December 12, 2009
In his Guardian review of Raj Patel's The Value of Nothing, a critique of the failures of the free market, political philosopher John Gray doesn't seem to have much hope for Buddhism as a cure for bubble economies. It'd help, he says, if enough people would give up their wants, but he doubts that's about to happen any time soon. If, as the Dalai Lama says, everyone is looking for happiness, they might try giving up the endless pursuit of pleasure and find it. But Gray poses a leading question: Do people really want to be happy? He writes:
Oscar Wilde may have been right that people know the price of everything and the value of nothing, a remark [Raj] Patel cites at the start of his book, and which gives him its title. But what is value if it is not price? It is telling that when trying to flesh out a non-market account, Patel turns to religion, in this case Buddhism. The Buddhist tradition gives him what he needs – an understanding of human wellbeing that does not centre round the satisfaction of wants. Like the ancient European Stoic and Epicurean philosophies, Buddhism proposes that happiness lies in shrinking the self – in giving up our wants, rather than forever chasing after them. It is a thought that occurs to many well-off people from time to time, but it is hard to imagine large numbers of people ever acting on it.
Theories of value that focus on curbing desire run up against the demand for self-realisation, which is one of the strongest impulses in modern life. To be sure, the pursuit of self-realisation does not often result in happiness. But is it happiness that most people are pursuing? Or is it stimulus and excitement? In the Himalayan Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan, Patel informs the reader, the introduction of satellite television has been followed by a crime wave. He seems to think this fact somehow strengthens his argument. But what it tells us is that no culture can now resist the dangerous charms of a life spent in insatiable desire.
If you can stomach the above, you might want to read Gray's Straw Dogs, but if hell-in-a-handbasket worldviews depress you, steer clear. Still, Straw Dogs is pretty brilliant and offers us plenty of food for thought (I'm lazy and picked a quote from Wikipedia, and I'm surprised I don't remember it; it still packs a punch):
The most pitiless warriors against drugs have always been militant progressives. In China, the most savage attack on drug use occurred when the country was convulsed by a modern western doctrine of universal emancipation- Maoism. It is no accident that the crusade against drugs is led today by a country wedded to the pursuit of happiness- the United States. For the corollary of that improbable quest is a puritan war on pleasure.
Gray is no Suzy Sunshine—reading him can feel like running some sort of anti-humanist gauntlet—but he does remind me that I can grow so comfortable in my beliefs that unchallenged, they become meaningless.