Two crucial questions
The intransigent defense of sumak kawsay, stoked by the horrors of the “development” that fully legitimates that cosmovision, tends to leave no space in which to account for two very important questions: (a) What is the time frame to which sumak kawsay refers as a civilizing project?; and (b) what is the relation between the “buen vivir” of our original peoples and ecologism, in its distinct variants, including “ecosocialism” and, simultaneously, what might be the relation between sumak kawsay and socialism and communism?
Problems of sumak kawsay in a single country
Indeed, both the theoreticians and the supporters of sumak kawsay appear to have underestimated the temporal requisites of this project. The same criticism can be made of them that has been made by many, Marxists and others, of the fervent impatience of the communist revolutionaries at the time of the First World War and the Russian Revolution — that the establishment of socialism appeared in their eyes to be a project of immediate realization, its achievement posing no obstacles that a determined will for change could not overcome. Lenin was one of the first to warn of the error in this conception, observing that in the prevailing conditions in Russia the archaic nature of the social formation would become a formidable rampart against which the transformative projects of socialism would shatter. That is why Lenin foresaw a very long battle to overcome those fetters of the past, something which of course would not occur in the countries of the West when the time came to build socialism. In their case, the Russian revolutionary noted, the construction of socialism would be as easy “as lifting a feather.”
It seems to us that something similar could be happening with sumak kawsay, revealing a certain contradiction in the discourse itself. On the one hand we are assured, correctly, that it is a fundamental philosophical contribution that challenges the basic assumptions of modernity and capitalist civilization. However, the overcoming of five centuries of history (and what a history — with the horrors of colonialism, neocolonialism, imperialism, racism, wars, genocides, state terrorism, the savage depredation of nature, etc.) is conceived by some social movements and political forces as a project that can realistically be confronted by two or three Andean governments and that significant results can almost immediately be obtained.
Just as “socialism in a single country” was intrinsically contradictory, and condemned to failure, why should we think that “sumak kawsay in a single country” fulfills the necessary conditions to assure its victory? If the Soviet Union and China, to cite the most convincing examples, were unable to build socialism regardless of the international equation that Marx and Engels posed in their earliest writings, how could much weaker countries like Bolivia and Ecuador be successful in their proposed refounding of civilization within a few short years and in an environment as unfavourable as the one imposed by the aggressive decadence of the imperial power? Could those countries resolutely advance in a proposal that, from the civilizing standpoint, is even more radical than the productivist socialism that the Soviet Union and China sought to achieve — and regardless of the other countries of the region or at least their immediate geopolitical environment? René Ramírez Gallegos recognizes the seriousness of the challenge when he writes that “we cannot, by ourselves, from Ecuador, build this society that we are talking about.” Obviously, the answer to these questions will not spring from theory but will come from the historical praxis of the peoples. Meanwhile, we think the questions are legitimate and should be taken into account.
Up to now I have discussed the need to rely on a favourable geopolitical environment. But no less significant is the fact that a project of such a radical nature can hardly be imposed overnight, or in one or two presidential terms of office under leaders like Rafael Correa and Evo Morales resolutely identified with that program. Obviously, there are steps that can be taken immediately, but the question is to calculate, with hopeful realism and without needlessly abandoning ideals, just how far one can advance given the correlation of forces that defines the framework of the possible for governments like those of Bolivia and Ecuador.
Clearly, this entails an effort not to confuse the realism needed to transform the world (and not only study or interpret it) with “possibilism.” Realism requires the social forces committed to such a project to carefully plan their steps, to avoid falling into the traps the enemy holds in store. While realism recognizes the dialectical nature — the ever-changing movement — of the conjuncture, and the role of political will in modifying the relationship of forces at a given moment, “possibilism” is the resigned acceptance of what exists and a testimony to the intrinsic inability to respond creatively to the challenges of history. The realist is a general who knows that if he acts correctly he can defeat forces in theory superior to his own; the “possibilist” is someone who has been defeated ideologically and consequently gives up the battle and simply tries to accommodate to the unfortunate circumstances of the present. The realist keeps his eyes on the present and the future, while the “possibilist” is trapped in today’s reality and lacks the imagination or will to think of the future as something distinct from the infinite extension of the present.
While “possibilism” is a snare that has wrecked many transformative projects in Latin America, the other risk is utopianism. It is one thing to have a utopian horizon as an essential and non-negotiable guide to political action — for example, the construction of a communist, decidedly post-capitalist society — and quite another to fall into the utopianism that Marx and Engels criticized in the Communist Manifesto; its dreams were limited to signifying wonderful societies of the future but without identifying the subjects that would create these projects and the complex political, economic, cultural and international mediations — and who says mediations says contradictions! — which, through the class struggle, must necessarily be put in motion in order to convert those dreams into living realities. We are not saying that reflection about these problems is completely absent in the discussions around sumak kawsay. But it does seem to us that matters of such exceptional importance as these have not, at least up to now, received the attention that in our opinion they deserve.
In line with these concerns, Ecuador’s “National Plan for Buen Vivir” proposes a transition from an economy based on exports of primary resources to another based on the production of ecotourism and bioknowledge that is measured over decades. This expresses a prudent realism toward the pace of advance of civilizational change, the inexorable political correlative of which is a politics of compromises. It means that there must be a more or less extended period (depending on many factors that cannot be determined in advance, from theory) in which the old economic organization (that sustains the resources used by the state for its own maintenance and to finance the costly and complicated process of transition toward a new economy and a new sociability, congruent with the precepts of sumak kawsay) will coexist with the new “post-extractivist” economic order. The old order cannot disappear overnight without provoking traumatic shocks, nor can the new appear with the speed of lightning, desirable as that might be. However, this sober diagnostic is not shared by some social movements both in Bolivia and in Ecuador, convinced as they are that this transition can be made to measure with their impatience.
Sumak kawsay, ecologism and the post-capitalist society
Linked with the foregoing is the second element that we noted earlier, which is the relation between sumak kawsay and ecologism. This question, in our view, is of the utmost importance given the strategic role played in the theoretical discourse by Mother Earth and the relation between society and nature. However: what should be examined very carefully is just how consistent the unconditional and intransigent defense of Mother Earth is without an equally radical and intransigent critique of capitalism as a mode of production and hence as a civilization.
Whence the fallacy of the various proposals for a “green economy” or a “green capitalism” advanced by the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), which start from the premise that a new “environment-friendly” economic order, making possible an environmentally sustainable world with greater economic growth, full employment and welfare for all, can be built using market mechanisms and technological solutions without altering the power relationships, the logic of capital accumulation or the present profound inequalities.
As we can see, a worrisome ambiguity prevails whenever the defense of the common goods of humanity is formulated in the abstract or, in the best of cases, with isolated questioning of capitalism but without posing, as must be done, the absolute impossibility of defending the rights of Mother Earth without at the same time developing an argument — both theoretical and practical — around the historical necessity to establish an unequivocally post-capitalist sociability. If that does not occur, sumak kawsay can easily be assimilated with some of the many currents of contemporary ecologism that lament the destruction of the environment while not recognizing that the ecocide will only end when the people send capitalism to the museum of history along with the bronze ax and the spinning wheel, as Engels noted in his time in a brilliant passage in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. Accordingly, a sumak kawsay worthy of the name can only be that insofar as it is radically anticapitalist, since only the consummation of the socialist project — which involves the socialization of power, wealth and culture and hence the decommodification of society and nature — will make it possible to save Mother Earth. When we say socialization we should clarify that this process should not be identified with the statization of the economy, society, politics or culture. When we speak of socialization we are referring to “popular empowerment,” or in the language of classic Marxism, to a project that will end the despotism of capital while instituting the self-government of the producers. It seems to us that this is a second major theme to discuss, one that likewise seems not to have drawn the attention it deserves.
As will be gathered from the previous point, only a “socialist buen vivir” could offer a way out from the trap in which we are locked by the logic of capital. There is no redemption for Mother Earth if we do not manage to rescue the women and men who people this planet. And within capitalism there is no salvation for humanity, as Fidel Castro told us many years ago. Accordingly, a genuine project of “buen vivir” must in some way redefine the socialist program for the 21st century. The problem is that this is an eminently practical task, since theory — like the celebrated owl of Minerva mentioned by Hegel — always spreads its wings at nightfall, that is, when the historical praxis of the peoples resolves (or tries to resolve) the challenges confronting society. The major challenge today is to overcome capitalism before it has finished off life on planet Earth. This task is just beginning, which is why theoretical thinking about the new socialism of the 21st century and its project is only in its initial stages. In other words, not only must sumak kawsay adopt a socialist identity, but socialism itself is searching for a new identity, convinced that the painful (but also highly instructive and in some respects positive) experiences of the 20th century imperatively require rethinking of the project as a whole.
As we have stated elsewhere, the best way to mistake the road is to try to copy a political experiment. If Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador continue to be examples of significant processes of profound social transformation, it is because, among other things, none has copied from the other and each of them is an original, unique and unrepeatable creation of its own peoples. That is why Simón Rodríguez was right when he said that “either we invent or we go wrong.” In that sense, it is worth paraphrasing anew the poetry of Antonio Machado when he said something to the effect that socialists have no model, the model is made while walking. It is made in the concrete historical praxis of building socialism and in the unrepeatable — original, as Rodríguez said in the twilight of the colonial order — conditions under which each of those processes takes place.
One of the new components of the socialist project for the 21st century (refused in those of the previous century) has to do precisely with Mother Earth, sacrificed on the altars of a productivism that was no less harmful for the environment than that practiced by the capitalist economies. Referring to this theme, René Ramírez Gallegos (2010: 10), in the previously cited article, writes that “we aim, in the economic model, to build the biopolis, that is, to go beyond the economy of the old consciousness and to make the move from manufacturing to mentefactura, while beginning to consider the production of relational goods. What is the economic model? It is of course that biosocialism that I talked about earlier; and political power will be sustained in people’s power. But that is not done overnight.” And, insisting on the difficult transition from a model based on export of raw materials to one that is a clear departure from capitalist logic, he notes that “to leave this model overnight is not viable, and it is necessary therefore to outline a medium- and long-term road map.”
 René Ramírez Gallegos, “Izquierda postsocialista” (Quito: SENPLADES), Discurso No. 2, November 2010.
 This subject has been brilliantly addressed in a recent work by Elmar Altvater, Los limites del capitalismo. Acumulación, crecimiento y huella ecológica (Buenos Aires: Mardulce, 2011).
 We tackled the analysis of this topic and proposed some bibliographical orientations in our book Socialismo sigle XXI. ¿Hay vida después del neoliberalismo? (Buenos Aires: Ediciones Luxemburg, 2008).
 Socialismo siglo XXI, op. cit., p. 114.
 “Izquierda postsocialista,” op. cit., p. 10.
 See Working Document No. 2, “Socialismo del sumak kawsay o biosocialismo republicano,” by René Ramírez Gallegos, SENPLADES, Quito, p. 36.