A growing number of people have been connecting the dots across issues ranging from political corruption and biased corporate media to anti-science propaganda promoted by the fossil fuel industry and harms committed to the environment— to see how a “system logic” runs through the heart of the current economic system. There is too much emphasis on growth; not enough clarity around political agendas; and a profound disconnect between business-as-usual and the planetary-scale emergency of the ecological crisis.
My colleagues and I call this logic the One Party Planet with its global architecture of wealth extraction and hoarding. More people are recognizing that the economic paradigm that guides our global system today is deeply misaligned with a thriving future. Some note the myopia of short-termism in the blind pursuit of quarterly returns for multinational corporations (or election results in political arenas). Others elevate the exploding levels of debt in the financial system where money is created by issuing loans that must be paid back with interest, a dynamic that underlies the foundational need for continued growth of a debt-based currency system to avoid stall out and collapse. Yet others still see how the influence of money — in various forms of capital assets — is profoundly corrupting and shaping who gets elected to office, which policies are adopted, and how the system behaves at all scales ranging from local to regional to global.
What often remains missing from the analysis is the central importance of culture running through all of this. The Neoliberal economic system is a cultural construct. It has a particular history and espouses a cogent set of core beliefs, social values, and organizational practices. There is a narrative coherence to notions of “freeing” markets from regulation, letting wealth “trickle down” from the coffers of the rich, and a “rugged individualism” that pays too little attention to the social factors that shape economic outcomes.
All these things are first and foremost cultural, which shapes the contours of the political landscape and profoundly influences how economic practices get advanced through the subtleties of unstated assumptions and unquestioned beliefs. Jump directly to a debate about economic policies and you will miss the deeper substrates of cultural power that shape and direct how economic systems are brought into being. There is a profound lesson to be learned here by those seeking to alter or change the configurations of power in the world as they exist today.
In our work at TheRules.org, we focus deeply on the cultural logics of discourse around poverty, inequality, and climate change. We realized early on, by commissioning a linguistic analysis of global poverty, that a Story of Poverty Creation needed to be told. Before digging into the flaws of social metrics (such as GDP or the official poverty line) it was necessary to unpack the modes of thought that shape how people think, feel, and act about these issues. We learned that most efforts to reduce poverty were advocated at a superficial level, when deep structural changes are needed to make tangible progress at improving the world.
Send foreign aid into a tribal community in Africa to educate girls and you may help out locally (for a short time). All the while, in the background, the global patterns of destruction continue to intensify. Focus instead on the long history of structural causes (colonialism; structural adjustment programs; tax havens; unfair trade agreements, land grabs; etc.) and it becomes apparent that these “band aid” fixes address symptoms without dealing with root causes.
This became apparent to us as we worked in (and with) traditional advocacy organizations for several years. It was made concretely clear when a lens of cognitive linguistics was brought to the study of narratives in the development sector — noting that “development” itself is a problematic frame. And more clear still when we combined this cultural analysis with historic studies in the anthropology of economics. Remind ourselves that capitalism didn’t take off until the Enclosure Movement of Britain kicked large numbers of people off their land and we see a discernible pattern that has been creating structural poverty in growing numbers ever since.
We advocate for an approach to social change that we call culture design. Addressing the systemic threats for humanity in the 21st Century will require an intentional, open, and collaborative “design science” for social change. The elements of this approach include a variety of perspectives that will need to be integrated in both theory and practice:
- People who study the long view — anthropologists, cultural historians, the rise and fall of empires, cliodynamics (the mathematical study of history), and other related fields.
- People who understand the cognitive and behavioral sciences — cognitive linguistics, social psychology, cognitive neuroscience, sociology, etc.;
- People who understand the science of complex systems — nonlinear dynamics, system mapping, root-cause analysis, ecology, and so forth;
- People who live an alternative cultural worldview — indigenous communities are a good place to start. Ensuring that a plurality of voices are added into the mix will be vital for sensing when assumptions from the dominant culture have slipped in below the radar.
This is how methodological rigor can be achieved. Combine vetted social science methods with inputs from diverse cultural perspectives such that systemic behavior becomes tractable and understood. An example of this can be found in our comparative study for two cultural narratives that frame the history of Western Development. History is not only told by the winners of imperial conquest, but also is told moment-by-moment in the stories we live out in our daily lives — whether they are true or not. We must question our stories if we are to create beneficial changes in culture.
It is vital that we open up the important discussion of ethics here. If it becomes possible (or already has through propaganda campaigns) to influence, manipulate, and shape cultural evolution without people realizing it, there is a huge impetus to be diverse, inclusive, and fully transparent about the ethical challenges created by this new human capacity to shape how the world is made manifest. Oversight will be needed to guide how this design science gets practiced — especially as humanity goes through the turbulence of systemic breakdown from things like market crashes, natural disasters, and rapid ecological decline that all scientific assessments of the global system tell us are imminent.
When we look through this lens created by a multi-disciplinary, multi-experience diversity, we start to see the world differently. Instead of framing policies as issues like health care or climate change, we start to see cultural ‘anchors’ like methodological individualism (the assumption that social science is about the study of individual behaviors) as more fundamental linkages across entire cultural ecosystems of ideas, structures, knowledge, and practices. Assumptions like these constitute the unexamined “commonsense” of a particular culture — the filters of interpretation that give shape to political agendas outside of conscious awareness.
This is where the real power for political transformation hides in plain sight. Systems of wealth hoarding and political corruption hide in our own minds as the stories we tell ourselves without realizing it. Too few have the eyes needed to see the patterns of culture. And those who can see it have incredible power to manipulate and influence those around them.
Consider the example of treating money as if it were “real” (another cultural anchor). This leads to the ubiquity of an economic transaction frame to characterize human relationships, which creates the conditions for the monetization of all kinds of social value. This is a deeper frame that connects the dots between the logic of childcare for families at the personal scale all the way up to the United Nation’s REDD program for societal relationships with the natural world. It is also evident in the norms and rules that shape how we think about progress when we use GDP as the measure of health for an economy. Or the metrics for using the education of women as a way to bring them into the workplace as “valued” economically productive contributors to society.
The commonsense practices of power — dots that routinely do not get connected — become a shadow world of influence for those who see what has been hidden from others. We see it as a task for 21st Century social movements to “make the invisible visible” by consciously deconstructing, analyzing, and constructing the cultural patterns of meaning that shape political (and economic) outcomes. This requires a systemic perspective about culture. And it only works when informed directly by rigorous research methodologies from the social sciences.
Onward, fellow humans.