Buen Vivir, an Alternative to Capitalism

Capitalism’s relation to spiritual attitudes and ideologies has been historically hostile. The use of magic and the holding of pagan beliefs in peasant communities in the transition from feudalism to capitalism was mercilessly crushed, as it was seen as a belief system that removed control from the mercantile elites and prevented the mechanistic control needed to create a class of wage labourers[1]. Along with the enclosure of the commons, and the warping of gender relations to fit new roles created for the purpose of capital accumulation, this is an attempt to engender new relations into the socio-economic sphere.

While seen as an historical process, enclosures and the processes of accumulation have continued in the developing world, particularly in South America, where during the neoliberal turn in economic governance in the 80s, the repression and economic failure that followed it became known as the “lost decade”[2]. We’ve seen the creation of a landless proletariat and massive inequalities in land and wealth ownership. However, even with the dislocations and destruction that has followed these privatisations, they’re regularly presented as a small cost that doesn’t outweigh the larger benefits. Thatcher’s statement of there being no alternative is invoked.

This is far from the truth. In the realms of tribal knowledge and spirituality, and a connection to the land through different socio-economic conceptions, we see the roots of an alternative economic system that can challenge the dominance and discourse of capitalism. Buen Vivir represents such an alternative. It encompasses a realm of socio-economic knowledge that is ignored or even colonised by the processes and discourses of capital. Rather than relying on ideas of modern economic development that requires centralisation and rigid control, Buen Vivir advocates a different understanding of economy centred around communities and a revitalised commons. Smaller economies with less consumption and a better understanding of social and environmental costs. This represents a turn away from neoliberal capitalism, with a wider understanding of human subjectivities rather than the typical homo economicus, placing it in a larger area of social relations that understands nature as imbued with spiritual knowledge, a commons of shared information, a confederation of ecologically aware beings and environments.

The emphasis on different concepts of an economy links with ideas of alternative knowledge and ontology. These ideas redefine economy and political authority, distributing it and making it participatory. The praxis of Buen Vivir shows the capacity for variable forms of knowledge and power. Further, by understanding the religiosity of capitalist discourse, we see how religion-based alternatives can themselves combat the objectivities of capitalism.

Finally, by looking at Federici’s contention that capitalism was a regression for the peasant classes (particularly lower class women) that removed their agency and control, we see parallels with Buen Vivir as an alternative similar to the alternatives Federici presents as combating feudal relations. Processes of enclosure and debates over the realm of communal property are happening in Latin America as they were in Europe from the 14th century. The religiosity and mutuality present in peasant communities at that time are seen in the landless communities of South America. Buen Vivir is fighting against the totality of capitalism and its transition toward its neoliberal form, presenting a picture of an alternative economy. But Buen Vivir is not a totality, but a representation. “It describes a way of life and a form of development that sees social, cultural, environmental and economic issues working together and in balance”[3].

Buen Vivir places a different perspective on what constitutes an economy. In particular, it places the realms of spiritual knowledge on the same level as economic knowledge and capitalistic value. It is “structured by a specific vision of what is to live well, of what a good society is about, and they seek to embody that vision in a specific set of practices”[4] rather than simply a utilitarian look at modern capitalist practices in relation to the environment and indigenous communities. In this sense Buen Vivir is opposed to viewing nature and the economy as individualistic systems that need to be owned and appropriated. Rather than a belief in natural capital, a popular expression found in corporate social responsibility and forms of ‘environmentalist’ capitalism, there is a desire for “collaborative consumption and the sharing economy”[5]. Instead of seeing a society of individuals, collectives are perceived as the major economic variable. What is important are the communities and unique environments individuals find themselves placed within[6]. This is best summed up in the idea of suma qamana, the “harmonious balance between material and spiritual components”[7]. Such knowledge can only exist within a broad community of sociality and ecology. This community is placed within ayllu, the idea that wellbeing encompasses not just humanity but also animals and crops[8].

This bears relation to Bennett’s idea of nature and society conforming into confederations of beings[9]. It breaks the dualism of nature and society which assumes control by the latter over the former, fitting the capitalist role of controlling resources rather than owning them in common. The cultivation of openness put forward in the idea of confederation of nature acts as a form of modern commons in relation to the spiritual-environmental sphere. From this we can see an ecological-spiritual-political commons, whereby the working together of different groups through shared meanings allows for non-recalcitrant behaviours to come to the fore. Within this broad polity, shared meanings can constitute shared understandings of the spiritual realm, that of religious experience and with it shared politico-economic experiences. Thus an alternative to the modes of capitalism can come about from these experiences. Further, this doesn’t constitute a totality of experience but rather a heterogeneous field of perception and resistance. Similar ideas exist in the realm of interpreting the Holy Spirit as a “mystical communalism”[10], a commons of shared spiritual knowledge. Religious experience is emphasised within “humans’ relational ethos of agapic love”[11], in a similar way to how nature and its confederation is experienced through the communal and spiritual in Buen Vivir.

In its praxis, Buen Vivir shows how a lack of a totalising narrative is a strength, as it doesn’t rely on a colonisation of certain ideologies or knowledge but rather depends on linking up different conceptions of modernity and economy into an alternative. It combines modern elements of sociological thought with traditional, tribal knowledge in Andean communities. This is expressed in concepts of post-development and deep ecology[12]. Within this, the foundation of modernity and its rationality are questioned and “critical perspectives on development, originated from different ontologies, meet and interact”[13]. Assumed objectivities of society, such as the market economy and the direction of economic growth, are challenged from multiple perspectives. From this, the fundamental notions of power and what constitutes the realm of accepted knowledge become debated. The objectivities and subjectivities of capitalism, represented by its locational variables and widespread discourses respectively[14], are pushed into the dominion of questionability not through a totalising alternative but through a multitude of discourses, ranging from “indigenous belief systems” to “western critiques [of capitalism]”[15].

Milbank has made the point that because of the religiosity of capitalism’s existence[16], only an alternative that expresses religious and spiritual knowledge can combat the totality of capitalism. Going from Milbank’s analysis, we see the possibility for different alternatives in different areas of space-time. Capitalism is “theoretically rational and indefinitely feasible”[17], meaning that universal truths cannot simply combat the discourses of capitalism. Rather multiple options, “a ceaseless imagining of…possibilities”[18], are found to oppose capitalism. Buen Vivir shows this in its treatment of different forms of knowledge. Not looking for universal truths, but rather for subjectivities from which can be constructed a multiplicitous alternative, whether that be in traditional knowledge, modern critiques of capitalism or a combination thereof. Milbank makes an analogous point, stating that “processes of ‘tradition’, the gradual development of a common cultural outlook, and collective purpose develops through seeing what is possible at specific historic junctures”[19]. A universal authority or form of knowledge is more an illusion of ideology that a constructive reality. Buen Vivir’s ontology shows this, relying on the cultural background of South America and its historic relation to neoliberalism.

This process of cultivating such a truth within capitalism is a significant part of its history, both in its subjectivities and objectivities. In terms of an ideological trend, early capitalism took from Cartesian mechanics an understanding of the body and nature as conquerable by forms of rationalism. They have fundamental laws that can be understood and used. Forms of magical understanding of the body and nature are removed, capturing them in a “system of subjection”[20]. What comes from this is the theory of an individualised, self-managed body[21]. Humanity is disconnected from the wider community and mutualities of life. It’s difficult to classify the human as purely individual when “we are made up of its”[22], such as communities of cells and biological components. Thus to make the human mind and body mouldable to the “exercising of an unlimited sovereignty”[23], we see a history of extreme violence. The enclosures and the witch hunt represent the epicentre of this accumulated violence. Due to the historic independence cultivated by the peasant classes (themselves an early proletariat) through high wages and significant control of crafts and other industries in the early Middle Ages, a threat was presented to the established order of the elites of the time. Capitalism’s objectivity then took the form of presenting wage labour and the elimination of traditional forms of work and living as natural consequences of Enlightenment thinking and the train of progress. Yet the reality was the holding of power from feudalism to capitalism. This historical epoch was a regression away from bottom-up authority and power toward maintained control from the top. In a similar manner, the modern period of “intense techno-scientific transformations” shows ecological confederations and spiritual knowledge systems being destroyed “by the gangrene of mass-media consumption” and a “standardization of behavior”[24]. Capitalism’s ontology requires the destruction of such mediums as otherwise they present choice in a sea of uniformity.

However, because of the violence imbued in such objectivities, they are open to contestation. Due to the religiosity that surrounds capitalist thought, with its requirement of a “dogmatic cult” of utilitarianism and its concretisation via an understanding of its existence as immortal and unbending[25] (as seen in Cartesian mechanics and Lockean theories of property which proffer an understanding broken from history and reliant purely on theory), the objectivities that make it up are held as “outside of known fact and subjective grasp, a mystery, a matter of interpretation”[26]. Rather than the origin of private property being seen in the subjective realities of everyday experience during the Enclosures, Lockean ideas provide a mysticism of origin, with property being voluntarily removed and held out of the commons of land. Similarly, Hobbesian governance relies on the mystery of a time of all against all, with no basis for trust and law. The religiosity of capitalism comes from its capability to mould social relations out of its economics. These relations are formed in terms of their monetary significance via credit and debt. Within this, the capacity for a social relation is that of power and guilt. Power over one who owes you a debt and guilt for the feeling that this debt may not be repaid. A form of psychological peonage is cultivated, with the “reform of being” no longer important, but rather its “obliteration”[27] at the altar of Mammon. The importance of accumulating money to maintain semblance of authority becomes the centrality of life. Now these ideas are not known truths, but theories. And like all theories they can be challenged. Thus as Blencowe shows, the basis of authority relies on their interpretation[28] of what constitutes the fields of biology or economy. The ideas of objectivity anchor “specific commonalities, solidarities, of experience”[29] in a realm of contested knowledge. Capitalism does not the hold the field of hegemonic reality. While capitalocentric discourse has attempted to colonise the field of economic objectivity[30], the reality is that neoliberal forms of governance rely on control mechanisms to hold the sway of reality and authority, engendering inequalities of power. Buen Vivir opens up this capitalocentric discourse to scrutiny, and cultivates new forms of knowledge and praxis that remove its objectivities as forms of absolute truth.

The realities of capitalism means an unequal implementation, leaving some “at an impassable distance from reality”[31], but with the capability of an alternative fulfilling the role of mediating objectivities like economy and biology for those excluded. These exclusions allow for new forms of knowledge to grow, as well as the rediscovery of ancient knowledge. A multitudinous version of knowledge and value comes through this, with Buen Vivir’s collation of different knowledge-forms. These conceptions of traditional knowledge cultivated in localities that house economic alternatives present a fundamental issue for capitalism. They cannot be infected by capitalocentric discourse. “These ‘primordial images’ or ‘archetypes,’ as I have called them, belong to the basic stock of the unconscious psyche and cannot be explained as personal acquisitions. Together they make up that psychic stratum which has been called the collective unconscious”[32] coming from tradition and spiritual excitation, much in the same way Buen Vivir develops its knowledge from traditional and modern sources, ignoring neither economic nor spiritual conceptions. If we understand capitalism as encompassing the social factory, simply reproducing the act of mass consumerism, it doesn’t allow for the collective transcendent and denigrates the idea of community. Knowledge is transformed as an individualised process of exploration and control. But what Buen Vivir does is re-embed these products of sociality back into their constituent social relations. What is present in this is the construction of authority, “the reality of a community”[33]. By this construction of authority, new power relations become codified which challenge the predominance of capitalist ones, creating new socio-economic relations through a cultivation of different knowledge structures. The way Buen Vivir does this now, through a combination of modern and indigenous, is similar to the facets of resistance Federici shows as prevalent in the development of capitalism in the Middle Ages, acting as a form of resistance against its regressive forces.

Historically, peasant communities had a deep connection to spiritual forms of knowledge. At this time in the Middle Ages, “the basis of magic was an animistic conception of nature that did not admit to any separation between matter and spirit, and thus imagined the cosmos as a living organism”[34]. All elements of life, all organisms, represented a community of nature, each component with special powers within it. Buen Vivir, with its idea of a commons of life and knowledge from all beings is a modern reiteration of such traditions. Things like land and the body were seen as spiritual embodiments. Religious life itself was something of a pastoral mutuality between the church and the community. The church acted as a community center. But rather than that of a statist pastoralism (of recording, collecting and coercing) the connection was in some ways reciprocal, reflecting ingrained mutualities. Similarly, in the realm of ontology Buen Vivir attempts to hold the same mutualities between collective tradition and the conditions of modernity, which one holding the other in non-capitalist structures. Rather than celebrating this as some ahistorical panacea however, what I do see is the capability of religion to provide a decentralised pastoral power through the means of a political structure that shared the commons of life and politics with those in that society. Such conceptions can be thought of again as an alternative to modern neoliberal capitalism. Further elements like this are seen in the way nature was viewed by peasant communities. Their views constituted “a qualitative conception of space and time”[35] which didn’t fit in with capitalist concepts of wage labour.

Thus the need for capitalist forms of organisation to end these alternative perceptions became important, as seen in the land enclosures, social enclosures (which meant criminalising peasant community forums and protests, such as the sabbat) and the witch-hunt. However, the social resistance that came against these forces shows the capacity for religious alternatives to develop and sustain themselves. The heretical movement gave way to new ideas of worker control of industry and craft[36], as well as new sexual relations more in the way of egalitarianism than dominance. Many of these were hedged in ideas of church reforms which wanted to eliminate Catholic hierarchies and make a church that worked with the people, something that already in the idea of the church as a community center. Even into the late Tudorian era the protests continued, waging against the dissolving of the monasteries and opposition toward taxes on christenings and marriages[37]. What can be seen is the capability of religion to help construct new narratives of economy and society. They were only defeated through extreme forms of violence encapsulated in the legalisation of rape against peasant women[38] and the witch-hunts which remade sexual politics and relations from the Middle Ages on.

Like the alternatives that developed that allowed for early of forms of non and anti-capitalist political and economical practices, Buen Vivir holds a position of crafting alternatives in a multiplicitous, multifaceted manner. It takes positions against modern mass consumerism, which engender mass production and the mercantilisation of the worker[39]. It looks toward the distribution of power and knowledge to participatory bodies and institutions of governance and community, much like some of the Christian socialist ideas of “a clerisy of all citizens”[40] with constitutive social hierarchies and mutualities. Knowledge and power is informed by active citizenship in the ecological confederation.

Fundamentally, Buen Vivir encapsulates not a totalising narrative of utopian socialism like that of Fourier, but rather a reconceptualisation of society along different economic and moral lines. It moves away from the individualisation and responsibilisation of society. Rather than a marketised view of what inhabits the economy, it looks at things like social and economic costs, and the happiness and cohesiveness of communities rather than the productivity level of a worker.

By understanding the religiosity of capitalism, funnelled through debt-based guilt and a servitude to Mammon, to money and the consumables it can purchase, we see that the objectivities that embody capitalism are not simply rational and guided by pure laws. While containing some of Cartesian mechanics, their actual implementation is much messier and more violent. The objectivities that guide, such as market logic and private property, are simply theories of perfect conditions rather than descriptions. The actual origin of such concepts is shrouded in ideas of a mythical beginning from either an anarchic, war-like society of all against all or a society where commons slowly transitioned to private property through voluntary means.

But of course because these are so contestable as theories, alternatives can easily develop which can change fundamental socio-economic narratives and thus realities. Authority can be reconstituted back toward the level of the communal. This is what Buen Vivir attempts to do. In South America, the lost decade entailed the destruction of peasant ownership and the emplacement of the haciendas. Buen Vivir presents a realistic alternative that draws from traditional knowledge and practice and combines with new ideas in the realms of economic and social commons. It entails the re-commonising of life for peasant communities, and a new discourse of the fundamental parts of what is economic development that moves toward understanding humanity and nature as a harmonious, spiritual whole, a confederation of experience and religious ideology that encompasses the realm of the tangible and spiritual.

[1] Federici, S. 2004, 173-174

[2] Rowland, C. 1999, 23

[3] Balch, O. 2013

[4] Deneulin, S. 2012, 6

[5] Balch, O. 2013

[6] Balch, O. 2013

[7] Gudynas, E. 2011, 444

[8] Gudynas, E. 2011, 444

[9] Bennett, J. 2010, 99

[10] Scott, P. & Cavanaugh, W. 2004, 379

[11] Scott, P. & Cavanaugh, W. 2004, 380

[12] Gudynas, E. 2011, 444

[13] Gudynas, E. 2011, 447

[14] Shaw, C. 2016

[15] Balch, O. 2013

[16] Milbank, J. 1988, 15

[17] Milbank, J. 1988, 15

[18] Milbank, J. 1988, 15

[19] Milbank, J. 1988, 15

[20] Federici, S. 2004, 140

[21] Federici, S. 2004, 148

[22] Bennett, J. 2010, 113

[23] Federici, S. 2004, 148

[24] Bennett, J. 2010, 113

[25] Benjamin, W. 1921

[26] Blencowe, C. 2013, 23

[27] Benjamin, W. 1921

[28] Blencowe, C. 2013, 23

[29] Blencowe, C. 2013, 16

[30] Gibson-Graham, J.K. 2006, 55

[31] Blencowe, C. 2013, 24

[32] Jung, C. 1960, 229-230

[33] Blencowe, C. 2013, 13

[34] Federici, S. 2004, 141

[35] Federici, S. 2004, 142

[36] Federici, S. 2004, 21-61

[37] Wood, A. 2002, 50

[38] Federici, S. 2004, 48

[39] Balch, O. 2013

[40] Milbank, J. 1988, 6


Balch, O. (2013). Buen Vivir: the social philosophy inspiring movements in South America. Available: http://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/blog/buen-vivir-philosophy-south-america-eduardo-gudynas. Last accessed 12th Apr 2016.

Benjamin, W. (1996). Selected Writings, Volume 1. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 288-291.

Bennett, J. (2010). Vibrant Matter. United States of America: Duke University Press.

Blencowe, C. (2013). Biopolitical authority, objectivity and the groundwork of modern citizenship. Journal of Political Power. 6 (1), 9-28.

Deneulin, S. (2012). Justice and deliberation about the good life: The contribution of Latin American Buen Vivir social movements to the idea of justice. Bath Papers in International Development and Wellbeing. Working Paper (17), 1-16.

Federici, S. (2004). Caliban and the Witch. New York: Autonomedia.

Gibson-Graham, J.K. (2006). A Postcapitalist Politics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Gudynas, E. (2011). Buen Vivir: today’s tomorrow. Development. 54 (4), 441-447.

Jung, C. (1960). The Significance of Constitution and Heredity in Psychology. In: Adler, G., Fordham, M. & Read, H. The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche: Vol 8. Abingdon-on-Thames: Routledge. 112.

Milbank, J. (1988). On Baseless Suspicion. New Blackfriars. 69 (812), 4-19.

Rowland, C. (1999). The Cambridge Companion to Liberation Theology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Scott, P. & Cavanaugh, W. (2004). The Blackwell Companion to Political Theology. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Shaw, C. (2016). Creating the Seeds of Capitalism’s Death. Available: https://c4ss.org/content/42632. Last accessed 12th Apr 2016.

Wood, A. (2002). Riot, Rebellion and Popular Politics in Early Modern England. Basingstoke: Palgrave.


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