Peter Doran points to the way buddhist concepts are being corrupted by the commodifying pressures of capitalist culture, and outlines the ways in which true mindfulness practices can help us resist the growing demands of the 'attention economy'.
Neoliberal capitalism is an advanced form of symbolic and material power. We are living through a totalitarian moment in the history of dominant capitalism characterized by the unprecedented targeting of our bodies and our attention. This neoliberal moment is calling forth new forms of resistance as individuals and communities seek to roll back the latest stages in the historic processes of enclosure, by embracing the languages of the commons and commoning.
Resistance, appropriate to the productive forms of contemporary power that moves through and is productive of our bodies, minds and places, is no longer limited to the realms of institutional control and ownership but includes the challenge of restoring the mindful commons, free from the colonisation of our attention. Mindfulness, linked to critical engagement and ethics, can embody a phenomenology of the commons.
The rise of the commons and commoning as a series of practices of resistance – involved in reclaiming ecology as a practice of liberation, reclaiming the urban commons, and extending radical democratic control to the realms of the economy – is emerging alongside popular engagement with practices of mindfulness and other forms of mind-body practices such as yoga. These movements are emerging in complex and sometimes antagonistic ways.
Some secular mindfulness practices such as Cognitive Based Mindfulness Therapies, for example, are also being absorbed into neoliberal consumerist and institutional logics, stripped of their ethical liberating teachings. Corporations, educational institutions, and governments are absorbing mindfulness techniques into their logics of productivity, resilience and adaptation to unacceptable power structures that conceal their own roles in producing suffering and exploitation. Mindfulness, reduced to an individual therapeutic response to societal or structural sources of exploitation, can serve the neoliberal agenda of devolving responsibility down to the individual.
Both movements – commoning and critical mindfulness practices – are calling forth a new individual and cultural awakening, a making visible that which has been actively concealed and placed at the margins of our attention by acts of cultural and economic enclosure, dis-embedding (market making), dislocation and colonisation (of forests, lands, bodies and subjectivities). These processes have accelerated under the influence of dominant capital or capitalization, which, given its universality, cohesion, expandability, intensity and flexibility – is best understood as a ‘symbolic architecture of social power’.
The attention economy is the new enclosure
Our human capacity for directing our attention, which is a form of productive energy, is emerging as an arena of intense conflict – signalled by the debates about political engagement, fake news, and attempts by corporate and political power to capture our loyalty using online technology and social media. It is also visible in concerns about loneliness, disconnection, depression and mental health, and addiction. These issues are not unrelated to the conditions created in our societies by rampant consumerism, invasive screen-based technologies, and their value systems built around hyper-individualism and the insertion of the profit-oriented market as the chief arbiter of social outcomes. The debate has just begun.
The dawn of the ‘attention economy’ – an era of corporate and political targeting of our attention energy to feed the global processes of capitalization – is invoking new forms of resistance, including critically engaged forms of mindfulness practices – re-embedded in ethical and radical teachings drawing from the Buddhist tradition. Buddhist teachings remain a potential and critical resource to throw new light on Western experience and support a transition to sustainable forms of society and prosperity.
Our bodies and our attention are the new realms of enclosure. Modern-day capitalism and its worldwide complex of production and consumption is the primary and most important source of human subjectivity, because subjectivity conditions and participates in the production of all other commodities. We are the product. Subjectivity has become a key commodity – an achievement of a global media, information and entertainment complex – the nature of which is conceived, developed and manufactured as systematically and predictably as the Apple iPhone or any other commodity.
Mindful and non-violent conscious living are no longer options limited to those with the means to embrace alternative lifestyles, but are moving to the centre of debates about the conditions of a new kind of freedom in an ecologically and socially constrained world: a world where freedom and limits must be reconciled alongside mind and nature.
At the level of the individual, practices of self-regulation aligned with freedom and liberation will be akin to the freedom that accompanies virtuosity, as in excellence in yoga, meditation or forms of discipline in jazz and improvisation that are associated with alternative notions of human joy, accomplishment, and satisfaction.
Two movements have enjoyed a popular surge of interest and participation over the past decade or two. One is the mainly secular mindfulness movement, with roots in Buddhist teachings, which often involves a therapeutic response to the mental pressures associated with modern lifestyles at work, in the market place or at home. The other is the commons or commoning movement.
Another more mindful world is possible
From the point of view of mindfulness-based paths to enhanced awareness, human beings are not trapped forever in the abstract attitude: another world is possible and it will be accompanied by another set of possible dispositions, characterized by a greater sense of intimacy, compassion and continuity with all beings.
The dissociation of mind from body, of awareness from experience, is the result of habituation – personal and institutional – that can be interrupted and broken through meditative technologies or practices that suspend the flow of discursive thought, can tame the inherent restlessness of the mind, and lead to calm and enhanced awareness or presence.
For those who choose to do so, locating mindfulness practice within an ‘engaged’ Buddhist philosophy or community of practice can uncover both practice-based and conceptual resources for radical critique and revolutionary praxis, peace, and both social and environmental justice.
Prompted by a political and economic system where the prospects of living fully and in full awareness are limited, mindfulness practitioners, potentially and actually, are reclaiming our right to well-being. As Michel Foucault commented in the spring of 1978, at the conclusion of a period of Zen meditation practice in the Seionji temple in Japan:
if a philosophy of the future exists, it must be born outside of Europe, or equally, born in consequence of meetings and impacts between Europe and non-Europe
Mindfulness-based practices, especially those located in or reconnected with their engaged Buddhist origins, can help us reflect on the deep structural or societal causes of dis-ease that have accompanied individuals with the rise of modernity, neoliberal capitalism and life as it is increasingly defined by the extrinsic values of the market place. We are invited and persuaded to internalize a radical and isolated responsibility for our larger fate, and our sense of agency retreats to the realms of ‘self-help’ solutions in the realms of the psyche and the body.
We are the commons
The second movement involves activist and academic champions of the commons who have begun to respond to neoliberal capitalism and consumerism with a series of critical counter-practices, piloting a radical alternative to the prevailing hyper-individualist and consumerist ethos that recycles biological necessity into commercial capital.
A commons has a number of important characteristics:
- it is a social system with some self-organizing capacity and a commitment to preserving and sharing a local resource and working together with shared values and identity.
- access to the protected resource is organized on an inclusive and equitable basis.
- a commons is often identified with the particular resource that it has evolved to safeguard, use and preserve. In fact, a commons is always more-than-a-resource. It is a resource plus a defined community and the protocols, values and norms devised by the community to manage its resources.
- finally, there is no commons without commoning or the practices that embody the social practices and norms for managing a resource for collective benefit.
As Ugo Mattei explains:
A phenomenological understanding of the commons forces us to move beyond the reductionist opposition of ‘subject–object,’ which produces the commodification of both. It helps us understand that, unlike private and public goods, commons are not commodities and cannot be reduced to the language of ownership … It would be reductive to say that we have a common good. We should rather see to what extent we are the commons.
There are a number of core beliefs that seem to be intrinsic to the practice of commoning and the organization of the commons, including:
- for rivalrous resources there is enough for all through sharing (the atmosphere);
- while for non-rivalrous resources, there is abundance (solar energy);
- humans are primarily cooperative;
- knowledge is produced through peer-to-peer networking or collaboration;
- and the vision of society foregrounds a conviction that one’s personal unfolding is a condition for the development of others.
A feature of this contemporary commoning movement is the shift from a view of the commons as a ‘thing’ or even as a set of arrangements to a phenomenological emphasis on the active promotion of commoning as a way of being, doing and seeing the world.
Commoning has been described as an attempt to redefine our very understanding of ‘the economy’, to challenge a dominant understanding that has championed rationality over subjectivity, material wealth over human fulfilment, and the system’s abstract necessities (growth, capital accumulation) over human needs.
Commoning shatters these dualisms and reconfigures the role of participants so that we are not simply reduced to the roles of producers or consumers but regarded as participants in a physical and meaningful exchange with multiple material, social and sense-making needs. Commoners realize that their household needs and livelihoods are entangled with the specific place and habitat where they live, and with the earth as a living entity. The recovery of the commons is a collective act of restorative memory and remembering, practice, and a rendering visible of new possibilities for economic forms in the face of a failed attempt by champions of capitalist power to impose a false arrest on the historical evolution of economic ideas. It involves reviving and re-embedding slow practices in an ethos that is local or situated, entangled in relationships that are human and non-human, and that command an ethics of care, reciprocity and interbeing.
Commoning, then, denotes the continuous making and remaking of the commons through shared practice. At the heart of this relational, situated interdependence of humans and non-humans is not an impoverished world of ‘niggardly nature’, nor an infinitely malleable world of ‘techno-culture’, but a more-than-human commons that navigates between limits and possibilities as they arise.
Pay attention to mindful resistance
The subject of this article is a call for a political economy of attention: a mindful commons. Its cultivation will demand a network of new conversations and practices, some of them embodied in the technologies of meditation and related mind–body practices. This is an opening contribution about the ground upon which these two movements can meet and how that ground can be cultivated to deepen our critical and collective understanding of the ‘attention economy’ and what’s at stake.
Only what we pay attention to seems real to us. While what we ignore seems to fade into insignificance until, perhaps, we are blindsided and events suddenly call out for attention. He adds: ‘Each of us chooses, by our ways of attending to things, the universe we inhabit and the people we encounter. But for most of us, this “choice” is unconscious, so it’s not really a choice at all.’ Which raises interesting questions about freedom.
While we hold to our beliefs about free will, we are equally conscious of our struggles to direct our attention. As Wallace observes:
We may believe in free will, but we can hardly be called ‘free’ if we can’t direct our own attention. No philosopher or cognitive scientist needs to inform us that our behaviour isn’t always guided by free will – it becomes obvious as soon as we try to hold our attention on a chosen object.
Attention is now regarded as an essential part of practices of consumption, entertainment and media culture, as it has become intensely valued both as capital and as a scarce commodity. That innate tendency towards ‘absence’ from our moment-to-moment experience has become an open door for a highly sophisticated series of social and corporate technologies designed to target and capitalize our attention energy. Indeed, in the context of post-industrial society, attention is now regarded as a currency with greater value than that which circulates in our banks, one that is now the single most important determinant of business success.
Attention has a profound impact on character and ethical behaviour, and our capacity to voluntarily bring back wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgement, character and will. While a gift for sustained attention can be seen as a fixed deposit, a capacity one inherited or not, the contemporary mindfulness movement and associated spiritual traditions, including Buddhism, are associated with forms of training to enhance the capacity for attention in attempts to interrupt patterns of conditioned behaviour and cultivate a genuine quality of freedom and spaciousness around our capacity to see, our capacity for awareness. There are great similarities between the practices and dispositions of commoning and the mindfulness movement, especially for those who wish to inform their activism and powers of resistance to contemporary capitalist culture.
Peter Doran is the author of A Political Economy of Attention, Mindfulness and Consumerism: reclaiming the mindful commons, 2017, Routledge.