A reluctant candidate for Chile's presidency

Meet Manfred Max-Neef. Pianist, economist, eco-humanist and politician from Chile, all rolled into one. Internationally acclaimed for his concept of "human scale development", Max-Neef concludes traditional development models have failed. Green party candidate for the presidential elections in Chile, Max-Neef, on his visit to India, spoke to Down To Earth on the delightful facets of his life, his concerns and his views on globalisation in a world where, as he says, "language fails to explain".

 
By Sumanta Pal
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

What prompted you to enter politics? And how significant is your nomination as green party candidate in view of current happenings, particularly in Chile?
I didn't take the initiative. Frankly, being a presidential candidate wasn't a part of my scheme of things. In fact, I have never belonged to any political party or organisation.

Around October, I was approached by a number of people's groups representing environmental, cultural, scientific and women's movements. Groups that rightly felt they were not being represented by the discourse of traditional political parties. After three months of intense discussion, I finally decided to fight for the presidency with the understanding that the most important challenge in this candidacy is to use this electoral year to organise groups all along the country for reflection and action aimed at establishing an organised civil society. I have symbolically called this movement "Towards the force power", because we still continue to stick to the 19th century traditional powers of the executive, the legislative and the judiciary. For me "force power" will be an organised civil society.

What are your chances of victory? If you lose, will you continue to play your sonata while Chile, as you say, remains an 'uncivil' society?
There are two possibilities. The first and obvious one is to get 50 per cent of the votes plus one. But I don't have tendencies towards delirium and I really don't believe I am going to be the next president. The second possibility of victory is if we manage to organise movements all along the country, which means organising groups that will seek accountability from politicians.

Since I am not the president, therefore, I cannot lose. Victory to me is to have a presence, to have working power for the next 8 years.

From a successful manager of Shell to an environmentalist and finally a politician -- there has been a rather interesting progression in your career. Why environment?
I am a pianist first. My environmental concerns are a part of my wider concern that I call eco-humanism, where the human aspect is also a part of environmental concerns. In this context I am concerned about the environment, but I am not an environmentalist. I am concerned about all aspects of human life absent in the traditional models of development and a respect for diversity absent in narrow considerations of environmentalism. Therefore, I see my position as far more systemic than just a fundamentalist view of the world.

I did start my career as a conventional economist and joined Shell. It is here that as a very young and successful executive I encountered my life's first crisis when, by extrapolating my future, I saw myself as the vice-president of Shell negotiating with the Shah of Iran. Suddenly I realised this was not me. I could not reconcile with my image.

A fundamental change followed, and the rest of my life was mainly concentrated in the academic world and international organisations, but mainly in the field. Then many years after I went into self-exile, during the dictatorial regime, I started working in the poorest areas of Latin America.

While you began as a conventional economist, you have been sharply critical of traditional economics. How did this change come about?
The problem is it's only when you take off your shoes and step onto the mat that you see the real face of poverty. It's then that you cannot continue to remain a conventional economist. It is from my experience, and my subsequent rejection of conventional economics during the years that I worked with the poor, that I conceived the widely-known theory of "human-scale development" based on the principles of ecological economics.

What are the parameters of human scale development and why do you think this is a more comprehensive mechanism that removes the inadequacies of earlier indexes?
Human scale development attempts to breech the gap between ecology and economics. And more than that, it is aimed at an understanding that our economy is only a subset or a subsistence of a wider system, which is the biosphere. It tries to understand how economic processes relate to non-linear living processes, to the processes of not only input and output but what we call throughput, which is a transformation of elements of low entropy (transformation from a state of lower disorder to higher disorder) in our nature into elements of higher entropy, which, later on as wastes, turn back into the natural system so that in the long term they can be used as resources again. All these processes have never been part of conventional economics.

My book Human Scale Development brings to the fore the importance of the informal sector, especially in poor countries. Excluding it from discussions of a nation's economy of living standards would be totally misleading. Freedom, protection, participation, understanding, leisure, creation and affection (or love), not directly related to traditional economic growth concepts, are important to a person's life irrespective of whether he is rich or poor.

While you are quite articulate, you have always questioned the limitation of language. Can you explain the contradiction?
You see the paradox? I say that language has its limitations and you want me to explain through language the limitations of language. Not everything can be explained through the spoken word and fundamental attributes of things cannot be explained by language. If you read the manuscripts of 10 different people, you may recognise the a's. They may be round, oblong or square, but we have the capacity of recognising them because of one attribute and that is the a-ness. Now if you ask me to explain what is a-ness, I can't explain in any language, but I know it's there. This happens with all the essential attributes of things. We react to them, but we cannot explain. The problem is that in Western culture we have always tried to force everything through the limitations of language. Now we are realising that most of our relation with nature is something that must be understood.

You have so often reiterated that the conventional development model has failed and we hear a lot about the effectiveness of the Chilean model where dictatorship preceded free markets. Do you support the Chilean model?
The Chilean model has become very famous as an example of a neo-liberal free trade model that really works. How do you come to that conclusion? Through the macro-economic indicators, gross investment exports. They are impeccable. But my point is, if you provide information of such indicators, they in themselves are just trivial, in the sense of being incomplete. You give me a gross figure, but I want to know the natural and the human history behind these figures. What made the figure possible? If the story is nice I celebrate the figure, if the story is ugly I have nothing to celebrate. The problem with Chilean figures is that the human story is far from being nice. Of course, "nice" again exposes limitations of the language, but that's the closest we can go. Chile has seen overexploitation of resources, particularly marine resources and women.

In your region, to what extent do you think the marginalised communities would be further marginalised under the impact of globalisation?
The first question that one must ask is: What is globalisation? What we have globalised is economic power and not political power. Within a country you have two powers: the power of the market economy and the power of the state. It is accepted that the state must have the right to intervene to avoid monopoly conditions in a market economy. And it is legitimate that a political power intervenes when economic power goes astray. But in today's globalisation, there is no globalisation of economic power. This means there is no political power to intervene when the economic mechanism goes astray.

So you have two paradoxes in this globalisation. The first paradox is that the best behaviour is bad behaviour for the transnational oligopolies. If one wants to internalise, they lose the market because the others are not doing it. The second paradox is that under the prevailing conditions, instead of the transnational oligopolies competing among themselves to make investments in the Third World countries, it is the governments of our countries who are competing within themselves to seduce investments. If there were counterbalancing forces, then things could be different. But as things stand now, many of our Third World countries will inevitably be big losers in this game.

Being aware of this, how do you integrate a Third World economy to the forces of globalisation or do you "dare disturb the universe"?
It's not a matter of fighting globalisation, or as you say, daring. The point is how do you protect yourself from being vulnerable to the low-level equilibrium traps? And this can happen through increasing self-reliance in food and fundamental consumer products. I still belong to the school which believes a modicum of self-reliance is necessary. And the surplus that you have can play the game of globalisation. So I have nothing against opening up to the rest of the world, but I am against putting all my eggs in one basket.

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