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 IV

A more important question, though, is how can we build upon what we have already achieved? How do we want the world to look in forty years’ time? Firstly, in my view, we would do well to bury, once and for all, the term ‘new society’. New Society was ‘a popular weekly paper’ (Sangharakshita 1978, p.1) that was published in the UK between 1962 and 1988, when it was absorbed into the New Statesman. In other words, the final issue was published before most of the twentysomethings who now come to the LBC were born. Sangharakshita, at the time of his talk inaugurating the LBC, said that ‘one hears [this expression ‘new society’] all over the place’ (ibid). That was then. Now, it is a musty, dated term that one hardly ever hears outside of our Buddhist movement (and not very much within it any more either). We must replace it if we are to continue to kindle – and reignite – the revolution that Sangharakshita inaugurated within the Order and movement and spoke about at the LBC nearly four decades ago.

An alternative to ‘a new society’ is ‘a new culture’. This is an even more radical, all- encompassing term and mission. After all, ‘the English concept of culture can also refer to politics and to economics… to moral and to social facts’ (Watson 2010, p.31). What we are doing then, in our Order and movement, is creating a microcosm of a new culture, and one that can have a positive – a revolutionary – influence on ‘a world that is all too rapidly blowing itself to pieces’ (Critchley 2008, op. cit.).

While we are on terminology, there is a term that I think we must, in contrast, make a sustained effort to reclaim: ‘the Middle Way’. Harold Macmillan, British Prime Minister from 1957 to 1963, published a book with this title, in 1938. In it, he set out his philosophy of government. Middle – or third – way economics has been in and out of fashion ever since, with Tony Blair in the UK, famously, adopting it for the New Labour project. The middle way, proper, though, is not spin, or some weak mean or compromise to keep everyone happy, or the use of neoliberal economics for more benign social ends; it is nothing less than the transcendence of the extremes of nihilism and eternalism. These are, after all, the fault-lines down which much political and economic debate divides – including that between Žižek and Critchley. Yale’s Cultural Cognition project, for instance, suggests that our ‘“cultural worldviews”, or preferences for how to organize society [fall] along two cross-cutting axes: “hierarchy-egalitarianism” and “individualism-communitarianism”.’ People who subscribe to a “hierarchical” worldview believe that rights, duties, goods, and offices should be distributed differentially and on the basis of clearly defined and stable social characteristics (e.g. gender, wealth, lineage, ethnicity). Those who subscribe to an “egalitarian” worldview believe that rights, duties, goods, and offices should be distributed equally and without regard to such characteristics. People who subscribe to a “communitarian” worldview believe that societal interests should take precedence over individual ones and that society should bear the responsibility for securing the conditions of individual flourishing. Those who subscribe to an “individualistic” worldview believe that individuals should secure the conditions of their own flourishing without collective interference or assistance. (Kahan et al 2007, p.2.)

It seems to me that, in the early days of our movement and Order, there was a particular emphasis, in the wake of a previously strong hierarchist/communitarian trend in society at large, on the individualist/egalitarian quadrant. For instance, Sangharakshita indicated, in his lecture inaugurating the LBC, that its purpose was ‘the work of our own individual development in free association with other people, like-minded’ (op. cit.), and defined the spiritual community, in What is the Sangha? (and elsewhere), as ‘a free association of individuals’ (2000, p.55). Critchley uses similar language to describe his ‘neo-anarchism of infinite responsibility’, with politics consisting of ‘the creation of interstitial distance within the state and the cultivation of forms of cooperation and mutuality most powerfully expressed in the anarchist vision of federalism.’ (2012, p.17) It is tempting, given the ostensible similarities, to co-opt Critchley’s vision to our own. But it is, given our increasingly individualist culture, a temptation that should be resisted. Perhaps instead, to re-emphasise the hierarchical/communitarian dimension, we should re-define sangha as ‘a collective self-transcendence in the service of a higher purpose,’ with a much stronger emphasis on both the collective life of the Order and movement (particularly residential spiritual communities and team-based right livelihood businesses) and on more fully serving those in positions of responsibility within it (such as the College of Public Preceptors and the Chairs of our centres). That the zeitgeist makes this hard for us to swallow does not make it wrong – it speaks, instead, to its urgency.

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