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Losing Our Confidence: Interview with Adam Lobel, Part 1

Illustration evoking the Indebted

The editors at The Arrow recently had the opportunity to speak with Acharya Adam Lobel about his teachings in May 2015 on how four subjectivities of modern civilization inhibit people’s experience of wellbeing and human decency. Below we present Part 1 of our interview.

Interview Part 1

Editor: Adam, it’s helpful to revisit this discussion two-and-half years later. The first subjectivity, the indebted, speaks specifically about debt but could be seen as a metaphor for all kinds of economic insecurity and servitude generated by neoliberal economic structures and market fundamentalism. And yet, as we saw in the 2016 US presidential election and have continued to see over the past year, economic inequality and insecurity are easily misused to generate divisions along lines of race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, and gender, arguably among groups whose common interests lie in solidarity. If the feelings of indebtedness and insecurity inhibit us from experiencing unconditional confidence, which needless to say leads to much suffering, how can we use teachings of spiritual warriorship to confront this?

Acharya Lobel: Before going into that very excellent question, I want to back up and offer a little more context about the concepts at hand. First of all, I want to state that I am not in agreement with everything Hardt and Negri espouse. Rather I am using these four subjectivities in my own specific ways. Further, it is important to highlight the use of the term subjectivity, particularly as people interested in the interface between meditation, psychological training, and politics. By subjectivity I mean our personhood or sense of self as well as the ongoing process that that makes us a person. That is, a subject is not a thing or an entity as much as the ongoing relations, practices, and conditions that allow for us to feel like a person. Subjectivity is simultaneously spiritual, personal, and political. It is not a given. Our sense of self and identity is not a solid metaphysical substrate that we can find. As the Buddha realized centuries ago, there is no true self that we’re talking about; nor are we talking about an additional identity or pattern thrown on top of the true self. These four subjectivities are important because they allow us to see that we as human beings are always politicized. We are always being made and we are always making ourselves. Every day and every moment. Our sense of self or identity always emerges through social conditions, gender norms, racial constructs, relationships, the media, technology, and the everyday practices in which we participate.

Each of the four subjectivities could be indexed to a social institution: The indebted is indexed to economics and banks, the finance system. The mediatized is indexed to the media structures, media technologies, information technologies, and the arts. The securitized is indexed to military institutions, the military-industrial and prison complex. And the represented is indexed to government institutions. So we’re seeing the subjective arising of personal, felt experience that is related to these larger massive institutions.

It is also helpful to think about subjectivity in relation to power. In the traditional liberal context—not Left versus Right, but liberalism as a political philosophy—the sense of self is often located within a larger political context: There is Adam and there is Gabe, and then there are many influences upon that sense of self.  Power is usually considered one of the oppressive influences. So there’s me and you as individuals, and then there’s something called power, which suppresses us like a heavy lid or imprisons us or tells us things we can’t do. Conventionally, that is how power is often interpreted. In contrast, operating behind the scenes for Hardt and Negri is more of a Foucauldian sense of power, in that in addition to being oppressive, power is also creative. Power produces. Power is incredibly positive in terms of creating and doing things, and one way that power works is to produce our sense of self. Power creates individuals. Power wants to operate through us. In other words the most effective kind of prison is one that you fail to perceive as a prison, one that you think of as freedom, as just walking around in the world free, and yet you are the prison, and you are somehow the prison guard—the operation of power.

Each subjectivity is like a practice, a way of being that locks us into a certain kind of prison, or repeats a certain kind of performance of power. So we are the operators of power. We are the ones holding ourselves in prison. We are the ones who are lessening our sense of unconditional confidence. However, it is important to note that this is not an equal imprisonment, and the construction of racial, gender, sexual, class, national, and other identities ensure that the privileged benefit within the prison. But we are all in the prison.

Therefore each of the four subjectivities is one specific quality or iteration of that self-entrapment. This is not to say we do it without cause—we do it because we’re interconnected with all sorts of political, economic, and social conditions. This concept of subjectivity is at the cusp of what is personal and what is political, or what is spiritual and what is world-transforming. And that’s why I’ve chosen to explore this particular theme. It demonstrates how spiritual training in the present needs to be politically savvy and powerful.

Now let’s turn to your first question. I think you are absolutely right to locate these four subjectivities, and the indebted particularly, in relationship to the current political context in the United States, and particularly the link between the indebted and the role economics played in the 2016 presidential election.

The indebted is not just about debt. It’s not just about having to pay off our student loans, or owing money on our house or our car or our credit card bills. It’s really our location within neoliberal economic practices and structures. So according to Hardt and Negri, being in debt is becoming the general condition of today’s social life. It is nearly impossible to live without incurring debt. What’s interesting about this statement is that in order to be part of social life, we need to be in debt. Right? It’s the rite of passage of sorts. (Just think about when or if you first applied for a credit card or took out your first loan.) It’s the condition of possibility for having a social life. For many, to be part of our world you have to be in debt. Talk about a prison.

Then we participate and create. Our sense of self or subjectivity becomes related to the scramble to survive, to make money and get out of debt. Or if we have a lot of wealth, then that wealth is invested in debt structures, which create more debt. I think your question is speaking to the way the sense of being indebted leads to a form of collective anxiety, which then fosters a certain response in the political field. If we feel we lack access to wealth, if we feel insecurity around our financial existence, then there’s a tendency to want to elect officials whose rhetoric promises to fix that for us. Furthermore, this general anxiety has historically been used to turn people against each other through the construction of races, racial divisions, and racial antagonisms. Racism, especially in the United States, is in large part a product of economics. Donald Trump knowingly relied upon a tried and tested strategy to win the election—pit human beings against each other, wield a rhetoric of white supremacy, blame, inspire hatred and fear. Is this what you’re pointing to in the question?

Editor: Yes, to a degree. The imagery associated with this question is a Facebook joke posted in 2015 by The Other 98%, which goes: “A banker, a worker, and an immigrant are sitting at a table with 20 cookies. The banker takes 19 cookies and warns the worker: ‘Watch out, the immigrant is going to take your cookie away.’” In this example we could argue that the worker and immigrant share a common economic struggle and would benefit from solidarity, yet the banker uses racism or xenophobia to pit them against each other. This interaction neatly illustrates the core of Donald Trump’s economic political platform. Do spiritual warriorship or the quality of unconditional confidence have anything to offer us in terms of overcoming divisiveness and scapegoating to foster genuine solidarity?

Acharya Lobel: This is very difficult and changing territory. First, There are important questions that we need to ask in this context: How does the arising of unconditional confidence affect internalized, hierarchized understanding of difference? How does a white person’s unconditional confidence support her in letting go of racism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, etc.? What is the sustained work that is required to make such shifts and unlearn social conditioning? Can practices that nourish unconditional confidence lead to genuine solidarity?

I think it is important to point out a powerful anxiety that lies at the root of the interactions in this meme or Trump’s rhetoric. To understand this anxiety, the historical context of Antonio Negri is helpful. Negri is coming out of the Autonomous School in Italy, which was an elaboration of Marxist thought that explored what would happen to Marxism in the absence of the same factory-based working class upon which Marx based his analyses. As capitalism has evolved in economically “developed” countries, one sees less and less attention to issues of labor, like unions or the welfare of the working class. These issues lose importance in public discourse as more and more jobs are outsourced and automated, and as unions themselves are methodically undermined. As this occurs, capitalism begins to colonize and infiltrate our whole life. We’re never off. There is no break. There is never a vacation. You are always forced to be productive, and there is constantly an email to return to. Increasingly jobs are temporary and many hold down multiple jobs. Many people work outside of an office or offices attempt to be more like home: casual, you can play video games, eat what you want to eat, and so forth. In these ways capitalism and the marketplace have found a way to subsume, control, and ultimately dominate our whole life. This scenario is precisely what the Autonomists considered in their evolution of Marxist thought. So in that context we can see the indebted as a way that capitalism colonizes our experience, whether we’re at work in a warehouse or workshop or anywhere else.

Capitalism’s colonization of our entire life produces a sense of constant anxiety around money that leads to a feeling of scarcity or lack—as we would say in the Shambhala tradition, poverty mentality. And then as the meme states, it’s easy to use that sense of scarcity to pit people against each other politically and hide where money is actually flowing, which is the 1% of the 1%. In other words, scarcity itself is an illusion. There is no scarcity; there is abundance. But neoliberal policies want us to feel that there is scarcity, which increases the anxiety, which then may be used to create false divisions and antagonism between human beings.

Whether unconditional confidence—ziji—or other Shambhala teachings on warriorship leads to solidarity is a great question, and a challenging one. I think the first step in answering this question is acknowledging that there is something in our being that cannot be given or taken away—something that is actually not linked to any of these four subjectivities or four social institutions, particularly the indebted and the economy.

Now this is dangerous territory because it can sound like a form of idealism that says, “It doesn’t matter what our material conditions and labor practices are, it doesn’t matter how much money you have. We’re all equally valuable, and we’re all equally confident. Therefore politics don’t matter. All that matters is your psychological or spiritual state.” That is definitely not what I’m saying. Economics, politics, and real social conditions matter, and they affect us each differently, especially if you belong to a historically marginalized group or oppressed population, if you’re not given access to the conditions that allow for success as normally understood. All of that is very real. These are very tangible impacts on the quality of our life, the quality of our children’s lives, access to medical care, and so forth. So it does matter. It’s not just a state of mind.

That being said, there is a political force that comes from tapping into this unconditional confidence. Confidence cannot be manipulated in the same way that fear and anxiety can. The political power seems to come from the ability to stand outside of these four subjectivities altogether, to not play by their rules, not believe the hype, and not get trapped in the prison they want us to co-create in our state of mind and in our everyday life, activities, and practices. Now if there are people in communities who are collectively stepping beyond these four subjectivities, and no longer committed to replicating the sense of being indebted, distracted by media, afraid, and willing to be represented, does that lead to a certain solidarity? Yes. It’s a different political solidarity, though, than that in a more conventional Marxist account, which in the meme would be that the blue collar worker and the migrant laborer would look at each other and say, “Let’s take those 19 cookies, and not fight over this one cookie.” On the one hand, there is something important about that approach, particularly in the way that Paulo Freire describes it in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, as a way to unlearn the sense of self that oppressive capitalist power imposes, and to liberate the possibility of the type of solidarity that reclaims the 19 cookies.

However, I think a Shambhala take on solidarity would be to recognize that before there can even be political solidarity, there’s often a kind of unstated invisible surge of confidence and possibility that comes individually and especially in communities and between people. The moment before the migrant laborer and working class person turn to reclaim the 19 cookies, something happens. What is that happening? What is that feeling of possibility, intensity, power, confidence? In a sense there’s a moment of saying, “I’m not indebted. I’m not subject to the social conditions, I need not believe that I must do a series of financial backflips in order to be valuable.” There is a moment of rising sense of value and power, and especially a sense of wealth that precedes some political action. It’s as if the invisible, self-imposed prison suddenly vanishes. The rules are gone. That is what we’re naming here with this idea of unconditional confidence. There’s a reason why the Shambhala teachings as well as many indigenous traditions hold that unconditional confidence is connected with a kind of inner wealth, or a fullness, and a sense of physical wealth, physical health, vitality, strength, windhorse, life-force energy. These qualities are all politically potent…if we want them to be…. It is helpful to remember that Hardt and Negri’s Declaration is in large part a way to understand the forms of subjectivity that can be uncovered in moments of collective action such as the Arab Spring, in Greece, and the Occupy movement. I feel that similar modes of collective action are at least part of the Shambhala movement to create enlightened society.

Editor: The mediatized seems especially pertinent in light of the 2016 election and Trump’s first year in office. Many have argued that to a certain extent the media created Donald Trump. At the same time, many in the news media have been criticized for being part of the liberal bubble that could not foresee Trump’s rise to power. Further, we have seen attacks on the legitimate news media from Trump and his administration akin to what we might see in young authoritarian regimes. And then we have the realm of fake news, not to mention the general blurring of news and entertainment that is the product of a for-profit media industry. What can we do?

Acharya Lobel: This is subtle and complicated territory, and I am not very learned in terms of media studies. There are many important thinkers like Marshall McLuhan and others to turn to for general guidance in this area. So a lot of what I have to say here are my own thoughts and reflections. Let’s start by going back to Hardt and Negri. In their comments on the mediatized, they note that the media are conventionally understood from a political perspective that identifies the problem as a lack of information. If we don’t really know what’s going on, if the truth is hidden from us, then we can’t act. The assumption is that if we really knew what’s going on, we would act. The mediatized actually flips that situation around and shows that for many of us—particularly in the global north—the problem is not lack of information, but rather too much information. We are bombarded by so much information all the time from so many different perspectives that the result is a kind of apathy. If we are to engage in the information surplus, usually the avenues of engagement are part of that very surplus—online petitions, sending memes, writing little comments to each other on Facebook where we only reach the very small portion of the population that already agrees with us. And if we have a debate, it’s usually anonymous and in the comments of a blog or a YouTube video. We feel like we’re being politically active, but actually it’s all just part of this surplus of media and information that constantly bombards us: what appears to be action is actually a kind of impotence. Signing petitions, even sending money to people and offices and so forth—this is often participating in this ongoing sense of entertainment. So what do you do?

Now, we want to also recognize that things are changing quickly, and that Hardt and Negri’s book Declaration came out before Trump’s rise to power. They were really thinking about a more standard neoliberal context, in which neoliberal capitalist media sources were a problem. Whereas now it’s unclear what different parties want and what they’re up to. When you see the US President ban New York Times and CNN reporters from the White House, that sounds more like classic despotic, tyrannical, repression of information and trying to destroy or control access to information and change it. The challenge of course is that Trump is incredibly skilled at relating to the media and thrives off media attention, whether it’s positive or negative. And I think this is one of the things that liberals tend to miss right now: it doesn’t matter whether the news on Trump is horrific or fantastic—the fact is, he’s in your mind. He’s like a demonic presence that wants to constantly assert itself in your consciousness. So in this light, consider this quote from Gilles Deleuze: “…it’s not problem of getting people to express themselves. The problem, rather, is providing little gaps of solitude and silence, in which they might eventually find something to say. Repressive forces don’t stop people expressing themselves but rather force them to express themselves. What a relief to have nothing to say, the right to say nothing, because only then is there a chance of framing the rare, and ever rarer, thing that might be worth saying.”1

Editor: That sounds very Dharmic. This account of the mediatized evokes the neurotic aspect of the what is known as the karma Buddha family, a style of busyness that permeates one’s life but doesn’t get much done. The wisdom aspect of the karma Buddha family is that all-accomplishing action—in this case the rare thing worth saying—doesn’t come from doing a lot of things. It actually comes from space. And that is what allows for all-accomplishing action to occur. (Perhaps this is a political rationale for meditation practice.)

Acharya Lobel: Exactly. That is exactly what Deleuze and many members of the Autonomous community in Italy were pointing to—there are a lot of people pointing to a similar version of that—a political version of the sense of genuine action originating from space and wisdom. There are thinkers like Franco Bifo Berardi who look at how work is exhausting. Constant activity is alienating. In a world where there’s alienation through constant activity and doing, that reclamation of space, of silence, of not being productive, of refraining from being useful, of not engaging in the political, has a certain revolutionary potency to it. There is an illusion of political action that really is just participating in the frantic, busy, mediatized identity. We have a whole generation of political activists who are basically sitting at home alone on their computer writing things, and it’s questionable to what degree that is political participation. And it is in that very context that Trump rose to power. That’s the point. He and future populist, charismatic leaders are going to be masterful at wielding what Guy Debord called “the society of spectacle.”—this spectacle, spectacular society, where everything is like a giant holiday special event, all the time, and it’s always dramatic, it’s always intense, it’s always personal, and somebody’s yelling at somebody and blamed, and it’s like Worldwide Wrestling meets twenty-four hour news. That’s precisely what Donald Trump knows how to command better than most.

So the question becomes, how do we relate to the media? The traditional Left now is saying, “We need real news, we need news that tells the truth, because Donald Trump and the Right equals fake news, and alternative facts.” That is a dangerous oversimplification. Everybody makes decisions over what “real” news is. The Obama administration had its own record of restricting press access to the White House, and came under sharp criticism for what some journalists saw as undermining freedom of the press. If you look carefully at The New York Times, even though it’s excellent journalism much of the time, where does the advertising come from? It’s oriented towards the incredibly wealthy: the most luxurious, high-level, elite real estate and fashion. The Times is an elite media source. It speaks to a certain kind of socialization and status in society that I might participate in, that you might participate in, that many of us might identify with. But we must remember that it is a news source and a social context and even a way of speaking that might be incredibly off-putting to precisely the people that are often least served in our world. This is where the Left really has gotten confused and why Donald Trump represented a huge wake-up call that there is a certain elitism and isolationism that comes from sticking with the closed loop, the closed cocoon of our own way of speaking and thinking and writing, and there are a lot of people who aren’t welcome in that cocoon. It is also important to remember that this cocoon is often white, patriarchal, and classist.

So to conclude, I don’t want to say that the proper, confident relationship with media and with information is the Left version or the Right version; rather, it’s a much more primordial sense of freedom from reference points altogether, which is actually somewhat groundless, indeterminate, and shaky. It is a space that allows for the confident vulnerability of warriorship. As we discussed in the context of the indebted, there is political potency and power in this restful, vulnerable, uncertainty. The fearless warrior taps this power, which cultivates a different political subjectivity that is somewhat off the hook—off the roller coaster of hope and fear, the Left and the Right, the society of the spectacle. I am interested in that, but not as a form of escapism, not as a way to ignore and close our eyes. I’ve heard too many Shambhalians and Buddhists saying, “I’m not going to watch the news, it’s just too upsetting.” I don’t think that’s the answer either.

Editor: It seems to be a question of motivation. Is our motivation to seek out that space because we want to escape, or is our motivation to seek out the space because we are looking for clarity on how to engage skillfully?

Acharya Lobel: Or another way to say this is that there is more energy, explosive energy, and thousands of suns, in just a thimble-full of space, if you know how to tap it.

Stay tuned in the coming weeks for Part 2 of our interview with Acharya Lobel, “Losing Our Confidence: Four Subjectivities of the Present.”

Click here to read the Introduction, where Acharya Lobel outlines the four subjectivities—indebted, mediatized, securitized, represented—as presented by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri in Declaration.

Illustrations by Alicia Brown.

  1. Gilles Deleuze, Negotiations (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), 129.

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