Tag Buddhism

Posts: 4

Schumacher’s ‘Buddhist economics’

I’ve been talking to a colleague recently about developing a project on religion and economics under the auspices of the Religion and Political Culture Network (RPCN) at the University of Manchester. This has got me thinking about Buddhism, economics and Buddhist economics, and has led me to reread Ernst Friedrich Schumacher’s classic essay Buddhist economics, first published in 1966, and available online here:


It’s a fascinating piece, and though Schumacher’s arguments have become commonplace among critics of mainstream economics, it’s interesting just how current most of what he has to say sounds. Much of what he has to say about the irrationality of certain assuptions in academic economics is still being said today, for example by students who are demanding changes in the way the subject is taught in universities, tackled in a recent BBC radio documentary: http://bbc.in/1pBBGW9, and in another broadcast last year: http://bbc.in/1y94uHF.

Only one of his claims about economics is arguably anachronistic: the claim that economics considers only price in the use of different natural resources, not whether they are renewable or not. I think that, at least at the level of the economics of nations, the idea of sustainability has gained significant traction since he was writing, though he probably wouldn’t approve of the idea that the impact of production on the environment can be ‘priced in’.

Here is a summary of Schumacher’s main points:

1. Economics is not value-free

He begins by regretting that leaders of Buddhist countries such as Burma simultaneously say they want to retain and develop their Buddhist traditions and ways of life, but seek advice from what he calls ‘modern’ and ‘materialist’ economists.

This might make sense if Buddhism and economics goverened two completely distinct spheres of life. However, he argues that Buddhism, which teaches Right Livelihood as part of the Eightfold Noble Path, must have its own ideas about economics. On the other hand, he claims, economics is not value-neutral, but is based on unacknowledged metaphysical presuppositions that might be–and in fact are–in conflict with the aims and premises of Buddhist teachings.

2. The meaning of labour

Schumacher discusses attitudes to work as an example of the (mostly unspoken) assumptions that distinguish modern economics from Buddhist economics.

For the ‘modern’ economics, labour is an evil. For the worker, its something that destroys leisure and for which compensation in the form of wages is required. For the employer, it is a cost of production. The more production (in the case of the employer) or income (in the case of the worker) can be had for the less work the better. So one central aim of modern economics is to reduce the quantitity of work required for a given amount of production through mechanisation and the division of labour.

For Buddhist economics, in contrast, work is not a necessary evil, but something that leads to a number of good outcomes apart from the product itself, including the opportunity for the development of character, and the opportunity to cooperate with others and in the process overcome ‘ego-centredness’. Labour-saving innovations are not necessarily bad, but their value depends on the extent to which they free people from the heavy work to focus on more creating tasks, or to the contrary, make work meaningless and repetitive.

3. The Middle Way and consumption

Modern economics, Schumacher writes, assumes that wellbeing can be measured by consumption, and therefore that greater annual rates of consumption correspond to increased wellbeing. A Buddhist economist,

‘… would consider this approach excessively irrational: since consumption is merely a means to human well-being, the aim should be to obtain the maximum of well-being with the minimum of consumption.’

(This is reminiscent of Southwold’s (1983: 188) opposition between Buddhist ‘sapientalism’, ‘a rational strategy for ameliorating experience by altering the mind rather than the environing world’, and instrumentalism.)

This approach could easily be misunderstood. One might assume that the opposite of materialism is anti-materialism, or the pursuit of poverty. But Schumacher points out that Buddhism is not about the rejection of wealth, but the rejection of excessive attachment to wealth. The Buddha tried and rejected ascetic austerities and then promoted instead the moderation of the Middle Way.

4. Localism, simplicity and non-violence

Schumacher argues that treating consumption as a means not an end in itself means living simply (in order to leave oneself time to do what is really important) and in accordance with non-violence (presumably because consuming in a way that leads to violence would undermine the proper goal of all consumption: liberation).

Using less in the way of resources also minimises the causes of violence as it reduces the competition for resources. Schumacher also claims–perhaps the this is the most debatable claim in the essay–that trading across large distances brings people into potentially hostile contact so that Buddhist economics would advocate local self-sufficience and minimal dependence on international trade:

‘dependence on imports from afar and the consequent need to produce for export to unknown and distant peoples is highly uneconomic and justifiable only in exceptional cases and on a small scale.’

5. Non-renewable resources

Finally, Schumacher argues that Buddhist economics and modern economics take a different view on non-renewable resources. For modern economics, all resources are reduced to a money price, and whatever resource is the cheapest price for each unit of output is preferable. For Buddhist economics, in contrast, using non-renewables is living parasitically off capital.

As I said above, this final point of criticism does sound rather anachronistic now.


Schumacher, E. F. 1966. “Buddhist Economics”. In Asia: A Handbook, edited by Guy Wint. London: Anthony Blond Ltd.

Southwold, M. 1983. Buddhism in Life. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Cultures of Belief – New paper out in Anthropological Theory

I’ve just had a new paper out in Anthropological Theory — this is behind a paywall, I’ll make a post-print version available through this website soon for those who don’t have access to the journal through an academic library.

The paper is titled ‘Cultures of ignorance’. In a nutshell, the argument is that academic students of religion have settled on a way of accounting for religious language and thought that distinguishes ordinary, everyday belief from religious belief. The former is understood to be literal and practical. The latter, by contrast, is taken to be indirect, metaphorical, symbolic, affective, moral and so on, and by implication not to be about propositional belief. Drawing on my own field research in northern China’s Inner Mongolia, I argue that there are ways of relating to a body of true knowledge that fit neither of these models. I argue that in order to understand what is going on in this situation and many others we need to develop an ethnographic sensibility to locally specific ‘cultures of belief’. To get this project off to a start, I suggest some initial building blocks for a general anthropology of belief, based on religious thought in ancient Greece, mediaeval Judaism, and contemporary US Evangelism.

Here’s the abstract:

In popular thought about the meaning of religion, as well as established debates in anthropology, religious belief is interpreted as either a commitment to a clear set of propositions, or as a non-literal, symbolic, ethical or social commitment. Anthropologists have tended to support the latter of these positions, so much so that this can now be seen as the ‘anthropological’ position; it is also characteristic of the view of scholars in related disciplines, such as religious studies. This article argues for a third possibility: that religious (and other) believers are often engaged in complex, reflexive practices that stipulate specific cognitive and non-cognitive relationships to propositional content. This is demonstrated with reference to contemporary Buddhism in Inner Mongolia, China. The author argues that the existence of such cultures of belief demonstrates there is a need for a systematic anthropological theory of belief and suggests some sources that may contribute to its formulation.

Mair, J., 2013. Cultures of belief. Anthropological Theory, 12(4), pp.448–466.

Cross-cultural conversations at cross-purposes

Part of my argument in the recent neoliberalism debate was that,

evidence of discontent about any aspect, be it ever so narrow, of what have been identified as neoliberal transformations is taken, without further justification, as a rejection of all of the phenomena that have been so identified

My point was that just because lots of people in different countries are critics of, say, structural adjustment programmes, we cannot leap to the conclusion that they share the same conception of the state and civil society and all agree on the proper balance of power and resources between the two; their motivations and assumptions might be quite different in each case.

This is a formal problem of cross-cultural description or comparison: the conversation at cross-purposes. We recognize something familiar in other people’s statements, and rush to fill in the rest from our own common-sense ideas, which may be quite different. My favourite example of this is one that operates in both directions — a reciprocal conversation at cross-purposes.

Self-Cultivation, Jesus Christ, and Christ Jesus

Christian missionaries, mainly Americans, operate in China in spite of a prohibition on missionary activity. Their message tends to be the rules-based version of modern Evangelism that has taken so much of the world by storm over the past 30 years: don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t gamble, and so on.

Christians I have met in villages in the north of China, or people who were interested in Christianity as they would invariably put it, were, it seemed to me, used to thinking about religious practice quite differently: as being aimed at a gradual process of self-cultivation. Like an impressive athletic feat — such as running a marathon — this is something that is easy for anyone to admire. But to participate — that takes a certain degree of commitment, free time and self-confidence. Again and again, when I asked people if they were Christian they would self-deprecatingly say that they knew little about it, that they were busy, but planned to start being a Christian in the future, perhaps when the harvest was in and there was less farm work to be done.

I was in China researching the revival of Buddhism in Mongolian areas, and Buddhists — or people who were interested in Buddhism — would often tell me similar things: Buddhism is a deep culture that is very powerful, but not many people are capable of putting it into practice, they were happy being relatively passive admirers.

When the village Christians do practise, they see the purpose of self-denial not as the fulfilment of an imperative duty, but rather as a technology through which they will gain good fortune through hard work. This means that it the practices taught by missionaries, sometimes long ago, tend to drift into more extreme forms of asceticism. For instance, in one village I was told that a religion of Christ Jesus had emerged to challenge the established religion of Jesus Christ. The followers of Christ Jesus interpreted the injunction to pray often as an esoteric teaching involving sitting absolutely still for hours with a wet towel on one’s head— a dangerous as well as an uncomfortable proposition in windy, icy Inner Mongolia.

Guilty Buddhists

The reciprocal part of this conversation at cross-purposes is the adoption of Buddhism in many non-Asian contexts in which religion, especially monotheisms, tends to be thought of as a revelation of moral duty — that is, as part of a system of rule-based morality — rather than a set of technologies for self-development. The corollary of duty is guilt. If what I have read is representative, Western Buddhist leaders seem to be occupied quite a lot of the time with advising their followers not to feel guilty if they miss out on a meditation session (just google ‘don’t feel guilty for not meditating’ to see what I mean), or if they cannot resist eating meat.

This conversation at cross-purposes is facilitated by near-enough ‘religion’ concepts — false friends that make communication easy, even intuitive. The confusion that arises is evident in the accusations of hypocrisy, or justifications of apparent hypocrisy, that arose in early anthropological studies of Buddhism.

The idea that a Buddhist who does not follow Buddhist precepts is hypocritical, among my Inner Mongolian Buddhist friends at least, would be as inappropriate as accusing a Manchester United fan of being hypocritical for failing to play in the Premier League. On the other side, to my Chinese and Mongolian informants, foreign religionists — mainly those missionaries — often seem arrogant because they imagine that they themselves are capable right now, without any preparation, let alone indefinite deferment, of participating in all the practices that are commanded of them by their God. (I’m not making a point about Chinese people getting Christianity wrong, or non-Asians getting Buddhism wrong — I don’t have a horse in those races, I’m just interested in the formal problem.)

A request

For some time I have been toying with the idea of compiling a compendium of cross-cultural conversations at cross-purposes, or cross-cultural faux amis / false friends. It would include those situations in which concepts on each side of the conversation are different enough to produce disagreements or confusion, but similar enough that it may be unclear where the disagreement originates. Please let me know in the comments or by email if you know of any good examples for my collection.