English articles > Integrating Spirituality into People's Politics

Integrating Spirituality into People's Politics
Phra Paisal Visalo

During the past decade, Siam has witnessed the rise of civil activism throughout the country in various fields ranging from environment, education, and agriculture, to constitutional and democratic reform. This is not only a middle class phenomenon; peasant farmers have been actively involved in all these forms of activism, utilizing protests marches, demonstrations, hunger strikes, mass sit-ins, and other forms of nonviolent direct action. One of the most important recent examples is the three-month rally in front of Government House organized by the Assembly of the Poor, a large and broadly based movement of people affected by dam construction and other government mega-projects that have robbed them of their traditional livelihoods. Simultaneously, separate protests were staged in key provinces throughout the country against the construction of power plants and gas pipelines, all of which were approved by the supposedly democratic government without local people's approval, not to mention valid environmental assessments and other requirements stipulated by the new constitution.
These incidents represent not only the conflicts between government and the people; they also reflect the broader conflict between the power of capital and society as a whole. The latter conflict is one of the world's major conflicts in this age of globalization. From this perspective, different civil actions in Thailand, ranging from protests against such global agencies as the WTO and UNCTAD; campaigns like that against GMO products; and the political reform movement against money politics; are but part of the global response to capital's dominating power in different aspects of peoples' lives, both private and public.

The Invasion of Capital

Globalization has been propagated with the promise of better living within a borderless world. What really happened, however, is a world under the threat of capital's hegemony. Never before has capital's power been so widespread, able to invade and dominate every level of society, and every aspect of life. The recent wave of liberalization, privatization, and deregulation not only decreases the role of the state, it also increases capital's capabilities to weaken and undermine society - simply for capital's own greedy purposes. Altogether, capital's hegemony undermines three aspects of society - namely, the material (living conditions), social, and spiritual.

Material and Living Conditions

At the community level, natural and community resources are sacrificed for the unsatiated growth of the business and industrial sectors at the expense of rural areas. Forest and biological diversity are decimated by logging companies, dam construction, petrochemical agriculture, and local infrastructure schemes. Water, now an economic commodity whose life giving value is increasingly denied to the poor, is diverted to cities of commercial importance. While soil is increasingly degraded and eroded due to deforestation and aggressive farming practices, rural lands are gobbled up by the rich. Once their all important physical resources are depleted, the traditional livelihood of villagers is undermined practically forever.

Not only community resources, but also state's resources (budget, personnel, equipment, and power) are exploited mainly for the growth of capital. Through the state's machinery and systems - i.e. political, economic, and educational - capital power dominates and manipulates infrastructures and policies for its own benefits. A few of the policies that reveal this distortion are the unbalanced development policy that diverted community resources to feed the incessant growth of the business and industrial sectors; the agricultural policy that increased farmer's dependence on world markets; and education plans that transform human beings into labor for the market.

The recent policies of liberalization, privatization, and deregulation, while destroying the social safety nets that benefited the poor, have allowed market mechanisms to control basic services that were previously provided by the state. This makes them less accessible and more expensive for the poor, thus worsening their standards of living. Thus, the poor are both undermined and excluded by the new economic mechanisms.


Once natural and physical resources become scarce, communities quickly disintegrate as competition tends to increase among the villagers. An "I-for-myself" attitude replaces that of cooperation. The situation deteriorates further when the customs and culture that once unified communities are prostituted through their commodification for the sake of the tourist industry, homogenized through the Bangkok centered education system, and pushed aside by the new "factory culture." Relationships in the community and family are also affected by the migration of the youth and middle-aged to the cities for better paying jobs, leaving the elderly and children behind. On the national level, a widening gap between the rich and the poor increases estrangement among the people. Their perspectives are now so polarized that they have very few things in common as people living in the same country, proving the stock politicians phrase "Thai Brothers and Sisters" a lie.


Thanks to a market economy that increasingly dominates local communities, money value has penetrated into the life of the people, paving the way for materialism and consumerism to dominate their minds. Each trying to enrich himself materially as much as possible, everyone tends to regard each other as either enemies to compete with or victims to be exploited. Not only is the sense of connection with others weakened or lost, people are isolated in increasingly rootless and self-centered egos.

In the meantime, rich, poor, and the middle classes alike are subject to more stress, anxiety, and frustration because of the intense competition. No matter how much we get or accumulate, we still doubt the meaning of such a life and feel overwhelmed by the sense of lack, which is expressed in different forms of dissatisfaction, i.e., concerning wealth, bodily appearance, and social status, not to mention feelings of loneliness midst the scurrying crowd. We modern tantaluses find the meaning of life beckoning seductively but always out of reach.

Unsatiated Growth of Capital Leading to Violence

All of the above problems are either manifestations of violence in themselves or lead to violence in different forms, which are multiplying in most of our societies. The economic system and policy that rob villagers of traditional livelihood and natural resources, leads to widespread poverty, which is nothing but structural violence. It spills no blood, directly, but inflicts suffering to death, not least because of malnutrition. Such structural violence also leads to open physical violence as it stirs up protests by people all over the country who are its victims. Oftentimes, the government and vested interests respond to these non-violent protests with violence - police dogs and truncheons, thugs, arrests, dispossession, and extra-judicial killings - resulting in many deaths, injuries, and the break-ups of families.

Simultaneously, the very same materialism and consumerism that undermine human and natural relationships on every level, further lead to crimes such as robbery and domestic violence. Whereas relationships were once imbedded in a common moral sphere, the culture of self-indulgence places few restraints on desires, even the basest ones.
Fundamental to this structural and physical violence, is the peaceless mind that is dominated by greed, anger, hatred, fear, and the individualistic attitude that regards others as either enemy or victim to be exploited. This state of mind is harmful to both oneself and others, and thus can be regarded as another form of violence.

Violence in society, family, and the mind is encouraged by another kind of capital, namely, illegal or underground capital, such as in drug trafficking, gambling, and the trade in women and children. A good deal of crime and domestic violence is not only caused by the organized crime that run these underground businesses, but also by people who are addicted to their products. Further, due to organized crime's pervasive influence on the political system, it often appropriates state power to its illegal ends, such as military and police complicity in the drug trade.

The growth of underground capital is fueled by the opportunities that legal capital creates. The disintegration of family and community, for example, helps create the demand for narcotics and supplies bodies to the sex industry. Globalization also strengthens the criminal economy. The liberalization of trade and services, for example, enables underground businesses to grow internationally, makes it easier for them to move their illegal wealth in support of their activities, and helps them establish powerful connections all over the world. Without the unchecked growth of legal capital, the criminal economy could not globalize and become as powerful as they are now. In other words, growth in organized crime is a natural corollary of economic globalization.

Civil Activism as Politics for Peace

Since unchecked growth of capital power is the cause of widespread violence, peace making in any society must include attempts to check the power of capital and prevent it from becoming a new tyranny. In this light, civil activism against the invasion of capital is absolutely necessary for a peaceful society. Such activism can be called "politics for peace." For civil activism to be a powerful agent of peace and effectively reduce different forms of violence, strategies of confrontation (protest and popular pressure) and constructive programs (development activities and issue-oriented alternatives) are not sufficient. Any civil movement that aims for genuine peace must promote and model alternative structures and systems capable of replacing the existing ones maintained by structural violence. Moreover, an ideology or world view that is free from capital's domination, materialism, and consumerism is a prerequisite for civil activism to be a "politics for peace."

The civil movement's ideology is characterized by its emphasis on cooperation, egalitarianism, horizontal relationships, and social concern. Though these values make the civil movement's ideology distinct from its capitalist counterpart, they are insufficient for the former to be a powerful alternative to the latter. Another necessary aspect of the civil movement's ideology is spirituality. Spirituality is about the inner life on which every social activity is based and provides are most important sources of strength. Spirituality is essential for us to work continuously and energetically for the greater common cause without being easily burnt out, co-opted, or falling into self-serving ego trips. It also enables us to be peaceful and happy inwardly without much dependence on external wealth or recognition.

Briefly speaking, there are two aspects of spirituality - worldview and values.


Spirituality includes our insights into the deeper nature of human beings and the universe we inhabit. It realizes that every human being has the potential to attain the highest freedom, that is, freedom from suffering. It sees that there are many levels of happiness and finds the real source of happiness in the mind that is free from attachment, not in the acquisition of material things. A genuine spiritual worldview not only perceives human beings in their deepest sense but also recognizes their place within the broadest context, namely, seeing human beings in intimate connection with all beings in the universe.

Value system

Spirituality is reflected in and achieved through such values as self-contentment, simplicity, compassion, and nonviolence. In this light, harmony and balance in relationships with other people and the rest of the natural world is emphasized rather than growth of the individual at the expense of the others. These values provide the heartfelt stirrings and motivations needed to turn visions, theories, and strategies into genuine action for peace.

Spirituality is the crucial element most often missed in the ideologies of most civil movements. It isn't surprising, then, that civil movements oftentimes unconsciously and inevitably adopt materialist worldviews and value systems as their own. Such adoption is expressed through the lifestyles of movement members, such as entertaining oneself with brand name products or luxurious consumption. Groups reveal this in how they run their organizations and business, for example, holding meetings in hotels like the business sector does. Moreover, materialism is frequently integrated within their social vision. Material and physical well-being becomes the primary objective of their activities, programs, and alternative systems and structures. Sometimes, social values and well-being are included in its objectives, such as, promoting civic virtues, strengthening trust, and increasing social capital. Spiritual well-being, however, is almost always ignored.

Yet, any social activities that ignore their spiritual aspect are doomed to failure. Any development project that succeeds in raising incomes or diminishing the poverty of the people, but ignores helping them to be free from materialism, may end up turning them over to the mercy of the market or transforming them into good customers of the TNCs. In the long run, their livelihood and social well-being will be affected by excessive consumption, indebtedness, competition, and tension in the community. In other words, such development projects risk failure in the long run. They are merely reformist. Radical politics must also be spiritual.

Consumerism and Spiritual Gratification

Spirituality is so important to civil activism that it determines whether a civil movement's ideology is able to resist or even replace consumerism, which is currently the most powerful representation of capitalist ideology. Consumerism has spread so pervasively throughout the world not so much because it provides physical comfort or convenience, but because it gratifies, or promises to gratify, the spiritual needs of people, albeit temporarily. In other words, it functions as a pseudo-religion in its pretense of meeting the deeper needs of every human being, namely, the desire to have an improved identity, to be a new person, or to recreate oneself.

Consumerism succeeds because it makes us feel that we will have a better self, be essentially a better person, through possessing brand name products, especially through consuming the image that both sells the product, which may be in itself useless or trivial, and is the main source of value. Consumerism also gives us the freedom to choose the appearance of a new and better self through cosmetic surgery. It gives us a purpose in life, namely, to accumulate and consume as many objects as possible. Such a clear and concrete objective makes our lives seem meaningful to a certain degree.

It also promises to reduce the sense of lack. We feel something lacking when we sense the gap between the ideal and the reality of our being. By consuming the products, services, or images presented by consumerism, we believe that our reality moves closer to the ideal, and thus reduces the gap. In actuality, the gap will never be closed since the ideal, our expectations, always move further away, mainly because we are exposed constantly to new products through the media. The sense of lack persists because we realize that once the products are consumed, the happiness we attain is never up to our hopes and dreams. The gap between expectation and reality inevitably maintains the sense of lack and self-discontent. We therefore are motivated unconsciously to acquire and consume more and more with the deluded expectation that the sense of lack will finally disappear. It is a game of futility.

From a Buddhist perspective, the deepest sense of lack is the result of our intuitive knowledge that in the depths of our being the self does not inherently exist. From this awareness, fundamental insecurities and fears emerge, disturbing our minds every now and then. Regardless of our attempts to suppress such inklings, they repeatedly come up, though distorted into the sense of lack. That's why we try to clutch at anything as our true self. In this light, consumerism provides products and images of self for us to grasp. In other words, it seems to satisfy the deepest, or spiritual, need of every human being. Though it cannot satisfy in the long run, since nothing that it provides is identifiable as a true self; it works temporarily, creating more needs later.

Spirituality as Critical Element of Civic Ideology

The ideology of civil movements can't replace or challenge consumerism, unless and until it can provide better solutions to the spiritual needs of people. That's why spirituality must be incorporated into civil activism. To begin with, spirituality should be incorporated into the civil movement's world view, so that it can give better answers to the questions of existence: i.e., what is suffering and its causes, and how can freedom from suffering be realized. Rather than thinking that unsatiated desire is the problem, we tend to think that failure to fulfill the desires is the problem. We are like the addicted gambler who says that "gambling is not my problem; I like it. The problem is my $100,000 of debt." One reason for consumerism' s popularity is its ability to divert people's attention from their real suffering and its causes; people assume that lacking sufficient money to buy things, not limitless desire itself, is the real problem. They therefore try to acquire more money instead of finding out what's wrong with their own minds and the social systems that mirror the greed and delusion structurally.

A spiritually informed civic world view can provide the broader perspective that there are many levels of happiness. Material happiness is just one level of happiness. Camaraderie and healthy family life provide emotional happiness. Deeper than that is spiritual happiness, which helps reduce one's dependence on material accumulation. No ideology can give a better explanation about how to attain deeper happiness, as opposed to the superficial pleasure of unsatiated consumption, unless it incorporates spirituality as part of its world view.
Apart from being incorporated into the civil movement's vision of life, spirituality should be part of its social vision of as well. Spiritual wellbeing should be the objective of the programs, systems, and structures that are proposed as alternatives to the existing ones that promote structural violence. Spirituality should be part of the civil movement's organizing principles and mode of relationships (e.g., sharing, cooperation, and compassion). Finally, a spiritual worldview and values should be integrated into the way of life of each member of the civil movement, especially its leaders.

Since spirituality is an antidote to materialism and consumerism, a civil movement based on spirituality can be ensured that it can challenge the power of capital without being contaminated by materialism and consumerism. Simultaneously, it can critique and challenge the false religious institutions that betray their spiritual origins in favor of temporal power and wealth. With spirituality, civil activism is no less than politics for peace. It not only resists the unsatiated growth capital and its structural violence, but also reduces the sources of violence in society, namely, the greed, hatred, anger, and fear in the minds of people Spirituality is essential for harmonious relationships within society, since it enables people to attain inner happiness and contentment with a simple life, therefore reducing competition and antagonism, while encouraging sharing. Genuine spirituality includes kindness and patience towards others, a willingness to set aside personal agendas, and the ability to sacrifice for the common good. Most of all, the inner harmony of mature spirituality inspires harmony in others. Spirituality is also the guarantor that civil activism is peaceful and nonviolent. It deepens and broadens the perspective of activists so that they realize that the causes of social problems are not the persons themselves, but something within them (selfishness, illusion, attachment), together with something beyond them (unjust structures like the economic system, oligarchic politics, and materialist-oriented education system). This allows activists to be less judgmental and blaming, and more tolerant and nurturing of individuals and groups despite their imperfections.

With spirituality, one realizes that simply eliminating "the bad apples" can't solve problems. Only by transforming internal worldviews and external structures through peaceful means can problems be solved. Resorting to violence only worsens situations; old worldviews become more fortified and violent structures more rooted or increasing defended by violence, while vicious cycles of violence grow stronger.
Ultimately, the real objectives of civil activism are not stopping the dam construction, halting the pipeline project, or gaining compensation for lost lands. More important than all of these is to replace the unjust structures and reduce structural violence, along with changing attitudes and worldviews. Both can be achieved only through nonviolence and compassion. Nonviolence can open the hearts of people, while compassion can expel the anger, and thus enable them to see the real causes of their problems and sufferings. The wisdom that arises is required for one to see solutions alternative to violence. Besides, inner peace from spirituality can restrain the mind from indulging in anger, dwelling in hatred, or reacting out of fear, which are the inner sources of violence.

With spiritual inspiration, one can continue the struggle and retain the ideal of civil activism, without getting stuck in the trap of materialism, or falling victim to greed and becoming a turncoat to the powers that be, or ending up burnt out and leaving the movement. Thus, spirituality provides the steady, consistent motivation needed for long-term grassroots peace work.

In brief, spirituality is essential to civil activism in all its phases: from the development of ideology and social vision, organization of the movement, staging direct actions, and running development projects, to the way activists and the people live out daily life. Spirituality also forms the basis of peace on every level; personal, operational, and structural. Therefore, contrary to general belief, spirituality is an integral part of people's politics. Without it, people's politics is either a short-lived reaction to the powers that be or power politics in disguise.

Phra Paisal Visalo
Wat Pah Sukhato
Chaiyaphume, Thailand
e-mail: psvisa@gmail.com

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