Buen Vivir: indigenous alternative to neoliberalism

What follows is a synthesis of the thought and tradition of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, and particularly the indigenous communities of South America — that is, the Andean indigenous peoples. It is also drawn from a a talk given by Javier Badilla.

The indigenous concept of Good Living takes precedence over the western idea of “living better,” in the sense that with Good Living, all components have life. The cycles of the earth are respected, as are the harvest, yielding a life with balance. There are no superiors or inferiors, and human beings are equal in value to a tree or an animal. Community life prevails. When European thought replaced this vision, it brought a darkness from which we have not yet been able to escape. 

We could say that Good Living is an ethical, moral framework, yielding fairer, more independent, more balanced and poverty-free societies. The philosophy of Good Living is also that of a Sweet Life. The political constitutions of Ecuador and Bolivia included Good Living within their articles and spirit for the first time.

There are seven basic pillars to the Andean lifestyle — the principle of Good Living, living in complementarity, living with reciprocity, reaching agreement by consensus, development as distinct from growth, and working with joy. All of these are interwoven into our discussion here.

The principle of Good Living seeks to prioritize life. Good Living proposes to live in harmony with Nature, in contrast to the predatory policy of the West.  For those subscribing to the principle of Good Living, no one can be complete if someone else is wrong. The human being needs the plants and the generosity of a river. We all need each other in order to be complete. Good Living is not fundamentalist. Someday we all have to get together — because nobody can be complete if someone else is incomplete. I will be fine if you are fine. Just as the child needs the grandfather in order to learn about life, the human being needs the plants, the rivers and the generosity of a grain in order to survive. Life is like a fabric. Life is like a thread. They all need each other, they complement each other, and they live a harmonious life where no one is more than anyone else, and no one is less. In the part there is the whole, and the part is a whole in itself.

The indigenous people of the entire continent have a deep-rooted sense of collaboration and solidarity. All the heavy work is done by the community. Good Living seeks for everyone to live under this principle, with the idea that the old custom of coexistence has to be recovered in order to live well again. 

Since the conquest, our conquerors injected us with the virus of individualism, and they broke our healthy habit of living in community. We became islands concerned only with our families and our own lives, and with individualism. We were incubated with greed, which produced all the ill effects that we suffer today. Today there is nothing more important than having more. There is nothing that interests us more than having more. 

To end this outlook on life, the philosophy of Good Living seeks to rescue the old custom of living in community —  re-creating those social ties that once united us and helped us to cope together with the vicissitudes of life. To go back to the healthy habit of being supportive. So different from Western exchange that is always linked to the question of economics. What will you give me? What must I give? What advantages will I get with this exchange? Exchange produces profit, whereas reciprocity produces emotional well-being. Just as there is pleasure in giving, there is also pleasure in giving back. Faced with western and neoliberal individualism, Good Living instead proposes coexistence and community life, because living “better” does not automatically give us balance or harmony in our lives.

The Andean ayllus, or social communities, come together to perform the rituals, but especially to make decisions about various problems. In these assemblies, everyone has the obligation to participate. Each person expresses their judgment about a problem being treated, while all the others listen with absolute respect. The problem is argued and counter-argued. From there comes a consensus that will convince everyone. It is not imposed. It is debated. 

The Andean Indians say that each one of us has an interior life, and we have to take care that this interior life is in good condition and in peace and harmony. With control of our emotions, and control of our passions.

Then there’s the idea that development is not equal to growth. Since the start of the industrial revolution, which brought with it capitalism and then neoliberalism, development has always been linked with economic growth — and this, with accumulation. For the capitalists and the neoliberals, there are no other dimensions of development than the economic ones. It’s a logic that has become international, and has codified the human being. For those who essentially own the world, development is synonymous with an unlimited increase in goods, regardless of the inequality that causes. And the people who oppose it are devastated or exterminated. The goal becomes the domination and exploitation of nature, human beings and cultures — for them, that is development. And they measure it with the yardstick of GDP, gross domestic product, as if that can measure the well-being of humans, the happiness of people. 

The Andean Indians, on the other hand, do not speak of development —  the word “development” does not exist in the vocabulary of the Andean Aymara culture. They talk about growth, inner growth, natural learning with the plants, animals and nature with which they communicate and live. It is about other knowledge that has little to do with science or technology. In these communities, when a sage asks an elder for his opinion regarding a problem, it becomes the elder’s decision. The old man answers, “If you give me time, I will think with my heart. I will consult with the heart.” That is another type of knowledge. 

The Andean Indians teach us that all of us should seek to be Amiris. Amiris is an indigenous voice that defines the rich man, but not one who is rich in material goods — rather,  in “good vibes”, as it is popularly said. Positive energy. Inner peace. Amiris are those happy people who go through life spreading that happiness and that enthusiasm to other people. 

We have to seek to be Amiris. But the indigenous people tell us that in order to become Amiri, we have to fulfill certain tasks. Primary among those is to seek to be pachacamanas, which means “protector of the land.” We have to be protectors of nature first. And what does a pachacamana do? S/he talks about this philosophy, teaches this philosophy, and communicates this philosophy. What does a pachacamana do? Opposes the destruction of nature. Do what you can to oppose the destruction of nature. Take care of nature. 

But another even more important task of the pachacamana is to make sure that all the energies that comprise human beings and other components of nature flow freely without any impediment. The idea is that because everything has an inner life — including each tree and animal —  all of these energies connect with each other. We connect with the energy of the tree, the air, the animals. That is what quantum physics calls synapses, when they come together. And how does the pachacamana achieve this? We see it through rituals, incredible at every step, as that is what rituals are for. When you see an indigenous man with his braserito fuming, the infinite is performing the biochemical process of gathering together these energies. The vital energies. That is what the pachacamana does.

Finally, for the Andean indigenous people, work is part of the festival. It is part of their liturgical rituals —done with the same joy they feel when they sow as when they reap. Have you ever seen a farmer plowing the land angry? Work is part of living well from living in harmony with Mother Earth. 

Good living is also respecting women, because they represent Mother Earth, Pachamama. Life is seen as flowing through women, and through them all this knowledge is filtered. The woman is very important and occupies positions of authority. The indigenous people say that we have to stop being patriarchal societies. They respect women  as much as they do the elderly, because they are considered the authority.

One other key aspect is knowing how to die. Westerners generally fear death very much and do everything to delay it, believing that death ends everything. Indigenous people, however, are not afraid of death, as for them it is only a transition. A necessary transit, so that other lives may sprout. Why do they say that? Because being next to the earth means being a seed again, allowing other types of life to grow. When life and death meet, it then is good to learn to die. Good dying as well as good living.

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