One of the critiques that came up in our recent Buddhist Peace Fellowship ‘listening groups’ was the sense that the Buddhist Left avoids talking about economic issues. In my work at Engage! I have tried to make economic issues at least as important as cultural issues. In particular, I have focused on Guy Standing’s concept of The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class. Standing’s formulation of the Precariat defines the current economic situation more precisely and with more empirical detail than much of class analysis on the Left. In more secure countries like the US or Britain, the Precariat is usually identified as immigrant populations who have no citizenship or right to remain in the country, temporary and irregular work hours, low and non-wage work, no educational opportunity, housing instability, food and energy scarcity—indeed a very precarious situation for many millions of immigrants around the world.
But there is a growing sector of the Precariat who are citizens of their countries, who are even highly educated and skilled, who find themselves in a similar position: bare subsistence on temporary and irregular work, low pay, housing instability, and social stigmatization as ‘failures.’ This is happening in the US even among highly skilled tech-sector workers who used to command the highest wages in the labor market. They now find themselves the unmoored debris of a wave of massive tech-sector layoffs at companies like Amazon, Google and Microsoft. The once-comfortable professional ‘tech-bros’ now find that they are, after all, just another segment of the working class.
The lives of the Precariat are illustrated with searing clarity in the following video documentary on Japan’s “Net Café” dwellers: educated young people who have no regular work or wages, and insufficient funds to secure an apartment in a highly inflated housing market. They live, night-to-night, in Net Cafés—tiny rooms fitted with a computer and internet link, where they can eat, surf and sleep; by day, they wander the streets of Tokyo, like many homeless people. They are social outcasts who have been rejected by their families, with no social safety net. It’s an astonishing portrait of youth poverty in an otherwise very wealthy society. It reads like the near-future dystopia of the collapsing middle-class in the so-called ‘developed’ world. As I said in prior articles on Engage!, many of the people who sit in our shrine rooms trying to meditate away their anxious lives are really the Buddhist Precariat.
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Thanks for sharing this video, Shaun. Truly horrifying stuff.
I remember living in Brooklyn as a teenager and spending many hours at the internet cafes that existed on every block in our Chinatown neighborhood. They were popular spots for Hasidic Jews like me who either couldn’t bare spending time at home with their families, or were “outcasts” with no other way to spend their time, no role to play either in their community or in the “real world” of secular capitalism. We would spend all day and night in these cafes, where we’d take drugs, and smoke cigarettes, and also “eat, surf, and sleep.”
It was an absolutely miserable life. Some of the people I met there ended up dead; some are still on the street; at least one is now married and a born-again Orthodox Jew. But what we all had in common at the time (apart from being unemployed or nearly so) was not having any meaningful activity to engage in at all, no role to play in our communities or in our society at large that would give us a sense of involvement in anything important. The number of people in this position will likely keep increasing, as capitalism continues to wreak havoc on ecosystems, communities, and cultures.
Thanks Chaim, I’m really glad you found this video relevant. I’m facing similar issues as I age; I’m less likely to be taken seriously as someone who has a meaningful role to play in society. That’s why I run this blog; it gives me a platform to share what I know with some tiny portion of the world, to say what I have to say. Hopefully it helps someone.