Schumacher’s Burma

If there is a theme that ties together the entries I’ve made on this blog, it would be that “social science” may account for society but fails to account for humanity, and that that failure manifests itself in the shortcomings of social science’s legitimate offspring (e.g., economics) and in the deformities and defects of its bastard children — management theory and management consulting, the new literary theory, social theory passing itself off as a guide to practice or as philosophy, etc.. It seems there’s no shortage of examples of the deficiencies of theory and its malign influence.

So I was pleasantly surprised when I found echoes of this concern in the opening chapters of E.F. Schumacher’s critique of economics, Small is Beautiful. Schumacher’s book discovers in the “small” — the local, small scale, low-impact, communitarian — a salutary alternative to reckless, unsustainable economic growth. He is careful to distinguish the “wisdom” we need to find a more sustainable way from the “fragmentary judgments” of economists. The promotion of unbridled self-interest — of greed and envy — as the great motive of human behavior and the reality of human life he finds restrictive and reductive at best, and, at worst, a criminal and immoral denial of human dignity and possibility, of our nature as beings made in the image of God.

Fair enough, and reason enough to read the book if you haven’t yet done so. But on my reading things go awry when Schumacher starts to look for an alternative to all this bad living and bad philosophy in a chapter called “Buddhist Economics.”

It’s not that Buddhism doesn’t offer some good remedies for what ails the West. It probably does, as do the other great religions of the world. (And, in an odd passage, Schumacher says that his choice of Buddhism for the purposes of his discussion is “purely incidental”; the critique of materialism and the discussion of economics that follows, he says, could have been developed just as well from Judaic, Christian, or Islamic sources. This is disingenuous at best, and history would seem to suggest otherwise: just consider the intellectual history covered in Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, or the accommodations that both Judaism and Christianity made in the medieval and early modern period around usury in response to changing economic realities, religious persecution, and so forth.) For me the real problem is not a question of religious history or the liberation religion promises from history: instead I am trying to understand why Schumacher would hold up Burma as the exemplar of Buddhist economics and its central tenet of “Right Livelihood.”

Now I don’t pretend to be an expert on Burma, but I do know that even in 1973, when Schumacher was writing his book, Burma was hardly the shining example of enlightened economics, social justice and equity that he makes it out to be. Put aside, if you can, for the moment, that since its independence from British rule in 1948 Burma has been ruled badly, and since the 1960s by a repressive military junta, which is responsible for squelching democracy, imprisoning those who advocate democratic reform and for creating an “atrocious” human rights situation. Focus instead only on economic life there at the time that Schumacher was writing.

It must surely be Ne Win’s policy of The Burmese Way to Socialism that Schumacher means to glorify in his portrait of Burma as an economic Utopia. But this is dangerous folly, especially for a writer who claims that from the right ordering of economic life we can create the conditions for peace. With its state-sponsored Buddhism, the Burmese Way not only brought Burma to the brink of economic collapse; it also created the conditions for a military revolt that led to the even more repressive conditions that prevail in Myanmar today. Was it the fog of the incense or the ringing of the little bells that allowed Schumacher to overlook the inconvenient, bloody facts of Burma’s history?

That history had been unfolding for over a decade by the time that Schumacher wrote his book, and at the time many Western intellectuals, frustrated or repulsed by developments in the rich world, had, like Schumacher, looked to the East to find another, humbler, more peaceful way. Some ended up returning to the West, a little wiser for their Eastern experience; others were enthralled and lost all critical perspective. It’s not just that Schumacher now seems to have been terribly wrong and naive; it’s as if he and many intellectuals of his generation had become so disenchanted with the West that they were all too easily enchanted by those offering to disclose to them the mysteries of the East. Or were they simply hiding from the hard questions that it was their responsiblity to face?

In any case, it’s no exaggeration to say that we are just now beginning to cope with the intellectual legacy of the choices that generation made. And legacy is a nice way of putting it. Indeed, the question is whether in the West we will ever be able to recover our footing, especially given how slippery it is out there these days.

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