Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Capitalism: Dukkha par excellence?

(notes for a chapter on Buddhist Ethics in my dissertation on Buddhism and Ethics of the Erotic)

According to David Harvey’s reading of Marx, capitalism requires ever evolving ingenuity in the “art” of inducing psychic, emotional, and physical turmoil so that it can “capitalize” on the perpetually renewed sense of urgent need that is generated (The Condition of Postmodernity, pp. 106-107):

The struggle to maintain profitability sends capitalists racing off to explore all kinds of other possibilities. New product lines are opened up, and that means the creation of new wants and needs. Capitalists are forced to redouble their efforts to create new needs in others, thus emphasizing the cultivation of imaginary appetites and the role of fantasy, caprice, and whim. The result is to exacerbate insecurity and instability, as masses of capital and workers shift from one line of production to another, leaving whole sectors devastated, while the perpetual flux in consumer wants, tastes, and needs becomes a permanent locus of uncertainty and struggle... Capitalism, in short, is a social system internalizing rules that ensure it will remain a permanently revolutionary and disruptive force in its own world history. If, therefore, ‘the only secure thing about modernity is insecurity,’ then it is not hard to see from where that insecurity derives.

As capitalism functions according to the assumption that content persons are the worst of consumers, it must perpetually manufacture discontent. Ideally, the seeds of perpetual discontent can be sown such that individuals never cease to crave and thus to spend. This “basic fact” of capitalism suggests that its mortal enemy may not be Marxism but Buddhism. To the extent that Buddhist thought and practice is Buddhist precisely because it is aligned against psychic, emotional, and physical disturbance, turmoil, and/or anguish (dukkha) it is necessarily hostile to, never mind incompatible with, capitalism. The question, however, of whether or not Buddhism is equipped to take on such an omnipotent foe is very much an open question. As modern Buddhism matures and clinical studies are undertaken to legitimate its contemplative practices, the specter of an anti-Buddhist doppelgänger becomes frighteningly real. To the extent that meditation practices are being appropriated to keep individuals docile—i.e. for the sake of anesthetizing individuals against the stresses and strains of dehumanizing labor conditions and depressive marketing strategies—...to the extent that these practices will ultimately function to lubricate the wheels of capitalism, raising the ceiling on the level of discontent individuals can tolerate before becoming malcontent, and thus aid in the production of docile workers who are nevertheless rampant consumers, Buddhism is being tapped to contravene its very raison d’être. The question that seems to be missing from the “mind-life” approaches to Buddhism is one of whether postmodern Buddhism will be a literal opiate for the masses or else a refuge from the juggernaut onslaught of capitalism.

1 comment:

s. mcclintock said...

all good thoughts, but i would just point out that neither buddhism nor capitalism is a single entity. both can be and are imbricated systems, and buddhism has very frequently done very well in market economies -- witness how it spread across asia via the silk road and sea trading routes. of course, buddhism is changed as it comes into contact with new cultural forms and modern capitalism is no exception. but the important question you raise, i think, is whether we as modern persons within the systems of modern capitalism and modern buddhism can learn to recognize the ways in which our approach to meditation or other forms of buddhist practice is perhaps less revolutionary than we like to imagine and more caught up in the cultural forms that do keep us docile, with our craving present but controlled in part because we have not sufficiently cultivated discontent with the entire craving-consumption-craving complex.