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Interview with François Houtart:

For a general well being of humanity

“To produce more or to live well” expresses one of the central contradictions of the struggle between growth models according to the Belgian philosopher François Houtart. On the one hand, an increase of production - even under more socially just conditions and more acceptable for all - would mean putting in danger the well-being of important parts of the population, in particular indigenous peoples, says Houtart, who is executive secretary of the World Forum of Alternatives. On the other hand, he affirms, “good living” (Vivir Bien) could appear as the rejection of a progress destined to be useful for the entire population. By the same token, it points out the necessity for a dialectic thought process to guide solutions: neither the linear development of capitalist modernity, nor an indigenous fundamentalism which looks to the past, but a new direction, considering the need to save the planet and people. The following presents Houtart's reflections, in an interview with ALAI.

- In the present context marked by crises, particularly that of global warming, the demand for a shift of paradigm has gotten more attention. Thus the approach of Sumak Kawsay has been put into the arena, and moreover has been legitimized by its inclusion in the Constitutions of Ecuador and Bolivia. What has this contribution meant to the debate and to international reflection?
I think all this philosophy generally is a contribution that can be very important. It could be called a cosmovisión, of another type of relation with nature – at least this is one of the aspects - and also of another way to use the goods of nature. It is important from the perspective of a critique of the capitalist model of development, which for me is but a parenthesis in the history of humanity and is coming to its extinction, reaching limits that already are almost insurmountable.

In that sense, there is a first critical aspect: as a way of dealing with nature as an object of exploitation, to raise the idea that nature must be respected, and that there are, in a metaphorical way, rights of nature, is a very important concept.

A second aspect, more constructive, is to see a way to live collectively in harmony; in harmony with nature, social harmony. In indigenous societies - without forgetting they also have lived with conflicts and empires - the accent on the community, on solidarity, carries with it a way of living that is not so socially contrasted as that which we have now.

Thus, at the same time there is a critical instrument and a certain basis for reconstruction. It is very interesting to try to reframe that in the fundamental philosophy of the Sumak Kawsay, or in several concepts of that type, that we find not only with the indigenous peoples of the Americas, we also find in Africa, in Asian peoples, also in the great precapitalist philosophies of Asia.

In any case, I don't think we should fall into an indigenous fundamentalism, in the sense that indigenous cultures also are situated in time and space. That is, that fundamental values like those of Sumak Kawsay or Living Well or Pachamama, are expressed within a culture which is situated in time. Further, we evidently cannot simply reject the contribution of western culture, like the Enlightenment, which although it has had fundamental deviations through the capitalist economic system, has also brought contributions to the culture and history of humanity.

- Aren't these polarized approaches, opposites?

I think the problem is to see how to combine these several aspects; how to re-encounter the fundamental values that indigenous peoples live with, for example in Latin America, or in African peoples or Asian philosophies. How to return to these values that are fundamental, not only for the critique of the actual model and for the construction of another model, but within a world that has also been transformed in thought. That is, we have shifted from cultures of symbolic thought, where the symbol becomes reality (with the personification of natural forces), to analytical cultures that locate the causes of facts in their own field (natural or social). The first entails a holistic understanding of reality, but with difficulties of dealing effectively with complex elements of nature or society. The second position implies a great “breaking down” of reality that loses the sense of the whole, and is even able to destroy the universe to achieve particular goals and to accumulate capital, without considering “externalities”, like ecological and social damages that do not enter into economic calculations. In truth, western philosophical thought has tended to forget or to totally marginalize symbols, to build on a symbol, but mathematically.

I believe the contribution of this symbolic thinking is very important, but that we should not either idealize nor absolutize its forms of expression. We must respect them, without necessarily having to adopt all of the expressions that are - as we have said - located in time, history and space. We cannot accuse them of not being rational; they are rational, but of another type of rationality.

Thus, taking advantage of all this wealth, we can reconstruct a conceptual and finally practical way of realizing, at the same time, the presence of human beings in nature, as part of nature - seen as a source of life and not as a source of exploitation - and a way of living without this ever greater eagerness to accumulate and to consume, which is the driving force of capitalism. And so arrive at a way of producing goods and services based on human needs, viewed within the totality of relations with nature and not only to serve profit. That is to say, a totally different economic philosophy.

In addition, there are elements such as the democratic ways of organizing all social relations. I don't say that indigenous societies are perfect in this sense, but at least there is a sense of solidarity, a sense of the priority of the group, of the community over the individual, that we must really re-establish. Western civilization has been a reaction against a certain dictatorship of the community over the individual, and has valued the individual, which is also an important contribution. But with the capitalist economic model, it has arrived at an exaggeration of individualism that is obviously opposed to general well-being, to the Good Living in general of humanity. And finally, to welcome the idea of multiculturalism, to not identify development with westernization, but to see everything that other cultures, religions, philosophies, wisdoms, can contribute to the general communal well being of humanity.

This is why I have proposed in the United Nations, and in UNESCO in particular, the idea of preparing a universal declaration of communal well being of humanity, built on these four axes: first, the relation between human beings and nature, taking into account that there is only one planet available for humanity; secondly, another definition of the economy with a high-priority value on use and not on exchange; third, the democratization of all social relations, including gender relations, and of all institutions; and finally multi and inter-culturalism, the formulation of the ethics necessary for social cohesion.

- Not long ago, to speak of these things was seen as something totally marginal, assumed by certain social movements but not finding a space for debate within society. But lately, it seems that there is a change of social perception toward these issues, not only in the South but also in the North…

Yes, I think that there are several reasons - as with all these phenomena - and one reason is evidently a greater awareness of the problem of climatic change. Little by little, in the general consciousness, there is greater understanding that climate change is not only an accident, that it is not only a natural cycle - although it partly can be - but to a large extent it is caused by human activity, that is by industrial activity, by the development model that we now have. That makes us reflect on the necessity of other parameters.

It seems to me the economic crisis also has helped accelerate a certain awareness, not so much in official circles, nor amongst those economists who think that they are going to solve the problem with economic measures, without integrating these new dimensions. But in public opinion, little by little, there is an awareness that we are up against a problem where, if we do not change, we are really in a very disquieting situation. Thus, all of that has allowed the emergence of a certain interest, of a certain search for new concepts.

In Europe there is a concept that doesn't seem to me very apt, that is degrowth - décroissance. I think it's a good idea, but a bad concept, because to speak of degrowth is very well and good for the people who have all the necessities of life and more; but to speak to the poor and to Africans of degrowth is a concept that does not seem suitable to me. Nevertheless, the idea is indeed interesting. What is also interesting in Latin America is how in the indigenous movement there is all this rediscovery of traditional concepts and values, that today can make a contribution.

- In the capitalist system there are many powerful entrenched interests that are going to resist a change of model. What path do you see so that these ideas can grow and bring about real change?

In this sense there are no miracles. It is evident that the system is going to defend itself and to find all the means, even its own contradictions, to be able to reproduce itself. That is going to be extremely hard and the system can be - and has already been historically - extremely violent. Thus, we cannot think that things are going to evolve by themselves. It is only with an accumulation of forces, of social movements, of intellectuals, that we are going to be able to achieve and win a transformation. This is why the responsibility of social movements, of political parties of the left, of intellectual thought - to help with medium/long term thinking - is absolutely fundamental.

If we are not successful in uniting, in converging forces, we are not going to achieve the end of capitalism. It could be that capitalism will end by its own logic of exploitation and destruction, but it is going to destroy everybody, not only itself. All those efforts, of the World Social Forum, the World Forum of Alternatives, of intellectual thought, of groups of social movements, the idea also of a Fifth International, (although the term may not please certain people), all these ideas are fundamental to arriving at a greater convergence of action, because things not only happen thinking and discussing, but it is clearly necessary to act.
Originally published in Spanish in: ALAI : América Latina en Movimiento #452 - February 2010. "Sumak Kawsay: Recuperar el sentido de la vida" http://alainet.org/publica/452.phtml

(Translated from Spanish by Bob Thomson, 4 March 2010)



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