Today’s blog post is brought to you by the book “Monoculture: How One Story Is Changing Everything”, by F.S. Michaels. Michaels begins with the proposition that a “master story” is a governing pattern for a culture, and uses the examples of the religious monoculture in 16th Century Europe, which then gave way to the scientific monoculture. In our time, she says, the monoculture is economic, and provides chapters on how work, relationships, community, health, education, and creativity are shaped by economic values and assumptions in the 21st century. This is a well-written book, easily readable at 134 pages, and with 55 pages of notes, clearly well-researched. I do not know F.S. Michaels, but I enjoyed the book immensely, several times. The moment for readers when they come across a piece of writing that articulates something in themselves, half-formed/inchoate, in marvelous lucid fashion, is akin, maybe, to seeing a friend in a crowd of strangers.
“Call a thing immoral or ugly, soul-destroying or a degradation of men, a peril to the peace of the world or to the well-being of future generations; as long as you have not shown it to be ‘uneconomic’ you have not really questioned its right to exist, grow, and prosper.” It is worth asking you to read the quotation again; it is from the late economist E.F. Schumacher. This is the world that has come to pass: a world in which the vilest child pornography thrives, because it is economic. In which hunger and homelessness abound, because it is economic. (To clarify, it is widely believed that it is uneconomic to rectify homelessness/hunger.) In which climate change begins to pose real questions of how humans will survive, yet no governments can seemingly conceive how to begin to solve the problem, and where will the money come from? And this is worth thinking on: how could a story, an idea, come to be so pervasive that we allow it to threaten all life on earth?
There have always been those of us who don’t believe the story, of course, who don’t see ourselves first and foremost as ‘economic man’. Those who don’t believe, but pretend to, form a percentage as well, and how shall we ever know how many these are? For the one certainty is that the economic story is central to our very survival, though tangential to our real lives. And here is where my story becomes personal, in a way that is not altogether comfortable to tell.
I have never been able to make economic decisions at the cost of some commitment to the truth, or to doing the right thing, to some higher good, or to creativity and imagination. In my first job I was hired at X wages as a hotel housekeeper. My employer praised my work, and within days I was promoted and training all the new hires, a considerable number. I was really enjoying my first foray into the world of work until my first paycheque, when I discovered that the employer was paying me less than agreed upon. My appeal to fairness fell upon deaf ears, so I complained to Labour Standards, and my complaint was upheld, for the offer was in writing. I was out of a job, however. When I began my own business some years later, I researched the prevailing wage rates and decided to pay my employees at the highest (union) rate for the work. My business grew quickly, had the major market share, and enjoyed a profitability ten percent higher than the competition. Imagine my surprise, then, in applying for a minor line of credit, to be required to defend my higher than average wage costs. In fairness to the Credit Union lending committee they granted my line of credit, but I was forced to state the obvious: that paying a living wage and keeping employees, rather than seeing them as disposable labour, was integral to my sense of doing ‘good business’. I’ll offer up one final story: as the newly-hired executive director of a non profit arts organization, I discovered a number of uncomfortable things. Such as the ten thousand dollars as a specific grant for one purpose apparently having been spent – well, elsewhere. No membership list, although membership was paid, no filing system, no information about such basics as how much was in the bank account and insurance. A government body demanding information from me about a Record of Employment for a previous employee that it believed to be questionable. Meanwhile, the board declined to act or to fulfill their obligations under the Societies Act, and my insistence that integrity was crucial to the existence of the organization got me fired, though I would have been forced to resign in any case.
I tell these stories because it is self-evident that there are principles of fairness that matter, maybe even more than ones’ livelihood. Or as F.S. Michaels puts it: “When what we once valued intrinsically – truth, beauty, goodness, justice – becomes just another means to an economic end, and we accept life within the monoculture, we are deprived of our higher-level human needs.” I cannot pretend to have the answer for how anyone else lives their life, but I can comfortably assert that we must begin to look at human needs beyond the economic. That truth and beauty and goodness and justice really do have a transcendent value. That we really cannot eat money. That the world cries out ‘let me live’.
“The choice is yours.
What stories will you live?
What stories will you tell? “
My thanks to F.S. Michaels.