From Buddhist economics to a new Dharma politics

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A review-article on Vaddhaka Linn’s, The Buddha on Wall Street, Windhorse Publications, Cambridge, UK, 2015

First published at the Western Buddhist Review.

Part I

Bryan Magee, in Confessions of a Philosopher, says, of Schopenhauer and Hegel, ‘I do not think anything in the whole history of philosophy compares with this invective by one now world-famous philosopher against another’ (1998, p.466). The feud between philosophers Simon Critchley and Slavoj Žižek is, perhaps, our contemporary equivalent. Schopenhauer referred to Hegel as ‘a commonplace, inane, loathsome, repulsive and ignorant charlatan, who with unparalleled effrontery compiled a system of crazy nonsense that was trumpeted abroad as immortal wisdom by his mercenary followers…’ (ibid). Žižek accuses Critchley, in the London Review of Books (LRB), of ‘the highest form of corruption’; Critchley responds, in Naked Punch, with ‘Violent thoughts about Slavoj Zizek’; Žižek describes ‘Critchley’s erratic mixture of commentary and accusation’ as ‘one of the lowest points in today’s intellectual debate’ (Žižek 2009, p.472) and likens him to Voldemort: ‘he-who-should-not-be-named’; and so it goes on.

Their dispute began with Žižek’s critical review, in the LRB, of Critchley’s Infinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance. Critchley’s argument in the book that we should ‘resist state power by withdrawing from its terrain and creating new spaces outside its control’ (Žižek 2007, p.7) is, for  Žižek, tantamount to surrender: ‘[Critchley’s] words simply demonstrate that today’s liberal-democratic state and the dream of an ‘infinitely demanding’ anarchic politics exist in a relationship of mutual parasitism’ (ibid). Instead of resisting state power – taking part in this strange symbiotic relationship between power and resistance – the Left must seize power, according to Žižek – by force, if necessary.

Vaddhaka’s book was conceived in response to another of Žižek’s provocations. He indicates, in the introduction, that he has been pondering the questions contained therein since he heard a comment made by Žižek about Buddhism. According to Žižek, what he calls ‘Western Buddhism’ is the ‘perfect ideological supplement’ to capitalism. He believes that the emphasis in ‘Western Buddhism’ on meditation encourages Buddhists to create an inner distance from the ‘mad dance’ of modern capitalism, to give up any attempt to control what’s going on, and to take comfort in the view that all the social and economic upheaval in the world today is ‘just a non-substantial proliferation of semblances that do not really concern the innermost kernel of our being’ (Linn 2015, pp. 3-4).

This view, in fact, is not just Žižek’s; it is shared by many contemporary theorists. Here, for instance, is Critchley, from Infinitely Demanding:

In the face of the increasing brutality of reality, the passive nihilist tries to achieve a mystical stillness, calm contemplation: ‘European Buddhism’. In a world that is all too rapidly blowing itself to pieces, the passive nihilist closes his eyes and makes himself into an island.” (2008, pp.4-5).

The ideological lineage of this view of Buddhism can be traced to Nietzsche, who was introduced to Buddhism through his reading of Schopenhauer (Morrison 1997, p.4). Nietzsche was initially greatly influenced by Schopenhauer, but, as Morrison indicates, by the time of his first published work, The Birth of Tragedy, he was beginning to distance himself from the Schopenhauerean worldview:

Schopenhauer’s philosophy was seen as a preliminary symptom of an existential disease to which Europe was on the verge of succumbing: nihilism (i.e. a state of despair consequent upon the complete loss of belief in the accepted world-view and its inherent values). (ibid.)

The harbinger of what Nietzsche saw as an approaching cultural catastrophe ‘is the growing realisation that “God is Dead”… [which] proclaims the “advent of nihilism”, the complete loss of belief in all those values, especially our moral values, which sustain our belief in ourselves and give us our seemingly privileged place in the cosmic order.’ (Sagaramati 2011, p.1). Yet Nietzsche ‘also thought it possible… that a more civilised response to this portending disaster might be the growth of a “European Buddhism” – a cheerful and orderly response to the apparent meaninglessness of human existence. But to Nietzsche such a response would still be a form of nihilism, what he calls “passive nihilism”, which is “a sign of weakness”, a “doing No after all existence has lost its ‘meaning’”..’ (Morrison 1997, p.5)

And this, for Nietzsche, would be ‘tantamount to accepting nihilism as the ultimate statement and judgement upon life: a European form of Buddhism which merely helps man cheerfully adjust to the seeming meaninglessness of existence.’ (ibid.) This, then, is the foundation upon which Žižek, Critchley and others build their critique of Western Buddhism – this ‘perfect ideological supplement’ to capitalism – a critical spark sufficient to bring Vaddhaka’s book into existence.

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