DevelopmentPLUS: Conversation with Giuseppe De Marzo

For the launch of Development 54.4, a conversation with Giuseppe De Marzo, economist, activist and spokesperson for the association A Sud is presented below. He talks about  his recent book 'Buen Vivir- For a New Democracy of the Earth' and points out how a radical change of paradigm in how we live with nature and fellow human beings can get us out of the crisis. Read the interview below and comments by Development authors Bob Thomson, Catherine Walsh and Ana Agostino.

Q.: In the face of the crisis of the dominant capitalist model what contribution can the Latin American concept of Buen Vivir make?
A.: Now that the crisis has exploded at a global level and is hitting those same places that had exported flawed models of development and society (I am talking about the western world and Europe as well) Buen Vivir is extremely useful as it turns upside down the way of understanding and solving the crisis.  Buen Vivir focuses around the concept of environmental and social justice as elements on which to build development and relationships in society, as well as relationships with political forces. This means that we should start from the paradigm of  Buen Vivir and construct an idea of welfare without growth. If we remain tied to the hypothesis, the mantra of infinite economic growth we will never be able to come out of the crisis. In the western world they expect to solve the crisis by increasing  GDP or pushing for economic growth. In contrast Buen Vivir turns the priorities upside down. The most important thing is development that allows human beings to live well. If man wants to achieve this  he has to change his relationship with nature and with fellow human beings and has to reconvert his productive forces. This is a vision that allows us to come out of the crisis. The western monetarist approach, that still thinks austerity, economic growth and privatization can produce an increase in wealth, is an approach that is out of history, out of science and out of economics.
Q.: In your book you advocate for a democracy of the earth. What do you mean by this term?
A.: First of all I mean that today the product of this crisis is the end of the forms of representative democracy as we have known them. Under attack are the nation states, more than the debt of the states. Therefore to come out of the crisis, we need not only the defense of public goods and public basic services,  we need a lot of democracy. Democracy is the measuring tool of the level of participation of society or a community. Our democracy has a very low level of participation. Participatory and communitarian democracy go hand in hand with a high level of participation. This latter kind of democracy makes it easier to solve the problems. If a community participates en masse to face its problems, statistically it has a higher chance of solving them. Therefore today we have to build a response to the crisis which is global. Democracy cannot be exercised in one country only, it would be a limited response: think about climate change, it is impossible to solve this issue only with one country's will. The democracy of the earth requires humanity to imagine a form of democracy that revolves around  living well, the social economy, the rights of nature, social and environmental justice, the common goods and it develops its relations, its politics, its governance on this form of democracy. That is why we need a democracy of the earth founded on the ethical and moral principles of biotic. Biotic has as its founding principle the self-regeneration of the ecosystem and its capacity of self-organizing. Therefore the democracy of the earth is built on these principles and is focused around the social economy and the rights of nature. It is a universal vision towards which we need to strive, especially because the earth is our common home. In the face of an interconnected  and interdependent life founded on reciprocity, it is clear that we need a new type of democracy, much more evolved than the current one.
Q.: What can the western world adopt of  Buen Vivir?  Do you think it is a model that can be exported to other areas of the planet?
A.: Are you really sure that the western world can still be defined western? Are you really sure that it has not already experienced expropriation of rights, of spaces of freedom, progress and welfare? We are convinced that the western world as we knew it since the fall of the Berlin wall does not  exist anymore and that in the so called western world the material conditions of huge parts of the population have been hit hard. This impoverishment produces the need to look elsewhere. It throws up two issues. One is the inadequacy of politics to face and solve problems and the other is the prolonging of a crisis driven solely by the European Central Bank which keeps predicating austerity and budget parity. These two factors force us to look elsewhere and in this sense rather than exporting Buen Vivir we need to learn to live well, because we live badly. In the last thirty years living conditions have worsened, if we look at the Gini index on distribution of wealth we used to be a very good country before the fall of the Berlin wall. Now we are the third worse OCSE country in terms of distribution of wealth , which means that we need to reconsider how we live. In this sense the contribution of that that has been defined the sociology of the absence and of the indigenous and peasant cultures can certainly be a paradigm of civilization far better than our current one.


Bob Thomson, Founder and Mangaer of TransFair Canada
I picked up the Spanish edition of Giuseppe De Marzo's book last August in La Paz and look forward to the English edition. Among the first discussions of the potential for building a common path between western concepts of degrowth and indigenous concepts of Buen Vivir, De Marzo's book highlights the challenge of decolonizing our minds, a necessary step in deconstructing our western industrial economic model. A cosmovision that is neither lineal nor unidimensional, Buen Vivir is the antidote we need to "development" as defined by globalization and capitalism. Eduardo Gudynas cautions that Buen Vivir is an idea still under "construction" and its pluralism is rooted in the myriad cultural, social and environmental contexts from which it flows. As Naomi Klein recently commented, just because we don't yet have clear, simple, alternative responses to the complex ecological, financial and social problems of the world, asking questions for which we don't have answers is nothing to be ashamed of. The common thread of the rights of the earth, of which we're all a part, is a good place to start. Buen Vivir is a good starting point for formulating those questions.  
Bob Thomson wrote for Development Vol. 54 no. 4 on
Catherine Walsh, Senior Professor, Universidad Andina Simon Bolivar, Ecuador
Buen Vivir, roughly translated as "living well", is a millennial principle, concept, and life- philosophy or life-vision of Andean indigenous peoples. Its incorporation in the recent constitutions of Ecuador and Bolivia as the new guiding force to rethink and refound society and State marked a new historical process for these countries, the region and the globe. A historical process characterized, among other areas, for its thinking with ancestral non-occidental rationalities, its differential positioning and understanding of nature, and its explicit distancing from neoliberal logics and policy. Development, within this process, was to take a radical shift in conception, practice, and orientation. However, present politics suggest otherwise. In the hands of government officials and institutions, buen vivir has become little more than a discursive tool increasingly used to name and legitimate any new policy or reform without radically altering its logic or rationality. Illustrative is the fact that advisement on how to understand and implement buen vivir does not come from indigenous peoples, but most often from outside entities, including European cooperation. 
In the new era of buen vivir, neoextractivism has become the prime economic activity of State choice. Ancestral lands and livelihood are threatened and protest is criminalized in the name of "progress". TIPNIS in Bolivia is an example, as is the arrest in Ecuador of more than 200 activists who oppose government policy, a large percentage of which are indigenous leaders, accused of terrorism and sabotage against the State. And who are the "terrorists" of buen vivir?
It is in this context that we have to ask what it means when buen vivir is considered as the Latin American concept useful for the crisis of the western/westernized world. Such consideration could, of course, be seen as an important step in challenging the colonial matrix of power and the universalizing of Europe´s epistemological-ontological frame. But it can also be seen as functional to the crisis itself; that is as a discourse that reincarnates Latin America as the non-modern folkloric past that Europe unsuccessfully tried to wipe out. Such is the paradox: the global north now looking to the global south to "solve" its crisis, a north still unable, as DeMarzo suggests, to look inward. Coloniality revisited? 
On the same topic, read Catherine Walsh's article  'Development as Buen Vivir: Institutional arrangements and (de)colonial entanglements' in Development Vol. 53 no. 1.  
Ana Agostino, Consultant on gender, environment and development
De Marzo's interview introduces some key ideas on how to think alternatives to the current crisis looking at the concept of "buen vivir", which emerged in Bolivia and in Ecuador associated to indigenous cosmovisions. First of all he says that buen vivir "is extremely useful as it turns upside down the way of understanding and solving the crisis". It can be inferred from here that there is a power in the construction of reality that comes from discourse. That is to say, words, concepts, world views, are anchored in the way systems are built and reproduced. Even when they fail they continue to serve as the field where solutions are looked for in spite of their very failure. As Kenneth J Gergen put it, words that present problems "within a given system of understanding" can only find solutions "born of that system, and assertions from alternative systems will remain unrecognized". De Marzo mentions in fact the "sociology of absences" which has been introduced by Boaventura de Sousa Santos and described as a form of "enquiry that aims to explain that what does not exist is in fact actively produced as non-existent, that is, as a non credible alternative to what exist". To this sociology he opposes the sociology of emergences as "the inquiry into the alternatives that are contained in the horizon of concrete possibilities". So, the first comment by De Marzo is central because "buen vivir' offers us the possibility to think outside the dominant western paradigm and open ourselves to other ways of doing things. These other ways, according to De Marzo, allow to construct an idea of welfare without growth. Here I see another crucial point. Growth has been questioned for several decades now, though criticisms have remained marginal and mainstream development discourse cannot be understood without the pursue of constant growth (to such extent that sustainable development has almost been transmogrified into sustainable growth). What is new in this approach coming from buen vivir is that it is anchored in concrete practices that show the fallacy of growth as the means to achieve welfare. De Marzo further argues that "the most important thing is development that allows human beings to live well. If man wants to achieve this he has to change his relationship with nature and with fellow human beings and has to reconvert his productive forces". I would allow myself to disagree with De Marzo in the sense that buen vivir is not part of a type of development with those positive characteristics but a different cosmovision outside the development discourse, precisely because development, however we call it or describe it, remains within the given system of understanding referred to before. I support the idea that in order to achieve a better way of life human beings need to open their imagination to different relationship with others and with nature. I would add here that men and women alike are the ones who can build and construct these alternatives. As De Marzo rightly argues, "We need a lot of democracy", and surely at all levels. He presents a very important argument when he says that "The democracy of the earth requires humanity to imagine a form of democracy that revolves around living well, the social economy, the rights of nature, social and environmental justice, the common goods".  There is indeed a challenge to rethink democracy incorporating these multiple dimensions highlighted in the interview.    
On the same topic,  read the interview with Ana Agostino and other authors of Development, published in Vol 53 no. 1.