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.


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?


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.

Marxism and Spirituality

“Being human means joyfully throwing your whole life ‘on the scales of destiny’ when need be, but all the while rejoicing in every sunny day and every beautiful cloud.” (Rosa Luxemburg)

“Dum spiro spero! [While there is life, there’s hope!] […] As long as I breathe, I shall fight for the future […].” (Leon Trotsky)

Buddhist spirituality is based on three premises* that, in their most basic sense, are quintessentially Marxist:

  1. All things are impermanent. From the cells in our bodies to world systems, all is in flux, and all is momentary. This is not a pessimistic belief, since change is seen as the door to liberation. We can change!
  2. Everything is interconnected. There is me, but I am also part of ecosystems, organs, societies, and companions. There is no fixed, unchanging, separate selfhood.
  3. Life is suffering. Our lives consist of a constant search for happiness through which we suffer. Until we reach our spiritual potential, nothing can satisfy us.
My ascent of Snowdon in 2009. Mountains are a humble reminder of impermanence, interconnection, and a perpetual quest for spiritual fulfilment.

My ascent of Snowdon in 2009. Mountains are a humble reminder of impermanence, interconnection, and a perpetual quest for spiritual fulfilment.

Non-religious, spiritual strivings (be it through Buddhist meditation or psychotherapy) may become so focused on one’s own mind or one’s own relationships as to be apolitical. Marxist strivings can become so externalised to the self to the cost of our individual well-being. But if we understand spirituality as the nourishment of ourselves as part-and-parcel of the incorporeality of the cosmos – ‘the world fills me with awe’; ‘life is beautiful, wonderful, and mysterious’; ‘we belong to one another, nature, and the universe’ – this is not incompatible with the political struggle for the universal solidarity of the corporeal body of the working class, which can democratically organise our world on the social provision of need and liberty. In this sense, Marxism is both material and spiritual. Let us consider the three principles of Buddhism through a spirit of Marxism as narrated by Marx, Engels, Gramsci, Lenin, Trotsky, and Luxemburg.

All things are impermanent

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels: “All that is solid melts into air […].”

Karl Marx: “In its mystified form, dialectic became the fashion in Germany, because it seemed to transfigure and to glorify the existing state of things. In its rational form it is a scandal and abomination to bourgeoisdom and its doctrinaire professors, because it includes in its comprehension and affirmative recognition of the existing state of things, at the same time also, the recognition of the negation of that state, of its inevitable breaking up; because it regards every historically developed social form as in fluid movement, and therefore takes into account its transient nature not less than its momentary existence; because it lets nothing impose upon it, and is in its essence critical and revolutionary.”

Antonio Gramsci: “Every morning, when I wake again under the pall of the sky, I feel that for me it is New Year’s day. That’s why I hate these New Year’s that fall like fixed maturities, which turn life and human spirit into a commercial concern with its neat final balance, its outstanding amounts, its budget for the new management. They make us lose the continuity of life and spirit. You end up seriously thinking that between one year and the next there is a break, that a new history is beginning; you make resolutions, and you regret your irresolution, and so on, and so forth. This is generally what’s wrong with dates. […] the date becomes an obstacle, a parapet that stops us from seeing that history continues to unfold along the same fundamental unchanging line, without abrupt stops, like when at the cinema the film rips and there is an interval of dazzling light. That’s why I hate New Year’s. I want every morning to be a new year’s for me. Every day I want to reckon with myself, and every day I want to renew myself. No day set aside for rest. I choose my pauses myself, when I feel drunk with the intensity of life and I want to plunge into animality to draw from it new vigour. No spiritual time-serving. I would like every hour of my life to be new, though connected to the ones that have passed. […] I await socialism for this reason too. Because it will hurl into the trash all of these dates which have no resonance in our spirit […].”

Vladimir Lenin: “Human knowledge is not (or does not follow) a straight line, but a curve, which endlessly approximates a series of circles, a spiral.”

Everything is interconnected

Karl Marx: “Society does not consist of individuals, but expresses the sum of interrelations, the relations within which these individuals stand.”

Friedrich Engels:  “Let us not […] flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory nature takes its revenge on us. Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the results we expected, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel the first. The people who, in Mesopotamia, Greece, Asia Minor and elsewhere, destroyed the forests to obtain cultivable land, never dreamed that by removing along with the forests the collecting centres and reservoirs of moisture they were laying the basis for the present forlorn state of those countries. When the Italians of the Alps used up the pine forests on the southern slopes, so carefully cherished on the northern slopes, they had no inkling that by doing so they were cutting at the roots of the dairy industry in their region; they had still less inkling that they were thereby depriving their mountain springs of water for the greater part of the year, and making it possible for them to pour still more furious torrents on the plains during the rainy seasons. Those who spread the potato in Europe were not aware that with these farinaceous tubers they were at the same time spreading scrofula. Thus at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature – but that we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly. And, in fact, with every day that passes we are acquiring a better understanding of these laws and getting to perceive both the more immediate and the more remote consequences of our interference with the traditional course of nature. In particular, after the mighty advances made by the natural sciences in the present century, we are more than ever in a position to realise, and hence to control, also the more remote natural consequences of at least our day-to-day production activities. But the more this progresses the more will men [sic] not only feel but also know their oneness with nature, and the more impossible will become the senseless and unnatural idea of a contrast between mind and matter, man and nature, soul and body, such as arose after the decline of classical antiquity in Europe and obtained its highest elaboration in Christianity.”

Life is suffering

Karl Marx: “Man [sic] as an objective, sensuous being is therefore a suffering being – and because he feels that he suffers, a passionate being.”

Karl Marx: “The less you eat, drink, buy books, go to the theatre, go dancing, go drinking, think, love, theorize, sing, paint, fence, etc., the more you save and the greater will become that treasure which neither moths nor maggots can consume – your capital. The less you are, the less you give expression to your life, the more you have, the greater is your alienated life and the more you store up of your estranged life. Everything which the political economist takes from you in terms of life and humanity, he restores to you in the form of money and wealth, and everything which you are unable to do, your money can do for you: it can eat, drink, go dancing, go to the theatre, it can appropriate art, learning, historical curiosities, political power, it can travel, it is capable of doing all those thing for you; it can buy everything: it is genuine wealth, genuine ability. But for all that, it only likes to create itself, to buy itself, for after all everything else is its servant. And when I have the master I have the servant, and I have no need of his servant. So all passions and all activity are lost in greed. The worker is only permitted to have enough for him [sic] to live, and he is only permitted to live in order to have.”

Karl Marx: “Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion. Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness.”

See also, my post, Socialism: a nice idea, but is it viable?

*Acknowledgement: Alice Fowler