Tuesday, March 12, 2019

the Nature of Cultural Infection


When Western anthropologists first started to study wetiko, they believed it to be only a disease of the individual and a literal form of flesh-eating cannibalism. On both counts, as discussed, their understanding was, if not wrong, certainly limited. They did, however, accurately isolate two traits that are relevant for thinking about cultures: (1) the initial act, even when driven by necessity, creates a residual, unnatural desire for more; and (2) the host carrier, which they called the ‘victim,’ ended up with an ‘icy heart’ - i.e., their ability for empathy and compassion was amputated.

The reader can probably already sense from the two traits mentioned above are the wetiko nature of modern capitalism. Its insatiable hunger for finite resources; its disregard for the pain of groups and cultures it consumes; its belief in consumption as savior; its overriding obsession with its own material growth; and its viral spread across the surface of the planet.

It is wholly accurate to describe neoliberal capitalism as cannibalizing life on this planet. It is not the only truth - capitalism has also facilitated an explosion of human life and ingenuity - but when taken as a whole, capitalism is certainly eating through the life-force of this planet in service of its own growth.

Of course, capitalism is a human conception and so we can also say that we are phenomenal hosts of the wetiko mind virus. To understand what makes us such, it is useful to consider a couple of the traits that guide the evolution of human cultures.

We have decades of evidence from social science describing just what highly contextual beings we are. Almost all aspects of our behavior, including our moral judgments and limits, are significantly shaped in response to the cultural signifiers that surround us. The Good Samaritan studies, for example, show that even when people are primed with the idea of altruism, they will walk by others in need when they are in a rush or some other contextual variable changes. And the infamous Stanley Milgram experiments show how a large majority of people are capable of shocking another human to a point they know can cause death simply because an authority figure in a white lab coat insists they do so.

We really are products of our environment, and so it should be taken as inevitable that those who live in a wetiko culture will manifest, to one degree or other, wetiko beliefs and behaviors. Looking through the broader contextual lens, we must also account for the self-perpetuating nature of complex systems. Any living network that becomes sufficiently complex will become self-organizing, and from that point on will demonstrate an instinct to survive. In practical terms, this means that it will distribute its resources to support behavior that best mimics its own logic and ensures its survival.

In other words, any system that is sufficiently infected by wetiko logic will reward cannibalistic behavior. Or, in Jack Forbes’ evocative language, “Those who squirm upwards [in a wetiko system] are, or become, wetiko, and they only perpetuate the system of corruption or oppression. Thus the communist leaders in the Soviet Union under Stalin were at least as vicious, deceitful and exploitative as their czarist predecessors. They obtained ‘power’ without changing their wetiko culture.”

This ensures that the essential logic of cultures spreads down through generations as well as across them. And it explains why they self-organize resources to maintain a high degree of continuity in distributions of power, when those distributions efficiently serve their survival and growth. When this continuity is interrupted or broken, revolutions occur and the system is put under threat.

However, as the above quote suggests, the disruption must happen at the right level. Merely trading one wetiko for another at the top of an otherwise unchanged wetiko infrastructure (as in the case of Stalin replacing the czars or, more contemporarily, Obama replacing Bush) is largely pointless. At best, it might result in the softening of the cruelest edges of a wetiko machine. At worse, it does nothing except distract us from seeing the true infection.

The question, then, for anyone interested in excising the wetiko infection from a culture is, where is it? In one respect, because it is a psychic phenomenon that lives in potential in all of us, it is non-local. But this, though ultimately important to understand, is not the whole truth. It is also true that there is a conceptual place where the most powerful wetiko logic is held, and that, at least in theory, makes it vulnerable.

In the same way that a colony of bees will instinctively house its queen in the deepest chambers of the hive, so a complex adaptive system buries its most important operating logic furthest from the forces that can challenge them. This means two things: first, it means siting the logic in the deep rules that govern the whole. Not just this national economy or that, this government or that, but the mother system - the global operating system. And second, it means making these rules feel as intractable and inevitable as possible.

So what is this deep logic of the global operating system? It comes in two parts. First, there is the ultimate purpose, which we might call the Prime Directive, which is to increase capital. We often dress this up in a narrative that says capital generation is not the end but the means, the engine of progress. This makes the idea of dethroning it feel dangerous and even contrary to common sense. But the truth is, we have created a system that artificially treats money as sacred. At this point in capitalism’s history, life is controlled by, more than it controls, the forces of capital. The clue is really in the name. But if you need further proof, look no further than how we define and measure progress: GDP. More on that below.

Then, there is the logic for how we, the living components of this system, should behave, which we would summarize with the following epithet: Selfishness is rational and rationality is everything; therefore selfishness is everything. This dictates that if we all prioritize ourselves and maximize our own material wealth, an invisible hand (ah, what a seductive meme!) will create an equilibrium state and life everywhere will be made better. We are pitted against each other in a form of distributed fascism where we cocoon ourselves in the immediate problems of our own circumstances and consume what we can. We then couch this behavior in the benign language of family matters, national interests, job creation, GDP growth, and other upstanding endeavors.

Put these two parts of the puzzle together and it’s easy to see why the banker who generates excess capital receives vast rewards and is labelled ‘productive’ and ‘successful,’ almost regardless of the damage s/he causes. Those who are less ‘successful’ at producing excess capital, meanwhile, are rewarded far less, regardless of the life-affirming good they may be doing. Nurses, mothers, teachers, journalists, activists, scientists—all receive far less reward because they are less efficient at obeying the Prime Directive and may even be countermanding the ‘self-interest’ operating principle. And as for those who are actually poor - well, they are effortlessly labelled not just as practical but also moral failures.

This infection is so far advanced that the system now requires exponential capital growth. The World Bank tells us that we have to grow the global economy by at least 3 percent per year to avoid recession. Let’s think about what this means. Global GDP in 2014 was roughly USD $78 trillion. We grew that pie by 2.4% in 2015, which resulted in the commodification and subsequent consumption of roughly another $2 trillion in human labor and natural resources. That’s roughly the size of the entire global economy in 1970. It took us from the dawn of civilization to 1970 to reach $2 trillion in global GDP, and now we need that just in the differential so the entire house of cards doesn’t crumble. In order to achieve this rate of growth year-on-year, we are destroying our planet, ensuring mass species extinction, and displacing millions of our brothers and sisters (who we commonly refer to as ‘poor people’) from around the world.

So when people tell us that the market knows best, or technology will save us, or philanthro-capitalism will redistribute opportunities, we have to understand that all of these seemingly common sense truisms are embedded in a broader operating system, a wetikonomy, with all that that means. And the more they are presented as ‘unchangeable,’ the more often we’re told, ‘there is no alternative,’ the more we should question. There is actually a beautiful irony in the fact that, when we know what we’re up against, such statements are our signposts for where to look.

It is not that we should be against markets, technology, or philanthropy - they can all be wonderful, in the right context - but we should be against how they are being used as alibis to excuse the insanity of the wetiko paradigm that they are inseparable from. We are reminded of Jack Forbes’ heavy words; “It is not logical to allow the wetikos to carry out their evil acts and then to accept their assessment of the nature of human life. For after all, the wetiko possess a bias created by their own evil lives, by their own amoral or immoral behavior. And too, if I am correct, they were, and are, also insane.”

Adapted from Kosmos, a Journal for Global Transformation

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