Capital, Buddhism, and the Open-Empty Future

Financial capitalization has a certain uncertain relationship to uncertainty.

On the one hand, it has to be somewhat certain about the future income stream it expects from its present investments, otherwise there would be little point (from the capitalist’s perspective) to engage in the productive activity; it would be deemed too risky.

On the other hand, uncertainty is an inextricable part of the process because of the nature of creativity as spontaneously generative —the uncertainty of the future is a function of its novelty, that something came to be which was not here before. Production and profit would be impossible without novelty.

So part of the fundamentally contradictory character of the process of capitalization is that it must manage risk and uncertainty while presupposing it as a necessary condition for its own activity. This contradictory dynamic is why capitalization, although basically a financial process, must always bleed into the “political domain” and fails to be constrained to the “economic domain.” Risk management is as much a geo/political and social process as it is an economic one, and the more that political power processes can be deployed in the service of capitalization the more that this sort of risk can be managed and future income streams secured.

Contrast this to forms of Buddhist praxis, on the soteriological rather than politico-economic level, where the expectation of future gains (such as material prosperity, extraordinary powers or heightened experiences) from investing time and attention to present activity (such as contemplation, meditation and virtuous conduct) is known to pose as an obstruction to the flourishing of one’s being. Such transient gains are understood to be distractions to the path of genuine realization, and can cause one to accumulate massive karmic debts that ultimately hold you back rather than move you forward even if you get to enjoy short-term gratification (worst of all is when you start convincing yourself, consciously or unconsciously, that the accumulation of these gratifications is the purpose of your practice).

While the Buddhist trains herself to be genuinely open to the future rather than posing herself in tense relationship to it based on the expectation of personal gain (thus saving herself from falling into the sort of contradictory dynamic wherein she would aim to close down the future while at the same time depending on its openness) she still retains a paradoxical relationship to that openness. The future is undecided, and she remains open not in spite of but because of this undecidability.

A capitalistically minded person may wonder: what would be the point of investing time, energy and attention to activity whose future outcomes you are not reasonably certain about? But for such a capitalistically minded person, the paradox of the Buddhist is an irresolvable conundrum because he circularly assumes that the only way to ensure certain results from an uncertain future is by having the right expectations and managing the risk that comes from it, and so is unable to see any other mode of existing. Who could blame him? Such a mode of existence seems so natural and obvious to us: we tend to expect certain results in the future, so we conduct our activity in the present according to those expectations.

But the capitalistically minded person is actually caught up in a loop of personal drama that he himself has created, perpetually reproducing the conditions for his own apparent necessity. The more he directly tries to control the present in order to fit it to his expectations of the future, the more he introduces discord and strife into an otherwise natural and peaceful process, thus creating the very uncertainty he wishes to overcome! In contrast, the Buddhist learns through concrete lived experience that the more open she is to the uncertainty and undecidability of the future, the more intuitively she can be connected to the way things are, and the more actually prescient she becomes about the futures that are to come.

So ironically, although it is the capitalist who uses every power at his disposal to gain definite certainty about an indefinite and uncertain future, it is the Buddhist — who is genuinely open to the creative novelty of future — who is in the best position to be certain about what is to come. The key difference between them is that, while the capitalist or capitalistically minded person only conducts activity on the basis that he will be personally rewarded for it, the Buddhist conducts her activity simply on the basis that it is good, true, just and for the benefit of all, because she has learned through lived experience that personal benefit comes as a natural consequence of laboring for the welfare of others.

And so she vows:
“As long as space endures,
as long as sentient beings remain,
until then, may I too remain
and dispel the miseries of the world.”

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