Reviewed by David Cromwell
February 7, 2000
Green Books 1998, £9.95 ISBN 1-870098-70-6
Let's get straight to the point. What does Buddhism have to do with radical politics? According to David Edwards, author of the remarkable Free to Be Human, the answer is "everything". The roots of Buddhism lie in compassion, and it is compassion - not anger - that empowers activists and dissidents, whether they be environmentalists, human rights campaigners, or anyone else concerned about social and ecological justice. At present, argues Edwards, "Our capacity for compassion is hobbled, vestigial, a fact that explains our failure to generate effective resistance to the forces of greed and hatred currently laying waste to our planet." Simply put, compassion is the root of all successful dissent.
In The Compassionate Revolution, it is claimed that the destructive capitalist system arises from the three Buddhist "poisons" of greed, hatred and ignorance: greed for profit at almost any cost, hatred of obstacles to profit, and public ignorance of the links between Western interests on the one hand and Third World dictators and environmental degradation on the other. The key to demolishing systems of exploitative power is awareness rooted in compassion for all living things, not feelings of anger and hatred which overwhelm and neutralise too many dissidents. "There is no possibility of weakening the bonds of delusion without combating our own greed and hatred, on which this system depends. The antitode to ignorance rooted in greed is awareness rooted in compassion." Edwards anticipating a sceptical response, responds thus: "Although we Westerners may find this woefully naïve, presumably not many of us can claim to do so on the basis of personal experience. Can we say that unconditional kindness and compassion have ever been at the heart of the Western 'left' response to corporate capitalism?"
The implications for all activists, including the building of networks to counter the present unsustainable system, are both profound and practical: "The Buddhist principle of unconditional generosity, which seems so outlandish from a conventional perspective, makes perfect sense in the context of dissent. If we truly care about the suffering of others, and believe that the dissolution of the deceptions that maintain exploitative power (for example, by suppressing our capacity for compassion) is a key way to aid that suffering, then seeking to involve and support our fellow activists as far as we are able - encouraging, advising, assisting in any way we can - is the best way to achieve that end."
Perhaps the biggest structural barrier to achieving such an end is the lack of substantive debate in public life, largely shaped by powerful media sources. Despite an unprecedented display of sophisticated citizen protest against economic globalisation in Seattle last year, mainstream reporting was still dominated by images of "street protest", "ugly violence", and "riots". Edwards tackles the age-old problem of media bias from a new angle, revealing how it arises from the inherent greed, hatred and ignorance of a capitalist society. This augments the cogent analysis made by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky in their 1988 book, Manufacturing Consent, which detailed a "propaganda model of media control". Their model explains how money and power is able to filter out news which is not "fit to print", marginalise civic dissent, and allow government and big business to broadcast their messages to the public.
But as Edwards carefully explains: "Noconspiracy theory is required, merely an understanding of the standard operation of market forces. In fact the theory of 'democratic' thought control not only does not propose a conspiracy but actually requires the absence of any such conspiracy. Thought control of this sophistication could not be achieved, let alone maintained, through any kind of conspiracy, for the simple reason, that it would quickly be exposed and so made largely impotent (as was the case, for example, in the Soviet Union)."
Buddhism teaches us that the first step to liberation is awareness of the nature of reality. The noble eightfold path is the development of ethical conduct, hand in hand with wisdom, that ultimately extinguishes dukkha, the suffering, impermanence and imperfection of our daily lives. Consider how this translates to radical political activism; that we must appreciate the nature and extent of the problem facing us, namely "the institutionalized subordination of people and planet to corporate profit". Only an awareness of this allows us to move to the second goal of liberation: identifying a realistic alternative system that honours human justice and environmental protection.
Working towards these aims requires us to examine ourselves, and our relationships with each other. "Dissidents are a famously irate bunch, keen to stick to facts and political discussion, but unwilling to look closely at their own motivation. They are also notoriously angry and full of hatred for those they deem responsible for our woes." Such hatred, which occasionally manifests as railing against corporate bosses who are trapped by selfish material satisfaction and dreams of empire-building, may be understandable, but it is ultimately self-defeating. Edwards quotes from one of the tales in Aryasura's The Marvellous Companion, "Alas for those shameless ones who, in the name of expediency, oppress humanity and extend amorality. I do not see that such actions have gained you either pleasure or joy." In other words, our corporate and political masters (the "shameless ones") have not attained ultimate happiness in pursuing their own greed, whims, or desire to dominate others.
It is a counter-intuitive message perhaps, but a compelling one. Compassion - not anger, facts, action or even protest - should be central to the effective struggle for freedom and democracy. "The compassionate way might initially strike us as incredibly difficult, but it is at least possible, and therefore preferable to the impossible attempt to achieve a compassionate society through violence and hatred. Feelings of hatred and anger do not even bring peace in relationships between friends, spouses, families; they prevent even dedicated people from forming cohesive movements for social change. How then can they bring anything but chaos and disaster to a whole world?"
David Edwards has written an inspiring, incisive and essential work which ought to occupy a place on the bookshelf alongside Herman and Chomsky, as well as other brave and compassionate dissidents such as John Pilger, Howard Zinn, Sharon Beder and Vandana Shiva. Ultimately hopeful, this clear-sighted book maps out the compassionate revolution that, whether or not they acknowledge it yet, activists the world over are seeking.