René Ramírez: ‘Culture has no limits –a priori- but ethical ones’

The nature of the political dispute is not confined to the electoral fight or to finding spaces in state institutions. After several discussions, it is evident that if there is a light at the end of the road in the construction of other types of societies, other than the traditional capitalism, it will light up in the field of knowledge.

In Latin America, thinkers such as Alvaro Garcia Linera or René Ramírez have set up the guidelines for this discussion beyond the disputes of political parties. President Rafael Correa himself has given rise to debates that exceed the trite development model and has considered other ways of conceiving the setting of equity, justice and socialism as from researches and encounters with wisdom and knowledge.

Hence, it is necessary to discuss this issue and for that purpose René Ramírez, National Secretary of Higher Education, Science, Technology and Innovation (Senescyt – Spanish Acronyms), and intellectual of deep thoughts and proposals, is the person who mostly gives rise to these discussions.

What does building a knowledge-based economy entail?

One of the core programmatic proposals of this Government is moving from the economy of the ‘limited resources’ to that of the ‘unlimited resources’. That is, moving from being a country of primary exports and secondary imports to building an economy based on the knowledge and creativity of the human talent of its citizens. Natural resources are finite and perishable. Ideas, innovation, creativity, and culture have no limits -a-priori- but ethical ones.

Could this be understood as a ‘caprice’ of the Government…

It is not a whim that the Government gives much importance to higher education and scientific research: scholarships, student loans, strengthening of universities and technical and technological institutes, evaluation and accreditation of universities, better wages for teachers/researchers, investment of nearly 2% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in higher education, building and financing Yachay, Ikiam, Unae, Uniarte, etc.. This set of reforms seeks to create the most suitable academic and intellectual environment for the cultivation of research, culture, science, critical thinking and cutting-edge knowledge.

In this context, it is necessary to work on two systems: education and innovation. This Government, in just about seven years, has significantly gone forward in the educational system (although there is still a long way to go), but building a system of social innovation is still pending.

What are the components of this social innovation system?

The way in which innovation operates in a society depends, as always, on fundamental political choices. In the advanced capitalist countries, innovation goes hand in hand with the accumulation needs of large companies and multinationals. Universities and scientists are attached to this dynamic and eventually investigate in accordance with particular interests (without denying that in some cases this may help broader interests).

But world trade sets the tone for what to research and produce.

Indeed, the current rules of world trade have produced a refractory phenomenon: the “tragedy of the anticommons.” This has involved hyper-privatization, over-patenting and hyper-concentration of capital by those institutions who fund research and innovation, which has caused a social under-use of the knowledge resource. Breaking such a tragedy, regaining a sense of what is public and democratizing access to and use of this good is the main core of the social knowledge economy and the social innovation system. The ultimate goal of innovation should not be the maximization of profit but the production of an economy that enables to satisfy needs, ensure rights, and enhance individual, collective and territorial capabilities.

To achieve these goals it is imperative to develop, as part of the social innovation system, subsystems of human talent, research, funding, and scientific and innovation infrastructure, as well as the management of property rights. Precisely, these four subsystems propound a glance and a comprehensive treatment of the path followed by the generation of expertise and knowledge up to its free access and social use.

Rafael Correa pinpointed that the submitted proposal involves a change between the cognitive capitalism approach and what you have called “social knowledge economy”. What are the main differences?

Generally, capitalism seeks to privatize everything, commercialize everything. If capitalists could commercialize air, they would do so (actually, to my understanding, there are already chambers where people pay to breath fresh air). Nevertheless, the nature of knowledge in its character or condition of public good registers neither the exclusion nor the rivalry of a private good. It is an unlimited resource that can be freely and very easily distributed if there were no institutional hurdles. For instance, a book or software can be published online so that everyone may use it. Even if a person uses it, initially, there would be no impediments for others to do so. Furthermore, without ad hoc barriers there would be no way to exclude anyone from its availability and usufruct. This is exactly the focal point that recognizes, and therefore, regulates the social knowledge economy.

In the case of cognitive capitalism, it has built a global regulation that enables the privatization and commercialization of the knowledge resources. This has been processed through the World Trade Organization (WTO), the Bilateral Investment Treaties or the Bilateral / Multi-part Trade Agreements. It is obvious that industrialized countries seek these commercial systems of knowledge/technology since they are the owners of the latest know-how. Meanwhile, the only role that is reserved to the Southern countries is that of “being consumers” of the science, creation and innovation of the North.

And how is this verified in Ecuador?

Given the fact that we are a nation of late development and due to our ideological principles, the new knowledge management must seek to build an institutional framework that recovers the sense of what is public and common to the knowledge resource. In other words, not only do we propose to build an open, free and public system of knowledge because we believe in it (by conviction) but because we need it at this historic moment that the country faces. Basically, we refer to a sovereign bet in order to break the historical and contemporary dependency restraints in the cognitive field, and programmatically, to change the productive matrix and the industrialization processes associated with it.

Let us remember that, for example, the U.S.A. had a quasi-open knowledge management system during their early periods of industrialization – they only recognized national patents and did not allow foreign companies patents. Thus, they could freely copy their technology -. Other countries that have recently developed their industry, such as India, did not even accept the international regulation of the WTO until a few years ago, when – for example – their pharmaceutical industry for generic drugs had already taken off. The ruling leaders of this country knew that if they accepted a privative intellectual property regime they would not be able to develop this industry, jeopardizing not only the manufacturing development of their country but also the health of its population. Russia is another example of a country that agreed recently to the WTO rules.

This entails that the agreements we have signed internationally, the agreements that we will sign and the new organic code of social knowledge economy must seek to build an intellectual property system that develops creative activity and socio-economic innovation, thus facilitating technology transfer and open access to knowledge / culture (he/she democratizes) in order to break the cognitive dependency we undergo thus far.

But in front of such a big challenge, there are some boundaries and complexities to overcome.

We are clearly aware of our limitations as a small country that we will not be able to change the international division of labor, but we must not fall into that appeasement in which, as mentioned by the President of the Republic, “we have not only allowed them to impose on us the collar and the bell but we have diligently bent down the head and the neck  so that they put more bells on us.” In other words, if we were asked to recognize patents for 15 years, we offered to recognize them for 20! Now, our national legislation is more restrictive than the signed international agreements. Therefore, we are developing a new legislation intended for democratizing knowledge so as to make it an accessible good to everyone and which allows the development of national industry.

Today, notwithstanding we are given the option of keeping current the intellectual property system which governs the use of seeds, there are countries close to Ecuador that have signed to further deepen that property regime, so as to forbid to replant seeds that are purchased abroad if they have a patent. We moved away from such a perspective. On the contrary, we have to play with the flexibilities that those agreements have and obviously, change the intellectual property national legislation. This legislation only evidences the servility and submission of the elites who ruled us and wanted to prove to be the most outstanding students of the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank. Hopefully at some point, as countries from the Southern world, we may concur with the need to renegotiate, both collectively and severally, those agreements present in the world trade which are the ties to ignorance and underdevelopment. If we do not reduce the technological, scientific and/or cognitive gaps, we will not break the structural dependency on the wealthy North of the planet.

But then the paradox that nature belongs to humanity jumps back and therefore, there are no limits nor regulations and at the same time. On the other hand, we speak about regulating everything to not make use of anything, as pointed out by some neo-environmentalists.

We must be clear that biodiversity can not be patented. It is a patrimony and is not to be confused with the inventions that are produced from it. That is why in the social knowledge economy, through its regulations, we will pursue for biodiversity to be treated as an intangible heritage of the nation and the state, as noted in the Constitution. Furthermore, we will protect the knowledge of the ancestral people through special, sui generis schemes. These guidelines aim at preventing biopiracy and recognizing, as the case may be, that such information belongs to the Ecuadorians and/or to the ancestral peoples. We can not allow the multinationals to come and steal our knowledge and then try to sell it to us, such is the case of the Epibatidine, a pain reliever stemmed from our multicolor frog, whose usefulness only came to be known thanks to the collective and ancestral knowledge of our peoples and was exploited by international pharmaceuticals, without any benefits for our country and without the involvement of national researchers.

In addition, the social knowledge economy considers the plurality of properties set forth in the Constitution. Unlike cognitive capitalism, which only recognizes the private property of knowledge, we seek that the Socialism of the Good Way of Living, takes into account the public, mixed, collective, republican and -of course- also the private property (that is to say, a range of forms of intellectual property according to the nature of the good), and that its mode of production be mostly collaborative (as a network) with and for society and humanity. We must remember that in this context, the Academic System Law was developed for institutions of higher education, which promotes the construction of millions of knowledge networks that link millions of brains.

That is, to build the social intellect, the collective intellect, the general intellect.

And all this would be an effective change mobilizer of the production matrix?

If we actually want to transform the productive matrix and to socially emancipate, we must change the way knowledge and technology have been managed and valued . The industrialization process that the current political project is pursuing, requires the legislation and the dynamics of disaggregation and the technology transfer that are usually deliberately hindered by the holders of patents, technologies and knowledge through organizations that ensure such intellectual property rights. Opposing voices will soon come, willing to confuse the citizens by stating that the new regulation seeks to discourage the private sector investment. Quite the contrary. The social knowledge economy seeks to protect the national industry so that it can be developed through the elimination of costs related to the non-free usufruct of knowledge. Costs that actually turn into barriers of its potential development.

But in fact there may be economic groups which are affected by or upset with this matter.

Perhaps the only group that could have difficulties is the importer. But this agenda is a sovereign wager of the country. We rather seek to create industry, employment and added value in Ecuador. Also to prevent a drain of currency abroad. Therefore, every businessman or businesswoman and entrepreneur who is involved in this industrialization proposal will be supported.

So as to illustrate and put into perspective, we could summarize by noting that while in cognitive capitalism the most important is the “capitalist” banking, in social knowledge economy we talk about “bank of ideas”, a breeding ground of the social innovation system. Also, whilst in the first case the goal of any bank is the accumulation of capital, in the second, it is the Good Way of Living of its population and the entire planet.

So, what is the relationship between the change in the production matrix and the social knowledge economy?

As I mentioned earlier, a change in the production matrix entails a change in the cognitive matrix. I believe that the Southern countries live a second neodependency, far more lethal than the first one which was based on industrialized goods. This new dependency is structured through knowledge, the mind-invoice. The market and its invisible hand, in this new phase of capitalism, does its biggest planning: programs the obsolescence and the deterioration of the market goods. When a cell phone is purchased -for instance- usually the multinational that manufactured it already knows for how long it will work, when will the new product be offered to consumers and when will the technology recently placed in the market, become obsolete.

Currently, Ecuador imports hundreds of millions of dollars in technology. Therefore, if we do not want to be a ‘banana republic forever’  we must sign international agreements and have a legal framework that will allow us to make technology transfer and breakdown of the different products and services. We cannot, for example, allow them to sell us equipment without even including a repair manual, so that we will be always subject to purchase repair services abroad. Also, the intellectual property system must ensure that the patenting process of multinationals may not preclude systematically, the development of the local industry. It is not only nodal in the programmatic proposal of this Government to strive for the changes to the production matrix but it is necessary to do so in order to create more and better jobs in Ecuador; that the largest amount of added value remains in the country; that there are no brain drain; and that there is no currency loss through the process of importing an assortment of goods that, with little effort, could have been done in the country a long time ago. To the hereabove mentioned we must add that the dollarized system compels to have this development strategy. Not doing so in the medium term, may structurally put at stake this monetary system in force, in Ecuador.

And this can only occur with a regulatory, public policy-making government, or does it open to the free market and the individual initiative?

The aforementioned change will not take place without the Government, as a collective action of all Ecuadorians, playing a strategic role to boost scientific and technological research and reward investment in goods of public interest to society, such as food, medicine or technology aiming at strengthening the educational processes.

It should be noted that the investment that Ecuador has made and will continue making in higher education, science, technology and innovation play a strategic role in the change of the production matrix. The economic effort in scholarships, educational loans, in universities and technical and technological institutes, in Yachay, in Ikiam, in the Prometheus program would have little impact in the strategy of creating a new pattern of accumulation for the country if there is no transit from a commercial system of intellectual property to a system that freely manages access to it. If the change in the production matrix lies in the innovation system, this would be curtailed by the current property scheme or any scheme that deepens its perverse effects given the high entry costs and institutional costs imposed by the current over-patenting in the world economy. In this case, investment in scholarships or in Yachay would serve little to the change of the production scheme.

How important is the Socialism of the Good Way of Living to this new form of managing knowledge?

From a glass tower, some scholars try to make us believe that the world of reason and ideas can be separated from the world of the material and political economy existing around the world. This not only demonstrates the lack of understanding of what is happening now in our planet, but the absence of political realism to find a true social transformation.

In cognitive capitalism, with the collapse of the traditional division between subject and object, given the non-severability between mind and body, it becomes imperative to construct a system of subjects who in their own production and reproduction of relations (language, feelings and knowledge) can emancipate individuals and thereby society. This has to be thought with much political pragmatism (it’s not about metaphysics!) but without losing the horizon of direction of a new social order.

The French philosopher Michel Foucault sustained that anyone who has the knowledge has the power. There will be no possibility of disrupting the power if we do not argue the way how knowledge is managed; and, it must remain clear that in cognitive capitalism there is a supremacy of capital towards life. In other words, while in cognitive capitalism the agent who funds a research seeks to maximize profits derived from knowledge, the Socialism of the Good Way of Living seeks to maximize the positive externalities (both material and immaterial) of knowledge throughout the society. For example, for cognitive capitalism a drug should produce the greatest possible amount of dollars whereas for social knowledge economy it should produce the greatest positive impact on people’s health.

Secondly, if we cannot put a halt to this power, cognitive dependency will be perpetuated ad infinitum, and along with it, the impossibility to make a real change in the country’s production matrix (with all the implications therein). Thus, a more vertiginous transformation to overcome structural poverty and socio-economic inequality levels would be unimaginable.

Finally, we must have it clear that for both transnationals and local elites the most effective strategy to maintain their power and domination is to keep the people in ignorance. At the heart of cognitive capitalism, through the creation of institutions that hyper-privatize intellectual property, they seek for few privileged people – those who can afford it – to have access to knowledge. The Socialism of the Good Way of Living wants the individual to be autonomous through free and democratic access to knowledge.

Commercial intellectual property (closed) systems keep the slavery of ‘ignorance’, whereas social knowledge economy strives to liberate the individual and the society by democratizing the access and appropriation of produced knowledge. In other words, the open knowledge becomes another factor of production to be distributed throughout society.

In this sense, while the panacea of neoliberalism has been (and still is) to build tax havens, for the Socialism of the Good Way of Living, the ideal territories are havens of open knowledge where people and ideas can move freely, can work collaboratively to solve problems concerning (and that keeps awaken!) the community, and enjoy art and culture without restriction.
We must be clear that the heart of the programmed obsolescence of capitalism and -therefore- the dependence of our countries lie in the scarce capacity of knowledge production (especially in Africa and Latin America). The new independence then is to build a system that generates non-capitalist knowledge and is based on the needs and potentials of our peoples and of all humanity. In this context, the construction of such a system is not only a material imperative but an essential path to emancipation.

What is at stake then, is not solely to free us from ignorance but to conquer the second and final independence!

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