JC: When people write about situational depression, they tend to mean if you’re in a bad job or a bad relationship or unemployed, and yet you go further to, what is this system that we’re all living in that is causing an epidemic of depression and anxiety. And speaking of the despair of capitalism, I was last month forced to undergo an audit by two different agencies to prove my worth to the German government, so they could decide whether or not to renew my visa. And as a writer, having to prove my worth through a dollar (sorry — Euro) figure was utterly sick-making. What is the artist or writer to do to stave off depression in an age when a) you are expected to bring your whole self to the medium you work in, becoming a publicity-generating, socially accessible machine, and b) there is so much emphasis in our capitalist society on income? Both seem antithetical to the role of the artist.
AC: Well, you’ve just put your finger on one of the key arguments of my book, and it sounds like your own case history would be a good way to exemplify that argument! Indeed, there are so many aspects of ordinary life under capitalism, including both work life and personal life, that are depression inducing. This is not just true for artists, but for everyone trying to eke out not just a living wage but to do so via work that is creative and life-affirming. Capitalism sucks the life blood out of people in a range of class positions — high-flying professionals who are stressed out and over-worked, working class people who do society’s shit work, and, yes, the artists who are trying to figure out how to either live on less or turn their creative work into a revenue stream.
I realize that it’s unrealistic to think that sanghas will start Marxist study groups to actually try to understand capitalism, understand the misery and suffering that systemically result from capital, or to use his ideas on issues of identity, attachment, subjectivity, consciousness, materialism, alienation, and happiness to inspire alternative modes of living in the world. For those who are interested, the Dalai Lama’s half-Marxism seems like a good place to start, and if somebody finds his stance confusing or misguided, that seems like a good reason to take another look at Marx. But the charm of capital remains so great that I doubt Buddhists will be any less seduced by it than other groups.
…Buddhism and America should enter the movement of the real and be engaged with the struggle to end suffering, and man’s inhumanity to man. The movement of the real is emotionally tough, because its first move is to reveal error. But it also appears in the emerging sangha, an invisisble movement of unification that appears in the action of the collective. The action of the collective is to be collected, to come together and deal with whatever arises from this being together. In the decline of capital, the saving power of the collective might appear in new and unexpected forms. Buddhist insurgency might look like a shift to a new leaderless sangha, or a new type of leader and teacher who discovers and understands the vast unrecognized potential of the collective movement of the real.
Reading both of these pieces actually reminded me of something I read by Stephen Kinzer a few years ago:
The other theme I heard time and again here is that political change takes time. Perhaps because they have such a long history – 10 times longer than the history of the United States – many Iranians seem ready to wait patiently for change rather than risk plunging their country into upheaval by demanding it immediately.
“Nobody can prevent us from having democracy in our country,” a merchant in the Shiraz bazaar told me. “It is our wish and our right. But it will take time. You cannot change a very strong government in a few months.”
A middle-aged man in Isfahan who sympathized with the post-election protests said he was glad they have ended. “They were not going to achieve anything, and continuing them would just mean more people hurt or killed or put in jail,” he reasoned. “What is the point of that?”
…In Iran, as in other countries with long histories, many people believe that not all problems have quick solutions, and that some have no solution at all. “In our history we have had many periods that were sad, and other periods that were happy,” a woman at an internet cafe in Isfahan told me. “You cannot rush things. What is important is to live.”
I’m aware that most Westerners who fancy themselves to be politically sophisticated and aware would condemn such attitudes as quietist. But when I read excerpts like the ones above, I can’t help but laugh a little at the presumption, the firm conviction that, well, of course there must be an alternative economic system in which man’s inhumanity to man will be eradicated, or, less ambitiously, one where writers and other struggling artists will at least be guaranteed a comfortable existence in which to pursue their vision without being defined by their income! And if there isn’t one already, surely we can will one into existence! Stranger things have happened, I suppose, but I just wonder how much of that idealism is the product of our brief historical memory.