Buddhism and Peer to Peer

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* Awakening from Capitalism. An exploration of merit economy as an alternative to a system of crisis. By Nicolás Mendoza. June 2011

This is a thesis in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of MA Global Media Communication in The School of Culture and Communication at The University of Melbourne. It was supervised by Dr Robert Hassan


"Globally, capitalism disarrays communities and the environment through its logic of growth and production of desire. Its empire expands within the individual through ontological imperialism of time and mind, a modality that is made potent by the widespread of ICTs like the Internet. On the other hand, by enabling the development of a 'third mode' of production known as peer production or P2P, ICT shows emancipatory potential. P2P production relies on the collaboration of equipotential participants and therefore understanding generosity can be key in consolidating its long term success. Because they are based on equally materialistic ontology, communism and Marxist thought in general are an alternative to capitalism only superficially. Thus we propose to study the Buddhist arrangement as a more legitimate alternative insomuch as it is rooted in non-materialism that assigns no less reality to mind than to matter. Therefore, this thesis searches for the foundations of alternatives for the future at the intersection of Buddhist sociology and New Media theory. ANT analysis of a project led by monks in Sri Lanka consisting of saving cows from death in the slaughterhouse results in the concept of merit economy, a social agreement that fosters mental wellbeing through collective generosity. Guidelines for the translation of merit economy into ICT mediated communities are proposed."


  1. Introduction
  2. A System of Crisis
  3. An exploration
  4. Of merit economy
  5. The karmic assemblage and the network society



By now there is little doubt that the Internet has brought dramatic changes to human society on a global scale (Castells 2010), and that probably more radical transformations are yet to come (Kurzweil 2005). Whether these changes are in the best interest of humanity or for intensifying capitalist power is up for debate. While some scholars raise criticism by analysing the evolution of the Internet as a means for the deepening and widening of commodification, hegemony, exploitation, surveillance and control (e. g. Hassan, Lessig, Zittrain), others point with optimism at the potential for change embedded in the technology (e. g. Stallman, Bauwens, Boillier, Benkler). There is yet another view that systematically contests the expressions of optimism by translating the assumptions in which they are based into Marxist terminology, a critical reading that declares that 'free culture' is ultimately 'free labour', and a new form of capitalistic rent (e.g. Terranova, Vercellone, Pasquinelli). Across the academic field, however, there is a largely unanimous call to articulate alternatives to the current system which has spread poverty, brought ecological disaster, and disarticulated the rich cultural heritage of communities around the globe, before it is too late.

This thesis seeks to contribute to the theories of the possible alternatives. While academic work is often geared towards criticism, which is extremely useful, there is evidently large amounts of work to be done to create feasible alternatives. This is why, in my view, understanding altruism, collaboration, kindness, trust and generosity is of major importance for the field of new media studies. For this reason, this research focused on understanding a social manifestation informed by alternate knowledge originated in a Buddhist community. By reflecting on a small project organised by a Buddhist monk in Sri Lanka, it seeks to present a set of themes that can lead to new technologies; new ideas for network practices and debates. A central observation here is that 'technology is not necessarily computers' (CFBST, 2010), so it is really the social technology that is in need of sophistication to make the inevitable shift to information societies also a shift towards more ethical, sustainable and happy societies. This project seeks to understand social structures that operate under a particular ontology -a karmic ontology. This, I contend, could have a positive impact in the conceptualisation of alternative environments for collaboration, whether environments means protocols, software, virtual space, or even currencies. This knowledge will be brought into the field of new media theory in the concluding part of this thesis, with the awareness that it is just a first step in this direction and that this thesis is a preliminary identification of notions worthy of exploration and further development. By thinking at the intersection of network futures and Buddhist culture this project aspires to be an answer to Robert Hassan's call in the final words of The Information Society:

"...we have an intellectual and political responsibility to think it through once more, looking for insights and for cracks in the edifice of current reality - to seek more positive spaces where we envision different ones." (Hassan, 2008 p. 223)

Hassan’s work critiques the commodification of time as the natural consequence of the global capitalist project that has been enabled in its latest phases through the inception of ICTs in a global scale. The architectural metaphor that informs his phrase (cracks, edifice, spaces) points to a notion that is central to Buddhism: roughly, that reality is a construction of the mind. The next step is to follow Touraine’s hint at the need to look beyond the materialist tradition, as characterised by the Marxist class struggle:

"in a post-industrial society, in which cultural services have replaced material goods at the core of production, it is the defense of the subject, in its personality and in its culture, against the logic of apparatuses and markets, that replaces the idea of class struggle." (Alain Touraine, 1994)

The implication is that the self is under attack. Empire expands within, and it is only through the mind that it will be contained; it is only through the mind that the edifice of reality will collapse. Since Marx, numerous scholars have shown how the capitalist system as an all encompassing phenomenon is responsible for the humanitarian, ecologic, economic, cultural, spiritual, and even ontological crises that are now global (e.g. Liodakes 2010, Harvey 2007, Amin 2011). However, because the Marxist alternative (i.e. communism) is an equally materialistic system that ultimately seeks an alternative rationality for allocation of material resources (Marx, 2010), it is only superficially that communism is the other of capitalism. The Cold War was just one powerful internal struggle within materialism. In Bataille's words, 'it is not essentially the struggle of two military powers for hegemony; it is the struggle of two economic methods' (Bataille 1991, p. 173).This premise is what led me to an inquiry of Buddhist culture as a real alternative to capitalism in the sense that, by focusing on the understanding and wellbeing of the mind as the source of happiness (Guenther 1974), Buddhism clearly proposes an alternative to the materialist tradition. With all of the above ideas in mind, I posed my research question in the following terms:

What themes characterise Buddhist social assemblages and how can they be usefully articulated into network society assemblages to establish feasible alternatives to capitalism?

The evolution and expansion of Buddhism during twenty-five centuries is one of the richest cultural processes in the history of mankind. Countless schools housing variations slight and radical of the doctrine and its interpretation have spread all over the world. As life continues, even in the most traditional settings Buddhism continues to evolve. For this reason it is impossible to speak of 'Buddhism' as a homogeneous entity, and much less produce statements with aspirations of universality regarding Buddhism. Yet in its diversity there is unity. To explain this diversity in unity David Burke Griffiths explains a traditional Buddhist saying: 'the ocean is huge but it has one flavour, that of salt. Hence within the many teachings there is the fundamental theme of liberation and freedom from suffering' (Griffiths 2004, p. 46). Among this ocean of Buddhist culture, we will focus in a practice from the Theravada tradition, considered the oldest surviving Buddhist school, and practiced in most of South-East Asia (Keown 2003, p.300), and therefore on texts and theories from that school.

The first chapter is divided in three parts. First, it will examine the literature concerned with the political, social and economic impact of the network in the global stage. Some of the themes lucidly exposed by Manuel Castell’s seminal work The Rise of the Network Society (Castells 2010), will provide the framework to discuss the work of other authors in the field like Hardt & Negri, Strangelove and Hassan. The second part will discuss the the P2P movement, understood as the emerging mode of distributed production, and the relationship between this research and its objectives. For this we will use the theoretical framework proposed by Michel Bauwens. In the third part, we will critically look into materialism as an incomplete philosophy, and introduce the transformational potential of an alternative ontology.

The second chapter will present an Actor-Network Theory (henceforth ANT) analysis of a Buddhist project called Life for the cow and hand for the family led by Bhante Seelagawesi, a Sri Lankan forest monk. In the first part of this chapter the methodological approach will be discussed. The second part consist of the case study. Two sources of information were used for the analysis: a description of the project in the words of Johan Knol (a young Dutch sociologist who has a close knowledge of the community that started the project), and informal conversations with the organising monks. The analysis of this information will have the objective of providing a clear understanding, a theory of the basic notions, themes, and arrangements that characterise the case. Further analysis will provide insight into the key concepts of mind, matter, merit and karma.

The third chapter will then locate our findings among anthropological and philosophical debates on gifts and gift economies. Prominent literature in that area (Mauss 1966, Bataille 1991, Derrida 1992, Graeber 2001) will be discussed comparatively vis-a-vis the previous analysis. This analysis will lead us to an alternative theory of the gift economy: the merit economy.

In the final chapter we will articulate one possible strategy to bring our findings into the practice of new media while assessing the transformative potential of our proposals.

More Information

  1. Neotraditional Economics