A response to ‘The core life tasks and beliefs for a radically engaged Buddhist’

January 20, 2022

This article is a response to an article by Mike Slott, Katya de Kadt, and Karsten Struhl.

Thank you, Mike, Katya and Karsten, for your ambitious and thoughtful article. May it draw many useful responses! For myself, I agree with every word you write. You present a powerful argument for our need, as dharma practitioners, to project our ethics as active citizens. We can’t assert our meta-ethic of care and yet remain politically inert. As citizens of sort-of democratic countries, we bear ultimate responsibility for the massive harms and existential threats that our societies’ key institutions foster today. There is no room in our meditation circles for cushion potatoes.

And yet. I hear a symptomatic silence between your eloquent denunciation of all the current forms of exploitation, oppression and environmental destruction on the one hand, and your unfurling of a social vision – ‘an egalitarian, cooperative, and compassionate ecosocialist society’ – on the other. In a word, this silence concerns the issue of transition. What is the pathway from our present morass to the future society you aspire to?

Let me explain my problem by borrowing Marx’s concept of modes of production – different ways of configuring the basic relationship between the few owners of productive resources and the vast majority of non-owners forced to work them. Clearly, a dominant mode of production exercises a formative influence on the structure and workings of the society that supports it. In the West we live in societies long dominated by the capitalist mode of production, thanks to a transition out of feudalism starting in Europe in the 16th century.

Many of today’s injustices have pre-capitalist origins – in patriarchy and slavery, for instance – but all of them are now enhanced and refracted through the main form of exploitation and immiseration that drives the capitalist mode of production.

For the last four decades neoliberalism – a fundamentalist pro-capitalist ideology – has steered the development of advanced capitalist societies. It’s the native ideology of finance capital in particular, and promotes its interests. Virtually everyone and everything that moves (or lies under the ground) are monetised and commodified, to be mobilised so as to ‘maximise shareholder value’ – that is, to further engorge the bank accounts of the already super-rich and their immediate enablers – at the expense of everybody else.

Accelerating social injustice and planetary destruction don’t show up in the forms of calculation deployed by the financial systems and corporations that embody and animate neoliberal capitalism. And their decisions, which affect our lives most fundamentally, evade conventional democratic contestation. The divine right of kings has been replaced by the divine right of the infamous ‘one percent’; democracy be damned.

What you’re proposing amounts to a transition to a new mode of production – one more radical than earlier transitions because it would strike at the very heart of the division between owners and non-owners of productive resources that has underpinned slave, feudal and capitalist societies.  But like earlier transitions, it will be a gradual process: hopefully bloodless for the most part, but inevitably conflictual, since it challenges powerful (albeit minority) vested interests. We can leave behind dreams of ‘evolutionary’ change, including the fantasy abroad in some Buddhist circles whereby today’s ‘masters of the universe’ on Wall Street and in the City of London learn to meditate, thereby become nice people, and make selfless decisions that will save the world. That sort of thing feeds into the mythology of the carnival of hypocrisy – the World Economic Forum – held each year in Davos where the super-rich and their political satraps congratulate themselves for generously lifting the world out of poverty.

Those of us who seek to build a better society, one that avoids climate catastrophe and rolls back social injustice, need to think seriously about how the transition in question might proceed. We need to work towards a political strategy around that, and get some perspective on how our own single-issue efforts contribute to it. We’ve seen so many laudable movements – like the Occupy movement, climate activists, #MeTwo and Black Lives Matter – winning some tactical victories, but without achieving fundamental change.

Not one of the masters of the universe who triggered the 2008 global financial crisis was held to account or lost anything (still less freedom), and the world is still on track towards climate catastrophe. A handful of police killers of black people have ended up in the dock, and the odd Weinstein and Epstein has gone to prison for monstering women. But the skewed distribution of wealth, income and life chances is still accelerating. Police are still killing black people in the US, while first Australians are still dying in custody in my own country. Women still face routine violence, oppression and discrimination in Western societies. Outcomes could be less transitory and more transformative if movements like these co-ordinated around a common ethical vision of the kind of society that supersedes all the horrors in question, and so recognised their shared co-belligerency.

We need to think strategically and systemically, to fill that much bigger symptomatic silence that has reverberated around the Western world during the four decades of neoliberal rule: the failure of the political left to challenge it. The older progressive parties simply capitulated to neoliberalism. Not even the calamitous own-goal of the 2008 financial crisis elicited a coherent left-wing response to overthrow neoliberalism when it was most vulnerable. In the absence of such a coherent challenge, many millions of people whose lives had been disrupted by neoliberal rule have descended into Trumpoid insanity. The sleep of reason breeds monsters, just as Francisco Goya showed us.

This isn’t the place to unfurl the sort of transitional strategy I’m alluding to. But it would have to include recognising where neoliberal capitalism is most vulnerable to progressive action. Here’s an example: some big pension funds and other institutional investors are taking decisions to divest their holdings in fossil-fuel industries and other unethical companies, while other activists are naming and shaming banks that do invest in them. Financial markets are supposed to be democracy-free zones where shareholder-value reigns supreme in the allocation of resources. Yet here democratic influences are threatening the financial life-blood of major vested interests.

Proposals to democratise capital formation – which determines the wider allocation of resources and distribution of income in society – are not new. But today they appear more reasonable than ever, especially as ordinary people are the equitable owners of the powerful institutions in question, and in many cases are becoming politicised. If the new ecosocialist society emerges at all, it will crystallise gradually through processes like this: ones which force changes to the forms of calculation in existing institutions, or outflank them altogether with new ones.

Thus the new society will bear the institutional marks of the ad hoc, conflictual transition process. It will always be a work in progress. It will not represent the achievement of a prefigured utopian blueprint.

How can dharma practitioners contribute to formulating and working for a strategy to achieve the new society? Yes, certainly, we have our special ethical commitments and approaches to becoming more effective and resilient activists to bring to the progressive table. But we don’t hold a monopoly over resources like these. We don’t need to keep our own flag flying and insist on our own dharmic framework when discussing and working with others. As an old teacher of mine said: if after great ingenuity and effort you attain the summit of a mountain and find some other people already there, you shouldn’t fall to arguing about whose route to the top is best.



2 Replies to “A response to ‘The core life tasks and beliefs for a radically engaged Buddhist’”

Colette Descent

Whilst I enjoyed both the initial article and the response, I grew somewhat alarmed when I read “But like earlier transitions, it will be a gradual process: hopefully bloodless…” Hopefully bloodless. Hum. No revolution is bloodless, as we all know. And to what end? Violence begets violence. Lately, anarchy has led to push-back and a renewal of fascist tendencies. Perhaps one (of many) answer might lie with teaching our own children (and grandchildren) socially-engaged generosity, loving-kindness and compassion from the cradle onward. I think leading by example and growing the next generation into wiser leaders would ideally get more buy-in from everyone. I am hopeful already when I see that poverty is actually decreasing in developing countries, and that women, people of colour and LGBTQ groups have made significant gains over the last century in terms of rights, education and equity (certainly in Canada). So positive change is happening! In terms of climate change, it is easy to point the finger at the 1%-ers, but we when we do so, three fingers are pointing back at us: our own personal and individual materialism continues to degrade the planet; I don’t see the middle-class Joe forgoing his bourgeois comforts. This entitled attitude, greed, is taught from birth onward, by parents. Perhaps it is this ethos of greed that needs to change… And ideally, without bloodshed… Thank you.

Mark Finlay

The original article & this response eloquently make the case for the need for both individual and systemic transformation. Its not either/or but both/and.

In some respects part of the problem (for secular buddhists) is that there is still a need to make that case (at least towards those buddhists still advocating the “just sitting” approach).

There’s little to no evidence of any individual’s own transformation in & of itself having resulted in any significant systemic change. There is also no time to lose in carrying on to see if it will work out.

The issues identified by Winton Higgins as transitional matters are (as he mentions) also matters of significant concern to an increasing number of other people, both secular & religious.

Therefore the time is now for secular buddhists (and all other buddhists willing to take action) to join with others to engage more directly in specific individual and collective actions that will dismantle the socio-economic structures & systems that support the capitalist growth model.

When Winton says “this isn’t the place to unfurl the sort of transitional strategy” to which he alludes, I hope he means simply his response to the article. Although I am new here it seems to me that the SBN is indeed an ideal place in which to explore specific and concrete elements of that strategy (indeed some are mentioned in the response) such as:-

* reclaiming of democratic processes & institutions
* specific legislation e.g. changing the objects of corporations from only being about the maximisation of profits & shareholder value
* Limiting the discrepancy in pay between lowest paid workers and CEOs
* Improving restrictions on development and requiring private sector housing developers to include more social housing & take lower profits or allow others to develop land sitting in their land bank
* Windfall taxes on big oil & big Pharma

What is “buddhist” about that? Nothing, and everything.

I see no reason why secular buddhists should not work with others & even take the lead in creating cross-disciplinary strategies & policies to achieve the Big Transition The SBN seems to me to be an ideal place to explore those issues including of course the buddhist underpinning of the strategies.

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