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Or Why the Dalai Lama is a Marxist
Getting to Know TINA
It was either Marxist literary critic Fredric Jameson or Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek (nobody seems totally clear on the point) who first suggested that it’s easier for people to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism. But it was Margaret Thatcher as prime minister of Britain who insisted that the world needed to realize that there is no alternative (TINA, a slogan that become associated with her name, although she was not its author) to capitalism.
The current version of Marxist amnesia stems partly from the sudden demise of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the remarkable transformation of the economic culture in China. After the Soviet Union collapsed, Margaret Thatcher repeatedly declared that liberal democracy and capitalism had triumphed over communism and the historical struggle between the two political systems was over—history had ended, and capitalism as the last-man-standing was the only viable ideology.
But rumors of the death of Marxism and communism—and the eternal triumph of capital—were perhaps premature. Those who passively assented to Tina’s declarations (Thatcher was actually referred to as “Tina” by members of her staff and cabinet—but never to her face!) were not unlike the young Dalai Lama before his Marxist tutorials in Beijing. Today the Dalai Lama distinguishes Marx from forms of communism. There are many ways to critique the failed regimes of the USSR and China, but the main Marxist critique simply observes that neither of those historical situations actually fulfilled the conditions of a capitalist phase in which a bourgeois class establishes its power and control. Some identify the USSR as a brutal form of socialism, while both states seem to be what Marx described as forms of “crude communism” in his writings. About the time of Thatcher’s ascendency, the Tibetan-born teacher Chöygam Trungpa (1939–1987) wrote a poem, “International Affairs of 1979—Uneventful But Energy Consuming,” that suggests an understanding of communism that echoes the Dalai Lama’s lament that a genuine communism had not come to Tibet:
Where is the spirit of communism?
Marx, Engels, Lenin –
If they returned and saw what a mess they made in
the universe they would be horrified.
We find nobody is practicing true communism.
Tina was ahead of herself. The world didn’t need the Great Recession to see that structural problems in the economy were becoming more evident, but it didn’t hurt: countries like Spain are currently at about 25 percent unemployment, with youth unemployment just over a terrifying 50 percent. Still, the misery generated by the collapse is impressive and continues to unfold. For those who have read Marx, the conditions of collapse are a predictable precondition for the cyclical crises that capitalism creates and depends on. But that matters little to those who are left behind. As Marx wrote in Capital (vol. 1):
In every stockjobbing swindle everyone knows that some time or other the crash must come, but every one hopes that it may fall on the head of his neighbour, after he himself has caught the shower of gold and placed it in safety. Après moi le déluge! is the watchword of every capitalist and of every capitalist nation. Hence Capital is reckless of the health or length of life of the labourer, unless under compulsion from society.
What do Marx and the Occupy movement and the Arab Spring and the indignados in Spain and the suffering surplus poor and the unemployed and the debt-ridden college graduates living at home and the consolidation of wealth and the destruction of middle-class wealth and the subprime collapse and bailout of banks “too big to fail” and the working conditions at the Fox Con Apple factory in China have to do with BUDDHISM?
In my classes, at conferences, and in conversation with friends, we have tried to imagine a world without capitalism. We are all swimming in the world of capital. Buddhism lives in the culture of capital, too. Capitalism is not just an economic system, it is the dominant world culture. History has provided numerous examples of political, economic and cultural collapse, including many societies that were in denial about what was happening during the shift. In 1932, the 13th Dalai Lama made a political prediction that proved fairly accurate:
In the present age the five great degenerations seem to totally dominate life on earth, to the extent that fighting and conflict have become part of the very fabric of human society. If we do not make preparations to defend ourselves from the overflow of violence, we will have very little chance of survival.
In particular, we must guard ourselves against the barbaric red communists who carry terror and destruction with them wherever they go. They are the worst of the worst. Already they have consumed much of Mongolia, where they have outlawed the search for the reincarnation of Jetsun Dampa, the incarnate head of the country. They have robbed and destroyed monasteries, forcing the monks to join their armies or else killing them outright. They have destroyed religion wherever they’ve encountered it ….
Therefore, when strength of peace and happiness is with us, while the power to do something about the situation is still in our hands, we should make every effort to safeguard ourselves against this impending disaster. Use peaceful methods where they are appropriate; but where they are not appropriate, do not hesitate to resort to more forceful means. Work diligently now, while there is still time. Then there will be no regrets.