Buddhist Economics, Cool Enough To Touch
The light and heat generated during the late 60s and early 70s was the result of challenging boundaries, and to some extent testing the possibility of actually setting up a tent and living on a boundary. Living an everyday life in that high intensity environment proved untenable, but the artifacts thrown off from those expeditions have started to cool off enough that we can finally pick them up and examine them.
Intensity or high definition engenders specialism and fragmentation in living as in entertainment, which explains why any intense experience must be “forgotten,” “censored,” and reduced to a very cool state before it can be “learned” or assimilated. The Freudian “censor” is less of a moral function than an indispensable condition of learning. Were we to accept fully and directly every shock to our various structures of awareness, we would soon be nervous wrecks, doing double-takes and pressing panic buttons every minute. The “censor” protects our central system of values, as it does our physical nervous system by simply cooling off the onset of experience a great deal. For many people, this cooling system brings on a lifelong state of psychic rigor mortis, or of somnambulism, particularly observable in periods of new technology.
In 1973, E.F. Schumacher published a collection of essays under the title: Small Is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered. In the essay Buddhist Economics, Schumacher points out that value in economics is derived from our system of values. Suppressing all systems of values in favor of the idea of economic growth has allowed capital to emerge as an other-worldly abstraction. Like any successful creature, it fights to preserve the particular state of the ecosystem that allows it to flourish. Buddhist Economics posits that other systems of value are possible.
Economists themselves, like most specialists, normally suffer from a kind of metaphysical blindness, assuming that theirs is a science of absolute and invariable truths, without any presuppositions. Some go as far as to claim that economic laws are as free from “metaphysics” or “values” as the law of gravitation. We need not, however, get involved in arguments of methodology. Instead, let us take some fundamentals and see what they look like when viewed by a modern economist and a Buddhist economist.
It is clear, therefore, that Buddhist economics must be very different from the economics of modern materialism, since the Buddhist sees the essence of civilization not in a multiplication of wants but in the purification of human character. Character, at the same time, is formed primarily by a man’s work. And work, properly conducted in conditions of human dignity and freedom, blesses those who do it and equally their products.
Recently, Umair Haque has reintroduced us to the idea that value must return to earth, must live amongst people again, must be socialized. The value system of growth has been playing a zero-sum game. The monoculture of economics must change its farming practices and think of the fields once more as a garden. I wonder whether these ideas have cooled enough to be considered possibilities. Has the ecosystem changed enough to uncover interfaces by which they could be assimilated?
The Greek philosopher Heraclitus noted that we cannot step into the same river twice. And yet I swear I’ve seen this piece of the stream before…
TS Eliot, Burnt Norton
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.
But to what purpose
Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves
I do not know.
Inhabit the garden.
Shall we follow?