Delusionary States: Toppling the Big Stories of Our Times
As human beings, we live with a lot of abstractions we consider to be normal, almost like a collective hallucination. This is a familiar idea for dhamma practitioners since one of the fundamental and liberating insights of dhamma is the experience of anatta, or “no-self.” Through practice we begin to experience the emptiness of something we thought was very solid—our sense of self. We begin to loosen attachment to self, while recognizing some of its functional and quirky usefulness.
Money is another every day hallucination—our society collectively agrees that money measures value, or more basically, that it is a “thing” with certain rules and socially useful properties. We all “agree” to use it according to those rules. Gender is yet another example—the dominant story in the United States is that there are naturally only two genders, and each has certain supposedly inherent rules of behavior.
Think of how these ideas, though without essence or natural existence, are also incredibly real. Our society has built entire worlds on them—laws, policies, rules, relationships, stories, identities, values—and therefore they have real and uneven physical, economic, psychological consequences. In social science speak, these are social constructs, or unnatural phenomena constructed by humans that are naturalized by convention.
Government is a social construct. At first this might be somewhat obvious, since there are many kinds of governance—democratic, socialist, monarchy, dictatorship, and many combinations of flavors in between. But even the idea that there should be a centralized government is an assumption.
Although in the US we are accustomed to abstracted governments where power is distributed among many different people and branches of government, the idea of power being invested in a central institution is a hold-over from monarchy. It was the monarch who assumed sovereignty over everything in the kingdom, and any crime committed within the kingdom, whether it was actually against the physical king or not, was a crime against the monarch. Monarch, state, land, and everything in its borders was legally equivalent. With the development of practices like representative democracy, the monarch’s powers were redistributed, but still tied to the state as our sovereign. Today, a crime committed is not against a king, but it is still against the state, and the state comes after you through its prosecutor.
For those of us who live in representative democracies like the US, one of the central ironies is that we have yet to really topple the king. We elect people to be little kings, who are body parts of the big king that is the government. It is a republic, not a democracy. With so many moving parts, the state gives us a story to buy into so that we walk more or less down the same path—nationalism.
We live in a time of big, socially constructed stories—progress, development, civilization, nationhood—all of which have justified colonization, disenfranchisement, exploitation, environmental destruction, genocide, and more. It does little good to say these things have no essence because they have real and often fatal effects. But because they are not inherently natural, we can change them or create new stories. Once we observe anatta, we have room to choose a new course of action. We can stay stuck in the same old stories, or develop a way that is better for us.
Luckily we also have stories such as human rights, which expand our minds beyond the parochial. We also have the idea that the Earth itself has rights, which Bolivia is set to put into place. In the Ley de Derechos de la Madre Tierra, the Earth is a “collective subject of public interest” to be protected against harm by genetic modification or pollution. As a legal “person” of which all humans are part, individuals or groups will be able to take legal action as “Mother Earth.”
Though it remains to be seen how this law will play out in practice, we can still appreciate what it makes possible. It blurs the lines between individuals, groups, the state, and the world. If an environmental crime is committed, it is against not just the state as the people’s representative. It is against something that goes beyond the human, something that can be embodied in an individual suer who is simultaneously a collectivity of human and non-human beings. It recognizes that being human is not just about the conventional story of “I” but an interconnected set of experiences and relationships. Just as dhamma practice eventually begins to topple attachment to solid self, these big stories are wonderful steps towards toppling all the little kings who do not place the health of all beings—without exception—at the top of their agendas.