The Darker Side of Western Modernity: Global Futures, Decolonial Options

The Darker Side of Western Modernity: Global Futures, Decolonial Options

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by Walter D. Mignolo

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During the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, coloniality emerged as a new structure of power as Europeans colonized the Americas and built on the ideas of Western civilization and modernity as the endpoints of historical time and Europe as the center of the world. Walter D. Mignolo argues that coloniality is the darker side of Western modernity, a complex matrix


During the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, coloniality emerged as a new structure of power as Europeans colonized the Americas and built on the ideas of Western civilization and modernity as the endpoints of historical time and Europe as the center of the world. Walter D. Mignolo argues that coloniality is the darker side of Western modernity, a complex matrix of power that has been created and controlled by Western men and institutions from the Renaissance, when it was driven by Christian theology, through the late twentieth century and the dictates of neoliberalism. This cycle of coloniality is coming to an end. Two main forces are challenging Western leadership in the early twenty-first century. One of these, “dewesternization,” is an irreversible shift to the East in struggles over knowledge, economics, and politics. The second force is “decoloniality.” Mignolo explains that decoloniality requires delinking from the colonial matrix of power underlying Western modernity to imagine and build global futures in which human beings and the natural world are no longer exploited in the relentless quest for wealth accumulation.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“It is dense, but refreshing and ultimately uplifting. Walter Mignolo’s visionary ideas about the decline and fall of (Western) modernity and hence leadership should be on the syllabus in schools, let alone higher education institutions.” - EC, The Latin American Review of Books

“Such a rich and ambitious book, apparently unafraid of taking risks, will prove controversial for it messes with many a wasp’s nest. The Darker Side of Western Modernity is recommended reading for those in search of a challenge rather than a confirmation.” - Sara Castro-Klaren, Modern Language Notes

“...the book is elegantly written, even poetic or lyrical at times...I have always appreciated Mignolo’s ability to refine and rework his ideas, and this book seems to be the best example of such evolutionary thinking yet.” - Darrel Allan Wanzer, Cultural Studies

The Darker Side of Western Modernity is a significant, visionary, and hopeful text. More than just revealing the logic and strategy at work in the ‘darker side of Western modernity,’ this book makes evident and gives life to decolonial delinking and thought. Walter D. Mignolo’s eye is toward emergent processes and projects of political-epistemic resistance, disobedience, and transformation that give sustenance, reason, and concretion to the prospect and anticipation of other possible worlds. Through these processes and projects, Mignolo remaps the order of knowing, reading, and doing, while also indicating paths and perspectives for significantly different communal futures.”—Catherine E. Walsh, Director, Doctoral Program in Latin American Cultural Studies, Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar, Quito, Ecuador

“Walter D. Mignolo is one of our leading theorists of coloniality/modernity and decolonial thinking. With this superb book, the third in an ‘unintended trilogy’ exploring the nature and limits of modern social thought, Mignolo continues his ambition to ‘break the Western code’ embodied in its rhetoric of modernity and logic of coloniality. This volume brings to light a darker side of the project of modernity, the oppressive relations that were at its heart, and offers decolonial options for the building of communal futures different from our pasts. It is necessary reading for all those interested in the emancipatory potential of social theory for dealing with the challenges of the twenty-first century.”—Gurminder K. Bhambra, author of Rethinking Modernity: Postcolonialism and the Sociological Imagination

The Latin American Review of Books

“It is dense, but refreshing and ultimately uplifting. Walter Mignolo’s visionary ideas about the decline and fall of (Western) modernity and hence leadership should be on the syllabus in schools, let alone higher education institutions.”

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Duke University Press Books
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Latin America Otherwise
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New Edition
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6.10(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.10(d)

Read an Excerpt


Global Futures, Decolonial Options
By Walter D. Mignolo


Copyright © 2011 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-5078-1

Chapter One

The Roads to the Future Rewesternization, Dewesternization, and Decoloniality

When one puts objectivity in parenthesis, all views, all verses in the multiverse are equally valid. Understanding this, you lose the passion for changing the other. One of the results is that you look apathetic to people. Now, those who do not live with objectivity in parentheses have a passion for changing the other. So they have this passion and you do not. For example, at the university where I work, people may say, "Humberto is not really interested in anything," because I don't have the passion in the same sense that the person that has objectivity without parentheses. And I think that this is the main difficulty. To other people you may seem too tolerant. However, if the others also put objectivity in parentheses, you discover that disagreements can only be solved by entering a domain of coinspiration in which things are done together because the participants want to do them. With objectivity in parentheses, it is easy to do things together because one is not denying the other in the process of doing them. HUMBERTO R. MATURANA, "Biologie der Sozialität," 1985

IN THE SECOND EDITION of The Nomos of the Earth in the International Law of the Jus Publicum Europaeum (1974), Carl Schmitt traces three possible future scenarios. His vision of the future is, naturally and correctly, grounded on his view of the past: the history of nomos and linear global thinking (see chapter 2 in this book).

The history of nomos is divided into two distinct eras: before 1500 and after 1500. "There always has been some kind of nomos of the earth," observes Schmitt in a sweeping view of planetary history before 1500: "In all the ages of mankind, the earth has been appropriated, divided and cultivated. But before the age of the great discoveries, before the sixteenth century of our system of dating, men had no global concept of the planet on which they lived. Certainly, they had a mythical image of heaven and earth, and of land and sea, but the earth still was not measured as a globe, and men still had not ventured onto the great oceans."

I agree with Schmitt on this count. But instead of linking and anchoring this period in planetary history to the Greek nomos, I prefer the decolonial version of "a polycentric world in which no one civilization is imposed over all the rest." There are many explanations for such state of affairs, but the fact remains that, in the sixteenth century, European men reached, for the first time in the history of humankind, a planetary view as depicted by, among many others, the Flemish cartographer Rumold Mercator, in 1587. Before 1500 there was no reference point to which "alternatives" could be imagined. There were many options and interactions among people from different languages, religions, and territories. There were conflicts, of course. But the conflicts remained at local levels. Briefly stated: before 1500 the world order was polycentric and noncapitalist. After 1500 the world order entered into a process in which polycentrism began to be displaced by an emerging monocentric civilization (e.g., Western civilization). Western civilization emerged not just as another civilization in the planetary concert, but as the civilization destined to lead and save the rest of the world from the Devil, from barbarism and primitivism, from underdevelopment, from despotism, and to turn unhappiness into happiness for all and forever. In the name of modernity (the Renaissance version), colonization of space first and of time later (see chapter 4) were the two main strategies (or technologies if you wish) of management and control. Tied to both colonization of space and time, the colonial and imperial differences came into being. Through a long process, over five hundred years (1500–2000, roughly), a monocentric world order took precedence over the polycentric one. How did that happen? According to Schmitt,

The first nomos of the Earth was destroyed about 500 years ago, when the great oceans of the world were opened up. The earth was circumnavigated; America, a completely new, unknown, not even suspected continent was discovered. A second nomos of the earth arose from such discoveries of land and sea. The discoverers were not invited. They were made without visas issued by the discovered peoples. The discoverers were Europeans, who appropriated, divided and utilized the planet. Thus, the second nomos of the Earth became Euro-centric. The newly discovered continent of America first was utilized in the form of colonies. The Asian landmasses could not be appropriated in the same way. The Eurocentric structure of nomos extended only partially, as open land-appropriation, and otherwise as protectorates, leases, trade agreements and spheres of interests; in short, in more elastic forms of utilization. Only in the nineteenth century did the land-appropriating European powers divide up Africa.

There are several issues with which decolonial perspectives would be in harmony with Schmitt's narrative. The difference lies in the geo- and body-politics of knowing and knowledge. That is, the concerns of a given scholar, politician, activist, banker, journalist, farmer, former slave, and so on do not meet in the universal house of knowledge where truth without parenthesis is disputed and conflict of interpretations arises. Geo-historical and biographical locations are not naturally ranked in their privilege, but they are located by the colonial matrix of power and the imperial/colonial differential order of knowledge. For example, during the same years that Schmitt published the books and the articles added to the second edition, Edmundo O'Gorman, in Mexico (precisely between 1950 and 1960), published two equally groundbreaking books: La idea del descubrimiento de América (1952) and La invención de América (1958). In both cases, the basic and strong argument is that America was not discovered, because there was no such entity thus named, but invented. It is as if Schmitt and O'Gorman were facing each other at two ends of the Atlantic, looking at how things had happened since the sixteenth century. One was looking at dwelling in the imperial history of Europe, while the other was dwelling in the colonial history of the Americas and the Caribbean. This argument has been familiar in the South American history of thought for six decades, and I have stressed the point on several occasions. You may prefer Schmitt's option; but at this point it would be difficult to deny that O'Gorman has an equally valid option that has been obscured by the coloniality of knowledge that made Schmitt the quantitatively preferred option.

More relevant, however, is what one can call "Schmitt's trick," although I am persuaded that it was not intentional. That means that Schmitt took for granted that once the "new nomos" emerged, all the others vanished. He was taking for granted the very modern idea that history is singular, that there is only one historical line so that once something new appears, what existed before is superseded and relegated to the past—to history, precisely. But even if we accept this view, we have to account for two different types of erasure: first, the new nomos erased the previous nomos that had been incorporated in the history of Europe (that is, the Greek nomos); but, second, the Incas and the Aztecs did not belong to that trajectory, and their nomos (if you wish to look at their sense of territoriality in this term) was negated and discarded, not incorporated. Today we see that "the first nomos" of the earth was not "destroyed." Because they were not destroyed they are reemerging in the twentieth-first century in different guises: as religious and ancestral identities re-articulated in responses to and confrontation with Western global designs (globalism rather than globalization). This is not, of course, to propose a return to the past but, precisely, to open up the roads toward global futures. So, let's get back to Schmitt's trick, which is in part responsible for our blindness regarding the co-existence of global histories hidden under the illusion (Schmitt's trick) that once the second nomos of the earth came, the first ceased to exist, or was left out of history and put into the museum. First Schmitt tells us that there were many nomos, which he reduces to "the first nomos." That is, he aligned the diversity of the polycentric world with a single line of Western history. For that reason, when he was imagining the future he was unable to imagine that "the first nomos" (in plural) had never been destroyed, had always coexisted alongside the "new nomos," and that now they have reemerged. Beyond the linearization of nomos diversity before 1500 that is Schmitt's story, there is in front of him (like O'Gorman) the view of the coexistence of non-European nomos with the linearization of time (global linear thinking) and the empty space (in the Americas and in Africa, but not in India and China—"The Asian landmasses could not be appropriated in the same way"). These nomos that never were destroyed (e.g., think of the persistence of Tawantinsuyu in Bolivia today, grounding the revival of indigenous political society; or the reframing of Confucius's legacy in modern China; or in the attempts by Muslim intellectuals to decolonize Western translations of Shari'a and Jihad and to restore them as a proper foundation for Muslim ways of life), and they never vanished either. Thus, we all are returning to a polycentric world order only that today—contrary to the world before 1500—it is polycentric and capitalist.

Decolonizing the Second Nomos of the Earth

The future is bound to the chains of the past. Thus, Schmitt states,

The main characteristics of this second nomos of the earth lay first in its Eurocentric structure and second in that, different from the first, in its mythical image of the world, it encompassed the oceans.... The Eurocentric nomos of the earth lasted until World War I (1914–1918). It was based on a dual balance; first, the balance of land and sea. England alone dominated the sea, and allowed no balance of sea power. By contrast, on the European continent there existed a balance of land powers. Its guarantor was the sea power of England.

The Eurocentric nomos may have lasted until the First World War, but its agony extended until the Second World War, when Europe suffered the consequences of its own imperial history: the vacuum left by the collapse of jus publicum Europaeum was taken up by Adolf Hitler, who, as Aimé Césaire noted, applied to white men the same racial principles that Europe has applied, for five centuries, to the non-European population. The entry of the United States as an emerging world leader after the Second World War initiated the Cold War with the Soviet Union. In that context, Schmitt was forecasting the future. If the second nomos ended, what would be the new nomos? He saw, as I have mentioned, three possible scenarios.

The first scenario, according to Schmitt, would depend on who succeeds and comes out of the Cold War as the new hegemony. The divide between East (at that time, the Soviet Union) and West would be the last stage before the unification of the world—a possibility celebrated by Francis Fukuyama immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But, apparently, this scenario did not obtain. Schmitt saw a second possibility based on the concept of balance of the nomos previously described: "That would mean that England's former domination of the oceans be expanded to a joint domination of sea and air, which only the United States is capable of doing. America is, so to speak, the great island that could administer and guarantee the balance of the rest of the world." One could say that this is the scenario that was viable, particularly from the Reagan-Thatcher years, until the combined collapse of events that were contributed to by the Bush administration (the invasion of Iraq and the collapse of Wall Street) showed this scenario as unviable. The third scenario, for Schmitt, was no longer based on a viable and possible balance of England and the United States (which would have required a sort of transnational and transimperial hegemony), but from a combination and balance "of several independent Großraume or that blocs could constitute a balance, and thereby could precipitate a new order of the earth." This seems to be the situation today. But it complicates the question of a "new nomos." Therefore, I turn now to explore this scenario from a decolonial perspective. What follows is the overall historico-theoretical frame in which the following chapters are connected.

Let's start in agreement with Schmitt and say that the Eurocentered nomos of the earth between 1500 and 1914–18/1945 was indeed the result of a project of Westernization (which went hand in hand with the process of building on the idea of Western civilization) that grew and expanded consistently for four and a half centuries. The process and project of Westernization did not stop with the crisis of the second nomos of the earth, between the First and Second World Wars. It continued not by appropriating land, but by managing finances and natural resources through the project of development and modernization, in two stages: from 1950 to 1970, when the project collapsed, and from 1980 to 2008, when the project revived. In the second stage, development was translated into globalism, the conceptual tool of neo-liberal designs.

However, by 2000, the world was changing and those changes are clear today. The world order in which we are living is polycentric, as it was before 1500, but unlike that world order, today the various centers share the same economic principles: capitalism. You can say that U.S. capitalism is not the same as European or Chinese capitalism, but the fact remains that the differences are superficial, not of the deep structure; the economic rules and principles continue to be oriented to the horizon of accumulation of wealth, which anchors the power of decisions. Some are attempting to impose, and others reject, the imposition (e.g., China's recent recasting of international relations; the Egyptian people reaching the limit of state imposition). Which means that—in the sphere of the state and the corporations—the struggle that is being fought is located in the domain and control of authority and the control of knowledge (political and epistemic struggles). "Capitalism" is not only a domain of economic transactions and exploitation of labor, but of control and management of knowledge and subjectivities. A second significant change was the emergence and growth of a global political society (often referred to as social movements) unknown during the second half of the twentieth century. During the Cold War, industrial-worker struggles beyond the United States and the Soviet Union were the most visible manifestation of dissent with governments and industries. Today, claims for economic and other material benefits go hand in hand with claims for dignity and the rights (human rights) to re-inscribe the active participation of the political society and to be in and out of the colonial matrix of power, like La Via Campesina, moving toward decolonial horizons. Decolonial horizons in the domain of the state have been at work in Bolivia under the presidency of Evo Morales, and appear in the written constitution of both Bolivia and Ecuador. In both cases the very concept of a plurinational state (with all the complications that it entails) is a clear decolonial formulation, since modern/colonial states outside Europe (where the modern/imperial state was founded) intend to displace the ethno-class of European descent that created and managed the modern/colonial state (since its inception in the early nineteenth century), and that lived behind and outside citizenship in the vast population of Indians and Afro descendants. Bolivia and Ecuador are the only two states, to my knowledge, that opened up the decolonization of the modern/imperial model of the state by introducing the crucial concept of a "plurinational state." In these two cases, certain collaboration exists (amid many conflicts) between the political society and the state.


Excerpted from THE DARKER SIDE OF WESTERN MODERNITY by Walter D. Mignolo Copyright © 2011 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Walter D. Mignolo is Director of the Institute for Global Studies in Humanities, William H. Wannamaker Professor of Literature and Romance Studies, and Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Duke University. He is the author of The Idea of Latin America; Local Histories/Global Designs: Coloniality, Subaltern Knowledges, and Border Thinking; and The Darker Side of The Renaissance: Literacy, Territoriality and Colonization and a co-editor of Rereading the Black Legend: The Discourses of Religious and Racial Difference in the Renaissance Empires.

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The Darker Side of Western Modernity: Global Futures, Decolonial Options 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Mauro1 More than 1 year ago
This is an exceptional and well researched argument. It clearly explains the re-mapping of the world at the moment in which capital is not longer controlled by the "white race" as Sun Yat-sen anticipated in 1924 in his celebrated speech on Pan-Asianism. It brings to light that globalization now cannot only be described and analyzed from Western perspective. People of color around the globe "think"