Saturday, April 9, 2011

Marx, Consumerism and the Buddha

Harbour City

Prioritize the spiritual life in your spending plan.
— Laura Jomon Martin in Buddhadharma

Our bearded friend, Karl Marx, is responsible for a quite a few paradigm shifts in the ways we look at people and societies. One that's not all that often mentioned is about the relationship between personal ethics and society.

Philosophers and social scientists before him tended to look at societies in terms of morality. Adam Smith's first major work wasn't The Wealth of Nations, it was The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Enlightenment philosophers in general were primarily interested in questions of ethics. They worked from the individual on out, trying to understand how people should behave in order to create a just society, or trace the evolution of moral sentiments over the course of history.

Karl Marx turned that inside out and upside down. He saw ethics and morality as social constructs, determined by the deep economic and social structures of society. He saw society as something of a great, always evolving machine of production. The individual cogs in it were defined and shaped by their place in it, and ethics were simply their way of rationalizing their actions in it. For Marx, society and economics define ethics, not the other way around. The system can be described as more or less just or unjust, depending on what kind of exploitation goes on in it, but the personal ethics of the individuals making it up are a matter of point of view. The capitalist is not immoral for being a capitalist; he is every bit as much a prisoner of capitalism as is the proletarian, even if his cell is furnished rather better. He has no choice but to exploit, since if he tries not to, he will be driven out of business by some other, more exploitative capitalist.

That's not all he thought, of course. There was his whole theory of revolution; a description of how the oppressive capitalist system could be overthrown by raising the class consciousness of the proletariat and liberating it from the shackles that held it in place. All moral theory that, too.

He had a point.

The society we currently live in isn't the capitalism Marx described, but it is a system that locks us in place just as tightly, if not more so. We live in a consumer society. It's not just that we like to consume. It's that we have to consume, or the whole system breaks down. If "consumer confidence" flags, and people stop buying junk they don't really need, we get into serious trouble. Factories run idle. Cafés empty. Ships stand in ports. Planes fly with seats vacant. Government budgets go into the red. Then people are laid off, run out of money, and get driven into depression and, especially towards the already disadvantaged end of society, into actual penury and physical want.

And when the recession lifts, the wheels of consumerism start spinning again, everyone heaves a big sigh of relief and goes back to performing the vital function without which our society will collapse into anarchy and destitution: buying stuff and throwing it away.

The engine of the consumer society is the constant, unrelenting manufacturing of craving. I'm partial to cameras myself. Ever since the digital photography revolution started, I've been in a cycle of lusting after a camera, buying it, enjoying the pleasure of owning it for a while, and then lusting after some other camera. Everyone who's lived in this system knows this cycle as intimately as the most intimate of bodily functions.

Crave, buy, throw away, crave. Compared to the work put into that cycle, the manufacturing of the actual goods being bought and discarded is almost incidental.

Buddhism strikes at the very heart and soul of the consumer society. It is a deeply subversive system of thought, far more than, say, classical Marxism, whose promised paradise is a thoroughly material one. The precondition for becoming any good at Buddhism is, as one of the Four Vows puts it, to uproot blind cravings: the very cravings that keep the consumer society powering along.

It works, too. In the less than two years that I've been practicing Zen, I've discovered that my attitude towards consumption has shifted. Slowly and almost imperceptibly; I've only noticed it after the fact. I've lost much of my pleasure in buying stuff. I do still lust after cameras (mmmm, Leica, give it to me, baby), but more out of habit than any real compulsion. The last time I bought something mostly for the pleasure of owning it was maybe six months ago. Since then, my biggest purchase has been a bunch of opera tickets. My disposable income is piling up in my bank account, forlorn and unloved.

That has led me to question this whole thing I'm doing. The script says that I work to earn money to be able to consume, and my craving for stuff I can't afford spurs me to work harder to earn more money to get it, so I can then crave for more stuff I can't afford at that level so I want to make more money, and so on and so forth. What if I already have more than I need? Then other stuff about what I do will start coming to the fore. Besides keeping the wheels of the consumer society spinning, what social utility does my work have? What social utility does the rest of what I do have? What should I do with the money piling up in my bank account? Should I give it away? If so, to what? Somehow, the idea of keeping on doing what I'm doing and then just donating the whole shebang to the Red Cross or something feels unsatisfactory too. Should I work less so it'd stop piling up? If so, then what should I do with my time? Volunteer in a soup kitchen? Become a part-time revolutionary? Write a novel?

In short, I'm turning into a bad member of society. If everybody did this, it'd be recession-time again, and we'd be in real trouble. As it is, it's no problem since my bank will helpfully lend my money to someone more inclined to spend it: the system is set up so neatly that I'm powering the consumer society even if I'm not consuming; I've just shifted that part of the job onto someone else.

Buddhism is not compatible with consumerism. If it catches on, one of the two will have to go. Either Buddhism will have to be transformed into just another consumption choice, one where you "prioritize the spiritual life in your spending plan," as per the quote from the American Buddhist magazine above, or we're going to have to come up with some new way of arranging things so that we can live meaningful lives on this rock without the the craving machine driving us along.

So far, it's pretty clear that the consumer society has been winning most of the battles. Slavoj Žižek describes the result rather well in his much-ballyhooed essay of Buddhism being the perfect complement to capitalism. Right Mindfulness turns into stress reduction; Right Livelihood into a particular set of consumption choices, Right View into a mindless disengagement from systemic injustice.

Something like this has happened every time Buddhism has become more than a marginal movement; it has been subverted and turned into a pillar of whatever society it lives in, injustices and all, from the feudal slave economy of Tibet to the intolerant ethnocentricity of Sri Lanka, the cruel autocracy of the T'ang Dynasty, or the corrupt misgovernment of Thailand. (And all through, among the Genpo Roshis and Andrew Cohens and Ken Wilbers there has been a Rinzai with his dozen students in some obscure temple somewhere, keeping the lamp lit.) Is there any reason to believe it'll go any differently this time around?

Thing is, the consumer society as we know it is not going to last anyway. There's just not enough raw materials for us to keep on making stuff and dumping it in landfills. We could patch it up, of course—put more resources into recycling, generate energy sustainably, and so on—but even so, it's just not physically possible for everybody to have more of everything forever. That, the fundamental, underlying illusion of consumerism is nearing the breaking point, and our movement towards it is accelerating as the billions in India and China hit their stride as consumers.

The consumer society is also a pretty recent phenomenon. It only really arose in the 1950's in the USA. Before that, people related to objects quite differently. I spent a lot of my childhood with my grandfather, and he did not see things as consumables; in fact, one consequence of the collision of his values with the consumer society was that he piled up an enormous amount of broken junk that he figured might come in useful someday for some purpose: an attitude that made perfect sense in the economy of scarcity where he grew up, but was actually destructive in the society of plenty where he spent his retirement. He almost caused some serious environmental damage with his stockpile of heating oil: a few more years and the drums would've rusted through.

Not all change is revolutionary or sudden. Sometimes big shifts happen slowly over time. Perhaps the consumer society will collapse spectacularly. It's equally possible that it'll gradually, almost imperceptibly be transformed into something else. I don't believe it's possible or even desirable to go back. The pre-war world of rigidly stratified social classes and naked racism and imperialism wasn't any great shakes, nor the age of absolute monarchies before that, nor the age of fighting principalities, nor the Middle Ages, nor even antiquity with its slaves and wars and obscenely rich monarchs. We'll have to go forward.

Revolutions are generally nasty affairs. I'd much rather see the consumer society evolve into something better than have it overthrown in a blaze of glory.

Social engineering is a bit like software engineering. Both involve complex systems with shifting parameters, unclear requirements, highly abstract concepts, and people working together, and the object being worked on tends to take on a life of its own. Sometimes software does get to the point where the best choice really is to dump it and start from scratch. Often it doesn't although it may feel like it. Even incredibly messy software can be fixable. You just have to do it a little bit at a time. You take the worst problem you have, and you solve it, in such a way that you also resolve any causes for the problem that you were able to discover. Repeat that on the worst remaining problem. Keep doing that until you run out of problems, or forever (usually forever).

There's much good in the society we live in. Never before have so many people been so widely connected to each other. Fewer people than ever live in poverty. More people than ever are literate. Women are treated as citizens rather than property in more countries than ever. In my country, for the first time ever, we have people reaching retirement age who have never experienced war. More people than ever live longer than ever, and healthier lives than ever. It would be tragic if all that was lost.

That's why I'd like to see the consumer society evolving into something better, rather than collapsing catastrophically. That will require a gradual shift in values and attitudes, and concrete action, one problem at a time. Our great strength as a species is our ability to cooperate; to emulate each other, and to evolve socially and culturally. An individual opting out of consumerism and choosing to live in genteel poverty instead doesn't mean jack shit, but a broad shift in values and attitudes means everything. There, I think, the Buddha's insights into the nature of craving can come in quite handy, even if "Buddhism" turns into Žižek's caricature of it. Thing is, Buddhist thought makes sense, and even if most people mangle it almost beyond recognition, there will always be some out there ready to do the work needed to get it, intellectually or spiritually.

We can't have more of everything forever. However, we could have better things forever, or at least as long as human creativity lasts to make things better. We have to decide what it is we mean by "better" first. Perhaps that's one place to start.


  1. Very good article.
    The only problem I see is human nature. People have always wanted things, the only real difference now is that more people can get their hands on more things.
    "Things" being everything from food and clothes to objects of luxury.

    Whether these things hold any "true" meaning is disputable, but people want things. And they want more of them and then they want shinier things if they could get their hands on them.

    You are right in some sense that consumerism might lead this beautiful planet to the point of extinction, but until people see a major shift in their own personal lives, they will not care.

    In the same way that people prefer to buy their overpriced coffees and other beverages rather than trying and helping the poor in their own community, people do not want to give up their shiny things.

    It would be a matter of total re-education of a whole generation before that would work even in a small sense, since there will be some of them which would then take advantage from those who have not learnt how to do things themselves.

    I hope this makes sense. It did in my head :)

  2. Oh, I don't think people will stop wanting stuff any time soon. However, I think it's possible for them to change the kind of stuff they want. Be as it may, things that can't go on forever won't go on forever, and it's clear that "more of everything for everybody" can't go on forever.

    What if people started wanting experiences rather than throwaway physical goods, for example?

  3. They already do. And they want more and better of them too...
    Just google experience gifts.

    Also, I'm all for experiences. I lived all my life in the same country but traveled as much as I could to different places, am now on exchange and studied in a different country than my own too.
    Unfortunately, all of that requires money, which means you need to work hard for it and if you want better and more of these experiences it means you would have to work harder too.

  4. Experiences don't fill landfills, though.

  5. Nope, but some of them like parachuting, driving a ferrari,... do cost to the environment and need fuel. They are better than regular consumerism I guess, so it would be a good idea.
    How do you teach your kids to want experiences instead of stuff though when all you can afford is stuff. They won't get to appreciate experiences.
    I know many people who would rather spend $1500+ on a laptop than spending that money on a holiday+corral reefs diving trip or spend $600 for an iPad (the new sensation) instead of using that money to go on a small weekend trip to visit the countryside.

    Of course people who earn 100K+ can spend on both the trips and the gadgets, especially if they live on their own, but people who only earn only 30K have to make choices and most people see that one trip as lesser than a gadget you would use for a year or two.

    Goods last as long as they don't break or the next thing isn't there.
    Experiences last only for the moment.

    Of course, good (and bad) experiences can last in your memory for a lifetime, but people don't think like that.
    So how do you make people feel like it?

    (I do think I managed to change someone's mind, but that was only by convincing him to go on a trip with me, which was a lot of fun. You can't do that with a lot of people.)

  6. I have no idea. But something will have to change, and I think one place to start might be that intentional manufacturing of craving. It's not like we don't tend to crave stuff even without turbocharging it.

  7. Thoughtful, and hopeful post, Petteri. I think it's a self-limiting thing. I've described to you before how I learned that wanting toys I couldn't afford was an uncomfortable negative experience, and how my young self's greedy outlook permanently shifted. Most people extend themselves as far as they can and stop--some go beyond that and pay the price of having their ability to indulge their cravings seriously limited by their ruined credit. The dangerous ones are those that craving so controls that they learn to use others' money to satisfy it.

    In the end though, I think the stuff, as you say, is finite--it can be refined and tweaked, but like air and water, there is only so much of it. Then, thinking has to change and adapt. Buddhism could indeed, even in its current vogue among the crunchy set, be one positive approach to the necessity of changing people's perceptions and thoughts.

    Or there's always heroin.

  8. Although I am not currently playing World of Warcraft, I've played it on and off for several years and if it is a problem, I think it has more to do with the person playing the game than the game itself. I play other MMORPGs currently (competitors to WOW) as my major leisure time activity. I do this in lieu of other types of entertainment: watching TV, reading, collecting, etc. For it's low monetary cost, it is a excellent value. The downside comes from the amount of time it takes to reach "excellence" in those games... usually too much for your average person and in detriment to your other social relationships. I'm fortunate that my domestic partner also enjoys these types of games so it works out quite well for both of us. If I had a "non-gamer" spouse, the conflict over attention/time spent would be inevitable. A mature human being has to balance this.

    Over the past decade or so, my feelings towards consumerism has changed. I used to collect comic books very heavily, spending over $100 a month on them. Of course I now regret that because they are sitting boxed up in a closet... hardly ever thought about, much less looked at. I stopped collecting them once I realized the point of a comic book is to not tell an actual story (which has a beginning, a middle and an end) but the superheroes themselves are "eternal products" to be constantly repackaged and resold to the same people over and over. That tragic superhero death in the 1980's? (X-Men Phoenix) Character has been brought back to life twice. The Flash and Green Lanterns both died in the 80-90s and replaced by stand-ins for a decade? Both are back from the dead. Endless spin off series, action figures, books, posters, movies... and nothing ever really changes substantially. The hero will still be alive in 20 years... fighting the same villains all over again. In the meantime, I'm filling up boxes and boxes with comic books... to what end?

    In this way, my view of entertainment has shifted over the years. I used to have to collect everything: I originally bought the VHS version... but I also bought the DVD version. BUT WAIT there's a Blu-Ray version now with extra stuff on it!!! I must have it! I'll watch it once and it will then sit on a shelf collecting dust. Never to be watched again.

    Or worse, I'll bring it home from the store and NEVER watch it. Madness.


  9. I've stayed away from MMORPG's because I know I might as well start mainlining heroin. Addiction city. Strategy games and single-player RPG's hooked me badly enough as it is, and only very few of them offered enough of anything beyond that to make it worthwhile.

    I do remember those few very fondly, though. Fallout. Planescape: Torment. The Witcher. Knights of the Old Republic.

  10. "it's no problem since my bank will helpfully lend my money" ~ you could become a really bad member of society and keep your money under the mattress! Thanks for a thought provoking post about something I've been thinking about too. I really don't need a Fuji X100, or a another new lens for my existing cameras do I? Before the recession I'd have bought them anyway, but now I am putting myself through internal debate as to "why", vacillating between "I'm not going to" and "it'd be nice if I did" and whilst I do so my bank balance is looking so much better!