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Alternatives to capitalism: Buen Vivir
by Thomas Meyer
Sunday Jun 20th, 2021 5:27 AM
Capitalism is seen primarily as a system of institutional and racist oppression, and it implies a way of life that sees nature only as a raw material to be exploited. The claim is thus to break with the capitalist mode of production and life in order to create "other forms of life that are not determined by capital accumulation" (ibid., 37). The aim is a "return to use values" (ibid., 39).
Thomas Meyer: Alternatives to capitalism - In check: Buen Vivir and the end of catch-up development
First published in: Ökumenisches Netz Rhein-Mosel-Saar (ed.): Bruch mit der Form: Overcoming Capitalism in Theory and Practice, Koblenz 2020, 465-479. See:https://www.oekumenisches-netz.de/veroeffentlichungen/broschueren-und-buecher/
Alternatives to Capitalism - In Check: Buen Vivir and the End of Catch-Up Development
By Thomas Meyer

[This study published in 2020 is translated from the German on the Internet, https://www.exit-online.org/textanz1.php?tabelle=aktuelles&index=9&posnr=769.]
1. introduction

With the "collapse of modernization" (cf. Kurz 1994) and the end of Soviet state capitalism, the paradigm of catch-up modernization has become obsolete. Numerous world regions have long since become a "stomping ground of drug barons, warlords, and world order warriors" (cf. Bedszent 2014). Although capitalism is always looking for new opportunities for exploitation (Green New Deal, digitalization, AI, biotechnology), any further 'modernization' leads to little more than 'progress' in the slumming of the world (cf. Davis 2011) and a progression of ecological catastrophe (cf. Konicz 2020). Thus, it is obvious to reject all claims and promises of 'modernization' and 'development'. In this context stands 'Sumak Kawsay' or Spanish 'Buen Vivir'. On Buen Vivir, Tatiana López-Ayala writes: "Buen Vivir as a concept emerged in Bolivia and Ecuador against the backdrop of strengthening protests by (indigenous) social movements against neoliberal development and economic policies imposed by the IMF and the World Bank. The expansion of the extractivist export model as well as the privatization of central economic sectors, such as the water sector in Bolivia, led to growing social inequality as well as to an increasing destruction of natural habitats, especially the rainforests [...]. Buen Vivir thus comes on the scene as a response to a perceived [sic] 'crisis of the Western model of civilization' [...]. This crisis manifests itself in the continuing increase in global poverty despite all development efforts, the dwindling of natural resources, and the devastating consequences of climate change. The representatives of Buen Vivir hold responsible for this crisis especially the capitalist economic system, which is based on the systematic subjugation of nature and on a paradigm of endless growth and thus becomes a threat to life on the planet [...]. However, the critique of the Western-modern model of civilization and development is not limited to a mere critique of capitalism. Rather, Buen Vivir is directed against the entire ideological substructure of European modernity, which is based, among other things, on the concepts of individualism, colonialism, rationalism, and institutionalism [...] (López-Ayala 2017, 12).

The South American indigenous movements, summarized as 'Buen Vivir', are thus concerned with establishing a 'Good Life'. This should not consist of adopting the Western model of consumption and the modern capitalist way of life. Rather, it is about rejecting a way of life based on exploitation and plundering of nature. Instead, it seeks a society that should have a 'harmonious relationship' with nature. Thus Buen Vivir is incompatible with all modern predefined 'development paths'. Modernization would amount to nothing other than an assimilation to the western capitalist states. For many, however, this alignment would nevertheless remain only an irredeemable promise (cf. Davis 2011). Since such an alignment is mainly financed by the fact that corresponding countries excessively extract raw materials (neo-extractivism), 'development' leads to an aggravation of the ecological and social crisis. Thus, by further modernization, one would take a path that has already proven to be a historical dead end and an ecological disaster.1 Under the 'leftist' governments of Latin America, the plundering of nature was not reduced, but increased even further. 'More prosperity' is also to be achieved for the 'progressives' through even more exploitation of nature (see e.g. Gudynas 2013 as well as Brand; Muno 2014). Turning away from the promises or threats of modernization and catch-up development in general (whether neoliberal or 'progressive'), positions of Buen Vivir have found their way into state constitutions in some South American countries (Ecuador and Bolivia). Not surprisingly, mere 'legal recognition' has not led to the hoped-for reversal.2

With its rejection of a development model through which 'prosperity' is to be achieved by exploiting nature as a mere 'raw material', Buen Vivir has an overlap in content with the post-growth movement, which also criticizes the rampant resource consumption associated with the Western "imperial way of life" (cf. Brand; Wissen 2017) (cf. Acosta; Brand 2018, 142ff.). However, a crucial difference to the Western post-growth movement should be highlighted: Buen Vivir refers to the experiences of colonial and postcolonial oppression of indigenous peoples. These suffer the blood- and dirt-soaked character of capitalist modernization from every pore (cf. Marx 2005, 788). This has not changed until today, as can be seen, for example, in Brazil under the fascist Bolsonaro.

In the following, it is first of all a question of spreading out the positions of Buen Vivir. For this, I refer predominantly to Alberto Acosta (Acosta 2012). Acosta was the Minister of Energy of Ecuador and President of the Constituent Assembly of Ecuador in 2007/2008 and is considered an important representative of Buen Vivir.
2 The 'Good Life' according to Alberto Acosta.

Buen Vivir emphasizes in particular, as already indicated at the beginning, that the efforts to modernize, to adapt to the Western way of development including the corresponding way of life, are to be rejected. This also includes the "hitherto real existing socialisms" (Acosta 2015, 71). For firstly, corresponding financing would run via neo-extractivism, i.e. the corresponding countries would then function primarily as suppliers of raw materials, and secondly, the 'end result' to be striven for is in any case a discontinued model: the "prevailing lifestyle is globally unsustainable" and "could end in collective suicide" (ibid., 40).

Capitalism is seen primarily as a system of institutional and racist oppression, and it implies a way of life that sees nature only as a raw material to be exploited. The claim is thus to break with the capitalist mode of production and life in order to create "other forms of life that are not determined by capital accumulation" (ibid., 37). The aim is a "return to use values" (ibid., 39). Thus, it would not be a matter of merely redistributing capitalistically produced wealth; rather, it would be a matter of radical change. In Acosta's words, "It is not a question of an optimal material accumulation system. Nor is it enough to better distribute or redistribute the accumulated fruits. [...] The world needs profound radical changes. There is an urgent need to overcome the simplistic view that economism determines society. What is needed is a different form of social organization and a new political practice. To achieve this, creativity must be awakened and a renewed focus on life. Only in this way can we avoid becoming mere executors of outdated procedures and recipes" (ibid., 10).

The 'Good Life' is thereby conceived as a pluralistic concept, since it is to be avoided to want to assert a right master plan for all: "What counts in the concept of the 'Good Life' is the human individual, integrated in his community, who maintains harmonious relationship with nature, striving, individually as much as in the community, to build a sustainable, dignified life for all. First, one must discard the notion of a universal plan for the 'Good Life' that is valid and indisputable in every time and place. It is more appropriate to speak of 'Good Life' in the plural, in order to open the gates to the construction of a new culture in which a plurality of approaches goes hand in hand with a radicality of solutions. It should be adapted to the respective visions and ways of life and strive for a life in fullness" (ibid., 16). In this regard, it is necessary to strengthen indigenous traditions, especially of those communities "that have not been completely absorbed by capitalist modernity and that have managed to continue to exist on its margins" (ibid., 15). This is followed by the idea of a plurinational state. This should ensure that indigenous communities are not (finally) overrun by modernity, but that they are helped to their own rights. It goes on to say: "In a plurinational state, the cultural codes of indigenous peoples and nationalities must be taken into account. This means that a broad debate on this issue must be allowed in order to make possible a different state that is not bound to Eurocentric traditions. In this process, existing structures must be rethought; institutions must be built in which a horizontal exercise of power can become a reality. To achieve this, the state must be 'naturalized' by individuals and, above all, by communities as active forms of social organization. In other words, democracy as such must be rethought and deepened" (ibid., 35). The background to this idea is the Western culture of dominance and 500 years of colonial oppression: "Overcoming inequality and injustice is as essential as decolonization and liberation from patriarchal structures. Moreover, racism, which is deeply rooted in many of our societies, must be conquered. Social as well as territorial issues must be urgently addressed" (ibid.). It remains unclear whether Acosta also has patriarchal structures in indigenous communities themselves in mind. It remains questionable whether a crisis-ridden state, dependent by hook or by crook on successful capital accumulation, can be 'used' in such a way that it recognizes indigenous communities and their way of life as equals and refrains from, for example, extracting oil in the areas in question. In fact, Buen Vivir has even been misused as jargon to justify the opposite of what Buen Vivir is supposed to stand for: For example, as propaganda for "mega-mining projects" (ibid., 87). Equality in the bourgeois sense, however, is nothing other than equality on the market, and only such equality is the state capable of granting according to its own logic. That a capitalist regime does not grasp the actual objective of Buen Vivir or simply ignores it and translates Buen Vivir into 'more capital accumulation' is logical, especially since the state must also finance all its activities.

Among the indigenous traditions that Acosta has primarily in mind are those that involve a different relationship of people to nature and people to each other. In contrast to bourgeois society, nature is not seen as something hostile to man, which must be conquered and dominated, quite the opposite: as part of nature, man sees himself as belonging to nature and life in and with nature must be such that nature is given its right, i.e. the aim is a way of life that is in 'harmony' with nature. The criterion for nature's 'right to exist' is therefore not its usefulness for man: "This biocentric attitude is based on an alternative ethical perspective and recognizes the environment's own values. Everything that exists, even if it is not identical, has an ontological value, even if it is not useful to humans" (ibid., 36). The background of such an anti-utilitarian stance is, of course, the capitalist overexploitation of nature through which abstract wealth (G-W-G') is to be realized. A recognition of nature as a legal subject then found its way into the constitution of Ecuador, which did not really prevent further overexploitation of nature.

Such a conception of 'ethically enhancing' nature can be found in different regions of the world. The 'cause' is quite similar: Vandana Shiva criticizes the capitalist modernization of India. She accuses Western science of being nothing but an expression of capitalist economy, of seeing all nature as raw material and of behaving in a calculating and dominating way towards it. Thus, it rejects the reductionist and mechanistic thinking of Western traditions. The modernization of India with its disastrous ecological consequences (Green Revolution) is a result of this way of thinking, which is by no means 'neutral'. She contrasts Western domination of nature with traditional Indian and indigenous ideas that traditional communities, know about the manifold relationships in nature and therefore their 'management' does not lead to an ecological catastrophe within a few years (cf. Shiva 1989).

In both Shiva and Acosta, pre-modern or indigenous conceptions of nature are not criticized. A conception of nature that perceives nature only under the aspect of what human benefit can be drawn from it is to be rejected quite rightly. But the idea that humans can behave 'harmoniously' with nature is very problematic. With this concept it is assumed that nature would be a stationary whole in itself, in which humans have to fit in. Even if Acosta does not mention it, biocentric views are certainly compatible with or linked to anti-human positions, of which the so-called deep ecology is an eloquent example (cf. Ditfurth 1996, 123ff.). The negative sides of nature (diseases, devastation and death by volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, etc.) are also ignored. Thus, there can be no talk of a real harmony. Since also in a non-capitalistic society interventions in nature would not be avoidable, the question would rather arise, which nature could be 'produced'. A life in harmony with nature is therefore at first only an empty abstraction. Certainly, this notion can be concretized by looking at local agri-cultural indigenous communities, but it is questionable whether such a 'sustainable' indigenous economy (which is probably what is ultimately meant by 'harmony') helps to address the problem of transforming the capitalist metabolic process with nature, rather than possibly abolishing it without replacement or breaking it down to local small-scale production of a subsistence economy. Acosta does emphasize that the concept of the Good Life should not be limited to peasant contexts (ibid., 169) and is by no means meant in the sense of "a return to the past" or even in the sense of a "reversion[s] to indigenous mysticism" (ibid., 89), however, by emphasizing harmony he avoids this problem from the outset.

As Robert Kurz has pointed out, it is not possible for man, although a being of nature, to relate 'harmoniously' to nature, since man is not 'one' with nature. The relationship with nature consists in entering into a specific metabolism with nature, which also leads to nature being transformed and thus itself being changed: "Since social and natural processes are not identical, they can collide. No human being can simply 'live in harmony with nature', as the green ideology demands. Otherwise he would himself be merely nature, that is, an animal. Society is not directly nature, but 'metabolic process with nature' (Marx), thus transformation and 'culturalization' of nature (cultus originally meant agriculture). In order that this process does not lead to catastrophic frictions, a reasonable organization of society is necessary. Reason in this respect means nothing else than a reflection of the interrelationships of nature in consciousness and a corresponding behavior in the social transformation of nature that avoids senseless overexploitation and destructive side effects" (cf. Kurz 2002). Thus, nature is not something static. In this context, the "form of social labor [...] determines the specific purposes and driving forces of production and consumption and the nature and extent of interventions in nature" (Böhme; Grebe 1985, 27). However, the 'form of social labor' precisely does not come into view with Acosta.

Although Acosta brings together important points, he remains on a phenomenological level. It claims to know the "ways of hell in order to avoid them" (ibid., 32); at the same time, it says that the "foundations of the system [...] cannot be exhaustively elaborated in this text" (ibid., 169). A systematic categorical critique is missing. It lacks a critique of labor and, at the same time, of reproductive activities that have a feminine connotation and are undervalued. He also uses a rather outdated concept of imperialism. An imperialism of crisis and exclusion is alien to it (cf. Kurz 2003). The problem of 'social synthesis' (cf. section 3) is not even touched upon by him. Quite the contrary. The theoretical deficits of the post-growth movement are commonplace here as well.3 For instance, Acosta makes a positive reference to local currencies. This is a consequence of the demand for a "selective and temporary separation from the world market" and the accompanying push for "decentralization" (ibid., 148). It would be a matter of building up "from below and from within" and "doing justice to local conditions; through it, for example, alternative currencies gain in weight, with which the community can once again become master of its economy" (ibid., 147).

Certainly, in view of the sometimes completely absurd capitalist distribution chains (cf. e.g. Böge 1992), it makes sense to do various things locally. But there are many things that can only be the result of a complex 'division of labor' or a 'material-technical division of functions and organization' that could by no means be done locally (such as the technical equipment of medical care, the production of medicines, the production of solar cells, the infrastructure for sewage treatment, etc.).

So the question to be asked crucially in this context is not 'local or global', but how does one arrive at a mode of production in which production and distribution are planned and carried out by all members of society, without a fetishistic medium intervening between people to which they are then subjected? In the words of Robert Kurz: "Autonomy does not mean doing everything oneself and forcing reproduction under a narrow-minded community ethos. On the contrary, autonomy means that socio-economic relationships are no longer subject to an external, irrational and fetishistic coercive relationship, but are based on conscious and free communication, which offers the individual stubbornness, possibilities for development and retreat. It is therefore necessary to occupy a social terrain of autonomy in this sense, which can only live if it does not close itself off regressively, but enters into diverse and far-reaching relationships that can break through and abolish, rather than cement, precisely the irrational national, religious, and 'ethnic' references that have become patterns of exclusion of competition in the history of modernization" (Kurz 1997, 78f.).

The lack of a critique of labor makes itself particularly unsavory in Acosta's work. All activities, productive and reproductive, are said to be equal. Then it says: "Work, then, is a right and a social duty in a society that aspires to the 'Good Life.' Therefore, no form of unemployment or underemployment (!) can be tolerated. The challenge of the 'Good Life', which to a large extent will be related to the issue of work, must be solved through the position of work. It is not simply a matter of producing 'more'. It must be produced for a good life. Once everything has got its order, work will make people's lives more worthy (!). Work should then be understood as a space of freedom and enjoyment" (ibid., 155). Furthermore, "one should think of a redistribution of the ever scarcer jobs" (ibid.). Acosta's solution approach: "reduction of working hours and a redistribution of work" as well as a "collective redefinition of the axiological and existential needs of man" (ibid.). Acosta does not say whether a reduction in working hours must be followed by a reduction in wages. Nor does it address why jobs are becoming scarcer. There is no talk of abolishing the labor market and wage labor.

It gets even better. With reference to Ferdinand Braudel4 Acosta thinks he can make out a difference between market economy and capitalism, indeed "capitalism [can] even be an 'anti-market'" (ibid., 160). And precisely then - three guesses may be made - "when entrepreneurs - in a more or less strong monopoly position - [...] behave" (ibid.). Ordo-liberalism sends its regards! With this distinction, Acosta concludes that long before the arrival of the Europeans, there would have been among the indigenous people "the market as a social construct based on solidarity, reciprocity and proportionality" (ibid.). Apparently, Acosta retrojects modern categories into the past. If objects 'exchanged hands' in pre-modern times, this may have had more to do with personal relations of obligation5 . Indeed, some of the indigenous 'economic logics' Acosta presents are reminiscent of remnants of just such relations of obligation (ibid., 166f.).

Acosta emphasizes that it is not "necessary to first overcome capitalism altogether in order to subsequently advance the Good Life" (ibid., 72). A 'reformist moment' is thus evident. However, his 'reform proposals' are ludicrous: "In order to build an economy based on solidarity, other forms of production, trade, consumption, cooperation and accumulation of financial resources (!!) must be found" (ibid., 145). On the latter, a "democratization of access to financial resources" (ibid., 172) is sought. Instead of calling for a complete debt cut, for instance, he distinguishes between "legally and legitimately incurred debts that can be paid and those that must be challenged because they came about in the context of usury and corruption" (ibid., 183). Then the "tax havens must disappear" and there must be "all the taxes needed for international financial transactions (Tobin tax) to combat financial speculation" (ibid., 184). What is missing is the demand for a social democrat as minister of labor to 'fight idleness and parasitism'.

It should have become clear that Buen Vivir is by no means a fundamental critique of capitalism. Certain manifestations of capitalism are rejected and criticized, but Acosta does not manage the step into a categorical critique and thus a break with the global capitalist form of society. This lack of radicalism may be one reason why Buen Vivir, like the post-growth movement, is comparatively well known.
3 Social Synthesis

Acosta names phenomenologically important contexts, albeit more narratively rather than systematically analytically-dialectically: the untenability of Western (and Eastern) modernization, of the capitalist way of life, a critique of (neo)colonial oppression and of the relationship to nature, which it sees only as exploitable raw material. A categorical critique, on the other hand, is not addressed. Neither is there a critique of labor, nor a critique of the form of value or capital6 and certainly not one of the gender division.7 Likewise, there is no critique of the state.8 He is concerned with rejecting the current state, whether neoliberal or 'leftist'. He wants a different state that grants access and perspectives to those who have been marginalized until now. The background is, among other things, that indigenous peoples are not driven from their land for the purpose of resource extraction or languish in a poisoned landscape. What is intended is something impossible: the recognition by the capitalist state that they do not have to exploit themselves and nature through the 'automatic subject'. So it is no wonder why elevating the rights of nature to the rank of the constitution has brought nothing. This is similar to the hypocritical discourse here about 'sustainability' and 'green growth'.

But if an alternative to capitalism - and not, like Acosta, ultimately only an alternative within capitalism - is to be addressed, and not only on the day of never-never, the problem of social synthesis must be unfolded, i.e., "the problem of a specific quality of overarching mediation [...] as a form of social coherence" (Kurz 2011, 130, emphasis TM). Instead, Acosta's alternative is to be developed via, of all things, alternative currencies, more regionalism, and aberrant reforms.

How is the relationship between the individual (indigenous) communities and the 'production units' that have emerged from them to be determined if the market and the state are to be overcome and a complex division of functions remains necessary and must be maintained? Clearly, no 'unit of production' can produce everything and hardly anyone would seriously aspire to reduce society to self-sufficient villages. So how is the 'superordinate context' of the individual communities to be thought? In what relation do they place themselves in order to operate as a member of a social production? Here appears again the problem of every 'socialism' since the 19th century, which distinguished itself from the etatist socialism of the Marxists and Leninists. Robert Kurz stated: "Anarchist and in general every petty-bourgeois socialism, which abstracts from the transcendental forms of the social relation, which are upstream of the empirical will, always wants to reduce the question of the alternative to immediately empirical and 'simple' relations of will. That is why he always comes up with small, manageable 'models' of cooperatives and grassroots democratic communities. Within their boundaries, everything is supposed to run 'free of domination' and according to common decisions" (ibid., 129). Undoubtedly, this also addresses Buen Vivir as well as commons and post-growth movements. And further Kurz: "With this, however, neither the reality nor the concept of a social context is won, unless one wanted to throw humanity back to the level of mutually isolated cow villages with crudest subsistence production. On their basis, however, correspondingly crude and primitive structures of rule would then emerge. The decisive question is therefore that of the overarching organizational forms of the many individual partial productions, infrastructures and 'communities' according to their inner relationship, which only as a whole constitutes something like socialization and thus also a social relationship. Neither can one be content with defining liberated sociality as a mere external 'sum' of those cooperative microstructures, nor is their 'model' sufficient for a total social and even transnational or planetary mediation of the billions of individual reproductive activities. [...] The overarching social context forms its own quality, which must find its own form of mediation and organization. And it is this mediating social context which, in its dominant negative quality as a fetishistic movement of ends in itself, determines the a priori form of the empirical will. It is therefore a naive illusion to want to qualify the latter differently for oneself on a small scale, while the actual, because overarching social context of form remains unmastered and virtually an unreflective 'black box'" (ibid., 129f., emphasis in the original).

If synthesis is no longer to be produced through commodity production and money or corresponding surrogates, and at the same time a fall into subsistence economy is to be avoided, then this means that there must be a 'buntscheckige' production with a complex division of functions. The different 'production units' would have to coordinate, to coordinate with each other, to plan production. But this kind of production would not be external to consumption (where the 'consumer' complains as a 'consumer' about the junk and nonsense delivered to him by the producer) and likewise there would be no sphere split off from (commodity) production.9

There remains the problem of how indigenous communities, or the 'production units of the Good Life' that emerged from them, could tie their social bond without resorting to surrogates of the market and the state (such as local currencies). It would be a matter of wresting production from capitalism without taking it over and without simply shutting it down. Again in the words of Robert Kurz: "The basic economic problem here is that upstream activities are not linked by means of commodity exchange and monetary relations, but that a mediated identity of producers and consumers is established on an extended ladder. It is not a question of a fundamental business specialization, but of a polytechnical division of functions, which can, for example, be alternating in terms of personnel. [...] Furthermore, it is not about an exchange of abstracted equivalents in a merely natural form [...], but about a purely material-technical division of functions, in which it is only important that within the functional context the necessary things are produced in the necessary quantity and quality. [...] But it would depend on bringing the functional divisions into a context of identity of production and consumption purely oriented to the needs of the participants." (Kurz 1997, 88, emphasis in original).
4. conclusion

A critique of capitalism that seeks radical change, as indicated by Acosta, must move beyond a phenomenological approach. As important as defensive struggles against neo-extractivism, racism and other things mentioned by Acosta are, they cannot replace a categorical critique of capitalism. At the latest, when various 'reform proposals' are made, it takes revenge for not having set the theoretical horizon significantly above the 'surface of everyday life'. When Acosta writes about alternative possibilities of financial accumulation, it is expressed that his imagination does not reach too far. The desired alternative to capitalism then turns out to be an alternative within capitalism.
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Acosta, Alberto: Buen Vivir - Vom Recht auf ein gutes Leben, Munich 2015, first Quito 2012.
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Not to mention that a worldwide generalization of the Western way of life and consumption would require several Earths.^
It should also be noted, however, that Acosta is by no means so naïve as to assume that mere legal recognition would suffice for a transformation of society.^
A text is planned for Exit No. 18 that will deal in detail with the post-growth and commons movements.^
On Braudel, see Kurz 2012, 373ff. ^
Cf. Kurz 2012 as well as Bockelmann 2020.^
Cf. Kurz 2004/2005/1994b as well as Robert Kurz's lectures "On the Critique of Labor" https://www.freie-radios.net/10566 and "Fetish Reason or Categorical Critique?" http://audioarchiv.blogsport.de/2009/03/16/fetischvernunft-oder-kategoriale-kritik/. ^
Cf. Scholz 2010/2011/2013.^
Cf. Kurz 2003 chapters "The End of Sovereignty" and "The Global State of Exception" as well as ders. 2010/2011.^
Cf. Scholz 2013.^
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