Buddhism under Capitalism: understanding “neoliberalism”

One of the terms used in talking about the ways that Buddhism is being transformed in modern society is “neoliberalism.” A quick glance at Wikipedia explains that it is used to identify a radical version of laissez-faire capitalism—meaning capitalism unconstrained by governmental regulations. We see in the mania for deregulation dating at least from the Reagan–Thatcher era up to the present efforts by the current administration. As expressed  by Adam Tooze in a column in the New York Times <here>: “If neoliberalism is about anything, it has been about creating the largest possible economic space for competition.” Actions such as those of Scott Pruitt and of his successor, Andrew Wheeler, as director of the Environmental Protection Agency are instances of this meaning of neoliberalism. Likewise the active program to undermine the rights of labor and actively undermine the legal status and credibility of unions is motivated by neoliberal conceptions. Similarly, this attitude is implicit in arguments against the Affordable Care Act: If you can’t afford your own health insurance, then why should anyone else help you out? The same is true of the standard conservative trope noted by David Roberts that “liberals are the real racists, because they keep calling attention to race and dividing people up by race, while conservatives are just trying to be individuals and judge people by the content of their character” <here>.

What this economic definition of neoliberalism does not include is the social philosophy of radical autonomy. This “social neoliberalism” is the dimension of neoliberalism that more clearly influences the ongoing development of Buddhism in the US. This is evident in attitudes that deny the role of society and culture, claiming instead that the individual is entirely free and therefore entirely self-responsible. (The spectre of Ayn Rand walks the land.)

A revelatory example of social neoliberalism at work is discussed in an essay in Scientific American. “More recycling won’t solve plastic pollution,” by Matt Wilkins <here>. The subtitle is particularly telling: “It’s a lie that wasteful consumers cause the problem and that changing our individual habits can fix it.” Although Wilkins doesn’t use the the term neoliberal, he highlights the way in which individual responsibility is deployed in the service of corporate capitalism. “Encouraging individuals to recycle more will never solve the problem of a massive production of single-use plastic that should have been avoided in the first place.”

He highlights the role of “Keep America Beautiful,” an industry advertising group that gave us the word “litterbug.” But Keep America Beautiful has not only an historical role in increasing awareness of individual actions, for example with its anti-litter and recycling campaigns, but also for actively resisting political solutions. Keep America Beautiful “has helped shift the public focus to consumer recycling behavior and actively thwarted legislation that would increase extended producer responsibility for waste management.” This is, then, an example of the neoliberal emphasis on individual action, individual responsibility being presented as the only acceptable answer to the societal problems created by laissez-faire capitalism—the production of single-use plastics.

So what does this have to do with Buddhism? It is this aspect of neoliberalism as a social philosophy of radical self-autonomy that informs much of the present-day rationale for Buddhist practice and mindfulness. The wide range of issues that meditation is supposed to be good for are represented as individual issues. The almost deliberately hazy term “happiness” covers a lot, but is often used to both give primacy of value to one’s emotional state, and to place responsibility for that with the individual.

Just as both economic values and social attitudes align with one another, they both also align with religious values prevalent in American popular religious culture. Daniel Dubuisson (“Exporting the Local: Recent Perspectives on ‘Religion’ as a Cultural Category” Religion Compass 1.6, 787–800) explains that as the present-day conception of religion developed under “Protestant influence…it evolved toward an increasingly austere conception in which religion becomes an individual phenomenon linked to the individual interior conscience and to the personal relationship of the individual with the divinity” (789). In other words, (1) economic individualism (the measure of each corporation being its ability to profit individually in the marketplace unconstrained by government regulation), (2) the radical self-autonomy of neoliberalism as a social philosophy, and (3) religious individualism of an isolated interiority all coincide, and all mutually reinforce one another.

During the writing of this post, Matthew O’Connell at Post-Traditional Buddhism posted a podcast of an Imperfect Buddha conversation with Ron Purser (31.IBP) titled “Neo-liberal Mindfulness, Neo-liberal Buddhism.” (inside joke: does listening to IBP podcasts make one a śravaka?) The interview makes a valuable contribution to understanding this topic.

It is worth pointing out that a conclusion from this reflection is that social action is not simply the sum total of individual actions. The idea that social is nothing more than the sum total of individual actions would be based on the neoliberal notion of radical autonomy—that each person’s action is only their own action rather than being interconnected with the actions of others. A Buddhist modernist version of this is the view that there is only personal karma, an interpretation of karma that makes it fit with neoliberal preconceptions. However, social factors affect individual actions. that is, there are varying degrees of individual autonomy, or what might be called relative autonomy. Or, in yet other words, one is also responsible for one’s own actions as well. But from a perspective of the self as a conditioned existent, the debate over whether there is such a thing as social karma becomes a pseudo-problem—of course there is social karma, it is called history.

Neoliberal conceptions underlie claims that mindfulness training programs, and also contemplative education programs, will transform society. Such wholly unsubstantiated claims regarding social transformation by means of individual transformation (both kinds of “transformation” usually being very ill-defined, emotively powerful, empty signifiers) are given in support of the establishment of such programs. These claims form part of the siren’s song enticing people to jump on the bandwagon. Sitting quietly attending to one’s thoughts/experiences/breath/body for twenty minutes a day is presented as a bold, and even heroic act. Encouraging others to do so is presented as key to replacing the current viciously competitive order with one that is supportive of all society’s members, while ignoring the massively entrenched power of capitalist institutions in favor of a mystical notion of all wisdom being inside oneself.

Glenn Wallis summarizes this neoliberal strategy in his forthcoming and very important (very soon, hold your breath) A Critique of Western Buddhism (here). In the first chapter’s section on “well-being” he points to the adoption of programs of well-being by corporations as a response to the approximately $500 billion in losses attributable to “a dissatisfied workforce” and “a brutally competitive work environment staffed by a fundamentally insecure, unequal, underpaid, yet enthusiastically materialistic, populace.” The response is to inject “the ideology of the happiness industry into the workplace.”

“The key message of that ideology is that workers’ unhappiness lies inside themselves.”

In other words, that corporate response to worker dissatisfaction (a nice euphemistic understatement of conditions that lead to such extremes as suicide and drug addiction) is exactly like making plastic pollution the responsibility of the individual. I can dutifully recycle every week, as I have done for decades, and it will not change the profit motivations driving a system that continues to pollute. I can dutifully spend 20 minutes twice a day (of my own time) attending to my breath, and it will not change the profit motivations driving a system that continues to make workers insecure, unequal, and underpaid. The conditions of the system remain an accepted constant, unquestioned and therefore unchanging. The individual is treated as responsible for his/her own happiness, despite the conditions of the system.

There is a subtle but critical difference between accepting that there are things I can’t change (true), and that the only thing I can change is myself (false).

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