Marx and the Buddha on Wall Street

“Nature does not produce on the one side owners of money or commodities, and on the other [humans] possessing nothing but their own labour-power.” (Karl Marx, Capital: Volume One)

bonwsC1_front_only Vaddhaka Linn’s “The Buddha on Wall Street” is an enjoyable read. It’s clear and accessible, and references some interesting sources to scrutinise the way in which contemporary capitalist society operates. Ironically however, given the author’s ethical stance, the book’s cover is guilty of false advertising. The strap-line to the book is: “what’s wrong with capitalism and what we can do about it”; one would think then that in some way the central narrative would be anti-capitalist and/or post-capitalist, it is not. Linn’s basic argument is that a particular form of capitalism is bad – namely, neoliberal capitalism – and what we need to harness instead is “thoughtful self-interest and the creative energy and dynamism in capitalism with the values of generosity and altruism” (page 7). As such, the strap-line could have more honestly read: “what’s wrong with neoliberal capitalism and the case for a kinder capitalism”. Am I being pedantic? No. I am interested in an interlocution between Marxism and Buddhism (see my post Marxism and Spirituality), which motivated me to buy the book, so on reading it, it fell short of my expectation. Avanti, my review.

Slavoj Žižek

A prompt to Linn beginning this project is his disagreement with Žižek’s comments on Buddhism. On Žižek, he states: “what he calls ‘Western Buddhism’ is the ‘perfect ideological supplement’ to capitalism. He believes that the emphasis in ‘Western Buddhism’ on meditation encourages Buddhists to create an inner distance from the ‘mad dance’ of modern capitalism, to give up any attempt to control what’s going on, and to take comfort in the view that all the social and economic upheaval in the world today is ‘just a non-substantial proliferation of semblances that do not really concern the innermost kernel of our being’. Zizek’s claim implies that when faced with injustice, pain, and suffering in the world today, Western Buddhists take cover in their meditation practice in order to avoid the full impact of this reality. When I heard Zizek’s statement, I have to admit that I reacted strongly against it. […] I decided to examine the modern capitalist world from the perspective of economics and Buddhism, and this book is the result” (pages 3-5).

Here’s the thing about Žižek, he’s a brilliant polemicist. And from reading Linn’s book cover to cover, I’m confused as to why he didn’t concede that Žižek, in part, has some points worthy of engagement. Linn later problematises the use of mindfulness by business: “notwithstanding the sincerity of mindfulness teachers, the evidence of an ethical shift in business behaviour owing to the embracing of mindfulness is, as far as I can see, not encouraging. To the contrary, the evidence suggests a ‘disconnect’ between the practice of mindfulness and reality on the ground” (pages 133-134). Quoting a Factory Inspector Report in Capital: Volume One, Marx notes: “‘Moments are the elements of profit.'” I am fascinated by capitalism’s appropriation of mindfulness. To me, this is about capital extracting more and more profit from the exploitation of the workforce in a given period of time. If the working-day is legally fixed, then mindfulness becomes a tool to increase the efficiency and productivity of workers in a set period, for the end of greater profits to the bosses. Later, when discussing one of his spiritual heroes, Bhikkhu Bodhi, Linn states: “He was troubled by what he saw as complacent and self-absorbed attitudes among many American Buddhists, attitudes that were disconnected from the deepening economic, social, and ecological crises in the world. […] He was critical of the way that Buddhist practice was narrowly understood in terms of one’s personal meditation, which appeared to serve a largely therapeutic function […] rather than as a means of tackling the deepest roots of suffering both for oneself and for others” (page 195). Again, there’s a worthwhile debate here, and one in which Linn’s work is a modest contribution, and surely too Žižek’s?

Adam Smith, Karl Marx, and the question of capitalism

“Capitalism has led us to a situation in the world today in which it is possible to conceive of a fulfilling life for all, but further progress is being suffocated by a neoliberal form of capitalism that threatens the environment and perpetuates suffering in the world.” (Linn, page 7)

The influence of Adam Smith to Linn’s understanding of capitalism is apparent right from the start: capitalism is able to increase productivity through the division of labour, but at a cost to the worker in minute, mind-numbing labour. He wishes to rescue Smith from the free marketeers and neoliberal capitalists, by recognising this classical political economist as a theorist of self-interest and empathy. Linn identifies the role of, let’s say, the masses in pressing for change away from neoliberal capitalism, and towards a kinder and more sustainable capitalism: “To break the faith in unlimited economic growth requires people to reconsider their relationship to material goods and their idea of what makes them happy”; alongside collective campaigning, since, “if left to their own devices, modern economists and business are not going to do much to help deal with the problem of global warming and environmental damage” (page 79). Inequality is seen by Linn as a particular problem of the last 30 years, of rampant neoliberal capitalism, in which greed and selfishness have distorted Smith’s fine balance between self-interest and empathy. Linn recounts a time gone past when he had a personal connection with his local bank manager, and contrasts this with a runaway banking and finance system that caused the 2007-2008 crash. He proposes two specific ideas for Buddhist campaigning: to press companies to annually release figures of the ratio of total compensation of their CEO to median compensation of their employees (and perhaps to go further in establishing agreed pay ratios), and a progressive taxation system to provide welfare to those in need.

I’ve had the pleasure of partaking in a Capital Study Group alongside reading “The Buddha on Wall Street”, and what Linn misses about capitalism is that it is (on the side of capital) an innately and incessantly exploitative and unequal political economy of social relations. Thus distinguishing between neoliberal capitalism and post-WWII capitalism is an interesting academic exercise but bypasses what all capitalism – then and now, and here and there – has in common in its internal drive (its greed, even) to make profit, and to subsequently deplete us as human beings and as planet Earth. In Capital: Volume One, Marx presents the labour theory of value. Starting with commodities and money, he defetishises their mysterious nature to then reveal the relation of capital to labour as the source of value and surplus-value (i.e. profit):

“Value […] does not stalk about with a label describing what it is. It is value, rather, that converts every product into a social hieroglyphic.” The “money-form of the world of commodities […] actually conceals, instead of disclosing, the social character of private labour, and the social relations between the individual producers.” (Marx, Capital: Volume One)

The majority of us in the world today have no choice, if we want to exist with shelter, food, and recreation, then to sell our labour-power. Marx spells out the uniqueness of this commodity to capitalism:

“In order to be able to extract value from the consumption of a commodity, our friend, Moneybags, must be so lucky as to find, within the sphere of circulation, in the market, a commodity, whose use-value possesses the peculiar property of being a source of value, whose actual consumption, therefore, is itself an embodiment of labour, and, consequently, a creation of value. The possessor of money does find on the market such a special commodity in capacity for labour or labour-power.” (Marx, Capital: Volume One)

A politically organised labour movement is essential for both the worker’s and the Earth’s survival, because Moneybags does not like limits to the creation of surplus-value:

“in its blind unrestrainable passion, its were-wolf hunger for surplus-labour, capital oversteps not only the moral, but even the merely physical maximum bounds of the working-day. It usurps the time for growth, development, and healthy maintenance of the body. It steals the time required for the consumption of fresh air and sunlight. […] Capital cares nothing for the length of life of labour-power. All that concerns it is simply and solely the maximum labour-power, that can be rendered fluent in a working-day. It attains this end by shortening the extent of the labourer’s life, as a greedy farmer snatches increased produce from the soil by robbing it of its fertility.” (Marx, Capital: Volume One)

Because Linn doesn’t recognise the labour theory of value, he has some odd trains of thought. For example, he rightly questions a possible, market-based solution to refugees – specifically, a quota system linked to national wealth, in which nation-states could trade in such quotas – and a commercialised blood donation system as exists in the United States; concluding: “Human beings and human qualities become commodities, things to be traded just like other commodities” (page 28). He questions Walmart taking out life insurance policies on a number of its employees, and concludes: “In this manner employees become less an essential part of a working community and more a source of potential profit, even in death” (page 28). However, capitalism, right from its birth, commodified human beings, specifically, human labour-power, and the owners of capital intrinsically see workers’ ‘value’ in terms of generating surplus-value. This makes the role of a rank-and-file organised, labour movement absolutely critical. As a former trade unionist, Linn – while not negating this – very much under-stresses the centrality of the labour movement to achieving change in society.

Conclusion

At best, Linn looks to nuclei within capitalism – new societies in miniature – as role models for alternative ways of living. Perhaps he’s proposing what my mate Jane once called the Aero bar theory of revolution (well, in this case, capitalist reform). If enough bubbles develop in the chocolate bar, it becomes something else, a different form altogether. He mentions the Windhorse Evolution chain as an example of Buddhist right livelihood, which put into practice a caring and nurturing work environment. From my knowledge of Evolution, it provided just that, but it was also an employer of zero-hours contracts for some of its employees, and ended up closing because it couldn’t continue to make a profit. Equally so, cooperatives have to exist within wider capitalist social relations, and face continual pressure to function more and more like ordinary capitalist businesses or fold. This is the contradiction cooperatives face. Cooperatives, however progressive, should not be seen as a substitute to organising in trade unions.

What’s the elephant in the room? Linn, in “The Buddha on Wall Street: what’s wrong with capitalism and what we can do about it” rejects state totalitarianism. Good. I do too. More to the point, he rejects what he calls communism, and “its oppressive, anti-democratic nature and its stifling of dynamism and creativity” (page 205). The measure of any society proclaiming itself to be socialist and/or communist is democracy: the fullest democracy imaginable. Doctors per head in Cuba doesn’t cut it for me if working-class Cubans cannot form independent trade unions and politically challenge the state. The bourgeois democracy of Britain is preferable to the one-party, Maoist state of China, since I can blog here without fear of being ‘made to disappear’. If one reads Marx, one would know he doesn’t fetishise the state, and why would he? There would be no need for permanent state bureaucracies in an international society of socialism. The Soviet Union of the Cold War was a betrayal of the soviets – workers’ councils – of 1917 that led to a workers’ revolution. It’s frustrating how Linn so easily dismisses socialist politics. The violent Buddhist fundamentalisms of Burma and Sri Lanka do not reflect the Buddhism of Linn’s book, so to write-off Linn’s book as Buddhist fundamentalism would be empirically inaccurate and stupid. Let’s have a proper debate!

Recommended further reading – Socialism: a nice idea, but is it viable?

Postscript

I attended a talk by Vaddhaka Linn at the Sheffield Buddhist Centre on the 12th May 2015, in which he focused on “The gift relationship” chapter of his book. At the end, he said it was only fair, having presented a right-wing critique of altruism, to offer the left-wing one. Linn went on to describe a left-wing critique of charity. But altruism, an unselfish concern for the welfare of others, is not the same as charity, organisations who raise (in the main) money to help those in need. One can be a highly altruistic person, and with that altruism, be motivated and active in one’s local trade union branch, and campaigns to save the NHS and the local library. Socialism and altruism go together, so too do socialism, altruism and a politically healthy critique of charity and philanthropy. Linn said that he finds the left-wing critique of charity “shocking”. If he read my post – ‘To the House of Rothschild!’ Socialism, charity, and Aladdin – he may be shocked to find a friend in Bill Gates, who too promotes the Smithian notion of capitalist self-interest and caring for others.

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