An exchange on Vivir Bien: Old Cosmovisions and New Paradigms
Aaron Karp is an activist focused on generating a discussion within the climate justice movement about the need for degrowth and deep, authentic democracy. He is writing a book about how solving our ecological problems necessitates a fundamentally different society. In 2012, he co-founded the fossil fuel divestment campaign at UMass Amherst, where he studied neuroscience and Spanish.
Pablo Solón discusses Vivir Bien (VB) as an alternative to neoliberalism. In his essay, he discusses the ideal of VB, VB as implemented in Bolivia after it was written into the country’s constitution, and the way that VB interacts with and complements other worldviews aimed at social liberation. Throughout the essay, several ideas about social change arise that provide an opportunity for deeper reflection.
One central theme is the idea of development. Solón describes VB as a worldview that “questions the very essence of the notion of ‘development,’ of always advancing toward a higher point, always searching to do better,” and calls this idea “a fiction.” VB’s belief in the cyclical nature of time and reality suggests that there is no meaningful way to define development in any form, but Solón’s beliefs expressed throughout the essay instead point towards a redefinition of the term. He notes that VB “is not merely a version of development that is less anthropocentric and more democratic, holistic, or humanizing, for VB does not embrace the conventional Western equation of development with progress and permanent growth.” I believe Solón is expressing that VB doesn’t just seek a more democratically led and egalitarian drive for material accumulation, a view I certainly share, but I tend to think of the pursuit of a “more democratic, holistic, or humanizing” society as part of a new definition of “development.” Solón himself speaks in the essay of developing “real democracy” and a unified vision with “holistic answers” to the issues we face, entailing efforts like expanding renewable energy and agroecology—views that suggest to me a redefinition of development. This is important because if humans are striving beings by nature, then asserting a new, meaningful view of progress would seem important to animating a mass movement (rather than removing the idea of development altogether).
Arguing against the idea of development in any form ensures that society’s elites will continue to define it. Our striving can be diverse; it doesn’t have to be primarily material—in fact, defining progress as material accumulation quickly becomes hollow. But pursuing the right things—knowledge of the world, knowledge of one’s self, understanding of others, justice, inclusivity, a mindset emphasizing appreciation rather than accumulation—I think these can form the foundation of “development” in the society we’re aiming to achieve. In general, I believe that social transformation consists of a redefinition of important cultural ideas rather than throwing them out, which cedes control of the definition of reality to those in power.
Solón also discusses VB’s emphasis on decolonization, which is a multi-layer process of liberation that isn’t content with democratizing formal political institutions (like gaining the right to vote). Domination is also exerted in the economic realm and even more deeply over our culture and our minds. Solón notes that VB pays explicit attention to ordinary people’s worldview and how it has been shaped by existing social structures to replicate the status quo. This worldview could include internalized ideas about the inferiority of the population and the superiority of those in positions of power, or the belief that the present society is natural or inevitable. I believe the most fundamental layer of liberation is the one we cannot see—it is how we think about the world and our place in it. Our worldview, which is typically implicit, is what maintains the more visible, oppressive economic and political institutions in society as legitimate.
The emphasis on decolonization is premised by a vitally necessary question: How free are we really? Such a question is revolutionary because it encourages us to rethink assumptions that would lead us to think and act like passive spectators in society, never seeing ourselves as the rightful decision-makers. Decolonizing one’s worldview also involves a rejection of the view of oneself primarily as a “consumer.” Redefining what a “good life” consists of and how much energy and resource consumption is enough for that life will play a primary role in determining societies’ demands on the environment. The call for decolonization highlights the need for a critically thinking, reflective mass movement.
Authenticity is also an important part of the discussion around development and decolonization. We are inevitably products of our societies, including concerted efforts made by elites to shape us into passive spectators, as culture and social institutions interact with human nature. But to the extent that we learn about the currents of influence that shape our view of ourselves, of the world, and of what constitutes a meaningful life and a just society, we can more consciously choose how to live. We can start to “see with our own eyes, think our own thoughts, and dream our own dreams.”
The ecological issues we face can only be addressed through collective action, through individuals working together to create a new society. Solón also briefly mentions VB’s view of the connection between the individual and the community. It can be easy to forget one or the other in trying to effect a Great Transition, but balancing these is vital to the success of a movement. Being part of a movement is about working towards something larger than oneself—a just community. But the individual and their unique character and value cannot get lost through overemphasis on the community. Ultimately, only a just community is capable of imposing the limits on itself that allow for the preservation of the natural world. Without the individual there is no community, and without the community, there will be no free, living individual. As Solón observes, the quest for a society constructed harmoniously between individuals, the community, and nature is an ongoing process.
After explaining the ideals behind VB, Solón goes on to describe how the government of Bolivia has fallen short of implementing VB in practice. The government continues to extract the country’s resources with little apparent attention to VB. In this discussion, what seems to be missing is how VB gained recognition by the government in the first place. I would imagine the industries that have been converting Bolivian resources into profits for years had no interest in seeing an indigenous president elected nor VB written into the country’s constitution. Solón writes that “for the first time, after centuries of exclusion, indigenous peoples’ vision was recognized and incorporated as a core element in the [nation’s] political agenda.” This would seem to be an important step towards democracy. What was the popular force behind these developments, and where did it go? This is vital context, because the picture presented by Solón shows that even with these achievements, which must have been the result of long periods of social struggle, a movement must persist to ensure accountability. The state, surrounded by competing power systems and staffed by some with outdated worldviews, will not pursue elements of VB without sustained efforts to hold it accountable. Where in the story is the people’s movement?
When describing how the government has failed to follow VB, Solón notes that “what matters most is whether urban and rural communities, social movements and social organizations, are getting stronger; becoming more self-organized, creative, and resilient; embracing greater solidarity; practicing complementarity; and contributing to the restoration of nature. On these criteria, Bolivia has lagged.” However, these developments could only ever originate within popular movements. Later, after the public has achieved sufficient control over its political system, then government could be used to advance this process. The mistake is thinking that government alone will produce these effects.
Solón writes that “institutionalizing and formalizing a cosmovision inevitably leads to its dismemberment,” but we must guard against the idea that giving structure to our ideals necessarily leads to hierarchy and eventual corruption. It seems to me that continued corporate influence, the extractivist values held by government officials, and the lack of a powerful, independent movement capable of forcing government accountability could be major factors in the “dismemberment” of VB. In other words, the corruption of this ideal is perhaps more related to the imperfect conditions surrounding it than the attempt to give it structure. It can be painful to see a beloved ideal become corrupted in trying to put it into practice, to know that others are receiving a false picture of it. In my view, the point of a far-reaching social movement is to embed fundamentally different values within our social institutions—replacing authoritarianism with democracy, replacing the economic goal of profit maximization with the goal of meeting community needs while respecting ecological limits, replacing narrow self-interest with concern for others, etc. If we understand that even the most sincere attempts at implementation will likely never reach the ideal, then we should make clear that this is simply part of the struggle towards a just society and it should not deter us.
Solón does draw the correct conclusion from his observations, affirming that “the Bolivian experience over the last decade demonstrates that for VB, the goal of taking power should be to encourage emancipation and self-determination from below, questioning and subverting the colonial structures that persist or arise even in the new ‘revolutionary’ state.” This is an important lesson about the nature of democracy: it seems to take persistent effort, first to gain public control of the state and then to continue that same autonomous mass movement to maintain accountability. That’s what it would take to really implement an ideal like VB. Democracy is not defined by state-led action, but movement-led action.
One major institutional transformation that must be achieved by a population in control of its government is the democratization of its monetary system (and the removal of control from private banks). In this scenario, communities would come together to determine their needs and the currency required to meet them, and would drive the injection of new money into the economy by providing their budget to a democratically accountable and transparent central bank. This appears to be one fundamental way that democracy and sustainability are intertwined. As Mary Mellor has pointed out, enough money could be created to employ the entire working population and prioritize occupations that vastly reduce resource extraction (such as education and care for others), preserving nature while ensuring the public is sufficiently provisioned. If the government is forced to harvest the country’s resources to generate revenue, then it is not monetarily sovereign. Even the most authentic government won’t be fully in control of its policies without democratically directed money creation.
Solón concludes with a discussion of how VB complements other visions of social liberation. He writes insightfully about how these various systemic alternatives “point toward the same broad objectives.” Highlighting this alignment is essential for many reasons. First, it prevents divisions. Showing how other systemic alternatives are indeed complementary is important because liberation movements can get bogged down in semantics and perceived differences that may be trivial or may not even exist. The more we explicitly discuss the principles that underlie various visions for liberation, the more we will see their natural alignment. This would seem to protect against divisiveness, which elites rely on to maintain control of society: “Although not easy, nurturing a bold, synergistic approach is the only way to overcome the mistakes of fragmentation and the forces of cooptation in advancing a Great Transition.”
Solón’s discussion of alignment also emphasizes the need for collaborative action. As activists working on various issues, we have yet to take seriously enough the idea that transformation may only be achievable by working together. Granted, it takes serious, sustained work to develop and maintain an ongoing multi-issue movement. People must believe that it is necessary. There must be greater efforts made towards connecting currently uncoordinated movements and visions for change.
Lastly, recognizing complementarity can lead to a vision that is broad enough to create a transformation of society, rather than just partial reforms. Not only do we recognize the need to work with others, but we also make this possible by combining various critiques of the existing society and broadening our concerns. I believe that our principles form the foundation of our movement, and the more broadly these principles are applied the more internally consistent, compelling to both current members and prospective participants, and powerful the movement becomes.
Creating a broadly democratic society is a serious challenge. Bolivia’s example shows that even electing an indigenous president and enshrining VB in its constitution, as much struggle as it took, isn’t enough. Movements must persist until existing institutions have been transformed (or new ones created) to distribute decision-making power much more equally. Even then, the continued organization of the public outside of these institutions as a safeguard of accountability and transparency may be necessary. Solón describes this well: “The best way to avoid being captured by the logic of power is to empower autonomous counter-powers, not as passive state clients, but as entities truly capable of counterbalancing the conservative and reactionary forces that remain, as well as those that develop within the new structures of power. Above all, the vitality of the transformation process depends on encouraging the idea and practice of the commons throughout society and between society and nature.”
Indeed, our ability to create sustainable societies will be determined by how far we spread the ethos of democracy. Individuals must transform from passive spectators to active participants in the shaping of society, and to help others become aware of our right and responsibility to self-govern. It means breaking out of the narrow social role we’ve been taught to play, in an ongoing process of decolonization. It calls us to connect and distill the information and ideas that help us understand the world—such as those that appear in this forum—and bring them to the public. Sufficiently active and enlightened, we can choose a different path. “Ultimately,” Solón writes, “the key to social transformation lies with the capacity of commoners to build a different modernity with balance, moderation, and simplicity at its center.”