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 II

The Buddha on Wall Street opens with an examination of the British £20 note: on the front is an image of the Queen; on the reverse, an image of Adam Smith, ‘the eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher who in 1776 produced The Wealth of Nations, a book that lays the foundations of modern economics and capitalism.’ (p.1) It is Smith’s idea of an ‘invisible hand’ (expertly explored in Chapter 1 of Vaddhaka’s book) that is at the core of the beliefs of neoliberal capitalists: the belief that individual self-interest leads, ipso facto, to economic and societal well-being. The idea is likely to have come from ‘a religious metaphor that was in use in [Smith’s] time. In other words, the working of the economy and the benefits of the pursuit of self-interest and profit are God-given. This is how God made the world.’ (p.11)

The Judeo-Christian tradition has also played an important role, historically, in attitudes to work. The abundance in the Garden of Eden, where all necessities were provided, was replaced, after the fall, by a situation in which we must labour for our food all the days of our lives: ‘you shall gain your bread by the sweat of your brow until you return to the ground’ (p.58). The Protestant Reformation brought ‘a changed perspective on work, which would eventually help to pave the way for the Industrial Revolution and the emergence of capitalism.’ (ibid). Another factor in its emergence was the decline of community (chapter 2 of Vaddhaka’s book). Between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries, traditional forms of mediaeval community in Britain and Europe ‘were destroyed in a process that created the conditions for capitalism to emerge’(p.40). Vaddhaka quotes Joyce Appleby, an economic historian:

The bond between the land, the people, and the divine had been broken and replaced by the emergence of land as an economic resource, what much later became known as ‘natural resource’ and [by the emergence] of the people on the land as only ‘labor’ or what, also much later, became known as ‘human resources’. (p.41)

This change, brought about in part by the ‘enclosure movement’ – the forcible transfer, to private ownership, of land previously held in common – helped to inaugurate the modern, capitalist structure of society that ‘accompanied the emergence of the economist’s emphasis on the purely self-orientated individual’ (p.41). Another effect of the enclosure movement, and of the age of enlightenment and the scientific revolution, was an alienation from nature and an ‘objectification of the “other-than-human” as natural resources, things for us to own and use and throw away in the pursuit of economic and technological salvation’ (p.87), which Vaddhaka explores in a chapter on ‘Nature and the environment’.

In time, what was seen by some as the theological underpinning of society and of the economy came to be replaced by other notions, such as the Darwinian survival of the fittest. Just as in the natural world, in a similar arena of competition for scarce resources, those best adapted will rightly, according to this view, reap the greatest rewards, regardless of the effect on the less able. In fact, as Vaddhaka indicates in a fascinating aside, Darwin did not use the term ‘survival of the fittest’ until the fifth edition of On the Origin of Species, borrowing the phrase from Herbert Spencer. ‘Because Spencer was associated with economic theories supporting unrestrained capitalism, Darwin inadvertently encouraged a narrow interpretation of his theory by economists and others’ (p.11).

Neoliberalism is the most recent – and by far the most pervasive – manifestation of this view. The situation in Chile, the birthplace of modern capitalism, is instructive: here, in the wake of the Cuban revolution (1953–9), Pinochet ruthlessly seized power (in the 1973 coup) from the democratically elected socialist, Salvador Allende, and gave ‘the Chicago Boys’, the protégés of the radical laissez faire capitalist Milton Friedman at the University of Chicago, virtual free rein to set up the first experiment in neo-liberal economics, something that was only possible through state terror, widespread torture and ‘disappearances’. Thatcher, Pinochet’s friend, emboldened by the Falklands war of 1982 (codenamed ‘Operation Corporate’), followed suit in the UK, with the war giving Thatcher ‘the political cover she needed to bring a program of radical capitalist transformation to a Western liberal democracy for the first time’ (Klein 2007, p.137). Modern neo-liberalism had been born, more often than not on the back of state terror or violence. And what was once an extremist minority view of how to run an economy is now the worldwide norm.

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