23 August 2013

John Lydon was my Elvis

"Americans are really suspicious of anything cerebral, and Zappa didn't disguise his intelligence well enough. In addition to being a man of wide-ranging talent, one amazing thing that always struck me about Frank was his melodic dimension... Frank Zappa was my Elvis."

- Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons
"Ever get the feeling
you've been cheated?"
Zappa was an inspiration to me as well. I once an article called Frank Zappa: the Idol of my Youth. But I think if one person sums up the attitude of my generation, if anyone is 'my Elvis' it was John Lydon, or Johnny Rotten as he was also known. Lydon combined intelligence with anger and outspoken disregard for authority. A lot of people my age believed him when he chanted "no future...". He was acting out something most of us felt at some level. I'm three days shy of being 10 years younger than Lydon, so he seemed more like an older brother than the older generation.

Neither Zappa nor Lydon had much time for hippies. Lydon was once asked why he hated hippies, and replied "they're complaisant". This off-the-cuff sneer has always struck me as apposite. Why is this relevant to a Buddhist blogger? Because most of the Buddhist organisations in the West are now run by Baby Boomers and they took the hippies seriously, or they were actually hippies (some still are). Statistics for the Triratna Buddhist Order, and anecdote from beyond, suggest that Baby Boomers are also still the primary pool from which we draw members. Baby Boomers are officially those born from 1946-1964. The average Western Buddhist was born in these years, participated to some extent in the counter culture, experimented with hallucinogens, and now has a steady, but boring job and a family of 2.4 kids now grown up. They vote Labour or Green and still cling to the idea of a revolution in some form or other. They still believe it's possible to "change the world".

This essay is partly inspired by something written some time ago on Progressive Buddhist, and also a post on Smiling Buddha Cabaret. Western Buddhism quite clearly reflects the values of the people involved in it. Lots of bloggers think that the emphasis is slanted towards the socialist, inclusive, tolerant, feel-good, "nice", all-is-one end of the political spectrum. As I replied to the anonymous author at Progressive Buddhist, the Buddha that one meets in the Pāli Canon:
"...was all personal responsibility, self-reliance, hard work, discipline, and no excuses... traditional conservative values."
I could add that, despite the famous Buddhist tolerance for other religions, the Pāli Canon Buddha went about destroying the religious faith of every non-believer he met, like Richard Dawkins on amphetamine. He wasn't beyond calling people corrupt and spiritually destitute fools (e.g DN 13) and likening the Brahmins to dogs (AN 3.56). Insults, invective and ironic humour make for laugh out loud reading at times (DN 27.23 - well you have to know Pāli to see the pun, but it is funny). And just look at the monastic establishments of Asia. They are arch conservatives, resistant to all forms of change, clinging to decades old traditions they claim date from millennia ago. The views of the Buddhist establishment in Asia seem almost the polar opposite of liberal Western democracies. Views on women, for example, seem archaic and bizarrely hostile.

So how come Western Buddhism is do different to traditional Buddhism? Partly I suppose it appealed to disillusioned Baby Boomers who had already lost trust in authority, and rightly so, but were floundering for lack of clear goals and values. They tended to lean to the political left, even to the extent of foolishly thinking that 1960's Russia or China offered a via alternative to the status quo. They wanted, desperately, to believe in a communist utopia and some still do. The values of friendliness and compassion gelled with the all-embracing, giddy free-love of the hippies, and the we're all-in-this-together communists. But none of it had substance. Unfortunately it sometimes survives in what Sangharakshita has called pseudo-egalitarianism: the idea that we are literally all equal, all the same; indeed that "all-is-one". This leads to rampant relativism and further erosion of values.

One of the great ironies of the hippy age was that they preached brotherhood while selfishly indulging in sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. Meanwhile the regressive Baby Boomers were organising themselves to take over governing the world - and I mean this literally. Governments that were nominally conservative but were in fact infected with enthusiasm for a new kind of liberalism, ruled the UK and the USA almost throughout the hippie heyday, partly as a result of political apathy on the left. The one US exception was JFK and he was assassinated. In the UK Callaghan's Labour (and the Labour-Liberal coalition) presided over the Winter of Discontent in 1977. Drunk on the power of their collectivity unions began to be greedy and to extort concessions from the bosses. It could only ever end badly, as the wealthy are happy to tolerate many things, but not attacks on their wealth and privilege. Addled by drugs the hippies were a force for confusion and inertia. Tune in, turn on, and drop out.

By the late 1970s the Right in the USA had begun to make common cause with the previously apolitical Christian fundamentalists. Allowing the Neoliberals to dominate government was to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of politics. You can't opt out. By not participating you simply open the field to more motivated people - and the right-wing are nothing if not motivated. What was worse however was that Neoliberal ideology went mainstream. In New Zealand we elected a Labour government in 1984 and by the mid 1990's they had done to our economy exactly what Thatcher did in Britain. They turned it into a model Neoliberal economy with no trade barriers, no strong unions, minimal protection for workers, free movement of capital, and huge debts. If anything NZ was more extreme than either the UK or USA. When New Labour came to power in Britain they continued to implement Neoliberal economic policies, freeing the finance sector to build up a huge debt bubble. Yes, it fuelled an unprecedented boom that seemed like an economic miracle, but the price was the collapse of the economies of Europe and the longest recession in history for the UK. In this they aped policies implemented by Alan Greenspan in the USA. The influence of the Chicago School of Economics and former executives of Goldman Sachs was worldwide.

Neoliberals tuned in, turned on and took over. And this led to the debacle of the every-man-for-himself 1980's. I was a teenager and really thought it likely that Ronald Raygun would start a nuclear war with Russia. My generation, teens in the 1980s and 1990s, became selfish in a totally different way. We were still disillusioned with authority and perhaps with even more reason to be, but we were also disillusioned with hippies and communists. In short, we had nowhere to run. The Sex Pistols broke up before I really switched-on to their music, but the punks symbolised an attitude of "Fuck You" that played out for a little while before Neoliberals took control of record companies and made the music bland again. Lydon and the Pistols gave shape to the impotent rage we felt as yuppies replaced hippies. My generation did not take drugs for fun and indulge in fantasies of universal brotherhood, we took drugs to escape the fear of a world gone mad with power and felt isolated from everyone. The subculture that defined Generation X was the Goth. We saw a world in which multinational corporations became increasingly powerful and rich, and in which financial speculation reaped huge profits when it worked, and impoverished ordinary people when it did not. We saw, if we were watching, the impoverishment of Africa and South East Asia by the IMF and the World Bank's imposition of Neoliberal policies there. We saw Japan come from nowhere to world domination of the car market, to long term crushing recession and the end of jobs for life, just in our teen years. And presuming we did not simply join in, we tended to spiral into depression (sometimes both) and to fracture into innumerable sub-cultures with no sense of counter-culture. 

Lydon was angry, but funny; raving but witty; frightening, but on our side (though perhaps he would sneer at such a sentiment). He was not a likeable character, but as we grew up public figures seemed more and more manufactured and dishonest. And at least Lydon said what he thought and was against the phonies. "Anger is an energy" as he was later to sing. And he had a lot to be angry about in the late 70s and early 80s in London. After the winter of discontent, it was the Thatcher years. In the US it was Ronald Raygun and George Bush Snr. In retrospect President Raygun forced the Soviets to bankrupt themselves through the arms race and that caused the collapse of the Iron Curtain. Ironically, I suspect he will be treated kindly by history for that, despite being one of the principle players in the Neoliberal take over.

In power, the Left no longer pursue genuinely socialist policies of caring for the society. These are replaced by popularism where the squeaky wheels get the attention. Supposedly leftist governments like Blair's took outrageous (and illegal) actions like going to war with Iraq. There has been a steady erosion of civil liberties associated with the "War on Terror" to the point where that war is itself terrifying. This week a journalist was detained and questioned under anti-terror laws and Chelsea Manning was sentenced to 35 years in jail for exposing criminality in the US military. Frightening. The implications are quite sinister. Two good fictionalised accounts of where this might lead can be found in Cory Doctorow's Little Brother, and Ken McLeods's Intrusion. The first is American and the second British. Intrusion is probably the more frightening vision since it is not very far in the future and reads like a plausible extrapolation of the current trends. Disengagement has allowed Neoliberals to take over the world's governments. Life is not going to improve under these conditions. To be disengaged from politics is abandon self-responsibility.

One of the great ironies of British politics is the Conservative Party. This party of so-called "conservatives" swept to power on a reformist agenda portraying themselves as economic progressives in response to the tired and wasteful economic policies of Labour. In fact their ideology is not conservative at all, it is Neoliberal. They embrace laissez faire economics and have launched major reform programs which are designed to reshape British Society along laissez faire lines. They have opened the door to the eventual destruction of the welfare state for example, and made every effort to punish the poor and weak for being economically unproductive. The Conservatives are now a radical liberal party.

I suspect that the bloggers currently taking aim at Buddhism-lite, at middle-class white Buddhism, at feel-good Buddhism, at 'good Buddhists' are my age or younger. Our parents were the post war Baby Boomers, and we were called Generation X by the media who like a good sound bite. Disaffected from birth, disinclined to political engagement, cynical, but with a fine appreciation of irony and satire. "No future, no future for me" sang John Lydon back in the day, although it must be said that his future turned out rather well and he played a great set at that bastion of mainstream rock, The Glastonbury Festival this year (2013). That said, the future that awaited people our age was to see growing inequality and division. Not an apocalypse, but the gradual transformation of most of the population into wage and debt slaves trapped in small and relatively meaningless lives accompanied by jaw dropping entertainments 24/7. 

So does Buddhism have to be saccharine, woolly, soft and cuddly, all-embracing, lovey-dovey? Hell no. It does not. I'm quite pleased to see words like hardcore being associated with Buddhism, though not particularly impressed by the content of so-called hardcore Buddhism to date. On the whole Western Buddhism strikes me as rather complaisant, even when it is posturing as hardcore. And Buddhists I know are generally more complaisant now than they were when I became a Buddhist 20 years ago.

Perhaps a strand of Western conservative Buddhism will also emerge? One that doesn't simply reproduce the conservatism of Asia but gives expression to something new. A conservatism that does not have the rigidity of Confucianism and the inertia of Taoism at it's heart, but is rooted in the values of the Renaissance and the European Enlightenment? 

We live in a time of confused values, of unclear personal and social boundaries, and of divided communities and loyalties; where virtue is disregarded, and vice rules. Where there is no community, and individuals are simply ground down. Where traditional political movements have abandoned their principles to pursue popularity and self-interest.

Conservative elements in a society force progressive elements to justify change and help to stop change for change's sake. They support individual striving (something Buddhists ought to appreciate). Liberals takes this to the extreme and  Progressive elements prevent society from falling into formalism or being unable to adapt to change that is unavoidable. They ensure that no one is left behind as progress occurs.We need some of each.

Clearly my response to the existential situation is not quite the anarchy endorsed by the young Lydon. While he seems to see himself as a rebel still, he's something of an establishment figure now, albeit as irascible as ever. I recently watched a video of 60 year old Roger Daltrey singing "Hope I die before I get old". No doubt he would now argue that you're only as old as you feel. I think the whole anarchy thing was a youthful pose in any case. Disengagement from politics has served us badly. Extremely badly. We've seen what a small group of motivated and engaged people can achieve in the Neoliberal revolution. And most of us felt unable to stop it because we bought into the idea that we are powerless and alone. Of course they had enormous resources behind them. But they are the 1%, and we are the 99%.

In the UK the membership of the Conservative Party is down to just 100,000 people. That means that if 100,001 more people joined with a common purpose they could take over the party. I suspect that the Triratna Buddhist Order could probably muster enough supporters to do such a thing. If we were united. Imagine that? 

Related Posts with Thumbnails