An Interview with Raúl Zibechi: “The Limits of Consumerism are also Internal”

Society is in movement, creating autonomously, and yet the State moves in and appropriates society for its own ends.  This is one of the main ideas coming out of the talk that we had with Raúl Zibechi.

Source: ComAmbiental

Translation by Seth Kershner

Society is in movement, creating autonomously, and yet the State moves in and appropriates society for its own ends.  This is one of the main ideas coming out of the talk that we had with the Urugayan thinker/ educator, Raúl Zibechi, while he was in Argentina recently to talk about his new book, Preservar y Compartir (with Michael Hardt, Mar Dulce Editora).  In the interview, he tells us that buen vivir is the greatest invention of social movements, because it goes beyond merely criticizing “development” to propose real alternatives.  He confirms that the cultural question is also a structural question.  Also, Zibechi tells us that Latin America today is not in a period of post-neoliberalism, but rather continues to hang on to some of its chief traits like extractivismo.  As he puts it in his writings, this is an economic model without producers, like the one we had in the industrial age.  And thus in this sense buen vivir is an alternative for those who wish to produce and to take charge of their lives.

Let’s start at the beginning: How did the idea for this book arise?

I’ve known Gabriela (Massuh, of Mar Dulce) for many years now and I had just had a chapter of mine published in a book she edited called Renunciar al Bien Comun. Out of that arose the possibility of this book, which is basically an updated version of a large interview I had done with Hardt and Alvaro Reyes which appeared a year ago (in English) in The South Atlantic Quarterly.  We then had the possibility of publishing it here in Spanish along with another essay by Hardt and a couple of my own essays.  I’ve known Hardt now for several years and he remains an important model for me.  We have always read each others’ work.  He brings tremendous knowledge to the interview – not only of The Other, but also of scholarship as well as the current Latin American reality.  So, that’s how this exchange came about and I think the results are really interesting. 

The book discusses the concept of Social Movements.

It is often the case that one gives new names to old concepts.  It’s simply a matter of inertia.  Concepts are a set of tools that one has.  And that’s where a difficulty arises which has a lot to do with the question of eurocentricity.  Beginning in the 1960s academia has developed a system of identifying social movements in Europe and the U.S.: there are movements about women, minorities, civil rights, movements for peace and to protect the environment.  And I think this old concept of Social Movements is not well adapted for – or perhaps does not take account of – the new types of actions, new forms of organization that these Latin American social movements bring to the table.  These new movements have certain characteristics such as the seizing of territory, the creation of spaces that attempt to create social ties distinct from the dominant ways of relating to one another.

And in this connection I’d like to ask you about another of Hardt’s concepts, that of “the Multitude.” A short while ago Horacio González used this term in referring to the recent wave of protests. (Nota: Sobre el 8N publicó “Multitud Abstracta” y sobre el 18A (“Multitud volátil“).

For Hardt and Negri, the idea of the Multitude is linked to what they call immaterial labor.  I do not think that one can just indiscriminately cut and paste this concept for general use.  I myself have doubts about this concept, as it raises some concerns for me.  I think that in Latin America the Grupo Comuna in Bolivia has used the term differently.  For them it refers to a “joining together of differences,” which is a more fitting idea for our part of the world.  But from this you also have uses and abuses of the concept.  I do not share the analysis of Horacio González because it seems to me that there he’s trying to make a political point in discrediting those who are mobilizing for a kind of change he doesn’t agree with.  But what seems interesting to me is that today society is in movement, regardless of the politics involved.  There is a tendency not only towards mobilization in society, but above all towards mobility – which is a separate issue; what we have are persons who are beginning to change place and to occupy different spaces.  Groups as diverse as the piqueteros or the caceroleros have done this, which demonstrates that universal means are being used to achieve distinct ends.  It seems to me that this is simply a part of society, which one cannot disregard or criminalize.  In short, when society consists of people who are both mobilized and moving-themselves in this way the power of the State becomes less important.

How do we ensure that the knowledge and practices generated by movements are not appropriated by others and used in ways that are opposed to their creators’ intent?

I believe that knowledge is free, and whatever bits of knowledge which are not free should be.  When a multinational company blocks the publication of some knowledge that it has, for example, we criticize it.  So, knowledge is out there and people are going to use and appropriate it anyway they can.  I think that this has a logic of its own.  It can be used for evil means, but in Latin America governments have gone in the opposite direction.  That is, they draw on the new ways of thinking and doing created by the movements to formulate and impose social welfare policies.  (For example, policies focused on addressing poverty).  That is inevitable.  If one were to look at the policies promulgated by the World Bank over the past forty years, you see how they’ve started to use categories which were made popular by the movements, such as autonomy.  The World Bank, the primary body involved in spreading social policies, discovered that those policies would be more effective if they gave the movements themselves responsibility for implementing them.  Co-opting the movements, as it were.

Speaking of appropriating concepts: What’s left of sumak kawsay or buen vivir when it goes from the level of communities to the level of the State.  We’ve seen this happen in Ecuador with the government’s Development Plan.

Yes, it’s a contradiction.  The thing is, life is a slippery slope.  The same is true within the political sphere.  In the past fifteen years one of the creations of the movements has been cooperative business enterprises (emprendimientos productivos). The State takes those experiences, packages them as part of the “social economy,” and then returns them to the community level in the form of government projects.  What had at first been an emancipatory creation ends up being a very vertical kind of policy, carried out by bureaucrats.  On the one hand you could say that it is a good thing to institutionalize practices of this kind and in turn get support from the State.  But on balance this precludes popular participation.  And this is something which happens in life.  It’s not possible to make a law that would prohibit the government from appropriating popular practices.  The only response that we have is to keep on creating.

I think that buen vivir is a new way of thinking about the issue.  This is not the same as talking about “sustainable development” – which has also been appropriated, even by mining firms.

Yes, I think that of all the theoretical-practical creations of the movements, the idea of buen vivir may be the most innovative.  In the sense that really for the first time in the West we have coined a term that goes against the grain, which not only critiques development but goes further and proposes an alternative.  The alternative may not be embraced by the majority of the people – I accept that – but it is a real alternative, one created by people who are trying out new modes of being in the world.  This is not an alternative in theory, not one that says development has such and such negative effects.  Rather, it demonstrates the possibility of living well – in harmony with nature and with other people, with technologies that can be controlled by human beings.  To live in face-to-face relation with people, not anonymously.

Nor is not solely an environmental concern – that is but one dimension.  Buen vivir is a totally different philosophy, one which incorporates a range of things that we’ve only just begun to identify as real alternatives to the crisis of civilization.  Because what buen vivir demonstrates isn’t that there is an environmental crisis, or humanitarian or economic crises, it is that Western civilization has reached a point of no return.  And the more people become aware of this, the more it becomes a matter of finding alternatives.

I’ve heard you say that the drive to be free is competing with the drive to consume.  Do you think it can be put in these terms?

Yes, one can think about it in that way.  What I’m trying to say is that if emancipation is a human tendency, one which springs from out of the human collective, the limits to freedom – to emancipation – are not to be found outside of ourselves.  Normally we tend to see a dichotomy which I consider false.  It goes like this: “I want to be free but the Market (or the State) stops me from being free.”  I think that the factors that may potentially limit freedom are to be found within us.  For that reason I speak of consumerism.  Nobody obligates you to consume.  No one is pointing a gun to your head and saying, “Go shopping!”  People choose.  Even though that choice may be influenced in some way, or manipulated, or what-have-you, at the end of the day when you come home and flick on the TV set it’s you who is turning on the tube, not someone else.  And so I think that we need to be serious and to establish that there is this human tendency to consume and that the limits to freedom are bound up with the fact that we are human beings.  That’s where we are failing, in our eagerness to place the blame elsewhere or to pass the buck.  The point we’re at today is good insofar as we’re pointing out external limits to freedom but we’re not working hard enough to address what’s inside of us.

Another point you raised in your presentation has to do with the civilizational changes that China’s ascent has brought about.  What’s new here?

There are a number of changes.  One is that the West will no longer be a part of a global hegemony.  That much is clear.  Is there a capitalism of the East?  Yes, there is.  It seems to me that there is a form of capitalism in China – which is different from the capitalism in Japan – where state regulations still subject multinationals to close scrutiny.  The State in Asia is still able to keep multinationals under control, not the other way around.  Probably it is this double dimension of capitalism – capital flows combined with the territoriality of the State – which functions differently and with a different balance of power in the East.  If this view is correct, then Western-style capitalism would be difficult to reproduce in the East.  We might then conclude that this is a different type of capitalism, or at least something different from capitalism – which is capable of assuming many different forms.  There are those who claim that we are in the final stage of capitalism, and there are those who say that China will allow capitalism to reawaken.

On the topic of changing forms of capitalism, one way of looking at the progressive governments in Latin America is that they are post-neoliberal.  In what sense can they be thought about in this way?

It seems to me that the concept of post-neoliberalism is not adequate.  Today we are still living in a neoliberal era, the principal category of which is financial speculation and what is known as “accumulation by dispossession.”  That is the primary marker of the neoliberal model.  What has changed is the way in which it’s being carried out: in the 1990s you had privatizations, while today neoliberalism is dominated by extractivismo. It’s doesn’t seem very reasonable to me to call the current model post-neoliberalism just because we now have governments who use progressive rhetoric.  After all, doesn’t it seem strange that there are both right- and left-wing governments pursuing extractivismo ?  Which ones are the true post-neoliberals?  What’s the difference between the two?  I have yet to be convinced by those who say there are differences between progressive and conservative governments [in Latin America].  Structurally they are the same.  Some say that the progressive governments put more energy into combating poverty, and even that is arguable.  After all, if they hadn’t had been able to cash in on the commodity price cycle they wouldn’t have been able to carry out all these social policies.  So, these governments function in a very similar way from country to country.

Zibechi explains to me that there is a “systemic chaos” that must also be considered.  He says: “We are in a period in which small actions produce unexpected outcomes.”  He gives me the example of the Black Plague in 14th century Europe, which according to some authors provided the seedbed of capitalism due to the conditions it brought about: a small population of workers and a desire for material goods.  He continues: “I think that we are in a similar period.  Catastrophes, unanticipated events, wars, or sequences of events which hadn’t been planned for, or which we hadn’t foreseen, can generate new things.  For this reason I think we have to remain attentive to the changes happening in the world around us.”  He concludes by reaffirming the idea that he’s taken up elsewhere, which is that the cultural question is also a structural question, and that we have to avoid the temptation of simplistic Marxist economics.  His idea is that the struggle against extractivismo is also a cultural struggle, insofar as we will have to shed our identities as consumers in order to explore new ways of living well.