The El Cumbre conference report: 3) the contradictions and paradoxes of the Bien Vivir concept

Conference: People’s World Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth

We are continuing our serializing of an extraordinarly stimulating report by Massimo de Angelis:

Today, what to think of “Bien Vivir”:

“In our working table we had a round of opinions of what bien vivir meant to different people. Here is a list of basic terms I have collected: to live in harmony, to breathe good air, to “be concerned when my brother or sister does not have food to eat”, to live together: convivir, to share: compartir, to live in harmony within the family or the community, to problematise how to live together. There is a general correspondence with the understanding of Pachamama, or Mother Earth, and bien vivir. Indeed, the idea of bien vivir moves from the rejection of an anthropocentric idea that human beings are at the centre, and instead moves from the recognition that we are part of a system, and we live in complementarity with one another and other life forms. In other words, bien vivir is definitively not classic socialism with its fetishisation of progress and faith in the endless human capability to control nature. Hence, the notion of reciprocity is crucial in bien vivir, as is symbolised in the Andean cross balancing the giving and taking of life processes. Reciprocity here applies to both relations among humans within a community and between humans and other forms of life (and indeed beyond).

Bien vivir comes from sumak kawsay, a Quechua word. In Aymara it is suma qamaña. The conception is intrinsically tied with the type of commoning of these and other indigenous communities, who organise in aillu, practice reciprocity and organise their unwaged community work as Mingas and Ayuni. Thus what is attempted through this conference is to translate this conception for social movements beyond the Andes, in such a way as to provide a framework within which to conceptualise social relations of production that are alternative to both capitalism and traditional socialism. And indigenous people here have some legitimacy to propose this framework. As put it by Boaventura De Sousa Santos (Democracy Now,) “the original people . . . have been excluded by all the Western modernity, but kept alive their lifestyles. And their lifestyles now, . . . show the world some signs of the future. They are not a part of the past; they are part of the future. It is no coincidence that 70 percent of the biodiversity of the world is located in the indigenous peoples’ territories.”

Thus, when we are talking about bien vivir, we are talking about commons, in that bien vivir is ultimately a set of relations and processes that can only be actualised as commoning, since you do not have “harmony” or “reciprocity” in capitalist markets or top down state relations. However, bien vivir is an open problematic of commons, and not a model of commons. In this sense, one thing that I think is not problematised sufficiently when this conception is used, is how to understand bien vivir in the context of state policies of development which ideologically embrace bien vivir (such as the Bolivian government) but then at the same time needs to develop integration within the global economy (i.e. play the game of life-threatening competition) in order to gain cash and to meet the needs that cannot be met with domestic production. How is this entering global markets and drive to export oil, gas and minerals compatible with bien vivir?”

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