Nirvāṇa/Saṃsāra; Communism/Capitalism

A general strategy that a Madhyamika (agent of the Middle Way, i.e. a meddling middler) may deploy once they identify a pair of contradictory forces at play, is neither to affirm the possibility of resolving the contradiction in those terms, nor to abandon those terms, but to see how those terms actually compliment each other. This insistence on complementarity is not necessarily itself an affirmation of the terms in themselves, but rather just insists on their inseparable mutual connection. 

If the complementary pairing produces suffering or error, then the idea of overcoming the suffering through privileging one aspect of the pair would be out of the question. Upholding one is to simultaneously uphold the other. The task of overcoming that suffering then, may be to re-frame the pairing such that it is not supported as a relation between two independent entities but are two aspects of the same expression. This radical re-framing, in its most significant sense, is achieved not merely at the level of ideology and reflection, but at the level of practice and concentration (sustenance of practice).

I think this way of approaching duality and contradiction may be of vital importance for analyzing global capitalism in the post-soviet era, where the idea of privileging one aspect (labor) of a contradictory pair (labor/capital) in order to overcome the “contradictory motion” of capitalism’s development has been made obsolete. By attempting to operate in this way, traditional Marxism tried to pass off a “negative image” of capitalism as its actual negation and thereby only reproduced its essential content in a different form or mode of appearance. It may have also contributed to the dialectical development of capitalism itself, whereby neoliberalisation, self-defined in opposition to the actually existing examples of socialist centralization while simultaneously assimilating or mirroring its bureaucratic state-form,¹ initiated a “rebirth” or re-incarnation of capitalism after the crisis of the 20th century. 

Neither is fully adequate, the anarchistic tendency to eschew a direct engagement with the dynamics at present in favor of some kind of absolute “outside” of the capital-labor relation, in expressions like horizontal direct actions, “temporary autonomous zones” and skepticism of the merits of utilizing the state to certain ends. This way of approaching the issue, while valid in certain respects and contexts, ultimately lacks the totalizing vision of unification and cooperation that the global era requires. Usually, this expression of anti-capitalism easily lends itself to recuperation by market forces and often upholds individualistic conceptions of the subject that mirror that of liberalism.²

So another way needs to be tried: A way that tries to work with the conditions at present in such a manner as to flexibly re-orient the process to a new one. I think the increasing development of Commons-oriented movements all around the world is evidence of this other way out, which promises a paradigm shift in the way communities manage their social reproduction and creatively produce good(s). If the boom and bust cycles of capitalism, an effect of its contradictory dynamic, is like cyclical existence under samsara—an oscillatory motion from profit and hype to loss and disappointment and back, then the ideal of the Commons movement would be like nirvana: the overcoming of and liberation from samsara.  

Key to this analogy however, is Nāgārjuna‘s argument for the interdependence and mutual entailment of samsara with nirvana, rather than their essential difference.³ Thinking of nirvana as essentially different and completely independent of samsara is like when communism/anarchism conceives of itself as essentially different and completely independent of capitalism, making them express themselves in a deficient manner that does not adequately express the ideal. Rather, samsara and nirvana are interdependent because the shift from samsara to nirvana does not correspond to an immediate change in the nature of how things appear or how they are, but to a change in the nature of how you respond. Thus, Nirvana does not refer to a specific referent with boundaries that can be predicated existence or non-existence, but refers to a difference in the manner with which existence itself is beheld.

Nirvana is not a state but a mode of being. This mode of being is endowed with the four brahmavihāras or “sublime virtues” of benevolence (metta), compassion (karuna),  joy (mudita) and equanimity (upekkha), also called the Four Immeasurables. So just like this, Commonism, the ideal expression of the Commons movement, would be an open process and not a preconceived “end of history”, and would be driven for the creative production of immaterial wealth in the form of immeasurable Goods̶.

¹ Fisher, Mark. Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? O Books, 2009. p. 39-54

² Biehl, Janet. “Bookchin Breaks with Anarchism.” The Anarchist Library,

³ Nāgārjuna , and Jay L. Garfield. The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way: Nagarjunas “Mūlamadhyamakakārikā”. Oxford University Press, 1996.

7 Replies to “Nirvāṇa/Saṃsāra; Communism/Capitalism”

  1. Great essay. I also believe this could relate to Zizek’s psychoanalytic paradigm of ideology. Namely, he says something along the lines of “many socialists draw on the secret belief that nothing will really change”. This dependence on a unconscious surplus enjoyment is what Zizek is interested in in essays like this:

    Buddhism understood this “secret dependence” long ago, and it could be reappropriated psychoanalytically

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you!

      The connection you imply does seem like a fruitful avenue to investigate. Thanks for the essay recommendation, short and full of interesting ideas.


  2. I arrived at a similar conception of Madhyamaka, as expressed in the Heart Sutra: the non-duality of emptiness and form. Emptiness and form are not separate, and cannot be separated. A correct understanding of Buddhist non-dualism is not that ‘everything is empty’ (a frequent misconception attributable to distorted Dzogchen teachings); but the UNITY of Emptiness and Form. Really, I’d like to have this tattooed on my forearm so I stop getting confused by the whole discussion. Buddhist non-dualism is the Unity of Emptiness and Form. They do not negate each other (Form does not occlude Emptiness; Emptiness does not erase Form), nor are they separate and distinct from each other. The ‘is’ means ‘equivalent.” Form is emptiness = emptiness is form, they are one and the same.

    Liked by 1 person

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