T.V. Telepathy, Jessica Diamond, 1989, latex and acrylic paint on wall, Robert J. Shiffler Collection
T.V. Telepathy, Jessica Diamond, 1989, latex and acrylic paint on wall, Robert J. Shiffler Collection

The one thing I have never fully understood about many Buddhists is why they devote so much attention to the individual roots of greed, hatred, and ignorance, yet so little attention to the manifestations of these poisons in social institutions. Is it simply understood that the real work needs to be done on our individual failings, with social greed, hatred, and ignorance being someone else’s problem? Or is it that Buddhists, like so many people, have been deceived into believing that political issues are “none of their business”? Have they been trained to see problems and solutions solely in personal rather than political terms?

The problem is that while we are struggling on an individual basis toward selflessness and compassion, vast systems of economic and political power are working to undermine the process. The astute political commentator H. L. Mencken once observed, “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the public alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.” Fear and loathing pacify the population, promoting mindless patriotism and obedience. They help justify repressive policies that curtail democratic freedoms and boost centralized power.

But here’s the really bad news: because the corporate system is the quintessence of greed—with corporate bosses legally obliged to maximize profits for shareholders —discussions of the significance, power, and potential of compassion, kindness, and generosity are virtually absent.

As retailing analyst Victor Lebow explains, “Our enormously productive economy… demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption.” You can’t have people recognizing the piercing pain of desire, the tight agony of pride, the blissful release of generosity and compassion, when you need everyone greedily consuming ever more pleasures, ever more status, ever more things.

When society subordinates its humanity to maximized revenues at minimum cost, then that society is well on the way to becoming lost, falsified, and in fact inhuman. If we are serious about combating selfishness and promoting compassion in the world, then is it not vital that we develop the tools of intellectual self-defense to deal with these assaults on our minds and hearts? The solution must lie in reversing the priorities, in subordinating dead things—money, capital, profits—to life: people, animals, the planet.

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