Reflections on Sumak Kawsay (good living) and theories of development

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The notion of good living (sumak kawsay), as a new framework of political, legal and natural governance, has begun its voyage into the range of human possibilities from the hands of the indigenous peoples of Ecuador and Bolivia. It is crucial then to begin a reflection on sumak kawsay (good living) in terms which western positivism understands as reflection, that is, as an analysis of concepts that can contribute, within a framework of coherently structured concepts, which since the Enlightenment has been called science.
This reflection is essential to move on, if not setting aside the debate on human possibilities, at least limiting them, from two concepts so strong that mere criticism or questioning of them at all is a feat, i.e. the concepts of « development » (as a teleology of history), and the concept of « economic growth » (as the prevalence of economics over politics and society).
Both concepts are intimately linked and one supposes the other. Development as much as economic growth, legitimize their epistemological, analytical and symbolic meanings because they originate in one of the most cherished notions of modernism, and that would be forged in the « Enlightenment »: the nineteenth-century concept of progress, and the emancipating promise implied: that is, liberation from and overcoming of conditions of necessity and scarcity. Modern freedom is inscribed in concept of production, and therefore of scarcity. Development therefore would be the response of humanity to free itself of the iron yoke of scarcity.
The development concept is so strong that at one point a taxonomy was proposed between regions of the « developed » world and others that were not, which would be denominated as « underdeveloped », or, more politely, « developing ». There was, and still is, an extensive literature in this regard which established a series of recommendations to those countries denominated « underdeveloped » so that they could surpass that condition and imitate those countries which had achieved « development ». They set out, and even defined as scientifically valid, the recommendations of theories of development that proposed « stages » prior to arriving at economic take-off, and which allowed them to surpass their social dualism (modern sector versus traditional sector). In that sense, the epistemological frameworks of those theories of development looked much like those of the phrenology of Lombroso, or the Soviet genetics of Lissenko.
Neoliberalism has also created its own elaborations with respect to development and has proposed the notion of « emerging markets » for those countries that were once considered « underdeveloped », but that now have grown in terms of the GNP thanks to their neoliberal reforms.
This notion of « emerging markets », was created to downplay the phenomenon of the « Asian tigers » in the debate on development theories, with reference to Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea and Taiwan, which was fashionable in the eighties, since the growth of these « tigers » retained a strong role for the State.
In any case, neoliberalism is more modest with respect to the pretensions of these traditional theories of development, and limits itself to demonstrating by the heuristics of growth of GNP, the way liberal economic reforms can lead to economic growth, understanding this to be only quantitative growth of the economy through the miracle-workings of free and competitive markets, all others, for neoliberalism, will be resolved thanks to the Epiphany of markets.
In Marxist theory, or with Marxist inspiration, the development discourse is framed in a vision that assumes the totality of Capitalism as a historically determined system, in which there are social relations of production in a world-wide scope sustained by imperialism. In any case, Marxism always considered development to be more a political problem than a purely economic question.
The theory of dependency, created in accordance with the CEPAL school, with strong influences from Marx and Keynes, spoke of unequal exchange and asymmetric relations between the center and the periphery. The thesis of Andre Gunder Frank was famous at the time, in which, especially in Latin America, the only thing that developed were the conditions of under-development.
From the fifties to the mid-eighties, when the ideological about face of CEPAL toward neoliberalism took place, the debate was centered in Latin America, in an understanding of development as a complex phenomenon that incorporates economic, social, political, institutional, legal and symbolic determinants, and in which relations of power within capitalist development generated conditions which were understood as « under-development ». This tendency emphasized the structural conditions of economic development, from whence denomination as « Latin American structuralism ».
There is an important and profuse intellectual literature on Capitalism as an historical system. In social sciences (but not in economics), the « world system » concept is used frequently (proposed by Wallerstein), which on the one hand is related to the fact that Capitalism is an organic, inclusive totality, and in permanent expansion, and was proposed, at first by Fernando Braudel (Capitalism as « world economy »), and, on the other hand, as an asymmetric and unequal relationship between the center and the periphery, the theoretical roots of which are found first in the theory of imperialism (in the lines of Bujarin- Hilferding- Lenin), and then, in the theory of Latin American dependency, and that of « unequal interchange » from Samir Amin, Arghiri Emanuel, Theotonio dos Santos, among others.
Despite all this, all the categories that refer to Capitalism and to the relations of power that it generates with respect to countries, do it from an epistemological base determined by modernity, that is to say, they assume that by definition Capitalism must be explained and understood from production and the economy, and that the economy presupposes the maximizing behaviors of subjects previously individualized, and in which time has been linear and space has been homogenized.
Within those coordinates there is space for differences, but not for alternatives. It is possible to question Capitalism and theories of development, as dependency theory did at the time, or Marxism, but not leaving the epistemological framework that serves as a reference for understanding economic development.
The asymmetric relations of power generated by development can be questioned, and even the anti-ecological impacts of economic growth, but questioning the civilizing assumptions of development is not allowed. Cultural visions of development can be proposed, such as those which make reference to character, ethos, or anachronistic traditions of certain cultures, but debate and questioning is not allowed of the framework that structures this way of seeing the world and societies from a perspective of development, modernization and progress.
On the other hand neoliberal globalization has changed the emphasis in development theories towards markets as efficient mechanisms of social regulation and resource allocation, and has closed all possible space to alternative proposals.
In the dominant academic schools, in official thought, in public declarations, statements of governmental summits, in the speeches of development cooperation agencies, in the understandings of the mass media, in the United Nations system, in nongovernmental organizations, the statements of the main political parties, the alternatives to neoliberalism have simply disappeared.
Only those theoretical and normative proposals which revolve around the idea of markets as efficient allocators of resources, as in the case of speeches on competitiveness, liberalization, economic opening, private investment, etc., have « green cards ».
Modern economic discourse has even arrived at an absolute autism: Keynesian thought which once opened the analytical possibilities of understanding State interventions in the economy, no longer exists. Indeed, modern economic texts do not even mention the contribution of Keynes and its epistemological concealment is almost total. Allegiance to the idea of markets as unique social regulators, has limited economic discourse in such a way that it has become the legitimizing theoretical tool of the corporations.
In this atmosphere, an alternative discourse on even the very concept of development and economic growth seems more of a heresy than an epistemologically feasible possibility. A heresy in the medieval sense of the term, because modern knowledge, especially that which legitimates relations of power, as is the case of economics and theories of development, has become a scholarship which erases and punishes with intentional forgetfulness, any alternative possibility of knowledge. The market has become a theology. The idea that the market will itself solve social problems is a type of epiphany of neoliberal reasoning.
The critical voices that say development itself is a problem are a minority and have been reduced to meager spaces, without the possibility of generating contesting practices. These critical voices said that the way out of under-development is not development, because it would not be about a way out, but rather an entrance into modernity. What has to change, and radically, is not under-development, but all the discourse and practice of development as a whole. In other words, it is necessary to assume that development is a disease of modernity. What it is necessary to assume and to transform therefore, is the entire « civilizing » project in which the « North » creates little foot soldiers.
Whatever the considerations on the question of development, what is certain is that concerns about the consequences of capitalist development are now present in almost all debates. The center of those concerns turns around the proof that serious environmental damages produced by capitalist development is enveloping the planet, of which global warming is only one of its better known consequences.
Within the dominant economic theories, including development theories, no alternatives exist to confront the serious environmental problems caused by economic growth. In the framework of markets as efficient allocators of resources there are no theoretical dossiers which evaluate and constrain the serious environmental damages brought about by capitalist markets.
As seen in the last few years, the rate of growth of Capitalism limits the possibilities of survival of the human species, in a debate that now acquires a sense of real urgency: continuing with present rates of consumption and production, the theories of global warming predict an ecological catastrophe of unimaginable consequences.
If there are no possibilities of assuming those environmental costs brought about by economic growth, which has been sanctioned and legitimized by the dominant economic theory, in all fairness humanity needs look for other analytical frameworks and other theoretical and epistemological possibilities outside the dominant economic theory, and outside liberal reasoning.
They would include the possibility of avoiding that ecological catastrophe that has been predicted by different environmental scientists and confirmed in the most recent governmental meetings on global warming. They would also include the possibility of detaining that other catastrophe coming into view but which has been ignored and hidden by the neoliberal discourse of economic growth, that is, the inequity, poverty and violence that is debasing humanity.
Of the alternative concepts that have been proposed, the one that presents more options within its theoretical and epistemological framework to replace the old notions of development and economic growth is Sumak Kawsay, good living. It is a concept that is beginning to be used in Bolivia and Ecuador, with regard to constitutional changes in both countries; sumak kawsay (good living), as a new term of reference to development and economic growth, is one of the most important and novel alternative proposals to neoliberal globalization.
Sumak kawsay is the voice of the kechwa peoples for good living. Good living is a conception of life far removed from the most cherished elements of modernity and economic growth: individualism, the search for profit, the cost-benefit relationship as a social axiom, the use of nature, strategic relations between human beings, the total commodification of all spheres of human life, the inherent violence of consumer selfishness, etc. Good living expresses a different relationship between human beings and their social and natural surroundings. Good living incorporates a human, ethical and holistic dimension the relationships of human beings, not only to their own history but with their natural surroundings.
Whereas the dominant economic theory subscribes to the Cartesian paradigm of man as « master and lord of nature », and understands nature as external to human history (a concept that also underlies Marxism), sumak kawsay (good living) incorporates nature into history. This is a fundamental change in modern episteme, because modern thought boasts as its greatest achievement precisely the expulsion of nature from history. In all human societies, the modern episteme is the only one that has produced such an event and the consequences are beginning to send the bill.
Sumak kawsay (good living) proposes the incorporation of nature within history, not as a productive factor nor as a productive force, but as an inherent part of social being. Sumak kawsay proposes several epistemological frameworks that imply other ways of conceiving and acting; in those new epistemic formats the existence of time as circles, which can coexist with the linear time of modernity; the existence of a communital-being is considered, or if one prefers, non-modern, as an ontological subject validated by the relationship between human beings and nature; a meeting between the sphere of politics with that of economics, a position with respect to markets in which the logic of use values predominates over that of the values of exchange, among others.
This means that the individualized being of modernity must recognize the ontological existence of other beings which have the right to exist and to survive in otherness.  This is a key issue, because in the theories of development there is no epistemological possibility whatsoever of understanding Otherness.  In the discourse of development: either one grows in economic terms (measured quantitatively by the scale of GNP), or one does not grow. The discourse of development is a tautology. Otherness does not exist, and what does not exist cannot be made visible.
In the framework of the dominant ideology, the only thing that exists is the figure of consumers, the maximization of their preferences, the restriction of their income, and their relationship with the universe of things through the utility that these can render, in a context of free and competitive markets, and with a system of transparent prices and automatic emptying of the markets, that generate a notion of medieval origin but which the modern economy likes very much: economic equilibrium.
In this basic scheme, there is no place for the radical differences that constitute Otherness. Nevertheless, there are literally, thousands of millions of human beings, completely and radically outside the figure of the consumer and free and competitive markets. Human beings different from the ontology of the consumer and commercialization. Human beings whose life coordinates are established from other categories, standards and ethics. Human beings who live in communities with an atavistic memory of ancestral relations that have nothing to do with modern individuality, nor with the dominant liberal reasoning.
To incorporate these peoples into modernity implies an act of fundamental violence, because it fragments their non-modern being and integrates them in a logic for which they are not prepared and into which they do not want to enter. It is for this reason that the policies of modernization of the World Bank, and international development cooperation, contain a violent ethos that turns them into instruments of colonization and ethnocide (and sometimes of genocide). The analytical frameworks of the theories of development and of the actual economy are ideologies which legitimize and conceal this ethnocide.
Only from a vision such as that inherent in sumak kawsay (good living) can the ontology of difference be respected and modernity and Capitalism be put in their relative place. Sumak kawsay (good living) is one of the options that can give back a sense of ontological dignity to the radical difference in the present context of globalization and neoliberalism.
(Translation Bob Thomson and ALAI)
- Pablo Davalos is an economist and Ecuadorian university professor.
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