Friday, August 28, 2015

‘Buen vivir’ and the dilemmas of the left governments in Latin America - I

Excerpt from a prize-winning book by Atilio A. Boron


Argentine Marxist scholar Atilio Boron’s book, “Latin America in the Geopolitics of Imperialism” — América Latina en la geopolítica del imperialismo — was awarded Venezuela’s coveted Libertador Prize in Critical Thinking for 2012.

Published in several editions throughout Latin America, the book has attracted much attention, and some debate, for its detailed analysis of Latin America’s strategic importance to the United States and the challenge this poses to the continent’s left governments and progressive social movements.

Of particular interest to ecosocialists are two chapters — ch. 6, on “Common goods in Latin America: The debate between ‘pachamamismo’ and ‘extractivismo’,” and ch. 7, on “Buen vivir (sumak kawsay) and the dilemmas of the left governments in Latin America.”

The following is my translation of most of chapter 7. Because of its length, I have divided it into three separate parts. This is Part I. The others are:

II – Two crucial questions

III – A new development model?

They are all available at

Richard Fidler

* * *

Boron y Maduro - Premio Libertador

Atilio Boron with Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro

The critique of development

In recent years Latin America has made a crucial philosophical and ethical-political contribution, instituting in two new constitutions of the Andean world, Bolivia and Ecuador, a new doctrinal concept going beyond the classic rights and guarantees established in the framework of liberal constitutionalism. This is the concept of sumak kawsay, conventionally translated as “buen vivir” or “vivir bien.” One of its fundamental aspects is the proposition of a relationship between society, individual and environment that is completely distinct from — it could even be said antagonistic to — the one manifested with the advent of modernity. As it is now formulated in the constitutions of Ecuador and Bolivia, the environment is presented as Mother Earth and, under the new normative framework, as a new and hitherto unrecognized legal subject.[1]

Sumak kawsay radically challenges the concepts congealed in the old Latin American constitutions (and in a dense normative apparatus constructed throughout the history of the Latin American national states), all of them tributaries of the liberal tradition. It proposes, instead, a cosmovision that is rooted in the cultures of the oppressed ethnic groups of the continent, and especially of its original peoples, an idea that has emerged forcefully in the last quarter-century. That is why Boaventura de Sousa Santos is right when he says that what has emerged in Latin American politics — with greater force in countries like Ecuador or Bolivia, with less in the others — is more than a debate over development, growth or the environment; it is a profound controversy over the course of civilization itself.[2]

This radical innovation was not a sudden bolt of lightning on a calm day but the product of old struggles, eloquently recognized in the preambles to the new constitutions of Bolivia and Ecuador, that have begun to bear fruit in the new regional sociopolitical context inaugurated by the triumph of the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela and the weakening of U.S. power in the region, and which has significantly moved the South American political pendulum to the left. If these innovations were able to crystallize in the new social and political context in our regions, it was, on the one hand, because of the vigour and richness of old traditions in the Andean world that have survived five centuries of supposedly civilizing barbarism, and on the other hand, because of the gradual ecological, social and cultural holocaust unleashed by capitalism in its neoliberal stage, the most aggressive and predatory in its entire history, which has shaken the consciousness of our epoch and put a serious question mark around the cosmovision that revolves around the conceptual duo of progress and development.

As tends to occur in all popular traditions, there is no single meaning given to sumak kawsay. All the more when it refers to a broad universe of more or less institutionalized values, ideas and practices that have been transmitted from generation to generation, in most cases through oral tradition. However, bringing this proposal into the present debate essentially involves a dual redefinition: of the relationship of men and women with nature and of the relationship of men and women among themselves. Of course, sumak kawsay is not limited to that. A project developed by some Bolivian popular organizations involved in “buen vivir” includes a very full catalogue of questions relative to the identity of the original peoples and ethnic groups as well as other issues relating to water, environmental warming, the food crisis, the energy paradigm, agrofuels, industrialization, development, consumerism and popular sovereignty.[3]

Likewise, Ecuador’s “National Plan for Buen Vivir” relates it to the full range of proposals included in the content of sumak kawsay. Among the constituent principles of this cosmovision are such topics as unity in diversity, the desire to live as a society, equality, integration and social cohesion; universal rights and the strengthening of human capacities, an harmonious relationship with nature; cohabitation in solidarity, fraternity and cooperation; work and leisure alike viewed as liberating, and the reconstruction of the public sector; the construction of a democracy that is representative, participative and deliberative; and a democratic, pluralist and secular state.[4]

The complexity, breadth and iconoclastic nature of sumak kawsay was a source of puzzlement and confusion to many of the members of Ecuador’s constituent assembly who had gathered in Montecristi to develop the new constitution. According to one of its protagonists,

“the buen vivir proposal… was put to various interpretations in the Constituent Assembly and in society itself. In one debate, which in reality had just begun, the predominant tone was one of lack of understanding and even fear in certain sectors. Some assembly members, in the habit of undebatable truths, and disturbingly echoed by our mediocre press, which hoped for the failure of the constitutional process, clamoured for definitive and precise formulations. Others, who naively understood buen vivir as an indifferent and even passive dolce vita, found it unacceptable. There were even some, fearful of losing their privileges, who were sure that buen vivir would take us back to the stone age. And there were some who voted in favour of this founding principle of the Montecristi Constitution who apparently had no clear understanding of the importance of this decision… And still others, opposed from the standpoint of an autistic left, who clung to traditional (and in reality empty) concepts of change, bereft of importance since they had not been implemented in the practice of the social struggles.”[5]

For the purposes of this discussion, which of course is much more confined, we will center the analysis on the implications of sumak kawsay for the problematic of development and the strategies of the social movements in the reaffirmation of “buen vivir” as a principle for the refoundation of social life. That invites us not only to examine the concepts of development but also to think about its social agents (classes, social movements, political forces, governments) and, especially, about the resulting tensions between the new doctrinal proposition, the subjects that embody those tensions, and the hard day-to-day realities that must be confronted by any governmental administration. The matter acquires special relevance given that the governments of Rafael Correa in Ecuador and Evo Morales in Bolivia are targets of implacable criticism not only from the national right wing and imperialism, but also from left-wing sectors that, with differing emphasis, accuse them of having betrayed the principles of sumak kawsay.

The critique of development

There is no doubt that this cosmovision sharply challenges the dominant concepts concerning the theme of development. Not surprisingly, therefore, we encounter a whole series of writers who have been arguing that what is alleged to be development is in reality “maldevelopment.” According to José María Tortośa, one of those who has done the most work on this subject, this concept synthesizes the practical refutation — that is, from empirical observation — of what is undesirable and perverse in what has in fact turned out to be development.[6]

It could rightly be argued that this critique, while correct, is far from novel. In fact, since the 1970s Marxists in Latin America (Theotonio dos Santos, Aníbal Quijano, Fernando H. Cardoso at he then was, Agustín Cueva and Pablo González Casanova, among many others), and not only in this part of the world (as testified by the contribution of people like Samir Amin, André Gunder Frank, from the major capitalist powers), have been harshly critiquing the notion of development as it is used in the social sciences, the international agencies and by almost all governments. Not unrelated to this are the thoughts of major personalities in the world of politics such as the Fidel Castro of the “Second Declaration of Havana” (February 1962), the Che Guevara of his numerous speeches (and especially the one made at Punta del Este in August 1961), and the various writings of Juan Bosch, the former president of the Dominican Republic. The leitmotiv of all these interpretations has been the deforming and predatory nature of development in a capitalist economy, and the fact that it is a process that is not only incapable of improving the welfare of the peoples but, to make matters worse, encounters insurmountable limits in the capitalisms of the periphery.[7]

The canonical text of orthodox thinking about development in the early 1960s was the book by Walter W. Rostow, entitled The Stages of Economic Development, with the subtitle, devoid of any subtlety, A Non-Communist Manifesto. The book had an overwhelming influence on the Latin American social sciences in those years and, needless to say, on the governments and experts in economic affairs, all of them caught in one way or another in the spider’s web of the Alliance for Progress.[8]

The basic idea of the Rostowian argument was that there was a single process of development and that it was lineal, accumulative and equal for all countries. The word “capitalism” had been carefully excised from the text, with the obvious purpose of reinforcing the naturalization of this mode of production; in the discovery of its laws of development, the assumption was that any economy, without exception, had to go through, in the long run, an ordered succession of stages with a series of technical, not political, imperatives. The consequence of all this was that there was only one way to deal with economic problems, and that this was dictated by technical issues that did not allow any transgression. To do so would mean falling into the swamp of “populism.”

The process of capitalist development — with its struggles, its plunder and pillage, entering the world “dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt,” as Marx described it in Capital — is sublimated and decontextualized by Rostow, who manages to convert it into an ahistorical, formal and lineal deployment of potentialities present in each of the planet’s social formations. Thus, for this tradition of thought, the now developed countries were, in a not so remote time, poor and underdeveloped nations. This reasoning was based on two false assumptions. First, that by disappearing all the historical and structural determinations, localized societies at both extremes of the “development-underdevelopment” continuum were converted into real pipedreams, vaporous essences uncontaminated by the prosaic realities of time and space. Second assumption: that the organization of international markets lacked structural asymmetries (or if they existed, they were irrelevant) that could affect the chances of development of the nations of the periphery.

For Rostow and his Latin American disciples, such terms as “dependency” or “imperialism” were not useful in describing the realities of the system and were above all a testimony to “political approaches” and thus unscientific, and of no help in understanding the problems of economic development.[9] Consequently, the so-called “obstacles” to development did not have structural foundations or restrictions anchored in the world economy, but were the product of clumsy political decisions, unfortunate choices of governments or inertial social and historical ballast that had to be removed.

The conservatizing implications of this reasoning, which a priori ruled out any other form of economic organization alternative to capitalism and that completely ignored the reality of imperialism and dependency, are so obvious that they require no further demonstration beyond their statement alone. As we can see, monolithic thinking is not as novel as is commonly assumed. And its impact on supposedly non-conformist thinking was as harmful then as it is today.[10]

But there was something more. Both the orthodox thinking and that of its Marxist critics shared at that time (not now, of course) a tacit non-debatable assumption: far from being an extremely rich depository of “common goods,” nature appeared, in the conventional thinking and in that of the left critics, as one more “natural resource” that deserved no special treatment and consequently was to be exploited using the productive techniques developed by capitalism, albeit with a vague “social sense.” A distant antecedent of that attitude can be found in the early years of the Russian Revolution, when V.I. Lenin stated that “socialism = soviets + electricity.” Thus, even for the forces challenging capitalism, the model of relationship between society, economy and environment remained unaltered and continued to be the one that capitalist modernity had established. What had changed was only the recipient of the fruits of economic progress. This was not a minor change, but as was noted much later by the new Latin American critical thought and sumak kawsay, that assumption now proved unacceptable for the renewed social and ecological consciousness of our peoples. The environmental and social havoc produced by unbridled developmentalist and extractivist productivism has profoundly shaken Latin American societies, speeding the formation of a new culture that is increasingly sceptical about the alleged benefits of “development.”

Not surprisingly, we find therefore that one of the harshest — and, we would add, unjust — criticisms levelled against the present governments of Bolivia and Ecuador is that they have become committed to the same pattern of the relationship between society and nature, converting them into de facto prisoners of the predatory and inhuman logic of capitalism. In that sense, the charge is that owing to many factors (economic and financial necessities, foreign trade imbalances, political weaknesses, ideological frailties, indifference to popular demands, etc.), both La Paz and Quito have promoted, to the frustration of their initial followers, the same type of “developmentalist” and “extractivist” economic policies as their neoliberal adversaries. Ricardo Verdum spells it out: “What attracts the attention of some analysts is that it is precisely the progressive and left governments, elected on a political platform contrary to that model (and that describe themselves as post-neoliberal), that now reaffirm the function of a region that is a provider of natural resources, and that now govern approximately four fifths of the population and some three quarters of the territory of South America.”[11]

[1] In the case of Ecuador, the 2008 Constitution states: “We the sovereign people of Ecuador… Acknowledging our age-old roots, forged by women and men of distinct peoples… Celebrating nature, the Pacha Mama, of which we are part and which is vital to our existence… have decided to build… a new form of citizen cohabitation, in diversity and harmony with nature, to achieve bien vivir, sumak kawsay.” The 2007 Constitution of the Plurinational State of Bolivia states that “the Bolivian people, of plural composition from the depth of history, inspired by the struggles of the past, in the anticolonial indigenous uprising, in independence, in the popular struggles for liberation, in the indigenous, social and trade-union marches, in the water war [of 2000] and the October war [the 2003 mass mobilizations that overthrew the government of Sanchez de Lozada], in the struggles for land and territory, and with the memory of our martyrs, are building a new State… based on respect and equality for all, with principles of sovereignty, dignity, complementarity, solidarity, harmony and equity in the distribution and redistribution of the social product, and in which the quest for vivir bien is predominant; with respect for economic, social, legal, political and cultural pluralism of the inhabitants of this Earth; in collective cohabitation with access to water, work, education, health and housing for all.”

[2] See “El socialismo del buen vivir,” by Boaventura de Sousa Santos.

[3] See “El buen vivir como respuesta a la crisis global,” of the Ministry of Foreign Relations of the Plurinational Estate of Bolivia (La Paz, n.d.).

[4] See “Plan Nacional para el Buen Vivir 2009-2013: construyendo un Estado Plurinacional e Intercultural,” in the Plan Nacional de Desarrollo, República del Ecuador (Quito, 2009, pp. 33-43).

[5] Alberto Acosta, “El buen vivir, una utopía por (re)construir,” in Boletín ECOS (CIP-Ecoscial Madrid), No. 11, April-June 2010.

[6] See “El futuro del maldesarrollo,” by José María Tortośa, in Revista Obets (Alicante), No. 4, 2009, p. 68.

[7] Che participated as Cuba’s Minister of Industries in the Conference of the Inter-American Economic and Social Council, a dependent agency of the OAS, which met in Punta del Este, Uruguay, August 5-18, 1961, barely four months after the failed invasion at Playa Girón. In his first speech in the conference, he delivered a ringing indictment of the extremely modest scope of a supposed program of economic development sponsored by the United States, the unsuccessful Alliance for Progress, represented at the conference by the U.S. Treasury Secretary Douglas Dillon; because of its emphasis on sewage systems, the Argentine-Cuban revolutionary sarcastically labelled it the “latrinization of Latin America.” The timid objectives proposed by the Alliance, which were not achieved by any country, loudly contrasted with the huge achievements of Cuba in two and a half years of Revolution, which, among other things, had made it the first territory free of illiteracy in the Americas. On these topics see our article “Teorías de la dependenciea,” in Realidad Económica (Buenos Aires), No. 238, August 16/September 30, 2008. A revealing fact: the first “democratic” country (not like Cuba, as Washington would say!) to receive funds from the Alliance for Progress was democratic Paraguay under the dictator Stroessner.

[8] For an analysis of the nature and impact of Rostow’s ideas, see “Entrevista a Samir Amir,” by Graciela Roffinelli and Néstor Kohan, October 1, 2003,

[9] The coincidence of perspectives between the work of a conservative theoretician like Walter W. Rostow and the work of those who, from a presumably critical perspective, are inspired by the writings of Hardt and Negri, is rather astonishing. In an interview with the Argentine newspaper Página/12, Giussepe Cocco and Toni Negri discredit the concept of imperialism and consider “anti-imperialism” deplorable. They would not have been more in agreement with the preferred theoretician of the Kennedy administration. See “América Latina está viviendo el momento de una ruptura,” by Verónica Gago, in Página/12, August 14, 2006,

[10] A current example is found in the book by Hardt and Negri, Empire, in which they assure us that countries like Bangladesh and Haiti are part of the empire, because it encompasses everything. But are they therefore in a position comparable to that of the United States, France, Germany or Japan? While they do admit that they are not identical from the standpoint of capitalist production and circulation, Hardt and Negri conclude, to the amazement of some scholars, that between “the United States and Brazil, Great Britain and India, there are differences only of degree, not of nature,” a thesis that Rostow himself would have enthusiastically embraced. As Samir Amin reminds us, the peripheries of the world system are not so much “unequally developed formations” as social formations that are interdependent precisely in terms of that unevenness. For a critique of the radically mistaken and functionally pro-imperialist vision of Hardt and Negri, see Atilio Boron, Imperio & Imperialismo. Una lectura crítica de Michael Hardt y Antonio Negri (Buenos Aires: CLACSO, 2004), published in English as Empire and Imperialism: A Critical Reading of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri.

[11] See his “El nuevo extractivismo desarrollista en Sudamérica” (Quito, CAAP), in

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