By Pablo Solón
Complementarity means to complete each other; it is to seek a whole that is diverse; it is a dialogue among those who are different; is to learn from the other and contribute to another; it is to recognize your own strengths and weaknesses in order to transform yourself in the interactions with others. Complementarity is to combine forces to optimize the potential of each one and complete the whole in its multiple dimensions.
The search for complementarity between Vivir Bien, degrowth, the commons, ecofeminism, the rights of Mother Earth, deglobalisation and other proposals seeks to enrich each of these approaches by generating increasingly complex interactions that help the process of construction of systemic alternatives. The goal is not to build just one single alternative, but to develop multiple holistic alternatives that are intertwined and articulated, in order to give answers to the changing diversity of the whole.
How to deal with the systemic crisis?
We are living a systemic crisis that cannot be addressed fully except through the combination of multiple approaches and the construction of others. The response to the systemic crisis requires alternatives to capitalism, to productivism, to extractivism, to plutocracy, to patriarchy and to anthropocentrism. These elements are very closely linked and nourish each other by deepening the crisis of the Earth community. To think in the resolution of one of these factors without dealing with the others is one of the biggest mistakes we have made.
We cannot overcome capitalism if we do not address productivism that is deeply rooted in the extractivism of nature and in the reproduction of the plutocratic and patriarchal structures of power. Equally, it is impossible to think in recovering the balance of the Earth system without getting out of the logic of capital that turns everything into a commodity and uses the crisis as an opportunity for new business. The transformation of the economy is closely linked to the transformation of the cultural and symbolic values that are reproduced in public and private spaces.
The logics of capital, of productivism-extractivism, of concentration of power, of patriarchy and anthropocentrism are dominant and operate at all levels: from politics to personal relationships, from institutions to ethics, from historic memory to visions of the future. In order to build systemic alternatives, we must not only change our perspective but adopt multiple perspectives from which to analyze and confront the problem. This is one of the main contributions of the complementarity among approaches, visions and philosophies that have different perspectives but share a common concern for life.
The “whole” on which complementarity must act is the community of the Earth, the Pacha as the Indians of the Andes call it, or the system of planet Earth as scientists designate. The economy is a subsystem embedded in the biosphere, it is a bio-economy, in the words of the precursors of the degrowth movement. There is no economic activity outside of nature. The planet is a self-regulated system of physical, chemical, biological and human components. Human society is only one of the most recent components of this complex system that is constantly evolving and changing.
The systemic crisis we are experiencing does not endanger the existence of the planet Earth, but of the multiple ecosystems that have made possible various forms of life, including human life. What is at stake is the climatic stability that has allowed agriculture and the existence of various civilizations. Many forms of life will disappear if the balance of the atmosphere, oceans, soil and solar radiation continues to change. In short, the challenge is to build systemic alternatives that will slow down and stop the sixth extinction of life that is underway on planet Earth.
Capitalocene and Plutocene
This imbalance started with the industrial revolution that gave birth to the capitalist system and began to be more visible and evident in the last decades. Some say that this imbalance is the fault of human activity. But that is a smokescreen when we find that only 8 people (8 men specifically) have the same wealth as 3.6 billion people, the poorest half of humanity (OXFAM, 2017). That is why it is not correct to call it Anthropocene, as if all humans have the same degree of responsibility in this planetary catastrophe. It is mainly a fraction of humanity, the richest and the most powerful that are driving our existence into the abyss.
It would be more appropriate to use the term Capitalocene or Plutocene or another denomination that highlights the destructive power of the logic of capital and the concentration of power in the hands of a very small minority of rich people. It is not human activity in general that is causing the end of the Holocene, but a particular type of system (capitalist, productivist, extractivist, plutocratic, patriarchal and anthropocentric) that has invaded all spheres of human life and transformed non-human life into simple commodities or resources.
How do we restore the balance of the Earth and meet the fundamental needs of all the population? Is it through some kind of growth that is dissociated from the destruction of nature as suggested by the green economy? Degrowth clearly states that this is a mirage. There is no growth that is disassociated from its material base. The development of technology and efficiency do not lead to the reduction of consumption but to the opposite. So, what is the path forward? Vivir Bien delivers a key alternative to growth: the search for a dynamic equilibrium. To aim to have harmony between humans and with nature as a new horizon for civilization that is different from economic progress. The challenge is not to have development with the aim of constantly trying to be and have more – but rather to seek complementarity with other human beings and nature in order to rebalance our system. A balance that brings new contradictions and requires new processes of balance. A new type of modernity that makes obsolete the modernity of capitalism based on growth. A new paradigm that establishes that life should not lead to the dispossession of others and nature, but to achieve an adequate articulation of all parts of the whole.
The dynamic equilibrium and the commoners
The search for this equilibrium requires degrowth in some sectors and regions and a certain type of growth in other levels and places, but above all it requires to get out of the logic of growth per se and instead, pursue a dynamic equilibrium. We need to grow in renewable energies and decrease in fossil fuels; to decrease over-consumption in the rich bubbles of the north and the south, and to increase the levels of nutrition and essential services for the majority of the world’s population.
Equilibrium is not possible without the redistribution of wealth and power. The welfare of all is only possible when the absolute concentration of resources in very few hands is disrupted. Without processes of expropriation and socialization, it is not possible to achieve social justice and restore a equilibrium that does not plunder nature.
The task is not to move from a capitalism of large private owners to a State capitalism under the name of “socialism.” After a century of experiences, it is clear that the alternative to the free market is not the control of all spheres of life by the State. Redistribution, to be effective, has to have in the center other actors aside from the market and the State. This is the great contribution of the commons. Without self-organized and self-managed commoners, there is no real and lasting redistribution. It is not only a question of better distribution, but also one of managing the sources of life in a different and adequate way. As Vivir Bien points out, the role of humans is to be a bridge, a mediator that contributes to the search of equilibrium by carefully cultivating with wisdom, what nature gives us.
From this perspective, it is not enough to socialize the means of production (private banks, transnational corporations of industries and services, agribusiness, chemical companies, military complexes and others), but transform them completely so that they respect the vital cycles of nature and don`t continue with extractivism, productivism, the privatisation of knowledge, the commodification of biodiversity and the development of weapons of mass destruction.
In Marx’s view: “At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution” (Marx, 2010). Consequently, the task is to change the relations of production, in particular its legal expression that are the relations of property, so that they don’t continue to block the development of the productive forces.
Marx emphasizes the transformation of the relations of production but doesn’t highlight the transformation of the productive forces. This vision written in 1859, has inspired, for more than a century, many left parties. However, today, we are on the verge of a planetary catastrophe. At present, it is not enough to transform the relations of production and property. We must also transform and restrain several productive forces that are contributing to the destruction of humanity and nature.
Unlimited growth of productive forces on a finite planet is impossible. Consequently, the legacy of capitalism can’t be just managed in a social and environmentally friendly way. Extractivism can never be sustainable. There is no future for humanity if we do not stop the plundering of nature. In every process of taking from nature there must be awareness of the need of preserving its balance and repairing the damages.
Vivir Bien introduces a very acute reflection that questions many of the dominant concepts: The only strictly productive force is Mother Earth, nature. She is the creator and humans are only cultivators, facilitators, caretakers of that process. Humans do not create water, oil, or oxygen. Humans can use these elements but always with deep respect.
This view is questioned by the evolution of technology that creates the false illusion that everything is possible, even a new genesis, as some proponents of synthetic biology claim to create never before known, novel life forms. The project Genesis – the science for artificial life – asks what is the point of placing lights in the streets if we can create trees that shine? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to permanently protect ourselves from viruses and diseases by writing the appropriate genetic code onto our chromosomes? At another level we have geo-engineering that claims that it is possible to manipulate climate on a planetary scale to counteract global warming, through the construction of large chimneys that would fill the atmosphere with sulfur compounds, interfering with the sun’s rays and cooling the surface of the earth, mimicking what happens when there is a volcanic eruption.
At present, and despite a moratorium on geo-engineering, experiments have already been made and if spread out, could cause unpredictable consequences for life and the Earth system. Why embrace these dangerous technologies instead of taking care of our Mother Earth? Why fight the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere with the pollution of sulfur dioxide? Is it not much more advisable to respect the cycles of nature than to try to change them?
These reflections that arose from the visions of Vivir Bien, the rights of Mother Earth, ecofeminism and degrowth are valid but unacceptable to the logic of capital.
The logic of capital and growth
Capital is not a thing, it is not money, machinery or property. Capital only exists when it is invested to generate profits and increase capital. Capital is a process. Capital that does not grow and does not achieves profits is capital that is taken out of the market. Capital cannot be constrained to accept a limit that implies its disappearance. Capital is in permanent search for new and greater profits to continue to expand and exist as capital.
According to Marx: “The simple circulation of commodities – selling in order to buy – is a means of carrying out a purpose unconnected with circulation, namely, the appropriation of use-values, the satisfaction of wants. The circulation of money as capital is, on the contrary, an end in itself, for the expansion of value takes place only within this constantly renewed movement. The circulation of capital has therefore no limits” (Marx, 2007).
The search for permanent growth is a sine qua non for capitalism. Without growth the process of realization of capital is not possible. In order to exist, capital appeals to an increasing exploitation of human beings, to unrestrained extractivism and productivism, to generate and exacerbate consumerism, to provoke irrational waste, to colonialism of entire nations, to conflicts and wars, to financial speculation, to the commodification of all material and immaterial processes and goods, to the financialisation of nature and the supremacy of technology over life and the Earth system.
All these mechanisms for a certain period of time allow capital to recover and increase its profits, until growth moderates, declines and the crisis explodes. Capital never gives up and is constantly exploring new markets and mechanisms. The problem for capital is that we live on a finite planet and no matter how speculative the process of accumulation is, it always has a material basis that when exhausted, triggers a crisis. Previously those crises were cyclical. There were even glorious periods of capitalism as the “glorious thirty” in Europe after the Second World War, that were possible thanks to the extraction of cheap resources from the countries of the South. Today, the crisis has become permanent, the economies of the former industrial countries are barely growing or stagnant. Capital begins to touch several boundaries simultaneously at the level of markets, demand, extraction of resources, the possibility of colonizing new countries and territories, etc.
Capital in its insatiable pursuit of profits seeks to do business with the crisis that it creates. Thus arises a capitalism of chaos that lives off of the chronic crisis. If ever some had the illusion that there could be a human capitalism responsible with nature today it is clear that the only possible capitalism in the twenty-first century is a savage capitalism. There is no regulation that capital will respect at the end, it always finds a back door to escape and expand. That is the logic of capital and that is why to talk of balance, respect for the vital cycles of nature, degrowth is a real affront to his own existence.
The logic of capital does not act alone. It nurtures from anthropocentrism, from patriarchal structures and culture, from the concentration of wealth in very few hands, from plutocracy covered by democratic forms, from the development of a vision of consumerist modernity and a new imagination of values based on competition and individualism. The expropriation and socialization of capital by the State does not in itself alter the productivist and extractivist essence of capital. It can even be reinforced and aggravated. That is why social transformation should not only operate at the level of the economy or property rights. These are essential but not determinant elements since the logic of capital can continue to act even when the State has nationalized most of the large private property.
A new vision for the future
Overcoming capitalism requires a new vision of modernity. Hence the importance of the proposal of a frugal society that aims the vision of degrowth. A simple and moderate society that is thrifty, prosperous, prudent and economical in the use of consumable resources. Or as Vivir Bien says, a society that promotes harmony between human beings and not the competition and exploitation of the other. The vision of the future is key in the process of social transformation. If the objective is that all human beings live like the bourgeoisie or upper middle class sectors of high consumption we will never get out of the logic of capital and unlimited growth.
In order to satisfy the basic needs of the population without increasing consumerism, a self-organized and self-managed society is essential. Pretending that the State regulates from above how society should live and that those below simply obey leads to a growing authoritarianism that only aggravates tensions. The State can and should regulate certain aspects, but above all, it should be society that in a conscious and organized way increasingly manages the sources of life in a frugal way. The key to social transformation lies in the commoners, in their capacity to build a different modernity that has at its center: balance, moderation and simplicity.
The contemporary State and capital love property and growth. At the level of property, there are obvious contradictions and tensions between private and State property, but ultimately they are ascribed to the concept of property and not to the concept of commons, not to collective and self-managed management of key sectors for life and nature. In relation to growth, between capital and the State, far from existing frictions, there is almost a honeymoon. Both want more consumption and production and therefore more extractivism. The higher the growth, the higher the profits and the higher the taxes. Each sees in growth the source of its empowerment. That is why the central answer to the problem of endless growth will not come from the State or from capital, but from the commons, from a conscious and organized self-management, starting from the local, and that will increasingly move towards a national and global perspective.
Global and personal transformation
Deglobalisation emphasizes that to achieve a deep transformation it is necessary to expand this process beyond national borders. It is not possible to think in the full and effective realization of Vivir Bien and the commons without deconstructing global capitalism. The proliferation of borders and barriers between peoples contributes to the dominance of world capitalism. In this sense, local transformation, in order to flourish, needs to be involved in processes of transformation at national and global levels. Old industrialized countries and new emerging economies play a key role in overcoming global capitalism since a process of transformation in these centers of economic and political power will have a great impact on the rest of the world. As degrowth very well points out, it is impossible to think of the expansion of this paradigm if it does not occur in the countries that invented and disseminated the cancerous concepts of limitless growth and productivism.
The construction of worldwide alternatives is permanently evolving. World capitalism is not a static system; it is constantly in the process of adaptation and reconfiguration. Hence the great contribution of the deglobalisation proposal is that it emphasizes the necessity of the analysis of the different stages and moments of the globalisation process. The commons, the Vivir Bien or the rights of Mother Earth can only thrive in their implementation, starting from an adequate analysis of how the current process of neoliberal globalisation advances at each moment.
However, it is not possible to generate a true global change, if there is not also a change at the personal, family and community levels. One of the contributions of ecofeminism is precisely the need for complementarity between change in the public and private spheres. There is no sustainable transformation if at the same time human relations are not revolutionized in the most intimate nuclei of people’s lives. The coherence between public policy and private action is fundamental.
It is not possible to overcome patriarchy only through the promotion and implementation of gender equity laws if at the same time we do not promote a change in the cultural and symbolic order created by the patriarchal system that impacts on women, nature and men. The adoption of norms that ensure the right of women to decide over their bodies or to penalize feminicide and domestic violence are absolutely undermined when the leaders, authorities and rulers promote misogynist and sexist practices in their daily lives.
Dismantling patriarchal structures is extremely difficult precisely because their reproduction is insidiously made invisible by the dominant patriarchal structures of power that exist at all levels: from the family to the union, from the community to the political party, from the school to the government.
Capitalism has exacerbated this dynamic that was already present in the absolute majority of pre-capitalist societies. To that extent, the overcoming of capitalism does not necessarily lead to overcoming patriarchy. Experiences of State capitalism under the rubric of “socialism” show that even patriarchal systems of values can be reinforced after the nationalisation or expropriation of large private capitalist property.
The questioning of patriarchy is not something inherent in the commons. Many very successful commons experiences in the world reproduce patriarchal practices. This is the case, for example, of the commons that are linked to water and land management in several indigenous communities, or the uneven and unequal participation of men and women in assemblies of commoners.
Visions such as Vivir Bien and the commons can only fully flourish if they effectively make visible and internalize the struggle against patriarchal structures and culture. The dynamic balance between humans and with nature is only possible if it also involves the innermost core of family and personal life.
Production and reproduction
Productivism renders invisible the reproductive work and care that are essential to the life of every society. To take care of the home and the family, the food, the cleaning, the emotional support, the maintenance of community spaces and others are reproductive work, mainly carried out by women, whom are not taken into account by productivism. Productivism is only interested in the goods or services that can be commodified.
For productivism the essential thing is to transform nature into products and increase the productivity of that process by producing more in less time. This process leads to a relentless process of servitude for the producer and the poisoning of the consumer. As Ivan Illich pointed out in 1978:
“I believe that this crisis is rooted in a major two-fold experiment which has failed, and I claim that the resolution of the crisis begins with a recognition of the failure. For a hundred years we have tried to make machines work for men and to school men for life in their service. Now it turns out that machines do not “work” and that people cannot be schooled for a life at the service of machines. The hypothesis on which the experiment was built must now be discarded. The hypothesis was that machines can replace slaves. The evidence shows that, used for this purpose, machines enslave men” (Illich, 1985).
Productivism ends up not only rendering reproductive work invisible but also alienating the worker and generating an increasingly large army of unemployed. If we continue on the path of productivism, there will be fewer and fewer sources of employment for the new generations because the development of automation reduces the need for wage labor.
In order to tackle the structural causes of unemployment, one must move away from the logic of productivism and make visible, recognize and expand the reproductive work to new areas especially linked to the restoration of the equilibrium with nature. Today, in order to have a healthy society and economy, it is essential to repair the imbalances that have been provoked in nature. Doing so requires restoring and caring for forests, rivers, mangroves, coasts, the atmosphere, groundwater and many other components of the Earth system. Far from having less need for the generation of jobs there is more need for them, but for different type of jobs that are not based on production but on the reproduction and care of life. Hundreds of millions of jobs are needed to deal with the planetary emergency we are experiencing.
Reproductive jobs do not generate commodities and therefore are not recognized, valued, or remunerated in the current world capitalist system. However, it is not that there are no resources to pay for the reproductive jobs we urgently require. Tens of millions of jobs could be financed with a drastic reduction of military and defense expenditures that exceed 1.5 trillion USD a year. The redistribution of wealth that is concentrated in very few hands today would create sources of subsistence while addressing the deep imbalances of the planet. The problem is that this involves embracing a totally different logic than that of capital that despises the reproductive work and is only interested in activities that produce commodities.
In this context, we must not only recognize and reward the reproductive work that women do at home and in the community, but also promote reproductive and care work on a scale never seen before in an attempt to repair the imbalances caused in the planet’s ecosystems.
Transformation of power and counter-power
The question of power and the transformation of State power structures have been analyzed in different way by the visions, philosophies and proposals mentioned. Vivir Bien addresses the issue of power from the perspective of colonisation and decolonisation, and through practices of rotation of authorities at the level of indigenous communities. The commons emphasize that the real dilemma is not more State or more market, but more power to the commoners. That is to say, to promote the self-organisation, self-management and self-determination of the society. The rights of Mother Earth incorporate the dimension of nature into the equation, raising the need for a normative legal framework that regulates the State and society in order to preserve the vital cycles, the capacity of regeneration, and the identity and integrity of nature. Ecofeminism highlights the interrelationship between State power structures and patriarchal power structures. Degrowth points out that everything has limits and that the logic of power does not escape this principle. Deglobalisation emphasizes the capture of national and supranational power structures by transnational corporations. All these visions provide insights on the subject of the transformation of State power structures but do not exhaust the discussion on the subject.
What to do with current State power structures? There are several answers to this question and they can be classified into four large blocks.
First is a vision and a very common practice that is mainly defended by “progressive” and left governments is to take over all institutions of the State. The leaders of these governments normally argue that, given the danger of reactionary counter-revolution, the political party must capture and control, as much as possible, all State institutions: executive, legislative, judicial, electoral, and any other entity of State control at economic or human rights level. If the left in the government does not extend its control to all possible structures of the State then imperialism or the right wing forces will use those spaces to sabotage and overthrow the government. In this context, the government can make transformations that democratize or improve the institutionality of the State but only if they do not undermine the power of the “revolutionaries” in government.
A second proposal emphasizes the radical democratization of the State through a series of mechanisms such as the revoking of the mandate, referendums, Constitutional Assemblies, inter-institutional control from independent institutions of the State, participatory budgets and other mechanisms that allow greater citizen participation and control in order to limit privileges and corruption within the bureaucratic spheres. This position considers that, through these reforms, it is possible to transform the State into an instrument that can serve society.
Thirdly, there is the proposal of self-management and anarchist currents that reject the State and promote its abolition in order to encourage the blossoming of experiences of self-determination of different social movements. These currents consider that the process of change is going to come from the proliferation and association of a series of communitarian and self-managed experiences that are constructed from the ground, questioning and undermining the authoritarianism that entails all forms of State power.
A fourth approach combines real democratization of the State and construction of social counter-power. According to this view, any power structure has its own logic and dynamics that leads to the accumulation of increasing power when there is no force outside that power structure capable of counterbalancing it (Solon, 2016). In other words, it is not enough to implement the radical democratization proposals of the State.
Individuals, “caudillos,” leaders and progressive or leftist political forces, when they enter the government, are captured by the logic of power and take pragmatic decisions to preserve their permanence in power. For this reason, it is necessary to complement the proposals of radical democratization of the State with the promotion and empowerment of social forms of power that are independent from the State. A kind of social counter-power that is not part of the State structures. A counter-power that can acquire different forms like councils, assemblies, “coordinadoras”, communes, etc. that not only control, oversees and puts pressure to redirect the State policies, but above all, promotes the development of forms of self-organisation and self-management at different levels without having to depend or to go through the structures of the State. An independent counter-power that feeds the emancipatory commoning of society, while at the same time encourages a series of radical measures to democratize the State.
Any political movement that enters the power structures to transform them must be fully aware that it is entering shifting sands. There will always be negative impacts and side effects such as the development of internal privileges, the temptation of corruption, pragmatic alliances, and the mirage that their permanence in power is the key for social “revolution.” The only way to avoid being captured by the logic of power is to encourage the empowerment of autonomous counter-powers, not under a client logic of support to the “caudillo,” but rather to be truly self-managed and capable of counterbalancing the conservative and reactionary forces that will inevitably develop within the new structures of power, and above all, to encourage commoning in all the society.
The road to complementarity
The processes of complementarity between Vivir Bien, commons, degrowth, the rights of Mother Earth, ecofeminism, deglobalisation and other proposals are multiple and diverse. In the preceding pages we have barely explored some of the possible contributions of these complementarities to encourage the reader to continue along this path. Far from contributing with a list of conclusions, we want to motivate us to look at reality, problems and alternatives from different perspectives, approaches and visions. We are convinced that complementarity can help to strengthen each of these visions, to find their weaknesses, to overcome their failures, to work together to explore answers to issues that have not been widely discussed, and to advance in the construction of systemic alternatives.
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