The United States was founded on a strong middle class. Since that time, distribution of wealth has become wildly unequal. We need to return to ideals advanced by Franklin and Jefferson and influenced by their observations of indigenous societies, especially the Iroquois. South Americans also are returning to these ideals, under the Aegis of the Inca Suma Qamana.
Popular indicators measure well-being and success by economic gain. According to United Nations 2012 indicators, the U.S. wins with the world's highest GDP of $16.2 trillion. Yet economic gain comes at a cost; the cost of the environment whose resources and space is used for production, people exploited for cheap labor, and community which is placed second to personal gain. Besides great wealth, the U.S. also has massive inequality. It boasts the highest child poverty rate in the developed world with 21 percent of U.S. children living in poverty according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development in February 2011, and an unprecedented accumulation of capital with the top 10 percent of U.S. households controlling almost 75 percent of all wealth as explained economist, Richard Wolff. This inequality and concentration of wealth, and power, is exactly what our forefathers set out to avoid when forming this country.
The U.S. was founded on principles of represented democracy, public opinion, shared property and "happy mediocrity," as Ben Franklin liked to put it. These ideas were based on the indigenous ways of the Iroquois Confederacy which Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Hancock and many of the founding fathers knew well and were greatly influenced by. The Iroquois Confederacy, formed more then 300 years before European settlers first arrived on the continent, united disparate warring tribes by focusing on collective gains, shared power and careful deliberation. The Iroquois Confederacy was a democratic, cohesive, sustainable government and trade structure that met tribal needs and collectively solved challenges. Over the centuries the U.S. forefathers' original indigenous-influenced ideals were eroded by greed, a loss of collective memory as native populations were decimated, and a growing lust for power and dominance by U.S. leaders.
By 2006, the Inca descendents of the Andean region were tired of 500 years of unsuccessful development. Though they followed the latest neo-liberal capitalist models, they were continually plagued by high poverty rates which the Economic Commission for Latin America reported fluctuated from 35 percent regionally to 70 percent in rural areas, and according to the National Institute of Statistics, had a 7.3 percent infant mortality rate in 2007. So upon electing a sympathetic indigenous president, Bolivians re-visited the times when things were better, before the Spanish conquest and colonization, to the Inca empire and Tiahuanaco era. This was a time spanning more than 1,300 years with intact government and sustainable models of being. Bolivia, being the most indigenous nation in Latin America, has a vibrant collective memory of governance and culture from that time. Many people in rural areas still abide by rules and guidelines set up during pre-Inca times. What resulted from this re-birth of indigenous knowledge was Suma Qamana in the native language of Aymara, or bien vivir in Spanish which means to live well together.
The U.S. does not have the opportunity to return to a collective, indigenous memory of how governance was in a time when people were content and needs met because this memory arguably no longer exists. However, Suma Qamana offers a model that parallels those ideals. Going back to the original doctrines and stated intent of our forefathers when setting up this country one finds many similarities from the Iroquois Confederacy-inspired government of that time to the ideas of Suma Qamana today.
There are six basic principles of Suma Qamana several of which match the principles the Iroquois Confederacy and the U.S. forefathers also embraced.
-- Community first (working and thinking collectively)
-- Sufficient not efficient economy (slowing down and valuing community and nature over time and money)
-- Local production / local consumption (similar to the localvore movement and farmers markets)
-- Less is more (having what is needed but not more than that, no accumulation of excess wealth).
-- We are all part of mother earth (this links all people as having a shared humanity, making U.S. more alike than not).
-- Owning our health, learning and communication (this is about shared knowledge and working together to care for each other)
Under Suma Qamana, success is measured not by accumulated wealth, but by how well the community is doing as a whole. Community is broadly defined to include the earth and nature as well as people. So a thriving town located beside the banks of a polluted river is not doing well under Suma Qamana, because a community member, the river, is ailing. When one part of a community is damaged, it affects the whole. This way of thinking of the community as being the responsibility of all can be applied to many situations: For example, a person entering a school and shooting children would be an indication of the failure of the community to properly care for its own, to enable a person to feel so alienated and detached that they lash out against the same community they are a part of.
Andean scholars claim that this is the time of pachakuti, or world change, and Suma Qamana is the model upon which the new world order can be formed. The United Nations recognized this model in 2009 and funds research and studies to support it. Suma Qamana is being taught in Latin American universities, written about in academic journals, and presented at world summits. Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador have all adopted parts of it in their new constitutions and have ministries, think tanks and organizations supporting civil society in applying these principles to their everyday lives. More than 300 years ago a great enlightenment grew from the Iroquois' ways of being, influencing many European thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Thomas More, and Karl Marx. Today Suma Qamana is capturing people's imaginations with new ways of being that are not much newer then our U.S. Constitutional roots.
Dr. Tamara Stenn is an adjunct professor in the Sustainable Development Program at the SIT Graduate Institute and author of The Economic and Political Intersection of Fair Trade and Jutice (2013). She can be contacted at email@example.com.