Interview with Rene Ramirez on the Socialism of Buen Vivir

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Interview conducted by Orlando Pérez.

* "Why should the socialism of buen vivir be considered a bio-socialism? What characterizes it identifies it and makes it unique from the socialism conceived of by the classics—Karl Marx, Frederick Engels and Lenin?

The socialism of buen vivir is a pact of coexistence made by the Ecuadorian people, which has been signed into the new Constitutional Document of 2008. In this constitution, what I have labeled the socialism of buen vivir or republican bio-socialism is made concrete. In simplified terms, the nucleus of classical socialism’s wager was the issue of redistribution, equality. Without a doubt equality has to continue being one of the pillars of the socialism of buen vivir. However, in my view, the leftist agenda that the Ecuadorian people outlined in Montecristi doesn’t just point towards the search for equality. Additional topics exist give it a special place within other current constitutional utopias. One of them is the change from anthropocentrism to biocentrism. What is important is not only human beings but life as a whole, which is constitutive element that guarantees the survival of human beings. We should remember that Ecuador is the only country in the world whose constitution guarantees the rights of nature. At the same time, this Constitution is republican in the sense that it recognizes differences but seeks equality and within the framework of the construction of a democracy that is not only representative but participative and deliberative, in which a citizen not only has rights, but also obligations and responsibilities in the political community.

* You associate that bio-socialism with a very unique or specific ethic. How do you understand that ethic, from what moral grounds?

The ethic of the socialism of buen vivir is a bioethic, an ethic that aims to recuperate what is public and common, an ethic based on the satisfaction of basic needs and on the equality of all humans in its framework with respect to diversity. In recuperating this sense of the common good and the collective dimension of politics and society, in respect to the exclusively private and individualistic perspective that pervades liberal utilitarianism (neoliberalism), the ethical and moral sense of living together is recuperated.

* “Paraphrasing Polanyi: in this historic moment in this country, what is most important is the great transition in order to achieve that great transformation” In that logic, how does one overcome a model and a conception of development that is based on extractivism and, also, a consumerism that pervades the people’s cultural logic and structure?

In order to answer this question, it is necessary to analyze three aspects. On the ethical side, the analysis of extractivism in the pattern of general productive specialization and the political arena. There is an ethical debate that we need to confront. Ecuador needs 40 billion dollars in order to satisfy its basic necessities. In the short term, what model of specialization allows us to outline a pattern of accumulation that covers these necessities? Other global experiences tell us that a change in the specialization model will take at least 25 years. What is the ethical equilibrium in terms of the accumulation that Ecuadorians who do not have their basic needs satisfied should expect? How many more generations should be lost in order to obtain that objective? In the case of exploiting natural resources, what is the equilibrium that guarantees the satisfaction of basic needs for present and future generations? I think that the answers aren’t black and white. It’s not extractivism vs. no extractivism. Could we stop extracting petroleum from one day to the next? It’s not politically viable. The answers are simple but very complex: where, how, until when, and for what. A first step for the country is a territorial pact, that is, with good territorial planning the dilemma vanishes somewhat. For example, don’t do extractivism in megadiverse zones and do it, still with protections for the environment, in those territories that have levels of soil erosion.

* “The real problem isn’t extractivism. It is a model that generates an idle system of production. Extractivism makes up 13% of the GDP”

Nevertheless, the real problem isn’t extractivism. It is a model that generates an idle system of production. Extractivism including mines and petroleum makes up 13% of the GDP. However, of all of the available goods and services, 50% comes from financial intermediation (in the area of food intermediation) and imports. That is to say that profits are generated without creating sufficient jobs or value added. This finances foreign employment, it does not generate value added, and those that have the most capital can multiply their capital. The traditional game of the lazy oligarchy. The increase in the price of commodities finances the imports of an oligarchic group that receives large profits without doing anything and encourages the consumption of imported goods. The model is not extractivist but an idle model of wealth generation. In this sense, we return to the “for what” of extractivism: it is precisely in order to create another form of wealth generation that will make the satisfaction of needs for the current generation sustainable without sacrificing the needs of those to come; that is, an extractivism that functions in order to escape extractivism. Certain leftists have set their sights on mining or petroleum without observing that the problem is the political economy that allows the financial and import oligarchy to take the country’s wealth without generating any value added or employment in the country. I think that the blows in the debate should be aimed at the other side, extractivism is only a part of the problem, and might not be the most relevant.

On the political side, the center of any development strategy isn’t economics—as they would like us to believe—but politics. This has to be very clear in order to not make mistakes. The socialism of buen vivir is the goal, but it can’t be attained from one day to the next. Paraphrasing the anthropologist Polanyi, in this historic moment of the country, what is most important is the “great transition” in order to achieve that great transformation. The first step has been to be able to fight for the change of the political power structure and this alone can only be done from a position of power within the State itself. Any other path is ingenuous. I think that we have had five years in government and only recently in this last stretch have we had the possibility of challenging the de facto powers. This does not suppose that it will always be easy to settle said battles in favor of the general interest. In order to continue fighting for change, the government should keep going forward, continue with its policy of wealth redistribution, improve the people’s quality of life, and foster social organization and its self-organization. To not do this is to not politically examine the viability of structural change. Sometimes voices from the left which argue that the objective is for the economic system to become anticapitalist but without explaining how. The anticapitalist alternatives that are defended by some sectors of the left are, many times, not accessible at the meso- or macroscale due to the impossibility of coordination, distribution, and access to information at the global scale in the proposed models, or given that they simply do not achieve the basic objective of satisfying the needs of the people. For example, according to the population census of 2010, 12% of the EAP that works inside the home (which would belong to a type of economy that we label as social and solidary) is primarily poor (60%), according to the satisfaction of their basic needs (BNI). If an economy that seeks to be anti- (or even post-) capitalist does not improve the material conditions of production and reproduction of the population’s social life and does not allow for overcoming poverty, not only is it politically unviable, but it is also ethically undesirable, no matter what “non-capitalist accumulation” it presupposes.

The worst possible world would be one that doesn’t intelligently and responsibly use natural resources in order to improve the quality of life for its inhabitants and to pay the historical debt to excluded groups; the opportunity to transform power, distribute it, and move toward a society based on buen vivir would be lost.

* Based on all of the above, how does one understand and build the societies of “bio-knowledge” or the biopolis?

We are living a neo-dependency that is no longer based on a dependency on manufactured products but, above all, on the heteronomy of knowledge-produced products and services. Each time that a new version of the Microsoft programs comes out we have to buy them and update them. The biopolis seeks precisely to construct a society in whose greatest wealth lies in life and whose capacity to reproduce itself comes from intangible knowledge (science, technology, and innovation). We are a wealthy country because we are a country rich in life. Our comparative advantage is not petroleum or minerals but our biodiversity. If our comparative advantage is biodiversity, we can wager that, through knowledge we can generate wealth that guarantees the reproduction of life, in nature as well as for humans. If enough investment is systematically designated for scientific and technological innovation in biodiversity (biomedicine, agroecology, biofertilizers, bioremediation, alternative energy, etc.) as it has been in the oil sector (7.3 billion in the last decade alone) we would no longer be a country with an extractivist or idle model. It’s unbelievable, but we have been exploiting petroleum for 40 years, and we do not have even one center for scientific research in energy (or even oil). This is the stupidity of abundance. Very sad.

* In this new stage, how are the “critical nouns” supported? From where do they come and how are they laid out in public policy?

Latin America is remembering that it can stand on its own two feet, feel with its own heart and think with its own head. The right made the agenda during the past 20 years, and the left just adjectivized. For example, in development they added the adjective “sustainable;” to the noun democracy they added the word “participative”. That’s why it is necessary to create critical nouns from the left that are one, two, ten steps ahead of the supposedly immortal neoliberal agenda. That’s why our democracies should be innovative without fearing making a mistake. I think that we are doing that. A good example is the creation of the critical noun “buen vivir” or “the rights of nature” or plurinationality or universal citizenship. Critical nouns with their respective responses can only be created according to the degree to which we think about our realities, our needs, and our potentials in the framework of the new world geo- and bio-politics.

* If the objective of bio-socialism is to move past the supremacy of capital or even labor to that of life, how is the value of time spent living measured? Does time have another value, with other connotations? Is social time a distinct value?

Value is a social construction. Classical socialism defended the supremacy of labor over capital. It defended said principles because it had a productivist vision. Bio-socialism proposes the supremacy of life over labor and of labor over capital. This implies contructing a value scale that permits a different ethic, a different epistemology, a different social order. This is why I have proposed using time as a unit of value. Time is an adequate variable for considering the value of each aspect and each instance of life. To whom you give your time, you give your life. However, it’s important to measure not just time but time dedicated to living well or a full life: time spent on liberating leisure, on contemplation, on friendship, on love, on public participation, on emancipating labor. That’s to say, what is important is the creation and enjoyment of social relations, relational goods (in which the relationship between humans and nature is included). Other units of analysis like energy or the biophysical can exist. I argue that while these variables can function on the macroeconomic level, politically we need a unit that can challenge the importance that money has today. If you make a person choose between different valuation criteria in life such as biomass tons, “Jules” (unit of measure of energy), and money (dollars), certainly they would choose the latter. But, if you have this same person choose between money and time dedicated to being with friends, family, or liberating leisure, they will at least think twice about what they will choose.

* “Bio-socialism proposes the supremacy of living over that of labor and that of labor over capital” If all of this occurs, would we be re-creating what is taking place in liberal European societies, where they talk of “slow cities”, and there are less working hours and more businesses and offices near homes?

One of the principal challenges that we have as a civilization is to make labor not be alienating. Usually, lowering the amount of time spent working is sought as a goal, because there is a division between the world of work and the world of life. That is one of the great tragedies of our time. If we assume that the system can’t be changed, it seems correct to me that the objective is to decrease the number of hours of labor. However, what we ought to seek is to change the system towards one in which there is no distinction between labor and the reproduction of a full life. To construct a system in which labor would be emancipating, per se. Generally, from the simplistic perspective of some of the left, the flexibilization of labor is seen as negative. The problem isn’t flexibilization, but that coupled with it is the loss of rights. I am in agreement with a flexibilization of labor, but one that guarantees all of the workers’ rights, beginning with a decent wage. We must achieve a flexibilization such that there isn’t a schism between the world of work and the world of life; that is, where there is no division—as Marx states—between the human being and human existence. Only this way can labor be part of living well. There is a big difference between constructing slow societies with businesses and companies near the home in order to improve competitiveness and worker satisfaction and trying to construct societies in which the separation between labor and the living world evaporates. Slow cities could be an intermediate step, but aren’t the ultimate objective.

* An economic and almost symbolic reference point for capitalism and liberal societies is GDP. How does the green GDP contrast with that of capitalism, and how is it constructed as a measure of another quality of life?

When I hear the green GDP mentioned as something that is in contrast to capitalism, I realize how well-constructed its hegemony has been. The green GDP is part of capitalism’s accounting, except that it incorporates the externalities (which are generally negative) that produce economic activity. It is the mercantilization of nature. Something similar occurs with that supposedly progressive demand to incorporate unremunerated labor into the national accounts. The worst thing is that usually what is valued is unremunerated work by women with the lowest salary in the society, which is usually the salary of domestic employees. The value unit continues to be the dollar. We cannot construct a new social order if we have as our society’s unit of value a variable as dehumanizing as the dollar. That is why I have proposed using time as a unit of value. For this I have proposed two synthetic indicators that challenge the logic of GDP per capita: the prospect for a healthy, well-lived life and the prospect for natural measures for living in temporal units (years, days, hours, etc.). It is not the same to have a society that considers how to increase the income per person for a country and to have one that is contemplating how to increase the prospect for healthy and well-lived lives for its people. In the former, the population’s purchasing power is valued, while in the latter life is valued, but not just any type of life, but one in which living is dignified, healthy, and full.

* What is preventing the left from connecting itself with those other quests, affirming itself in the postulates that divide and polarize everything between the right and the left, placing everything that opposes them politically and conceptually on the right?

We need to regain our sense of conflict in democracy. I think that it is necessary to clearly mark out the frontiers between the left and the right. This is politically indispensable. One of the best hegemonic strategies of neoliberalism was the construction of a unified way of thinking. This meant that old postulates of the left and right converged. For example, what we have seen under the all-encompassing concepts of “decentralization,” “autonomy,” or “civil society”. No one dared to doubt them and call their contents into question. So, autonomy was good per se, decentralization democratic per se, and civil society the source of liberating legitimacy, per se. Democratic political life ended because we conceived the infinite dialogue without conflict as “good luck”.

“Time is an adequate variable for contemplating the value of each aspect and each instance of life.” From this perspective, the society in which we live would have to stop being organized by social division and conflict. A perfect hegemonic operative! But it should be clear to us that conflict is inherent to social life and that conflict plays a key, integrating role in modern democracy. We all lived through March 22 this year. In this framework, to deny conflict is to accept domination without fighting it. The idea that has prevailed, not only from the right but also from a left that refuses to reflect on itself, is that democratic politics is consensus politics. This is a profoundly liberal position, but above all, a conservative one that denies that pluralism and antagonism are elements of any democratic politics. A left that is not conservative cannot refuse to systematically examine itself, nor can it accept the lie that conflict is bad and that consensus is the goal of democracy, especially in a society as stratified as Ecuador’s. That position kills democracy and perpetuates an unjust status quo.

* How do you picture the profile of the left in the 21st century? Do the outraged1, the outlaws2, the “occupies,” young Arabs, among others that have protested against capitalism all fit?

All of them fit, above all as a mobilizing political force of the general population. Let’s remember the banner: “We are the 99%, they are 1%”. But as I stated, one of the important ways in which the new left is different is that it should seek not only to resist capitalism but also dare to propose a new social order. The revolutionary left cannot settle for administering the capitalist system better, but should seek to transform it."