International Retreat 2014

Day 3: Responses to Talk on Buddhist Economics and Capitalism

On Sun, 25 May, 2014 - 14:40
sanghadhara's picture

In conversation with Maitrisara, Visuddhimati, and Aryadhara about Vaddhaka’s talk on Buddhism and Capitalism, which received a standing ovation this morning. Available soon on Free Buddhist Audio and in this space…

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james murphy's picture
Unlike the vast majority (it would seem), I have to say I’m ambivalent about this talk. Whilst it is undoubtedly both heartfelt and laudably analytical to a degree, I nevertheless feel it is also dangerously simplistic on certain topics. On the credit side, and given the terrible economic (and moral and spiritual) crisis in which we are still immersed, Vaddhaka’s call to arms(!) for a radical rethink and overhaul of current economic practices is undoutbedly welcome and timely. In this regard, I especially liked his championing of Sandel’s idea that compassion and altruism are not commodities in limited supply, but rather more akin to muscles which become stronger, more efficient and mutually beneficial the more they are exercised. Moreover, surely none can deny that the wages earned by top execs of the corporations and banks are little short of obscene; nor that the mind-numbing, repetitive, mechanistic working practices forced on the majority of ‘wage slaves’ are appalling - cruel, actually, when all is said and done.

Conversely, what I do object to philsophically is Vaddhaka’s assumption, sometimes implied, sometimes explicit, that Buddhism is in reality a sort of religious forerunner and counterpart of Socialism; and the Buddha a sort of meditative Karl Marx. I also think it is very dangerous to rail against ‘individualism’ as though it were synonymous with selfishness. Many people, myself obviously included, would argue that what we need to oppose today’s uniform ‘borg-like’ materialistic cultural structures is not less but more individualism of a spiritually-oriented kind. So more care needed in our words here, I feel.

Indeed, here I think it behoves us as Buddhist to be very careful to distinguish between the secular and the spiritual. You cannot simply transpose Buddhist ideals upon secular society without actually doing a lot of damage. People have to embrace enlightened principles voluntarily, they simply recoil and rebel if rules - even enlightened ones - are thrust upon them. The whole recent hideous history of ‘Political Correctness’ surely reveals this! In this context, is competition realy such a bad thing, for example (as Vaddhaka implies)? Isn’t it rather, in the Nietzschean sense, a vital element in the creative mindset? Doesn’t the artist compete aginst his own mediocrity, and his own struggle against the recalcitrance of his materials? Similarly, doesn’t the spiritual aspirant compete against his own shortcomings? Don’t we even compete gently with our friends to make progress in our tasks? I would suggest the spirit of competition is vital to human advancement: it spurs us on to greater heights. Conversely, competitiveness doesn’t have to imply a hard-heartedness or an indifference to those we ‘beat’ in competition. The graceful victor does not crow over others, but teaches his skills to them. Tibetan monks compete in dharma debates as part of their practise, do they not?

Vaddhaka is similarly gung-ho about other Socialist holy cows too, it seems to me. For example, the redistribution of wealth is all very well, but who’s going to redistribute it - and in what way, and upon what principles? Surely the whole ghastly history of our abysmal 20th century was one in which a series of depraved socialist monsters (Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot) took the law - and other people’s property and money (OPM) into their own blood-soaked hands? Indeed, not without some tragic bitterness has it been stated that socialists are very good at spending other people’s money, but useless at generating it themselves. Look at the Eastern block and its dismal products and economy - the Trabant and bread lines down the streets. Communism is not the alternative to Capitalism.

I am, of course, not suggesting Vaddhaka is a communist or that he is remotely interested in forcing anything upon anyone; but I am concerned that the language of this sometimes very good talk is implicitly and dangerously leftist in its suave assumption that collectivism is the way forward (indeed, perhaps Vaddhaka’s personal leftist leanings do perhaps show through in the occasional economic naiveties of his talk).

May I stress here that I am not a so-called neo-liberal. I bang no drum for Capitalism but I do think it is important to understand its function a little more clearly if we are not appear naive when its proponents confront us. Capitalism is essentially the accummulation of capital so that it can be invested to make more profit for its owner. If that owner is an enlightened (with a small ‘e’) person, then his investments will be for the benefits of all. It is HOW capital is invested that matters. It can be invested morally in spiritual right-livelihood ventures for example.

And again, I must object that what we have today - indeed, what has in fact caused the colossal fiscal crisis we are still in - is not Capitalism as such, but crony, corporate capitalism, which is a kind of financial fascism. Under real authentic capitalism the corrupt banks and bankers would all have been allowed to fail in 2008. None of their bankrupt derivative dealings would have been supported by Jo Public’s tax dollars - and darn right too! Whjat happened in the bail-outs was in fact the opposite of capitalism! - And here I sit firmly with the ‘Occupy’ movement. Until we have ‘honest’ money again; until, indeed, the money supply is cleansed of ‘false’ credit and the corrupt banks exposed, there will never be any economic or moral regeneration…

I make these points because I feel there is real danger in just assuming that the Buddha’s message was a socialist one, and that all Buddhism has to do to appeal to the young and dispossessed is to pipe the same old socialist tunes that have led the Russians, East Europeans, Chinese and Indo-chinese peoples all down the path to depravity and despair! As far as I am aware, the Buddha was not particularly concerned what sort of governance people lived under so long as it was just. Justice admininstered by a just king, queen, a just tribal leader - whoever. whilst I applaud the general thrust of Vaddahka’s talk, may I also I ask that we as Biuddhists be a deal more careful not simply to reiterate our own subtle prejudices when we advocate economic solutions to what are essentially spiritual problems.

Vaddhaka's picture
I would like to respond to James Murphy’s thoughtful comments about my talk, though to be honest there are so many different elements I can’t deal with them all! So, I will try to respond briefly to a few of James’s comments.

First of all, it’s inevitable in a talk like this that there’s going to be some simplification, though I hope it is clear that I would not advocate imposing Buddhist ideals upon anybody. Values can only change voluntarily from within, and from below. The current economic crisis is essentially a crisis of values. But the argument about values has to be made, that’s why I am an admirer of Michael Sandel’s book “What Money Can’t Buy”. That’s what prompted me to give the talk.

On the redistribution of income and wealth, as James says, some of the earnings of top execs are obscene. So what do we do about that in a democratic society? There are choices to be made and some democratic societies have made choices that reduce inequalities. Sweden, Finland, Norway, (and Japan) are not communist countries, but they do have much lower levels of inequality. I think it’s reasonable to ask us as Buddhists to reflect upon these issues in our own democratic societies, and to look back at what the Buddha advised in his times.

I agree that the spirit of competition, in the sense of emulation of what is best in others, and of our own positive achievements, is a good thing. I am very much in favour of striving for excellence. This is very different from the competition of the survival of the fittest of modern neoliberal economics, where the playing field is often very far from fair and open competition.

James touches on something important when he raises the issue of whether the problem is capitalism as such or the particular type of capitalism we have now. The focus of my talk was on the dominant form of present-day capitalism, neoliberal or free market economics, which is based on values that stand in opposition to Buddhist values. Something better has to emerge in our world economy based on different values, and whether that is still to be called capitalism or something different remains to be seen. We have to trust in people’s creativity operating in a democratic society.

I am not sure that James is right when he suggests that I ‘rail against individualism’ but I am clear in my own mind that we do as a sangha have something very important to offer to the world, and that is the importance of community, something that is being lost today.


werdnaydarg's picture

Thank you Vaddhaka for your gentle and revealing thoughts.
A fine insight into an important matter.