Roundtable on Vivir Bien/ David Barkin

David BarkinDavid Barkin is a professor at the Metropolitan University in Mexico City and an Emeritus member of the National Research Council and the Academy of Sciences in Mexico. His research focuses on ecological economics, alternative paradigms for society, and the problems of indigenous societies, with whom he collaborates in creating designs for alternative futures. His work aims to have an impact on the daily lives of marginal peoples in Latin America and change the dominant paradigms in the academy.

Solón’s contribution to the Great Transition Initiative (GTI) offers an opportunity to continue discussing some of the pithier issues related to the nature of the GT being debated in the varied series of proposals for moving beyond the profound crises facing our societies. Perhaps one of the most difficult issues underlying the discussions is the nature of the transition envisioned by the authors of the discussion papers and the respondents. On several occasions, I have argued that the possibility of a (global) systemic change often considered as necessary by many participants is not realistic in this historical period; the national and/or global transformations proposed would require a profound reordering of institutions that are presently carefully protected by the palace guards of the ruling classes. Further complicating the process, broad segments of the population in most capitalist countries have been so thoroughly integrated into and are dependent on the prevailing model of domination and exploitation that they cannot possibly contemplate the kinds of radical change proposed by many of the discussion papers we are considering. They are so fearful of these changes that they are participating in promoting a broad move towards “populist” regimes in many parts of the capitalist—regimes that seek to narrow the opportunities available to the most underprivileged sectors in those societies.

The question that Solón has put on the table is the nature and scale of alternatives being considered. Although the VB proposal that he is discussing emerged into the international spotlight as a result of its inclusion in the constitutional reforms in Ecuador and Bolivia more than a decade ago, it has been part of a discussion of alternative paradigms for a much longer period. The inclusion of VB in the national political platforms of these two Andean countries almost magically changed the discussion from one of the applicability to social change of indigenous cosmologies to another about the nature of development strategies. This turn in the debate requires a deeper evaluation of the motives behind the players and the suitability of this quite amorphous doctrine to offer guidance on how to shape local, national, or global strategies for social change.

I would like to step back from this level of discussion to confront the indigenous cosmologies in their own territories and their own societies. VB is only one of a myriad of such paradigms that societies around the world have incorporated into belief systems to guide their social, political, and economic institutions; their interaction with their environments; and their relationships with the societies of which they are a part. Our belated realization of the larger numbers and extraordinary variety of such systems is evidence of our deep rootedness in the capitalist system and the Eurocentric roots of our intellectual and political traditions and knowledge systems. Today, for example, it seems quite extraordinary that only recently have we begun to take seriously the relative significance of the slave-based sugar economies of the Caribbean in the process of primitive (original) accumulation that Marx attributed primarily to the enclosure movement in England.1 Perhaps even more remarkable, the lack of debate about the significance of the probable trans-Atlantic voyages from the Kingdom of Mali in the fourteenth century to the coastal regions of Mesoamerica.

Returning to the present, however, discussions about VB and the many other similar traditional visions of the “good society” lead me to insist on the relevance of scale and the process of social change that we are or should be discussing. There are hundreds of millions of people who suffered the horrors of exclusion or, even worse, subjugated inclusion as colonialism and capitalism expanded around the globe. Yet, quite miraculously, many have jealously guarded their heritages and traditions, demonstrating a resilience that is now so apparent that we are obliged to recognize them as peoples capable of governing themselves and treasuring valuable knowledge and ways of living that are contributing to a better understanding of the planet as a dynamic system. The international community recognized their importance with the belated adoption of the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2004), following on the ILO’s Convention 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Rights to Informed, Prior and Free Consent on development projects that might affect them or their territories (1991).

Those of us who have had the good fortune to learn more about these peoples and even be welcomed into their communities may understand the promises offered by their continuing search for a better way of living. They are constantly forced to accommodate the demands of the globalized society, but increasingly are setting limits on these concessions. The result is an increasing level of contention and even violence as the global market attempts to deprive them of their patrimony and their heritage. Throughout the world, however, counter-movements are arising to brake this process, to support these people in their efforts to protect a way of life and pockets of the planet.

VB has become a slogan, a reflection of a familiar process of “commoditization” of everything. But it is also a reflection of the desperate search for new ways to organize life and community while also attending to the needs of the planet. As such, it should be understood as the Andean version of Swaraj (India), Ubuntu (South Africa), Abya Yala (Panama), and Mandar Obedeciendo and Comunalidad (Zapatistas and Zapotecos in Mexico), to mention just a few of the better known. These all encompass present-day versions of traditional cosmologies (cosmovisions) of peoples attempting to construct their own alternatives for self-governance to improve their quality of life while protecting their ecosystems. The Indigenous and Community Conservation Areas Consortium brings together more than 100 communities in 70 countries around the world whose members are committed to local variations of the principles mentioned in this discussion paper, reflecting the enormous variety of approaches to “Vivir Bien.” A different approach, built around the dual principles of food sovereignty and agroecology, is provided by the largest social organization in the world, La Via Campesina, with more than 200 million members in more than 70 counties; its members are drawn from indigenous and peasant communities. It promotes local collective approaches to improving the quality of life by reinforcing traditional ties to the land, improving productive systems and directly attending the urgent need to improve diets and health in the communities.

A key element in consolidating alternative strategies to implement these different visons is the important commitment not just to survive but also to consolidate new patterns of living. Throughout the world, peoples are asserting control over their territories, strengthening their ability to govern themselves, and developing ways of negotiating with “the powers that be,” taking advantage of a new recognition of their rights and abilities. These communities are moving beyond the tired calls for (representative) democracy, private property, and individual rights; they are forging a renewed form of participatory democracy and collective control of their communal patrimony. In place of promoting growth, many are moving towards “convivial societies” reminiscent of Ivan Illich’s seminal work Tools for Conviviality, committed to a new austerity or frugality to shape consumption, and indeed the quality of life itself, based on an understanding of their productive system and its relation to the ecosystem’s capacity to provide.2

The Great Transition to which we all aspire is already in construction in the thousands of the “post-capitalist societies” where people are learning how to live on the edges of the global marketplace.3 They are developing new ways of organizing themselves, recuperating valuable knowledge from their ancestors, and collaborating with willing associates to create a better quality of life and conserve the planet.

1. See, for example, Sidney Mintz, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (New York: Penguin, 1985).
2. Ivan Illich, Tools for Conviviality (London: Calder & Boyars, 1973).
3. Barkin, David and Blanca Lemus, “Third World Alternatives for Building Post-Capitalist Worlds,” Review of Radical Political Economics 48, no. 4 (December 2016): 569–576.

Cite as David Barkin, “Contribution to ‘Roundtable on Vivir Bien,'” Great Transition Initiative (February 2018),

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