Concerning the alliance of Buddhism, Mindfulness, and neoliberalism the genie is out of the bottle. But what, exactly, does this alliance entail, and what might some of its ramifications be? Matthew O’Connell wrote the following article as an introduction to an upcoming interview with professor of management and Zen teacher Ronald Purser. The interview can be heard soon on O’Connell’s podcast The Imperfect Buddha.
Mindfulness is big business with a value reaching more than $1 billion in the USA alone! There are well over thirteen hundred apps that will teach you it along with books on Mindful everything: from Mindful parenting to Mindful Leadership, from Mindful sex to the recently released Mindful Shoplifting and Mindful Adultery. Ok, I invented the last two but you get the picture. There are Mindfulness t-shirts, CDs, DVDs, coffee cups…all guaranteed to make you more mindful, apparently. It’s a veritable Mindful fest and needless to say, a wonderful money making opportunity for many a Buddhist teacher and poorly qualified healthcare professional. If a few cents could be squeezed out of Mindful Sneezing, no doubt some budding entrepreneur would be ready to market it. There’s no denying Mindfulness is a genuine Capitalist success story in the 21st century and in a world in which efficiency and productivity are key to survival, Mindfulness has been increasingly sold as a low cost solution for fixing a whole host of problems from stress to penile dysfunction, with, of course, the ubiquitous dab of ancient wisdom™ added on the side.
There are those who have begun to notice the co-option of Buddhist practice for the benefit of a dysfunctional status quo in the form of the dominant ideology of our time: neoliberalism. This is an ideology which, if you don’t know already, is one in which all of you dear folks are partially or wholly embedded. McMindfulness is one term used to describe the commercialization of Mindfulness into a fast food practice designed to fill the neoliberal hole. By pacifying angst, feelings of hopelessness and frustration, depression and anger, or making monotony and boredom more tolerable, folks get equipped with the ability to carry on as if everything was just fine, and to passively accept conditions of exploitation, mind-numbing routine, and the dehumanization of the work place and erosions of democracy. Some critique has gone further to highlight the usage of mindfulness to ensure greater conformity to the neoliberal view of the individual in society. One that is wholly self-reliant, responsible for all her emotional turmoil and mental angst, and made to believe that she is un-needing of any form of collective action or resistance to the madness of unbridled neoliberal capitalism, its by-product in the form of environmental destruction, and the corporatisation of all aspects of human life. The message, which no doubt you will all be familiar with, is look within and never without. The Neoliberal fantasy of absolute autonomy and self-reliance means that all of our problems are always of our own making and the solution to fixing them, well isn’t it obvious, is to look to and within yourself.
Neoliberalism is a word that has only really recently begun to pop up in public discourse although the term has actually been around for well over a century. It became prominent in the work of a number of economists with Friedrich von Hayek, an Austrian, perhaps being the most well-known, and gained predominance as the ideological force driving Britain and the USA in the 1970s and 80s when it was adopted by Margaret Thatcher and later Ronald Reagan. Ever since then, it has gained centrality in global politics and finance. There are different ways of understanding the term; one is that it’s a return to 19th century classical liberalism and the idea that the market should be dominant with the state being relegated to a minimum, with ‘less government more private business’ as one of its tag lines. Another, if we accept David Harvey’s analysis, is that neoliberalism originally functioned as a means for the West’s upper classes, rich and wealthy, to claw back the money and power they had lost due to the dramatic economic policies and social contract established after the Second World War. Harvey is not the only one to claim that neoliberalism is deeply undemocratic, for at its heart, as an ideological system, neoliberalism despises any form of collectivism and therefore works to undermine any collective effort to resist the market and the rights of the wealthy to be free of democratic governmental controls or limitations. Examples of this can be seen in off-shore banking, the skill of multinationals in avoiding taxation, the shifting of financial risk and consequences from private companies onto tax payers through bail outs and subsidies, and the expanding riches of the 0.1% at the expense of the middle classes and public services. It can also be seen at play in the rhetoric of self-sufficiency and the marginalisation of the weak, who are described as being unwilling and incapable of pulling their own weight.
Neoliberalism pushes for privatisation and the shrinking of state power but it also reifies the individual, pushing it to the forefront of society as an atomised unit that must be self sustained, self realised, independent of any form of government intervention, which is to say, so thoroughly alienated from others in the world that all human relations become transactional and navigated through monetary exchange.