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Conversation of the World I – Leonardo Boff and Boaventura de Sousa Santos

The first Conversation of the World with Leonardo Boff and Boaventura de Sousa Santos was held on 9 October 2012 in Araras, Rio de Janeiro (Brazil).


Video in Portuguese. Transcription in English available below.




Boaventura de Sousa Santos – Leonardo, it is a great pleasure to be here in this paradise so that we can talk and have a conversation, a conversation about the world.

Leonardo Boff – A conversation about the world!

Boaventura de Sousa Santos – Yes, and so I’ll be asking you questions and you can ask me as well, and the two of us can talk about some of the things that concern us both. And I’d like to thank you very much for this wonderful hospitality which has brought us here so as we can work together.
Well, what is the idea? The idea is that, at the moment I am involved in a European project and the project is really a sign of the times in Europe because it’s the one that I was told I should apply for with the idea that I would like the most to study, and right now I’m only interested in doing things that I like. It’s a project based on the simple idea that Europe, after five centuries of colonialism and capitalism … for me Europe is the Europe that produced colonialism and capitalism, because there are other ‘Europes’, there are other ‘Europes’ within Europe, our immigrants, all the descendents of those who came from North Africa, from Africa, who are the other ‘Europes’, but I’m talking about the dominant Europe, the driving force behind colonialism and capitalism … after five centuries, Europe has nothing to teach the world. Moreover, as we can see from the current crisis, which is only a symptom, it cannot deal with such a crisis. After five centuries of trying to resolve the whole world’s crises it cannot resolve its own, and on top of that, colonialism has made Europe incapable of learning from rest of the world’s experiences.

Leonardo Boff – I would say that Europe has come to the end of its historical cycle, it has exhausted all the possibilities of moving forward with the project it had, which was impressive, in a certain way. On the one hand, there was the technical and scientific project, but also, in a more humanist way, the project for autonomy and rights, which are things we cannot lose. Nowadays I think it has no more inner potential and resources to get it out of this crisis it is caught up in. This is the death rattle, that is, it has reached the end of its cycle, though I think it has the capacity to revive if it can overcome its intrinsic arrogance and stop seeing itself as the cultural centre of the world, etc. Then the system can close down and open up again as an open system ready to engage in dialogue with the world. Here in Latin America we are, in a way, the Far West, we have roots in Europe, we can’t deny that, my grandparents were Italian emigrants, we brought that culture with us. On the other hand, we’ve settled in so well that I feel Brazilian, with a Brazilian appetite for digesting the cultures of people from 60 different countries. But there is a huge movement, and I’m glad that you’ve captured this, which shows that Latin America is experimenting with democracy in a way that Europe has not done so far and that we are creating this for ourselves, out of our despair. I always say that freedom is born out of the trials of life, that is, people are forced to look for ways out, and nowadays we have the courage to look for them. Before, this was always repressed and we had this castrating superego that stopped us from learning things for ourselves and trying things out for ourselves. But nowadays, we even take pride in trying, we are forging our own path, discovering a kind of development that won’t destroy nature, although at the moment a lot of that is still is going on, but still, we understand that it’s not the way forward and we have to forge our own path.

Boaventura de Sousa Santos – But Leonardo I think that… I agree that maybe nowadays in Latin America we really are seeing this. So now I want to ask about the conditions that make this possible, because normally the idea that we, that I have, and that we are seeing out there, is that since the start of the 2000s (although it began with Hugo Chávez in 1998) we’ve seen a succession of progressive governments in Latin America, all very different from each other obviously, but leading to interesting experiments that involve maintaining, or let’s say, not questioning, the neoliberal model of Eurocentric development, whilst managing to redistribute wealth better. At the moment Brazil, with this kind of development we call extractivism, since we’re going back to exporting nature, in Brazil with its enormous industrial dynamism, … its momentum is in minerals, bordering on agriculture or, in other words, in commodities not industry, let’s say… this is being done in a way that is almost neo-colonial. What is happening to the indigenous populations and people of African descent, how is this possible? I mean, what people have to ask themselves is whether this model is a locomotive that’ s going to flatten everything that gets in its way, including the indigenous people who are a hindrance to development. How are people going to solve this problem? One of the questions I am asked repeatedly, you know….

Leonardo Boff – I think, Boaventura, that you are right in this context, let’s say the Latin American geo-political context. A certain lack of the American presence here led to more autonomous states – and the great thing about Chávez was that he was one of the few in the world who was openly anti-imperialist, who confronted the Empire when most just smoothed things over and avoided criticism. Now there’s one thing Boaventura, that I consider very important and lies at the root of all these new political experiments, and that is the eruption of the ‘poor’ in history. Since the 1950s there has been this link between all the social movements of indigenous populations, people of African descent, women, coconut breakers and peasants, and the great thing about this movement is that it is a social movement with social power, built up from the grassroots with people organising in any way they could. It managed to channel itself into a political force, and this was very evident in Brazil; it created the PT, that is, a grassroots creation. Remember that the base communities in Brazil amount to 100 thousand, almost a million and a half bible circles and the people were saying “We need to create our own political weapon to carry our dreams forward. We won’t join the PT, we’ll create it”

Images and sounds of nature

Boaventura de Sousa Santos – In Europe, the young people are out on the streets, I mean, the streets as I usually say, is the only public space left in Europe that hasn’t been colonised by the financial markets. Given that institutions are closed to the people, do you think there’s a risk – and this is a big lesson for Europe and for the world – there may be a risk that these forms of participation that were so rich in the previous decade may also be experiencing a kind of regression; do we need to be vigilant about this?

Leonardo Boff – I think that any reversal will be difficult, because we have created this collective awareness that the great subject is us, that we were tired of voting for our oppressors and decided to vote for ourselves, that is, we voted for Lula, we voted for the PT. This is our triumph and we are never going to hand over our leaders and our social movement to the bourgeoisie. So there is this awareness of an inclusive autonomy in the face of the state, an almost everyday citizenship, I would say, which recreates itself through participation, because without participation there is no citizenship. Therefore, at least in the parts of Brazil and Central America that I know, its strength is this network of thousands of different social movements that communicate with each other and meet and share experiences. This creates an awareness that one weak element combined with another is not double the weakness, but a strength. And the great thing about this movement, I think, is that it is very active in society and at the same time it has its own corps of thinkers to accompany it, who are from the people.

Boaventura de Sousa Santos – Organic intellectuals….!

Leonardo Boff – ….who are not us. I come in by the back door. I was educated at Faraó school, I wasn’t educated in the school of oppression but I am aligned with them. I come in by the back door, I listen as much as I can and I am there, I lend my name. When the police came, I wore my Franciscan habit to stop them making arrests. They couldn’t do it because it would have been be a problem to arrest a priest, let alone a Franciscan, you can’t do that.

Boaventura de Sousa Santos – (laughing) I agree with that interpretation. The only problem I see in it, which essentially must be your problem too, is that we have managed … really I see this a lot as well, what I usually say is that I’m not a vanguard intellectual, I’m a rear-guard. I go along, I listen, I facilitate, I am a facilitator, quite often a spokesperson, like you often are, so we are often channels for people who have no voice, whom we go around helping in some way. Now the institutional spirit that has been created in the popular movement, which I think is extraordinary, also created a problem of scale, that is, we democratise politics a lot on a local level.

Leonardo Boff – Yes, and I think this is one of the constraints on this social force when it transforms itself into a political force, the fact that it can’t manage to make its mark on the system, or very rarely though…. Now I think that as these movements manage to get representatives in, who won’t become corrupt and who maintain on-going organic relations with the grassroots … I’ve seen many meetings where ministers have invited popular leaders to discuss things and they are the ones who make speeches – the finest speeches, because they don’t talk about words, they talk about things….

Boaventura de Sousa Santos – ….exactly !

Leonardo Boff – ….they talk about things…..

Boaventura de Sousa Santos– ….experiences !

Leonardo de Boff- I remember a recent meeting with the Minister for Human Rights from Rio de Janeiro and it was great when the leaders of the popular movements began to talk about what the pacification in Rio de Janeiro meant and about the contradictions, like soldiers taking advantage of the situation to rape young girls, and they were violently opposed to this, saying that it didn’t solve the basic problem. Well, the Minister was amazed and she listened to these things. This is happening more and more in this country.

Boaventura de Sousa Santos – We have managed … some victories have been significant in terms of social redistribution and not just here in Brazil but in other countries in Latin America as well. We’ve made a lot of gains in the politics of diversity, in recognition for diversity, it is the country of affirmative action, quotas, the National Education Board finally exposing the racial stereotypes in Caçadas do Pedrinho by Monteiro Lobato, and we have a special system for indigenous education, quilombola education. It gives me the impression that the logic of power can accommodate any concept provided it doesn’t concern profit, or accumulation. When it’s a matter of things that are right in front of their eyes, the huge mining rights in Belo Monte, the whole Xingu region, when the indigenous people get in the way of agro-business, then there is violence in the countryside. It’s extraordinary, why is it that this democracy … why can’t people beat this idea, when it is extrajudicial, when rural violence does not come under the rule of law? 43 indigenous leaders have been murdered since 2012 according to the data from Cimi – why are there these contradictions, with this bright side on the one hand and this disturbing side on the other as well ?

Leonardo Boff – …this dark side ?

Boaventura de Sousa Santos – Very dark, with all this unregulated, extremely violent accumulation that basically makes deals of one kind or another with the federal government, essentially on the basis that the people will guarantee development and collection, more income for the state, more family allowance, and sorry to say this, but we have to sacrifice the Indians.

Leonardo de Boff- I think, Boaventura, that it comes from a deep lack of understanding of society. I think that even the higher levels, all the way up to the Government, don’t understand what ethnic indigenous groups are. They reduce them to numbers and don’t understand the wealth of cultural diversity to be found in languages, in traditions, in myths, in people who can show us another way of being human. We can be human like the Tupis, Guaranis, or Yanomamis, not the white Europeans or the mixed race populations here. But this hasn’t been taken on board, and now that we are recognising it, we have a lot to learn from them, it is imperative to go back to them because they can teach us how to take care of nature. They never enter a forest without greeting the plants, apologising to the flowers, communing with the birds, and asking animals’ permission to enter. This reverence, not felling a tree without the ritual of saying “we are cutting this down because we need to make a door or an oar but we will plant 4 or 5 more”; we have totally lost this reverence. I recently read an Indian story that says that when the white man comes with an axe to cut down the big trees, before it falls, the tree looks around and sheds a tear saying: the handle of this axe is made from my body, it is made of wood, and this wood is felling the trees.

Boaventura de Sousa Santos – But it’s this idea … even now we’re seeing the Guarani Kaiowá from Mato Grosso do Sul driven from their land by agro-business and threatening mass suicide, as we call it and as they do too, and in fact when they ask for a tractor, it is the tractor that will bury them because they don’t want to leave their land, dead or alive. Now, is this suicide – we’ll get into theology more in a bit – is it suicide, or is it sacrifice?

Leonardo de Boff- I think, Boaventura, that it is a kind of cry of rage, a protest against this culture that is killing them, and then they have this origin-myth which I think, in the case of the Guarani Kaiowá, is worth talking about in this interview, this dialogue, because the arrival of the white men who destroyed the whole forest, took away their land and set up big agro-businesses, killing the essential meaning of life for them, And what is this essential meaning? That all the indigenous Guarani Kaiowá and others of various ethnic origins are going to go to heaven, but only on the day when, after various reincarnations, they die. They can be reincarnated as a jaguar, as any animal, even an ant that can climb to the top of a tree and fly to heaven but now they say: they’ve taken away our trees and taken away our land so we will never get to heaven and we are lost. So, life has no meaning and they kill themselves in protest and the government…the government doesn’t hesitate to send out the psycho-analysts and the Jungians and Freudians to observe their level of depression, and they have to introduce agrarian reforms, draw up boundaries, replant, reforest, resolve their problem.

Boaventura de Sousa Santos – So Leonardo, here we are talking about the chances of the world learning something about itself, because very often the problem isn’t even the south learning from the north or the north learning from the south, it is really the unequal power structures in the world that divide it and make many experiences of the world invisible, marginalised, unrecognised, unvalued. There’s one thing that that I think … that I would very much like to discuss with you concerning this question of the lessons that the global south – which was ultimately the victim of exclusion caused by colonialism and capitalism – that this global anti-imperial south can teach, in the sense of making a contribution to the world and therefore ideally to the notion that one day there won’t be any north or south, or east or west, there will just be, let’s say, a different and equal diversity. But until that happens, one of the questions I would like to discuss with you is whether it is possible for liberation theology to be a lesson, not only for the European church but also for Europe as a whole, and this question is complicated for me by the following: liberation theology – correct me if I am wrong – harbours an original sin which is colonialism. Christianity arrived in this continent as a colonial imposition. Now, original sins cannot be redeemed, according to Catholic theology, so how can liberation theology redeem itself and transform itself into an anti-colonial power and, more than this, become a new mirror for Europe itself, given that it began as an arrogant mirror, an imperialist mirror, basically the true religion when the others were not – how can it reverse this without ceasing to be what it is?

Leonardo Boff – You have touched upom a key point and this is what the Vatican will not tolerate, for two reasons. First because on the fringes of the Christian world, the Christian empire, a vigorous form of thinking has emerged that does not simply echo the voice at the centre. It is a way of thinking that that was born out of listening to the cry of the oppressed, and liberation theory cannot be understood without this. It listened first to the cry of the oppressed working class, then the people of African descent, the indigenous populations, women, the thousand forms of oppression that exist, and oppression calls for liberation. I had already understood in the 80s the logic that exploits people, exploits classes, exploits the country, also exploits nature in the same way. Therefore nature, planet Earth, is the great exploited poor and if the hallmark of liberation theory is a preferential option for the poor, for the poor and for life and freedom, then this has to include the greater poor which is planet Earth and liberation theology has to become an eco-liberation theology.

Boaventura de Sousa Santos – With this change in your approach to theology, which obviously is not shared by all liberation theologians since essentially there is not one liberation theology but many, both inside and outside Christianity, and this move to opting for the poor and the community on earth, the cry of the poor is now heard but what about the cry of the river? Do we hear the cry of the river?

Leonardo Boff – I think that we listen to the cry of peoples who are the forests and the rivers. And I think that the contribution of indigenous liberation theology, which is very strong in Central America, in Mexico, is not a hegemonic discourse and I feel sorry because I think that religions and churches have a great deal to offer at this time of transition, because people know that in these major paradigmatic shifts, those times in which dreams and utopias are made, religions give meanings to life that help us to make the transition. Sadly Christianity is not projecting utopias or dreams, it is turning into a fortress to defend itself against the modern world.

Boaventura de Sousa Santos – But what is interesting here is to see that in the end all the energy that came out of liberation theology is not only condemned by the secular authoritarian powers, but also by the Vatican itself.

Leonardo Boff – …the Vatican itself !

Boaventura de Sousa Santos – And you are obviously one of the victims of this inquisitorial power that tries to strangle at birth the possibility of any emancipatory social change based on the teachings of Christ and religion from the perspective of the poor, which was fundamentally the message of Christ exactly as interpreted by liberation theology. In other words, the Church as an institution is fighting its own children. My question is: does liberation theology, taken to its logical conclusion, imply the destruction of the Institutional Church?

Leonardo Boff – Felisberto and I invented a term which has since entered into theological discourse, a technical term, ecclesiogenesis, the birth of a new church based on the people, the oppressed people. This is exactly what Rome fears most, the emergence of an anti-power no longer organised in the pyramid style of the church as a scared power, but the church as a community network in which everyone is involved and is organised and works. And Rome … when I was actually discussing this with Cardinal Ratzinger he said he believed in grass-roots communities but they did not have the right conditions, they lacked two conditions – preserving the unity of the church, since they had an almost military concept of unity and uniformity, and absorbing its traditions. He said they had emerged from black or Indian communities and didn’t recognise the priests from the church, the Greek and Latin priests, since we have our own priests there, our own missionaries and wise men. So what Rome actually is, Boaventura, is a power struggle, involving two powers, one that comes from life, with the logic of life, and is creative, non-hierarchical and inter-related, and another, based on the power pyramid which is organised and institutional and does not thrive on creativity but the principle of order. So it’s the principle of life, order versus life, which is in dispute.

Boaventura de Sousa Santos – But what I see nowadays is the actual emergence of religion. It is unthinkable without this very unequal world in which social inequality is getting worse. It is a revolt against colonial and capitalist domination which began very early on with the crusades, which was essentially the first war of aggression, let’s say, there’s no doubt about that, carried out by the feudal lords obeying the Pope, in the same way that nowadays the allied forces obey the USA. In other words, social inequality is behind this call for religion. Religion is not the opium of the people – ok, we won’t go there – but very often it functions as if it is.

Leonardo Boff – Everything that is sound and healthy can become sick and I think that nowadays a good number of religions are sick, sick and sickly, from fundamentalism, exclusivism and self-pride and they don’t work together to accept religious diversity. All the world is in favour of biodiversity and more birds, more fish, more trees, but when it comes to religion and Cardinal Ratzinger, no – there is only one truth and all the others are false. And I think: don’t they all have their own legitimacy? And this is my theory, my interpretation Boaventura, because we all drink from the same source, which is anonymous, which is experience, not something based on reason but, I think, the experience of feeling in the world, of affective reason, sensitive reason, spirituality, that is channelled into many different paths which are religions -some are old and rusty, some bigger, some smaller but they all drink from this source.

Boaventura de Sousa Santos – For people to change, I don’t know whether first, we don’t need to realise that we don’t have access to the whole, and so we don’t have access to God or even know whether he exists or not. Maybe we should bet on his existence as Pascal did, as we were saying, maybe live with this uncertainty, but I think that you, Leonardo, are sure that God exists. I’m not, although I think it would be good to be, or perhaps not, because I think if God existed I would have to make him answer for so much that although I’m not a violent man and I wouldn’t kill him, I would certainly declare out and out war on his hypocrisy or his abandonment – why did he do this, if this has no meaning why are we looking for one? Maybe this lack of meaning actually is God, God is the meaning of everything, or the meaninglessness of everything and, frankly, what is the difference between the two hypotheses?

Leonardo Boff – I think that what Chico Buarque said, “why did he make things only to unmake them” … I think that no theology or any other eastern or western thinking, accounts for the evilness in the world. Buddhism tried, with the negation of desire, but that’s like reading a recipe to shove-off hunger. Reading recipes isn’t enough, you can drool all you want but it won’t kill the hunger, only eating does that. And we haven’t found any other sustenance that can combine with the idea of God and the evilness in the world. All the great thinkers have tried to justify defending God against the evilness of the world, but I think that Freud was right when he said “If I get there and God exists, I’ll have more questions to ask him than he will of me and it will last for eternity”. I think that sincere theology has to recognise this, that essentially we live – and I and the Franciscans, the medieval Franciscan theologians developed this a little – we live with a yearning for God. That is, we can’t deny that there is a presence that radiates, that not everything is absurd, that there is love, there is forgiveness, that this exists. On the other hand, there is a terrible emptiness that tears us apart, which is criminality and evilness. I try to combine this Boaventura, into a world view which says that we were born out of the great chaos that was the Big Bang, that huge initial explosion, and that evolution is a way of bringing order to chaos, but chaos always follows in its wake. In human terms, man as homo sapiens and homo demens, all this comes from the transfusion of a nameless energy, a boundless ocean for which we have no name, from which everything emerges. Some things emerge and swim back, some acquire substance by abusing the God particle; essentially this is what stabilises out of the emergence of energy, because we have discovered that the universe is filled with a kind of veil, and where energy impulses, it crystallises and turns into particles. Science shows this to us and religion says that whoever sets this in motion is ineffable, a mystery, unnameable, and that is what religions are saying when they talk about God.

BSS – I have a view … actually for a long time I’ve been dealing with the concept of alternative development, sustainable development, integral development, all those adjectives that we have been adding to the concept of development to make it more appealing, and in the end, more acceptable. The truth is that the concept of development is never free from the concept of growth, and basically, it is never free from the concept that nature is a natural resource that is at our disposal unconditionally and is essentially inexhaustible. Therefore, the indigenous movements and the social struggles of the last 20 years have introduced another paradigm that is not alternative development, but an alternative to development.

Leonardo Boff – ….exactly…. perfect !

Boaventura de Sousa Santos – So now it’s not prosperity, but living well, which does not mean living better or accumulating assets. It’s a way of living in which we eradicate the concept of poverty, for instance. Amongst the indigenous populations, it’s interesting that the Quéchua languages, the Amerindian languages, don’t include the concept of poverty, because poverty is always collective, and it is the result of some catastrophe, a flood or a drought; there is no individual poverty. But we haven’t lost this, on the contrary, we’ve extended it and we justify the destruction of nature, the destruction of indigenous peoples and their mass suicides as part of creating well-being for the great majority and the majority want their family allowance, their houses, their lives, and sorry, but the Indians are just a nuisance, let’s get rid of them … It may be that my problem has to do with balance, because if we … a certain balance that a transition brings, but towards post-extractivism, that is towards an economy that doesn’t depend so much on extracting assets and natural resources that in the end don’t change anything – most of the profits go abroad and it leaves the country poorer and people more in need, in the future once the boom is over, don’t you think?

Leonardo Boff – I think you’re absolutely right. Nowadays there is one thing that is, to some extent, new to the collective consciousness and to the capitalists themselves, and that is that we have reached the limits of the Earth, we are aware that the Earth is small and finite, and a small finite Earth cannot support plans for infinite development. So, for me, the great crisis that is about to set in is the inability of the system to self-reproduce destroyed nature – we occupy 83% of the entire planet and the 17% we don’t occupy consists of Everest, the great mountains and central tropical forests – and so this is a new perception. In the great crisis of 29/30 for example, the assumption was that the earth was abundant and we could take whatever resources we wanted, and nowadays this is a false assumption. The solution has to take the ecological situation into account, because the Earth cannot take any more, it has no more resources, even renewable ones, and we have reached the point where the physical and chemical basis of the Earth has changed and this is evident in Global Warming. If this is not taken into consideration, the system will, in effect, lead to our destruction.
Boaventura de Sousa Santos – …..right…..!

Leonardo Boff – And it may mean the end of the species !….

Boaventura de Sousa Santos – I wonder whether democracy can survive at a time of such infinite, totally unregulated accumulation of financial capital and such a repugnant level of social inequality to which our rulers remain completely insensitive. I mean, before we were much more aware of seeing super-rich individuals with all that wealth, so I don’t like the concept of prosperity much, with all its ostentatiousness and luxury etc. Nowadays it has become a myth, glamour, charm maybe, we would all like to have that lifestyle, the lifestyle of those who go to Miami, those who think above all else, in terms of this super-consumerism. Don’t you think that some civil disobedience might be necessary?

Leonardo Boff – We are finding ourselves in exceptional situations in which constitutions, the established powers, are completely incapable of managing – I don’t know if this is the right word – managing a crisis of planetary proportions. For me the book ["A Brief History of the Future"] by Jacques Attali, who was Mitterrand’s chief advisor, was very enlightening. It describes three scenarios which I think are very interesting: the super-empire in decay, followed by supra-violence, in this case a kind of Balkanisation of the world – and we are to some extent witnessing regional wars for economic reasons and for reasons of political freedom, in North Africa for example – which escalates to the point where weapons of mass destruction are used, and chemical weapons and eventually small atomic bombs, little packages that can destroy an entire Petrópolis, not totally destructive but enough to make the region uninhabitable for around 30 years due to radiation. He says that at the point when humanity realises that it could self-destruct as a result of this escalation, it will create the third scenario of super-democracy, leading to planetary democracy involving collective management that is not centralised but shared across the planet and its resources. With this, we should be able to provide the minimum requirements for everyone, not just people but the entire living community – plants, animals, other creatures and living organisms – and this would represent the great transition to humanity, although he does end by saying, “As an agnostic and atheist, I need to pray that this will happen, because there is no assurance that it will.”

Boaventura de Sousa Santos – The problem is that for many people, change lies in darkness, that is we have moved on from the time when socialism was clearly the great horizon for change and utopia. In the time of Rosa Luxemburg, people began to establish a division between socialism and barbarity, and Rosa Luxemburg realised that in the end, world change could equally take a catastrophic turn, which would signify barbarity, or it could take the form of socialism, but it would take a lot of courage to ensure that it wasn’t barbarity. What is more worrying for me nowadays is that the whole scenario for socialism has disappeared, at least temporarily. Although we talk about the socialism of the 21st Century, it seems much more like the socialism of the 20th century. It has no great credibility, and barbarity in my opinion, is advancing in a way that suggests there is no alternative, so it’s capitalism and more capitalism and more exploitation.

Boaventura de Sousa Santos – In sociology there has always been some resistance to the concept of the people and why? – well because, without a transcendental dimension, the people of God or whatever, the people are both the oppressors and the oppressed. Moreover, the idea of the people was very closely linked to ideas of populism, charismatic leaders and a basic denial of party-politics and democracy. However, it is absolutely fundamental to theology, and above all liberation theology, but why? Who are the people, for you? Are they all Brazilians, or not?

Leonardo Boff – It is a subject that liberation theologians, like sociologists and political experts, have worked on and tried to clarify to create an instrument of knowledge, firstly because Latin American theology, after Vatican II, proposes the people of God as the true definition of the church, that is to say all the people, but this has been a very ideological concept since Nazi times, with the Volksrepublik, Volkskirche etc. So those connotations had to be removed. And we arrived at the conclusion that the people, in fact does not exist; the people is a creation, based on the poor and marginalised, who organise and form their own network of connections, through which they work on a project for life, a vision of the world, of society etc. and to the extent that they establish these networks, a people as a sociological category, is born. In Brazil, the Brazilian people is still emerging, it doesn’t exist yet.

Boaventura de Sousa Santos – But if the people is something more than parties, non-government organisations and social movements, we are back with Spinoza’s concept of the multitude which was taken up again by Antonio Negri, and essentially the idea that it will be these dispossessed masses, let’s say who can in some way bring about the revolution, and who are not the workers nowadays; they are everyone, the unemployed, the oppressed. I think that, yes, there are multiple mechanisms that create oppression and which are much more visible worldwide nowadays, whereas before it was mainly the oppression that we call exploitation, the capital derived from labour, that could be mostly seen. Nowadays there are other forms that have become very visible but they all call for forms of organisation. So do we need the concept of the people as well as the concept of social movements, non-government organisations, popular parties, why this concept of the people? It is a concept that seems inert, it states categorically that no one, as one of dasein, as a being is the people, it is a being that is created, a selbstsein, something that is created out of itself with a certain authenticity. However, this selbstsein can lead to the notion of Volksgeist and of VolksgeschickteVolksSkits or VolksGuishe etc. that might in some way become distorted or twisted into some form of authoritarianism. I am a little bit afraid of the concept of the people – I’m not afraid of the people but I am afraid of the concept.

Leonardo Boff – Well, if you keep going back to the source from which it originated, which is the community, which is fully functioning and resolves its conflicts internally, you find ways of linking with others who are not the people, because they are not organised. I think that the great challenge we pose, as a church of the people, concerns those who are not the people, who are at the bottom, who are not connected. The tendency in organised society and citizenship is to select upwards and forget what lies below, whereas the challenge for Christians is not to strive for transcendence but transdescendence, to go further down and rescue those who…

Boaventura de Sousa Santos – …but the ruling class is organised, so it is the people.

Leonardo Boff – It is, but it has no community, it…

Boaventura de Sousa Santos – …it has no community?

Leonardo Boff – I don’t think so.

Boaventura de Sousa Santos – No?

Leonardo Boff – Community, exploitation…

Boaventura de Sousa Santos – Those golf clubs, those private clubs they have in there….

Leonardo Boff – I think that’s the mafia.

Boaventura de Sousa Santos – Those condominiums.

Leonardo Boff – Yes, but that’s not a community in the catagenetic sense, the sociological tradition, that feeling of belonging, shared interests, projects

Boaventura de Sousa Santos – It has a memory, a history.

Leonardo Boff – ….a memory, a history, but no congregation based on any objective, however perverse.

Boaventura de Sousa Santos – What is our position as intellectuals at the moment? It’s militant knowledge, it’s always meant critical thinking, always meant militant knowledge, but for a long time I’ve been very troubled by this, because it’s also vanguard knowledge, and really my aspiration is to be an educated simpleton, let’s say an enlightened simpleton, and I think that this is what we can offer. I bring the concept of the ecology of knowledges and intercultural translation because this reveals the limits of the thinking and each of the paradigms within which we work and the need to integrate different knowledges. A little while ago, I was talking about the great progress involved in travelling to the moon and I think that, yes if people want to go to the moon they need science, but if you want to preserve biodiversity you need indigenous knowledge, peasant knowledge, different knowledges for different purposes and so we have to be more very sure about this objective. What is our role? We are not really … it’s not Gramsci’s organic intellectual, what I call the rear-guard intellectual … how do you see yourself in these circumstances, as an intellectual and as the activist that you essentially also are?

Leonardo Boff – I see two aspects to this, Boaventura. I think that maybe you … I wouldn’t put it that way but it’s the way you believe you act … I think that the role of the intellectual, and I do see myself bit like that in the work I do, is to be someone who assumes an ethical responsibility. Now, ethics is very important, the ethics of values, the ethics of negation, of what is being destroyed in terms of life, relations between individuals, communities and peoples; someone who puts themself at the service of life, as an ethical value (not in the biological sense) and in the classical Greek sense. When I talk about ethos, they think of the home, not a house but the home as the part of nature that we reserve to live in meaningfully and where we can relate to others, that is, home in the existential sense. I think that an intellectual has to be a seminal intellectual, someone in my understanding, who can awaken feelings that are essentially human in their listeners, not someone who announces they will awaken people because that isn’t the same thing. He has to arouse them in a way that connects to the discourse of interrelatedness, essentially to create hope against all hopes and this has to increase the desire to want to live and to feel it is worth living and going forward, even though he knows that reality is tough and blocks out a lot of the good things, when he says “the beginning lies in the end, not the beginning “.

Boaventura de Sousa Santos – I must take this opportunity to say that you often visit Europe and talk to the Europeans who invite you there, but there are many ‘Europes’, increasingly so nowadays, and many Europeans who feel they are being excluded from this ‘Europeanness’. 50% of young people are unemployed in Spain, 40% in Portugal, 50% in Greece, people with no prospect of employment or a dignified life, with precarious jobs etc. so if you could talk to them, what message would you like to give them – those in Europe nowadays who are in power and those in revolt on the streets – because I know that one of your great strengths is knowing how to talk to governments and show your conscience and give hope to those who are oppressed by them? What message do you have for Europe, which is going through this crisis at the moment and needs to learn from other experiences of the world – what do you think Europe is not learning and should learn from your experiences in this continent and in the world, and what do you think would be most important for people to hear from you, which they won’t like or applaud since you tell certain truths that they may not like to hear?

Leonardo Boff – I think that this … sometimes when things are very challenging people stop talking and meditate, but it is always possible to say something. I think that young people especially should never give up their dreams. They have to go on dreaming that the source, their energy to protest, to not accept, to refuse a certain kind of society and not want to join it, this is only possible through a generous-spirited dream that another kind of coexistence is possible, another type of social organisation other than the one that is failing and creating an ocean of suffering for families, suicides and unemployment – we talk about unemployment but, underneath that, the despair of families. I’ll end with the testimony of a German journalist who visited me. He had reported from the major conflict zones in the world and he wanted to see a popular festival, so I took him to a community in Rio de Janeiro on a Friday when there was a local festival with a barbeque and beers and everyone getting together. So this German appeared and everyone there offered him a drink and he sat down and started to cry and he said: I’m begging God that on the day I die, I die like this, with these people all enjoying each others’ company, a German who knows three words of Portuguese, speaks it so well, and he’s asked to dance the samba, invited to join in – this is fraternity, this is humanity and I’d like the world to be like this, and when I die I want to die in the middle of this, because this is the beginning of the world.

Boaventura de Sousa Santos – Wonderful, I think that’s it exactly. Well, we’ve finished and it has been a marvellous conversation. I think that now you can take those plans wherever you want….