Communal Systems in Central and South America

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The Revival of Communal Systems

Walter Mignolo [1]:

"The first civilisations to suffer the consequences of the formation and expansion of Western civilisation were the Inca, the Aztec and the Maya. One of these consequences was the dismantling of the communal system of social organisation that some indigenous nations in Bolivia and Ecuador today are working to reconstruct and reconfigure. From the European perspective, the communal may sound like socialism or communism. But it is not. Socialism and communism were born in Europe, as a response to liberalism and capitalism. Not so the communal system. The communal systems in Tawantinsuyu and Anahuac (Inca and Aztec territories, respectively), or societies in China before the Opium War, eventually had to deal with capitalist and (neo-)liberal intrusion, as well as European responses to such intrusions; but they themselves pre-existed the capitalist mode of production.

A recent proposal to re-inscribe (not to recover or to turn back the clock on) the communal into contemporary debates on pluri-national states is El sistema communal como alternativa al sistema liberal [The Communal System as an Alternative to the Liberal System], by Aymara sociologist Félix Patzi Paco. There are others as well. Bolivian president Evo Morales’s speeches are full of references to the communal, as are Nina Pacari’s, former chancellor of Ecuador, who has been recently appointed secretary of foreign affairs. So, too, is the collective work of the National Council of the Ayllus and Markas of Qullasuyu (CONAMAQ), a representative body of the indigenous peoples of the Bolivian highlands. They feel no need to explain these references, just as the Jacobins or the Paris Commune require little elaboration for the European left." (

Inscribing Communal Law in the new Constitutions

"Both Ecuador and Bolivia have recently introduced radically new constitutions, in 2008 and 2009 respectively. Central to the Bolivian document is the proclamation of its status as ‘a social unitary state of pluri-national and communal law, free, independent, sovereign, democratic, intercultural, decentralised and with autonomies’. The recognition of Bolivia and Ecuador as states composed of numerous distinct nations, each with its own political, legal, cultural forms of organisation, and the right to self determination – along with the new Ecuadorian constitution’s own commitment to pluri-nationality – has raised a great deal of excitement and controversy both within the two countries and internationally. It is, undoubtedly, both a recognition of the political clout that indigenous movements have acquired, and a recognition of the differences that colonial domination and the independent state created in its wake have not managed to erase. Felix Patzi Paco was the Bolivian minister of education from 2006 to 2007, during which time he conceptualised a programme for the ‘decolonisation’ of education." (

The Difference between the (native) Communal and the (left) Common

"This is a crucial point, as it highlights the difficulty of equating the communal and the common. The latter is a keyword in the reorientation of the European left today. And that should be no surprise: the idea of ‘the common’ is part of the imaginary of European history. Yet the communal is an-other story: it cannot be easily subsumed by the common, the commune or communism. (Though this does not mean they cannot be put into conversation with one another.)

The communal is not grounded on the idea of the ‘common’, nor that of the ‘commune’, although the latter has been taken up in Bolivia of late – notably, not by Aymara and Quechua intellectuals, but by members of the criolla or mestiza population. The communal is something else. It derives from forms of social organisation that existed prior to the Incas and Aztecs, and also from the Incas’ and Aztecs’ experiences of their 500-year relative survival, first under Spanish colonial rule and later under independent nation states. To be done justice, it must be understood not as a leftwing project (in the European sense), but as a de-colonial one." (

Félix Patzi Paco's Conception in Bolivia

"Félix Patzi Paco is a controversial figure in Bolivia, but an important voice in the current process of thinking and working toward a pluri-national state. Many criollo and mestizo intellectuals suspect that he works towards the hegemony of the Aymara people. They argue that his project is not pluri-national: first, its aim is to reverse the white (mestiza/criolla) hegemony; and second, it ignores the many nations that currently exist in the state of Bolivia, including other indigenous nations, as well as organised peasant communities. The objection cannot easily be dismissed, for it comes not from the right-wing of the low lands, but from many leftist voices (generally whites, by South American standards) who are seriously engaged in the construction of a pluri-national state. This suggests a serious tension between the left, with its ingrained European traditions, and de-colonial indigenous voices, which have a long history of confrontation with European traditions. This tension has everything to do with the differing genealogies of thought and practice from which concepts like ‘the commons’ and ‘the communal’ originate.

Patzi Paco’s proposal, published in 2004, aims at a re-conceptualisation of a ‘communal system’ as an alternative to the liberal system. For Patzi Paco, sistema liberal refers to what subsists from the advent of the modern/colonial state in Bolivia (and other regions of the non-Western world), through the republics resulting from independence from Spain (controlled by an elite of criollos and mestizos), up until the election of Morales in December of 2005.

One of his motivations was to redress the image of indigenous nations prevailing among social scientists, in Bolivia as elsewhere. He sought instead to provide a vision of indigenous societies and nations that comes from the history, knowledges and memories of indigenous people themselves. As a sociologist, he is not rejecting the social scientific disciplines, and particularly not sociology, but rather inverting his role in their discourse. Instead of listening to the dictates of sociology, he uses sociology to communicate and organise his argument. The result is a clear case of border epistemology: the ability to speak from more than one system of knowledge. This is important because the social sciences have been instrumental in producing the marginalised conception of the indigenous. Being able to speak in and from both systems of knowledge and language is not a rejection of one in favour of the other, but an act of pluralising epistemologies.

Patzi Paco’s main objection to disciplinary studies of indigenous nations is that they limit their investigations to the common culture, the language and the territorial space. What is usually bypassed or ignored, then, is what for him is the ‘core’ of communal organisation – in the case of the Andes, the ayllu, which we will examine later. In other words, most of what we know about the Aymara and Quechua in Bolivia concerns their ‘context’ or ‘environment’ (entorno), rather than the ‘core’ of their socio-economic organisation. This is a critical distinction that Patzi Paco extends to the uses of identity made by indigenistas (pro-indigenous non-indigenous) and indianistas (indigenous engaged in a form of identity politics, identifying with indigeneity through clothes, long hair and rituals). Both indigenistas and indianistas operate at the level of the entorno, rather than that of the two basic, core nodes of the communal system: economic and political organisation. When they refer to the ayllu, it is as ‘territorial geographic organisation’ (which is a state conception), rather than to the communal systems of economic and political management.

It is on the latter that Patzi Paco’s proposal focuses. Its initial question is: how to solve the paradox between the denial of indigenous identity, on the one hand, and its reinforcement, on the other? He mentions some positions among indianistas and indigenistas, who argue that a mental revolution among Westernised indigenous people is necessary to solve the paradox. Patzi Paco’s opinion is that this position is utopian, since it is impossible to reverse the process when nations are traversed by global flows (music, television, cinema, videos, internet, etc.). And it is not necessary to reverse the transformation of the entorno: indigenous people can use mobile phones and blue jeans in the same manner that white Europeans can wear indigenous hats and costumes. No French or US tourist or scholar who goes to the Andes and returns with indigenous paraphernalia changes their identity and renounces capitalism in the process. So why should the indigenous remain ‘indigenous’ in the way Westerners expect them to be? What is crucial is not the changes in the surface (the entorno), but the persistence of the core: the economic and socio-political and family organisation of the ayllus.

That is what is at stake in Bolivia today in the construction of a pluri-national state. The question is not one of who wears what clothes or who gets to have phones. It’s about the conflictive co-existences of several basic socio-economic organisations. These include: a mestizo and criollo (liberal or Marxist) Western conception of the state; Aymara and Quechua ayllus/markas (which CONAMAQ is working on), which exist both in the country and in the city; other indigenous organisations in the lowlands; various peasant organisations that are neither liberal, nor Marxist, nor indianistas.

There is, according to Patzi Paco, an incongruence between the attention paid to surface symbols of the indigenous (whether or not they have cell phones or adapt symbols of non-indigenous culture), on the one hand, and the lack of interest in the ayllu, on the other. Few have questioned the fact that the ayllu has changed, but nevertheless remained as ayllu throughout three hundred years of Spanish colonialism and two hundred years of Bolivian republic. This would serve as indication that, while they may have incorporated technologies and practices brought by Western modernisation, many indigenous do not wish to become ‘modern’ in the sense of abandoning their ways of living in harmony with the environment and in mutual respect for their dignity.

The separation between ‘core’ and ‘entorno’ is essential for Patzi Paco, and applies to all systems alike, including the liberal and the communal. At their core, they are both organised and consolidated around two pillars: economic and political/administrative management. The difference lies in the type of economy and the political organisation, both constituted by two types of entornos, or contexts, described as ‘internal’ and ‘external’. The internal entorno is generated within the system itself, liberal or communal. For example, in the 21st century mobile phones are intrinsic to the liberal economy and way of life, while indigenous people ‘adapt’ them. Conversely, the culture of Andean textile is internal to the communal system, and the non-indigenous ‘adopt’ it. The problem emerges when the system – its core – rather than the entorno is being affected by the incorporation of elements from other systems. This is the case of the ‘indigenous bourgeoisie’, which adopts capitalist principles concerning accumulation and the organisation of labour. This indigenous bourgeoisie abandons the ayllu system and starts exploiting the labour of other indigenous people. Because of the power differential between them, the ayllu system is more easily affected by the liberal system than it in turn affects the latter.

Crucial here is how both the system and the entorno are ‘coupled’, according to the concepts of operational and structural coupling. Through operational coupling, a system, communal or liberal, can appropriate elements from the entorno of other systems. Thus, actors living by the rules of a communal system can appropriate elements of the entorno of the liberal system, such as technology. The liberal system can, by means of operational coupling, appropriate elements from the communal, and include them alongside the elements of the entorno internal to the liberal system. Acknowledging this could help dispel the myth, among criollos and mestizos, that contemporary indigenous societies are homogeneous. In fact, there are all sorts of professional and class distinctions among them, and there are indigenous proprietors who exploit indigenous labour. In a society where the communal co-exists with the liberal system and a market economy, industry owners have re-functionalised Andean reciprocity in order to obtain longer working hours for low salaries – 12 hours a day instead of eight.

If all social organisations consist of a core and an environment (or entorno), state multiculturalism’s rhetoric of ‘inclusion’ can be explained as an attempt by the Bolivian state to co-opt the environment of the ayllu while ignoring (or actively excluding) its core, that is, its political and economic management. During the neo-liberal government of Sánchez de Losada in the 1990s, the state spoke of the ‘pluri’ and the ‘multi’, meaning pluri-lingual and multicultural. Patzi Paco’s book was published in 2004, before Evo Morales was elected president. However, I suspect that a similar critique of discourses of inclusion and ‘multiculturalism’ could be applied to the ‘Latin left’ in power today. This is certainly CONAMAQ’s critique of Evo Morales, that is, of the left that now predominates in the Bolivian government. The reconstitution of ayllus and markas, which is CONAMAQ’s project, is precisely in response to the danger of being co-opted. Here resides the second strong motivation to bring to the foreground the communal system and to confront it as an alternative option to the liberal system.

But what exactly, then, is the communal? Patzi Paco refers to collective rights to the use and management of resources, at the same time as he speaks of the rights of groups, families and individuals to share in the benefits of what is collectively produced. He makes clear that, while the communal has its ancestral foundation in agrarian societies in the Andes, these characteristics have survived and adapted well to contemporary conditions. The communal system is open to ‘persons’, indigenous or not, as well as to different types of ‘work’: in a communal system the distinction between owner and waged worker, as well as boss and employee in administrative organisations (banks, state organs, etc.), vanishes. To understand the scope of this proposal, it is necessary to clear our heads of the ‘indigenous = peasants’ equation that the coloniality of knowledge has imposed upon us, alongside the rhetoric of ‘salvation’. Moreover, the notion of ‘property’ is meaningless in a vision of society in which the goal is working to live and not living to work. It is in this context that Evo Morales has been promoting the concept of ‘the good living’ (sumaj kamaña in Quechua, sumak kawsay in Quichua, allin kausaw in Aymara or buen vivir in Spanish). ‘The good living’ – or ‘to live in harmony’ – is an alternative to ‘development’. While development puts life at the service of growth and accumulation, buen vivir places life first, with institutions at the service of life. That is what ‘living in harmony’ (and not in competition) means.

Patzi Paco’s conceptualisation of the communal system cannot be thought of as a replacement of the current modern/nation-state – that would result not in a pluri-national state, but only a mono-national state with a different configuration. The proposal is not to replace the Bolivian liberal/(neo-)colonial state founded after independence from Spain with the Incan Qullasuyu. Yet the reconstitution of the ayllus and markas of the Qullasuyu is fundamental to understanding what a pluri-national state – the idea of which is already inscribed in the new constitutions of Bolivia and Ecuador – may mean. The crucial difference here lies in the fact that the de-colonial project – to decolonise the state, education, language and economy – not only has a different genealogy of thoughts and memories to that of the ‘European’ (or, colonial) left of non-European regions; its way of transforming reality is also distinct.

This idea of a communal system as an alternative to the (neo-)liberal system today, which emerged from the memories and lived experiences of Andean communities, has a global scope. This does not, however, mean that the ayllu system should be exported in a manner similar to other, previous models (Christian, liberal or Marxist). Rather, it is an invitation to organise and re-inscribe communal systems all over the world – systems that have been erased and dismantled by the increasing expansion of the capitalist economy, which the European left has been unable to halt. If ayllus and markas are the singular memory and organisation of communities in the Andes, then it is the other memories of communal organisation around the globe which predate and survived the advent of capitalism which make possible the idea of a communal system today – one not mapped out in advance by any ideology, or any simple return to the past. The Zapatista dictum of the need for ‘a world in which many worlds fit’ springs to mind as we try to imagine a planet of communal systems in a pluri-versal, not uni-versal, world order.

It is for this reason that Patzi Paco’s proposal of the communal should figure in the discussion for a pluri-national state. The left, with its European genealogy of thought, cannot have the monopoly over the right to imagine what a non-capitalist future shall be. There are many non-capitalist pasts that can be drawn from, many experiences and memories that perhaps do not wish to be civilised – neither by the right nor by the left. The progressive left’s ignoring of Patzi Paco’s proposal may end up as an excuse to prevent indigenous and peasant leaders and communities from intervening in de-colonising the current mono-cultural state – which the white (criolla/mestiza) right and left continue to fight over." (


Defining the Ayllu

Walter Mignolo:

"So what, then, is the ayllu? It is a kind of extended familial community, with a common (real or imaginary) ascendancy that collectively works a common territory. It is something akin to the Greek oikos, which provides the etymological root for ‘economy’. Each ayllu is defined by a territory that includes not just a piece of land, but the eco-system of which that land is one component. The territory is not private property. It is not property at all, but the home for all of those living in and from it. Remember: here, we are not in a capitalist economic organisation." (

The Marka System of Reciprocity in the Andes

Walter Mignolo:

"In the marka system individuals work for one another around the year, in an arrangement which initially seems almost serf-like: the one provides labour, the other accommodation and food. But this arrangement is also reciprocal: after somebody has come to your common to help you work it, you must reciprocate by working on their common." (

More Information

  1. The Indigenous De-Colonial Movement in Latin America