The monoculture and addiction

The range of what we think and do is limited by what we fail to notice.

And because we fail to notice that we fail to notice, there is little we can do to change;

until we notice how failing to notice shapes our thoughts and deeds.

—R. D. Laing 

monocultureI just started reading Monoculture by F. S. Michaels and I think it offers a lot of insight into how addiction is understood and responded to in contemporary society.

The premise of the book is that every era is dominated by a monoculture:

The governing pattern a culture obeys is a master story– one narrative in society that takes over the others, shrinking diversity and forming a monoculture. When you’re inside a master story at a particular time in history, you tend to accept its definition of reality. You unconsciously believe and act on certain things, and disbelieve and fail to act on other things. That’s the power of the monoculture; it’s able to direct us without us knowing too much about it.

Over time, the monoculture evolves into a nearly invisible foundation that structures and shapes our lives, giving us our sense of how the world works. It shapes our ideas about what’s normal and what we can expect from life. It channels our lives in a certain direction, setting out strict boundaries that we unconsciously learn to live inside. …if we fail to understand how the monoculture shapes our lives and our world, we’re at risk of making decisions day after day without ever really understanding how our choices are being predetermined, without understanding how the monoculture even shapes what we think our options are.

Monocultures and their master stories rise and fall with the times. By the seventeenth century, for example, the master story revolved around science, machines and mathematics. … Life was understood as a series of questions with knowable answers, and the world became methodical and precise. A scientific monoculture was created.

That scientific monoculture was radically different from the religious monoculture that preceded it. If you had lived in sixteenth century Europe, a hundred years earlier, you would almost certainly have understood your life through the master story of religion and superstition.

She goes on to argue that our current monoculture is economic. She summarizes the characteristics of the monocuture as follows:

To begin with, in the economic story, you are an individual.

The economic story also says that as a human being, you’re rational. In economic thought, being rational doesn’t mean that you’re sensible or that you’re a clear thinker. Being rational means that when you’re faced with a decision, you move through a three-stage process to decide what to do. Assuming you know what your goals are, you first lay out all the ways you could reach each goal and identify the costs and benefits of each possibility. Next, you analyze which option is most efficient — the one that most directly lets you get the most of what you want while costing you the least of your resources. Finally, you choose that most efficient option, because in the economic story, your best choice is always the most efficient choice.

In the economic story, you’re someone who is self-interested, in the most positive sense possible.

Being 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. … The story says that you act as you do because you’re trying to get what you want, and the rest of us can tell what you want by watching how you act.

In the economic story, you’re to think and act like an entrepreneur. Jean-Baptiste Say, a French economist credited with coming up with the term entrepreneur, said entrepreneurs are people who shift resources from one place to another to create higher productivity and greater yield.

Since everyone has unlimited wants just like you, there isn’t enough of anything to go around. Resources, in other words, are scarce.

In addition, points out that keep some things outside of markets, like “sex, reproductive services, human organs, political office, prizes and honors, love and friendship, drugs, and homicide.”

So…what does this mean for addiction?

First, it explains the growing prominence of behavior economists in shaping our thinking an research on addiction.  Rational addiction theory, anyone?

The emphasis on rationality helps explain our cultural aversion accepting that addiction is characterized by a loss of control.

The emphasis on individuality helps explain our cultural aversion to a recovery solution that is free, relational and demands interdependence.

The assumption that we can know a person’s wishes by their free, rational choices helps explain some of the complacency to addicts drug use—”It’s what they want.” If they want it and we’re all free, rational individuals, who are we to interfere? Maybe we should just accept it and limit the damage.

The emphases on self-interest and scarcity reinforces zero-sum thinking about how to respond to the needs of addicts. Further, this emphasis on self-interest also suggests that the most important yardstick for various responses to addiction is the economic impact on the rest of us.

It also explains the assumption that poor circumstances are understood with some variation on the idea that you are poor entrepreneur in pursuing your own interests.

His inclusion of the idea that we keep certain things out of markets also helped frame the fact that, when there are problems in those areas, our solution seems to be to create, allow or deregulate a market for it. This has been true for organ donations, sex, reproductive services and, even, political office. Drugs are not alone in this respect.

Now, this isn’t to say there there is no truth in the beliefs and actions that flow from this economic narrative, but the pervasiveness and dominance of this narrative has a totalitarian effect on our thinking and action.

8 thoughts on “The monoculture and addiction

  1. Hi Jason,
    Thanks for this post. It’s always neat to learn how people experience the economic story in their own field, and it looks like your analysis re. the economic story and addiction & recovery is spot on. Very interesting. All the best for your work in 2012 –


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