Tuesday 4th November 2014
The monoculture tells the story of the time we are living in. Certain patterns of life emerge, rise to the top and dominate culture until they shape every aspect of our lives and we are unable to see an alternative. The monoculture informs our ideas about how the world works, what we can expect from our lives and from other people. In the seventeenth century, the prevalent monoculture was of science, machines and mathematics. Before this, it was a religious age, ruled by the Church, superstition, angels and demons. Our story today is an economic one. It infects every aspect of our lives from work to relationships with the natural world, community, health, education and creativity.
This is research carried out by F.S. Michaels, author of Monoculture: How One Story is Changing Everything, a penny-dropping, jaw-dropping read that seems to connect the dots which create a picture of all-pervading economic beliefs that shape our beliefs, values and assumptions at every level of our society. We are so entrenched in our monoculture that we forget our other stories and fail to see our culture in its totality never mind question it. The associated beliefs of our time include rationality, the ability to analyse, and efficiency. The best choice is always the most efficient option that is self-interested and the least extravagant, least scenic, fastest and pleases us most. Entrepreneurs, a phrase coined by French economist Jean-Baptiste Say, shift resources from one place to another to create higher productivity and greater yield, increasing profits and adding value.
Being part of the economic monoculture means our appetites are never satisfied. We’re driven by the desire for satisfaction, but because our individual wants are unlimited, resources are scarce. The gods that rule over our world are the markets. The forces of supply and demand set prices and wages. Peak efficiency is reached when both markets and the competition that occurs within them are as widespread as possible throughout the world. Anything can be bought and sold, and unless it can be shown to be ‘uneconomic’, its right to exist, grow and prosper is not called into doubt.
Competition on a personal level is of course a vital component of the story on a personal level. You compete with others for jobs and with other buyers for sellers’ goods, and other sellers for buyers’ dollars. Relationships with others in markets are impersonal and transactional. The quality of the information we possess gives us an advantage with which we can make the most efficient choice. Economic growth, measured by GDP, is an unequivocally good thing and translates to better standard of living, even if citizens are unhappy, feel unsafe, or live in areas rife with crime. Choice continues to grow, giving us the illusion of freedom and prosperity. One story changes everything.
For me personally all of this seems incredibly sad, but true. I struggle with buying new things as am often plagued with guilt by having made purchases, the momentary satisfaction so fleeting. I have fallen into the pitfalls just like anyone else – striving to define myself by what I own, giving into desires to buy a big-ticket item or unfeasibly cheap fashion piece that will make my life complete, and competing with others over promotions at work.
Now, the way we work has changed. Gone are the days of loyalty, commitment and reciprocity between workers and their employers. In the increasingly global marketplace, companies want a flexible workforce consisting of employees who are themselves expendable, like the products they peddle. Job security is no longer to be relied upon, and less training and investment is made than previous generations. The companies play a clever game by institutionalising values and investments in environmental, social and arts projects which bring higher stock valuations, a more motivated workforce and a boost in corporate reputation.
Markets encroach on our home time as well. In a society where women go out to work, domestic work is outsourced. Researcher Arlie Russell Hochschild wrote, “Efficiency has become both a means to an end – more home time – and a way of life, an end in itself”. Efficiency and flexibility are key. Family life in its traditional sense runs counter to this, making people less available to service the needs of the markets. The markets in our monoculture want us to remain individuals without close long-term relationships: thus ready to relocate, work harder and longer and less likely to defect due to personal commitments.
As well as community, work, education, creativity, public life and health (there is an enlightening chapter on the changing obligations of medical professionals, not just here in America but all over the world) being treated as markets, even our spiritual needs are being met in the marketplace. A church is an efficient and eager firm that exists to create, maintain and supply religion It operates according to the laws of supply and demand, with no particular code of morals, except what consumer preference demands. We are customers with requirements that might be strictness or permissiveness, exclusive or inclusive, geared towards older people or children. America’s most successful churches model themselves on businesses, with MBA-staffed management teams, strategy teams, consulting services and thousands of customers.
Isn’t all of this deeply cynical? That’s one way of looking at it, but the evidence speaks for itself. I, like many others, feel there is something wrong with our society. Something is rotten. I can’t put my finger on it exactly but it encompasses overconsumption; fakeness of people and things; single-minded preoccupation with accumulation of wealth; over-competitiveness; disengagement from others; and the expectation to be able to define exactly where we are in our lives, who we are and what we ‘do’. We live in a throwaway society, each of us ruled by markets and self-interest, that much is sure.
“[The] independent life begins with discovering what it means to live alongside the monoculture, given your particular circumstances, in your particular life and time, which will not be duplicated for anyone else. Out of your own struggle to live an independent life, a parallel structure may eventually be birthed. […] The goal is to live many stories, within a wider spectrum of human values. This is what it looks like to live free from the economic monoculture’s manipulation, to live the breadth and depth of all our stories, to live with dignity.” – F. S Michaels, ‘Monoculture’.