Alternating Ages of Greed and Hate: A Little Bit of Buddhist Psychology
In Buddhist psychology we talk of delusion having a double valency. It either turns to greed or to hate. Greed is attractive and acquisitive. Hate is repulsive and rejecting.
The core of delusion is conceit or pride. This can be individual or group. A whole nation or even a whole planet can suffer delusion. According to Buddhism, delusion is the normal. Non-delusion is exceptional. Those who are not deluded are rare and carry a torch for enlightenment, but they do not necessarily know that they do so. It is simply a natural process.
The notion of natural process is important. We are not here talking about conscious ideas. People are not as much in control as they think. We tend to think that if we understand something we can be in control of it and change whatever we like. This is itself a delusion - a conceit.
A person or group may be more or less in the grip of delusion and their thought and actions will then reflect that state. Thoughts and ideas are, mostly, a manifestation of the underlying condition. A person’s actions and words may very well actually be contributing to a course that is different from or even the opposite of what they consciously believe they are engaged in.
There seems to have been a marked change in the tone of political debate in immediately recent years. In the US mid-term elections, for instance, the politics of hate has over-ruled the politics of greed.
What is interesting here is not so much the result, but the manner. Right now President Trump is enjoying a lot of good news about the US economy. This may be solid and valid or it may be ephemeral, but that does not matter in terms of my argument. The fact is that he could have based his election campaign upon greed. He could have made his main pitch the idea that the economy has never been so good. In elections more that ten years ago a president in his position would almost undoubtedly have done so. President Clinton had a poster saying “It’s the economy, stupid!” to constantly remind himself that the thing that wins elections is good economic news if you are in power or bad economic news if you are the opposition. It was always like this. Not any more.
Trump has campaigned substantially on threats to America and fear and hatred of immigrants, ISIS, whatever. He instinctively recognised that this is the new order of things. I do not think this is something that Trump has manufactured; rather, he and his rhetoric is a manifestation of it.
The same thing is happening elsewhere. In the Brexit debate - and, remember, the Brexit referendum happened before Trump came to office - the hate agenda over-ruled the greed one in the same way. When I see debates between people who are pro-Brexit and pro-Remain what is striking is that Remain supporters tend to bring forth rational arguments about how people are better off in the European Union than they will be outside it and these arguments get nowhere. The Brexit supporters, by and large, do not really care that Brexit will make everyone worse off. They are not motivated by having more, they are motivated by dislike and distrust of the people they are against - in this case other Europeans. Even though Brexit will cost the UK a lot they relish the fact that it will also be costly for the EU.
In Europe itself similar things are happening. populism, as it is called, and nationalism, are on the rise. These are essentially philosophies of hate over greed. The driving force is suspicion and dislike of the other, the outsider. They are not so much about profit, more about resentment. In that mode, cost does not matter much, what matters is to defeat the other.
A Large Scale Shift
This is new. We have had roughly half a century since World War II in which politics has been ruled by greed. It has all been about progress, rising living standards, profit, growth, and getting more. This has been closely related to globalism and capitalism. There has been a sense that the future will always yield more than the present and so people have been motivated to try to gain their share of the bounty. This period seems to be at an end.
Surveys show for the first time that increasing numbers of people believe that their children and grandchildren will not have as good circumstances as exist today. Faith in growth and progress is waning. In the USA, which is often the leading edge of human trends, longevity is actually falling. Longevity is one of the clearest indicators of the wellbeing of a population. Although economic data can be manipulated to look like good news, when it comes to the fundamentals, the evidence for things getting ever better is ceasing to flow.
This change is working through into the attitudes and ethos of social discourse and debate. We are entering a period of conflict and animosity. This general atmosphere has the capacity to poison the ground of social wellbeing. It produces cohesion, but only as cohesion-against. People unite against the outside enemy and they generate enemies in order to do so.
This also means that the individualism that characterises periods of greed is also in retreat. Intolerance of dissent is rising. Cohesion based on antagonism leads to polarisation and polarisation produces intolerance of anything deemed to be disloyalty.
In Buddhist theory, periods of greed tend to last longer than periods of hate, but periods of hate are sharper and more energetic. There can be massive breakdown over a short period of time. After the fire has burnt itself out, new growth begins from the ashes. It seems, however, that we are currently at the beginning of the fire and it is very difficult to tell where it will spread or with what specific effects.
Why Is This Happening?
Apart from the endlessly cycling alternations of samsara, my own hunch is that the main precipitating factor for the current change is the ecological crisis. Climate change is forcing a reluctant humanity to limit its ambition. We are still a long way from achieving a satisfactory way of living within the limitations that Nature imposes and we face a very difficult transition. This is putting the brakes on economic expansion which simply cannot go on and on in the old way. These limits work through the system.
To repeat, this is not primarily a matter of ideas. It is not just that people are more conscious of the ecological problem. Many of the prime movers in the present situation are not particularly aware of it, but they nonetheless do have to react somehow to real changes in the real world.
Putting “America First” rather than trying to position the US as the overseer of international affairs, as was done by previous presidents, is a reflection of this. If growth is not happening, people turn to fighting over shares of what there is and then to fighting simply for survival. They do not do this because they have a sophisticated appreciation and analysis of the forces at work in the world. They simply react to what impinges.
When we look at the history of the world we see that periods of disruption tend to follow ecological crises. We might, for instance, see parallels between the present situation in which there are millions of refugees and efforts to keep them out and the advent of the “Sea People” that seems to have ended the high civilisation of the Bronze Age. Or we might reflect upon what we know about the end of Mayan civilisation which seems to have come about through wars occasioned by ecological degradation once the forests had been cleared and the water supplies started to be inadequate. This does not enable us to plot the detail of what may happen, but it does offer warning of how complete the catastrophe can become. Hopefully it will not go so far this time, but there is no way of telling.
Surviving the Dark Age
Periodically the world goes through dark ages. During such times terrible things can happen and chaos can spread far and wide. In such times there can, nonetheless, be islands of sanity. The flame of enlightenment is not necessarily entirely extinguished.
It is at such times that spirituality also undergoes a trial by fire and from such trial new strength and vigour can rise. We can think of the monasteries that preserved learning and compassionate values through the period of the decline of the Roman Empire when Europe was overrun by barbarian tribes migrating away for ecological pressure in central Asia. We can also think of how the Kamakura renaissance of Buddhism in Japan came out of a time of civil war, famine and plague.
Periods when the spirit of the times is ruled by greed are relatively more comfortable than eras of hate. They are, however corrosive of true spirit. We have, for instance, seen, in recent decades, spiritual movements corrupted into saleable commodities where there is little to choose between celebrity personalities and so-called gurus and one suspects that it is all ruled by money. Genuine spirituality does not come into prominence in such times.
It is possible that we are edging into a dark time. If so, the challenge to and premium upon genuine spirituality, liberation and enlightenment will become greater. In the time of fire the Buddha’s message of inner cool becomes ever more relevant. The need for a sangha that stands apart from and even against the current of the world becomes greater and greater. Those who maintain true values become islands and sanctuaries. The last words of Buddha were “Make the Dharma your island, make the Dharma your lamp”.