Reflections on the 'Decolonial Summer School: democracy, slavery, and the decolonial option'

This article was written by Mine Nur Kucuk, PhD student, Department of International Relations, Bilkent University, Ankara, Turkey
This article was published on

The CPD Working Group sponsored a PhD student (Mine Nur Kucuk) to attend the Decolonial Summer School in Middelburg, the Netherlands in 2014. Below are Mine’s reflections on the experience.

The fourth annual Decolonial Summer School organized by Utrecht University took place in Middelburg, the Netherlands from June 16th to July 1st 2014. The school brought together academics and artists from diverse geographies and a variety of academic disciplines. Titled “Democracy, Slavery, and the Decolonial Option”, the summer school aimed to discuss the ongoing effects of slavery and coloniality in contemporary world, problematizing the monopoly of the western-centric liberal definitions of democracy and its representation as the only viable option for organising societies, offering an alternative understanding, namely the “Decolonial option(s)”, both for making sense of, and for being in the world.

Although not specifically organized for the discipline of International Relations (IR), the summer school course had a number of connections with ongoing debates in IR field. In the remainder of my reflection, I will try to examine these interconnections with the aim of underscoring the contributions this summer school offers, not only to my personal academic knowledge, but also to recent debates in IR literature.

Problematising Western Modernity

Recently, IR literature has witnessed debates on the notion of “modernity” from a variety of angles (see for example, HobsonGrovogui and Shilliam). Besides challenging the representation of the ideas and institutions of modernity as exclusively Western achievements, IR scholars also underscore the detrimental effects of Western modernity on non-Western contexts in a variety of forms.

The problematisation of “Western modernity” and revealing the hidden dimensions within it constituted one of the main themes throughout the summer school. Participant scholars and artists challenged the “rhetoric of salvation” upon which Western modernity has been built by showing how this rhetoric has been utilized as a justification of violence. This violence has manifested itself not only in physical terms (as in the case of enslavement of people) but also in terms of colonizing time and space in a way that erases the existence of non-Western “others”. Within the confines of Western modernity, this violence silences the diverse ways of understanding and being in the world.

Alongside academic discussions on these “darker sides of western modernity”, the performances of the artists, namely Jeannette EhlersPatricia Kaersenhout, and Fabián Barba, helped participants to sense and to reflect on individual “wounds” triggered by these processes and opening up spaces for discussions and possibilities for “healings”.

Coloniality of “the international”

The coloniality of “the international” is another theme subjected to debates within IR literature. Different but interrelated dimensions constituting the coloniality of “the international” have been examined by a variety of IR scholars. These different but interrelated dimensions, namely economy, authority, gender and sexuality, knowledge and subjectivity, of coloniality were approached through the prism of the notion of “the colonial matrix of power” throughout the summer school.

Walter MignoloRolando VázquezJean CasimirMaria LugonesOvidiu Tichindeleanu, and Alanna Lockward, analyzed the effects of “the colonial matrix of power” in the issue areas that they have been studying.

In a nutshell, the different dimensions of “the colonial matrix of power” were approached as follows. In terms of economy, the historical process through which the dehumanization of slaves was rationalized for the sake of profit- making and the continuing logic of this process in the form of today’s inequalities and modern forms of slavery under the neo-liberal world order were analysed.

Regarding the dimension of authority, the representation of the Western democracy as the only viable option to organize societies was critiqued by showing how the concept of democracy legitimises the status quo thus making coloniality invisible.

The alternative understandings, occurred in forms of social movements, manifestations, uprisings throughout the world, against this Western-centric definition of democracy, constituted one of the most significant parts of the discussions throughout the summer school.

In the gender and sexuality domain, the construction of sexual difference and gender by the colonial forces was introduced. The dominant gender system which leads to hetero-normativity was problematised, and the importance of rejecting not only this gender system but also the construction of sexual difference was underscored by particularly engaging with various counter-hegemonic indigenous movements challenging such dominant understandings.

In terms of knowledge and subjectivity, the Western academy’s epistemological and methodological impositions were problematised and the different ways of acquiring knowledge, relating one’s subject matter, and the possibilities of distinct knowledges in distinct contexts were discussed.


The possibilities of approaching IR in different ways have led to another significant debate in the discipline. A number of IR scholars have been engaging with non-Western worldviews and practices in order to point out to such myriad possibilities in terms of studying, understanding, and being in the world in a way that is different from the ones that are offered by the Western canons of the discipline (see for example, Chan et alLing).

Discussing such possibilities was one of the most crucial parts of the summer school. Following the argument that since 2000s the West can no longer is capable enough to control “the colonial matrix of power”, as it is argued by Walter Mignolo, the emergence of alternative approaches were examined.

Among those options of “Rewesternisation” (The West’s attempt to rebuild the lost confidence on the West), “Reorientation of the left” (the emergence of a “global left” as exemplified by the “World Social Forum”), “Dewesternisation” (the claiming of the colonial matrix of power by non-Western actors hence challenging centuries-old Western hegemony), the participants in particular focused on the “Decolonial Option(s)”.

The “Decolonial Option(s)”, as it was also suggested by the participants, exceeds being only an academic option by offering ways to be and to live in the world in certain new ways. In this sense, the ways in which the “Decolonial Option(s)” opens a space for taking responsibilities of our own actions (whether academically or not), recognizing our privileges (be they in race, gender, or in class-based terms), and delinking from these privileges were discussed.

In conclusion, academically, Decolonial Summer School provided a great opportunity to engage with distinct epistemological, ontological and methodological horizons that have recently emerged in IR discussions. In terms of more personal impression, I can attest that by underscoring the systems of oppression and pointing out the options available for challenging them, the Decolonial Summer School reminded me that there is still hope, dignity, and healing. I highly recommend it to students of IR who want to learn more about non-Western and post-Western approaches and also to those who search for different ways of being in the world.