Corruption, Human Rights, Information & Communication, Neo-liberalism, Politics, Populism

Seeing horizons in the clotheslines

Sep 4 2019

By Boaventura de Sousa Santos*

Automatic tumble dryers notwithstanding, most people in the world (women,
most often than not) hang the wash on clotheslines made of metal, hemp rope, or
wood. Tree branches can also be used as clotheslines. The technique for hanging the
wash varies from one country to another, but there are certain general rules. The
clothes need to be spread wide to ensure maximum exposure to sun and wind; their
weight must be calibrated to the sturdiness of the clothesline; clothespins or
something similar should be used to hold the clothes, lest the line collapses as a result
of turbulence. Hanging the wash on a clothesline is a thorough job, and in order to
do it successfully, close attention needs to be paid to both the clothes and the
clothesline. But anyone accustomed to hanging clothes on a clothesline to dry knows
that, aside from looking straight at what’s in front of you, you also have to take into
consideration the time of year, meteorological conditions, the incidence of the sun’s
rays, the wind’s strength and direction, air pollution, and even the degree of safety
of the washing line, lest the clothes get stolen.

Every democrat in the world, especially those who wear their hearts doubly
on the left-hand side (physically and politically); those who feel insulted by the
exorbitant enrichment of some and the unfair impoverishment of others; those who
are outraged by the uncontrolled arms build-up and all other aspects of war, be they
embargoes, economic sanctions, or drug-, human- and organ trafficking, the
assassination of civic and political leaders, or femicide; those who are scared of the
possibility of ecological collapse, as a result of increasing global warming,
deforestation, water contamination and the blindness of politicians with regard to
these issues; those who are alarmed by the resurgence of the far right and its reactionary, nationalist, hyper-conservative ideologies; in a word, all those who will
not give up fighting for a society that is more fair, more decent, and more dignified
should learn from the women of this world and their art of hanging the wash on the

We are at this juncture where the small, detailed horizon of hanging our
clothes to dry needs to be articulated with the broader horizon of the social,
economic, political, and cultural meteorology of our time. The articulation effort is
more difficult for the political forces of the left than for those of the right. Given that
we have been living for centuries in capitalist, colonialist, and patriarchal societies,
and that the injustices and discriminations generated by such societies have changed
shape but not in their intensity and lethality, the political forces of the left have been
training just to exist and to brave the current and channel their energies into paving
the way for the society of the future. To put it differently, they have concerned
themselves not so much with hanging the clothes to dry as with the weather
conditions. Every time they tried to articulate the two concerns, they did so from
within the same political horizon, seeking to scan it, now with near-vision glasses
(tactics), now with distance-vision glasses (strategy). This articulation worked for a
long time, even if in most cases part of the left became accustomed to seeing with
near-vision glasses only, while the other became accustomed to seeing with distancevision glasses only. Had it happened to women and their washing line, we might be
walking around naked today.

However, forty years of neoliberalism have rendered this political habit no
longer viable. The political horizon has shrunk to such stifling proportions that the
optico-political market has been forced to specialize in near-vision lenses. Those
who insist on wearing distance-vision glasses have to resort to old lenses, thus
running the risk of being labeled as either myopic or lunatic. Democrats whose
political heart is on the left-hand side have been slow to notice how much the times
and the weather have changed, and until they do, they will be putting not only their
clothes but also our own at great risk. But there is great urgency in the endeavor,
which is why I come forward to suggest where our efforts should concentrate next.
What used to be two scales of the same political horizon are now two separate
worlds, which is why, in order to adequately see them within a political framework,
we now need a lot more than two pairs of glasses. In fact, a whole new political
culture vision is now required. A consequence of the fall of the Berlin Wall and all
it symbolized, combined with the soaring concentration of wealth and the deepening
of the ecological crisis, was that the hope and the struggle for a better society had to
be thought out and carried out with two very different horizons in sight: the political
horizon and the civilizing horizon. The former is the conventional horizon of the
political struggle. It is still divided into tactics and strategies, but its scale has shrunk
since the moment the civilizing horizon became a subject of discussion in society.
When that happened, the difference between tactics and strategy became negligible.
The political horizon became the horizon of hanging the clothes on the clothesline,
political agenda being but the name we give to the clothesline.

The civilizing horizon is a set of themes that go beyond the political horizon,
but which, in the eyes of a growing number of people, especially young people, will
determine the future of humankind: new models of consumption, democratic
coexistence, and friendly relations between humans and between humans and nature.
There is no other way to prevent ecological collapse, the emergence of new
dictatorships, and the mushrooming of irregular wars with their preferred victims –
innocent civilians. The civilizing horizon comprises two political anxieties, the one
negative, the other positive. Negative anxiety is the feeling that all the clothes on the
clothesline belong to one single body, one style, one past history. Positive anxiety
consists in the fact that, even if the civilizing themes cannot, at least for now, be
processed by the political system, they are more and more present in the discussions
and everyday life of citizens: in the way in which consumer habits change, in the
feelings of outrage over public policies that negate or minimize the relevance of the
civilizing themes, in the discomfort in the face of the magnitude of what is at stake
in the civilizing horizon as opposed to the smallness of the debates that fill the
political clothesline. In view of all this, many men and women end up drifting away
from conventional politics, which the clothesline politicians mistake for
depoliticization, but in fact is nothing but an intense yearning for alternative policies.

This disconnect between the political and the civilizing horizon is a new thing,
and the drama of our time is that it requires that a new and fundamental distinction
be made between left and right, a distinction, moreover, for which politicians lack
preparation. For all their stating the opposite, the civilizing horizon is the sole
concern of the political forces of the right, who despise those who would question
it. After all, the world as it stands has largely been wrought by those forces, and they
are the main beneficiaries of the status quo. They do not care for the civilizing
horizon, because, they say, that is long-term, and in the long-term we’ll all be dead.
Conversely, the forces of the left will not be viable in the future unless they are
capable of articulating the two horizons. Should they fail to do it, they are the ones
who will be dead in the long-term. Hence their vital interest in bringing the civilizing
horizon into the discussion. But that will not be possible in the short-term, nor even
within election time frames. The solution, therefore, can only be as follows. The
forces of the left must learn to operate both within and outside the political horizon.
Within it, their goal should be to reshape it so as to broaden its democratic nature
(toward more colorful and ever more diverse clothes on the clothesline). They know
that the political horizon will be under increasing pressure from the outside, by those
citizens who are primarily interested in the civilizing horizon, and that, as a
consequence, the forces of the right will respond with repression and do everything
in their power, including sacrificing democracy, to maintain the status quo. That is
why the defense of democracy must be the new center of the political horizon for
the forces of the left and their sole reason for participating in it.

But they must also operate outside it, at the level of the civilizing horizon. The
political tools at this level are the following: popular education aimed at
intercultural, eco-socialist democracy, personal and collective example as life
testimony, and new forms of organization. As regards education: it is imperative to
promote the global democratization of life, the intercultural diversity of postcapitalist, post-colonialist, and post-patriarchal possibilities, and the rights of nature.

This entails turning the party-sponsored summer universities and training schools
inside out: it is up to citizens to teach politicians about the civilizing horizon. As
regards life testimony: the politicians of the left must bear personal witness to the
civilizing concerns and live in closer proximity to the poor, discriminated-against
urban peripheries, learn anew how to speak to the classes that historically were their
raison d’être, and go live among them whenever possible. As regards the form of
organization: the left has to be at once party and movement, because neither one by
itself will be able to survive the deterioration of democracy caused by the forces of
the right. By articulating their efforts, the forces of the left can begin to look at the
political and civilizing horizons as part of the same equation and transform the
former in accordance with the latter. With that they will be securing their future,
their promising, pressing future.


*Boaventura de Sousa Santos is a portuguese professor of Sociology at the School of Economics, University of Coimbra (Portugal), distinguished legal scholar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School, and global legal scholar at the University of Warwick. Co-founder and one of the main leaders of the World Social Forum. Article provided to Other News by the autor. 2019, 09, 04


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