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Buddhist-Christian Studies 22 (2002) 47-60

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Economic Aspects of Social and Environmental Violence from a Buddhist Perspective

Sulak Sivaraksa

I have been asked to write on some economic aspects of social and environmental violence, approaching the subject from a Buddhist perspective. Indeed this invitation offers a wide range of choices, but I shall try to keep my subject matter fairly general and straightforward. The present economic reality, widely known as neoliberal capitalism, prizes the accumulation of profits over human well-being and environmental sustainability. As such, it is criminal and hence definitely not the way to regulate or organize the global society. The present trend, however, is increasingly giving the agents and institutions of capital a free hand to do so.

The main beneficiaries of this violent and highly unjust system are invariably transnational corporations (though some critics prefer to call them transnational tyrannies), big financial investors, and their supporters. Roughly two-thirds of what is known today as world trade are simply intrafirm or interfirm trade. Small wonder that they are virtually the present-day "masters of the universe," increasingly accumulating special rights, influence, and power vis-à-vis the mass of humanity. An open secret is that the wealthiest 20 percent of the world's population receive 83 percent of the world's total income—a fact that no longer creates consternation or moral outrage in the mainstream; rather, it is taken as a healthy phenomenon that will contribute to human progress. Moreover, the environment is being plundered to quench the greed—which happens to be a bottomless pit—of the few. Inevitably, this creates a two-tiered system both within and between countries; a small opulent minority builds their castles on the suffering and impoverishment of the absolute majority of humanity. A large segment of humanity enjoys freedom with no opportunities and has the freedom to starve but does not enjoy freedom from poverty. Everyday thousands of children are dying from easily preventable disease. Millions more are malnourished or starving. It is against this backdrop that we need to discuss some of the economic aspects of social and environmental violence from a Buddhist perspective.

Let us first deal with the production side of the capitalist equation. What is its main driving force and value system? How do they impact social organization and the environment? [End Page 47] Undeniably, the fuel that keeps the capitalist engine running is profit: the more of it, the better, the argument goes. Hence, corporations must be free to pursue it at all costs. The ends justify the means. It is also argued that the profit generated by the system will eventually trickle down to benefit the mass of humanity. The available evidence points otherwise. To be fair, capitalism does generate some benefits to humanity, but they are largely unintended by-products of the system.

In the mainstream discourse, profit is said to derive solely from entrepreneurship —a concept that acts as a bicarbonate of soda for intellectual and moral indigestion. In reality, the easiest and cheapest way to reap massive profit is exploitation or ostracism: One is rich by keeping or making others poor, directly or otherwise. The masters then seek solace in the tenuous assumption that the global economy utilizes the best and disposes the rest. Furthermore, the environment is seen as a subsystem of international capitalism, not vice versa. Hence it is to be raped in order to lubricate the wheels of the capitalist machine. Put differently, the insatiable quest for profit upheld by capitalism really reflects greed, hatred, moral callousness, and wanton criminal negligence toward the well-being of the people and environment. The name of the game is getting ahead even at another's expense, to rise to the top of the pecking order. If one frequents any bookstore, one is likely to find business books with interesting titles such as Divide and Rule and Colonizing the Market. This nefarious aggressiveness is benignly known as "free competition" in mainstream parlance. Those who succeed to the top are lauded as "efficient." If allowed to have a firm...