Elke Lahousse interviews F.S. Michaels, author of Monoculture: How One Story Is Changing Everything. She recently won America's 2011 NCTE George Orwell Award, for critical analysis of public discourse.
What made you write this book? How long did your research take?
FS: "The seed of this book began about 10 years ago when I was at business school working on my MBA. I was in a Human Resources class, and we were talking about how companies could build profits by putting their people first, and I suddenly realized that putting people first wasn't the point, of course. Building profits was the point, and putting people first was just a means to that end. I asked the professor about that and she said, "That's just the way we have to sell it in order to be heard." It wasn't seen as legitimate to talk about human dignity, or treating people decently in and of itself. You could only talk about that if you could link it to financial performance. And I started wondering why that was.
By the end of my MBA, I was working on another project on corporate social responsbility and ethics, and what I discovered was that the same kind of thing was happening there. Researchers were telling companies to be ethical because "ethics pays." That's a total reworking of the idea of ethics. I started to wonder how many other ideas had been rerouted to an economic end. I kept trying to figure out what I was seeing and to name it. And the pattern kept getting deeper and deeper. So following my curiosity ended up taking the better part of the next ten years."
How did understanding our economic monoculture change your life (the six areas you mention)?
FS: "Good question. I'm still coming to terms with how the economic story takes over our other stories, narrowing our diversity and creating a monoculture. I'm still trying to figure out how to live alongside the monoculture - being in it but not of it, so to speak. But one way it definitely changed my life is that I decided to leave my PhD studies in organizational analysis after five years of work. I had come to a crossroads, because I was told the research I was doing was too broad, covered too many systems. PhDs are very specialized, so to finish the degree, I was going to have to shelve the idea of the monoculture for a few years, or drastically reduce the scope, which I thought destroyed the point of the whole thing. Too, I was looking at how the economic story was changing higher education, and I could see those changes playing out because I was living inside that system, and I didn't think the writing on the wall looked good. (Education, for example, has moved from being thought of as a public good to a private good - a commodity - where students become buyers, schools become sellers, tuition goes up, faculty becomes contract staff, and that all contributes to the rewriting of the purpose of education.)
But that was still a tough decision to make. Understanding the economic story helped me understand what I was going through in trying to make that decision, and it helps me understand what I'm still going through now that the decision has been made. Plus I also look at the world entirely differently because I see so many examples of how the economic story is still spreading - into our communities, our creativity, our relationships, our governments, our physical and spiritual health, our work - and how that's affecting us."
2011 was a drastic year for our economy, and many surrounding systems involved. Do you think we're going towards a new narrative/monoculture?
FS: "I think the Occupy movement is a sign of people starting to question some of the more overt things that happen when we adhere to the values that make up the economic story: the gap between rich and poor widens, the poor get shunted to the side of the road to fend for themselves, and getting ahead becomes the ultimate goal. At the same time, I don't think most people know how powerful the economic story is because it's such a natural part of our mental landscape, and it shapes how we think, feel and act.
The Occupy movement gets criticized (at least in North America) for not having cohesive demands - a top 10 list of what protestors want, what the issues are (you can see a sample of the range of issues at http://wearethe99percent.tumblr.com/). But that's a fundamental misunderstanding of the bigger picture. Because once you understand the economic story, you can interpret the Occupy movement as people being upset about the changes that are happening in the spheres that they're involved in. So if you're in education, you see what's happening in education, and you worry about it. If you're in health care, you see what's happening in health care, and you worry about it. If you're in the private sector, you see what's happening in corporations like yours, and you worry about it. If you're in the public sector, you see what's happening there, and you worry about it. So people look like they're protesting unrelated things, but these issues are actually very closely related. They're all components of what changes as the economic story spreads into these different systems.)
In terms of the next story, we're always evolving, but evolution tends to only become recognizable over long time periods. Dominant stories in a certain era last maybe a century or two, and we're only about 40 years into the economic story.
That being said, I believe other stories are absolutely possible, and that the seeds of other stories are still in play. But they're buried, and you have to look hard to find them. Mostly you have to understand exactly what it is you're looking for, in the same way that once you understand exactly what the economic story is, you can see it everywhere. That's something I'd like to write about in the future: what those alternate stories are and how they're playing out around us in hidden ways. What all those seeds will grow into as they mature is a huge question. It's hard to see. Imagine looking at a seed and knowing that inside that little thing is a six-foot tomato plant, or an oak tree. You never know. Seeds surprise you."
Elke Lahousse is a journalist, currently living in London. She works for Knack Weekend, the leading lifestyle magazine in Belgium. She introduced Project In-Between for The School of Life, read the previous posts here, here, and here,
Follow F.S. Michaels' blog at: www.fsmichaels.com