Cambio civilizatorio

Economía Crítica






Change the economy in order to change life

Challenges of an economy for life
Magdalena León T.

There is no doubt that an inevitable change to move beyond neoliberalism has to do with the ways of making the economy and defining it. Nowadays, it is not only about transferring control or decision-making from one dominant group to the other, or even ‘de-privatizing’ such decisions, but rather facing fundamental changes that would lead to an economy focused on the accumulation and tyranny of the market, oriented towards the sustainability of life, justice and democracy. This demands changes in the modes of production, in the views and policies about who makes the economy and how, what and how to produce, what and how to consume, and how, ultimately, to reproduce life.

Life as a central axis and category of the economy is referred to in experiences and speeches from different backgrounds, although not always found in a ‘pure’ form. It is in the vision and practice of native peoples (it is already contained in the formulation of sumak kawsay), and is a component of all modes of work and production – reproduction oriented towards subsistence (which coexist in our diverse economy with those guided by accumulation), in proposals of solidarity economics (with its scope as an alternative model), in the economy of human care (starred by women in conditions of subordination); is the core of feminist formulations on the economy and gains force and contemporary meaning particularly in ecological economics.

All of them have streamed and influenced the constitutional process, in the common quest for a transition that can no longer be postponed, if what really matters is the people and nature. They call for a common signification built on the basis of development, progress, modernization, growth, ‘productive sectors’, work, poverty, and the economic and social spheres, while adding other notions.

Feeding this debate is now very useful, as the innovative contents of the Constitution will gain more meaning if they result in laws, regulations, public policies and social practices.

Along these lines, we try to bring together some issues related to this debate, largely present in the constitutional reality in Ecuador.


In the search for an alternative model to replace the so-called ‘social market economy’ [1], the social and solidarity economy has appeared with paradigmatic dimensions, not just as a sector or as a set of associative experiences.

This is a response to the reduction and homogenization of the economy that intensified in the neoliberal era, with strong roots in the discourse of market globalization. A significant stress in recent years has to do with the definition of how and by whom economy is carried out; it was projected as an autonomous process that follows an invariable path, whose products or results are not generated collectively, but in the best cases, are disputed in distribution and redistribution, through taxes and social policies, or even distilled by means of ‘social corporate responsibility’. This perspective was anchored, restrained to ‘business’, ‘employed’, ‘unemployed’ and ‘informal’, or in broader terms, ‘businessmen’ and ‘poor’, with a residual State.

That vision was installed in public policy and the social imaginary, which caused other forms of production and work to be seen as backward or temporary, as responses to the crisis (invariably invoked in our countries), as expressions of informality that should be resolved adopting business forms.

The terms ‘business’ and ‘entrepreneurs’ - extended to cover even the smallest production and service initiatives -which primarily move work and other non-monetary resources - account for the illusion of a capital-based economy.

The appeal to the social and solidarity economy is a way to recognize or visibilize the existing diverse economy, with its multiple relationships, logical, tensions and protagonists. It makes it possible to see the forms of production and work forces working together for survival and reproduction, some are long-haul, such as the community or traditional workshop, there are also newer ones, such as cooperatives, others are just seen as an economic entity, as is the case of households.

It also serves to challenge equations that have been imposed as absolute truths: investment = production, production = company [2], and competitiveness seen as a core value. This, among other things, has expressed the idea that money in itself sums up the possibility to produce and is the end of the cycle [3].

Likewise, it restores centrality to work and helps reestablish the link between production and consumption, which in turn serves to observe the tensions and contradictions arising from the untenable idea of expansion and unlimited diversification of consumption.

On the other hand, it points out the ‘must be’ for transformations. It takes its distance from accumulation as an end, from private interests as the motor of the economy; it relocates money, business and profit as a means, not an end; it affirms the possibility of combining different logics of production and work, mostly rescuing practices and knowledge that have proven to be capable of maintaining balance and sustainability, all of which is a key concept to subsistence and to ensure the reproduction of life cycles, in the broadest sense.


This analytical and political approach, a notion taken from feminist economics, combines a critique of conventional economics and the proposal of alternatives to make human care a priority while making it viable in equality conditions, in order to be able to recognize the reproductive dimensions of the economy inextricably linked to the productive ones.

Human care demands time, space and interaction where work and activities produce goods, services and care needed for the daily and generational reproduction of people, communities -not only of the labor force. This occurs in a non-market logic, where the most important elements are those of subsistence, altruism, reciprocity, affection, even in the midst of the asymmetries in sexual division of labor and the devaluation of reproduction.

The cycles of human care have settled mainly in households and in the unpaid work of women -in conditions of subordination as the base of other inequalities-, but are in close interaction with the market and the processes of accumulation.

Denaturing care work as something inherent to females and of secondary value is to make these processes visible, record and quantify, reveal the forms and places where they occur. Thus, we have seen that free care work carried out by women occurs not only at home, but also between families and within communities, in public institutions as a ‘complement’ (e.g. in hospitals and nursing homes), or as a base (figures of ‘community mothers’ or the like); it also relocates along with the globalization of the market, leading to the so-called ‘international networks of care’.

The economy of care includes the recognition of unpaid domestic work in households and other multiple spaces, and the questioning of the sexual division of labor, but goes further by proposing a different perspective on reproduction as an area that should govern the organization of the economy as a whole, as a priority. Thus, it goes from proposing changes in the measurement of GDP to making substantial changes in the remuneration of work –beyond the notion of wage-, in the scheme of public budgets, and in the very objectives of planning and public policy.

It also challenges one of the myths of conventional economics, particularly neoclassical, this is, the existence of ‘autonomous individuals’ acting in the markets and making rational decisions based on their interests. In fact, all human beings are interdependent, although this occurs in unequal conditions.

There are dimensions of dependence that are seen and magnified, others are not appreciated. Men appear to be independent in terms of property, retaining the income they receive, without taking note of their basic need for care (material and symbolic). Meanwhile, there is a tendency to present women as economically dependent on the income of others or the money itself, regardless of how much income and wealth generation depends on their work and contributions, without seeing that the presence and behavior of the markets today involves, among other things, hidden subsidies from the sphere of reproduction, from the unvalued economy that enables ‘low’ prices for work and some products.

In short, the economy of care provides a more comprehensive, fair and dynamic view of the economy, it helps locate other priorities, as well as the redefinition of public policies and services in terms of human life.


The principles of sovereignty, solidarity, cooperation, reciprocity, complementarity, are increasingly invoked. They are the cornerstone of feminist economics, and have become the foundation of new or alternative proposals of regional integration, among others.

These principles do not only exist in an ideal past or future; to varying degrees, they accompany and explain present practices and relationships, a condition which speaks of their viability as the basis of transformation, often referred to as their utopian dimension.

One of the recurring questions has to do, for instance, with the application of complementarity. So, we could wonder how countries or economies in the region can be complementary if they have similar production structures. This is an interpretation of the market, which focuses primarily on the products, and does not see broader dimensions of the economy and geopolitics. Faced with complementary products, there can be a complementarity between countries, communities and people with different possessions and capabilities complementing each other in processes of change, joining strengths and weaknesses in a common project of transformation, to eliminate injustice and create other balances.

In markets, a dynamic complementarity can replace the so-called dynamic competitiveness. The search for conditions of ideal infrastructure and processes to lower production costs and thus achieve a better position in the market does not imply moving away from the destructive and selfish elimination of the Other, exacerbated by neoliberal globalization. In contrast, dynamic complementarity can lead to building such ideal conditions to produce and exchange with shared benefits, always provisional, subject to a new balance of life.

Also, taken to the field of human reproduction and care, it makes it possible question fixed and unfair schemes of allegedly ‘natural’ complementarities with fixed roles, to go into a flow of shared and mutual care, between people, with changing conditions and situations, including public and private areas [4].

Geopolitical complementation is essential mainly to change a reprimarizing productive matrix –based on plundering-, and to build alternative schemes, which lead to other economic complementarities, in the productive and reproductive spheres.

In a process of change, complementation of modes of production is a key factor contributing to relativizing the centrality attributed to private property, to set limits and controls to it. As an absolute right and principle, it operates today as a threat to life in its different forms.


The notion of sustainability of life as an antithesis of accumulation and profit without end, is built in the context of feminist economics referring to human life, but it may extend to all forms of life that are truly inseparable from each other. Life support can operate as an organizing principle leading to balance in all areas of the economy, also seen in its entirety.

Thus, the conditions and limitations for the extraction of natural resources that is about to reach the limits of unfeasibility, under the imperatives of the market, can only be defined by taking into account a new balance between life forms, its restoration and guarantee of continuity.

Issues such as investment and public services need to consider the human life cycle as central, with its changing and specific needs. It is not possible to resolve what is already recognized as the ‘care crisis’ without building a new balance between forms of work - beyond the sexual division of labor- between production and reproduction, between the public and private sectors. This includes a thorough review of the nuclear family model of households and homes, with infrastructure and service endowments which, by relying on non-renewable resources such as water and oil, may neither be generalized nor sustained in the short term.

It is evident that the production and the market can be redefined to be sustained in accordance with life. For example, price formation and its function, which generally aims to maximize the immediate gain, can be redefined to ensure continuity of production or services involved, the continuity of supplies necessary for the life of people or care for nature.

Organizing production, reproduction and exchanges for all life forms to reproduce and persist in the best conditions, with justice and equality, is fully related and consistent with the ‘good living’ enshrined in the Constitution of 2008; it combines retrieved and new sovereignties (national, food, energy, financial); sustainability of life may point the practical way for its effective application.



Acosta, Alberto, “El «buen vivir» para la construcción de alternativas”, http://asambleaconstituyente.gov.ec

Asamblea Nacional Constituyente, Constitución Política de la República del Ecuador, Quito, 1998

Asamblea Constituyente, Constitución de la República del Ecuador, Montecristi, 2008

Carrasco, Cristina, “La sostenibilidad de la vida humana: ¿un asunto de mujeres?”, en Mujeres y trabajo: cambios impostergables, Magdalena León T. (comp.), REMTE – CLACSO, Porto Alegre, 2003.

León T., Magdalena, “Ecuador: la economía solidaria en la búsqueda de un ‘nuevo modelo’”, ALAI, Quito, 2008.

León T., Magdalena, “Desafíos para una Integración con igualdad: la perspectiva de las mujeres”, ALAI, Quito, 2006

Picchio, Antonella, “Un enfoque macroeconómico «ampliado» de las condiciones de vida”, OPS / OMS FONASA, Santiago de Chile, 2001

Shiva, Vandana, Manifiesto para una democracia de la tierra. Justicia, sostenibilidad y paz, Paidós, España, 2006


[1] According to the Constitution of 1998.

[2] Public policy has stimulated the formation of companies, creating a framework for the proliferation of ‘letter-box companies’ whose business is speculation or directly scamming, as they have asphyxiated other forms of production with these business schemes.

[3] This idea has been nourished in several ways; it is enough to see how, for example, newspapers and other media started denominating economy sections as ‘business’ or ‘money’.

[4] It refers to the family and individual private sphere, and not property.

Fedaeps - Fundación de Estudios, Acción y Participación Social
Av. 12 de Octubre N18-24, oficina 203, Quito, Ecuador • (593 2) 255 9999 • info@fedaeps.org