September 06, 2010

Labor Day Special: The disease of capitalism?

capitalism & buddhism, thich nhat hanh

In an August 26 post, I noted 5 recent comments from Thich Nhat Hanh on the occasion of his visit to the UK. One of the quotes refers to "the disease of capitalism" (Thay's words), and I thought perhaps some would object. No one did. One, did, however, find that phrase particularly felicitous. Seedoubleyou writes:

Thay’s messages are fantastic, particularly in relation to the poison of capitalism. I remain hopeful that his words stretch beyond Buddhist circles and to the ears that need to hear.

In the Guardian today, the question is posed:

Is capitalism a spiritual failure? Is there anything to be thankful for in the way our economy has developed? And can religion offer a refuge from its excesses?

The snippet includes a reference to Thay's condemnation of capitalism as a "disease," and asks its readership whether this is in fact true. I'll be reading the answers, of course, and will look forward to getting enlightened about this here, too.

Happy Labor Day!

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John Taylor's picture

Is it really capitalism that is at fault? I don't believe that capitalism in and of itself is evil, but can be compromised by individuals with less than ideal morals.

I work for a Buddhist center in Detroit where they engage in capitalism as a means to finance operations. Surely one would not suggest that they take advantage of those they serve simply because they sell services/products to them. They of course are very ethical in their dealings with the public, which makes their participation in the capitalist system beneficial to both them and the public.

I believe the problem with this or any other form of human endeavor is not the form itself but the character of those who are participating in it. One has to be willing to judge others as worthy of our trust in our interactions and not be afraid to expect a higher level of integrity.

Alan's picture

I found all of the posts thought-provoking. Thanks to all.

Did anyone mention the advertising side of capitalism? Advertising is probably not unique to capitalism, but isn't a system that elevates desire and craving to such a degree over need problematic?

I think someone did mention the environmental problems. All production and consumption creates these problems, regardless of the economic system that guides production and consumption, but capitalism seems especially focused on short-term gain over long-term costs. Who is really going to pay for the BP oil spill? (And I don't mean to blame BP here. I rely on, enjoy even, our fossil-fuel-addicted system as much as the average person.)

Capitalism has a long history and in many cultures. Its not hard to find its faults. Do we really think this system will lead to our species' long-term happiness?

Ted Rodosovich's picture

Einstein, circa 1945-50: "Capitalism is predatory ..."

alan's picture

if you meet the buddha on the street, kill him. does the same not hold for the capitalist? from where does his immunity flow?

RevGMS's picture

Damnit Jim I'm a Dudeist not an economist!

That said, this reminds me that economics is a part of our world like it or not. The question is, how do we use it to achieve a Star Trek style of life, with out descending into a Mad Max nightmere.

When I looked, I found Schumaker's "Buddhist Economics". A preface to it includes "What is important as a Buddhist, however, in the economic process, whether one is earning, saving or using money, is that one should never compromise one's principles.", seems like a good way to start.

However like I said, I am no sconomist, so I would urge those that have an inkiling, to check out Buddhist Economics. Then maybe come back and explain it to me. Thanx

Until then, I'll just do my best to pend my clams wisely.

Chana Dennis's picture

Another thing to remember is that Hanh lives in a commune. He has for most of his life. He saw the devastation of his native country by nations that were capitalist. He fled for his life and lives in an almost Utopian culture. It is slow and deliberate in the commune he lives in. I think he maybe is describing culture shock when visiting the UK. I think he sees people totally engrossed in the business of making money and scurrying around with no thought for their fellow humans , not living mindfully. If this were to happen in his commune it would certainly seem like a disease or even a plague.


Symptoms of depression | Sigmund Freud's picture

[...] Tricycle » Labor Day Special: The disease of capitalism? [...]

Emmet's picture

In 2008, speculators in the futures markets artificially inflated the price of basic foodstuffs, rice by 217%, wheat by 136%, corn by 125% and soybeans by 107%. Millions of people were intentionally starved to further enrich a very select few which are already obscenely wealthy.
Yeah, at the very core of it's black little heart, Capitalism is evil, and Thich Nhat Hanh is 100% correct.

wotnext's picture

The problem with capitalism, however you define it, is that human greed is not factored into the theory. The same is true of any economic theory.

gigi's picture

I feel the importance of what Thay was saying is being lost-- we can argue about what capitalism is and is not-- but what I read from the statement that capitalism is a disease is that the way it is experienced today has been destructive for so many cultures, communities and families is not working. As a working class woman of color from an immigrant community in the US, this completely resonates for me, regardless of the nuances of what defines capitalism. The essence of the message speaks to the experience of millions that have and continue to suffer at the hand of systems that are not based in principles of justice and equality.

Robb's picture

I wonder if Thay was being as mindful as he could have been. Capitalism, along with Marxism, and Communism, and any other "ism" you can name is about as much a real thing as is the concept of "self". The problem with all human constructs are the humans that make whatever system operate. In the case of capitalism, the problem has been greed. All it takes is someone (usually some CEO or government official) to make the choice to get every bit of money they can, and it just spirals down from there. Look at what happened to gasoline prices a few years ago. First the price of oil went up. (Oil company-employed speculators) Then gasoline and other petro-based fuels went up, then anyone who either used or paid someone who used those fuels passed the increased costs on to the next level (wholesalers, retailers) who of course, passed them on, and so on and so forth. However when oil stabilized, did any of those people lower prices to reflect the decrease is costs? NO. Could they have? Certainly, except for the fact that if a company makes less money, (no matter why) someone (probably the same CEO that started the whole thing) would lose his position, and make less money. I think that only a change in attitude amongst the business leaders will affect a change in economics.

Rick Lazar's picture

I note the photo with some irony. The bull is sitting on the north of the brick apron surrounding the reconstructed Bowling Green subway station in lower Manhattan (NYC). The reconstruction, including installation of a new mezzanine under the existing platforms, was performed by highly skilled union labor - laborers, iron workers, carpenters, sheet metal workers, timbermen, operating engineers, etc. The work was directed by a union general contractor, Cayuga Construction Corp., known for its fine treatment of craft employees and the quality of its workmanship. The reconstructed station, in front of the restored Customs House, is now a NYC landmark. The exterior, where the bull is sitting, is part of a careful restoration to 1800's architectural style. The only truly "capitalist" element of the project is a donated fountain at the center of the park.

Bill's picture

My apologies for the incorrect use of "it's" instead of "its."

Bill's picture

@James Baker - What you describe is free enterprise, not capitalism. Capitalism allows me to profit from the work of others by investing in their enterprise. And therein lies the opportunity for abuse, when the company is more beholden to it's shareholders than to it's customers or employees. Rather than dismiss capitalism as a disease, I would say we need to address it's dark side, to which we tend to turn a blind eye for the sake of profits and personal comfort.

James Shaheen's picture

It would be interesting to hear more about what Thich Nhat Hanh thinks an ideal economic solution would be. The Dalai Lama, for instance, describes himself as a Marxist.

In a complex economy, nothing is pure, so your description of a single exchange, James, may be reductionist if we apply it to the world economy. But, I'm no economist, either.

wes zeigler's picture

Tay's right. Capitalism is a cancer, voracious and insatiable, devouring every thing in it's path, labor, resources, and environment. It's most apparent and destructive effect, however, is it's cultivation of frenzied consumerism that renders the status quo to hungry ghosts.

Jennifer's picture

"I didn’t know Thich was an economist. If he thinks capitalism is a disease, he is out of his element."

Agreed. I'm really disappointed to see this kind of simplistic commentary come out of Thich Nhat Hanh's mouth. I thought he was . . . well, more mindful than that.

James Baker's picture

You must first define capitalism. The USA has not been operating as a capitalist nation. It's a mixed economy at best and really is a more centrally controlled economy.
Here's capitalism. I make something I hope to sell to you. You and I agree on a price, or not. What I make is not restricted in any way. If you can do it better, that's what you do. If government says only I can make it, then it's not capitalism any more.
I didn't know Thich was an economist. If he thinks capitalism is a disease, he is out of his element.