A Crumbling Cultural Story

Wall Street grows weaker as the myths underlying its power unravel.
Times Square, photo by Josh Liba

Photo by Josh Liba

This is the twenty-eighth of a series of blogs based on excerpts adapted from the 2nd edition of Agenda for a New Economy: From Phantom Wealth to Real Wealth. I wrote Agenda to spur a national conversation on economic policy issues and options that are otherwise largely ignored. This blog series is intended to contribute to that conversation. —DK

Professional propagandists and advertisers use mass media and other instruments of cultural reproduction to control our minds and behavior, displacing authentic cultural stories with fabricated stories that support the interests of their clients. Most commonly, the goal is to get us to vote for a particular political candidate or buy a particular product. By recognizing the nature and function of culture in shaping our understanding of ourselves and our world, we can develop substantial immunity to these mind control techniques. 

The financial crash of 2008 has so exposed the underlying fallacies of the fabricated story that millions of people have been shocked out of the trance.

Culture is the system of beliefs, values, perceptions, and social relations that encodes the shared learning of a particular human group essential to individual survival and orderly social function. It serves as the interpretive lens through which the human brain processes the massive flow of data from our senses to distinguish the significant from the inconsequential, assign meaning, and shape our behavior: “This plant will kill you. That one is food.”

The cultural lens reflects both the individual learning of personal experience and the shared learning of the tribe, as communicated through its framing cultural stories. These stories, which the tribe’s storytellers traditionally passed from generation to generation, shape our collective identity and relationships. “This is who we are, what we value, and how we behave.”

Stories that Light Up the DarkStories That Light Up the Dark
The experiences of our ancestors offer us wisdom for surviving today's crises.

The processes by which culture shapes our perceptions and behavior occur mostly at an unconscious level. It rarely occurs to us to ask whether the reality we perceive through the lens of the culture within which we grew up is the “true” reality. We just take for granted that it is.

For five thousand years, successful imperial rulers have maintained their power in part by controlling the story tellers to communicate fabricated cultural stories that evoke fear, alienation, learned helplessness, and a sense dependence on a strong ruler for direction and protection.

This induces a cultural trance that suppresses our inherent human capacity for responsible self-direction, sharing, and cooperation. The falsified stories create an emotional bond between the ruled and their rulers while alienating the ruled from one another and the living Earth, eroding relations of mutual self-help, and reducing the ruled to a state of resigned dependence.

Corporate advertisers and PR propagandists have mastered and professionalized the arts of cultural manipulation. Their stories lead us to base our personal identity on the corporate logos we wear, the branded products we consume, the corporation for which we work, and the Wall Street-funded political party to which we belong. At a deeper level they secure our acquiescence to Wall Street rule with a story that goes something like this:

We humans are by nature aggressively individualistic and competitive and this is all to the good. Competition is a law of nature and the driver of progress and prosperity.

It is the civic duty of the individual to compete to maximize personal financial gain. The invisible hand of the unrestrained free market channels this competitive energy to maximize efficiency, drive innovation, and optimize the allocation of resources to grow the economy and thereby bring prosperity to all.

The public interest is nothing more than the aggregation of individual interests. Those who claim otherwise are socialists who would have government take from the productive to reward the lazy and irresponsible. They would limit our freedom and kill the engine of prosperity by taxing the wealthy and regulating the corporations that bear the risks of investing in the productive, job creating enterprises on which the prosperity of all depends. Since we are each the best judge of our self-interest, government regulation and taxes are an assault on individual freedom and distort society’s priorities.

The market rewards us each in proportion to our productive contribution. Therefore, do not condemn the rich out of envy. Rather honor them for their contribution to creating a strong and prosperous America.

In our great nation, anyone can succeed who applies himself. Failure is a sign of incompetence or a flawed character.

We hear elements of this story so often they run through our heads as a constant refrain telling us that money is wealth, those who make money are creating wealth, and that we can grow the prosperity of all by freeing the wealthy from taxes and Wall Street corporations from regulation.

The financial crash of 2008 has so exposed the underlying fallacies of the fabricated story that millions of people have been shocked out of the trance. It is a moment of opportunity to penetrate the veil of illusion maintained by Wall Street’s propaganda machine and spread public awareness of possibilities for a deep financial and economic restructuring to create the world of our shared human dream.

[Next: The Story of a New Economy]

David Korten author pic


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