Authors: F.S. Michaels
Tags: #Business and Economics, #Social Science - General
How One Story is Changing Everything
It is easy to forget how mysterious and mighty stories are. They do their work in silence, invisibly. They work with all the internal materials of the mind and self. They become part of you while changing you. Beware the stories you read or tell; subtly, at night, beneath the waters of consciousness, they are altering your world.
There is no such thing as just a story. A story is always charged with meaning...And we can be sure that if we know a story well enough to tell it, it carries meaning for us.
THE HISTORY OF HOW we think and act, said twentieth-century philosopher Isaiah Berlin, is, for the most part, a history of dominant ideas. Some subject rises to the top of our awareness, grabs hold of our imagination for a generation or two, and shapes our entire lives. If you look at any civilization, Berlin said, you will find a particular pattern of life that shows up again and again, that rules the age. Because of that pattern, certain ideas become popular and others fall out of favor. If you can isolate the governing pattern that a culture obeys, he believed, you can explain and understand the world that shapes how people think, feel and act at a distinct time in history.
The governing pattern that a culture obeys is a master story — one narrative in society that takes over the others, shrinking diversity and forming a monoculture. When you’re inside a master story at a particular time in history, you tend to accept its definition of reality. You unconsciously believe and act on certain things, and disbelieve and fail to act on other things. That’s the power of the monoculture; it’s able to direct us without us knowing too much about it.
Over time, the monoculture evolves into a nearly invisible foundation that structures and shapes our lives, giving us our sense of how the world works. It shapes our ideas about what’s normal and what we can expect from life. It channels our lives in a certain direction, setting out strict boundaries that we unconsciously learn to live inside. It teaches us to fear and distrust other stories; other stories challenge the monoculture simply by existing, by representing alternate possibilities.
As a result, learning to see the monoculture can leave us feeling threatened and anxious because the process exposes our foundations, outlines the “why” of why we live the way we do. Still, if we fail to understand how the monoculture shapes our lives and our world, we’re at risk of making decisions day after day without ever really understanding how our choices are being predetermined, without understanding how the monoculture even shapes what we think our options are. Without a clear understanding of the monoculture, it’s hard to understand the trajectory of your own life. But once you know what shared beliefs and assumptions make up the governing pattern at this point in history, you can discover the consequences of the monoculture and decide if that’s how you really want to live.
Monocultures and their master stories rise and fall with the times. By the seventeenth century, for example, the master story revolved around science, machines and mathematics. Developments in fields like biology, anatomy, physics, chemistry and astronomy were early harbingers of modern science. People began to believe that the nature of the world could be discovered through mathematics, that physical laws directed the behavior of all bodies, and that living creatures could be systematically catalogued in relation to one another. Life was understood as a series of questions with knowable answers, and the world became methodical and precise. A scientific monoculture was created.
That scientific monoculture was radically different from the religious monoculture that preceded it. If you had lived in sixteenth century Europe, a hundred years earlier, you would almost certainly have understood your life through the master story of religion and superstition. People lived surrounded by angels and demons. When Galileo contradicted the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church by claiming that the sun and not the Earth was at the center of the solar system, he was accused of heresy and sentenced to house arrest for the rest of his life. Excommunication from the church and the damning of your eternal soul was a real threat, and you could literally pay for your sins to guarantee yourself a short stay in purgatory. Religion was the zeitgeist, the spirit of the age.
A monoculture doesn’t mean that everyone believes exactly the same thing or acts in exactly the same way, but that we end up sharing key beliefs and assumptions that direct our lives. Because a monoculture is mostly left unarticulated until it has been displaced years later, we learn its boundaries by trial and error. We somehow come to know how the master story goes, though no one tells us exactly what the story is or what its rules are. We develop a strong sense of what’s expected of us at work, and in our families and communities — even if we sometimes choose not to meet those expectations. We usually don’t ask ourselves where those expectations came from in the first place. They just exist — or they do until we find ourselves wishing things were different somehow, though we can’t say exactly what we would change, or how.
Monocultures, though overwhelmingly persuasive and pervasive, aren’t inescapable. In the end, the human experience always diverges from the monoculture and its master story, because our humanity is never as one-dimensional as the master story says it is. The human experience is always wider and deeper than a single narrative, and over time, we become hungry for something the monoculture isn’t speaking to and isn’t giving us — can’t give us. Once you know what the monoculture looks like, you can decide whether it serves a useful purpose in your life, or whether you want to transcend it and live in a wider spectrum of human values instead — to know it so you can leave it behind.
In our time, in the early decades of the twenty-first century, the monoculture isn’t about science, machines and mathematics, or about religion and superstition. In our time, the monoculture is economic. Because of the rise of the economic story, six areas of your world are changing — or have already changed — in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. How you think about your work, your relationships with others and the natural world, your community, your physical and spiritual health, your education, and your creativity are being shaped by economic values and assumptions.
And because how you think shapes how you act, the monoculture that arises as a result isn’t just changing your mind — it’s changing your life.
Generally, the familiar, precisely because it is familiar, is not known.
“THE UNIVERSE,” SAID POET Muriel Rukeyser, “is made of stories, not of atoms.” Stories are what we are made of too. We use them to capture our yesterdays and secure our tomorrows. Stories tell us what we can expect from other people, and from life. There are as many ways to tell them as there are people in the world, and as many stories waiting to be told. Those that resonate deeply stay with us all our lives. A good story, well told, makes you realize you were yearning for something you had no name for, something you didn’t even know you wanted.
In one sense, we are constantly telling stories. We live them every day, playing everything from minor to major roles in other people’s lives. Somehow we take all of these different narratives we’re part of and weave them into something that helps us understand why things are the way they are. As storytellers, we make sense of our lives through our own point of view, giving meaning to one thing or another according to how we each make sense of the world. How do we do it? How do we make sense of where we come from and where we are going? What do all of these stories mean? What importance do they have to the story of us together, here and now, that is slowly being written?
Answers to questions like these help us build our personal mythology, the hidden structure that supports our storytelling. Psychoanalyst June Singer says, “Personal myths are not what you think they are. They are not false beliefs. They are not the stories you tell yourself to explain your circumstances and behavior. Your personal mythology is, rather, the vibrant infrastructure that informs your life, whether or not you are aware of it. Consciously and unconsciously, you live by your mythology.”
Your personal mythology — that infrastructure that informs your life — doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it’s surrounded by the overarching stories of our culture. Those larger cultural stories are rooted in areas of activity in society that are interconnected but distinct, areas represented by political, religious, economic, aesthetic, intellectual and relational pursuits. We take these cultural stories so for granted that we’re hardly conscious of them. We simply accept them as reality — the way it is and the way it always has been. The stories stay unarticulated for the most part, something we generally subscribe to but probably couldn’t explain, and something to not bother thinking too much about in a world where there is plenty to hold our attention.
When one of these cultural stories becomes dominant, a master story emerges. That master story begins to change the other cultural stories, and as that larger context begins to shift, your personal mythology — that vibrant infrastructure that informs your life — shifts along with it. A new governing pattern evolves. A monoculture begins to form.
So how do we learn to see that monoculture? How do we learn to see something as pervasive, invisible, and life-forming as air? We can see what effect the monoculture has when we look at what we tell each other about how we and the world ought to be. What is life about? What stories are we told and what stories do we live by?
In these early decades of the twenty-first century, the master story is economic; economic beliefs, values and assumptions are shaping how we think, feel, and act. The beliefs, values and assumptions that make up the economic story aren’t inherently right or wrong; they’re just a single perspective on the nature of reality. In a monoculture though, that single perspective becomes so engrained as the only reasonable reality that we begin to forget our other stories, and fail to see the monoculture in its totality, never mind question it. We accept it as true simply because we’ve heard its story so often and live immersed in it day after day. The extent to which we accept that monoculture unquestioningly and live by its tenets is the extent to which our lives are unconsciously being shaped by it.
The first assumption most people make when they learn the monoculture is economic is that the master story is all about money — how to get it, make more of it, spend it, grow it, or keep it, whether that looks like consumerism, commercialism, or materialism. But that’s only true of the economic monoculture at a surface level. Though the monoculture naturally embodies issues surrounding money, the economic story represents a much more nuanced and insidious tapestry of beliefs and assumptions that fall into three categories: who you are as a human being, what the world is like, and how you and that world interact.
In the economic story, human nature takes on a particular quality. The story has much to say about what you’re like as a human being — what motivates you, what your goals are, and how you think. It then tries to understand and predict your behavior based on that version of your intrinsic nature.
To begin with, in the economic story, you are an individual. John Donne may have said, “No man is an island,” but in the economic story you fundamentally exist apart from others. Though you belong to at least one group in practice, since you were born into a family, the economic story doesn’t think of you as a group member with group obligations and responsibilities. Instead, it thinks of you as an individual, as someone who is independent of others. As you’ll see in the following chapters, that ends up having certain ramifications.
The economic story also says that as a human being, you’re rational. In economic thought, being rational doesn’t mean that you’re sensible or that you’re a clear thinker. Being rational means that when you’re faced with a decision, you move through a three-stage process to decide what to do. Assuming you know what your goals are, you first lay out all the ways you could reach each goal and identify the costs and benefits of each possibility. Next, you analyze which option is most efficient — the one that most directly lets you get the most of what you want while costing you the least of your resources. Finally, you choose that most efficient option, because in the economic story, your best choice is always the most efficient choice. That means your best choice is never going to be the scenic route or an option that’s more extravagant than it needs to be.
In the economic story, you’re someone who is self-interested, in the most positive sense possible. Being self-interested is not the same as being selfish. Selfishness involves focusing on yourself to the exclusion of, or at the expense of others. Self-interest, on the other hand, is about doing what you want and working to improve your condition or your situation. The economic story says that as someone who is self-interested, every time you make a decision, you constantly calculate what is and is not to your best advantage in a particular situation.
Being cast as someone who is rational and self-interested might sound relatively harmless, but that way of thinking has implications because it’s based on the assumptions that you know what condition you’re in, you know what your options are, and you know what you want, but those assumptions don’t necessarily hold. For one, it’s easy to go wrong in identifying all of your available choices. The economist Tibor Scitovsky compared being able to analyze your options in a given situation to being handed a long menu in a Chinese restaurant. Given all those dishes to choose from, the economic story says you know what pleases you most and so you’re going to order what you really want; from the outside looking in, we then assume that your behavior is an expression of your preferences. But Scitovsky says most of us don’t understand ninety percent of what’s on that menu and so we end up ordering the same thing we always do, or order something new and maybe don’t prefer it at all.
It’s also easy to miss taking important information into account when you’re making a decision, and we’re not necessarily all that rational to begin with — so much so that some economists now argue that we act irrationally and make wrong decisions systematically.
Even so, the economic story says that as a human being, you’re rational and self-interested.
The story says that you act as you do because you’re trying to get what you want, and the rest of us can tell what you want by watching how you act. If you buy a blue shirt, we assume you must have wanted a blue shirt. If you buy ice cream, we assume you wanted ice cream.
What you want
doesn’t really matter in the economic story; the story doesn’t have anything to say about the
of your preferences. If you want to lose weight by starving yourself or by eating broccoli and walking more, that’s up to you. You are the sole and final authority on your preferences, and your behavior is an expression of those preferences.
Though what you want and prefer can be shaped by advertising, tradition, a changing context, or your own experience, the economic story maintains that you know yourself, you know what you prefer, and you know whether or not you were satisfied with what you chose the last time.
That may not always be true, but that’s how the story goes.
In the economic story, you’re to think and act like an entrepreneur. Jean-Baptiste Say, a French economist credited with coming up with the term
said entrepreneurs are people who shift resources from one place to another to create higher productivity and greater yield. If you’re an entrepreneur or are acting entrepreneurially, you are increasing productivity and profits and adding value wherever you go.
You’re also someone who can never get enough. Your wants are unlimited, and you’re motivated to try to satisfy those unlimited wants even though you’ll never be able to. Because you can’t get enough of what you really want, you’re driven by only one thing: the desire for satisfaction.
(Psychologists tend to believe that your motivations are a lot more complicated and subtle than that, but that’s another story.) Since everyone has unlimited wants just like you, there isn’t enough of anything to go around. Resources, in other words, are scarce.
And that leads us to what the world is like.
In the economic story, the world is made of markets.
Those markets are full of people like you and me who are buying and selling goods and services. Sometimes you’re a buyer and sometimes you’re a seller. What happens in the market depends on whether you’re buying or selling.
If you’re a seller in the world of markets, the economic story says you’re a small enterprise trying to make a profit. You might be a merchant at a local farmers market. Along with all the other merchants, you sell your wares: fresh vegetables and flowers, sausages and cookies, canned goods, or handmade crafts. If there’s a run on what you sell, you can raise your asking price. If no one’s buying, you’ll have to lower it. The price, in other words, is set by the forces of supply and demand — not you. As the story goes, as a seller you’re not powerful enough to influence prices.
The same story holds true for wages: the price for your work is also set by the forces of supply and demand. If you don’t think you get paid enough, your boss isn’t to blame — it’s the market that’s at fault. Your boss doesn’t set your wages — the market does. If help is hard to find, you’ll be paid more. If everyone’s looking for a job, you’ll be paid less. That’s because all things being equal, your boss is also considered to be rational. That means your boss will also make the most efficient choice and hire someone appropriate who costs the least of his or her limited resources.
If you end up suffering in the world of markets because prices are too high for you to buy, or too low for you to make a living off of what you sell, there’s nobody to blame but the market, which after all, isn’t trying to punish you personally.
That’s just the way things are. So even though giant retailers and multinational energy companies and global technology firms are all big enough and powerful enough to influence prices and wages, the economic story says otherwise.
If you’re a buyer in the world of markets, whether you know it or not, you help to keep the market in check. As you browse tables as a buyer at the farmers market, merchants are busy competing with each other for your business. Because you are rational as a buyer, all things being equal, you will buy the most efficient alternative — what meets your needs and uses the least of your resources to do it. The more efficient the seller can be in supplying that product to you, the lower the price can be, which makes you more likely to buy. The economic story says the market is regulated by that kind of competition for buyers and so doesn’t need to be regulated further by anything external to it, like the government.
Just as buyers and sellers are efficient in the economic story, so too is the world of markets. When buyers are efficient, buying what meets their needs for as little as possible, and sellers are efficient, making the best product they can for as little as possible, buyers will demand more and sellers will supply more. When there’s a balance between supply and demand, the market operates at peak efficiency. Sellers won’t produce too much of what they sell, and buyers won’t pay for what they don’t need, so there ends up being a natural match between what sellers offer and what buyers want. That kind of efficiency, the story says, keeps everyone from wasting resources, which as you’ll remember, are scarce because everyone has unlimited wants and there isn’t enough of anything to go around. Peak efficiency in the world of markets is reached when both markets and the competition that happens in them are as widespread as possible throughout the world, which is an argument for free trade.
The economic story says there are no limits to how big the world of markets can be, or to how much it can grow. In practice, we keep some things outside of markets, like sex, reproductive services, human organs, political office, prizes and honors, love and friendship, drugs, and homicide. Keeping those areas of life separate from markets means it is mostly illegal to buy and sell sex, children, kidneys, senate seats, Nobel prizes, cocaine, or hits on someone you’d like to see dead — even if there are people who are willing to buy and sell those things.
Still, the economic story says the market should operate without limits, which leads us to how you and the world of markets interact.