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All That Is Solid Melts into the Air, All That Is Holy Is… Marxist?

His Holiness the Dalai Lama is a self-proclaimed Marxist, or at least half of one.1 This ideological preference is little-known but longstanding; in a 1993 interview he noted that “of all the modern economic theories, the economic system of Marxism is founded on moral principles, while capitalism is concerned only with gain and profitability.”2 But a key problem the Dalai Lama has identified within Marxism is a lack of compassion for the totality of humanity, including economic elites:

I think the major flaw of the Marxist regimes is that they have placed too much emphasis on the need to destroy the ruling class, on class struggle, and this causes them to encourage hatred and to neglect compassion… The failure of the regime in the former Soviet Union was, for me, not the failure of Marxism but the failure of totalitarianism. For this reason I still think of myself as half-Marxist, half-Buddhist.

The Dalai Lama’s political theorizing prompts important questions: How can absolute compassion for humanity en masse be maintained in conjunction with relative fury for the elite’s massively concentrated wealth? What would Buddhist Marxism look like as a political program?

The Dalai Lama is regaled for his ethical teachings on compassion rather than his political vision of genuine economic equality. Indeed he has noted how friends have encouraged him to mute his Marxist leanings (friends don’t let friends be Marxists…).3 Marxism makes people uncomfortable. For one, it is marred by association with failed communist projects in the Soviet Union and China. But Marxism has also been subject to concerted ideological onslaught, from McCarthyism to Fox News’ derisive use of ‘socialist’ to describe anyone leftward of Bill O’Reilly.

A key reason why Marxism unsettles is that it offers a logical and compelling rationale for why the socialization of wealth—a fundamental transformation of the capitalist status quo—is a necessary precondition for genuine and lasting equality. In other words, achieving the generally celebrated ideal of equality will require revolution. Revolution sounds good in an album title or marketing strategy, but we know in our bones that fundamental change is painfully hard to accomplish, no matter how needed it may be.

And yet evidence for the Marxist injunction haunts our most pressing political challenges. Publicly provided health insurance was never a serious consideration in U.S. health reform debates, thanks to the eighty-six million dollars that health insurance companies gave to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to lobby against the single-payer option.4 Similarly, progress on climate change is stalled by the fact that six out of the ten wealthiest companies in the world are oil companies whose business models depend on extracting and selling fossil fuels. Wealth concentrated in the hands of health insurance and oil companies, for example, gets consistently wielded to defend parochial interests and interrupt collective problem solving.5 Moreover, accessing this concentrated wealth will be required to genuinely universalize health care and fund the development of clean energy infrastructure.

One needn’t be a Marxist (even half of one) to appreciate the value of socializing key productive assets and mobilizing this common wealth to address collective problems rationally and wisely. But a central question that Marxism has never effectively answered, a sonorous silence that has weakened its political applications, is: Why do people aggressively pursue individual wealth and self-aggrandizement in the first place? The lust for individual largesse precedes capitalism. Socializing productive assets challenges the culture of possessive individualism without transforming the will to domination, a will that only finds one particular expression in capitalism (the word ‘capital’ is derived from the Latin caput which means head or top—capitalism names a game of supremacy). Without a theory and practice marshaled towards undoing the will to possessive self-aggrandizement, this desire will only replicate itself in new forms. Cue the authoritarianism and cronyism of Soviet and Chinese communism.

Buddhism, contrarily, provides a compelling explanation for the will to largesse and domination. Fear in the face of our intense, uncertain, and ephemeral existential condition, runs the basic explanation, compels compensatory bids for aggrandizement and control. Meditation is a social technology for transforming existential fear into cheerful affirmation of earthly existence, appreciation conducive to selfless generosity instead of selfish possessiveness. The Buddhist diagnosis and treatment plan for selfish desire can considerably strengthen Marxist praxis. But what can Marxism offer contemporary Buddhism? I’d like to answer this question by responding to Richard Reoch’s excellent article, “Is the Future Back in the Picture?”.

In his analysis, Reoch traces the productive resonances found in two new books: The Shambhala Principle by Buddhist teacher and leader Sakyong Mipham and Enough is Enough by ecological economists Rob Dietz and Dan O’Neill.  Reoch develops an analysis that is half-Buddhist and half-ecological economics—a combination with rich precedent in the work of E.F. Schumacher.6

Both The Shambhala Principle and Enough is Enough emphasize a strategy of cultural change to “reset our relations with ourselves, each other, and the planet.” Reoch continues: “Changing the economic model of intensified individualistic consumption, for example, would require a deep shift in the values and storylines that give overarching preeminence to individualism over other, more communal social patterns.” Working to encourage a cultural shift away from possessive and materialistic values and towards values centered on care, appreciation, generosity, and sustainability is of crucial importance. But missing from Reoch’s analysis is an account of how concentrated economic power consistently gets in the way of needed shifts, be they cultural, political, or economic.

Shambhala, the international organization of meditation centers for which Reoch serves as president, accomplishes impressive feats with annual revenues of nearly $20 million dollars. But these efforts to transform our materialistic culture swim against an immense tide. Corporations spend roughly $266 billion dollars on advertising yearly,7 with a large number of companies like American Express, L’Oreal, and McDonald’s spending over $1 billion each.8 Private health insurance provider Blue Cross/Blue Shield spends over $20 million per year on lobbying alone.9 What Sakyong Mipham calls the “flat, superficial, and power-seeking ceremony of our age” is bankrolled to the hilt. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if this wealth could instead be devoted to universal health care, clean energy infrastructure, universal basic incomes, or advertisements affirming the basic goodness of earthly life? The possibilities abound!

Conversations around redistributing concentrated wealth touch a nerve. They make people uncomfortable, and yet it is hard to imagine a genuine move towards a culture of sustainability, care, cooperation, and generosity without a concerted redistribution of economic power. Economic elites are generally unwilling to part with their power and status, which is why revolutionary traditions like Marxism have encouraged collective pushiness as the appropriate means. But here we return to the Dalai Lama’s worry that “too much emphasis on the need to destroy the ruling class, on class struggle… causes [Marxists] to encourage hatred and to neglect compassion.” But it is surely possible to demand and push for more equitable distribution of wealth while maintaining ultimate compassion for the human plight—the suffering of rich and poor alike, suffering that can be minimized by bridging the divide between them.

Near the end of his article, Reoch shares the troubling image of peace protestors smashing “Peace Now” placards over the heads of the police to highlight how easily it is for activists to replicate the “arrogance, aggression, and devastation” surrounding us. This is a crucial concern; we all have aggrandizing, egoistic, and aggressive tendencies to sit with and transform. But disruptive protest can be grounded in love and compassion, and needn’t be symptomatic of unresolved aggression. It is telling that the Occupy Wall Street protests were ignored by media and public alike until protestors engaged in unpermitted and disruptive marches against traffic, even taking over the Brooklyn Bridge.10 In both cases the police overreacted, and their aggressive handling of protestors was caught on video and circulated on YouTube. Protestors maintained non-violent discipline but angrily and successfully defied law, order, convention, and predictability in the name of equality and justice. Media interest spiked after these confrontations,11 and Occupy Wall Street became a powerful cultural force, inserting economic inequality into mainstream political debate.12

Marxism teaches that until concentrations of economic power are radically redistributed, genuine equality will remain aspiration more than actuality. It also teaches that collective confrontation will be required to spark redistribution since elites hold tight to power. One needn’t identify as even a quarter-Marxist to appreciate and benefit from the political rationality of these claims. Ultimately, concentrations of economic power will need to be collectively (and often disruptively) confronted if the vital visions shared by Reoch are to manifest in this world. But confrontation will likewise need to be rooted in ultimate compassion for self, other, and the world if aggrandizement and aggression are to be truly transformed. Half-Marxist and half-Buddhist is a holy admixture: from each according to ability, to each according to need, compassion for all.


James K. Rowe, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies at the University of Victoria. Trained as a political scientist, his research and teaching areas are political ecology, critical theory, social movement history, and political economy. James’ work is especially focused on the causes, effects, and redress of social and ecological injustice.


 

  1. Ed Halliwell, “Of Course the Dalai Lama is a Marxist,” The Guardian, June 20, 2011, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2011/jun/20/dalai-lama-marxist-buddhism
  2. “Tibet and China, Marxism, Nonviolence,” Dharmakara.net, last modified March 14, 2005, http://hhdl.dharmakara.net/hhdlquotes1.html.
  3. Stuart Smithers, “Occupy Buddhism,” Tricycle, (undated), http://www.tricycle.com/web-exclusive/occupy-buddhism
  4. Dan Eggen, “Health Insurers’ group gave U.S. Chamber $86.2 Million in 2009 for Lobbying,” The Washington Post, November 17, 2010, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/11/17/AR2010111706325.html
  5. Rebecca Leber, “Three ways Big Oil Spends its Profits to Defend Oil Subsidies and Defeat Clean Energy,” Think Progress, October 24, 2012, http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2012/10/24/1064231/three-ways-big-oil-spends-its-profits-to-defend-oil-subsidies-and-defeat-clean-energy/
  6. See E.F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered (New York: Harper Perennial: 1989).
  7. “Global Advertising Trends – Q2 2012,” Nielson, last modified September 27, 2012, http://www.nielsen.com/us/en/reports/2012/global-advertising-view—q2-2012.html
  8. Christina Austin, “The Billionaires’ Club: Only 36 Companies Have $1,000 Million-Plus Ad Budgets,” Business Insider, November 11, 2012, http://www.businessinsider.com/the-35-companies-that-spent-1-billion-on-ads-in-2011-2012-11?op=1
  9. “Top Spenders,” OpenSecrets.org: Center for Responsive Politics, last modified 2013, https://www.opensecrets.org/lobby/top.php?showYear=2013&indexType=s
  10. Nathan Schneider, “What ‘diversity of tactics’ really means for Occupy Wall Street, Waging Nonviolence, October 19, 2011, http://wagingnonviolence.org/feature/what-diversity-of-tactics-really-means-for-occupy-wall-street/
  11. Nate Silver, “Police Clashes Spur Coverage of Wall Street Protests,” New York Times, October 7, 2011, http://fivethirtyeight.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/10/07/police-clashes-spur-coverage-of-wall-street-protests/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=1&
  12. Eliot Spitzer, “Occupy Wall Street Has Already Won,” Slate, October 13, 2011, http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/the_best_policy/2011/10/occupy_wall_street_s_victory_it_has_shaken_up_american_politics_.html

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