Roundtable on Vivir Bien/ Holly Hanson


An exchange on Vivir Bien: Old Cosmovisions and New Paradigms

Holly Hanson

Holly Hanson is a professor of history at Mount Holyoke College. Her research, focused primarily on Uganda, explores how dynamic patterns of exchange have been created, and then undermined, and what history suggests about how they might be rebuilt. She is the author of such books as A Path of Justice: Building Communities with the Power to Shape the World, Landed Obligation: the Practice of Power in Buganda, and Social and Economic Development: A Baha’i Approach.

Pablo Solón’s essay and this provocative discussion have made me think about the kinds of social structures that allowed people in the pre-Iberian past to express the values which have been called Vivir Bien. Solón referred to “systems of knowledge, practice, and organization”: those systems were complex, and they succeeded in organizing large numbers of people across vast distances in what Nancy Farriss described as “the collective enterprise of survival.”1 Two elements of those systems seem particularly relevant as we think about facilitating a great transition now. First, in contrast to bureaucratic forms that characterize the modern world, Andean and Mesoamerican societies located political and economic agency in small units at the absolute base of society. They followed heterarchical as well as hierarchical principles. Second, those diverse, overlapping groups drew themselves together through religious practices that asserted mutual obligations of people for each other. Part of what made those thousands of small units different from the forms of social organization we know in the modern world is that they held and used the power to make decisions for themselves. They also differed from modern experience in that people genuinely believed that the well-being of the part was always best served by the well-being of the whole. The dynamic, far-reaching patterns of exchange they created expressed that conviction. I wonder how these two aspects of what Andeans achieved relate to each other: Is it possible that human societies can only create vital, functioning reciprocity when our social structures devolve decision-making to groups that are much smaller than our current social structures allow? If that is true, perhaps we need to be looking not only at a heritage of Andean beliefs, but also at the structures that channeled autonomous actions of communities towards reciprocity and regional interdependence.

That, in turn, suggests questions for us: How does the human race in the twenty-first century arrive at a compelling, just, collective understanding of the primacy of the whole over the part? And what processes will facilitate the creation of structures which allow people to express that value?


1. Nancy Farriss, Maya Society under Colonial Rule: The Collective Enterprise of Survival (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984) and Steve Stern, Peru’s Indian Peoples and the Challenge of Spanish Conquest, Huamanga to 1640 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1994) are two classic explorations of this topic.

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