The Spiritual Crisis of Capitalism


What would the Buddha do?
Stuart Smithers , 29 Jun 2012
When the Dalai Lama announced his Marxist leanings last summer in Minneapolis, the only surprise was how surprising it was. The blogosphere was once again stirred up by this non-revelation. Tsering Namgyal, an Indian-born Tibetan journalist who lives and studies in the US, was tagging along when the Dalai Lama met with 150 Chinese students for a three-hour conference in Minneapolis in June 2011. Writing for the online magazine Religion Dispatches, Namgyal posted that the Dalai Lama surprised the students when he volunteered, “as far as socio-political beliefs are concerned, I consider myself a Marxist.” And he went on to clarify that he was “not a Leninist.” Namgyal’s post reported that a student asked about the apparent contradiction in the Dalai Lama’s economic philosophy and Marx’s critique of religion. The Dalai Lama’s understanding was more nuanced than most of the bloggers who jumped on the story: he suggested that Marx was not actually against religion or religious philosophy per se, but “against religious institutions that were allied, during Marx’s time, with the European ruling class.” (That would be the capitalist class.) The three-hour exchange was probably not designed for political sound-bites.

The year before he gave a series of talks in New York at the Radio City Music Hall. The Dalai Lama’s news office included the following report in their summary:

His Holiness said when he was in China in 1954–55, the Communist Party of China was really wonderful, and the Party members were really dedicated to the service of the people. His Holiness said he was very much impressed and told Chinese officials about his desire to join the Party. His Holiness said he still is a Marxist (although some of his friends ask him not to mention that) and he admired its objective of equal distribution (“this is moral ethics”). His Holiness however talked about the clampdown after the [1957] Hundred Flowers Campaign in China itself and said any authoritarian system always subdues any force that has the potential to stand up to it.

You might think he had his thoughts on the 99% and the pulse of an emerging international indignation/indignado movement soon to be focused on issues of inequality and wealth distribution, but the Dalai Lama has said the same thing many times before – including in a 1999TIME Magazine interview and this 1996 passage from Beyond Dogma: Dialogues and Discourses in 1996:

Of all the modern economic theories, the economic system of Marxism is founded on moral principles, while capitalism is concerned with only with gain and profitability. Marxism is concerned with the distribution of wealth on an equal basis and the equitable utilization of the means of production. It is also concerned with the fate of the working classes – that is the majority – as well as with the fate of those who are underprivileged and in need, and Marxism cares about the victims of minority-imposed exploitation. For those reasons the system appeals to me, and it seems fair … The failure of the regime in the Soviet Union was, for me not the failure of Marxism but the failure of totalitarianism. For this reason I think of myself as half-Marxist, half-Buddhist.

So what’s all the fuss? Marx might still be an inspirational hero for the odd revolutionary in Peru or Nepal, but communism is generally summarized as a failed system that crashed and burned. So why this repeated hysteria about Marx? And why now?

While Joe McCarthy was holding Senate hearings in 1954 and fueling fear of a threatening and subversive communist underground that never really materialized, the Dalai Lama was studying Marx with Mao. Before actually studying Marx, the Dalai Lama was also taught to fear “communists” and representations of communism, with little knowledge of Marx or how China’s communist movement related to Marx’s theories. In the 1999 TIME interview, the Dalai Lama reflects on these nuanced differences and possibilities of a “genuine communist movement” in Tibet:

I was very young when I first heard the word communist. The 13th Dalai Lama (1876–1933) had left a testament that I read. Also, some of the monks who were helping my studies had been in monasteries with Mongolians. They had talked about the destruction that had taken place since the communists came to Mongolia. We did not know anything about Marxist ideology. But we all feared destruction and thought of communists with terror. It was only when I went to China in 1954–55 that I actually studied Marxist ideology and learned the history of the Chinese revolution. Once I understood Marxism, my attitude changed completely. I was so attracted to Marxism, I even expressed my wish to become a Communist Party member. Tibet at that time was very, very backward. The ruling class did not seem to care, and there was much inequality. Marxism talked about an equal and just distribution of wealth. I was very much in favor of this. Then there was the concept of self-creation. Marxism talked about self-reliance, without depending on a creator or a God. That was very attractive. I had tried to do some things for my people, but I did not have enough time. I still think that if a genuine communist movement had come to Tibet, there would have been much benefit to the people.

Everyone seems to have an opinion about Marx, communism, or capitalism (and sometimes a strong opinion), but whenever I have been able to have a sustained conversation about Marxism with friends or students they usually admit how little they know about Marx’s thought, while falling back on the view that Marx was an advocate of communism (true), and Marxism – understood as “communism” – represents a discredited and disgraced economic paradigm (sort of not quite true). In the unlikely event that a friend or student had actually read Marx, it was usually Marx and Engels’ very slim thirty-page treatise, The Communist Manifesto. Buddhists in this late stage of global capital might want to get up to speed on Marx.

Marx’s most important contribution was not a revolutionary labor movement, but his monumental 18-year study of the capitalist economic system eventually published in three volumes as Capital(Das Kapital). Anyone interested in working through the text should start young – the three volumes weigh in at about 2,500 pages. Most people know the ending anyway: Marx was less than optimistic about capitalism’s long-term prospects, but how he gets there is why scholars and writers of all stripes have continually returned to his dense, difficult, logical, detached analysis of the world’s dominant economic system. What is perhaps most surprising in the text is the discovery that Marx’s cool and methodical deconstruction of capitalism is almost entirely void of moral argumentation or appeals to conscience. And readers hoping to understand or critique the communist mode that will finally appear when capitalism reaches its conclusion will also find a remarkable absence of detailed discussion about our future world beyond capitalism.

There have been few silver linings to the Great Recession and America’s own “jobless” recovery, but Marx’s return is certainly one of them. Marxists are stepping out of the academic closet in greater numbers, and new life is being breathed into his ideas. Capital is a dish best served cold.

Getting to Know TINA

It was either Fredric Jameson or Slavoj Žižek (nobody seems totally clear on the point) who first suggested that it’s easier for people to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism. It was definitely Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister of Britain who insisted that the world needed to realize that THERE IS NO ALTERNATIVE (TINA) to capitalism.

The current version of Marxist amnesia stems partly from the sudden demise of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the remarkable transformation of the economic culture in China. As the Soviet Union was collapsing, Margaret Thatcher repeatedly declared that liberal democracy and capitalism had triumphed over communism and the historical struggle between the two political systems was over –capitalism, as the last man standing, was the only viable ideology.

But the declared death of Marxism and communism – and the eternal triumph of capital – was perhaps just a wee bit premature. Those who nodded passively to Tina’s declarations (Thatcher was actually referred to as “Tina” by members of her staff and cabinet – but not to her face!) were not unlike the young Dalai Lama before his Marxist tutorials in Beijing. Today the Dalai Lama distinguishes Marx from forms of communism. There are many ways to critique the failed regimes of the USSR and China, but the main Marxist critique simply observes that neither of those historical situations actually fulfilled the conditions of a capitalist phase in which a bourgeois class established its power and control. Some identify the USSR as a brutal form of socialism, while both states seem to be what Marx described as forms of “crude communism.”

Tina was ahead of herself. The world didn’t need the Great Recession to see that structural problems in the economy were becoming more evident, but it didn’t hurt: countries like Spain are currently at about 25 percent unemployment (with youth unemployment at a terrifying 50.5 percent!) Still, the misery generated by the collapse is impressive and continues to unfold, the most dramatic and desperate response being the significant increase in suicides in Europe. For those who have read Marx, the conditions of collapse are a predictable precondition for the cyclical crises that capitalism creates and depends on. But that matters little to those who are left behind. As Marx wrote in Capital(Vol. 1):

In every stockjobbing swindle everyone knows that some time or other the crash must come, but everyone hopes that it may fall on the head of his neighbor, after he himself has caught the shower of gold and placed it in safety. Après moi le déluge! is the watchword of every capitalist and of every capitalist nation. Hence Capital is reckless of the health or length of life of the laborer, unless under compulsion from society.

A World Without Work: Nirvana or a Nervous Breakdown?

I recently asked students in one of my classes if any of them had worked in cubicles and if so, how many hours they’d worked on an average day. The results weren’t surprising: First, there was a little guilt and unease about making public confessions – after all, this is America, the most work-centric country in the world. Then, one bright, industrious, and cheerfully determined student reported that the first few days of her job she proudly reported to her supervisor that she had finished all of her work before lunch and asked for more. After a few days she realized that her supervisor was far from pleased with her efficiency and that she was putting her supervisor in an awkward position, forcing her to find more work when there already wasn’t enough to go around. The student scaled back and fell in line with her peers, working about two hours (or 25 percent of an 8-hour business day); the rest was spent on the internet or reading novels. All was well and everyone understood the drill.

Something structural seems to be happening around the problem of work and unemployment that is not necessarily cyclical. Capital is all about leaner and meaner efficiency, and the one area where profit is reliably extracted is through “increased productivity” – producing more with less (labor). So why has corporate capital allowed these inefficiencies to continue? A completely untestable theory might argue that this irrational activity might be the subconscious wisdom of “the Market.” Imagine if 75 percent of cubicle workers were laid off. (I know this is an exaggerated premise, but I’m trying to make a simple point.) What would they do? Would they be passively herded into unemployment lines? Would they wait their turn to be re-schooled in order to be more efficient workers in a new role?

No, I don’t think so. Regardless of the mechanisms behind the action, if too many more people become unemployed, underemployed, and unemployable, some might begin to wonder if they were just unlucky or if the system is actually flawed, if the promise of capitalism and the free market is a rigged game. The secret might get out: capitalism certainly creates jobs, but it also creates unemployment, and in its late stages capitalism produces the unemployed as a new class.

One of the important points made by Marx was that we have every reason to believe that capitalism will succeed in one of its most important goals: lowering labor costs. Capitalism has made extraordinary gains in technology and has applied new technological advances to the means of production. When the media reports that there has been a rise in “productivity” and stock markets cheer the success, one should understand that it basically means that more work has been done by fewer workers, that more profit will be extracted by reducing labor costs – usually by eliminating jobs or driving down labor costs in various ways.

Marx imagined that there would come a time when productivity would reach a point that our needs could be met with much less labor. One aspect of the crisis of capital was to imagine how we would live in a world without work, how would we occupy ourselves when society had advanced beyond the most pressing economic needs.

John Maynard Keynes (no Marxist himself) made much the same point about 80 years after Marx. In an essay, “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren,” written in 1930 at the time of the Great Depression, Keynes tried to imagine the world of his grandchildren in 2030. He drew the startling conclusion, “assuming no important wars and no important increase in population,” that the struggle for subsistence would be solved by economic development, and what had been thought to be humankind’s permanent problem would disappear.

This wasn’t a necessarily happy event, for he speculated that the “psychological threat of a world without work” would deprive most people of their traditional sense of purpose:

I think with dread of the readjustment of the habits and instincts of the ordinary man, bred into him for countless generations, which he may be asked to discard within a few decades. To use the language of today – must we not expect a general “nervous breakdown?”

To ease the transition Keynes recommended that we spread the remaining work around, so that everybody might have 20 hours work per week and that way maintain some sense of our traditional purpose as workers as we adjust to the new world and try to deal with our freedom.

One truth that history right up to the Great Recession has made clear is how utterly wrong Adam Smith was when he speculated that if the markets were allowed to operate freely and unregulated, then capitalism’s “invisible hand” would take care of everything and most everyone would be happy. As one of my colleagues observed, when there is a hole in your theory, the tendency is to fill it with “God” or some other vague and unproven helper, such as Smith’s “invisible hand of the market.”

Nirvana or nervous breakdown, we’re headed to a world without work, and the capitalist system doesn’t have a solution to the growing number of unneeded workers.

Waking Up to Capital: Buddhist Insurrection

What do Marx and the Occupy movement and the Arab Spring and the indignados in Spain and the suffering surplus poor and the unemployed and the debt-ridden college graduates living at home and the consolidation of wealth and the destruction of middle class wealth and the subprime collapse and bail-out of banks “too big to fail” and the working conditions at the Foxconn Apple factory in China have to do with BUDDHISM?

In my classes, at conferences, and in conversation with friends, we have tried to imagine a world without capitalism. We are all swimming in the world of capital. Capitalism is not just an economic system, it is the dominant world culture. Buddhism, then, lives in the culture of capital too.

History has provided numerous examples of political, economic and cultural collapse, including many societies that were in denial about what was happening during the shift. In 1932 the 13th Dalai Lama made a political prediction that proved fairly accurate:

Fighting and conflict have become part of the very fabric of human society. If we do not make preparations to defend ourselves from the overflow of violence, we will have very little chance of survival.

In particular, we must guard ourselves against the barbaric red communists who carry terror and destruction with them wherever they go. They are the worst of the worst. Already they have consumed much of Mongolia, where they have outlawed the search for the reincarnation of Jetsun Dampa, the incarnate head of the country. They have robbed and destroyed monasteries, forcing the monks to join their armies or else killing them outright. They have destroyed religion wherever they’ve encountered it …

While the power to do something about the situation is still in our hands, we should make every effort to safeguard ourselves against this impending disaster. Use peaceful methods where they are appropriate; but where they are not appropriate, do not hesitate to resort to more forceful means. Work diligently now, while there is still time. Then there will be no regrets.

We are beginning to live between two worlds, in an intermediate cultural state. And the point should be made that we need to start imagining a new world, thinking of alternatives to this world, or we will very likely end up with something “very unpleasant”: An alliance of police, military and security interests with the 1% in possession of consolidated wealth. Unholy alliances, like when JPMorgan Chase contributed $4.6 million to the New York Police Department to “strengthen security” in New York just months before the Occupy Movement targeted 1 Chase Plaza as the site for occupation might be foreshadowing our future. No surprise, then, when NYPD protected and fenced off Chase Plaza just days before the occupation. For some reason, NYPD could accept millions from JPMorgan Chase, but not donuts from the OWS protestors.

Income inequality and the consolidation of wealth is also the consolidation of power, and the threat of violence against the people when the people don’t obey. The consolidation of economic power displayed in capitalism is not necessarily a benign event. The “invisible hand” of the market hasn’t benefitted all peoples. Capital, according to Marx, has replaced organic and traditional relations between people with “naked self-interest,” with “naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.” And the people doing the exploiting don’t seem much better off than the exploited. In the 70s Lobsang Lhalungpa (a scholar and translator whose father was the State Oracle of Tibet) stopped mid-conversation while walking with people in San Francisco’s financial district. He surveyed the busy lunchtime scene, looking up, then down California Street, and finally observed: “I don’t see any humans here.” Roaming the streets of the financial districts, it is sometimes hard to escape the feeling that we live in a land of well-dressed hungry ghosts.

My favorite image of Buddhism’s modern challenge as a revolutionary force appears somewhere in Choygam Trungpa’s autobiography when he recounts an important lesson about the subtle seduction of the force of materialism that he received from his guru, Khenpo Gangshar. Escaping Tibet following the Chinese invasion in the 1950s, Trungpa was about to climb into the back of a truck – his first experience with a motorized vehicle – when Gangshar grabbed him and warned, “You know how strong material forces are: Now you are having one of your first direct encounters with them. Study what you are; don’t lose yourself. If you simply get excited about the journey, you will never find out what we are really up against.”

What are we really up against? Cars and trucks are nothing now; faxing is an antique operation. What is the speed and seductive force of a Chinese truck bouncing along a dirt road at 15 miles an hour compared to the internet, smartphones, and the LCD TV? Many teachers and adepts have exposed some of the cultural overlays of imported Buddhism and simultaneously unearthed aspects of the essential teachings. But we need to ask the same questions about Western culture if we wish to “see beyond cultures.” In many respects it is easier for us to see the Tibetan or Japanese cultural components of Buddhism than it is to see the American capitalist realities at work.

No Regrets

Some of the Dalai Lama’s friends asked him not to mention that he is a Marxist. Why?

Regardless of the answer, there is something threatening and potentially discomforting about mixing Buddhism with discussions of money and politics. For some Buddhists the conversation is too profane, while others think it is impolite: They would prefer not to, borrowing the phrase from Melville’s Bartleby. They would prefer not to talk about property, income inequality, structural poverty, permanent unemployment and the structural weaknesses of capital.

For a long time now Wall Street, politicians, and the media have preferred not to talk about these issues. But that wall seems to be breaking down. Republican presidential candidates were especially anxious during the last primary cycle to label any discussion of wealth inequality as “class warfare,” thinking people would drop the issue. But it didn’t work. Even Warren Buffett famously declared: “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”

The Dalai Lama’s friends would prefer he didn’t, but year after year he reminds us of his Marxist leanings and his apprehensions about capitalism. Buddhists seem to have preferred not to hear him.

Like the Dalai Lama, Occupy’s refusal represents the true spirit of Melville’s Wall Street scribe, Bartleby: Inexplicably, they refuse to do what they are told, they refuse to go away, but appear again and again to the frustration of Wall Street and the mayors and police who represent the non-rocking boat of the status quo.

Americans and Buddhists might want to think about capitalism. It’s difficult, to be sure, and gets very emotional for some. It might seem scary to think about its future, but that’s probably a good reason we should look at it: Why is it scary to think about capitalism? It is as if Occupy has taken on the role of society’s collective therapist, patiently waiting and witnessing the tortured machinations of a society that tries to finally come to grips with its own state of denial.

The movement of the real, the self-liberation of society towards a revealing ideal, presents one option for synthesizing Marxism and Buddhism to realize resistance. The movement of the real appears in the emerging sangha, a secret movement of eros and unification that can only appear in the action of the collective. The action of the collective is to be collected, to come together and deal with whatever arises from this being together. The potential of the collective has always been more mysterious and difficult. Liberty and equality still hold a more central place in France and the United States than fraternity, and the individualism of western Buddhism is a reflection of that reality. Buddhist insurgency might look like a shift to a new leaderless sangha, or a new type of leader and teacher who discovers and understands the vast unrecognized potential of the collective movement of the real. And if the movement of the real lives, it must constantly escape the known, the easily reproduced form:

A general uprising, as we see it, should be nebulous and elusive; its resistance should never materialize as a concrete body, otherwise the enemy can direct sufficient force at its core, crush it, and take many prisoners. When that happens, the people will lose heart and, believing that the issue has been decided and further efforts would be useless … On the other hand, there must be some concentration at certain points: The fog must thicken and form a dark and menacing cloud out of which a bolt of lightning will may strike at any time. (Clausewitz, On War).

This is an image of Buddhist insurgency, of the future sangha. The bolt of en-lightning energy, the sincerity of search for the real, could appear at any moment and from anyone, not just a sanctioned or authorized leader. The dark and menacing cloud is only menacing to the old order, to ignorance and forces of manipulation. The awakening energy of the lightning bolt is nearly invisible in its decent, but becomes visible on the uprising as what is called the “return stroke”: Lightning strikes from the ground up. The thickening collective of the group is the ground for the movement of the real. The new sangha will be nebulous and elusive, but it will appear in moments when the movement of the real is especially concentrated in an individual; at that moment the group will know the presence of the real.

The Dalai Lama lamented that there had not been enough time for a transition to genuine communism. Maybe the time has come to ask him what he thinks genuine communism looks like. Events are happening now that signal, for some, the end of capitalism as we know it. Several critics have suggested that we need to start thinking now about what alternatives we might work toward. We need to remember Khenpo Gangshar’s warning him: Study what you are, don’t lose yourself. The challenge is probably greater than we think. We are facing the same challenge today, even more intensely: We need to study ourselves, and not lose ourselves in the rebellious excitement of capitalism’s undoing.

Wall Street wasn’t built in a day, and its undoing won’t happen in a day either. But as the 13th Dalai Lama recommended in his own period of radical transition, we should make every effort we can “while the power to do something about the situation is still in our hands”:

Work diligently now, while there is still time. Then there will be no regrets.

Stuart Smithers is chair of the Religion Department at the University of Puget Sound where he teaches Buddhism and cultural studies. He also directs the Smoke Farm Summer Institute, an art and culture collective in the North Cascades. A version of this article also appeared in Tricycle: The Buddhist Review.

1 comment on this postSubmit yours
  1. I am so grateful for receiving this essay. This article expressed my thoughts
    unformed. It is obvious that our old systems are imploding. This article encourages thoughts for global community in our future which is now unfolding. Do I spend more time learning about the best form of change, or do I focus on reacting to a system that is collapsing?How do I prop up beliefs that no longer work? What personal beliefs can I release that are stagnating to society? How is my current behavior affecting community? What personal behavior needs to be acknowledged, accepted, and then modified? How can I be of best service to community of sentients,in the most honest of ways? How can I empower myself and fellow sentients in an alpha-male aggressive society? “The new sangha will be nebulous and elusive.”
    Let us expand in awareness, and have a few laughs too! thanks so much.

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