Thoughts on Our First Buddhist/Marxist Retreat

In our recent two-person Buddhist/marxist “retreat,” Chaim Wigder (aka The Failed Buddhist) and I spent some time discussing Shin Buddhism and Marxist ideology theory.  Our hope is that by writing a bit about the outcome of this retreat, we can encourage others to participate in possible future attempts.  Many people we discussed this with were wary of a gathering in which there is no focus on meditation, and in which there is no leader, with each participant being responsible for choosing the focus of part of the discussion.  My thoughts on the results of this meeting are that it was quite helpful in clarifying some important issues, and also providing motivation for continued work.

We each chose a text to discuss, with no prior consideration of their relationship to one another, so I was surprised to find that there is a startling similarity in both the problem that the texts addressed and the impasse that they reached.  

My choice was an essay by Kaneko Daiei, originally published in the 1920s and reissued in 1966, called “Prolegomena to Shin Buddhist Studies.”  Kaneko advocates what was initially a minority and controversial understanding of Shin Buddhism, in which the pure land is understood as a myth, a useful fiction, and not a real place to which we might go when we die.  He also advocated the engagement with Western philosophy, particularly Kant, in order to think more critically about Buddhism, and argued that it is essential to historicize Buddhist texts in order to grasp their full meaning for us today.  Although he was removed from his teaching job after WWII because of his collaboration with the imperial government, he was later reinstated, and his position on the study of Shin Buddhism became more common.  His essay was republished as he worked, in the sixties, to defend the importance of his academic discipline.  He sees Shin Buddhist studies as a way to move forward to a society in which there is less necessary suffering, but it is clear enough that one could see this academic discipline as serving to promote the adjustment of the Japanese to the new capitalist world they were building.  

Chaim chose to read Henri Lefebvre’s The Sociology of Marx, published in 1966, and also largely a defense of an academic discipline.  But Lefebvre’s goal is to find a way to use the discipline of sociology to advance the cause of communism and resist the post-war triumph of capitalism.  

At first glance, then, it may seem that these two texts are diametrically opposed.  In order to demonstrate the helpfulness of the kind of retreat we engaged in, as a means of enabling dialectical thought, I want to briefly demonstrate the similarity I found in these two mid-twentieth-century attempts to engage with the juggernaut of global capitalism through academic disciplines.  I’m sure Chaim will have his own, somewhat different, conclusions to draw from our discussions—and this difference should also serve to illustrate the potential for this kind of short-term intensive discussion of challenging texts as a form of practice, which does not necessarily lead to a single “conclusion” as might be expected to occur in a retreat focused on a teacher.

What struck me was that both of these thinkers are trying to overcome the impasse of determinism, but fail to do so because of a hopelessly idealist conception of language. The result is that, in both cases, we need to rely on an optimistic hope that there is an inevitable progress toward liberation that simply must occur, but only once we stop trying to direct change through the oppressive and obfuscating medium of language.  

I’ll take each thinker in turn, and briefly outline the argument.

For Kaneko, it is important not to assume that the pure land is real. As he puts it, “Sakyamuni started from the position that there is neither a god nor a soul” (201).  What are we to make, then, of talk of an afterlife in the pure land?  His suggestion is that talk of the afterlife is meant to “reveal the contrast between the actual world and the ideal world”(177), sort of the way a utopian fiction might.  Our desire for a pure land should be understood as arising from the contradictions at the center of our existing world, a world which produces us as a kind of subject which is inherently dissatisfied with things as they are.  For Kaneko, we should not look to historical situations to account for the fantasy of a pure land, or a heaven after death.  Poverty and oppression may give rise to such fantasies, but so will any historical situation structured on contradictions.  Even if we are affluent and comfortable, in a world dependent on the poverty and oppression of others there will necessarily be, in the structure of our selves, a dissatisfaction which motivates us to undertake some spiritual practice.  

The dilemma, though, is in figuring what exactly we should do about this situation.  We cannot resort to analyzing it in language, Kaneko assumes, because we “fall into delusion through ‘perfuming though words’,” and “Sakyamuni’s true realization…is impossible to express in words”(183).  What is essential here is that he assumes that the goal, the ideal state realized by Sakyamuni, must be represented  in language in order for language to be of any use at all—since language fails at the task of objective representation, we need to abandon it completely.  The result is that we are left to hope that the contradiction structuring the subject will simply automatically motivate or produce the action necessary to its own resolution.  We cannot plan a response to our state of dissatisfaction, but must find one already indicated to us, through what Kaneko calls “reflecting inwardly.”  The problem, for me, is that there is no reason to assume that this contradiction will resolve itself into anything other than whatever the current social formation needs to perpetuate itself.  This is an extremely abstract point, I know, but I hope it will become clearer as I explain how Lefebvre faces the same fundamental problem.

For Lefebvre, the key concept it “praxis.”  Praxis, he tells us, “rests on a twofold foundation: the sensuous on the one hand, creative activity stimulated by a need it transforms on the other”(42). It is “first and foremost act, dialectical relation between man and nature, consciousness and things”(45).  Let’s take a crude hypothetical example to illustrate this. Imagine primitive humans having a sensuous need for food; our creative capacity enables us to develop agriculture, to prevent shortages and failure to meet the need; this creativity in turn produces a new transformed need, the need to produce plows and silos and fences, etc.  The dialectic of man and nature, then, produces an internal contradiction in the subject, who both wants freedom from the deprivation of sensuous needs but also freedom from the kind of increased necessary labor that agricultural production requires.  We are driven by a core contradiction, which leads to certain practices, like division of labor and class distinctions, enslaving and oppressing workers, etc.  These very practices maintain the core contradiction in the subject, leading to further dialectical progress and new creative activities.

The problem, for Lefebvre, comes in with the use of Language: “language—not only the language of ideologists (e.g., philosophers) but also of all those who speak—distorts practical reality”(73).  Ideology arises because it becomes possible to use language to distort reality in such a way as to stop the natural dialectic, which would have driven us toward resolution of the current contradiction.  “Praxis,” Lefebvre argues, “always looks forward to new possibilities,” (77), while ideologies reify existing conditions. Therefore, it is the goal of marxism to “do away with ideologies”(86).  The problem is that all language is ideological by nature, failing to represent reality accurately, and so we must also escape the trap of thinking in language, and return to pure praxis.  As with Kaneko, we are left with the need for an optimistic hope that the contradiction will, if we stop using concepts and language, lead to its own best resolution. 

But is there any reason to assume this will happen?  Isn’t it more likely that the dialectic will lead us only to more intense fantasies of escape to the pure land, or to more oppressive forms of production that exclude the unpleasant manual labor from the consciousness of the ruling class?  

What both approaches lead to here is the abandonment of the only kind of agency we can actually have.  And this is so because both assume a naive representationalist model of language.  

My position would be that we need not escape language or ideology, but make better use of them.  We can understand language as primarily functioning to produce shared intentions, and only secondarily as representative. In this way, we need not see the lack of objectivity as a failure of language, but as a strength.  Our goal, in using language, is to make explicit to one another our shared assumption and commitments, and the relationship between these two. Only once we understand this can we have the limited kind of agency humans are able to have.  We need no longer rely on the blind hope that contradictions will work themselves out in a way advantageous to us. 

Instead, we can begin to use language to make explicit the assumptions and intentions that are producing these contradictions.  But we can also use language to produce new and better assumptions and intentions, which we can understand as infinitely corrigible.  It is true that language, and ideology, often do obscure reality and naturalize current practices; but the only escape from that dilemma is a more thoroughly rigorous use of language.  Retreating from language will only rob us of our most powerful asset as the only symbolic species on Earth.

My experience on this “retreat,” then, has renewed my motivation to pursue the work I have been engaged in for many years now, at a point when my enthusiasm was fading.  But it has also helped clarify for me just how this core error manifests in multiple and very different twentieth-century discourses.  Both are defenses of particular academic disciplines, and I have come to wonder if perhaps this is part of the problem: if academic discourses of necessity are limited to obfuscations and reifying language practices (that is, it is required of academic disciplines that they avoid the making explicit of assumptions and commitments), and so the only apparent option within any academic field is retreat into purely paradoxical confidence in determinism to do the right thing for us.

I would not have thought this through without a retreat like this.  My own idea to revisit some particularly troubling Shin Buddhist texts would probably have been postponed indefinitely; and I doubt I would have read this particular text of Lefebvre, or even have revisited Lefebvre at all any time soon.  

At the moment, we have no specific plans for a second Buddhist/marxist retreat.  But I would hope to do another, with more participants.  If anyone is interested, get in touch with me or with Chaim, and perhaps we can plan another event.  It will have to be in person, and will NOT focus on meditation, but any topic of discussion related to Buddhism and/or marxism is possible.  

Works Cited

Kaneko Daiei, “Prolegomena to Shin Buddhist Studies”, trans. Robert F. Rhodes.  In Cultivating Spirituality: a modern Shin Buddhist anthology.  SUNY Press, 2011.

Lefebvre, Henri, The Sociology of Marx, trans. Norbert Guterman.  Columbia University Press, 1982.

Some Personal Musings Nobody Needs to Read

The proposal for the book I’m working on was just rejected for the third time.  Not unusual, I’m sure.  But it has me thinking about the difficulty of seriously critiquing capitalist ideology in any way that would have real impact.  For one thing, I have only submitted my proposal to publishers that are avowedly anti-capitalist, and from two of them got only the stock “not for us” response; this while most of their books are not at all anti-capitalist.  

More troubling, though, is the only response that was NOT a stock email rejection.  That press at least took the time to tell me why exactly my proposal was not viable.  Their explanation was that I need to first develop a social media presence (their term), via YouTube, Twitter, or Instagram, so that my book would have a pre-existing “following” to insure sales.  I do see the marketing value here…but since much of my point in this book has to do with the troubling effects of the form in which our ideology is delivered—that is, that social media is itself a dangerous ideology—doing this seems to me problematic.  

I’ll keep looking, but it is looking increasingly like this blog and maybe some form of self-publishing may be the only option with a book like this.  I like to tell myself that this is because what I’m doing is too radical and I’m just ahead of my time.  But I’m not good at deluding myself, and so remain aware it might just be that what I’m saying is uninteresting or too obscurely presented to have any real appeal.  It might just be my failing, not the limitations of audience, that lead most people to ignore what I do; surely, in the history of literature and philosophy, this has most often been the real cause of neglect.  On the other hand, the real cause of popularity has always without exception been that one is supporting the hegemony.  My goal has always been to fall somewhere in between the extremes.

Lately, I’ve seriously considered abandoning this project.  If I’m going to write something nobody will ever read, well, frankly, writing fiction is just more fun.  For now, though, I think I’ll stick with it a bit longer.   Even if the only audience is my own kids when they get older, I feel an obligation to tell them these things, and an increasing awareness that I might not be around, or able,  to do it when they get out of college and are ready to hear them.  With only four more chapter left to draft, I might as well finish it and then see if I have the energy to go through the revision process.  

On a related note, last week was the first Marxist-Buddhist retreat, which consisted only of myself and The Failed Buddhist, out in the woods talking about Shin Buddhism, Henri Lefebvre and Sartre.  Sometime this week I’ll be posting my thoughts on the discussions.  We discussed the difficulty with inspiring interest in this retreat, and it seems to me similar to the difficulty I have getting anyone to publish what I write.  Most people want to be comforted, reassured, and told only that some simple adjustment to their personal life will make them happier.  Even the radical press seems to suggest that the change we need is mostly one of attitude, with little effort involved.  A retreat involving effortful thought, with no leader, were participants need to suggest the readings and lead the discussion, has little appeal.  Buddhism, like everything else, has to promise some reward, some reduction of effort and potential increase in income, to be a desirable use of time, in an age in which even our hobbies must develop our earning potential ins some way.

Overcoming this way of being in the world seems to me the greatest challenge to any attempt to overcome capitalism before it destroys the planet.  I suppose, then, that I need to do the same, and go ahead and finish writing this book even if there is no “reward,” financial or otherwise, for my effort.  Finding enjoyment in exactly such activities is, after all, what I am arguing for.

The revolution, I am confident, will largely be ignored by social media.  In our bizarre age of global capitalism, reading a book or meeting with others in person are the most radical acts of all. 

Rabble and the Failure of Ideology

The response to the two shootings over the last weekend has renewed my conviction that my argument I’m trying to make here is of some importance.

The standard response so far has been to locate the cause of the shootings in either the excessive availability of guns or in racism.  What I want to suggest is that both of these are better understood as the result of the same problem that has also led to the epidemic of mass shootings: the failure of ideology.  In fact, it would be my argument that this is also the cause of the increase in addiction, mental illness, and suicide that we see reported in the newspapers on a weekly basis.  Mistaking something like the availability of guns for the ultimate cause of such events will prevent us from ever arriving at, or even considering, a solution.

We tend to think of ideology as a monolithic and suffocating thing, so pervasive that it is unlikely anyone could ever escape its obfuscating power sufficiently to act for any considered reason.  My argument here is that this is the wrong understanding of ideology.  We should see ideology as a desirable thing, something we should spend our time producing and reproducing.  The greatest problem we face today is not that we are too thoroughly interpellated by ideology (although this may in fact be true of many more affluent Americans), but that for far too many people there is no adequate ideology for them to participate in.

Once we understand ideology as the beliefs-in-practices which give our lives meaning, providing us with goals and, importantly, actual social practices in which we can meet those goals successfully, then we can begin to see just how it is possible that for many millions of people in America there is a dearth, not excess, of ideology.

Far too many people today are left without what Charles Taylor calls “hypergoods.” That is, they have no clear organizing principle which can serve to give purpose to all their more quotidian pursuits.  Now, I’m not talking about God here.  A hypergood may be something quite secular, like becoming a member of the middle class, or engaging in an occupation that seems to be socially valuable, or even participating in amateur sports or community theater.  Once we have decided what will give our lives some sense of value, we need to find some way to actually participate in this activity.  This is always, for humans, going to be a social activity. There is just no way to survive as a human without some community.  We need to have activities that allow us to engage with others in some project that is both of real social value, and in which we feel we have some significant role to play, and feel we can contribute to making important decisions about.  When we feel we have no input into how the world works, and we cannot find social roles that allow us to fulfill goals, we suffer from anomie and alienation.

In the present capitalist economy, in which fewer and fewer people have more and more wealth, and so can monopolize decisions about what collective projects our society will undertake, more and more people are considered superfluous. They have no opportunity to do things like buy a house, send their kids to college, plan for retirement.  And because they do not have this level of stability, they have no opportunity to join clubs or other social organizations that can collectively plan meaningful projects.  

This is what Hegel, in Outlines of the Philosophy of Right, calls the rabble.  Rabble are those who have been impoverished, necessarily, by the inherent function of the capitalist system, and so have no investment in the collective project of our society. They have no part to play in it other than as consumers of things like cellphones and video games and cable services—or, things that may make them feel temporarily more powerful like drugs and alcohol and guns.  Such people work dead-end jobs to survive, and spend what little they make on short-term mind-numbing activities.  

Hegel does explain that this is inevitable in a capitalist economy.   As accumulation of wealth increases, fewer people are needed to work, but to maintains economic growth these underemployed people will still need to consume commodities.  We wind up with an enormous number of superfluous people, with no meaningful practices to engage in, no hypergoods to structure their lives, no hope of ever achieving anything.

And they remain outside of the collective mind, what Hegel calls Geist, that those participating in the capitalist game are part of. They are, in the most important sense, without a mind to become a part of, alienated individuals who can see no future.

So they act out of revenge at those they believe have excluded them, denied them recognition and a meaningful role in society.  That they are often mistaken about the actual source of this denial should not come as a surprise, given the effort put into preventing clear and correct understanding of capitalist social formations. And the energy invested in promoting racism.  

When a man (these shooters are almost always men) who did all the things he was supposed to is suddenly, after a financial collapse he had no part in and cannot even understand, downsized out of a permanent job and spends a decade losing his house, unable to pay for his kids’ clothes and dental care, while he works multiple short-term  low-paying jobs… he is bound to become alienated from the norms and goals of American culture.  And when he is then told over and over that the situation today is all his fault, because he has “white privilege” (these shooters are predominantly white) and so has all the power and wealth and control in America…he is likely to start actually seeking that “white privilege” he doesn’t really feel while living in a squalid apartment with no money, no job, no health care, no family.  

It is enormously disturbing to me that these mass shootings mystify not only the press but all the so-called public intellectuals called upon to explain them and offer solutions.  They simply cannot see, because it is something we cannot speak of in our society, that class is a central feature of all of these mass shootings.  Downward social mobility is one way this works. But we also see many teenage boys living in poverty and forced into close proximity every day with those from the social class to which they will always be denied access.  

What we need to do is to learn to produce some social practices in which the enormous and growing precariat and underclass can participate. Some goal that can give their lives a direction, an organization—but also some actual practices that they can then participate in to work toward that goal.  We need to produce more ideologies.

I’m reminded of  Cantor’s claim in his book on Medieval society that there was effectively a “one-class system,” because only the aristocracy “justified its own existence, lived itself as a class.” In Hegelian terms, only the upper class had a free consciousness, because only they determined how they would live, and participated in their social roles for reasons. The lower orders lived in a way that was not fully human, their actions determined by brute force.  We surely aren’t quite in that situation yet…but we’re working toward it.  And it should come as no real surprise (yet it seems it does) when people forced to live as animals lash out in irrational and violent ways.

I know that to fully make this point would take an essay at least four times this length—and yet I feel that this is already far too long for anyone who needs to read it to get through.  I’m curious if anyone knows of others trying to make this point? I remember decades ago hearing arguments like this in response to the Oklahoma City bombing—but they were a minority voice then and largely ignored.  

If the task is to produce an ideology that the superfluous rabble of global capitalism can participate in, it is clear enough that it will need to be an oppositional ideology, a practice devoted to re-making the relations of production.  We surely cannot expect the good subjects of capitalist ideology to undertake this project. But the future of the human species may depend on somebody doing it.  And until we start such ideological projects, we may have to live our lives in a constant state of fear, worrying every time we send a child to school, go out for a beer at a local bar, or even go out to shop for our daily necessities.  Having the lower orders living in fear may suit the richest 2% just fine.  But it is not an ideology, it is the absence of ideology.