In one of the more surprising remarks of the year so far, “as far as social-economic theory is concerned,”said the Dalai Lama in January, “I am still a Marxist.”
Religion, spirituality, and socialism and capitalism have, perhaps, crisscrossed for well over a century in the West, with the resulting movements expressing themselves in notions of “rights” or, conversely, social conservatism.
The Hindu- and ancient Egyptian-inspired movement of Theosophy sought to explain social inequality by recourse to karma, and did make a significant impact in anti-colonialism in Ceylon and India. Suffragettes and early women’s rights activists were often female spiritualists, who led seances. And, who could forget the Christian socialists and the Marxist-inspired Catholic Liberation Theology?
Religion and spirituality has also found expression on the opposite side of the political spectrum, from the pro-capitalism “Christian Right” through the Nazi use of both Christian and pagan imagery and pageantry, to recent interest in Aleister Crowley on the far-Right (which most devotees of Crowley undoubtedly deplore, considering Crowley’s penchant for rule breaking and raunchy sex).
But, while the capitalist Christian Right still has a grip on sections of the USA, the fusion of spirituality and anti-capitalism has emerged as the most significant force on the Left, with Occupy Wall Street and its protests, mass yoga and mass meditation sessions. Outside of America, the Dalai Lama proclaims himself an economic Marxist and Pope Francis attacks capitalism and “trickle down economics.”
Has Religion Reached its Limits?
“In capitalist countries, there is an increasing gap between the rich and the poor. In Marxism, there is emphasis on equal distribution. That is very crucial to me,” the Dalai Lama commented.
Few doubt that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, but one wonders why the Dalai Lama and Pope Francis, as well as the Christian Right, have come to think of economics in terms of capitalism and socialism or anti-capitalism — social and political ideas — rather than seeking possibilities within their religions, whether that would be as “Distributism” (the Catholic economic doctrine based on Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum novarum and Pope Pius XI’s Quadragesimo anno) or more recent notions of “Dharma capitalism.” (For those curious about the latter, you can check out our interview with economist Ram Nidumolu and Dhrama teacher Geri Larkin.)
It is notable that only Islam, with its “shari’a finance” — and it “shari’a mortgages,” and so on — has come to an economic comprehension drawn from its religion (even though Islamic thinkers have sometimes been influenced by Marxism — as was the case with Iran’s Ali Shariati). It is surely no coincidence that among Islam, of all of the world’s religions, is the most assertive at this time.
The turn of the Pope and Dalai Lama to economic thought outside of the religions, suggest, perhaps, that the religions, in general, have run out of ideas about how to confront the realities of modern economic injustices. Or perhaps that they have lost faith in themselves to change the world.
Perhaps because Christianity is often attacked as being the engine of historical imperialism, racism, and so on, that it naturally seeks to merge with the political side against such injustice or, on the Right, stands firmer in a kind of defensive identity-Christianity, stripped of anything of Jesus’s message.
But, more importantly it would seem, the modern, Western spiritual movement — though loose and fluid it in many respects is — has overtaken the established churches as a force for social change, claiming (rightly or wrongly) that its social ideas were part of the various ancient traditions that this movement draws from.
This is rarely true, but nonetheless, spiritual practitioners who are also vocal advocates of women’s rights can draw on the worship of goddesses, etc., in ancient Europe or India (even though the worship of female deities does not necessarily imply women’s emancipation). The same can be said for every other social belief, which is imagined to have existed at least prior to Christianity coming West. Such beliefs may not be grounded in fact, but that is of no consequence, since people are motivated by myth, images, imagination, and ideas. It’s these that give us energy.
Revolutionary Capitalism or the Old Boys’ Network Revamped:
Christopher Hitchens liked to describe himself as “a socialist living in a time when capitalism is more revolutionary.” It’s an interesting appraisal, and one that reflects the fact that, in many cases, Left-wing values have become entrenched in the market. Whether that’s selling Che Guevara packaged ice cream (Cherry Guevara) or big business fighting for open borders, so that they will benefit from the import of cheap labor, capitalism can channel Left-wing, and even socialist ideas.
But, so too can Left-wing parties and spiritual practitioners channel capitalism. “Many Marxist leaders,” the Dalai Lama claimed, “are now capitalists in their thinking.”
We’re all familiar with the term “champagne socialism.” For the champagne socialist, flaunting belief in social equality has always been a way of justifying having more money than others. Who should have money? The ethical or the unethical? You see, they deserve it.
So, too, sometimes with the adoption of Western forms of spirituality. As neo-communist thinker and cultural critic Slavoj Zizek has remarked, the Wall Street trader can use, for example, Western Buddhist meditation as a way of coping with the stresses of the market. He can convince himself that it’s all “illusion” so he’s doing nothing wrong, impoverishing people and enriching those already doing better than virtually everyone else, including himself.
A Religious Socialist Spirituality?
What does it mean when the leaders of Tibetan Buddhism and Roman Catholicism are enamored of Left-wing economics? Besides it being a reflection of, as the Pope has said, the growing gap between rich and poor, it seems to indicate both a loss of confidence in these religions and the possibility (especially for a non-Right-wing Christianity) of a resurgence.
Lacking for so long, perhaps Christianity will rediscover a Christian spirituality on the back of economics. This isn’t an ideal path to a more gnostic experience, but it is clear that Christianity needs more than the pro-Capitalist Right and business as usual, with its declining church attendance.
More than anything, however, it seems to suggest that religion (especially Buddhism and Christianity) will fuse spirituality with the economic.
Angel Millar is the editor of People of Shambhala and the author of The Crescent and the Compass: Islam, Freemasonry, Esotericism, and Revolution in the Modern Age (March 2015).