‘What has emerged in Latin American politics is more than a debate over development, growth or the environment; it is a profound controversy over the course of civilization itself.’
Excerpt from a prize-winning book by Argentine Marxist scholar Atilio A. Boron.
Translation by Richard Fidler.
Reposted, with permission, from Life on the Left.
Introduction by Richard Fidler
Argentine Marxist scholar Atilio Boron’s book, “Latin America in the Geopolitics of Imperialism” — América Latina en la geopolítica del imperialismo — was awarded Venezuela’s coveted Libertador Prize in Critical Thinking in 2013.
Published in several editions throughout Latin America, the book has attracted much attention, and some debate, for its detailed analysis of Latin America’s strategic importance to the United States and the challenge this poses to the continent’s left governments and progressive social movements.
Of particular interest to ecosocialists are two chapters — chapter 6, on “Common goods in Latin America: The debate between ‘pachamamismo’ and ‘extractivismo’,” and chapter 7, on “Buen vivir (sumak kawsay) and the dilemmas of the left governments in Latin America.” The following is my translation of most of chapter 7.
Atilio A. Boron
BUEN VIVIR (SUMAK KAWSAY) AND THE DILEMMAS
OF THE LEFT GOVERNMENTS IN LATIN AMERICA
In recent years Latin America has made a crucial philosophical and ethical-political contribution, instituting in two new constitutions of the Andean world, Bolivia and Ecuador, a new doctrinal concept going beyond the classic rights and guarantees established in the framework of liberal constitutionalism. This is the concept of sumak kawsay, conventionally translated as “buen vivir” or “vivir bien.” One of its fundamental aspects is the proposition of a relationship between society, individual and environment that is completely distinct from — it could even be said antagonistic to — the one manifested with the advent of modernity. As it is now formulated in the constitutions of Ecuador and Bolivia, the environment is presented as Mother Earth and, under the new normative framework, as a new and hitherto unrecognized legal subject.
Sumak kawsay radically challenges the concepts congealed in the old Latin American constitutions (and in a dense normative apparatus constructed throughout the history of the Latin American national states), all of them tributaries of the liberal tradition. It proposes, instead, a cosmovision that is rooted in the cultures of the oppressed ethnic groups of the continent, and especially of its original peoples, an idea that has emerged forcefully in the last quarter-century. That is why Boaventura de Sousa Santos is right when he says that what has emerged in Latin American politics — with greater force in countries like Ecuador or Bolivia, with less in the others — is more than a debate over development, growth or the environment; it is a profound controversy over the course of civilization itself.
This radical innovation was not a sudden bolt of lightning on a calm day but the product of old struggles, eloquently recognized in the preambles to the new constitutions of Bolivia and Ecuador, that have begun to bear fruit in the new regional sociopolitical context inaugurated by the triumph of the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela and the weakening of U.S. power in the region, and which has significantly moved the South American political pendulum to the left. If these innovations were able to crystallize in the new social and political context in our regions, it was, on the one hand, because of the vigour and richness of old traditions in the Andean world that have survived five centuries of supposedly civilizing barbarism, and on the other hand, because of the gradual ecological, social and cultural holocaust unleashed by capitalism in its neoliberal stage, the most aggressive and predatory in its entire history, which has shaken the consciousness of our epoch and put a serious question mark around the cosmovision that revolves around the conceptual duo of progress and development.
As tends to occur in all popular traditions, there is no single meaning given to sumak kawsay. All the more when it refers to a broad universe of more or less institutionalized values, ideas and practices that have been transmitted from generation to generation, in most cases through oral tradition. However, bringing this proposal into the present debate essentially involves a dual redefinition: of the relationship of men and women with nature and of the relationship of men and women among themselves. Of course, sumak kawsay is not limited to that. A project developed by some Bolivian popular organizations involved in “buen vivir” includes a very full catalogue of questions relative to the identity of the original peoples and ethnic groups as well as other issues relating to water, environmental warming, the food crisis, the energy paradigm, agrofuels, industrialization, development, consumerism and popular sovereignty.
Likewise, Ecuador’s “National Plan for Buen Vivir” relates it to the full range of proposals included in the content of sumak kawsay. Among the constituent principles of this cosmovision are such topics as unity in diversity, the desire to live as a society, equality, integration and social cohesion; universal rights and the strengthening of human capacities, an harmonious relationship with nature; cohabitation in solidarity, fraternity and cooperation; work and leisure alike viewed as liberating, and the reconstruction of the public sector; the construction of a democracy that is representative, participative and deliberative; and a democratic, pluralist and secular state.
The complexity, breadth and iconoclastic nature of sumak kawsay was a source of puzzlement and confusion to many of the members of Ecuador’s constituent assembly who had gathered in Montecristi to develop the new constitution. According to one of its protagonists,
“the buen vivir proposal… was put to various interpretations in the Constituent Assembly and in society itself. In one debate, which in reality had just begun, the predominant tone was one of lack of understanding and even fear in certain sectors. Some assembly members, in the habit of undebatable truths, and disturbingly echoed by our mediocre press, which hoped for the failure of the constitutional process, clamoured for definitive and precise formulations. Others, who naively understood buen vivir as an indifferent and even passive dolce vita, found it unacceptable. There were even some, fearful of losing their privileges, who were sure that buen vivir would take us back to the stone age. And there were some who voted in favour of this founding principle of the Montecristi Constitution who apparently had no clear understanding of the importance of this decision… And still others, opposed from the standpoint of an autistic left, who clung to traditional (and in reality empty) concepts of change, bereft of importance since they had not been implemented in the practice of the social struggles.”
For the purposes of this discussion, which of course is much more confined, we will center the analysis on the implications of sumak kawsay for the problematic of development and the strategies of the social movements in the reaffirmation of “buen vivir” as a principle for the refoundation of social life. That invites us not only to examine the concepts of development but also to think about its social agents (classes, social movements, political forces, governments) and, especially, about the resulting tensions between the new doctrinal proposition, the subjects that embody those tensions, and the hard day-to-day realities that must be confronted by any governmental administration. The matter acquires special relevance given that the governments of Rafael Correa in Ecuador and Evo Morales in Bolivia are targets of implacable criticism not only from the national right-wing and imperialism, but also from left-wing sectors that, with differing emphasis, accuse them of having betrayed the principles of sumak kawsay.
The critique of development
There is no doubt that this cosmovision sharply challenges the dominant concepts concerning the theme of development. Not surprisingly, therefore, we encounter a whole series of writers who have been arguing that what is alleged to be development is in reality “maldevelopment.” According to José María Tortośa, one of those who has done the most work on this subject, this concept synthesizes the practical refutation — that is, from empirical observation — of what is undesirable and perverse in what has in fact turned out to be development.
It could rightly be argued that this critique, while correct, is far from novel. In fact, since the 1970s Marxists in Latin America (Theotonio dos Santos, Aníbal Quijano, Fernando H. Cardoso as he then was, Agustín Cueva and Pablo González Casanova, among many others), and not only in this part of the world (as testified by the contribution of people like Samir Amin, André Gunder Frank, from the major capitalist powers), have been harshly critiquing the notion of development as it is used in the social sciences, the international agencies and by almost all governments. Not unrelated to this are the thoughts of major personalities in the world of politics such as the Fidel Castro of the “Second Declaration of Havana” (February 1962), the Che Guevara of his numerous speeches (and especially the one made at Punta del Este in August 1961), and the various writings of Juan Bosch, the former president of the Dominican Republic. The leitmotiv of all these interpretations has been the deforming and predatory nature of development in a capitalist economy, and the fact that it is a process that is not only incapable of improving the welfare of the peoples but, to make matters worse, encounters insurmountable limits in the capitalisms of the periphery.
The canonical text of orthodox thinking about development in the early 1960s was the book by Walter W. Rostow, entitled The Stages of Economic Development, with the subtitle, devoid of any subtlety, A Non-Communist Manifesto. The book had an overwhelming influence on the Latin American social sciences in those years and, needless to say, on the governments and experts in economic affairs, all of them caught in one way or another in the spider’s web of the Alliance for Progress.
The basic idea of the Rostowian argument was that there was a single process of development and that it was lineal, accumulative and equal for all countries. The word “capitalism” had been carefully excised from the text, with the obvious purpose of reinforcing the naturalization of this mode of production; in the discovery of its laws of development, the assumption was that any economy, without exception, had to go through, in the long run, an ordered succession of stages with a series of technical, not political, imperatives. The consequence of all this was that there was only one way to deal with economic problems, and that this was dictated by technical issues that did not allow any transgression. To do so would mean falling into the swamp of “populism.”
The process of capitalist development — with its struggles, its plunder and pillage, entering the world “dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt,” as Marx described it in Capital — is sublimated and decontextualized by Rostow, who manages to convert it into an ahistorical, formal and lineal deployment of potentialities present in each of the planet’s social formations. Thus, for this tradition of thought, the now developed countries were, in a not so remote time, poor and underdeveloped nations. This reasoning was based on two false assumptions. First, that by disappearing all the historical and structural determinations, localized societies at both extremes of the “development-underdevelopment” continuum were converted into real pipe dreams, vaporous essences uncontaminated by the prosaic realities of time and space. Second assumption: that the organization of international markets lacked structural asymmetries (or if they existed, they were irrelevant) that could affect the chances of development of the nations of the periphery.
For Rostow and his Latin American disciples, such terms as “dependency” or “imperialism” were not useful in describing the realities of the system and were above all a testimony to “political approaches” and thus unscientific, and of no help in understanding the problems of economic development. Consequently, the so-called “obstacles” to development did not have structural foundations or restrictions anchored in the world economy, but were the product of clumsy political decisions, unfortunate choices of governments or inertial social and historical ballast that had to be removed.
The conservatizing implications of this reasoning, which a priori ruled out any other form of economic organization alternative to capitalism and that completely ignored the reality of imperialism and dependency, are so obvious that they require no further demonstration beyond their statement alone. As we can see, monolithic thinking is not as novel as is commonly assumed. And its impact on supposedly non-conformist thinking was as harmful then as it is today.
But there was something more. Both the orthodox thinking and that of its Marxist critics shared at that time (not now, of course) a tacit non-debatable assumption: far from being an extremely rich depository of “common goods,” nature appeared, in the conventional thinking and in that of the left critics, as one more “natural resource” that deserved no special treatment and consequently was to be exploited using the productive techniques developed by capitalism, albeit with a vague “social sense.” A distant antecedent of that attitude can be found in the early years of the Russian Revolution, when V.I. Lenin stated that “socialism = soviets + electricity.” Thus, even for the forces challenging capitalism, the model of relationship between society, economy and environment remained unaltered and continued to be the one that capitalist modernity had established. What had changed was only the recipient of the fruits of economic progress. This was not a minor change, but as was noted much later by the new Latin American critical thought and sumak kawsay, that assumption now proved unacceptable for the renewed social and ecological consciousness of our peoples. The environmental and social havoc produced by unbridled developmentalist and extractivist productivism has profoundly shaken Latin American societies, speeding the formation of a new culture that is increasingly sceptical about the alleged benefits of “development.”
Not surprisingly, we find therefore that one of the harshest — and, we would add, unjust — criticisms levelled against the present governments of Bolivia and Ecuador is that they have become committed to the same pattern of the relationship between society and nature, converting them into de facto prisoners of the predatory and inhuman logic of capitalism. In that sense, the charge is that owing to many factors (economic and financial necessities, foreign trade imbalances, political weaknesses, ideological frailties, indifference to popular demands, etc.), both La Paz and Quito have promoted, to the frustration of their initial followers, the same type of “developmentalist” and “extractivist” economic policies as their neoliberal adversaries. Ricardo Verdum spells it out: “What attracts the attention of some analysts is that it is precisely the progressive and left governments, elected on a political platform contrary to that model (and that describe themselves as post-neoliberal), that now reaffirm the function of a region that is a provider of natural resources, and that now govern approximately four fifths of the population and some three-quarters of the territory of South America.”
TWO CRUCIAL QUESTIONS
The intransigent defense of sumak kawsay, stoked by the horrors of the “development” that fully legitimates that cosmovision, tends to leave no space in which to account for two very important questions: (a) What is the time frame to which sumak kawsay refers as a civilizing project?; and (b) what is the relation between the “buen vivir” of our original peoples and ecologism, in its distinct variants, including “ecosocialism” and, simultaneously, what might be the relation between sumak kawsay and socialism and communism?
Problems of sumak kawsay in a single country
Indeed, both the theoreticians and the supporters of sumak kawsay appear to have underestimated the temporal requisites of this project. The same criticism can be made of them that has been made by many, Marxists and others, of the fervent impatience of the communist revolutionaries at the time of the First World War and the Russian Revolution — that the establishment of socialism appeared in their eyes to be a project of immediate realization, its achievement posing no obstacles that a determined will for change could not overcome. Lenin was one of the first to warn of the error in this conception, observing that in the prevailing conditions in Russia the archaic nature of the social formation would become a formidable rampart against which the transformative projects of socialism would shatter. That is why Lenin foresaw a very long battle to overcome those fetters of the past, something which of course would not occur in the countries of the West when the time came to build socialism. In their case, the Russian revolutionary noted, the construction of socialism would be as easy “as lifting a feather.”
It seems to us that something similar could be happening with sumak kawsay, revealing a certain contradiction in the discourse itself. On the one hand we are assured, correctly, that it is a fundamental philosophical contribution that challenges the basic assumptions of modernity and capitalist civilization. However, the overcoming of five centuries of history (and what a history — with the horrors of colonialism, neocolonialism, imperialism, racism, wars, genocides, state terrorism, the savage depredation of nature, etc.) is conceived by some social movements and political forces as a project that can realistically be confronted by two or three Andean governments and that significant results can almost immediately be obtained.
Just as “socialism in a single country” was intrinsically contradictory, and condemned to failure, why should we think that “sumak kawsay in a single country” fulfills the necessary conditions to assure its victory? If the Soviet Union and China, to cite the most convincing examples, were unable to build socialism regardless of the international equation that Marx and Engels posed in their earliest writings, how could much weaker countries like Bolivia and Ecuador be successful in their proposed refounding of civilization within a few short years and in an environment as unfavourable as the one imposed by the aggressive decadence of the imperial power? Could those countries resolutely advance in a proposal that, from the civilizing standpoint, is even more radical than the productivist socialism that the Soviet Union and China sought to achieve — and regardless of the other countries of the region or at least their immediate geopolitical environment? René Ramírez Gallegos recognizes the seriousness of the challenge when he writes that “we cannot, by ourselves, from Ecuador, build this society that we are talking about.” Obviously, the answer to these questions will not spring from theory but will come from the historical praxis of the peoples. Meanwhile, we think the questions are legitimate and should be taken into account.
Up to now I have discussed the need to rely on a favourable geopolitical environment. But no less significant is the fact that a project of such a radical nature can hardly be imposed overnight, or in one or two presidential terms of office under leaders like Rafael Correa and Evo Morales resolutely identified with that program. Obviously, there are steps that can be taken immediately, but the question is to calculate, with hopeful realism and without needlessly abandoning ideals, just how far one can advance given the correlation of forces that defines the framework of the possible for governments like those of Bolivia and Ecuador.
Clearly, this entails an effort not to confuse the realism needed to transform the world (and not only study or interpret it) with “possibilism.” Realism requires the social forces committed to such a project to carefully plan their steps, to avoid falling into the traps the enemy holds in store. While realism recognizes the dialectical nature — the ever-changing movement — of the conjuncture, and the role of political will in modifying the relationship of forces at a given moment, “possibilism” is the resigned acceptance of what exists and a testimony to the intrinsic inability to respond creatively to the challenges of history. The realist is a general who knows that if he acts correctly he can defeat forces in theory superior to his own; the “possibilist” is someone who has been defeated ideologically and consequently gives up the battle and simply tries to accommodate to the unfortunate circumstances of the present. The realist keeps his eyes on the present and the future, while the “possibilist” is trapped in today’s reality and lacks the imagination or will to think of the future as something distinct from the infinite extension of the present.
While “possibilism” is a snare that has wrecked many transformative projects in Latin America, the other risk is utopianism. It is one thing to have a utopian horizon as an essential and non-negotiable guide to political action — for example, the construction of a communist, decidedly post-capitalist society — and quite another to fall into the utopianism that Marx and Engels criticized in the Communist Manifesto; its dreams were limited to signifying wonderful societies of the future but without identifying the subjects that would create these projects and the complex political, economic, cultural and international mediations — and who says mediations says contradictions! — which, through the class struggle, must necessarily be put in motion in order to convert those dreams into living realities. We are not saying that reflection about these problems is completely absent in the discussions around sumak kawsay. But it does seem to us that matters of such exceptional importance as these have not, at least up to now, received the attention that in our opinion they deserve.
In line with these concerns, Ecuador’s “National Plan for Buen Vivir” proposes a transition from an economy based on exports of primary resources to another based on the production of ecotourism and bioknowledge that is measured over decades. This expresses a prudent realism toward the pace of advance of civilizational change, the inexorable political correlative of which is a politics of compromises. It means that there must be a more or less extended period (depending on many factors that cannot be determined in advance, from theory) in which the old economic organization (that sustains the resources used by the state for its own maintenance and to finance the costly and complicated process of transition toward a new economy and a new sociability, congruent with the precepts of sumak kawsay) will coexist with the new “post-extractivist” economic order. The old order cannot disappear overnight without provoking traumatic shocks, nor can the new appear with the speed of lightning, desirable as that might be. However, this sober diagnostic is not shared by some social movements both in Bolivia and in Ecuador, convinced as they are that this transition can be made to measure with their impatience.
Sumak kawsay, ecologism and the post-capitalist society
Linked with the foregoing is the second element that we noted earlier, which is the relation between sumak kawsay and ecologism. This question, in our view, is of the utmost importance given the strategic role played in the theoretical discourse by Mother Earth and the relation between society and nature. However: what should be examined very carefully is just how consistent the unconditional and intransigent defense of Mother Earth is without an equally radical and intransigent critique of capitalism as a mode of production and hence as a civilization.
Whence the fallacy of the various proposals for a “green economy” or a “green capitalism” advanced by the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), which start from the premise that a new “environment-friendly” economic order, making possible an environmentally sustainable world with greater economic growth, full employment and welfare for all, can be built using market mechanisms and technological solutions without altering the power relationships, the logic of capital accumulation or the present profound inequalities.
As we can see, a worrisome ambiguity prevails whenever the defense of the common goods of humanity is formulated in the abstract or, in the best of cases, with isolated questioning of capitalism but without posing, as must be done, the absolute impossibility of defending the rights of Mother Earth without at the same time developing an argument — both theoretical and practical — around the historical necessity to establish an unequivocally post-capitalist sociability. If that does not occur, sumak kawsay can easily be assimilated with some of the many currents of contemporary ecologism that lament the destruction of the environment while not recognizing that the ecocide will only end when the people send capitalism to the museum of history along with the bronze ax and the spinning wheel, as Engels noted in his time in a brilliant passage in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. Accordingly, a sumak kawsay worthy of the name can only be that insofar as it is radically anticapitalist, since only the consummation of the socialist project — which involves the socialization of power, wealth and culture and hence the decommodification of society and nature — will make it possible to save Mother Earth. When we say socialization we should clarify that this process should not be identified with the statization of the economy, society, politics or culture. When we speak of socialization we are referring to “popular empowerment,” or in the language of classic Marxism, to a project that will end the despotism of capital while instituting the self-government of the producers. It seems to us that this is a second major theme to discuss, one that likewise seems not to have drawn the attention it deserves.
As will be gathered from the previous point, only a “socialist buen vivir” could offer a way out from the trap in which we are locked by the logic of capital. There is no redemption for Mother Earth if we do not manage to rescue the women and men who people this planet. And within capitalism there is no salvation for humanity, as Fidel Castro told us many years ago. Accordingly, a genuine project of “buen vivir” must in some way redefine the socialist program for the 21st century. The problem is that this is an eminently practical task, since theory — like the celebrated owl of Minerva mentioned by Hegel — always spreads its wings at nightfall, that is, when the historical praxis of the peoples resolves (or tries to resolve) the challenges confronting society. The major challenge today is to overcome capitalism before it has finished off life on planet Earth. This task is just beginning, which is why theoretical thinking about the new socialism of the 21st century and its project is only in its initial stages. In other words, not only must sumak kawsay adopt a socialist identity, but socialism itself is searching for a new identity, convinced that the painful (but also highly instructive and in some respects positive) experiences of the 20th century imperatively require rethinking of the project as a whole.
As we have stated elsewhere, the best way to mistake the road is to try to copy a political experiment. If Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador continue to be examples of significant processes of profound social transformation, it is because, among other things, none has copied from the other and each of them is an original, unique and unrepeatable creation of its own peoples. That is why Simón Rodríguez was right when he said that “either we invent or we go wrong.” In that sense, it is worth paraphrasing anew the poetry of Antonio Machado when he said something to the effect that socialists have no model, the model is made while walking. It is made in the concrete historical praxis of building socialism and in the unrepeatable — original, as Rodríguez said in the twilight of the colonial order — conditions under which each of those processes takes place.
One of the new components of the socialist project for the 21st century (refused in those of the previous century) has to do precisely with Mother Earth, sacrificed on the altars of a productivism that was no less harmful for the environment than that practiced by the capitalist economies. Referring to this theme, René Ramírez Gallegos (2010: 10), in the previously cited article, writes that “we aim, in the economic model, to build the biopolis, that is, to go beyond the economy of the old consciousness and to make the move from manufacturing to mentefactura, while beginning to consider the production of relational goods. What is the economic model? It is of course that biosocialism that I talked about earlier; and political power will be sustained in people’s power. But that is not done overnight.” And, insisting on the difficult transition from a model based on export of raw materials to one that is a clear departure from capitalist logic, he notes that “to leave this model overnight is not viable, and it is necessary therefore to outline a medium- and long-term road map.”
A NEW DEVELOPMENT MODEL?
Let us return now to a theme that we left earlier in a very rudimentary form: the question of extractivism and neo-developmentalism. There are many writers who have adopted this critical perspective, and in view of the space restrictions confronting us, we will simply present in what follows a very schematic version of their principal arguments.
According to this perspective, extractivism appears as the reintroduction, adapted to the new circumstances, of an old strategy of development based on the intensive exploitation of certain common goods, mainly in mining and agriculture. This process occurs in the context of the global reorganization of capitalism since the last two decades of the last century, in which the relaunching of the old international division of labour has led to a growing polarization between the developed and underdeveloped worlds, forcing those who are part of the latter to maximize their efforts in the production and export of commodities, and postponing the old industrializing projects to an uncertain future. This can be seen not only in the countries with a typical emphasis on agricultural and mineral production for export but also in the de-industrializing processes suffered by Argentina, Brazil and Mexico over the last thirty years. The outbreak of the present general crisis of capitalism has simply reinforced this pre-existing tendency, now justified by the pressing need to rely on favourable trade balances to neutralize the impact of the crisis, as it was previously in order to pay the foreign debt. In one of the most important documents of this theoretical and political tendency, Eduardo Gudynas explains that
“It is postulated that there exists a progressive neo-extractivism, which has differences, in some cases substantial ones, with practices in traditional extractivism practiced in other countries and formerly in currently progressive Latin American countries. While in certain cases the differences are substantial, this new extractivism maintains a style of development based on the appropriation of Nature. This new extractivism feeds a hardly diversified framework, and as a provider of primary materials, it is very dependent on international involvement. If indeed the state plays a more active role, and gives extractivism a greater legitimacy because it redistributes some of the surplus to the population, it still repeats the negative environmental and social impacts of the old extractivism. In this paper, the term extractivism is used in the broad sense to describe activities which remove great quantities of natural resources that are not then processed (or are done so in a limited fashion) and that leave a country as exports.”
Gudynas argues that some of the undesirable effects of these policies are deforestation, forest fires, the fragmentation of natural environments, the loss of biodiversity, the contamination of soils and water, droughts, floods and other catastrophes erroneously labelled as “natural,” when in reality they are created by men or, more accurately, by economic systems.
According to the theoreticians of this current, neo-extractivism is a plague that has also wreaked havoc among the left and progressive governments of the region. Hugo Chávez is intensifying petroleum exploration; Evo Morales is following suit in Bolivia with iron, lithium, oil, gas and mercury; Rafael Correa in Ecuador is going ahead with the exploitation of petroleum and promoting open-pit mining; the Frente Amplio government in Uruguay is endorsing a huge program for the exploitation of iron ore, investing more than it did in the Botnia pulp mill; Argentina is protecting open-pit mining, allowing the destruction of glaciers and encouraging greater soy production in its agriculture, while Brasilia is allowing the deforestation of the Amazon and promoting the construction of huge dams that will end up destroying the vital oxygen-producing lungs of planet Earth.
For these authors, the growth in extractivism and the drive to a neo-developmentalist strategy are stimulated by the need to stabilize or achieve a surplus in the trade balance, a fundamental statistic for highly vulnerable countries faced with — if not overtly dependent upon — the ups and downs of the world economy. But also contributing to this are the weak, ineffective or non-existent environmental controls; the need to attract foreign investments by relaxing labour and environmental regulations; the manipulation of governments that publicize the benefits of these policies but never quantify the immense costs of deforestation, pollution, and the degradation of arable lands, among other calamities. Furthermore, these losses do not enter the national accounts but end up in the balance sheets of the governments of the provinces or localities in which these activities are concentrated, far from the spotlights of the national media. And the immediate victims of these calamities tend to be the marginalized social sectors lacking in organization and with few possibilities of getting a hearing for their protests. A central aspect of this new extractivism — and the progressive governments of the region have fallen for it — is the use of a part of the rents generated by the exploitation of nature to finance ambitious social programs such as Brazil’s Bolsa Familia or the various social programs sponsored by the above-mentioned governments.
According to the critics of neo-extractivism, the economic balance sheet is as disastrous as the ecological one: our countries are being turned into “exporters of nature” as commodities with little or no value added. The companies that produce them enjoy huge tax benefits and extremely generous subsidies that are unattainable, for example, by nationally-based companies of small or medium-sized enterprises. In Argentina, under the legal umbrella offered by the Argentine-Chilean Mining Treaty (signed in 1997 by two of the biggest champions of Latin American neoliberalism, Eduardo Frei of Chile and Carlos Saúl Menem of Argentina), the government of Néstor Kirchner maintained
“the most favorable mining regulations from previous years including royalties that barely reach 3% and guarantees of tax stability for 30 years along with very generous deductions (up to 100% of the investment, including in infrastructures and marketing costs even if these are incurred in other countries), exemptions from tariffs and customs duties, and other advantageous guarantees, and free transfer of profits…. The companies themselves compute the value of the mineral extracted, and the state does not exercise adequate inspection (a situation that has been denounced in Brazil), and accordingly these corporations end up making payments that are almost voluntary. Gutman cites as an example the operations of Barrick Gold in the Veladero mine (province of San Juan, Argentina), where the estimated value of the mineral extracted and processed was $12 billion while the royalties received by the provincial government amounted to only $70 million, to be paid over 20 years.”
It is no accident, therefore, that these multinationals are becoming exporters of fabulous profits which, in other conditions, would remain in our countries. In Chile, “the profits sent outside the country by foreign businesses passed from $4,438,000,000 at the beginning of Ricardo Lagos’s government to more than 13 billion dollars at the end of his term, and from there it continued to grow under Michelle Bachelet to more than 25 billion dollars.”
However, it is worth noting that in general the most convincing evidence of the failings of neo-extractivism occurs in countries characterized by the very moderate “center-left” governments like Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Chile prior to Sebastián Piñera’s victory. These are governments which, unlike Ecuador, Bolivia and Venezuela, have not manifested the least intention to move toward a post-capitalist horizon. While these governments think the solution to the injustices and anomalies of today’s world lies within the limits fixed by capitalist society, Quito, Caracas and La Paz consider that this is impossible within capitalism and are trying to escape the “iron yoke” of the system, advancing toward a socialism of a new type. For the critics of these governments the nationalization of petroleum resources as carried out by the administrations of Hugo Chávez and Evo Morales is apparently of little or no significance.
And in the case of Ecuador they underestimate the importance of the Yasuní-ITT initiative, a very clear example of an anti-extractivist policy despite the incomprehension or wretchedness of the leadership of the developed countries. That deposit contains one fifth of Ecuador’s known oil reserves. A government that corresponded to the characteristics listed by the critics of neo-extractivism would not have hesitated one minute to favour its exploitation — but this has not happened. This gesture by the government of Ecuador, which is still without a response, is not only a sacrifice by this country, honouring the mandate of the 2008 constitution and the precepts of sumak kawsay, but is an important contribution to the fight against pollution, because maintaining this petroleum without exploiting it means avoiding emitting into the atmosphere some 407 million tons of carbon dioxide. We should also note that, consistent with this, the Ecuadorian government has recovered on behalf of the country the exploitation that was previously in the hands of transnational companies and will thereby receive in return some $830 million in receipts.
Something similar could be said in relation to the government of Evo Morales, sharply criticized for resuming the development of the large iron reserves of El Mutún. The critics say it should have renounced the exploitation of this resource, and certainly not have transferred it from a Brazilian transnational to an Indian one, “even awarding a variety of advantages, including an energy subsidy.” What are these critics arguing? That the governments of Bolivia and Ecuador should wait for manna to fall from heaven, bringing them all the necessary resources for the construction of a good society, based on the orientations of “buen vivir”? Where are they to obtain the money required for any program of social reform? The critics rent their garments when they quote that expression of President Rafael Correa: “We can’t sit like beggars on a sack of gold.” The problem is that none of them say where the resources are to come from to finance the construction of a new society, as if this could be undertaken at zero cost, and this detracts from the seriousness of their arguments.
However, since development and developmentalism have become bad words, what is it that these critics are proposing? Some other development? No. What they want is not “alternative development,” but something much broader and at the same time more diffuse: an “alternative to development,” going beyond the rationality established by Modernity with respect to progress, the exploitation of nature and the relations between people. To emerge from the straitjacket of progress conceived in traditional terms presupposes a progressive dematerialization of economies, that is, promoting an economic functioning in which fewer quantities of material and energy are used; promoting new forms of sociability, more generous, altruistic, and solidarity; and placing less emphasis on economic “growth” and much more on the quality of life. But all of this presupposes discussing how the passage to the new strategy as an alternative to development will occur. The theoreticians of this model say it will occur not through a revolutionary rupture but through transitions that gradually come to impose this new common feeling as an alternative to progress and development. Few could disagree with such noble propositions. The question, however, is how to advance in these peaceful transitions in societies like the present capitalism, dominated completely by the profit motive and “armoured,” to use the Gramscian expression, by a coercive and media apparatus that is erected as a formidable obstacle to any attempt at change?
Consequently, there are various problems associated with the critics of “development.” While the objective is to generate an alternative to development, one nevertheless gets the impression that those who counsel this are trapped in the two false alternatives identified in the “Plan Nacional para el Buen Vivir”: (a) conservation vs. satisfaction of needs, and (b) efficiency vs. distribution. If the environment is to be preserved, the needs of the population cannot be met; and if an efficient economic system is established it will necessarily become a brake on any redistributionist policy.
But in addition to these there are other problems. An abstract criticism of development leaves unexplained what in concrete terms would be the meaning of the “alternative to development.” Whatever that alternative, is it reasonable to think of it independently of the serious challenges posed by economic growth under both capitalism and socialism? Or is the “alternative to development” simply another name for a policy of “zero growth” that would definitively sentence the countries of the global south to backwardness and poverty? Is it possible in those conditions to establish a project of “buen vivir”? Inspired by the confused and mistaken (when not just confused) thoughts of Amartya Sen concerning economic growth, one of the proponents of this policy, Alberto Acosta, has written recently that “this could include the retrieval of those proposals for degrowth or stationary growth of Enrique Leff, Serge Latouche and others. Particularly instructive are the comments of an early advocate of ‘zero’ growth like John Stuart Mill.”
However, what would be the medium-term consequences of “zero growth” in the economy if a country like Ecuador were to register 2% annual growth in its population? Perhaps this is the kind of question that would be asked by a “pastelero” [pastry cook], to use an expression that Acosta reserves for his opponents, but you can be sure that for the social movements, popular forces and progressive governments the issue is no piece of cake. As many statistical projections indicate, if Ecuador’s annual increase in population were to be maintained at 2.1% the country’s population would double in 25 years to about 28 million inhabitants.
From the standpoint of distribution of wealth, that would of course pose two possibilities: (a) that everyone without exception would accept being 50% poorer, because they would have the same quantity of goods to distribute among themselves… or, more probably, (b) that the rich would more effectively defend their wealth and ensure that the poor were impoverished by more than 50%…. And that is with a moderate demographic growth rate over a period of 25 years. And if we were to project this experiment over a period of 50 years, we would arrive at a scenario in which the fight over distribution of resources would evoke the brutal ferocity of the Hobbesian state of nature or the sinister images of Blade Runner. Consequently, and at the risk of shortening a discussion that we cannot sidestep but that is not our sole concern to develop here, the “zero growth” proposal of these theoreticians will only be rational if at the same time they propose zero population growth, which would mean introducing draconian birth control measures that not even China, with its omnipotent state, could guarantee. Or, if it is admitted that economic growth must be equal to demographic growth, another set of problems arises.
Since this “zero population growth” is completely unviable, in practical terms, the theoreticians of the “alternative to development” have no choice but to confront the difficult problem of the distribution of a stock of goods that remains unaltered. Albert Acosta poses this in the following terms:
“The substantive reduction in poverty and inequality, the achievement of increasing degrees of freedom and the operation of citizens’ rights means, therefore, a redistribution in favour of the poor and marginalized, to the detriment of the excessive concentration of wealth and power in a few hands. An option that does not mean favouring the search for growing levels of opulence, which would then provoke redistribution. On the contrary, it is necessary to eradicate poverty and opulence, since the latter is only explained by the existence of massive poverty.”
Acosta cites in support of his reasoning an eloquent passage from The Wealth of Nations, by Adam Smith. However, to bring about this apparently innocent and painless redistribution of wealth requires something that is not insinuated, even marginally, in his text, nor does it appear in the ample theoretical production of those who share his point of view: nothing less than a socialist revolution and the destruction of the bourgeois state, matters avoided by the critics of extractivism. The formidable coalition of the imperial bourgeoisie with the local ruling classes cannot be defeated with anything less. Given that the distinct variants of bourgeois reformism — including its most radical version, Keynesianism — were unable to fully implement redistributive policies and resolve the problem of poverty, including in the developed capitalist countries, the sole alternative that appears on the horizon is an anticapitalist revolution. But that is something that transcends the limits of the theoretical model of the critics of neoextractivism. Sidestepping this knotty question, their arguments come down to a rhetoric that is attractive but devoid of real capacity for social transformation.
The UN Human Development Report reveals that Bolivia, for example, after centuries of oppression and exploitation aggravated in recent decades by neoliberal policies, is left with 14% of its population without secure access to potable water, 22% without electricity, and that the rate of infant mortality is 46 per one thousand live births. For Ecuador the figures are 6% without access to potable water, 8% without electricity, and an infant mortality of 21 per one thousand live births. What would the “zero growth” advocates do to bring those statistics closer to those of countries like Cuba, Sweden or Norway, for example, without promoting economic growth? This mysterious “alternative to development” seems to work the miracle of multiplying electrical energy sources and potable water pipelines, eliminating sewage, building hospitals and increasing the number of doctors and nurses to meet the health needs of the population without the economy growing. Not to mention that precisely because of poverty in countries like Bolivia and Ecuador a significant proportion of their population have been forced to emigrate; ideally, they should be in a position to return to their countries. Notwithstanding the ample bibliographies of those critics, answers to questions like this go unanswered.
 In the case of Ecuador, the 2008 Constitution states: “We the sovereign people of Ecuador… Acknowledging our age-old roots, forged by women and men of distinct peoples… Celebrating nature, the Pacha Mama, of which we are part and which is vital to our existence… have decided to build… a new form of citizen cohabitation, in diversity and harmony with nature, to achieve bien vivir, sumak kawsay.” The 2007 Constitution of the Plurinational State of Bolivia states that “the Bolivian people, of plural composition from the depth of history, inspired by the struggles of the past, in the anticolonial indigenous uprising, in independence, in the popular struggles for liberation, in the indigenous, social and trade-union marches, in the water war [of 2000] and the October war [the 2003 mass mobilizations that overthrew the government of Sanchez de Lozada], in the struggles for land and territory, and with the memory of our martyrs, are building a new State… based on respect and equality for all, with principles of sovereignty, dignity, complementarity, solidarity, harmony and equity in the distribution and redistribution of the social product, and in which the quest for vivir bien is predominant; with respect for economic, social, legal, political and cultural pluralism of the inhabitants of this Earth; in collective cohabitation with access to water, work, education, health and housing for all.”
 See “El socialismo del buen vivir,” by Boaventura de Sousa Santos.
 See “El buen vivir como respuesta a la crisis global,” of the Ministry of Foreign Relations of the Plurinational Estate of Bolivia (La Paz, n.d.).
 See “Plan Nacional para el Buen Vivir 2009-2013: construyendo un Estado Plurinacional e Intercultural,” in the Plan Nacional de Desarrollo, República del Ecuador (Quito, 2009, pp. 33-43).
 Alberto Acosta, “El buen vivir, una utopía por (re)construir,” in Boletín ECOS (CIP-Ecoscial Madrid), No. 11, April-June 2010.
 See “El futuro del maldesarrollo,” by José María Tortośa, in Revista Obets (Alicante), No. 4, 2009, p. 68.
 Che participated as Cuba’s Minister of Industries in the Conference of the Inter-American Economic and Social Council, a dependent agency of the OAS, which met in Punta del Este, Uruguay, August 5-18, 1961, barely four months after the failed invasion at Playa Girón. In his first speech in the conference, he delivered a ringing indictment of the extremely modest scope of a supposed program of economic development sponsored by the United States, the unsuccessful Alliance for Progress, represented at the conference by the U.S. Treasury Secretary Douglas Dillon; because of its emphasis on sewage systems, the Argentine-Cuban revolutionary sarcastically labelled it the “latrinization of Latin America.” The timid objectives proposed by the Alliance, which were not achieved by any country, loudly contrasted with the huge achievements of Cuba in two and a half years of Revolution, which, among other things, had made it the first territory free of illiteracy in the Americas. On these topics see our article “Teorías de la dependenciea,” in Realidad Económica (Buenos Aires), No. 238, August 16/September 30, 2008. A revealing fact: the first “democratic” country (not like Cuba, as Washington would say!) to receive funds from the Alliance for Progress was democratic Paraguay under the dictator Stroessner.
 For an analysis of the nature and impact of Rostow’s ideas, see “Entrevista a Samir Amir,” by Graciela Roffinelli and Néstor Kohan, October 1, 2003,
 The coincidence of perspectives between the work of a conservative theoretician like Walter W. Rostow and the work of those who, from a presumably critical perspective, are inspired by the writings of Hardt and Negri, is rather astonishing. In an interview with the Argentine newspaper Página/12, Giussepe Cocco and Toni Negri discredit the concept of imperialism and consider “anti-imperialism” deplorable. They would not have been more in agreement with the preferred theoretician of the Kennedy administration. See “América Latina está viviendo el momento de una ruptura,” by Verónica Gago, in Página/12, August 14, 2006, .
 A current example is found in the book by Hardt and Negri, Empire, in which they assure us that countries like Bangladesh and Haiti are part of the empire, because it encompasses everything. But are they therefore in a position comparable to that of the United States, France, Germany or Japan? While they do admit that they are not identical from the standpoint of capitalist production and circulation, Hardt and Negri conclude, to the amazement of some scholars, that between “the United States and Brazil, Great Britain and India, there are differences only of degree, not of nature,” a thesis that Rostow himself would have enthusiastically embraced. As Samir Amin reminds us, the peripheries of the world system are not so much “unequally developed formations” as social formations that are interdependent precisely in terms of that unevenness. For a critique of the radically mistaken and functionally pro-imperialist vision of Hardt and Negri, see Atilio Boron, Imperio & Imperialismo. Una lectura crítica de Michael Hardt y Antonio Negri (Buenos Aires: CLACSO, 2004), published in English as Empire and Imperialism: A Critical Reading of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri.
 See his “El nuevo extractivismo desarrollista en Sudamérica” (Quito, CAAP).
 René Ramírez Gallegos, “Izquierda postsocialista” (Quito: SENPLADES), Discurso No. 2, November 2010.
 This subject has been brilliantly addressed in a recent work by Elmar Altvater, Los limites del capitalismo. Acumulación, crecimiento y huella ecológica (Buenos Aires: Mardulce, 2011).
 Edgardo Lander, “Un nuevo período histórico,” pp. 2-3.
 We tackled the analysis of this topic and proposed some bibliographical orientations in our book Socialismo sigle XXI. ¿Hay vida después del neoliberalismo? (Buenos Aires: Ediciones Luxemburg, 2008).
 Socialismo siglo XXI, op. cit., p. 114.
 “Izquierda postsocialista,” op. cit., p. 10.
 See Working Document No. 2, “Socialismo del sumak kawsay o biosocialismo republicano,” by René Ramírez Gallegos, SENPLADES, Quito, p. 36.
 Eduardo Gudynas, “Ten Urgent Theses about Extractivism in Relation to Current South American Progressivism,” [The cited English translation is a truncated version of the original text. – RF] And he has put the same argument in the following terms: “If you are so progressive why do you destroy nature?” [“Si eres tan progresista ¿Por qué Destruyes la Naturaleza? Neoextractivismo, Izquierda y Alternativas.”] Ecuador Debate 79: 61-82, 2010.
 A pioneering work in analyzing the “unnatural” character of so-called “national catastrophes” is Nature pleads not guilty, by Rolando V. García, Joseph Smagorinsky and Michael Ellman (Oxford-New York; Pergamon Press, 1981).
 Eduard Gudynas, “Ten Urgent Theses…,” op. cit., pp. 209 et seq.
 Gudynas refers to the article by N. Gutman, “La conquista del Lejano Oeste,” in Le Monde Diplomatique, El Dipló (Buenos Aires), May 2007, 12-14. It should be explained that under the Argentine legislation only the provincial state is empowered to impose royalties on mining companies.
 Eduardo Gudynas, “Diez tesis urgentes…,” op. cit., pp. 199-200.
 [In fact, since this was written, Correa has announced that drilling for petroleum will be carried out in the Yasuní-ITT park owing to the poor international response to his offer of a perpetual suspension of oil extraction in part of the park in return for payments of $3.6 billion from the international community (half of what Ecuador would have realized in revenue from exploiting the resources at 2007 prices).– RF]
 Gudynas, op. cit. p. 8.
 “Caminos para las transiciones post-extractivistas,” by Eduardo Gudynas, in Alejandra Alayza and Eduardo Gudynas (eds.), Transiones. Postextractivismo y alternativas al extractivismo en el Perú (Lima: RedGE/CEPES, 2011: 193.
 Concerning Gramsci, it would be advisable to read a passage in his Prison Notebooks in which he makes a distinction between “progress” and “becoming.” He notes, among other things, that “the idea of progress implicitly suggests the possibility of a quantitative and qualitative measurement: more is better.” (Mexico: Era, 1986), vol. 4: 213.
 See Plan Nacional de Desarrollo, Republic of Ecuador, 2009.
 See his “Sólo imaginando otros mundos, se cambiará éste. Reflexiones sobre el Buen Vivir” in Revista Sustentabilidades, No. 2, 2010. [This article is addressed to the question (as Acosta formulates it) “si será posible y realista intentar un desarrollo diferente dentro del capitalismo” — that is, whether it is possible and realistic to attempt a different development within capitalism. – RF]
 Acosta, op. cit., p. 204.
 See “Human Development Report” of the United Nations Development Program, UNDP (New York, 2010). The corresponding data for 2008 are in Tables 7, 14 and 16 of the Report.