice, and participatory democracy throughout the globe.  In this essay I attempt to introduce some of the basic concepts of the philosophy, ethics and politics of liberation as an invitation to further study and praxis. 

The philosophy of liberation movement emerged in Latin America in the late 1960’s, provoked by urgent philosophical-practical questions raised by the Cuban Revolution and other popular struggles for liberation from imperial domination and neocolonial rule. In the 1960’s, starting from a locus of enunciation of lived experience in the global south, Leopoldo Zea, Salazar Bondy and other prominent Latin American intellectuals sought to answer the pressing questions as to whether there was a uniquely Latin American approach to philosophy, history, sociology, aesthetics and pedagogy, and if there is, what are the core messages and how can they be developed in a way that accompanies and informs liberation praxis.  

This movement has not been a wholesale rejection of everything Western; it has been in critical dialogue with the philosophical tradition that had so dominated the colonial academy going back to the Spanish missions. Perhaps most decisive for critical historiography, Dussel locates the start of modernity with the invasion of Amerindia: “Modernity, colonialism, the world-system and capitalism are aspects of the same simultaneous reality and are mutually constitutive of each other” (2015, 276).  The philosophy of liberation exposes the underside of this reality in so far as modern ideology, Eurocentric and totalitarian, sought to justify the African slave trade and the conquest of Amerindia as though the horrific sacrifice of millions of human beings on the altar of the primitive accumulation of capital were expressions of a civilizing mission sanctified by the will of God. The philosophy of liberation has exposed the prejudices of hegemonic historiography and the continued dominance of the European philosophy curriculum in the Latin American academy and is today helping to shape an innovative pedagogy of liberation, in the tradition of Paulo Freire, with a view to the ethical and political education of a new generation of activists and scholars. 

From the start, the philosophy of liberation has promoted a South-South and subsequently a North-South dialogue. Through a series of conferences and publications over the past half century, philosophies of liberation have converged on a nucleus of shared principles grounded in a respect for human life in community and in harmony with the biosphere. For Dussel, these principles emerge from the human will to socially produce and reproduce community life in the face of a capitalist modernity that challenges the very survival of humanity and the biosphere. His work on the ethics of liberation provides a systematic presentation of these principles and the lived path along which they can be collectively adopted to deconstruct modernity and build a transmodern world. 

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The transmodern option.

The transmodern option for overcoming the underside of modernity is not to reform modernity but to go beyond it. The concept of the trans modern is distinguished from that of the postmodern because the latter rejects universal ethical principles and is therefore susceptible to a slide into moral relativism. The transmodern option, however, acknowledges several universal ethical principles. To be more precise, the transmodern perspective is characterized by the convergence of shared principles that include the obligation to advance the growth of human life in community and in harmony with the earth’s ecosystems, through democratic procedures, in ways that are feasible. The transmodern option incorporates progressive features of Western philosophy, such as critical theory, discourse ethics and Marxism, that push back against any system that reduces persons and nature to mere instruments. Transmodernity goes beyond modernity by critically revalorizing the cultures of colonized and oppressed peoples and advancing a pluriversal world, that is, to use a Zapatista expression “a world in which many worlds can fit.” 

Ethics of liberation
In this essay the expression, ethics of liberation, refers primarily to the spirit and content of Dussel’s magnum opus, Ethics of Liberation in the Age of Globalization and Exclusion (1998/2013 English version), which gathers together key insights of his earlier critical dialogue with the thought of philosophers Martin Heidegger and Emmanuel Levinas as well as his encounters with the discourse ethics of Karl-Otto Apel and the critique of neoliberalism of theologian-economist Franz Hinkelammert.  It also refers to subsequent texts such as 14 Theses on Ethics: Towards the Essence of Critical Thinking (2016). It is important to mention that Dussel’s comprehensive study of Marx, which is published in a series of books on the various editions of Marx’s Capital and related works, has had a significant impact on Dussel’s critique of capital’s dehumanizing and alienating instrumentalization of living labor (trabajo vivo) and informs important features of the politics of liberation. In all these works, Dussel argues that critical-ethical theory and praxis can expose the ravages of the prevailing system, and through a long arduous process of ethical, political, and economic transformation, build a new more just order.

On becoming an ethical consciousness
Here I propose to trace the path of one who starts out as a naive, uncritical consciousness and eventually becomes a critical ethical consciousness. This path is not for everyone. For it is possible that one loses one’s native sensibility for the Other, that is to say, all of the victims of systemic domination and exploitation. Of course, it is always possible that one recognizes the suffering of the Other, but not one’s co-responsibility to negate the causes of that suffering. Or that one is intentionally complicit with the domination of other human beings. In any case, assuming one retains this native sociality, Dussel argues it can be reawakened by what Levinas calls the face-to-face encounter with the Other. It is to this pivotal experience that we now turn.

The Face-to-Face Encounter with the Other
At a first approximation the face to face encounter provides an occasion for the evocation of our native sensibility to those who are victims of the prevailing system. In Ethics of liberation in the Age of Globalization and Exclusion (1998/2013), Dussel argues that this innate sensibility is a natural, biologically based predisposition towards empathy and community. Humankind has exhibited this predisposition from its earliest hunter and gather phase of existence to the present day.  We are hard-wired to have communal instincts, and, having been born out of the maternal body, take our first nutrition from the breast of the mother. We are subsequently socialized by family, and beyond that a community; for these reasons our consciousness is marked by communality. For Dussel, this innate and developmental being-with-others in a community of life constitutes pre-originary ethical rationality. This is a rationality that, unlike abstract thinking about moral principles, is a form of practical intuition, as it can express itself in us prior to reflection

Let us dig a bit deeper into pre-originary ethical rationality. This is a term adopted from the work of philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. The interpelacion (appeal for help, claim) of the Other who is being victimized by the prevailing system appears to us in what Dussel calls an epiphany or revelation rather than a mere objective appearance.  The main idea here is that this appeal for help comes from a point of view, and this subjectivity of the Other cannot be reduced to a mere object within our own world. This interpelacion, that is, appeal for our solidarity, is more than a call for help, it also makes a claim on us. The plight of the suffering Other, whose point of view we cannot objectify, can evoke our heartfelt indignation at all forms of dehumanization, including the dehumanization of those with whom we do not share a common language and culture. It is possible, however, for one to be socialized in such a way as to blunt this intuitive empathy for the Other, even turning the other into an object of disdain or hatred. For example, war propaganda is specifically designed to dehumanize and criminalize entire peoples in order to make regime change operations and “collateral damage” –the killing of non-combatants– more palatable. In the name of “self-defense” the colonizer criminalizes the colonized and commits mass murder or economic warfare against those who commit the “crime” of resistance. 

For those who are not taken in by the dehumanizing propaganda of the colonizers and retain their sensibility for the plight of the Other, the Other is not invisible; the lived experience of the face-to-face encounter provides an occasion to start down the path of becoming a critical- ethical consciousness. Along the way, every apologetic for murder of the innocent, every justification for dominating the Other, every assault on the biosphere, is exposed.

This exposure of victimization in the name of high-minded exceptionalism awakens pre-originary ethical rationality, and it makes us indignant in the face of the suffering imposed on the Other. It is this indignation that grips us before we even have a chance to think about it; it precedes reflection and the explicit awareness of moral principles. The sounds of crying children separated from their parents at the US-Mexico border and placed in private for profit detention centers; the videos of the murder of so many people of color by the police in the US; the images of famine and war in Yemen; the crimes against humanity committed by Israel against Palestinians in Gaza; the mistreatment and deportation of Haitian refugees; the economic sanctions imposed on disobedient nations even in time of pandemic– all this inhumanity has given rise to interpelaciones that reach us as calls for help and make claims upon us. If we recognize these claims as constituting our co-responsibility for alleviating the suffering of the Other, that is, the victims of the prevailing system, we may become more worried about being complicit in their suffering than with the risks of exposing ourselves to the same violence and oppression.

In short, what the face-to-face encounter may awaken in us is a realization that we are co-responsible for the negation of the life of the Other, and such a realization makes a claim on us to address what is causing the negation of the Other’s life. This motivation, the will to negate the negation of human life, is founded on an affirmation of life that precedes the face-to-face encounter and valorizes the world in terms not only of our own vital interests, but that of a larger community of human life, and even beyond this, the living cosmos.

Critical-ethical method (analectic): Discovering the causes of the negation of human life and the biosphere.
As we have seen, the sense of co-responsibility for transforming the “way things are” to defend human life begins as an intuitive, that is, pre-reflective sensibility for other human beings, what Dussel calls pre-originary rationality. If this pre-original rationality gives rise to a responsive indignation in the face of the interpelacion of the Other, there is a choice to be made. One may turn away and resume one’s everyday involvement in the day-to-day, keeping the suffering of the Other at a distance. Or one may assume one’s co-responsibility for transforming the situation that generates so many victims. Here is the moment in which the critical is joined to the ethical and the two become inseparable. This is to say, one can begin to realize a liberatory project in community with others through an understanding and critique of the conditions that work against the full realization of human life. This makes sense. For if I am to respond to the suffering of the Other and the destruction of the earth’s ecosystems, I need to understand the ideology, institutions, and practices that are causing all the negations of human life and nature. I need to engage in critique, in decolonizing epistemology, history, economics, political science, and philosophy. 

At a first approximation, those anti-human conditions that generate millions of victims are concrete manifestations of modernity, and as we have noted above, Dussel argues that modernity started with the European launching of the African slave trade and the conquest of Amerindia. We cannot rehearse this history here.  But in short, the calamity of modernity for Amerindia and Africa as well as other colonized and subjugated peoples continues today in the form of the US-NATO alliance. This alliance seeks world domination, that is, unipolarity in an already existing multipolar world.  Through unbridled and enormously profitable militarism, it aims to incorporate or neutralize all exteriority, that is, all sovereign alternative economic and political projects that do not conform to the political and economic agenda of the Same. Its own ideology of economic freedom as the basis for social freedom, however, stands in blatant contradiction with its own institutions and practices, as it deploys universal surveillance, criminalizes the dissent of its own people, and controls the levers of the international market to its own political objectives. In the name of non-state-controlled spaces of economic freedom, a state-corporate alliance has weaponized the world’s hegemonic financial system by imposing sanctions on non-compliant nations, cutting off the branch upon which the ideology of finance capital is sitting and forcing the hand of sanctioned nations to create alternative reserve fiat and blockchain based currencies. 

What conforms to and advances the totalizing system–the Same– is proclaimed to be on the side of freedom and denominated good; what calls this system into question and offers another worldview is bad and denominated evil.  I do not mean to paint a bleak picture.  The critique of the totalizing system and the practice that informs it opens a breach of resistance within the apparatuses of social control and surveillance, and this breach makes it possible for us and for future generations to pursue a project of liberation.  In Ethics of Liberation Dussel declares: “My ultimate intention is to justify the struggle of victims, of the oppressed, for their liberation.” (1998/2013 56 [57]). To this end philosophies of liberation have continued to develop the basic ethical principles which inform the fields of the politics, economics, and aesthetics of liberation.

The development of critical ethical consciousness
The ethics of liberation articulates the movement from being an uncritical consciousness who takes the world as just “the way things are”, to developing an increasingly critical ethical perspective which realizes that politics, economics, and social relations are a contested space of the lifeworld. In Ethics of Liberation (1998), Dussel uses the testimonial narrative of I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian woman in Guatemala, to illustrate this movement. The example of Menchú shows a life trajectory which begins with an uneasy conformity to subjugation by oligarchic interests, and advances to a critical awareness that the ruling class and its security forces denigrate not only the cultural identities of original peoples, but also negates their ability to lead complete human lives. The victims of this oppression and their allies begin to push back when they no longer accept the way things are as somehow natural, the work of a God or fate. This awakening from the point of view of the Other (Alterity) dissolves the aura of necessity projected by the ideology of the totalizing system (the Same). It is both a great burden and a great relief to realize the status quo is not necessary and that a new world is possible. This realization leads the oppressed and their allies to become protagonists of a critique of oligarchic rule and an organized struggle to bring about its transformation. 

Menchú comes to see that the long arduous path towards liberation is a community project. She realizes, through her encounters with those who share her experience and their allies, that discrimination suffered at the hands of the oligarchy was not just her problem, not just a local problem, but a systemic one, within a historical and geopolitical context. Members of Menchu’s community come to see each other not as mere sacrificial instruments of the system, but as autonomous subjects, collectively able to impact their own lived situation. Together they form not only a community of human life, but a nascent political community. 

As we mentioned above, the transformation of our socio-economic and cultural conditions presupposes self-transformation. And such transformation, motivated by the affirmation of life, proceeds to unconceal the obstacles to liberation from both within and without. As a community we can decolonize our own views about the world, with a focus on the hegemonic ideology which justifies oppression and envision a different state of affairs in which all communities can live and grow with dignity. 

As Dussel emphasizes, the task of criticism is no mere exercise in polemics but is a “moment of the struggle for life” (1998/2013, 284 [271]). Critique is “the only way the oppressed become conscious of the oppression that afflicts all of the structures of his or her existence [and] consists in first discovering the dialectic of concrete domination, in each and every moment of his or her being” (1994, 317). In Philosophy of Liberation (1977), Dussel offers an account of this “moment in the struggle for life” and the dialectic of concrete domination in terms of two main categories: totality and alterity

Totality and Alterity
Dussel wrote Philosophy of Liberation (1977) during the commencement of his exile in Mexico in 1975, an ordeal forced upon him by the dictatorship in Argentina.  He arrived in Mexico without his library and wrote this text out of deep inspiration to chart a path through the desert of neocolonial domination and economic dependency. Although Dussel scholars often refer to various stages of the development of his ethics, this foundational work lays out the categories which have guided the development of the ethics, politics, and aesthetics of liberation for subsequent decades. The ideas of totality and alterity set the conceptual stage for understanding the exodus from subjugation by the prevailing system to liberation, that is, the long and arduous transition to a transmodern world, a term which we will define in a moment.  

In a sense, the term totality is a misnomer. What Dussel is referring to with this term is not a closed world system or a form of globalization for which there is no outside. The participle is preferred: totalizing system. In this way, from the start, we avoid falling into the Hegelian trap of thinking there is only one possible world system or one possible horizon for interpretation of what is possible. If one sees globalizing capital and its inner logic of unlimited accumulation as the end of history (Francis Fukuyama), as the final inner logic of history itself, then there one cannot see anything outside this Same globalizing system that can credibly challenge it; one will think that the wasteland of environmental devastation, economic inequality, and endless war will inevitably continue to grow unabated. And then this logic will lead inexorably to its final catastrophic outcome.

There is no empirical evidence, however, for the “end of history” thesis, though it may be a convenient propaganda tool for the one percent who benefit from its conservative implications. Five hundred years of resistance to the coloniality of power in the global south calls into question the notion that there is a Eurocentric Absolute Spirit at work guiding the course of history. That Eurocentric Spirit is indeed a reality, but its projection into the Hegelian heavens is a historical-cultural mythology that today undergirds the cynical apologetics of US-NATO exceptionalism.  There is no Absolute Spirit working out its destiny through the contingencies of human practices; human beings have what Dussel calls poder ser, the ability to be, to project ourselves into future possibilities. It is the multitude of autonomous singular human subjects who make choices within an enormous web of institutions, practices and personal relationships that generates the real consequences of the lifeworld.

There is another reason “totality” is a misnomer. Human beings are constituent parts of the totalizing system, but there is always something more to being a person than being a cog in the systemic wheel of the Same. We do indeed have our place within a hegemonic totality, as we need to reproduce our lives in the context of the prevailing economic, political, social, and cultural fields. And the hierarchies of domination as well as the resistance to domination within these fields are reproduced through everyday human practices and institutions. These practices form a network of utilitarian functions in terms of which we are determined and determine our place in the world. 

We are, however, as living subjects with free will directed towards the future (poder ser), always more than our place in the network of utilitarian functions; we can take a critical stance towards our own role in this network. This critical stance is not directly merely towards differences within the prevailing system, but the entire system, its ideology, institutions, and practices. How is it possible to take such a stance, if our everyday understanding of the world is informed by the totalizing ideology of the Same? How can we achieve a perspective that transcends the hegemonic ideology which pretends to be the ideology of all ideologies?

Exteriority (Alterity) and Proximity to the Other
Let’s unpack our critical stance towards the hegemonic totalizing system a bit more. In Philosophy of Liberation (1977/1985), Dussel uses the example of a taxi driver to explain the lived experience of alterity or exteriority.  The taxi driver, says Dussel, is only at first glance merely an extension of the means of transportation: “It seems difficult to detach other persons from the system in which they are inserted” (1977/1985, 40 []). Yet this routine encounter with the other (as taxi driver) can rupture at any time revealing the exteriority of the Other. We might strike up a conversation that breaks the silence and find out something about the driver’s life and aspirations. “The face of the person is revealed as other when it is extracted from our system of instruments as exterior, as someone, as a freedom that questions, provokes, and appears, as one who resists instrumental totalization. A person is not something, but someone” (Dussel 1977/1985, 40 []). 

It is on account of this difference between things as mere instruments within the totalizing system and human beings who exist for themselves, directed towards the future, that Dussel distinguishes two kinds of nearness: proxemia and proximidad.  “The experience of coming near to things we have called proxemia; while coming near to another person we call proximidad of the face to face.” This is an important distinction, because, as we have seen in the face to face encounter with the Other, unlike things, other persons  cannot be reduced to mere objects within my own perspective; they have their own subjectivities, their own points of view. “Critical ethical thinking” says Dussel, “takes its point of departure from the ‘proximidad originaria’ of a subject before a subject . . .. To encounter another human being and allow his or her self-revelation as a person, not as a mere thing, is the origin of the critical” (2016 12 [1.04)). 

We become critical in the same movement that we become ethical, for our encounter with the Other who is in need evokes both a sense of our exteriority as being among, or allies with, the victims of the prevailing system and it motivates us to critique those features of the system that negate human life and the biosphere. It is precisely in this movement that we also begin to employ what Dussel calls the analectic method. Ana-lectic, that is, a point of view that transcends (ana) the hegemonic logos (lectic) or worldview. This is the method by which we take the totalizing system itself as our object of study and criticism. By taking the Same as an object, we ourselves are not identical with the Same, nor one of its instruments; we transcend the totalizing system. It is our exteriority (being, as autonomous subjects, other than the Same) that makes this transcendence possible. And far from positing a new oppressive project of a different version of the Same, this critical-ethical negation of the Same opens a horizon in which “many worlds can fit,” to borrow a Zapatista expression, in which all life on the planet may flourish.

To summarize, in the very same face to face encounter from which we recognize and take co-responsibility for the life of the Other, we also become critically aware of the institutions, policies and practices responsible for the Other’s victimization. And this sensibility as well as critique prepares us for critical ethical praxis. The principles for this praxis are worked out in Ethics of Liberation (1998) and 14 theses on ethics (2016). It is to a summary of these principles that we now turn.

The ethical principles
The ethical principles give rational expression to the will to live and grow in community and in harmony with nature. Contrary to Hegel, the will to live of the singular human life is not a result of the cunning of Absolute Spirit. And contrary to Nietzsche, the will to live is not a will to power which seeks to dominate our neighbors. As Dussel points out, practical rationality is the result of the cunning of the will to live! Let’s unpack this idea. Most animals rely on mere instinct to survive, even when engaged in seemingly complex behaviors. The squirrel buries acorns for safekeeping but has no explicit awareness of the benefit this will bring in the future. The spider builds a complex web which requires feats of engineering, but of course, all this is “hard wired” and accomplished without deliberate calculation. When the human subject reflects on the exigency of its own will to live, it recognizes its responsibility for the task of socially reproducing its life; this persistent task involves valorizing things in the environment in terms of how they mediate the reproduction of human life (16; 2009, 51). What began as instinctive exigency of human life to reproduce itself becomes, when conscious of itself, an ethical imperative.

In ethical terms, upon reflection on the community of life of which we are an integral part, we realize we are responsible for promoting the growth of human life in community and in harmony with the biosphere. This reflection reveals to us the material ethical principle. This principle alone, however, gives us no guidance as to how to strive to realize a world of perpetual human life in harmony with the biosphere. The practical realization of the material principle requires a complementary formal principle to answer the question: how ought the intersubjective community of human life go about building this new world. What procedures ought we use?

Here Dussel acknowledges his debt to the discourse ethics of Karl-Otto Apel. Apel argued that there are necessary conditions that make scientific communication communities possible, such as the commitment of all interlocutors to hear all the arguments and judge them in a fair-minded manner. These pre-conditions can be extended to the idea of ideal communication communities more generally. To put this succinctly, the formal principle is: we ought to construct communication communities that deliberate through participatory democratic procedures in which all those impacted by decisions have an equal voice (Dussel 2009, 34). We presume participants will consider the arguments of others in a fair-minded manner as a condition for such communication. The upshot of this position is the claim that without agreeing to these pre-conditions of a functional communication community, we cannot even begin to debate any practical issue in earnest.

Dussel urges us to notice that neither the material nor the formal principle can be taken in isolation; they mutually condition each other. For example, problems arise for democratic procedures if they are not conditioned by the material principle. Should participants come to the table, with some persons hungry and destitute and others living the life of leisure, or some in subordinate roles to others, not everyone will have an equal voice (2009, 220). And if the content of deliberation is not consistent with the material principle, decisions could be made democratically which put some human lives at risk and devastate the biosphere. So not only should we all come to the table with an equal voice and with our basic needs having been met, so too should our deliberations be aimed at defending all human life and the biosphere. 

This combination of formal and material principles is still not sufficient to advance a liberatory project. We also need to answer the question: Is what we are going to decide feasible?  After all, what good is all our democratic deliberation, even when it prioritizes life and ecology, if what we decide, given the present circumstances, is very unlikely to be accomplished? Strategic rationality, then, ought to condition formal and material considerations so we do not end up pursuing an impossible adventure on the one hand, or end up endorsing an oppressive status quo on the other. And the formal as well as material principle ought to condition the feasibility principle to avoid the pursuit of technically feasible but self-destructive ends.

Now let’s put all three principles together: Whatever is decided democratically to advance human life and protect the biosphere ought to be feasible, that is, under the current circumstances, we ought to have a reasonable expectation that we can accomplish our intentions and goals.  Dussel argues that these mutually conditioning principles are universal, and if he is correct about this, it means they always apply in all cultures. For Dussel, however, the correct term here is pluriversal, not universal. This is to recognize that though all peoples seek to live and grow in community, they do this in different ways. This may sound like minutia, but it is critically important to the pro-democracy dimension of the ethics and politics of liberation.

Dussel rejects the postmodern tendency towards moral relativism as well as a one size fits all answer to what exactly constitutes the advance of human life.  Rather, Dussel calls his project a trans-modern one. At the heart of transmodernity is the idea that there are indeed universal values, but they have a diversity of cultural expressions. The “I conquer” of the totalizing system is not to be replaced by “We know the only correct path to liberation.” Through a dialogue among liberatory traditions, we aim at a convergence around a nucleus of shared values, all anchored in an affirmation of human life in community. Dussel is also a realist; he cautions that even if we do our best to abide by the ethical principles, we are subject to human error as well as the contingencies of natural and social realities.

Politics of liberation
We are now ready to apply the ethical principles to the basic features of a politics of liberation.  In Politics of liberation, volume  2 (the third volume is in press), Dussel clearly links ethics to politics. “The subsumption of the ethical principles in the political field transforms them into normative political principles” (2009, 42, see also 137).  It is the application of these principles in an integral manner that enables us to make any “critical political claim to justice” (45). As Dussel explains in detail in Twenty Theses on Politics (2008), the neglect of these integral principles leads to the corruption of political action of both constituents and constituted power. Let’s look at how this can happen.

The image used by Dussel from his earliest works to his most recent, for the aim of a politics of liberation, is the biblical exodus. The two key concepts used for accounting for this exodic journey are potentia, which refers to constituent power or the consensual power of the people, and potestas, the delegated power of the people that constitutes institutions for the exercise of direct democracy and representative governing bodies (2009, 61-65). This delegation of potentia is not a Hobbesian transfer of liberty, which surrenders too much of the power of the people to a sovereign, but a conditional assignment of constituent power. 

We do not lose our liberty by uniting our will with others to a common purpose. Dussel argues that it is possible to “unite the plurality of wills, allowing for each will to remain nevertheless intact . . . in its self-determination . . . without losing either its autonomy or freedom, maintaining its sovereignty” (2009, 134). How then, does corruption take place? As the Zapatistas of Chiapas Mexico insist, good government is obedient to constituent power; bad government appropriates delegated power for its own self-centered interests and thereby loses its democratic legitimacy. “When potestas becomes fetishized, it divides, separates itself from its foundation (potentia), diminishing its power, even as its exercise of despotic power appears to reach the pinnacle of strength” (2009, 61). None of us are strangers to this tendency of the political class to betray constituent interests unless it is constantly held accountable to the original source of its power. For example, the political capture of government by corporate interests begets the fetishization of constituted power, and once this occurs it takes great mobilizations of constituent power to restore democratic governance.

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If constituents have fallen prey to corrupt constituted power, either by passivity or complicity, Dussel suggestions a new social bloc may emerge from a potentia with a new sense of purpose; he calls this new block a hyperpotentia willing to take up the struggle to recuperate fetishized power from bad government. Moreover, hyperpotentia sets out to restore government obedient to the ultimate seat of sovereignty, which is the people, that is, constituent power. 

In 20 Theses on Politics Dussel identifies the emergent social bloc of hyperpotentia as a convergence of social movements with analogous aspirations for liberation (see also 2009, 44). Social movements and other organized expressions of constituent power can find common purpose and form what Dussel calls an analogical hegemon. We saw this clearly in the case of the coup in Bolivia (2019) orchestrated by the OAS.  In the face of the usurpation of the state by a right-wing racist dictatorship, indigenous organizations, popular movements, and the Movement for Socialism–Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the Peoples (MAS-IPSP) formed an analogical hegemon, and as hyperpotentia, managed, despite massacres and political persecution, to recuperate their democracy.

In the case of corrupted constituted power, a liberatory dissensus may emerge against an increasingly desperate and oppressive regime. In Politics of Liberation, volume II, Dussel declares: “From the exteriority or alterity of the system, of the ‘prevailing order’ a critical movement emerges that inaugurates the politics of liberation . . .” (2009, 38). The emerging new historic bloc can pass from being a minority dissensus towards becoming a new consensus, challenging bad government and provoking a crisis of hegemony. This is the critical moment, described so well by Antonio Gramsci, when constituted power may either cede to the power of the people or double down on repression. “The praxis against domination,” argues Dussel, “provokes a crisis of hegemony within the prevailing political order and the process of political liberation unfolds in the construction of a new hegemony” (2009, 44).

Dussel does not pretend that such a crisis of hegemony will find an abrupt resolution. In Mexico, the Fourth Transformation has begun as result of a broad-based grassroots movement behind the Morena Party that brought Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador to the presidency, but the transformation could take many years to turn the corner on decades of corruption and misappropriation and distribution of the nation’s wealth. Dussel himself does not remain in the ivory tower; he coordinates a weekly seminar, “The Other Politics” sponsored by Morena. The series of lectures by Dussel and invited scholars from throughout the region, provides ethical, historical, and political education not only for members of Morena, but for anyone who registers for the course.

 To conclude, the ethics of liberation provides critical principles for clearing a path towards liberation so long as the breach in the totalizing capital system is kept open by a dissensus of those who assume co-responsibility for defending human life and the biosphere remains. We can travel this path together, forming a growing dissensus, by decolonizing our minds and transforming corrupted institutional structures. Theory and praxis advance together (2009, 241). And that open future, the dream of King’s World House, depends on our collective ethical commitment to deconstruct the capitalist system and cross over the wasteland of militarism, poverty, and racism to build a transmodern world, a world “in which many worlds can fit.”


Dussel, E. (2016). 14 Tesis de ética: Hacia la esencia del pensamiento crítico. Madrid: Editorial Trotta, S.A.

Dussel, E. (2015). Filosofias de Sur: Descolonización y Transmodernidad. Coyoacan, México: Edicionesakal.

Dussel, E. (2013). Ethics of liberation in the age of globalization and exclusion. (E. Mendieta, C. P. Bustillo, Y. Angulo, and N. Maldonado-Torres, Trans.). A. A. Vallega (Ed.). Durham: Duke University Press. (Original published 1998)

Dussel, E. (2008). Twenty theses on politics. (G. Ciccariello-Maher, Trans.). Forward by E. Mendieta. Durham: Duke University Press. (Original Spanish edition published 2006)

Dussel, E. (1985). Philosophy of liberation. (A. Martinez and C. Morkovsky, Trans.). Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers. (Original work published 1977)

Dussel, E. (2009). Política de la liberación. Volumen II, arquitectónica. Madrid: Editorial Trotta.



Featured image:Proffesor Dussel during an academic lecture. Photo courtesy of Emma Giné.




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Frederick B. Mills
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Frederick B. Mills, Ph.D., is professor of philosophy and a member of the Philosophy of Liberation Association and the American Philosophical Association. He has received awards for excellence in teaching and international outreach from Bowie State University. Mills has published articles on philosophy of mind, ethics and public policy, Descartes, Spinoza, Kant, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Mario Bencastro, Enrique Dussel as well as political analysis on contemporary Latin American politics. He has contributed articles to Counterpunch, the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, and other independent media.

Frederick B. Mills

Frederick B. Mills, Ph.D., is professor of philosophy and a member of the Philosophy of Liberation Association and the American Philosophical Association. He has received awards for excellence in teaching and international outreach from Bowie State University. Mills has published articles on philosophy of mind, ethics and public policy, Descartes, Spinoza, Kant, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Mario Bencastro, Enrique Dussel as well as political analysis on contemporary Latin American politics. He has contributed articles to Counterpunch, the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, and other independent media.