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Notes on Economy (Pt. 1)

Notes on Economy (Pt. 1)

Last week the New York City General Assembly, the democratic body through which Occupy Wall Street (OWS) is administered in Lower Manhattan, set a profound precedent by approving a proposal to convert the Screen Printing Working Group to a horizontally-organized workers cooperative. The proposal flew under the radars of virtually everyone, as far as I can tell. For those unfamiliar, the Screen Printing Working Group had busied itself up to that point producing signs, t-shirts, and all other manner of protest visuals through an on-site silkscreen station in Zuccotti Park (and at various off-site locations, following the NYPD’s eviction of the encampment). The proposal in question would initiate a transformation that would both generate revenue adequate to provide occupiers with a livelihood, and put OWS’s hat in the proverbial ring by actively creating frameworks for dignified, remunerative work in contrast to the neoliberal gospel/methodology of job creation.

While subtle, it’s difficult to overstate the significance, here. After all, this is the first tangibly alternative economic structure spun out of the movement, and the spectrum of economic positions within OWS might very well be its broadest and most contentious aspect. It seems just as likely that a more liberal-minded micro-finance program (or such) would’ve made its way out of the GA first, setting a far less demanding bar for mapping horizontalism and direct democracy onto economic and productive activity. Given the holiday season demand laying in wait for such an operation, effectively jumpstarting prospects, there’s good reason to expect this will be the benchmark for modeling the economic vision of OWS, going forward.

For those interested in forging a correspondence between the Buddha’s teachings and the unfolding of OWS, this particular event poses something of a deep question: What is an economic/productive form that reflects the ethical training laid out in the Dhamma? What is the standard against which we evaluate such relations?

Certainly, the Buddha gave a number of teachings related to conducting business, investment, etc. They’re not terribly radical, and appear to prescribe behavior within the framework of existing norms and structures. Not surprising. One has to keep in mind that the Buddha himself was, by his own admission, solely preoccupied with liberation from greed, hatred, and delusion – to the exclusion of a number of considerations he regarded as imponderable, even. There’s a sort of individualizing and resigned reading of this that takes the Buddha’s parameters less as a tactical decision, and more as a sort of totalizing gospel aimed at individual salvation, somewhat indifferent to external conditions. There’s also a reading that suggests that matters beyond the Buddha’s narrow focus were for the rest of us to sort out together, as we follow our own paths. I’m inclined toward the latter reading, and find adequate encouragement for it all through the canon.

When I spend time with this question of production relations, I come back over and over to the second lay precept for ethical behavior: the training to refrain from taking what is not freely given. The conventional takeaway here, simply put, is “don’t steal.” But an array of teachers have taken great pains to insist that the training is far more broad; it challenges us to consider how we take up others’ time, attention, space, and energy in ways that they are not freely offering. If we can expand our understanding of the precept to include something so immaterial as how we take up others’ attention, reading it as inclusive of something so material as production relations ought to be fair game.

Well aware of the controversy I’m courting, here, and genuinely interested in the discussion I very much hope to provoke, I want to argue that no production relations under capitalism can be reconciled with the Second Precept. Beyond even the foundational roles of the dispossession and extermination of indigenous people and the subsequent slave trade in the accumulation of surplus and capital in North America, (and those outside North America are encouraged to consider the role of colonialism), one cannot speak of anything “freely given” in a world where one’s choices are limited to submission to the available price for one’s labor, or homelessness, starvation, the starvation of one’s family, or worse.

Outside a dedicated mapping of direct democracy and equality onto the productive sphere (which, I’ll add, offers a good deal to ecological aspirations), I see no real possibility for labor under capitalism that is carried out with any degree of freedom. I’m as comfortable with that claim as a reflection of the Second Precept as I am with its more conventional political trappings. Having made my living in worker-owned/operated enterprises for the last half-decade, I’m intimately familiar with the discipline and moment to moment practice that equality and dignity require in a workplace. It is an often visceral and painfully challenging form of off-the-cushion practice. For this reason alone, the decision taken by the OWS screen printers ought to draw the gaze of those who’ve taken up liberation as laid out in the Buddha’s instruction. It’s an indirect call for us to reflect on how deep our liberatory aspirations run, and the conditions we want to cultivate for each other.

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