eipcp News
11 2013

Sumak kawsay or the politics of joyful living

Francesco Salvini

Francesco Salvini




A spectre is haunting Latin America, moving among social movements and programmatic constitutions. It is the spectre of sumak kawsay, the principle of reciprocity amongst living things, with and within the nature and deep-rooted in indigenous cultures. Called buen vivir in Ecuador, the use of this phrase refers to a political conception of a social living in relation, not only to nature, but also to a broader dimension of living together, in common, the fulfilment of life; in other words, as defined in the Costitución de Ecuador of 2008:

“Art.14. It is recognized the right of the people to live in a healthy and ecologically balanced environment, guaranteeing sustainability and buen vivir, sumak kawsay.
Art.275. Buen vivir requires that people, communities, populations and nationalities effectively enjoy their rights and to accomplish their responsibilities in the frame of an intercultural, diverse and natural harmonic coexistence.”

However, kawsay is a verb and, in the Anglo-Saxon world, the translation to live well is used instead of good living, to avoid subjectivising kawsay and, therefore, to maintain the active force of the verbal form (in agreement, anyhow, with the Constitución Política del Estado de Bolivia of 2009 where sumak qamaña is translated as vivir bien).  Furthermore, it is not so easy to shrink sumak, at a semantic level, in a single translation, as it refers to different meanings such as: good, well, or beautiful.

Translating in itself opens therefore a political space, rather than a linguistic line between two significants. And, maybe, this open space among sumak kawsay, sumak qamaña, la buona vita, el buen vivir, the beauty of living, la vida en plenitud give us a propitious political territory to work in, where many of the words we use to imagine an alter-capitalist social life can find a space to speak and listen ones to each others: sumak kawsay, convivium, commons, sumak qamaña, commonfare, comune.

Sumak kawsay, as we propose in the research team of the Democracias en Revolución y Revoluciones en Democracia Program, in the National Institute of Advanced Studies, allows us to inhabit this debate on the making (or the crafting) of the commons, or on how to live well and together. Moreover, it allows us to do this by assuming political heterogeneity as a constituent ground for a collective practice, in which concepts and ways of doing are composed without preconceived hierarchies.

In this sense, the role of this article is to define the flexible margins for a space of debate around and about the sumak kawsay, with the idea that a series of suggestions and problematics rising in the contemporary Latin America can be useful to think about political action in the European context of the crisis, and that the desire of good living can help us to discover a new complexity of practices and concepts to build a – materialistically – happy elsewhere.

For this reason, the blog of the Fundación de los comunes as well as the web pages of eipcp.net and Euronomade, together with the Democracias en Revolución blog, will become polymorphic spaces for a heterogeneous debate, that we will try to make permeable.

Sumak kawsay
as elsewhere

At stake in this project there is the relationship between desire and political imagination, not following the paradigm of utopia, but according to the dimension of the elsewhere, and therefore involving a continuous displacement of and from the determinism of the Real.

Sumak kawsay means to build an otherness of space through one’s own living: an elsewhere in relation to the structured composition of the everyday but also an elsewhere to inhabit right now. Elsewhere as a territory to produce, not as a land for “discoverong” which is too many times just a synonymous of conquering.

Uttered at the same time from Quito and in Europe (god bless technologies!), sumak kawsay is, first of all, an elsewhere in the current crisis of Europe. Sumak kawsay, as a constituent practice beyond the dialectic between public and private in Latin America , is both the affirmation of an anti-neoliberal project, inscribed in the macro-regional framework of the last twenty years, and a critical force in relation to the Modern and social democratic tradition of the Euro-Atlantic Keynesian Welfare, where commonwealth has always been subjected to the rational authority of the State.

In this direction, it is useful to mention the recent history of Latin America, that led to affirm this concept as constitutional principle both in Ecuador and in Bolivia. Rising from the indigenous cultures before the Conquista, sumak kawsay y sumak qamaña have found new lymph in the resurgence of Latin American movements starting with the marches of the Quinto Centenario de la Conquista in 1992, the Mexican indigenous uprising of 1994, the 1999 rebellion of Quito, the wars on gas and water in Bolivia between 2000 and 2003, as well as the electoral victories of the democratic and popular forces since 1997 all around the continent, and yet all those movements that are configuring the political space of Latin America as an open and conflictive, as well as living and democratic, space.

This living, open and democratic elsewhere, however does not dwell in utopia, but rather it roots in the constant tension between the present as it is and as it could be, hic at nunc. There is a red thread that joins the various experiences and it is, we believe, a continuously prefigurative and performative dimension of the radical Latin American political process: this is visible both in the instituting forces – from the “piqueteros” in 2001 to the revolts during the Brazilian Confederations Cup of the last summer, or the juntas Zapatistas de buen, the Argentinean takes of factories or the protagonist role of the popular “barrios” in the new geography of power in Venezuela – and in the constituent dynamics – the new constitutional charters in Ecuador and Bolivia, the Good Living National Plan in Ecuador (2009-2013), or the laws for democratic information and the democratic management of natural resources throughout the continent.

In other words, this red thread helps us imagine the future since it is always in tension: between the new (prefigurative) practices of political emancipation – opposed to the technocracy authority of development – and a (performative) will that programmatically and pragmatically affirms new principles for organising social life.

This tension between instituent insurrections and constituent attempts is the fundamental base for maintaining the possibility of an open plural and productive debate on what the sumak kawsay is, (even when multiple points of crisis emerge as it is the case, for example, here in Ecuador, around crucial questions such as reproductive freedom – abortion – and extractivism of natural resources – the oil of Yasuní ITT). Sumak kawsay indeed constitutes a space for discussion where no Power can presume any position of authority for defining what truthfully means to live well.

A space for plural debate is crucial to continue having confidence  – believing – that the Latin American laboratories are giving life to radically democratic social infrastructures, capable of contributing to the affirmation of a new way of organizing life, or better saidliving, in common.

Sumak kawsay, in other terms, permits us to define a conceptual elsewhere in relation to the history of the European political thought and to imagine emancipation and rights in an open and multiple space, capable of escaping the limits of a modern and anthropocentric history of the Old Country in crisis.  In this sense, the Latin American ecological as well as post- and de-colonial perspectives affirm themselves in an extremely declarative manner in the debate around the sumak kawsay.

The rights of the sumak kawsay, indeed, are not based on the individual dimension of a civil and European Right. They thrive, actually, from the affirmation that rights are not solely and exclusively the rights of “man” and humanity. And, contrary to the Western tradition, they affirm the possibility of a seeking a balance between human life and the living of the world beyond individual lives.  This point of commence is based on a juridical hybridism between the Western culture of Rights and the Andean definition of nature (pachamama, as a carrier of rights) and it is useful to think about harmony as something more than just a naïf (and neoliberal) category – through which the relationship between singularity and nature is individualized and social life is reduced to a mere subgroup in a purely objectual relationship with nature. Harmony can be a political and always social practice that affirms reciprocity, participation and responsibility towards the common as roots for any possible good living.

Finally, this elsewhere is not outside of the capitalist world. On the contrary, to discuss and to build this good living in the everyday of the European crisis, as well as in the complex and contradictory debate in Latin America, means to determine in real terms a possible hold upon the functioning of capitalismAn hold that makes evident a structural incompatibility, or constitutive antagonism, between sumak kawsay, as production and reproduction of an elsewhere, and the extended reproduction, typical of capital.  It is a matter of, firstly, understanding that the relationship between the living and the capital is a relationship of production; and therefore, of exploitation. The breaking of this relationship, and therefore the re-appropriation of the mechanisms of social reproduction is always, and from within, a relationship of insubordination and conflict.  Here is where we situate ourselves to start this blog and debate:

“Now, if it is true that post-Fordist production appropriates life, that is the collection of specifically human faculties, it is obvious that insubordination emerges on the same matter of fact.  Life included in the flexible production is contrasted by an instance for a buona vita. And, the search of a buona vita is, actually, the matter of Ethic.” (Virno)

Looking for a resolution in the relationship between production and life, sumak kawsay points out an important element: putting not only life, but living, as social behaviour beyond individuals and humanity, at the centre of the matter. At stake there is, perhaps, the possibility of rethinking (our own) life as a singular expression of an harmonic living, of imagining a way of living together and well. In other words, to produce a beauty of living together.

At stake there is, in the end, the possibility of escaping the homolingual address of capital, and of understanding, as proposed by Gareth Brown, the crucial importance of the struggle against the enclosure of imagination, against those processes that are fencing words and projects in identitarian frames, to guarantee a safe distance between all those words that actually help us imagining happiness.

Sumak kawsay, to live joyfully. Let’s try to translate it in this way. With the aim of filling this space of debate with voices and words, as well as stories and practices that can allow us to explore this conceptual territory.

To know joyfully. Sumak yachay.