blow to this philosophy of work happened in the early nineteenth century. As
the Industrial Revolution began to reshape society, people who had once earned
their livelihood by farming or through manual skills, like blacksmithing and
shoemaking, began to work for wages in factories. Previously they had worked
with a degree of autonomy, producing a needed good in exchange for which they
earned money, which in turn allowed them to buy the necessities of life; their
work was associated with accomplishment, pride, and they had a well-defined
place in society.
economic system began to change, people could no longer support themselves in
the old way, and were forced into urban labour pools. Now they worked in return
for wages for someone who controlled production and distribution; they were
cogs in a larger machine, and were replaceable. This was widely recognised as a
new form of slavery – wage Slavery - when it first arose. Now it is taken as
natural. Most people today work long hours all week, week after week, in order
to get money: their work often has little or nothing to do with their sense of
identity or with a sense of fulfilment. They work for a pay check which allows
them to buy what they want, and to entertain themselves in the very little time
left to them outside of the workplace.
element of the present economic dilemma is of very recent origin - the
phenomenal growth of the financial sector in society, in Europe, the Americas,
Japan, and increasingly in developing countries like India and China. The
financial sector has been around as long as there has been some form of money.
Its primary purpose is to make unused money available for use by those who need
it and can put it to good use. You have extra money that is sitting idle; I want
to start a small business, and I have all the know-how and drive to do it, but
no money. So you make the money available to me directly, or, in a more complex
society, through financial institutions. And my success is partly owned by you
as my financier, and so you profit as I profit. That is a social good.
the late twentieth century and early twenty-first, the financial sector has
grown huge, and has become a way to make money out of money, huge amounts of
money, making some people fabulously wealthy: it’s a legal form of gambling.
The problem is, in itself it contributes nothing to society. It isn’t
generating wealth by producing a social good, and wealth has to come from
somewhere: it can’t just be wished into existence. And so it is coming at the
expense of actual social good, and it - among several other factors - is
helping to create wealth inequality that hasn’t been seen in generations.
these problems that we have discussed - the need to foster constant economic
growth in order to service debt, the destruction of the commons, the conversion
of the citizen into the consumer, the fostering of dissatisfaction in the
populace in order to stimulate artificial wants-based - as opposed to
needs-based - purchases, the decline of the work ethic, the introduction of wage
slavery, the cancerous growth of the financial sector, as well as other
factors, amplify one another.
not that this system ever really worked well for human happiness. It was more
of a promise of future happiness, plus present sufficiency of food and clothing
and shelter and consumer choices and entertainment for enough citizen-consumers
to prevent popular revolt.
it isn’t working and gradually that will be evident to people. Right now
there’s general awareness that the system isn’t working well, but most people,
including most professional economists, believe that we just need to make some
minor adjustments to get the engine of society going smoothly again. No, it’s
broken, not theoretically but actually, and the inherent contradictions can no
longer be sustained.
is the way out ? The solution is nothing short of a grand new story based on a
new and truer view of self, of the world, of humanity, of meaning, of
happiness, of freedom, of relationships, and of the meaning and purpose of
life. That will be the real solution.
problem is, we are at a point of desperation, and can’t wait for a new story to
percolate through society and take hold and express itself through new
institutions: that takes generations. Yes, that will still have to happen, but
short-term thinking is needed as well as long-term thinking. And we need
experimentation with new models.
then, let us first look at some broad ideas that need to form the basis of any
new system, focussing on the economic aspect. And then we’ll look at some of
the experiments that are happening, and which show promise.
are meeting here as representatives of the dharma traditions, we will speak of
a dharma-based economic system, and what that might look like. Remember, all
human institutions are based on stories; in fact, the very way in which we
perceive the world is based on stories. And so, if the story told is based on
dharma - broadly defined, non-sectarian, and aware of the universal principles
that unite our traditions - how does that work itself out in economic terms?
all, whether you take the Buddhist principle of dependent origination or the Hindu
and Sikh principle of the oneness underlying diversity, there is the basic
shared principle that we are all connected, and that intimate connection is not
just theoretical: with practice it begins to become perceptual. That is, it is
factual. From that comes love for all, sympathy for all, compassionate action
that principle is applied to economics, we get an economy based on sharing.
There is nothing wrong with the creation of wealth, if it is done ethically,
but wealth is meant for distribution. Not a crude egalitarianism which mandates
that everyone have exactly the same, but an equality of opportunity, plus the
provision of everyone’s basic needs and comforts, above and beyond which others
are free to create more personal wealth. Sharing, rather than hoarding, needs
to be favoured, structurally.
flows from this dharmic idea of connectedness? A model of cooperation rather
than competition. Yes, competition is part of life, it’s the basis of sports
and many games, it is often what motivates a person to better oneself; but in
the modern system, which started in the West with the decline of Christian
spirituality, competition has come to be seen as the basic driving force of
life. Of course, there is one exception as this works itself out in the present
society: those with power and resources are assiduous in reducing the
competition that they face, while encouraging competition for everyone else.
But competition isn’t the basic driving force of life, not even in the animal kingdom.
Cooperation is far more important to social wellbeing than competition.
else? Because we are either all interdependent or ultimately all one, we are
responsible for the welfare of others, because my own welfare lies in the
welfare of others. And therefore service to others and self-sacrifice have to
be intrinsic parts of the new story on which society is founded. When I was a
young monk, I was surprised to hear the head of the monastery speak of
sacrifice as a grand and glorious thing. I knew sacrifice as something morally
necessary, but to me it meant doing without something I really wanted in order
to give it to someone else; that is, sacrifice meant loss and frustration; it
also meant I wasn’t worthy, ever, because others were always more worthy.
learned that the head of the monastery had heard different stories about
sacrifice, which made it something glorious and liberating to him, it was
something which made him larger. That’s another topic, but again, it comes down
to stories, and some stories are truer than others. The glory of service and
self-sacrifice are part of a better story, based on a universal truth. There
are other foundational ideas, springing from our common understanding of karma
and of a universal moral order underlying the universe - that is, a morality
not based on the likes and dislikes of a deity, but one that is broad and
impersonal, part of the structure of the universe.
Karma and this universal moral order also work themselves out at the economic
level, but there is no time to discuss that now; the larger implications are
easily enough understood anyway. Now, let us go from broad principles to more
specific ideas. In the interests of time, I will simply list the main ideas
that follow from the preceding discussion, without explicitly stating the
connection to dharmic principles, such connections being fairly obvious:
We need to re-establish the commons,
broadly, with the understanding that the basic resources necessary to sustain
life belong to the people and cannot be privatised by corporations.
We need an economy that finds its
health in stasis, in equilibrium, not in constant growth.
Privilege of opportunity must be reined
in, not through a crude egalitarianism of resources, but an equality of
opportunity, plus the provision of everyone’s basic needs.
The financial sector must once again
serve the simple and boring purpose it was meant to serve: providing available
money to those who demonstrate that they can use it well.
We must go back to a needs-based
economy that is not dependent upon stimulating an artificial and constant sense
of want. Those real needs are not just material: they can be aesthetic,
intellectual, social, cultural, religious, and so on.
Corporations must serve social needs,
responsibly, with consequences for irresponsible behaviour, and their political
power must be subordinated to the power of the citizenry.
The mad rush to privatise knowledge -
through patenting and copyrighting – must be reined in. All patents and
copyrights must be restricted to a shorter time-frame, as they once were,
allowing an inventor or creator to get monetary benefit, after which the
knowledge becomes public domain. Results
of research at public universities and government-funded institutions must go
directly into the public domain. And the realms of knowledge which are
patentable must be restricted: absolutely no patenting of life-processes,
period; no patenting of simple computer routines and algorithms; limits on the
patenting and pricing of life-saving pharmaceuticals; and so on.
A new philosophy of work is desperately
needed. Work as experimentation with Reality, work as self-exploration and
world-exploration, work as self-expression, work as a means for manifesting the
glory of the Self in Hindu, Sikh, and Jaina terms or the glory of the
Enlightened Mind in Buddhist terms - in other words, ‘work as yoga’ – is the
need of the age.
conclusion, let me state that experiments are already underway in many parts of
the world, effecting these very ideas. Some will work, some won’t - that’s the
nature of experimentation. Those that work will tend to spread, if enough
people see the need and value in them. But even those experiments that don’t
work deserve our gratitude, because they also are part of the process, and we
learn at least as much from mistakes as from successes.
I wish to
mention a few in order to show the variety of experiments that are underway,
even if most of them are not consciously ‘dharma based’; however they do
illustrate some principles that a dharma-based economy would recognise. This is not an endorsement of any
of the programs, because I haven’t looked deeply into all of them, but just a
short and incomplete list
of examples. Local currencies that keep money circulating within a community
are being tried in many places; worker cooperatives and worker-owned businesses
are being tried; sustainable communities - with various definitions of
‘sustainable’ - are sprouting; the locally-grown food movement is spreading;
‘solidarity economies’, local economies, Buddhist economies, Gandhian
economies, and gift economies are all being tried.
or Gross National Happiness program in Bhutan - whose Program Director, Dr Tho,
is sitting next to me, and whose Executive Director, Dr Saamdu Chetri, is
sitting over there - is a wonderful example of an innovative project. Food
forests, distributed power generation systems, the Zapatista movement in
Mexico, the Ejido Movement in Mexico - unfortunately and unfairly ended in
1992, after nine decades, as a concession to US demands - Auroville in
Puducherry, the original Kibbutz movement in Israel, the libertarian socialism
of the Kurds in northern Syria, all of these and many more are signs of the
awakening to the need for new social models.
society itself - the living whole - will promote what works for its own
survival. Society is an organism, not a machine, and like an organism, it
follows its own laws of growth, and has its own self-corrective processes, like
an auto-immune system, which we must work with, not against or in ignorance of.
Therefore evolution rather than revolution is the path forward. That is,
society itself will decide what it needs. Our part is not to impose our
solutions, but to recognise the general need, to sow the non-theological,
life-giving, experiential ideas of dharma, and to be open to solutions as they
develop. Out of that the society of the future will flower, for the welfare of
the many, for the happiness of the many: bahujanahitaya, bahujanasukhaya.
Dharmacharya in the Zen lineage of Thich Naht Hanh, and also the Program
Director of the Gross National Happiness (gnh) Centre, Bhutan.
is the view of the great Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna.
practically all economies now fall within the spectrum of capitalism. In the Soviet and Maoist systems, private
ownership of capital was replaced by state ownership, which is really state
capitalism - state-owned and state-planned economies as opposed to private
enterprise systems. In a true socialist
system, the workers in an enterprise collectively control production,
distribution, and capital assets. Stalin instituted state capitalism and simply
declared it socialism, and Mao followed his example.
Jaina perspective here, though somewhat different from the Buddhist and
Hindu-Sikh, can also be harmonised, but is not separately included in the
interests of simplicity.
Courtesy Prabuddha Bharata, February
2008-2013©copyright, All Rights Reserved. Vijayvaani Publishers.
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