28 December 2012

Toppling the Tower of Self-Gratifying Economics

Like Rapunzel, I am kept alienated from others in the topmost chamber of a lofty tower, so high above the ground that I can see neither the tower’s foundations nor its exit.  Just like the heroine of that tale, I let down my proverbial hair to admit my heart’s desires, whatever those might be at the moment, in hopes that one will finally free me. My hair is always down, netting more and more pleasures and hoisting them up for my own greedy, isolated consumption in my misdirected search for liberation. Unlike the princess of the classic fable, I have erected this tower myself and I am both prisoner and warden within it.  An even more apt description would be to say that I am the tower itself: an edifice of ego built to protect an ever-craving fragile sense of self.  The tower and the system of acquisition and consumption I have constructed allow me to enjoy virtually limitless pleasures without being bothered by the “hows” and “whoms” of those pleasures’ manufacture.  My sense of identity is inextricably bound up with the consumer capitalist system in which I am complicit; my tower is built upon the backs of working women and men.

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It may seem quite a reach to begin a theory of Buddhist economics with a Western fairy tale; however, as Western Buddhism emerges and develops in contemporary consumer capitalist economies, it becomes apparent that this ancient way can flourish today by appropriating familiar elements of those cultures.  Just as historically Buddhism has been able to adapt and spread through some degree of syncretism with already-inculcated belief systems across Asia, its chances for survival today in the West may depend on its ability to infiltrate existing religious, social, political, and economic institutions.  For many people in this predominately Christian society, Buddhism appears to be a mystical and exotic religion, foreign and esoteric without any relevance to the contemporary West.  If the majority was to start taking it seriously as a viable alternative, not just to Christian thought but also to capitalist thought, it suddenly becomes a foreign threat, a seemingly open attack on our values and the foundations of our society.
Buddhism, however, is not just a religion or philosophy, but a practical path for living, and it is this facet of Buddhism that may be most appealing to the pragmatic West.  A Buddhism that does not openly conflict with Christianity, a “safe Buddhism” with the aura of psychology or self-help that might augment our current systems is one that could easily be accepted in the West and incorporated into our existing traditions. The danger, I fear, in this subtle approach is that the bottomless pit of our consumer capitalist economy will swallow up such a “safe Buddhism.”  Is a watered-down application of popularized Buddhist precepts really going to be effective in changing the direction of a society that is so essentially off-course?  As the old axiom goes, “desperate times call for drastic measures.”  Buddhism has the power to be a drastic measure—it can be a vehicle for tearing down the buttresses of what we think we know to be true.
Key to the success of the penetration by “drastic Buddhism” of our economic system is a shift away from our often rigidly dualistic way of thinking.  We habitually construct fragmented and exclusive vantages from which to perceive our world.  One example is the conventional conceit that economics is some unified object of examination, separate from us and from other elements of our culture.  We distance the object from ourselves, giving us an illusory sense of mastery over it.  In reality, economics is just another facet of our constructed identities of self and community, one which, in deluding ourselves that we have control over it, we have let master us.  It is a self-constructed tower that traps us, all the while maintaining the delusion that it protects and serves us.  We must awaken to the fact that our economic system is a reflection of the way we view the world and others, and that viewpoint is fundamentally flawed.  It is dukkha.
Our economic viewpoint is largely a consequence of our attitude toward the natural world as “resource,” and therefore tied to ecology in ways we can’t even begin to imagine.  David Loy, in the chapter “Loving the World as Our Own Body” from his book The Great Awakening, discusses our present exploitative and delusional relationship with the natural world and the alternatives Buddhism, Taoism, and Deep Ecology present. As Dr. Loy notes, religion and social theory are tangled into our knotted relationship with nature.  Whether one subscribes to Christian creationism or understands Darwin’s Origin of Species to place humanity at the apex of evolution, the role of the natural world has been perceived as being to serve humans.  Politics, too, is bound up in this complex interrelationship, with geo-political borders demarcating what is “ours” from what is “theirs.”  Central to all of these attitudes is the objectification of the natural world and a sense of self that is separate from it.
Other people, too, become merely resources in our present economic system—rather than humans, they are “labor,” serving to produce the goods with which we attempt to quench our never-ending thirst for sense-pleasures.  Humanity has become objectified in our contemporary view of the world, not just because of an impersonal system that uses people as dispensable resources, but also because of other humans who, as both consumers and profit-makers, do not value the humanity of those who serve them.  The basic flaw of our economic system is rooted in our blindness to our shared kinship with “resources” and “labor.”  Such language codifies the dualistic thinking that allows us to maintain the illusion of distance from the natural world and from other people.  These notions are the bricks of our individual tower-prisons.
Extending this fairy-tale analogy, it is easy to see corporations as collective prison-towers.  In this case, like distancing consumers from the realities of production, the corporation shields shareholders from responsibility towards resources and labor.  It enables people to collectively maintain the illusion that they are not individually exploiting the natural world and their fellow humans for their own profit, their own consumption.  In “Can Corporations Become Enlightened?” also in The Great Awakening, Dr. Loy notes that the corporation does not share accountability in the way it superficially shares profit amongst its members.  Instead, the corporation is a fictive body that serves as scapegoat for the “sins” of the individuals who act in their own interests to maximize return.  Our whole economic apparatus is designed to perpetuate these fictions and maintain our illusionary identities as bodies and as individuals.
The non-dualistic approach to thinking that Buddhism brings to the West is a major tool with which the dismantling of this apparatus can begin.  When management understands that they are not separate from employees, consumers realize that they are no different from the workers who serve and produce for them, and we all recognize that by exploiting our non-renewable natural “resources” we are using up ourselves, our prison-towers will begin to crumble.  The structural and social verticality we have each erected to distance ourselves from one another becomes level ground;  hierarchy becomes an equality in which we all share and true democracy has a fertile ground in which to sprout among the ruins.  Ironically, it seems that a path that some Westerners view as a foreign threat may just be the tool we need to return to our original ideas of democracy.  Even a measure as drastic as Buddhist re-thinking is not in conflict with our society’s foundational institutions.  Infiltrating them and working from within, Buddhist concepts might become effective tools in reshaping the parameters of thought and action currently inscribed by those institutions.  In a Western sense, our traditional institutions, such as economics, may become more just and in a Buddhist sense, they may become less ego-centric when dualistic misperception gives way to the recognition of the interpermeability of all things.
In conclusion, let’s revisit our fairy-tale…
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            One morning, Rapunzel awakens to find her tower chamber empty.  She realizes that no Prince Charming will ever scale the tower to rescue her and so cuts off her hair.  The witch-warden who has been keeping her fades from view, a hallucination she has created for herself in order to cope with her own limitations.  Even the walls of the tower begin to fade to reveal the same phenomenon happening to similar towers all around her, each with their own erstwhile inhabitants rejoicing in freedom together, no longer self-imprisoned captives.  For this princess, and millions of other people like her, liberation begins with awakening.

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