A Book Review
‘Monoculture: How One Story Is Changing Everything’
by F.S. Michaels
Red Clover Books (2011)
Accessible yet jarring, F.S. Michaels’s Monoculture captures and lays bare the organizing narrative of our time, what she calls the “economic story”. The book even reads like a story, speaking directly to the reader and describing the various aspects of her life — work, nature, personal relationships, and self-care — in clean, flowing language but also through an eerie but clarifying lens. Particularly in the beginning of the book, the tone is so gentle as to belie Michaels’s dissatisfaction and cynicism toward our current culture.
By “story”, Michaels means the set of ideas that dominate a given culture, the particular language and logic shaping how we define and relate to ourselves and each other, our work, and our natural world. A story is dominant, she says, when the members of a given culture tacitly submit to its basic tenets and begin to live by the values and reasoning they offer. “A monoculture”, Michaels writes, “doesn’t mean that everyone believes exactly the same thing or acts in exactly the same way, but that we end up sharing beliefs and assumptions that direct our lives.”
Michaels consistently returns to the idea that we are at best vaguely aware of and certainly not focused on our compliance and participation in the economic story: “We somehow come to know how the master story goes, though no one tells us exactly what the story is or what its rules are. We develop a strong sense of what’s expected of us at work, and in our families and communities – even if we sometimes choose not to meet those expectations.” As Michaels moves through her description of the current monoculture, it becomes clear she cares more to awaken and equip her reader with tools of creativity and resistance than she does to submit a theory of political ontology: “Once you know what the monoculture looks like, you can decide whether it serves a useful purpose in your life, or whether you can transcend it and live in a wider spectrum of human values instead – to know it so you can leave it behind.”
The constitutional assumptions of the economic story are (1) you are an individual, (2) you are rational, and (3) you are self-interested. Michaels acknowledges that “[b]eing cast as someone who is rational and self-interested might sound relatively harmless, but that way of thinking has implications because it’s based on the assumptions that you know what condition you’re in, you know what your options are, and you know what you want, but those assumptions don’t necessarily hold.” She refers to economist Tibor Scitovsky who likened making certain decisions to “being handed a long menu in a Chinese restaurant. Given all those dishes to choose from, the economic story says you know what pleases you most and so you’re going to order what you really want … But Scitovsky says most of us don’t understand ninety percent of what’s on the menu and so we end up ordering the same thing we always do, or order something new and maybe don’t prefer it at all.”
Perhaps because I am a “millennial”, Michaels’s observation that from every angle we are told to make ourselves more marketable and to network constantly in order to improve our economic prospects was especially poignant. Entrepreneurs are put on a pedestal and we are encouraged to emulate them; becoming an entrepreneur is often presented as the most admirable, exhilarating alternative to participating in the professional “rat race”. It is pitched, in a sense, as the most “rational” thing to do since the archetypal entrepreneur works tirelessly for 90+ hours a week doing something she loves, obsesses over even, and in doing so she just happens to make a ton of money doing it; the life of a young, successful entrepreneur is among the most coveted by (certain classes/groups of) millennials. Michaels writes:
In the economic story you’re to think and act like an entrepreneur … If you’re an entrepreneur or acting entrepreneurially, you are increasing productivity and profits and adding value wherever you go. You’re also someone who can never get enough. Your wants are unlimited and you’re motivated to try to satisfy those unlimited wants even though you’ll never be able to. Because you can’t get enough of what you really want, you’re driven by only one thing: the desire for satisfaction.
Michaels refers often to one of the fundamental, organizing “problems” of economics — scarcity; the idea that “there isn’t enough of anything to go around” because “everyone has unlimited wants.” The market, based on people’s wants and what they are willing to pay to satisfy them, sets the price of any goods or services and “there ends up being a natural match between what sellers offer and what buyers want.” And indeed, Michaels says, in the economic story your financial troubles can be nothing but the fault of “the market”: “If you end up suffering in the world of markets because prices are too high for you to buy, or too low for you to make a living off of what you sell, there’s nobody to blame but the market, which after all, isn’t trying to punish you personally.” An economist might bristle at her intimation that a solution might be with the “giant retailers and multinational energy companies and global technology firms” who “are all big enough and powerful enough to influence prices and wages”; her point is not necessarily that some sort of humanitarian-commercial macroeconomic policy is the answer to the woes of the economic story though. It is more an observation that through the economic story we have come to regard such artificial measures as price-fixing and minimum wages with near horror, no matter to what end they are taken, because they would devastate the integrity of “the market” and its elegant, natural efficiency.
Monoculture is thoroughly researched, citing numerous studies and articles that give thrust to her account of the economic story. Michaels delves into the decreased time spent with family due to the need to work; the peculiar way in which corporations approach “social responsibility”; the priority publishing takes over research in academics; the markets for things like religion, sex, political office, homicide, even love and friendship; the increase in the number of hours the average American works in a week. In her characterization of the monoculture, however, Michaels does not identify a specific event or series of events as “causing” the economic story’s ascent to power; she is instead precise in defining its voice, making it easy to recognize it all around us which also enables us to resist it. Still, in reading the book one suffers a growing eagerness to find out “How and why did this happen? What should we do about this? How can we escape? How, exactly, did previous generations break through their cultures’ dominant stories and learn to live more freely and truly?” and also “Who is orchestrating this whole thing? Whose interest does the economic story serve, and who has the strongest interest in keeping it alive? What might the next story be?”
As far as who is running the show, who is behind and benefiting from the way things are, it is not entirely clear, and Michaels does not name any names; indeed, like always, we lack complete information. With billions upon billions of tax dollars going to various bailouts, farm subsidies, and wars that give ordinary taxpayers no tangible return (not to mention the meager support given to so many veterans who actually fought these wars), it is difficult to fathom that those orchestrating such efforts are looking out for anybody other than Number One; however, looking out for yourself to the exclusion of others by using whatever power you have is simply acting “rationally”. Like many key groups in the food industry, the National Pork Producers Council uses the language of the economic story to bolster its claim to farm subsidies, arguing that more people can eat meat for less money as a result of confined animal feeding operations (CAFOS); this argument sidesteps the mounting evidence of health risks and the consequent recalls that result from these food production methods, and blatantly ignores the economically incalculable consequences of animal cruelty. Looking at the communications industry, Rupert Murdoch has flat-out admitted that via Fox News he attempted to shape the Iraq War agenda, which would have been essentially to control the allocation of part of the defense budget; to precisely what end is not clear, but one does not get the sense it was “for the good of the American or Iraqi people”.
Reading “Monoculture”, one gets the sense that “we’ve seen this movie before”. The call to see ourselves, our natural world, and each other in terms that transcend cost-benefit analysis or monetary valuation is not new; not only can we plainly understand that since we almost always lack complete information we are incapable of making the best choices, self-interested or not; there still exist voices reminding us of the option to live by different, more communal values, or to simply stop calculating everything in our lives and daily interactions, and instead work to enrich our lives by standards other than net worth. Even though Michaels does not put forth a specific political philosophy of her own, her message has socialist overtones, which may stem directly from what appears to be the book’s central task of dismantling the economic story — essentially the cultural worship of capitalism, not capitalism itself — in favor of alternative ways of living, of values other than efficiency.
So, what to do besides “vote with your dollar”? Michaels delivers in her examples of counter-stories, “parallel structures” she calls them, a term coined by the Czechoslovakian playwright Václav Havel. Paraphrasing Havel, Michaels says that parallel structures “are about the daily human struggle to live in freedom, truth, and dignity … [they] give you room to live a different kind of life and grow from the needs of real people, bubbling up from below instead of being mandated from above, and developing organically.” In the economic story, parallel structures are ways of living and thinking that do not adhere to or use the individualistic, calculating, monetizing logic of the economic story, and whose core values simply do not include economic efficiency.
Michaels provides edifying and interesting accounts of the Slow Food Movement (an approach to food that values the sensual experience of producing, preparing, cooking, and eating food), Christopher Alexander’s pattern language (an approach to architecture that prioritizes geographical context and human needs), and Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication (an approach to interpersonal communication that values the peaceful exchange of information, leading to better outcomes); Michaels puts the present monoculture into the sharpest relief by contrasting it to these parallel structures.
Perhaps to maintain its colloquial flow (and its friendly length) and for it to remain, Monoculture does not detail the relationships between the current “economic story” and the religious and scientific stories. As Foucault said of his own work, Michaels’s story serves as a “toolbox” of resistance and creativity to its readers; it does not explicitly explore the way that the economic story emerged from the scientific story preceding it, but it certainly leaves clues.
An example may be the economist’s use of the term “rational”, such that economists use the term differently from how it is used in math and logic and even in everyday language. The psychological dimension of the economist’s use of the word “rational” is arguably new, and ultimately this new definition only begs the question; it presumes an agent’s rationality from the outset. Today in the “economic story” we say an agent’s choice to buy and smoke cigarettes is rational because the agent gets more pleasure from the pleasure of smoking than pain from the health problems it causes or how much the pack costs. But we only call this “rational” in today’s context because whatever the agent chooses is always rational because the agent must have conducted an optimizing, cost-benefit analysis simply by making the decision. The same circular logic holds for any type of decision, of course. The term “rational agent” is a tautology unique to the economic story because in economics, it is assumed that an agent will always make an optimal decision and is therefore rational.
Michaels identifies economic concepts and discourse as the context in and by which we understand ourselves; according to the economic story, we are individual, hyper-rational, self-interested agents whose only responsibility is to ourselves; the story excludes other valid contexts and value systems — community, nature, family — in human life that literally get discounted by the economic story. She is not primarily interested in how “true” or “accurate” the economic story is, though it’s clear that she believes it is essentially a fabrication that obscures our true, nuanced selves that live in a world far more complex and multifaceted than what the economic story describes.
At best the economic story captures a sliver of the human experience, yet it enjoys such pervasiveness and powerful control over our understanding of ourselves that it shrouds and dismisses alternative ways of thinking (and thus, living); what we believe in the economic story, her thesis goes, affects how we relate to and therefore behave toward ourselves, others, and the natural world. She isn’t criticizing the economic story directly for being “wrong”, but rather for being destructive by inflating a small piece of human life and calling it the whole picture: “The human experience is always wider and deeper than a single narrative, and over time, we become hungry for something the monoculture isn’t speaking to and isn’t giving us – can’t give us”. Michaels effectively peels away the economic story to get at the undercurrent of resistance and questioning she knows exists in her reader, placing upon you a new, healthy, and exciting pressure to live by values you can call your own.
Jackie Colvin is a staff writer for The Leftist Review. She is also a freelance writer and lives in Chicago.