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 2 of our interview. (Click here to read Part 1.)
Interview Part 2
Editor: It seems that through the securitized we inevitably create the physical insecurity that we fear, sometimes for ourselves and sometimes for others. In other words the securitized is a collective subjectivity. Much of it is in some sense imagined. But through the imagination of our insecurity, we actually end up creating and projecting very real concrete, material situations of insecurity for many people. How do we work with this dynamic? What do we do when our collective fearful rhetoric generates genuinely threatening situations? How do we respond skillfully when Mexican Americans or Muslim Americans are in real danger of being targeted by violent acts by virtue of the securitized rhetoric based on unfounded fear?
Acharya Lobel: You just described samsara. That’s how it works. It’s a chicken and egg scenario: Do the collective socio-economic and physical reality and the reality of warfare and xenophobic violence produce our sense of anxiety, or does our anxiety produce these terrifying conditions? Nobody knows. That’s the dialectic. So the securitized is a good example of a self-fulfilling prophesy, which I think is what you’re speaking to here: Because we are so afraid of some ‘other’ or ‘enemy’ attacking us, we create conditions where this actually occurs. It is important to recognize that today’s militarized states and many multinational corporations thrive on both the fear of attack and warfare itself. Analyses of neoliberal thought like those by Naomi Klein illustrate that many crises and conflicts are exactly what private capital and government contractors seek for business. The two Iraq Wars, especially the second, exemplify the creation of colossal violence, death, and conflict that persist today in pursuit of power and wealth through ‘democracy expansion’ and control over oil markets. These samsaric patterns are painfully intensifying here ‘at home’, with our family and compatriots, othering and dehumanizing people in order to sustain a sense of identity, of self-versus-other. In all of the teachings about Buddhist thought, that dynamic of self-versus-other is the orientation of samsara, or endless cycles of confusion. We’re seeing this dynamic on a collective political scale with increasing intensity.
I don’t know what to do. I don’t have a good answer about that other than that we have to have at least a three-pronged strategy: One prong would be protecting people in the most literal, direct, loving way possible from all physical attacks based on racism, ethno-nationalism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia. We could engage in actual protection, extending the cradle of loving kindness to ensure that we don’t see the kind of horrors that we’ve seen in our present, not to mention the past. That’s one prong. A second prong is working to undercut the sense of othering and fearing, and there’s beautiful work being done in this area. We all need to participate in work in which we learn to commit, “I’m not going to play into dehumanization through rhetoric and imagery, and instead work to extend myself beyond my comfortable community, developing ally relationships with other groups and ways of being in the world.” This goes way beyond political correctness. The third prong involves working to undercut the whole procedure by which power feeds on conflict, othering, and securitization in order to sustain control. Hardt and Negri pose this question: “Why do you accept being treated like an inmate? In a previous era the prison, separated from society, was the institution of total surveillance, whose inmates were constantly observed and their activities recorded, but today total surveillance is increasingly the general condition of society as a whole.”1 They also make the interesting point that we’re “not only the object of security but also the subject.” 2 We’re the ones told to look around at the subway, make sure there are no bombs, look at people that might look threatening and scary and report them. And that will increasingly, I think, be the case.
So unconditional confidence will mean discovering a state of being that is not subject to this anxiety—a state of being that feels genuine trust and love for every human being, regardless of how they look, their religion, or their nationality. It is this love itself—this connection, kindness, and interdependence with other human beings—that is under attack. So the third prong lies beyond Left-versus-Right politics, beyond identity politics or traditionalist narratives. It means actually discovering how much we love each other, as our natural state of being. That love is part of the confidence that is under attack, which we are reclaiming. The warrior’s journey is learning to uncover this original confidence, which is our birthright as human beings. And with this confidence comes the exact opposite of the securitized identity: We don’t need the walls. We don’t need the border crossings. We don’t need the spying and surveillance. We don’t need this insane, aggressive, fear-based world that we’ve created together. We can trust; we actually can overcome the trauma, the anxiety that we have collectively forced upon each other. We can trust. That is why unconditional confidence is so important.
Editor: We could discuss many perverse examples of the represented: the Electoral College, Hillary Clinton’s or Al Gore’s popular vote victories, the gerrymandering of congressional districts, money in politics, and on and on. But what about those who lack even nominal political representation? We see in the protests at Standing Rock the lie of sovereignty, the farce of self-determination when the right of peoples to protect their own water and land is ignored. Within this context, when even direct action and calls to our representatives fall short, how do we empower our political voice? How do we reclaim our political agency, and what can spiritual warriorship offer us in this pursuit? A related question worth contemplating is how to give voice to entities that, in the conventional, literal sense, lack a voice that could even be represented, like the natural environment itself?
Acharya Lobel: The simple answer is that we need an entirely different politics. We need to acknowledge the illusion of democracy and the deceptive narrative of progress. Doing so begins with a kind of sadness, rather than necessarily a revolutionary fervor, although there’s room for that too. The sadness is a recognition of how democracy comes in part from some trust in human wisdom. In Athens, for example, there was some trust that a collective (of men with property) could rule themselves, or make decisions together that would be beneficial. That is at least part of the story of democracy. With representation, we see the doubt in that trust. Even Rousseau said that as soon as we have representation, we no longer have true democracy. There are interesting statistics linked to this notion. As I asked in my talk in Mexico, how on earth have we been convinced that our voice, even nominally, is represented if we are one of 700,000 people? How is that representing our voice? If you push that question even further to those who are not even given a voice in the 700,000, such as immigrants and indigenous peoples—not to mention nonhuman animals, the forests, the oceans—where there are few if any viable access points for voice, what do we do?
In general we are faced with two different options, both of which I think are needed: the first option is to try to reformulate our modern representative democracies toward creative, direct, and inclusive democratic practices and institutions. There are different experiments in direct democracy, for example. More importantly, as my colleague David Kahane would say, healthy direct democracy is about a whole political ecosystem: a culture of education, engagement, mutual respect, and the support of minority rights. Most likely, some blend of representation, direct democracy, workers collective, and anarchist practices would be helpful.
So that leads to the second option, which is an unknown. I don’t know what it is. Nobody does. It is the notion of making the impossible possible. It is the imagination that goes beyond globalization and capitalism and liberal democracy. And it is in this unknown politics that the Shambhala tradition is best situated, I think. It is in this politics that unconditional confidence will most serve us. What that politics looks like, and how it is to be framed is a very creative field of possibility and potential. We could ask: What new political possibilities might become visible for groups of people working from a place of unconditional confidence? It does not mean tinkering with our current democracies and nation-states, but rather entails a radical deconstruction and creative opening of something that humanity has yet to see. I think we’re at that limit point. We may be seeing the limit points of the arc of political ideas that was set in motion in Greece 3,000 years ago, and something new is being called for.
Editor: You closed your talk with the following charge: “And, crucially, we have to break out of [the subjectivities]. We have to open out beyond these kinds of socio-political cocoons, reclaiming this unconditional confidence as individuals, and as collectives.” What concluding advice would you offer for doing so?
Acharya Lobel: Each of the subjectivities could be mapped in terms of a relationship with fear. The first is that the sense of being indebted creates the anxiety and fear of relating with the world of money. To break free from that subjectivity doesn’t mean that you get your finances in order or figure out how to make a lot of money, and therefore that anxiety is eased. That is the deception and illusion of the first subjectivity. The true exit is finding a source of wealth—innate wealth, unconditional wealth—that is not subject to the roller coaster ride of either being indebted or being “financially stable.”
It’s the same pattern with the mediatized. There’s the fear that maybe we’re not getting the full story or the right information, which leads to a sense of lack: “What we need is more information.” But what if the problem is the surplus of information? What if The Arrow Journal is the problem? Here we are, on an online media source, that both of us feel is helpful, and yet it is even more information accessed through the internet. I’m being self-reflexive here because we have to examine what we are valuing and participating in. Would the answer be not to have this journal? No. But what is the answer? Unconditional confidence carries us toward a relationship with information, knowledge, and creativity that is not subject to the game that capitalism forces us to play. That is silence. From that silence comes a different voice.
Third, in terms of the securitized, feeling the fear of our vulnerable bodies and our fellow human beings and their vulnerable bodies can lead to care, justice, and connection rather than increased fear. We can stop othering and conflict and warfare. Here unconditional confidence would mean breaking free from fear and discovering a fearless love. Vulnerability becomes our strength. Unconditional confidence is a strength that comes from tenderness, rather than walls and armoring.
Finally in the analysis of Hardt and Negri, the represented: it is not merely a matter of trying to reclaim our voice, which is a classical Leftist rhetoric that now the Right has coopted because they feel they have lost their voice. It is so easily manipulated. In contrast, what is individual—and more importantly collective—unconditional confidence? It is not seeking representation. It is not about trying to give voice to anything. It is already completely and fully empowered and all-victorious. The moment you say “I need a voice in your system,” you are subject to that system’s gateways and roles. But the moment you say “My human power and goodness and the beautiful world I want to live in are already the case, and I don’t need your permission,” then the situation can change radically.
Now it is one thing to say that as a white, privileged, heterosexual, highly educated person, and it is different to say that when you are part of an oppressed community. And yet we have seen consistently throughout history that oppressed communities tend to be the ones that teach us precisely this lesson. This is the lesson that we actually all have to learn from communities that are not seeking permission and power and voice, but rather already know their complete humanity and strength and are not asking for permission from anyone at all. In other words, I want to reverse the assumption of where political power is located; it is often privileged classes that are the most impotent, most afraid, and most committed to all four of these subjectivities, because that is the context in which we have our privilege and our power. The image of the mystic, the person who has left home (in the Buddhist context), the desert traveler who has nothing to lose and is not afraid of protecting their property—this person is not afraid of their blog receiving poor comments or their startup losing funding. This person who is not afraid of anything—this is the figure of the unconditional warrior that we want to claim for our politics.
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