Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Group of 20 and the Mythology of the Market

A Modern Creation Myth

In the beginning, there was chaos and darkness and scarcity, and this disorder was called the State of Nature. And man lived in the State of Nature as a savage beast, constantly fearing for his life lest another come along and kill him for his possessions, for man had no way to relate to and communicate with his fellows. But such chaos was unbearable, and so eventually the State of Nature gave birth to Social Contracts, and these children of Nature grew strong and powerful enough to rein in the chaos and destruction of their mother. And the most powerful of these Contracts was the Market, and he was their ruler and king.

Now, the Market brought gifts to struggling, destitute man: the gift of order and security, the gift of relationship to his fellows through the exchange of goods and services. Man no longer needed to fear his neighbor's killing blow, for instead each could barter and bargain for what he needed in sacred rituals the Market had designed. In return, man offered the Market nonperishable votives, and these became relics preserved and hoarded through time, beautiful though useless objects like shells, gold and printed paper. And the Market imbued these with value and meaning, so that they too could be traded in exchange for goods and services, or could be saved up against times of scarcity and hunger.

And this is the story of the beginning of man's worship of the Market, king of the Social Contracts, children of the State of Nature, who subdued and brought order to the world.

Last year around this time, you may remember, we were undergoing some pretty startling economic ups and downs (mostly downs). This year, the Group of 20 comes to the city of Pittsburgh to discuss the current economic crisis that, although slowly stabilizing in the U.S. and other rich countries, continues to plague poverty-stricken nations the world over, making it likely that by 2010 there will be 89 million more people living in extreme poverty. The World Bank has prepared a paper on this data to present to the G20 this week, urging the political leaders of the wealthiest nations to consider taking further stimulus measures to prevent the worst of this forecasted slip into desperation, starvation and poverty for a large chunk of the global population.

"Outside my city is bracing for the next killing thing..." That line from an Ani DiFranco song plays over and over in my mind as I watch the cops patrolling the streets on intimidating, revved-up motorcycles, and the locals grumbling about protesters camping in public parks and blocking up roads. Rumor has it downtown is almost completely boarded up for fear of the disruption angry mobs might cause, and they'll be closing the bridges on Thursday. In a city whose very heart lies at the point where three rivers meet, the idea that we might not be able to cross the water feels like the severing of a limb, slashing the city into pieces. Amongst all this hype and inconvenience is the pride and gratitude Pittsburghers are told and expected to feel at their city having been chosen; millions of dollars have already been spent not only on increased security measures, but on city beautification projects, patching up roads and planting more trees where tourists and visitors might see them. The front page of the local paper features some story about the coming G20 Summit almost every day of the week. Last week was an article noting almost casually an incident during the G20 Summit in London, in which the police beat a man to death during a protest rally.

And yet, to hear the casual conversation of ordinary people around here, you would think there were no larger implications of the "Group of 20" meeting in our city than inconvenient business closings and dangerous "anti-authoritarians" (alternately read: teenagers freed early after a half-day of school) roaming the streets making trouble. If a respected science-fiction author were to write a dystopian novel about a future in which an elite group of select men in power converged on a city to revel in its local color while debating the fate of the impoverished and disenfranchised of the world, readers would shake their heads wisely and think how lucky they were not to live in such a society. Yet today, in my city, the very notion that there is something odd or unjust about the existence of the G20 — their presumption to the kind of power they take for granted let alone the exercise of that power for the benefit of the "little people" — doesn't even come up. All the righteous anger and talk of justice is reserved for the out-of-town protesters clogging up the works, preventing good honest folk from getting to their jobs and earning a living.

Perhaps it is merely coincidence, or perhaps a more vital synchronicity, that just as these concerns are overtaking my city and churning in my own mind (right around a holy festival of harvest and balance, as well as the soon-prevailing dark), Hrafnkell Haraldsson, over at A Heathen's Day, writes on the importance of mythology. Yet while Hrafnkell suggests that one problem with modern society is that we lack a coherent mythology of our own and have grown dismissive of and deaf to the value of the old myths, I do not believe that this precisely true. In fact, I would argue that we moderns have not lost myth at all, but are so deeply entrenched in our own that we do not recognize it as such. Although the mythology of our times incorporates and synthesizes almost every major aspect of individual and social life — as all healthy, relevant living mythologies do — its prevailing theme can be described as the Mythology of the Market.

This mythology is so pervasive, we take it to be a fundamental truth. It is a coherent story about who we are, how we fit together (that is, how we "sustain collective unity") and how we should live. Even during times of economic crisis, for instance, the myth of the Market is not questioned but only reinforced: we're urged to more faithful trust in the Market, which will restore prosperity if the appropriate ritual acts are observed (including believing the economy will stabilize, the necessity of consumer confidence). This mythology has its own rituals (working that nine-to-five job as a necessity for security as well as meaningful self-identity and respected social standing) and institutions (the Stock Exchange and the financial sector as a whole) and holy days (Black Friday and the entirety of the Christmas shopping season, President's Day sales, Back-to-School sales, etc.). This mythology is so ubiquitous that even socio-cultural events that have nothing to do with economics are viewed primarily in those terms. In response to 9/11 we were told by political and cultural leaders that the most important thing we could do as a community was not pray, or grieve, or make art — but shop. The debate over universal health care centers on the effect it will have on the Market and whether or not the Market will support it, and not the common sense concern for the health and well-being of citizens. My mother, an intelligent woman by any standard, once told me that the "best way to stay healthy is to have health insurance" — as though paying someone else money was far more effective than, say, good hygiene, a healthy diet, regular exercise and proper rest.

And yet, if you ask most people today, they could not identify this as a mythological worldview even after prompting. They do not see the Market and all its rituals merely as a useful allegory for guiding behavior and shaping relationships — they believe it is real, with a solidity that rivals and sometimes even surpasses the monotheistic God of the Judeo-Christian mainstream. In a way, they're not wrong: the Market is real, insofar as it has measurable effects on society as an agreed-upon social construct. How people view and interact with the Market through rituals of employment, investment and consumerism quite often shapes their individual lives in obvious ways, and these effects are taken as confirmation of the Market's reality and meaningfulness. Even the economists and political pundits who speak about the Market in abstracted metaphorical terms and treat it primarily as an allegorical device still live as though these metaphors were literally true, investing a vital importance in how we think about and relate to the economy as a real thing, perhaps the realest thing in our shared social existence.

This in part explains why the people in my city do not even question the existence of a "Group of 20" or its role in shaping and responding to a global economic market. If the Market takes on the role of deity within our modern mythological framework (hardly avoidable, with its thriving stock of golden bull idols and votive offerings inscribed with devotions like "In God We Trust"), then the necessity of prophets, priests, heros and heretics is no more jarring or unexpected than it would be in any other mythology. Amusingly, the nature of our modern worldview as a mythology is best brought into stark relief when it is directly compared with already widely-acknowledged mythologies like those of the ancient Greeks or Celts (though there is no need to prove, for instance, that the Celtic myths are indeed myths because they match up with Greek ones, we do not have such a clear perspective of our own).

(In my next post I'll explore some of the archetypes of Market Mythology and how these relate back to the inefficacy of protesters at the G20. I would include it here, but this post has already started to reach an unreasonable length!)


  1. I'm looking forward to your post on market mythology. John Michael Greer is exploring the same theme on the Archdruid Report; it is well worth a read.

  2. Very insightful. So incredible how the past always touches the present and how it will certainly repeat itself in the future. One would think that men as a race, as a society, would look back and attempt to avoid his eternal mistakes. But then, one knows best, man is a creature of habit, so these mistakes will probably follow us around for a long long time. At least until we create new ones; new myths and new ways to define ourselves as a society.

  3. Anon.,

    Thanks for the recommendation. I hopped on over to check out his post on "Why Economists Fail" and he says some very insightful things. But I noticed that he doesn't really question the Mythology of the Market as I'm trying to get at it here.

    When I talk about the Mythology of the Market, I mean not that the Market behaves in this way or that way (or that some of its "prophets" (i.e. economists) are wrong while others are right), but that the very idea that the Market is one of the most, if not the most fundamental ways that human beings relate to each other is a mythology so prevalent that we don't even question it. Greer's post itself is actually an example of this: nowhere does he challenge the idea that concepts of social relationship, prosperity and security must be founded on a market economy of some kind. I suspect he, like most people, would say that this is so obvious it goes without saying and there's no point debating it. ;)

    And I'm not trying to argue about whether or not he would be right. I'm just pointing out that this is a clear indication that what we have here is a mythology, about the role that the Market plays in the world and the ways we can and must relate to it.

    I'll be interested to see his following post on what he calls the "metaphysics of money."

  4. Magaly, I think I can live with people's repeated mistakes... It's the inability to have some perspective on them that gets to me sometimes. ;)

  5. I had never thought about it that way. _Thank_you_.

  6. Indeed, the Market is a deity, a demon, an egregore. Those who worship the capitalist avatar speak of "the free rein of the market mechanism" while those who bow down before the Marxist avatar speak of "the dialectical forces of history", but they are two denominations of the same religion, and both advocate the subjection of man to economic powers.

  7. It was a tempest in a teapot, a royal pain in the ass, and to what end? Was anything accomplished other than shutting down a city of 311,000 people and its surrounding county by fear and military occupation?

  8. You might enjoy a rather strange science-fiction/fantasy/mythic-themes novel called TALES OF THE MALL MASTERS by David Gulbraa. His imagined Utopia (set in an alternate-universe version of California) follows a religion which-- as far as I understand it -- combines elements of Hellenic paganism with the worship of shopping. (The greatest temples are malls -- a day at the mall is one of that society's highest sacraments ((one of the other biggies is ritual love-making: often performed in the malls on the greatest holy days) -- and the high nobility consists of shopping-mall owners: the "mall masters" of the title.)

    You will find it interesting, disturbing, thought-provoking, or all three -- despite a turgid literary style, the author has (in this and his other works) a genius for novel backgrounds, unusual plot-twists, and interesting (sometimes gruesome) ethical and aesthetic conundrums.