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Arundhati Roy on the Deceptiveness of Development

Not content to merely debunk “Lies That Build Empire,” Arundhati Roy transforms that imperialist bunk into material for gripping storytelling.  Her research and masterful writing on India’s ongoing economic development raises powerful questions about the myth of progress: who benefits from development, whose lives are destroyed, and who decides to resist the “advancement” that is actually immiserating millions.

Roy’s work reminds us that it’s not enough to denounce imperialism: we have to understand it.  We have to study how it functions.  Buddhist practitioners could be very good at this kind of inquiry, I think.  Investigating what is pleasant about imperialism.  Finding out what makes it tick.  As Stan Weir puts it:

The greatest authors explain the human condition in a way so that none turn up as villains, so that no matter the depth of corruption of the people they describe, all are understandable as part of the total human condition.

Imperialism is not all bad all the time, and its appealing qualities are key to its deceptiveness.  Plenty of people want electricity and running water.  Roy herself takes pains to point out that “I’m not an anti-development junkie, nor a proselytiser for the eternal upholding of custom and tradition.”  But she also notes that “progress” doesn’t come without a cost  — if it ever materializes at all.  In India, for example, the cost of constructing dams has included the displacement of around 50 million people.

Poking and prodding the false promises of development, we discover some of the hallmarks of imperialism, and we also strengthen our strategies for promoting true progress.  In one of her recent speeches, Roy argued that justice and meaningful advancement can come only with the redistribution of wealth and land currently concentrated in the hands of a few.

If you look at the history of the struggle for land in India, what is really sad is that after India became independent, land reform was one of the biggest things on the agenda of the new government. This was of course subverted by the politicians, who were upper-class people, landowners. They put so many caveats in the legal system that absolutely no redistribution happened. Then, in the 1970s, shortly after the Naxalite movement started, when the first people rose up, it was about the redistribution of land. The movement was saying land to the tiller. It was crushed; the army was called out. The Indian government, which calls itself democratic, never hesitates to call out the army. Today, people have completely forgotten the idea of redistribution. Now, they are fighting just to hold on to what little they have. We call that “progress.” The home minister allegedly says he wants 70 percent of India to live in cities, meaning he wants five to six hundred million people to move. How do you make that happen, unless you become a military state? How do you do that, unless you build big dams and big thermal projects and have nuclear power?

In so many ways, we have regressed. Even the most radical politics are practiced by people that are privileged enough to have land. There are millions and millions of people who don’t have land, who now just live as pools of underpaid wage labor on the edges of these huge megalopolises that make up India now. The politics of land in one way is radical, but in another way it has left out the poorest people, because they are out of the equation. We don’t talk about justice anymore. None of us do; we just talk about human rights or survival. We don’t talk about redistribution. In America, four hundred people own more wealth than half of the American population. We should not be saying tax the rich, but instead we should be saying take their money and redistribute it, take their property and redistribute it.

Her entire speech, “We Call This Progress,” is available for free online, and well worth a read.  (Feel free to disagree with her arguments and conclusions!  We’re fans of debate around here.)  In the first Study Guide for The System Stinks, we’ll be including some reading questions to accompany Roy’s work, so we can all practice getting a better handle on the deceptions of development.   Can’t wait to talk about it with fellow BPFers.


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Comments (30)

  • John Eden

    Thanks for posting this, Katie! I have been a great fan of Arundhati Roy for years now, and glad to see her sharply clear perspective showing up on BPF’s site. She articulates as well as or better than anyone how opposition to capital and its schemes have to be couched in understanding how that affects the people of the world… that what must be opposed is the injustice and exploitation, not the system itself. And she walks that line as well as talks it…

  • seth nathanson

    “We should not be saying tax the rich, but instead we should be saying take their money and redistribute it, take their property and redistribute it.”

    I can understand the frustration. It seems like the rich are taking from everyone else, so in order to rectify the injustice, it should be fair to take from them.

    But this is stealing — “To take what is not freely given”, in the words of Buddha.

    Seizing property from unwilling owners will result in great violence. The seeds of hatred and resentment that will be planted will bear bitter fruit for generations to come.

    Buddha does not provide quick fixes. If you have faith in his words, then work tirelessly, single pointedly, and peacefully.

  • John Eden

    Interesting question occurs to me: is re-distribution of the wealth truly “taking what is not freely given”? If the action is part of an overall societal change, and the taking is not for oneself, but for others, does it still fall under that proscription? Who is qualified to answer that question? Or must we all answer it for ourselves?

  • Richard Modiano

    “But this is stealing — “To take what is not freely given”, in the words of Buddha.”

    Under capitalism the method by which the rich amass their wealth is a form of stealing.

    Suppose that, in order to obtain the things which are socially accepted as being necessary to make a living, the worker must receive a wage of $15.00 an hour. The exchange-value of the commodity produced in the factory (as determined by the capitalist marketplace) is $100.00. Suppose it takes one hour for the worker to produce each commodity, and that each commodity requires $5 worth of raw materials and $3 in depreciated machinery. Thus, in one hour, the worker’s labor power transforms $8.00 worth of raw materials and machinery into $100.00 worth of commodity. In other words, the worker’s labor has created $92.00 worth of value.

    For this $92.00 worth of created value, however, the worker is only paid $15.00 by the capitalist. The difference between the value created by the worker and the wage value he receives in exchange for it is $77.00, which goes directly into the capitalist’s pocket. It is the surplus value, the difference between the capital laid out by the business owner and the profit taken in by him. This difference is created solely by the capitalist not paying the worker for the full value of his work. In essence, the capitalist forces the laborer to work under the agreement, “I’ll give you $15.00 if you give me $92.00.”

    To the charge that he makes his living by appropriating a portion of the value created by his workers, the capitalist is apt to respond, “But I deserve a share of the profits, because I am the one who is risking my capital, and I am the one who is providing the management know-how to run the business.” In reality, this claim is nonsense. Since the capitalist produces no new wealth and creates no new value, all of the money that he invests has as its source some prior exploitation of labor (unless the capitalist has a printing press in his basement and prints his own money). As for the contention that the capitalist’s profit is a reward for his managerial skills, modern corporate practice has already eliminated this argument since the capitalist relies on salaried managers to oversee the day to day operation of his business.

    A portion of the surplus value which the capitalist appropriates is used to purchase the use-values which he needs or wants, but the major portion of this surplus value is reinvested into his capital. This reinvestment expands the sum of overhead and in turn increases profit, thus producing more surplus value for re-capitalization and re-investment. This process of accumulation, of continuously investing more money in order to make still more money, is the driving force of capitalism. Thus, whether he wants to or not, the capitalist is driven to continuously expand his capital in order to maintain his position as a capitalist.

    The logic of capitalism is to maximize profits by fair means or foul. The logic of capitalism also tends toward the privatization of public services such as schools and libraries, and also the commodification of natural resources such as air and water in the form of a “pollution swap” market.

    What the world needs is a social system of production and distribution which is not based on profit, wage labor or capital accumulation, but on the production and distribution of useful things; on the production of use-values, not exchange values. It is a social system in which human needs determine what is done, not the desires of private property-owners. It is a society which is characterized by public control over resources rather than private, by long-term planning rather than short-term profit, by management of production and distribution by the producers and distributors rather than by the capitalists and their minions, by the integration of political and economic decisions rather than the separation of them, and by production for use rather than production for profit.

  • Patrick S. O'Donnell

    Those of us theoretically and philosophically inclined with regard to understanding the realities and imperatives of global justice as well as the articulation of an ethically defensible and democratically derived conception of development, might read at least the three following books:

    Crocker, David A. Ethics of Global Development: Agency, Capability, and Deliberative Democracy (Cambridge University Press, 2009).

    Miller, Richard W. Globalizing Justice: The Ethics of Poverty and Power (Oxford University Press, 2010).

    Sen, Amartya. Development as Freedom (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999).

  • John Eden

    Thanks so much for this information, Richard and Patrick! I just recently read _No Local_ and have been looking for some basic info on capitalism and the terminology used in socialist analysis. Your comments are very helpful and inspiring. This site is getting to be my favorite!

  • Patrick S. O'Donnell


    Should you want titles on Marxist critiques of capitalism and socialist economics I can send a list along, just let me know.

    Best wishes,

  • John Eden

    Thanks Patrick! I think I’m good right now, finding time to read them would be the question – if you could recommend one that would give me some good background, I would appreciate it. I read some Marx many years ago, back in my school days, but I’ve never been strong in economics.

  • Patrick S. O'Donnell


    By way of background, I would highly recommend Jon Elster’s Making Sense of Marx (Cambridge University Press, 1985), which I think is the best overall introduction to Marx’s ideas and yet still critical when necessary. While Elster is a social scientist, he often writes in the mode of an analytic philosopher (in fact he’s identified with a small group of ‘analytical Marxists’ that includes, among others, the late G.A. Cohen, John Roemer, Michael Luntley, Adam Przeworski, and Erik Olin Wright), so one may need to read slowly and patiently, but the effort is well worth it in the end. And, after that, I can’t help but recommend at least one other volume, namely, David Schweickart’s Against Capitalism (Westview Press, 1996). Should you find the time to read either or both of these and want any more recommendations, I’m happy to oblige! (like the Dalai Lama, I’ve occasionally characterized my worldview as ‘half Marxist and half Buddhist’).

  • John Eden

    Sounds great, Patrick! Thanks so much… I’ve always self-identified in much the same way, though I was never sure whether Buddhism and socialism are perfectly compatible…!

  • Richard Modiano

    In addition to Patrick’s recommendations let me add David Harvey’s The Enigma of Capital and his A Brief History of Neo-liberalism.

  • seth nathanson


    Given Buddha’s definition of stealing, the societal change would have to include the wealthy voluntarily sharing their wealth.

    What each person’s motivation is can’t be known by others. I know my motivation is always mixed, and never purely altruistic, in just about everything I do. I know from experience even the positive actions I take produce unfortunate, unintended results, and never ends exactly the way I imagined it would be.


    Yes, I agree. Capitalism is inherently self-centered, unfair, and destructive. But taking motivated by retaliation will never produce the society you desire.

    You say you are half Marxist half Buddhist! Very well! Your argument relies heavily on your Marxist half; can you allow the Buddhist half to speak as well?

  • seth nathanson

    Sorry, Richard! Its Patrick who’s “half and half”! My bad.

    Still, can you speak to it as a Buddhist?

  • Katie Loncke

    Hey all! Been enjoying watching this conversation unfold, and all the questioning and sharing of resources! This is also right on time since the next theme for The System Stinks is Stolen Land, Stolen Culture, Stolen Time. I hope you will consider contributing a piece for it — it could even be an expanded version of some of these comments.

    The question of how to transform into a classless, democratic society (socialism) without “taking what is not freely given,” or even without creating global armed confrontations with the owning class, is one of the central questions I’ve been thinking on for a while. Honestly, it doesn’t seem possible to me. But that’s one of the reasons I’m excited to be having these conversations with other Buddhists — to see whether someone can convince me otherwise. :)

  • Patrick S. O'Donnell

    I would certainly be willing to address this topic at greater length another time, but suffice to say for now there’s quite a body of literature that discusses possible socialist futures that don’t involve theft, unless one sees, implausibly and mistakenly, such things as living under law (democratically derived and respectful human rights, etc.) or the paying of taxes as species of stealing. Some of these ideas are discussed (and debated) in the invaluable “Real Utopias Project” published in a series of books by Verso. See here:

    See too E.O. Wright’s book, Envisioning Real Utopias (Verso: 2010), Jon Elster and Karl Ove Moene, eds., Alternatives to Capitalism (Cambridge University Press, 1989), and two volumes edited by Boaventura de Sousa Santos in a series called Reinventing Social Emancipation: Toward New Manifestos, Vol. 1 of which is Democratizing Democracy: Beyond the Liberal Democratic Canon (Verso, 2007), and Vol. 2, Another Production is Possible: Beyond the Capitalist Canon (Verso, 2007).

    One difficulty here is the fact that our understanding of what socialism might or could be is strongly influenced by the Party-State incarnations of same associated will illiberal and non-democratic regimes in the 20th century, the corresponding belief being something to the effect that these represent decisive historical refutations of the “idea” of socialism. Marx, who spent most of his labors on the critique of capitalism, had very little to say about what socialism, or communism for that matter, would in fact be (in part because he believed we could not state its decisive features before the possibility of its genesis was imminent). What little he did say was sometimes misleading or even mistaken, even though there are provocative suggestions and ethical contours we might glean from his works. In any case, it’s been left to us to carry this task forward, and one thing that we’ve certainly learned from history is that any socialist future will be at the same time constrained if not defined by democratic principles and practices. Were it not for other projects I’m working on at the moment I would say much more about this and related matters. I look forward to returning to this topic in the near future. Meanwhile, it would help if folks do their utmost to acquaint themselves with some of the available literature on this subject (of which I’ve provided a taste as it were), as it is important and helps us begin from a common ground of knowledge from which to carry on an informed and productive discussion.

  • Patrick S. O'Donnell

    Here’s a few more titles by way of food for thought:

    • Case, John and Rosemary C.R. Taylor, eds. Co-ops, Communes, and Collectives: Experiments in Social Change in the 1960s and 1970s (New York: Pantheon Books, 1979).
    • Cheney, George. Values at Work: Employee Participation Meets Market Pressures at Mondragon (Ithaca, NY: ILR Press, 1999).
    • Clave, Pierre. The Progressive City: Planning and Participation, 1969-1984 (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1986).
    • Dolgoff, Sam, ed. The Anarchist Collectives: Workers’ Self-Management in the Spanish Revolution, 1936-1939 (New York: Free Life Editions, 1974).
    • Hine, Robert V. California’s Utopian Colonies (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1983 ed. [1953]).
    • MacLeod, Greg. From Mondragon to America: Experiments in Community Economic Development (Sydney, Nova Scotia: University College of Cape Breton Press, 1997).
    • Morrison, Roy. We Build the Road as We Travel (Philadelphia, PA: New Society Publishers, 1991).
    • Nichols, John. The “S” Word: A Short History of an American Tradition…Socialism (London: Verso, 2011).
    • Thomas H. and C. Logan. Mondragon: An Economic Analysis (London: Allen and Unwin, 1982).
    • Whyte, William Foote and Kathleen King Whyte. Making Mondragon: The Growth and Dynamics of the Worker Cooperative Complex (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1988).

  • Katie Loncke

    Hi Patrick, thank you for the titles. I think there might be some misunderstanding, though: I’m not saying that socialism or communism would be modes of production involving theft (that would be a whole other discussion, though maybe one people are interested in having), but that the *transition* from capitalism to a democratic, classless mode of production would seem to necessarily involve removing the owning class from power against their will. Do you disagree with that?

  • Patrick S. O'Donnell

    Oops, I left out one important title from the above compilation: John Curl, For All the People: Uncovering the Hidden History of Cooperation, Cooperative Movements, and Communalism in America (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2nd ed., 2012).

  • Patrick S. O'Donnell


    Again, I don’t want to get too involved in this discussion now, but I imagine something like an incrementalist (in a temporal sense, not in the sense that we need rely only on ‘incrementalist’ feedback a la Karl Popper) or social democratic transition to socialism that will invariably decrease much of the wealth of those at the top of the pyramid (I’m not so sure we’ll be able to say it will be ‘classless,’ but the disparity in power will no longer be such that some people are denied their basic needs and opportunities to develop and exercise their inherent potential and capacities). It may still be the case that some people are wealthier than others (as you might have, say, with a guaranteed annual income scheme that allows for people to earn money beyond what is guaranteed them and such earnings are according to desert criteria owing to creativity, hard work, and the like), but such wealth will no longer be predicated on systemic exploitation of labor or the structural disadvantage of others. John Rawls’s sketch of “liberal socialism” may be a worthwhile goal in itself or represent one means of transition to something greater as envisioned by more than a few communists, socialists, and anarchists (please see his discussion of Marx in his Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy, Samuel Freeman, ed. (Harvard University Press, 2007): 319-372). If wealth isn’t necessarily inherited then there are certainly ways, within several generations, to separate the inordinately wealthy from that which is needed by others. We had a discussion of this not too long ago over at the Crooked Timber blog so if I can find it I’ll later provide the link to it. As this is, comparatively speaking, a fairly small number of people, I think the greater problem is more in the realm of ideology, as many folks, be they poor, not-so-poor, or middle class, have dreams of enhanced conspicuous consumption or something on the order of the “lifestyles of the rich and famous.” That dream has a powerful hold on the motivational structure and imagination of the hoi polloi, and I think in the end THIS is the more recalcitrant problem, especially insofar as we envision a democratic transition (it means the masses as yet still do not hold a clear conception of what is truly in their best interests). In any case, we should appreciate the fact that a nonviolent social revolution is deeply implicated in changing hearts and minds of at least a critical mass of people (we’ll never persuade everyone!) as well as experimenting with alternative forms of living by way of providing concrete exemplars and suggestions for possible scenarios. The first half is far more difficult and means the timeframe of such a revolution is far different (indeed, it may be more ontological than temporal), that is, longer, than that which occurs in violent revolutions: the means and ends must somehow be, as Gandhi believed, convertible, such that–and to some inexplicable extent–“the revolution” is living in us here and now (much like the Christian endeavors to live here and now in the KIngdom of God while working for justice–distributive and otherwise–and the common good). I find the model of the Gandhian satyagrahi of some help here, and the Gandhian “constructive program” exemplified the endeavor to “be” the revolution while entertaining and relying on utopian models (swaraj, swadeshi, sarvodaya, satyagraha, gram raja, nai talim) of the ideal society by way of moral and social critique and civic education without believing these models represent some determinate historical future or picture of some inevitable “heaven on earth.”

  • Patrick S. O'Donnell

    Here’s two examples from the Crooked Timber blog (by Chris Bertram and John Quiggin respectively) of thinking about “transitions,” which of course was once a significant part of the debate over the cogency of social democratic politics and governance:

    Much of the literature I cited above represents the very marrow of possible transitional scenarios as does the “visionary gradualism” outlined in Michael Harrington’s last book: Socialism: Past & Future (Arcade Publishing, 1989)

  • Richard Modiano

    “Given Buddha’s definition of stealing, the societal change would have to include the wealthy voluntarily sharing their wealth. ”

    In other words, the thieves would have to voluntarily return their stolen goods. Not likely.

    Speaking as a Buddhist I try to leave with clear eyes, open heart and humble attitude, and my clear eyes tell me that the ruling class will never voluntarily surrender their ill gotten gains to the people from which they stole them in first place. In fact, they think they’re entitled to them, much as slave owners once upon a time believed they were entitled to own human beings.

    An old Wobbly song sums it up for me:

    We have fed you all for a thousand years
    And you hail us still unfed,
    Though there’s never a dollar of all your wealth
    But marks the workers’ dead.
    We have yielded our best to give you rest
    And you lie on crimson wool.
    Then if blood be the price of all your wealth,
    Good God! We have paid it in full!

    There is never a mine blown skyward now
    But we’re buried alive for you.
    There’s never a wreck drifts shoreward now
    But we are its ghastly crew.
    Go reckon our dead by the forges red
    And the factories where we spin.
    If blood be the price of your cursed wealth,
    Good God! We have paid it in!

    We have fed you all for a thousand years-
    For that was our doom, you know,
    From the days when you chained us in your fields
    To the strike a week ago.
    You have taken our lives, and our babies and wives,
    And we’re told it’s your legal share,
    But if blood be the price of your lawful wealth,
    Good God! We bought it fair!

  • Richard Modiano

    Concerning non-violent struggle, it’s important to remember that non-violence is confrontational. Since the injustices in society are mainly in the institutional system even though the personal agents might be innocent or even quite sympathetic, it is necessary to prevent the unjust institutions from grinding on as usual. It is necessary not to shun conflict but to seek it out. So Gandhi, and his American followers A.J. Muste and Martin Luther King Jr. were continually inventing campaigns to foment apparent disorder when things apparently had been orderly.

    Naturally, aggressive massive non-violence is not safe. (Gandhi lost thousands, and hundreds perished in the civil rights struggle.) If only mathematically, when there is a big crowd some will be hurt – sometimes because of one’s own hotheads, more usually because the police panic and try to enforce impossible restrictions in the name of upholding Law and Order. On the other hand, actions of this kind are far less likely to lead to a massacre. In the present climate of cold violence armed with a lethal technology, this is a major concern.

    I do not think that non-violence is incompatible with fringe violence or flare-ups of violence, so long as its own course is steadily political, appealing to justice, self-interest, and commonweal, and if the political object of the campaign speaks for itself. Gandhi, of course was a purist about avoiding violence, though he
    said that it was better to be violent against injustice than to do nothing; Muste and King were willing to co-operate with violent groups if they did not try to take over. Psychologically, indeed, it is probably an advantage for a non-violent movement to have a group in the wings committed to violent self-defense, since this quiets down the more rabid opposition and makes a calmer zone for real political and economic confrontation. (Sometimes it doesn’t work out so smoothly.)

    Non-violence does not necessarily prejudge the issue between “co-optation” and “people’s power.” Separatism is ruled out, however, since the point of confrontation is to come to mutual recognition and commonweal. It is not necessary to “love” one’s enemies, but there must be a belief that common humanity is more basic than racial or ideological difference; and this belief must be bona fide or non-violence becomes a mere tactic and has no energy. Certainly King’s followers took his universalist Christian rhetoric at face value. (So did I.) As I have said, it is the only realistic position; it is the tendency of history. We will come to community or perish.

  • John Eden

    Fascinating discussion! I feel privileged to be reading it… and happy that there are people like you who care about this. Personally, I feel there must be some gradual path of social development that transfers the wealth back to the people without overt violence. Of course, that path, as you’ve said, requires at least the majority to become convinced of its merit – so there’s our challenge!

  • seth nathanson

    “In other words, the thieves would have to voluntarily return their stolen goods. Not likely.”

    It has happened in the past. No one could imagine The Empire without the Crown Jewel — India. But through constant peaceful effort, the “thieves” decided it was in their best interests to return the country to the people they took it from. It was not taken, but freely given, once they were convinced that their position was undesirable.

  • Richard Modiano

    While the anti-colonial struggle in India was mostly non-violent on the part of the Indians, their British overlords resisted with violence every step of the way and thousands perished. That’s also part of the story.

    As I’ve indicated above, non-violent struggle is the best way to effect the dissolution of that system of institutionalized robbery called capitalism. The classic anarcho-syndicalist strategy for bring this about is the general strike where workers take over their workplaces (and there have been limited strikes that did this very thing; in 1946 Japanese transportation workers took over the buses, trams and trains and continued to operate them without charging fares until the bosses met their demands for wages and hours.)

    During the Spanish Revolution of 1936 small and medium sized factories were seized by the workers who hired back the owners as managers who received a wage like everyone else (large factories were taken over without any compensation to the absentee owners.)

    Realistically, any revolutionary outbreak will follow its own course depending on the causes and conditions that prevail at the moment of revolution, but willy nilly the expropriators will be expropriated whether they like it or not.

    Finally, the Buddha didn’t give commandments, he offered advice, and while not taking what is not freely given makes sense in fact it’s violated routinely and as a matter of course in capitalist society by just about everyone. We’re all the recipients of stolen goods if we own the computer we’re working with. You can bet your life that at least one or more of its components was made with sweated labor or even slave labor. Not freely given indeed.

    Consider Apple’s FoxConn factory in China where iPhones are manufactured; conditions are so miserable there that workers would rather commit suicide by jumping out the window than slave away at the work bench (and the company responded by placing nets outside the windows.)

  • seth nathanson

    No, Buddha does not give commandments from on high. He gives simple advice, the truth of which can be verified in daily life: Negative actions can never create good results.

    And while simple, its deep profundity is revealed in continued contemplation and meditation, holding true from the broadest scope to the most subtle.

    He does not ask that we take his advice on faith; he asks that we try for ourselves. Only when we can see its truth is our faith required to believe the truth holds for what we cannot verify.

    We live in a deeply contaminated world, stained by the self-centered delusions of countless living beings since beginning-less time. Everything we touch is poisoned; there is no island of purity anywhere to be found. It is not a matter of capitalism — there is nothing untainted by selfishness. No Utopia can spring from it without change from within ourselves.

    I do not know what Ms Roy’s intentions were when she spoke; I can only interpret from the words on the page. It does not sound like she is advocating peaceful resistance. It sounds like she is frustrated with the system, and saying we should “take and distribute”. And because I believe Buddha’s advice, this is a terrifying prospect that I can be sure will result in horrendous suffering for herself, those that follow her, the people who are the object of her anger, and ultimately, all of us. A degenerating world now made worse by new and escalated hatred, resentment, vengeance and violence.

    Buddha taught that ownership is a fallacy, that no one truly owns anything. We are given everything we have through the work of others, and we lose it all when we die. Even our body is the gift of our parents — we had no hand in making it! But then Buddha turns around and says taking the property of others is a negative action. Why? How could destroying a fallacy be damaging?

    Because destroying the fallacy has to come from inside. He taught gently and continually, helping people to discover the falsehood for themselves. They could never learn by having their belongings torn from their hands and given to others — no matter how wealthy and selfish they are and how beneficial the distribution would be. It only increases the very delusion he wants us to abandon.

  • Richard Modiano

    “there is nothing untainted by selfishness. No Utopia can spring from it without change from within ourselves.”

    That’s true, but equally true is the fact that we must change the institutions in which we live, the institutions outside ourselves.

    The psychiatrist Robert J. Lifton in his book “The Nazi Doctors” asked the question, how could men sworn to preserve life as a profession, men who were loving husbands and fathers, loyal friends and responsible members of their communities commit atrocities once they went to work at the camps? He hypothesized what he called “psychic doubling” to account for it. The Nazi doctors in order to conform to the institution they were serving had to temporarily deny their best instincts while they were at work. The institution they were serving warped them in spite of themselves.

    And within the Western Buddhist world there have been institutional changes made in response to the abuses of various teachers (that went on for years in some cases,) all thought by their followers to have attained some degree of realization, and destroying the fallacy of their infallibility of necessity had to come from without once the disciples came to their senses by reorganizing their sanghas to include accountability.

    If we take this “destroying the fallacy has to come from inside” to the extreme, the concentration camps should never have been liberated until the overseers achieved insight into their monstrous deeds and voluntarily released the prisoners.

    Long ago Gary Snyder, the poet and Zen student, wrote in his essay “Buddhism and Anarchism” (first published in 1961) the following (and I agree with his formulation):

    “The mercy of the West has been social revolution; the mercy of the East has been individual insight into the basic self/void. We need both. They are both contained in the traditional three aspects of the Dharma path: wisdom (prajna), meditation (dhyana), and morality (sila). Wisdom is intuitive knowledge of the mind of love and clarity that lies beneath one’s ego-driven anxieties and aggressions. Meditation is going into the mind to see this for yourself — over and over again, until it becomes the mind you live in. Morality is bringing it back out in the way you live, through personal example and responsible action, ultimately toward the true community (sangha) of “all beings.”

    “This last aspect means, for me, supporting any cultural and economic revolution that moves clearly toward a free, international, classless world. It means using such means as civil disobedience, outspoken criticism, protest, pacifism, voluntary poverty and even gentle violence if it comes to a matter of restraining some impetuous redneck. It means affirming the widest possible spectrum of non-harmful individual behavior — defending the right of individuals to smoke hemp, eat peyote, be polygynous, polyandrous or homosexual. Worlds of behavior and custom long banned by the Judaeo-Capitalist-Christian-Marxist West. It means respecting intelligence and learning, but not as greed or means to personal power. Working on one’s own responsibility, but willing to work with a group. ‘Forming the new society within the shell of the old’ — the IWW slogan of fifty years ago.”

  • Tom Pepper

    This is an interesting discussion, and I’ve gotten some great suggestions for reading.

    I’ve been reading through the post and comments over the last couple of days, and two thoughts come to mind.

    The first is that, as Richard Mondiano says immediately above, we must change our institutions, not try to focus on some kind of “inner change” and just hope it will lead to change in the world. The reason is (and I take this to be a fundamental insight of Buddhist thought) there is not “deep self” that is not completely the effect of the institutions in which it exists. We must change our institutions because our personal “selves” are effects of these institutions, and if we don’t change them we cannot reduce suffering. (Well, maybe some people can, but only at the cost of ignoring the suffering that the institutions cause for the majority).

    The second is that redistributing wealth and the idea of “taking what is not freely given” continues to reify money. Clearly, money is simply a fetish, a reification of the social organization of human beings. We think something cannot be done because “the economy won’t allow it,” and so we mistake the economy for an entity ruling our lives which we must obey. Instead of taking money from the rich, we need to recognize that money is the symbol of an unfair system of social organization, and possession of money is the way the rich steal from the poor–stealing their time, their freedom, their ability to use their productive capacities in the world (the poor can’t work not because there is not work that needs to be done, but because there are no “jobs”, ie, no way for profit to be made off of the work that needs to be done).

    I’ve been reading “The New Spirit of Capitalism” and Lefebvre’s “Critique of Everyday Life,” trying to think through how real change can occur. I think Buddhist thought is essential to enabling real change, because the problem always seems to return to the insistence that people need to be motivated by money, to the insistence that without this motivation delusion, nobody would ever do anything, so all human activity requires an organizing delusion. Serious Buddhist thought tries to deconstruct and break through all of our reifying delusions.

    Lefebvre suggests that the most important first step in change is to abandon the misconception that the “humble, everyday human world [is] a crude facade for certain sublime realities.” Instead we must see that this real everyday world is humanly constructed, and is all there is, and then we can can make a new organization of social activity which is “stripped of its facade and liberated.”

    Couldn’t we begin this proces of transformation with some really rigorous Buddhist thought, helping more and more people to escape the kind of illusions that lead them to seek “inner change” instead of social change or to be stuck in the belief that there must be money, exchange value, and we must obey it and recognize the rights of the few to possess it?

  • John Eden

    Interesting analysis, Tom. Your comment seems to me to suggest that the difference between the two perspectives, both from Buddhists, turns on the distinction between “no-self” and “true-self” interpretations of Buddha’s teachings. Of course, there’s no ‘right’ side in that difference, just difference of opinion… which is why the discussion is so interesting! And will not be resolved… finding the contributions from both is the best we’re gonna get.

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