Monoculture: How One Story is Changing Everything by F.S. Michaels. Red Clover Press, 2011. 202pp.
Beware the stories you read or tell; subtly, at night, beneath the waters of consciousness, they are altering your world.
Two apparently contradictory truisms seem to persist at the heart of the great North American cultural debate. The first the mirror of F.S. Michael’s thesis in her provocative new book, Monoculture: How One Story is Changing Everything (Red Clover, 2011) is that the story of market capitalism (economism, some call it) is now touching and changing everything. Society is increasingly run on an economic logic that speaks, reasons, and assigns value in terms of productivity, cost, and return. In other words, market capitalism now is the thing that unites us.
The second, and a favourite sticking point for generations of political pundits, is that the consensus at the heart of American and Canadian democracy is eroding that our once-united societies are spinning off into more and more clusters of people who are united by private delights, but not by a project of public meaning.
Can we be ever more united by a common story, and yet have no story in common? Can both of these things be true? It seems to me that the answer is yes, but only if we keep an important provision in mind: stories are not complete, unambiguous, or necessarily coherent.
The development economist Hernando de Soto, for example, calls Western foreign policy Janus-faced; we put our political right on treasury and trade, and our political left on the industry of aid, and then we fight out our domestic tensions on foreign soil. The result is usually some combination of deadlock or disaster.
And the “Occupy” folks, along with other populist movements, are evidence that the narrative of market capitalism has less than a stranglehold; there are many who are unsatisfied with the system as it is. In fact, sites of resistance seem to be popping up in all sorts of interesting ways, from slow food to home schooling to the global resurgence of religion.
So while economism may be a dominant cultural story, it is not the only story, and even that particular story for all of its power and privilege is incoherent and inconsistent. Charles Taylor, in A Secular Age, describes it as merely one facet of modernity, one deeply at odds with others like human autonomy. He calls this considerable din of modernity’s irreconcilable clashes the malaise of modernity. A similar point is made in Unintended Reformation (Harvard University Press, 2012), when author Brad Gregory argues that how we understand stories must be “able to account for the ways in which [we] hold them, from the aggressively assertive to the confessedly conflicted.” His basic point is simply that “human life in the Western world today . . . is characterized by an enormously wide range of incompatible truth claims pertaining to human values, aspirations, norms, morality, and meaning.”
This is a common error we make when we’re talking about culture: We assume that its story includes only the dominant, and not the dissenters Keynes and Friedman, and not, say, Wendell Berry and Michael Moore. Their theories and stories are part of Western life just as much as the others’ they do not lie outside of it.
So this is where talking about “story” can get misleading: Berry and Friedman certainly seem like a clash of two fundamentally different stories. But in many ways, these two account for different accents on a story internal to the cultural West or even of capitalist economics in general. Things are almost never as unitary or uncomplicated as we hope.
It can be helpful to use shorthand calling the economic mode a monoculture, for instance when what really we mean to refer to is a dominant way of thinking. But talking this way can also be dangerously imprecise. We can’t talk about a singular, hegemonic economism, just like we can’t discuss a singular, uncomplicated “American foreign policy.” Rather, a host of overlapping assumptions undergird an impossible array of often contradictory and incoherent policies and actions. This might be a story, but it’s certainly not coherent and complete. We can get so busy sticking it to the man we don’t realize “he” is largely a figment of our imagination. Hegemonic conspiracy theories break upon the rocks of a fragmented, confused cultural elite.
Yet, cultural prophets still regularly opine that “we” are privileging the GDP, that “we” are exercising colonialist foreign policy, or that “we” are stalling on the environment. Yet the question remains: who is this “we,” and why are “we” such a bastardly lot? The truth is that this supposed cadre of conspirators is usually a fractured and fragmented group that exists somewhere in the overlap of competing agendas. And so, conflict is rarer than confusion; inertia and pragmatism tend to win out over articulated ideology.
If this really were a monoculture, then it really would be “us” versus “them.” But if the economic logic of the story F.S. Michaels and others lament is as self-contradictory and self-destructive as they suggest, then the best strategy is to internally exploit that contradiction. As Alasdair MacIntyre argues, it may not be possible to rationally depose a rival tradition, but it may be possible to out-narrate it, to expose its internal liabilities to such a gross extent that it is simply no longer able, of its own internal resources, to overcome the inconsistency. The sick perversity of economism becomes clear when market values encroach onto family, religion, or education. The deepest pursuits and identity of the human condition cannot be intelligibly narrated by only materialist philosophies.
The premise of Monoculture is an overstatement, but not therefore entirely wrong. It is true that certain stories, conflicted, incoherent, irrational as they are, come to dominate societies, places and times. Charles Taylor calls them “social imaginaries” and F.S. Michaels calls the monoculture of our time the economy. “Generally,” wrote Hegel, “the familiar, precisely because it is familiar, is not known.” In that respect, Michaels has rendered intelligible the familiar, and by so doing has written a singularly brilliant and accessible analysis of some of the fundamental assumptions and driving principles of our time.
But, contra monoculture, F.S. Michaels has outlined just some of them, not all of them, and certainly not even those exhaustively. It is an introduction to how powerful a story can be, but not an epitaph for civilization. There are other stories to tell and other ways to tell them, and while Michaels ends with an enlightened altar call to choice, I rather more agree with MacIntyre: “We are never more (and sometimes less) than the co-authors of our own narratives . . . we enter upon a stage which we did not design and we find ourselves part of an action that was not of our making.”
I guess that means you have to have a little faith.