Friday, April 11, 2014

Jeremy Carrette + Richard King's "Selling Spirituality": Book Review

A scholar of Foucault and another of Orientalism combine to expose how deeply the market ideology of the 1980s and 1990s has infiltrated secular and economic contexts. They argue in this clearly conveyed 2004 book a necessary thesis. This "silent takeover of religion," as British critics Jeremy Carrette and Richard King demonstrate, reveals how business repackages religion, cynically or cleverly supporting the selfish motives which underlie unregulated capitalism.

But this corporate capitalist version does not need to dominate the treatment of spirituality. Anti-capitalist or revolutionary, business ethics or reformist, individualist or consumerist, as well as capitalist spirituality, defines this typological range. The nebulous term "spirituality" expresses the privatization of religion by modern secular societies. The commodification by corporate capitalism of what was religion strips that "ailing competitor" of its assets, in a hostile takeover, while rebranding its "aura of authenticity" to convey the "goodwill" of the company, which sells off the religious models of its trappings and teachings at the marketplace. (15-21) God is dead; long live God as Capital.

They cite a 2002 interview with the late Tony Benn to telling effect: 
"Religions have an extraordinary capacity to develop into control mechanisms . . . If I look at the world today it seems to me that the most powerful religion of all-- much more powerful than Christianity, Judaism, Islam and so on-- is the people who worship money. That is really [the] most powerful religion. And the banks are bigger than the cathedrals, the headquarters of the multinational companies are bigger than the mosques or the synagogues. Every hour on the hour we have business news-- every hour-- it's a sort of hymn to capitalism." (23, qtd, from An Audience With Tony Benn audiobook) 

The "religious quality of contemporary capitalism," the authors remind us, now lacks restraints of earlier societies. The market as God, as Harvey Cox herein acknowledges, rules, and seeks monopoly. Killing Joke's song, after Thatcher's fall, looped in my mind as I read: "Money Is Not Our God": "Will you swap your hi-fi for a clear blue sky? Will you cash in all your shares for God's clean air?"

As the authors explain: "The 'spiritual' becomes instrumental to the market rather than oriented towards a wider social and ethical framework, and its primary function becomes the consumerist status quo rather than a critical reflection upon it." Spirituality gets harnessed to "productivity, work-efficiency and the accumulation of profit put forward as the new goals" to supplant "the more traditional emphasis upon self-sacrifice, the disciplining of desire and a recognition of community."

Over fewer than two-hundred pages, Carrette and King elaborate in four chapters the impacts of this takeover. Chapter one surveys spirituality, as it separates from religious contexts and adapts itself to individualism under liberal democracies and then corporations. Chapter two attacks the role played by psychology in "creating a privatised and individualised conception of reality" to align itself with social control and social isolation. (26) Psychology, produced by capitalist intervention, fools people into spirituality as "an apparent cure for the isolation created by a materialistic, competitive and individualised social system." (27) This chapter castigates James, Maslow and Jung for their compliance to cultural, political, and economic norms which fail to liberate those in pain. The sustained and potent argument advanced here indicts New Age practices linked to therapeutic cures. Carrette and King critique this as a trap for sufferers lured in to a desire for elusive remedies. Having been sold escapes from oppression, these intensify rather than ease isolation. Freedom is out of reach.

The link between New Age and esoteric teachings sold to the West and Asian traditions elaborates into chapter three. Hindu, Buddhist, and Taoist versions get sampled. The dissonance between systems advising renunciation and capitalism promoting accumulation provides logical case studies. Some of this coverage examines the careers of Osho/ Bhagwan Rajneesh, Deepak Chopra, and the "Barefoot Doctor" Stephen Russell. Carrette and King suggest the Socially Engaged Buddhism and related movements as alternatives, as well as a study of the teachings of Vimalakirti as correctives (if slight taken in their original contexts where neither "social revolution" nor "mass mobilisation" were realistic possibilities) to the prevalent materialism of the times and places generating those teachings.

The fourth chapter circles back to the opening critique. The authors find a vivid analogy to sharpen or sweeten their analysis of how "rejection of the discourse of professional 'excellence' among employees is often presented by managers as 'resistance to accountability'. What such resistance often represents is not a rejection of accountability as such but rather a rejection of a narrow logic of accountancy with regard to such processes." (137) Similarly, they show how difficult it is amid the cult of devotion instilled in the market-driven workplace to resist "spirituality" or "excellence" as a catch-phrase repeated mantra-like by those who act as missionaries bent on preaching a bottom line.

When spirituality gets used such, it "ends up acting like a food colouring or additive that masks the less savoury ingredients in the product that is being sold to us," they demonstrate convincingly. This content throughout this short treatise remains accessible, as the authors admirably seek "to raise a series of questions in a narrative style that is more open-ended and provocative than traditional academic discourse allows," hearkening to the French "essai" to address "wider political concerns and constituencies than are usually appealed to in scholarly works." (ix-x) The Feast of Knowledge?

This remains to my knowledge a under-investigated area of sociological or cultural criticism, at least in passionate, spirited examples aimed at the masses. Given Occupy a decade after this has appeared, two years after that, Matthew Fox and Adam Bucko's Occupy Spirituality and Nathan Schneider's Thank You, Anarchy (see my reviews here and here) covered congenial themes. LGBT activist and Jewish-Buddhist journalist Jay Michaelson's Evolving Dharma, by comparison, overlapped with Fox and Bucko by praising Lama Surya Das, although Michaelson aims his take on Buddhist Geeks-friendly meditation as "brainhacking" liberating a savvier, hip audience. It's the first book (preceding CT/ST naturally, if by a few months) I found that nodded to the project Speculative Non-Buddhism.

In fairness to Michaelson, while he will not win over any non-buddhists, he mingles caution into his treatment, seasoned by his experiences as one albeit from a privileged cadre, able to amble off to Nepal for months of silent retreats. This implicates him as part of the problem he seeks to solve, to adopt Carrette and King's diagnosis. Michaelson will never assuage those sworn to annihilate x-buddhism, but I mention these mass-market books as complements to the popular front (my terms) which underlies Carrette and King's campaign against capitalist spirituality. I raised related issues (at #2, 6, 11, 21) in response to Glenn Wallis' "A Spectre Is Haunting Buddhism or Give Marx Some Credit" about anarchism and the countercultural roots of certain x-buddhisms. To complete my run-through of responses to inequality and spirituality, I'll draw upon what I read immediately before Selling Spirituality: George Packer's The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, which documented the cause of neo-liberal market ideology and its everyday effects, since Reagan's rise.

In a chapter set at Occupy Wall Street in Fall 2011, Packer filters his narrative through reactions from representative activists. New Yorker Nelini Stamp, from the Working Families Party, sticks it out, but she wonders about OWS efficacy, as disruptions intensify assemblies and thwart their progress.

"Occupy was dominated by the kind of people who ran the Canadian magazine that had gotten the whole thing started. Adbusters--very educated postmodern anarchists. Nelini was self-conscious about never having finished high school--they'd read so many books she'd never heard of--and they also made her feel sometimes that she wasn't radical enough. She was an organizer, and she worried that Occupy was becoming too narrow, and she wanted to figure out how to turn it into a durable movement that could work on achieving practical goals, like getting people to close their accounts at the big banks and moving the homeless into foreclosed houses. She thought at some point Occupy would need to come up with demands. She was even beginning to think it might be better to move on from Zuccotti Park." (375)

How may this intersect with the non-buddhist project?  While many of its proponents marshal difficult language to shake hearers out of their expectations, to undermine trust in timeworn verities, and to force new reactions that shatter complacency, Occupy's predicament demonstrates the limits of "very educated postmodern anarchism" as perceived by Stamp. Now organizing the left in Florida, she writes: "We were trained to talk to all types of people and got a well-rounded perspective on our issues and how to present them in the most effective ways," since "I couldn't afford to go to college."

I note as an aside that Packer (who does not enter this 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning chronicle directly) in the 1980s organized for the Democratic Socialists of America. As I co-founded a chapter of this organization back in my own college stint during Reagan's first term, I presume that Packer's no stranger to registers of rhetoric employed by the Direct Democracy Working Group or those provocateurs or promoters at OWS. Nelini Stamp's testimony reminds us of those on the margins, those who may feel overwhelmed by those who shout down the participants, who listen but who may fidget. They may shrink from engagement, as barriers to learning and communicating in the manner of the elite loom so high. Stamp reminds us, from her canvassing: "The left has broken down into separate interest groups. We have to find ways that we can work across them, ways we can unite."

Matthias Steingass reminds us of the imperative we face, speaking of unity beyond slogans or cant. Red Dust comments, responding to him: "People who are ready and open to your message will get it. My only advice would be keep it simple and talk to people at their level of understanding and don’t take joy in pointing out people’s faulty views. Most folk are like me, not that well educated and get anxious trying to talk to well educated people. The really hard nuts to crack are the well educated."

There's no room for navel-gazing or seminar slouching when "the planetary capitalist hegemony," as Steingass phrases the threat (Carrette and King will label its reification as the Borg) looms. He cites Craig Hickman's "Global Resistance and the Collapse of Civilization: Berardi, Deleuze, and others" and I add a book I'm studying now by anarchist anthropologist David Graeber, Debt: the First 5,000 Years; this exposé may have energized the subsequent OWS movement itself the year it appeared. (When I raised what I contemplated as connections between homelessness, Occupy, and bhikkhus, I found at a sitting that most preferred to keep that dharma-talk focused on the existential self.) Participating in Occupy L.A. in fall 2011, I "meditated" on disparities between those agitators who trafficked in theory and those who attempted praxis--as well as how barter or a cash nexus reified into a novel market, where neither milk nor cereal could be exchanged, but plenty of 40 ouncers and pot. 

I'm reminded of the Marxist pamphlets I saw, scattered underfoot and presumably discarded, when I hauled books to the makeshift library at Occupy L.A. Whether or not those encamped dithered over dialectics spurred me to review Jonathan Sperber's 2012 Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life. After all, Stamp asked for practical applications rather than theoretical discussions, to fight the powers that be. This revisionist study shifts Marx into a backward (to 1789) looking idealist more than an "intransigent revolutionary" idolized posthumously by Engels. Sperber scrutinizes MEGA archives opened after the Cold War. He observes how Marx's concept of an Hegelian proletariat emerges more as Marx's invention to advance the dialectic materialism he concocted rather than a milieu within which he moved at ease. He made enemies, to whom he attributed many of his own discarded ideas. He crammed his journalism so full of erudition that the laborers it meant to direct found it too heady to figure out. As to alienation, his letters display a dominance by ideology, via score-settling.

Here, a connection can be forged with Selling Spirituality: The Silent Takeover of Religion. Packer, by highlighting Stamp's frustration, articulates the need for moral action, and the dangers of bickering or solipsism. Considering this, I drafted this well before catching up with the comments on Patrick Jennings' "Where We Are. Where We Might Go" so it may run at cross purposes rather than merge with psychology not to mention neurobiology; my own orientation centers on literary and cultural critique. (In my defense, I note that while my favorite book is Ulysses, I prefer over the effluvia of the Wake the astringency of Beckett. After all, he chose the sparer vocabulary of French to hone in on.)

In my local if attenuated, unaffiliated sitting group which discusses Buddhist concepts, the day after I finished both Packer's and Carrette and King's books, we shared a section from David Kalupahana's A History of Buddhist Philosophy commenting on the Kaccāyanagotta Sutta. In summing up the Middle Way, he opines: "Thus the difficulty in perceiving and understanding dependence is due not to any mystery regarding the principle itself but to people's love of mystery. The search for mystery, the hidden something (kiñci) is looked upon as a major cause of anxiety and frustration (dukkha)." (59)

I reckon this resists reduction to a Principle of Sufficient Buddhism. This feels our primal plight, our existential yearning, hard-wired despite our denials, as inherent pattern recognition tangled into clan cohesion and personal solace, as scientific writer (non-believer) Nicholas Wade charts as The Faith Instinct. We inherit it: Beckett stared this down, dismissing liberation while exposing our endgames.  Yet, he risked his life to resist hate. When evil arrived, he fought it, until another liberation arrived.

Is religion another evil? Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell for me reiterated the conclusions of Sam Harris' The End of Faith. Harris urged idealistically that if only all parents told their children only the truth, the future could be secured for rationalists. Dennett too places his trust in the secular. That's about it for big answers. These are so simple, yet so elusive: do not many true believers of gods or God or no gods think exactly that? That we no matter what we preach have a handle on the truth, and that we mean best for our progeny as we raise them in the light of our own understanding; all the while, however, unable to step out of our own limited perspective of the universal and the eternal?

While diligent deniers of the transcendental still search for meaning beyond our own ken, as Peter Watson's new The Age of Atheists: How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God confirms, many of us still indulge this persistent itch to scratch, to reflect upon our mysterious kiñci and ponder if it's accidental or intentional. Watson considers the shortcomings of science and religion in soothing our troubled minds. Carrette and King, revolting against the legacy of Thatcher two decades earlier, sustain in their book a like-minded entry into "new configurations of resistance -- in terms that are not blinded by the modernist separation of the religious from the secular." (180) Perhaps this may nudge a few into the wedge where a secular-religious divide since the Enlightenment has widened. This figure may, after capital's global triumph, sharpen and alter itself into an edgier shape.

The authors encourage a Marxian critique, to "go beyond" Marx. They diagnose the damage done by many opiates, peddled by psychiatrists as well as priests. While unfortunately they do not detail a Marxian alternative in what remains a brief survey, they seek to "reclaim the ground of social justice" from fundamentalists (faith-based or free-market), and to seize the debate. Patrick Jennings has provided much on The Non-Buddhist for this reclamation, introducing a human Marx. Carrette and King similarly (but see my endnote citing Ann Gleig's recent riposte at SNB) suspect any nostalgic claim to revert to religious tradition; they remind us that religions in turn have "also moulded our civilisations, our sense of ethics and community and our concern for social justice." (181) As they scan a de-sacralized atmosphere from Northern Europe, they demur from commitment to "a similarly materialistic and economically oriented heresy." If they urge--if as an aside--going beyond Marx, we're left to wonder how their final suggestion of "spiritual atheisms" might spark our future. (182)

This raises the prospects of where secular-minded activists may ally with similarly minded believers. Of course, the separation of church and state, so to speak, endures, but if we contemplate how in our daily lives and work, odds remain some of us mingle and may live with those who do believe, in religious or "spiritual" senses as well as relentlessly rational manifestations. Carrette and King, from their residences in Canterbury and Paris respectively, may relegate to the venerable facades of Christian Europe in these cities the endurance of any medieval sensibility, but even in Western Europe, if my own extended network stands as verification, believers endure alongside us skeptics.

Do, then, those who promulgate a rejection of traditional religious or modern spiritual affirmations deny those who practice them or pledge fealty to forces at which "postmodern anarchists" scoff? How far, if one pursues a rigorously non-theistic or non-spiritual response to faith, does the denier go to cut him or herself off from the rest of the community? As Stamp reflected at OWS, class divisions deepened by the "very educated" may discourage those who seek less lofty and more direct actions.

As professors, Carrette and King offer no remedy to the plight of those who, like Stamp and another man (once a techie, now homeless, he leaves Seattle with a duffel bag to sleep at OWS; after police crack down, he wonders where to go next), may sympathize with secular and radical movements, but who may lack the wherewithal in terms of academic preparation or financial resources to sign on as fellow travelers. As with many such tracts, Selling Spirituality sketches out a faint path to pursue. In closing, it vaguely advises Michel Foucault's strategy to resist: "move strategically and then wait for the next assertion of power," given resistance may be futile to a corporate, shape-shifting Borg. (172)

They advocate anti-capitalist, social justice, and compassion-based movements. They also realize most people who may need such movements to lessen their burdens are not secularized. Therefore, they advise strategic alliances by progressives with principled religious organizations as practical methods of opposition to capitalist spirituality. While they remain committed to study religious and spiritual impacts, and never advocate belief, the authors, rejecting retreat into texts, understand the limits of a lasting, convincing appeal based on only a secular disenchantment of the spirit. Instead, they seek to align radical factions to the faithful majority, who still believe, but who may be open to engagement, in solidarity against what Noam Chomsky calls "the control of the public mind."

(Amazon US 3-24-14, in far shorter and non-non-buddhist form. I learned of this book on a SNB thread "Why Buddhism?" via Ann Gleig: "Historically, I would argue anatta has shown little or no signs of manifesting a politically robust subjectivity reflexive of its own ideological constituents. By the way, Carrette and King made the same argument in Selling Spirituality in 2005 but with an explicit concern of having a stake in protecting traditional Buddhism". After my reading of it, I conclude that the authors wish to advance a engaged, ethical, and subversive Buddhism as committed to radicalism aligned with anti-capitalist global movements; how "traditional" this leaves that system is open to debate. As non-buddhists discuss, such "buddhemes" as traditions may be moot by now.)

[As above to The Non-Buddhist 3-27-14 as 'Money Is Not Our God': Selling Spirituality"' Occupy L.A. photo by Arkasha Richardson at the Bank of America standoff downtown, 11-17-11. Use the Occupy L.A. keyword to search this blog for my own reflections from autumn 2011, and afterwards.] Thanks to Patrick Jennings and Ann Gleig for the incisive comments in response to this at TNB.]

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