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Catalyzing worker co-ops & the solidarity economy

Solidarity Economy Roads

Chapter 10 - The Road of Ancient Peoples

Article type
GEO Original
October 1, 2019
Body paragraph

Read the previous chapters: Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 4, Chapter 5, Chapter 6, Chapter 7, Chapter 8, Chapter 9

Translated by Matt Noyes

(Thanks to Emi Do and Leo Sammallahti – MN)

[Translator's note: In this chapter Razeto seeks paths to solidarity economy in traditional indigenous economic and cultural practices. Situating the experience of the Andean peoples in the historical context of conquest, colonization, and the development of capitalism, Razeto considers the features that distinguish traditional economies and answers questions posed by their development: how was technology traditionally understood and practiced? To what degree do those features continue to exist? Can traditional economic forms and practices be recuperated, in whole or in part? Are they efficient? Which elements are most harmonious with solidarity economy? The chapter ends with an optimistic reflection on Fritjof Capra’s “Buddhist Physics” which describes the emergence of a “tremendous evolutionary movement” in the face of impending ecological disaster. - MN]

Chapter 10

The Road of Ancient Peoples

Indigenous peoples following the recuperation of identity

In various countries of Latin America there are groups advancing in the direction of solidarity economy whose experience we have not yet considered: the original peoples of the continent, the diverse indigenous communities seeking to rescue their ancestral cultures and reconstitute their traditional ways of life.

Indigenous groups constitute a significant proportion of the population in Latin America. We are not talking about a single people with homogeneous ethnic and cultural characteristics, but an archipelago of peoples and communities, each with its own language, history, culture, religion, and ways of life. None of them has conserved its traditions intact, due to the often devastating impact of the conquest and colonization and the successive disarticulating effects of subordination to national states, contact with industrialization, and interaction with modern markets. Still, the structuring values of their traditional cultures continue to exist in latent form.

Andean women in traditional clothing, sitting on a hill with two alpacas.
Photo: CC0

In recent years indigenous people have experienced increasing economic, social, and cultural marginalization as a consequence of the restructuring of national economies in the framework of processes of modernization and concomitant efforts aimed at reinserting Latin American economies into global markets. This experience of marginalization is awakening in many indigenous people a desire to reevaluate their traditional modes of doing economy, either as a reaction against an economic model that excludes them or out of simple necessity as a means of survival in a hostile context. This turn to traditional modes is also a way in which indigenous people themselves, or sectors within them, reaffirm their identity in the face of the threat of the cultural homogenization induced by the spread of means of social communication. Despite their progressive disarticulation, these secular cultures still maintain enough vitality to provide a social identity to these impoverished communities and peoples, for whom it is a source of motivation and strength needed in the struggle for survival.

The effort to recuperate cultural values and identity is closely tied to the revalorization of forms of labor, technology, organization, distribution, and economic reproduction in which this culture is objectified, economic forms distinguished by consistent elements of community and solidaristic integration. The consideration of these forms will permit us to better understand how the aforementioned processes of recuperation of cultural and economic identity imply a path of direct access to the solidarity economy.

Traditional indigenous economies as forms of solidarity economy.

The economies of the originary peoples in Latin America were characterized by having the community as their principal subject, integrated on the basis of forms of community property and collective work, and relations of reciprocity and cooperation. This can be appreciated especially in Andean peoples’ conceptions of production and work: for them the world is not a pile of isolated materials waiting to be appropriated by individuals who employ them to enact their transformational capacities, but a living whole, an animal-world demanding respect and care.

The importance of community and the peculiar relation with the earth that is typical of indigenous cultures impedes the establishment of forms of individual private property of the main means of production. The meaning that the concept of “property” acquires among them is very different from that derived from Roman law, wide-spread in our modern civilization: for them the earth is a providing mother and not just a factor of production. Animals, trees, crops, are integral elements of the community and with them establish connections of vital exchange that prevent their exploitation for the purpose of personal enrichment.

To produce is to cultivate the life of the world, on the farm, in the herd, in the home. The earth – Pachamama – is the universal mother of life and the people; its fruits are alive and life-giving. More than a simple productive activity, to work is to worship life. The Andean economy takes root and grows in the ayllu, a medium which is social and cultural, natural and religious. The allyu is the community together with all its cosmos, including the human community, the community of huacas or deities and the community of the sallqa or nature. In the Andean cosmovision the human community “makes farmwithin the community of nature under the tutelage of the community of huacas. It is an encounter and a dialogue of exchange and reciprocity.

To know how to cultivate life,” this would be the Andean definition of their own technology. Production is not transformation and dominion of the world but “the parenting of life.”

The elements of nature and of the human community all have their interior side, their secret life, their own personality capable of communicating with humans provided humans know how to treat them with sensitivity, that they know to respect them and adequately compensate them. Production should take into account “payment to the earth” according to the principle of reciprocity. Aware of the interior life of the world, the Andean people accompany all their economic activities with production rituals, whether to symbolically stimulate the development of the life they have cultivated, or to thank the world and give life to it in return. Labor and production are at once practical activity and sacred worship. “The earth doesn’t give its fruits easily(la tierra no da así no más) is a very common Andean expression.1 One is struck by their continuous expressions of care as they work. The indigenous person works with heart and affection, work being an activity that is more spiritual than physical or, better, both at once.

How does this symbolic technology function? According to Van Kessel, is a technology that comprises a vast amount of knowledge and empirical skills. It includes knowledge of agro-astronomy and the natural world: the immense diversity of lands and waters, the sophisticated reading of climatic indicators, the behavior of plants, animals, and water sources, the qualities of building materials and fertilizers. Skills, too, in the productive use of these elements: in agriculture and herding, human and veterinary medicine, protection from pests and diseases, freezes and hail storms, droughts and floods. The Andean technology contains an unsuspected empirical wealth of knowledge and skills that researchers and planners of development, jailed in their occidental, colonizing, ethnocentrism have never been able to appreciate.”2

The Andeans, the author tells us, are great observers of nature and people; the develop a meticulous observation of natural phenomena, not in a cold and impersonal way, but rather in a relationship charged with tenderness and dedication, sensing the intimate life of things in order to understand their secret language and become finely attuned to them. They observe people’s conduct and actions too, their strengths and weaknesses, needs and motives, characters and alliances.

They effect a mythological reading, which spreads through the community, of the phenomena and people they observe. All the comuneros3 observe the signals and read the signs, commenting on them among themselves. The reading is collective and decentralized, as is the interpretation. This occurs in a religious environment and in collective ritual ceremonies, always seeking to see the future in order to protect and prepare themselves for work and the struggle for life, which is exceptionally hard in the geographic conditions in which they live. The process of learning and transmission of know-how to younger generations is at once an initiation into the profound and secret life of the community. Technological instruction is also ethical education and religious training. The comuneros value this tradition, and their conversations turn to the remote past or to remembered stories of past events. The events and experiences of the past have reality and consistency, while the unknown future is the subject of attempts to predict and control it through ritual acts and preventive works.

This combination of characteristics of Andean technology contributes to the high degree of alignment of the community and its production with the ecological environment it inhabits. The technology seeks a moving and durable equilibrium between humanity and their environment, aimed at guaranteeing the well being of the community. Symbolic technology constitutes a mental and ethical attitude of the peasant managing their production techniques while at the same time paying homage as much to nature as to the community of deities.

Van Kessel underscores ten aspects which tend to guarantee the efficiency of this mode of organization of production:

1. Ceremonies and symbols are effective inasmuch as they constitute a psychological stimulus which generates self-confidence and optimism in a community whose existence is hard and hazardous, exposed to the risks and inclemencies of the Andean ecology.

2. Labor and technology raise awareness, inasmuch as they lead communities to acquire consciousness of their cultural and historical identity, a fundamental condition for incentivizing collective initiatives and efforts.

3. Rituals and symbols operate as social controls over technical experiments which are indispensable for technological development and improvement of production, but inevitably imply risks that must be mitigated.

4. Values are integrated into the technology, assuring an integral vision of human existence and stimulating awareness of the top-down unity of spiritual, social, and corporal values.

5. Religious ritual provides the community an ordered and efficient methodology, refined and penetrating, for observation and analysis of reality.

6. The ritual nature of production protects the people from materialism, consumerism, and obsession with technology. For Andeans, an economic rationality that is autonomous and uncontrolled, liberated from all ethical and religious norms, is nonsensical.

7. This mode of organization of production guarantees the accumulation and reproduction of “know-how,” transmitted orally. The ritual of production represents the principal mnemonic system. The codification of technology in ritual forms and religious symbols is perhaps less precise and thus exposed to forgetting and information loss, but it is highly flexible and adjustable as part of local development based on the microclimate.

8. The rituals of production stimulate the responsibility of the comuneros, because they incorporate and catalyze social and personal commitments. At the same time, they stimulate personal effort and improvement, underscoring and symbolically rewarding the successful results achieved by people, families, and communities.

9. Andean technology is common property; its ritual forms guarantee all members of the community full access.

10. It is a form of economy and technology that guarantees ecological equilibria.

In the distribution of economic products among the different members of the community and between the different families and communities which make up an economically integrated people, it is not commercial relations that are dominant but relations of reciprocal exchange. A balanced satisfaction of the fundamental needs of all is sought, recognized as equally necessary for the life of the community and its conservation and reproduction in time. The community seeks to assure the contribution of each person according to their capacities and the compensation of their efforts according to their needs through flows of reciprocity regulated by traditions and customs.

Different cultural and festive systems introduce elements of emulation and competition: in them the most efficient people, activities, and results are celebrated, raising the social prestige of the most capable and hard-working. But they are also committed to and responsible for providing necessary resources for the conviviality and progress of the community. Thus mechanisms of periodic redistribution of wealth are established preventing the weakening of connections between people and families disposing of different capacities and degrees of wealth.

Does it make sense today to recuperate traditional economic forms?

All of these elements and characteristics describe an eminently solidaristic way of doing economy which lasted for centuries until contact with modern mercantilist economies led to its disarticulation and partial abandonment. Today, in the face of incipient efforts to recuperate traditional forms and contents, we should ask ourselves some crucial questions. If they represent an efficient mode of economic organization, why have they not historically demonstrated an adequate capacity for survival in the modern epoch and a real capacity to secure satisfactory levels of progress and improvement of their conditions of life for the communities that have practiced this mode? Don’t these processes aimed at recuperation of traditional economic forms imply a return to a past of poverty and stagnation?

Pertinent questions no doubt, which raise important considerations. A first observation should lead us to recognize that the great majority of indigenous communities and towns in the Andean region currently experience very precarious living conditions at levels of development that are notably insufficient. Can this undeniable fact be attributed to the partial survival of traditional communal forms of economic practice? In fact, there is abundant evidence which permits us to affirm that these towns experienced a process of pauperization after the advent of modern forms of production and market which had a disarticulating impact on these traditional economies.

The standard of living and quality of life, evaluated not in terms of possession of money and typically modern products (obviously not the correct standard of comparison), but in conformity with parameters of personal and social satisfaction of needs, autonomy, and control over one’s own conditions of life – parameters of social integration – were without doubt superior for those communities when their distinctive economic forms were deployed in their coherence, free from the interference of modernity, as mentioned above.

The underdevelopment and poverty which indigenous peoples experience today can be attributed, in large part, to the disarticulation of traditional economic forms on the one hand, and the integration of indigenous peoples into modern markets, in a partial and subordinated form, on the other. The result: indigenous people have received neither the benefits nor the opportunities provided by either system.

Of course, these traditional economies were not static and had capacities for growth and evolution. This evolution, however, was brusquely interrupted by the European conquest and colonization which together with the demographic crash of the indigenous peoples signified the breakdown of the traditional economic and political structures. While it is no longer possible to know the potential for endogenous development that existed in these cultures and economic forms, it is obvious that in the centuries that have passed since the conquest they would have been able to carry out processes of expansion, diversification, and improvement that would have led them to achieve levels and quality of life superior to those under which their ethnic descendants live today.

As this potential was never realized, the pure recuperation of the traditional contents and forms of those economies could imply a return to the past, a historical regression, for example if people recuperated their identity by denying modernity and radically counterposing themselves to it, or simply reactivated ancestral practices, customs, beliefs, rituals, and forms of production, in a vain effort to revive that which has ceased to exist.

But there are realistic ways to carry out the process of recuperation of traditional economies, with potential for future growth. The key is to revalorize and give new life to those forms of organization and substantial contents which give a particularly human and communitarian meaning to work, technology, property, and distribution. These are precisely the aspects of the original economies of the indigenous people in which we find such developed expressions of an economy of solidarity and labor.

It is in this sense that we refer to the path of the ancient peoples toward the solidarity economy. As their various paths converge, they encounter other human groups creating the possibility for each to enrich the others through contact and exchange of different experiences and conceptions in which new expressions of an alternative economy and an incipient superior civilization are gathered and elaborated.

By way of illustrating what we mean when we say that ancient conceptions and values can be recuperated in a process in which they are fused and harmonized with the most elevated expressions of contemporary culture, those vanguard forces constructing the future, we transcribe here some lucid expressions of Fritjof Capra who speaks to us of contemporary problems and the most recent developments of the physical sciences.

The author maintains that we are in the presence of

“a striking disparity between the development of intellectual power, scientific knowledge and technological skills, on the one hand, and of wisdom, spirituality and ethics, on the other. … Human progress, then, has been a purely rational and intellectual affair, and this one-sided evolution has now reached a highly alarming stage; a situation so paradoxical that is border on insanity. … Even without the threat of a nuclear catastrophe, the global ecosystem and the further evolution of life on earth are seriously endangered and may well end in large-scale ecological disaster. Our prodigious technology does not seem to be of any help. … However, I believe that we are now witnessing the beginning of a tremendous evolutionary movement. … The rising concern with ecology, the strong interest in mysticism, the rediscovery of holistic approaches to health and healing, and – perhaps most important of all – the rising feminist awareness, are all manifestations of the same evolutionary trend.”4

Capra continues,

“I shall argue that physics can make a valuable contribution to overcoming the current cultural imbalance. … In the twentieth century… physics went through several conceptual revolutions which clearly revealed the limitations of the mechanistic world-view and led to an organic, ecological view of the world which shows great similarities to the views of mystics of all ages and traditions. The universe is no longer seen as a machine made up of a multitude of separate objects, but appears as a harmonious, indivisible whole a network of dynamic relationships that include the human observer and his or her consciousness in an essential way.

“The fact that modern physics, the manifestation of an extreme specialization of the rational mind, is now making contact with mysticism, the essence of religion and the manifestation of an extreme specialization of the intuitive mind, shows very beautifully the unity and complementary nature of the rational and intuitive modes of consciousness. Physicists, therefore, can provide a scientific basis for the change in attitudes and values that our culture needs to urgently in order to survive. Modern physics can show the other sciences that scientific thinking does not necessarily have to be reductionist and mechanistic; that holistic and ecological views are also scientifically sound.”5

This new theoretical paradigm of physics is destined to have a profound impact on science in all its fields and disciplines and undoubtedly begins to manifest its potential in the technological arena. It is also interesting to observe that the new perspectives opened up by the most advanced scientific developments are oriented toward re-encountering, if not the particular forms and contents of traditional technologies, at least their essential traits and characteristics, such as those we have been able to appreciate in the Andean technologies. The revalorization of humans and of subjectivity, the concern for ecology, consciousness-raising about the different space-times of economics, politics, culture, and spirituality, all point to new concepts and forms of economy and development, as we have been delineating in the course of our exploration of solidarity economy roads.

1  See Hans van den Berg, La Tierra No Da Así No Más: Los ritos agricolas en la religión de los aymara-cristianos de los Andes. Centro de Estudios y Docurnentacion Latinoamericanos. Amsterdam, 1989. [-MN]

2  J. van Kessel and D. Condori Cruz, Criar la Vida. Trabajo y teconología en el mundo andino. Vivarium, 1992. - Trans. MN

3  Commoners, in the sense of members of a commons. [- MN]

4  Fritjof Capra. “Buddhist Physics”. The Schumacher Lectures. Satish Kumar ed., Harper & Row, NY. 1980. p 121-124

5  Ibid. p124-125


Luis Razeto Migliaro (2019).  Solidarity Economy Roads:  Chapter 10 - The Road of Ancient Peoples.  Grassroots Economic Organizing (GEO).

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