Compassionate Appeals to Our “Leaders” Won’t Transform Society
In the comments section of the first clip in our interview series with Waging Non-Violence editor Nathan Schneider, BFP Co-director Katie Loncke offered the following:
the folks over at Buddha On Strike (who share a lot of super interesting analysis on compassion in economics), summarize their practice of meditating at the Goldman Sachs offices in this way:
“So we go to Goldman every day and meditate and extend compassion, and demand that they extend that same compassion to the billions of people across the world affected by their practices.”
Of course, sometimes we are working from below even as we address people in power. We can model compassion for people in positions of top-down power. That piece seems really solid in the daily Goldman meditation, holding signs like “Let’s Alleviate Suffering Together.” But where is the mechanism to enforce the “demand”? It’s one thing to compassionately address people in power because we *depend on them to change their ways,* and another thing to organize for change from below — soul force — people power — and *from that stance of pressure and leverage,* manifest our compassion for those defending injustice, protecting the structures that keep injustice flowing.
I think the majority of us recognize that something is way off about the way things are. However, we live in societies built upon highly unjust, top down forms of power. And having lived and breathed this way of being together for so long, it’s difficult to imagine and start to enact something new. We have been trained that a small, select number of people are supposed to hold the lions share of power, and that the we – the regular people – are “given” the rest of the power in the form of voting, writing letters to elected officials, meeting with public officials to air grievances, and other such minor mechanisms. It’s similar in the corporate world, where public concerns are supposedly addressed by the “market,” and that when changes in individual purchase habits aren’t enough, appeals to government run agencies will deal with the more thorny problems, like massive environmental destruction or heavy labor abuses. These table scraps are touted as grand rewards given by benevolent leaders, when the reality is that even they have their origins in collective struggles throughout history.
The Goldman Sachs protests Katie brings up play right into this. Appealing to what they hope will become a benevolent leadership who changes their ways, and offers the world a good corporate example to emulate. This kind of appealing is essentially ahistorical. It fails to take into account the very addictive grip greed has on the folks at the top of Goldman Sachs, and also how the actions of their company are tied into a globalized power structure that keeps it all going. Even if the head of Goldman Sachs suddenly is struck by one of their signs, and thinks “I’m going to do things differently,” he’s got a whole corporation, plus shareholders, plus a worldwide network of financial concerns tied in with national governments to face. The pressure to keep doing what they’ve been doing is fierce, never mind the fact that it’s damned rare for someone to overcome the conditioning that led them to the top of the heap and have such an epiphany in the first place.
I recently read this excellent article which explores the non-violent Otpur resistance movement in Serbia that spurred on the collapse of the Milosevic government a little over a decade ago. One of the things Otpur focused on was undermining the several layers of supporting cast members and structures below the top of the power pyramid. Instead of appealing to Milosevic or his top officials, they went after local officials, police officers, business folks, and others who in various ways, helped prop up the government, but who also were trapped within a system that mostly used them for the benefit of those above them. Although I don’t think Otpur had a clearly developed vision build on a “power with” model, rather than a power over model, their activist methods suggest a shift in that direction. Seeing those with only a bit more power than them as being most important to influence. What if the Goldman Sachs protestors spent some of their time and energy directly appealing to the average workers in GS? Attempting to break down their compliance with following orders on critical pieces of their work that might make a difference in the lives of so many others? The challenge with multinationals is that they are, indeed, multinational. Which means that campaigns probably need to spread beyond a single country or location, even if it’s the headquarters of the company.
Anyway, bringing it back to us Buddhists, Katie goes on to ask “Have you experienced a tendency in Buddhist circles to talk around power, or hope that the people in power will change their ways without active, strong pressure from below, and systemic overhauls?”
First off, there aren’t enough discussions about power and social issues amongst Buddhists in the first place. Putting that aside, though, what I find is that, at least amongst American convert Buddhist folks, there’s a strong middle class ethos to these conversations. A belief that the government is for the people. That voting and petitioning elected officials is our main form of power. That the whole thing boils down to Democrats or Republicans. That our individual choices, such as choosing to eat organic or not shop at Walmart, are the other main form of power. And that in general, the structures of American society are ok. Maybe not perfect, but talk of radical action, strikes, revolution, building new economies or political mechanisms is rare, if almost nonexistent.
If you’re doing ok under certain conditions, it’s harder to advocate and pressure for something radically different. If you’re at the top and thriving (materially anyway) under certain conditions, it’s highly unlikely you’ll advocate and pressure for something radically different.
So, it really shouldn’t be a surprise that many Buddhist efforts here in the states are about reform. Or basic charity to support those being most screwed over by the current systems.
In fact, I think the historical Buddha’s story might be a hindrance for us in this regard. Specifically, hearing about this man who was living at the top of the pyramid, who chooses to abandon his wealth and power in search of the truth about this life. It can give the impression that if we show the corporate and political leaders of today enough of the misery being produced as a result of their decisions that they’ll have something of a wake up moment. Something strong enough to make them choose to abandon their ways and forge a better path forward. It’s not that folks are going around equating the Buddha with the CEO of Goldman Sachs. It’s more that because we view everyone as having buddhanature, there can be a sort of equivalency that goes along with that in our actions. A thinking that says the same approaches will work with anyone.
Beyond that, though, and returning to the beginning of this article, is the point that most of us have lived and breathed this way of being together for decades. It takes a lot of work to imagine something different. To unearth examples, either historically or happening now, of something different. And then to push forth with efforts in that new direction.
What folks like Buddha on Strike are doing is a start. And actions like the Goldman Sachs demonstration have the potential to shift in such a direction if they reconsider who they are aiming for, and what additional tactics might be needed to bring about the transformation they desire.
What do you think?
*Photo Buddha On Strike founder Max Zahn meditating outside of Goldman Sachs.