October 20, 2011

Reduce Poverty or Reduce Democracy: A Buddhist Take on Occupy Wall Street.

Returning to the Common Good.

Bodhipaksa, a Buddhist writer and teacher based in New Hampshire, has offered a thoughtful response to the Occupy Together protest movement which can be enjoyed here.

He begins with some realities of the Buddha’s lifetime: it was an age of kings who aggressively expanded their territory and their power, who spied on the populace and certainly did not stop at assassination to consolidate their power and preserve order. When the Buddha addressed political matters, it was often (but not always) framed in fantasy, which in light of the power structure, was likely the most prudent way to hint at a critique or make suggestions.

One text cited by Bodhipaksa is the Kutadanta (from the Digha Nikaya, an English translation available here), a tale in which the Buddha makes some specific policy recommendations, including: living wages, distributing capital to tradesmen, and grain and feed to farmers. Downward distribution, in more modern terms. He makes these recommendations to a king who is concerned about crime and civil unrest. In this sutra, the Buddha links civil unrest with unequal distribution of surplus. What a radical!

Actually, this is ancient human wisdom, beyond east or west. Aristotle’s Politics considers the problem of democracy and social inequality in considerable detail. In short, when some people are really rich and some are really poor, people will use whatever democratic freedoms are at their disposal to reduce oppression and level the field. If those means are not available, there will come a point when people rise up. Nowadays, the chattering classes in the US have lots to say about FDR and the New Deal. FDR was no Communist, but he was also no dope, and he saw the potential for large-scale civil unrest in response to the Great Depression.

Any society flirting with the idea of democracy has a major choice to make: reduce poverty OR reduce democracy.

“The corporation is now our metaphorical monarch,” argues Bodhipaksa, with political actors completely beholden to the support of the moneyed classes. There is one point of historical analysis on which I part ways with the writer, and it is here:

“Our corporations are king, but they shouldn’t be. I don’t believe the framers of the constitution had our current system in mind. They wanted government of the people, by the people, and for the people. Right now we have government of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich.”

We can only speculate on what the founders would have thought about corporations and their influence over government. What we do know is how they felt about “the people.” This famous line about government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” does not originate with any of the founders of the United States. This phrase appears in Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in 1863. It describes what most of us are taught to believe about our government.

The notion of “government of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich” would have sat just fine with many of our nation’s founders. John Jay, definitely one of those “framers of the Constitution,” often said, “The people who own the country ought to govern it.” In the Federalist Papers, written in support of ratifying the United States Constitution, James Madison wrote explicitly that the primary function of government is to protect “the opulent minority” (as he put it during the debates on the Constitution) against the majority. In other words, government’s cardinal function is to protect the rich from the rabble who might want to level the playing field.

This is not conspiracy talk, this is basic American history. Across the room where I type these words, a hardbound edition of the Federalist Papers sits on the bookshelf, faithfully documenting these sentiments for anyone’s perusal. Another book on that shelf is a collection of John Locke’s writing, one of the inspirational figures of the Enlightenment and the American revolution. Locke stated that the purpose of men “putting themselves under Government” was to protect property. It’s about protecting the haves from the have-nots. He certainly was not concerned with spreading liberté, égalité, fraternité.

The “founders” were not democratic idealists at all. They were people who had colonized fertile land, having beaten down the indigenous population that was here first, and now wanted the freedom to be wealthy and independent of the English monarch.

That said, some were more socially-minded and concerned for the poor than others; there is, after all, another ancient concept: that of the “common good.” This also goes back to Aristotle. The common good not as a utopian state, but as a direction that a society may continually examine and strive toward.

As Bodhipaksa says, this cannot stand as a struggle of the 99% against the 1%. It has to be about finding the 100%. In other words, the Common Good. That is not an easy discussion, especially since it is still virtually taboo in our culture to discuss corporate capitalism (or even capitalism itself as a system and a social order) in a critical light. That could be changing, however.

And at any rate, there are a few reforms that could move us sharply in the direction of a more popular rule, and reduce plutocracy (rule by the wealthy). That would at least clear a space for a more representative political process.

But bear in mind: this is something the “founding fathers” feared. Rule by the rich, government by the owners, was regarded by them as a good thing. What we are talking about here is a break from the founders. It flirts with an entirely new epoch in American history.

Are we getting ready?


Algernon D’Ammassa is an actor, playwright, and teacher. He is a Bodhisattva Dharma Teacher in the Kwan Um School of Zen and founder of the Deming Zen Center in New Mexico. He lives in Deming, New Mexico, with his wife and two young children. For more about the center, visit www.demingzen.org.



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