A call for a new political economy of attention – Part One

[i]A call for a new political economy of attention: mindfulness as a new commons


Peter Doran


Our corporate culture has effectively severed us from human imagination. Our electronic devices intrude deeper and deeper into spaces that were once reserved for solitude, reflection and privacy. Our airwaves are filled with the tawdry and the absurd. Our systems of education and communication scorn the disciplines that allow us to see. We celebrate prosaic vocational skills and the ridiculous requirements of standardized tests. We have tossed those who think, including many teachers of the humanities, into a wilderness where they cannot find employment, remuneration or a voice. We follow the blind over the cliff. We make war on ourselves.[ii]

(Chris Hedges, 2012, Nation of Change, Tuesday, 10. July. (http://www.nationofchange.org/how-think-1341922195)




How has the culture of capitalism – its psychic investment in colonizing our attention – compromised our collective ability to respond meaningfully to the challenges of sustainable development? There is an emerging consensus that consumerist excess and the media complex of consumerism are bad for us, environmentally, socially and psychologically. This chapter will present an argument that we may have underestimated the way in which our immersion in the ‘social logic’ of capitalist consumption actively constrains our attempts to understand and respond to the ecological crises at both a personal and political level – and that both dimensions of our response are bound together. To make the case, I look to Peter Hershock’s work, drawing on China’s Chan Buddhist philosophy for intimations of a worldview that challenges the West’s over-commitment to forms of ‘control’ in favour of a need for the cultivation of mindful and careful awareness – and an offering of unconditional attention.

In the stunning American movie, Detachment (2011), substitute teacher, Henry Barthes, drifts from school to school, classroom to classroom. During a one-month assignment in a failing public school Barthes finds a connection to the students and teachers who are all, in their own ways, experiencing a deep loss of connection, and negotiating a world so bereft of love and attention that they have become –in a way – invisible at work and at home. Screenwriter and former public school teacher, Carl Lund, has Barthes deliver a speech in his class room during a pivotal moment in the film:

Henry Barthes: How are you to imagine anything if the images are always provided for you? Doublethink. To deliberately believe in lies while knowing they’re false. Examples of this in everyday life: Oh, I need to be pretty to be happy. I need surgery to be pretty. I – I need to be thin. Famous. Fashionable. Our young men today are being told that women are whores. Bitches. Things to be screwed. Beaten. Shit on. And shamed.

This is a marketing holocaust. Twenty four hours a day, for the rest of our lives, the powers at be are hard at work dumbing us to death. So, to defend ourselves, and fight against assimilating this dullness into our thought processes, we must learn to read. To stimulate our own imagination. To cultivate our own consciousness. Our own belief systems. We all need these skills to defend, to preserve, our own minds.

Detachment (2011)

The nature of modern mass mediatized capitalism poses a direct threat to well-being at the most subtle levels of human experience: attention and intention. In so doing, a fertile ground is being prepared for a popular denial of the world’s ecological predicament, and innate faculties for personal and collective resilience are being undermined. In the words of Peter Hershock[iii], through the consumption of mass media (as well as other commodities), attention is exported out of our immediate situation:

This compromises relational depth and quality, effectively eroding presently obtaining patterns of mutual support and contribution, and triggers further and still more extensive commodity consumption. As this recursive process intensified beyond the point at which all major subsistence needs have been commodified, consciousness itself is effectively colonized. The relational capabilities of both persons and communities atrophy, situational diversity is converted into circumstantial variety, and the very resources needed to meaningfully respond to and resolve our suffering or troubles are systematically depleted.[iv]

In his book on Capitalist Realism, which opens with a chapter entitled, ‘It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism’, Mark Fisher observes that over the past thirty years, capitalism has successfully installed a ‘business ontology’ in which it is simply obvious that everything in society, including health care and education, should be run as a business.[v] Similarly, Bourdieu and Wacquant have described a ‘planetary vulgate’ that has taken hold in all advanced societies – a vocabulary replete with references to ‘globalization’ and ‘flexibility’, ‘governance and employability’, ‘underclass’ and ‘exclusion’, ‘new economy’ and ‘zero tolerance’. Multilateral environmental negotiations on the environment and climate change have their counterpart vocabularies informed by the neoliberal paradigm, including, inter alia: ‘consumption and production’, ‘corporate social responsibility’, ‘flexible mechanisms’, ‘economies in transition’ and ‘green growth’. For Bourdieu and Wacquant, the diffusion of this new planetary vulgate – from which the terms ‘capitalism’, ‘class’, ‘exploitation’, ‘domination’, and ‘inequality’ are conspicuous by their absence, is the result of a new type of imperialism whose effects are all the more powerful and pernicious in that it is promoted not only by the partisans of the neoliberal revolution who, under cover of ‘modernization’, have tried to remake the world by sweeping away the social and economic conquests of a century of social struggles, but also by cultural producers (researchers, writers and artists) and left-wing activists who still regard themselves as progressives. Comparing it to ethnic or gender domination, the authors believe that cultural imperialism is a form of ‘symbolic violence’ that relies on a relationship of constrained communication to extort submission.[vi]

The upshot has been a series of highly constrained debates at the UN-sponsored negotiations that have unfolded since the first Rio ‘Earth Summit’ (UNCED) in 1992 that take the form of a disavowal, when it comes to acknowledging that our well-being is now staked on our ability to address the all-consuming technology of capitalism and its active colonization of a new frontier that reaches into our experience of self and other, mind and nature. As Žižek has described,[vii] capitalism relies on a structural disavowal based on an overvaluing of individual belief – in the sense of inner subjective attitude – at the expense of the beliefs we exhibit and externalize in our behaviour. So long as we believe (in our hearts) that capitalism is bad, we are free to continue to participate in capitalist exchange – settling for an ironic distance. This corporate sponsored rupture, summed up in Saul Alinsky’s observation that ‘most people are eagerly groping for some medium, some means by which they can bridge the gap between their morals and their practices’,[viii] goes to the heart of the debate on well-being, redefining prosperity, and sustainable consumption. For the choices that confront us are not merely about our relations with the world and others. The choices must also embrace a much older conversation about our relations with the self.


[ii] C.Hed ges, 2012, Nation of Change, Tuesday, Viewed 10. July 2012. (http://www.nationofchange.org/how-think-1341922195

[iii] P.D. Hershock, Buddhism in the Public Sphere: Reorienting Global Interdependence (Routledge, 2006).

[iv] Ibid., at 86.

[v] M. Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (Zero Books, 2009), at 17.

[vi] P. Bourdieu and L.Wacquant, ‘Neoliberal Newspeak: Notes on the New Planetary Vulgate’, 108 Radical Philosophy (2001) at 1.

[vii] Cited in M. Fisher, n. 4 above, at 13.

[viii] Saul Alinksky, Reveille for Radicals (Vintage Books, 1969), at 94.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: