Before we delve in, a quick note on what we’re looking for, and why.
What we’re dealing with here are complex adaptive systems – by which we mean systems made up of a huge number of diverse and autonomous parts which are interrelated, interdependent, linked through many dense interconnections and that behave as a unified whole.
At the highest level, the whole planet is a single complex adaptive system; it is, after all, one single biosphere. As we’re learning to our cost through climate change, what happens to one part of the planet – be that one species, the chemical balance of the oceans, or the a destruction of a regional rainforest – affects the whole.
Take it down a degree and there are multiple systems within the one mother-system. The global economy is one, within which there are nested hierarchies of national economies. Political systems are obviously inseparable from the economy, and they are both inseparable from the complex mass of forces that we refer to as ‘culture’.
To understand the behaviour of a complex system, we must understand its internal logic. The following two narratives help us do that. They aren’t the only ones we could have drawn on but they are directly applicable. Because they are very different, when looked at side by side they help reveal the shape and structure of the logic we are looking for.
It’s important to say at the outset that this is not about one story being in any simple way better than the other, let alone one being right and the other wrong. The point is that, by being able to contrast the two, we get a fuller understanding of the present moment than either could offer on its own.
The first narrative has been dubbed ‘Plato to NATO’ by the cultural theorist Kwame Anthony Appiah. It is the more popular of the two by far, and represents the mainstream perspective.
It boils down to a belief that there is such an organism as ‘Western culture’, with an unbroken lineage back to Plato and Athenian democracy. The West, in this narrative, is a static concept, largely unchanged over the centuries. Greece is part of the West now, so was obviously part of the West in ancient times, even if it was not called ‘the West’ back then.
The important point is that there is natural and inviolable cohesion, something that binds people of Europe together in a culture that began in what we now call Europe, reflects distinctively ‘European’ values, and has been generating its own culture, as if essentially independently, for 2500 years.
This culture spontaneously and independently gave us the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution and, eventually, capitalism; all gifts to the world. Not perfect gifts, necessarily, but gifts nonetheless. Something Europe, as a cultural entity, invented and then spread around the world via exploration, colonialism, imperialism and trade.
In this story, the nature of these ‘European’ systems slowly matured to the point where, by the 20th century, the whole world was adopting the European commitment to such liberal values as freedom, equality and the rule of law. Though they may be imperfect, and have some sharp edges that, mostly inadvertently, mean that some people benefit less than others, they are, in their essence, civilizing forces that have powered whatever global progress there has been since at least the 16th century.
The second narrative comes from a very different perspective. It is much less popular but speaks to a more foundational level of reality. We draw primarily on a specific North American First Nations concept, but similar logic can be found in many Indigenous cultures around the world.
Wetiko is an Algonquin word for a cannibalistic spirit – we might think of it as a thought-form or meme – that is driven by greed, excess and selfish consumption (in Obijwa it is windingo, in Powhatan it is wintiko). It deludes its host into believing that cannibalizing the life-force of others (others in the broad sense, including animals and the Gaia life-energy of the planet) in order to amass advantage for oneself is a logical, healthy and even morally upstanding way to live.
It short-circuits the individual’s ability to see itself as an enmeshed and interdependent part of a balanced environment and raises the self-serving ego to supremacy. This allows, indeed commands, the infected entity to consume anything and everything it can, far beyond what it needs, in a blind, murderous daze of self-aggrandizement.
Author Paul Levy, in an attempt to translate the concept into language accessible for Western audiences, has called it ‘malignant egophrenia’ – the ego unchained from reason and limits, acting with the malevolent logic of the cancer cell.
In his now classic book Columbus and Other Cannibals, Native American historian and scholar Jack D. Forbes describes how there was a commonly held belief among many Indigenous communities in North America that the European colonialists were so chronically and uniformly infected with wetiko that it must be a defining characteristic of the culture from which they came.
For Forbes, looking at the history of that culture, a conclusion was apparent: ‘Tragically, the history of the world for the past 2,000 years is, in great part, the story of the epidemiology of the wetiko disease’.
The point is that the epidemiology of wetiko culture has left clear tracks. And although it cannot be pathologized along geographic or racial lines, the cultural strain we know today, which undergirds modern consumer capitalism, certainly has many of its deepest roots in Europe.
It was, after all, European projects – from the Enlightenment to the Industrial Revolution, to colonialism, imperialism and slavery – that developed the technology that opened up the channels that facilitated the spread of the wetiko culture all around the world.
Thus, a wetiko culture (albeit not necessarily the first or only) was birthed in the Fertile Crescent, consolidated and matured in Europe, then carried to the so-called New World via the behaviour, signalling, conditioning, and language of European explorers and invaders.
From those early foundations, physical manifestations grew – the institutions, the art and literature, the architecture, schools, media, businesses and governments; all those systems, structures and practices that make up modern societies. In this way, we are all the heirs of wetiko colonialism.
We can describe the important differences between the two narratives thus:
- The ‘Plato to NATO’ narrative is primarily about what has happened; wetiko is about what has powered and guided what has happened.
- The ‘Plato to NATO’ story is linear and materialist. It defines progress in those terms, and only those terms. One event leads to the next in an unfolding story of ‘a-to-b’ consequences. Generally speaking, each age improves on the last, and material and technological advancement is, by definition, progress. The wetiko story, on the other hand, says that reality is more than the material world; progress is far from a simple question of material and technological development; and that one age following another does not mean progress has been made if essential principles are abandoned or trashed.
- ‘Plato to NATO’ separates human beings from nature and presumes we have not just the right but the duty to bend the natural world to our will. Wetiko says we are nature, and our cognitive and technological prowess means not that we have a right to dominate nature and extract all its value for our own aggrandizement, but that we have a responsibility to care for it and leave it in a better state than we found it. All the material and technological advances are for naught if the environment is destroyed; on their own they do not warrant the label ‘progress’.
- ‘Plato to NATO’ is Eurocentric. Its boundaries are geographic and, to a considerable degree, racial. This makes it feel easy and right to assume, today, that a largely unchanging group called ‘Europeans’ are the prime drivers of global progress.The wetiko story, because it is a history of a thought-form, moves across a much broader cross-cultural canvas, and traces back over a far longer time period. It identifies Europe as the community of people and nations that powered the spread of a wetiko culture around the world, but it makes no sense to say it is an inherently European thing, any more than it would make sense to say that, because it is a framing from North American First Nations that it is ‘their’ thought-form. It is more accurate to say that it vectored through Europe on its passage to where we are now – a global wetiko-ized culture. Looked at this way, Europe is less a source of progress than of plunder and destruction.
Is the modern capitalist system a civilizing gift Europeans have bestowed on the world? Or is it the host structure of the suicidal wetiko meme that is gradually consuming the planet?
The messy truth, of course, is that it can be both. Capitalism can have offered great benefits to some and have both exploited others and plundered the natural world to the point of where it is now on a near-suicidal course.
What’s important for our purposes, in this moment, is the ability to hold both in our minds, and be able to assess their relative influence on the global operating system.
In other words, how animating is wetiko logic, and how does it manifest and power the system? Where do we need to temper what might otherwise be a full-throated wetiko-critique with the truthful insights offered by ‘Plato to NATO’ perspective?
Only then will we have clear sight of where we need to target our activist firepower.
So let’s now turn our attention to a practical example of how the system manifests its internal logic: growth.