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Transforming Culture

Charles Posa McFadden and Karen Howell McFadden

 The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” - Audre Lorde

So long as capitalism dominates, there is no escaping its unrelenting assault on rational and humane cultural values and practices, most prominently today in the form of the consumerism purveyed in every media by commercial advertising. 

Even worse is the pervasive example of many of capitalism’s leading representatives, teaching through their demeanour and authoritarian delusions their commitment to hierarchical and exploitative order.   

And when all else fails, the ruling class casts up from its midst prominent reminders of the tendency of a cornered capitalist order towards fascism. History may not repeat itself, but it most certainly rhymes. Once again, humanity faces the challenge of defeating fascism in its contemporary form (neofascism), lest it take humanity past the threshold between civilization and barbarism.  

An even greater challenge may be recognizing the more subtle purveyance of capitalist values through commercial dominance of popular culture, a dumbing down of more complex reality, a  fascination with technology divorced from its use (currently exemplified by an obsession with trivial use of texting and twittering), a loss of time for reflection (a panacea for rapid thinking and speaking as an alternative to more careful reflection), a continuing emphasis on possessive individualism (exemplified by a preoccupation with the projection of everybody as a star, creating a culture of selective humanity), self-absorption, and the misrepresentation of modest concessions of capitalism to essential humanism as a serious progressive accomplishment.

All the while, capitalism remains the culture of the isms – racism, sexism, chauvinism, nativism, militarism - reproducing the exploitative, alienating, private property essence of the system by thriving on paranoia of the other (“the enemy”).

In our view:

If capitalist culture is overtly hyper-masculine with more than a tinge of misogyny, the emergent culture of an ecologically sustainable society is feminist, with an emphasis on caring.

If the emphasis within capitalist culture is on competition, with selfishness as a core value, the emphasis within the emergent culture is on cooperation, with altruism as an honored behavior.

If money is the measure of everything within capitalist culture, the utility and beauty of human artefacts, the generosity and friendship of people and the diversity and health of nature are among the more prominent measures of value within the emergent culture. 

If capitalism extols nationalism and individualism, the ecologically sustainable alternative values generosity and human solidarity.

Culture as experienced

For the purposes of this introduction to the cultural changes that might be expected to accompany and therefore signal the transition from a predominantly capitalist society to an ecologically sustainable one, authoritarian beliefs and behavior can serve as a marker.  Authoritarian beliefs and behavior are clearly not the only cultural baggage of a hierarchical class society but the shedding of such beliefs and behavior would self-evidently be a marker of the transition to an ecologically sustainable society.   

Authoritarian beliefs and behavior can begin quite innocently enough. As children we were often simply expected to behave. “Don’t play with the matches!” “Stay away from the burner!” “Don’t talk with strangers!”  If we acted accordingly, we probably survived to reach adulthood.   

In school, we were likely successful if we accepted as truth whatever our teachers told us was true, particularly when the information was tagged with the warning that it would be on the test.  If our physics teacher told us that F = ma and if we were able to replace two of the letters in this algebraic equation with the numerical values given us, it is probable that we got the right result often enough to pass the course.  

At our first job, if we did as we were told, we probably stayed on for a while, and may have received our employer’s recommendation for our next job. In most cases, we accepted the authority of our parents, teachers and employers. As parents, teachers and employees ourselves, we have likely compared our actions to those of people we admire or at least accept as authorities and probably, more often than not - if we are honest with ourselves about this – we have imitated them, probably without much thought.    

Knowing that we are professional researchers and teachers and supposing that we might prefer to apply research habits and standards to medical practice, our family doctor advised one of us that in treating a large number of patients within rationed amounts of time, he had to rely on his ability to memorize and recall solutions. There was simply insufficient time for careful, methodical research into each patient’s situation.

There are occasions when safe, positive outcomes depend on such respect for authority. But when confronted with new, complex situations, exclusive reliance on our memory of the behavior and words of those we have come to accept as authorities may not take us out of peril.  In such situations - and in real life these situations occur frequently enough - we need those human capacities that are sacrificed in a social environment that has stressed authority and obedience. We need the ability to consider the objective facts of the situation, to apply scientific theory and appropriate ethical standards to fashion a solution or a course of action.  

Application of scientific theory and appropriate ethical standards requires conceptual understanding and deep personal conviction, respectively. These are not acquired by memorization and imitation or in response to commands. Only when we understand a scientific theory and have reasoned conviction in an ethical standard are we likely to apply them in novel situations. Otherwise, more conventional concepts and standards - however necessary and helpful these have been in other circumstances – might in the new circumstance act as a barrier to successful problem-solving.   

In the face of the scientific evidence of climate change and the environmental harm this is causing, to what do we ascribe the delay in taking essential, scientifically, technologically and economically feasible action to slow down, if not reverse, this potentially species-ending phenomenon?  Has it been a lack of availability of scientific knowledge and technological know-how?  Lack of appropriate ethical standards?  

In addition to the inertia of for-profit industries wedded to the production of greenhouse gases, our contention is that a cultural wall exists between appropriate science and ethics on the one side and our operative understanding and convictions on the other. This wall is the cultural barrier constructed to rationalize conservative behavior even in the face of catastrophic levels of environmental degradation. Who has constructed this barrier? Certainly. the self-interest of those profiting from the fossil fuel industry has played a part. But it is likely that responsibility for denial and delay is more widely shared. In any event, only the collective global “we” can take this cultural barrier down, in the process constructing a new culture, one that is more environmentally conservative.    

Similar questions and responses could be advanced in relation to the aggressive expansion of income and wealth inequality in recent decades and the evidence of the resulting individual and societal harm this has caused. In this case, needed is a culture that is more socially communal.

Definitions of culture

Culture, as used in this article, means “the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution, organization or group.” It is used here exclusively in this sense and not in the hierarchical sense (as in the supposedly “high” culture claimed by the ruling elite versus the “low” culture of their subordinates nor the supposedly “civilized” culture of the predatory colonial powers versus the “uncivilized” culture of the resisting oppressed indigenous peoples and subordinate classes among the colonizers) nor in the anthropological sense (of the varied symbolic systems for representing experience of different human societies). For more complete definitions of the three basic senses in which the term culture is commonly used, see

Among the principal elements of a cultural alternative to that of contemporary capitalism are cultural affinity for and corresponding insistence on inclusive democratic decision-making at work and in the community, human solidarity, imagination, science, conservation of nature and education. Leadership in the struggle for an ecologically sustainable society necessarily comes from those who include these among their cultural norms and practices. The neoliberals with their moribund ideology have become the antagonists of each of these vital elements of a healthy human culture, practices we need if we are going to overcome the socioeconomic crises that the neoliberals have led us into.

Motivation for success in achieving each of these elements of a green social democratic culture is our need to express our diversity, to have our experience included in the discussion and activity which shapes the future. The systems of the 20thcentury did not accommodate this need.  Those of the 21st century must.   

A brief elaboration of these principal elements of a green social democratic (ecosocialist) culture is the objective of this argument.  

Generalizing from Eric Hobsbawm’s work, we can gain an historical perspective on culture:

- Feudal pre-capitalist society was characterized by a more authoritarian culture (hereditary authority including Church and feudal lord), primacy of husbands over wives, parents over children and associated culture.   

- Capitalist society is characterized by a transitional culture between authoritarian and democratic. Political systems can include limited electoral democracy. The nuclear family of pre-capitalist society is in capitalist society in transition to a family with greater gender equality and associated culture. This corresponds to a transition from a predominantly agricultural economy to a predominantly non-agricultural one, with associated cultural changes. 

Readers interested in a detailed account of the parallel development of culture and capitalism will find this in Eric Hobsbawm (Abacus Press/Little, Brown, 1962) The Age of Revolution: 1789-1848, (Abacus Press, 1975) The Age of Capital: 1848-1875, (Abacus Press, 1987) The Age of Empire: 1875-1914, and (Abacus Press, 1994) The Age of Extremes: 1914-1991.

In our article, Gaining Revolutionary Perspective, we identified a series of dichotomous social policy variables that were most frequently represented in the twentieth century as choices. In that essay we argued, instead, that social policy determination on these issues can achieve optimal solutions in the form of temporal reconciliation of the opposing human needs through democratic decision making, that in these cases, either/or choices do not present optimal solutions. Included were competition versus cooperation, centralization versus decentralization, globalization versus localization, homogenization versus diversity, exploitation versus conservation of nature and validity versus reliability in measuring outcomes. This theoretical perspective can be applied to the development of transition policy in moving from the dominance of capitalist economic relationships to the dominance of ecologically sustainable relationships between people and with the rest of nature. 

With respect to culture, matters stand differently. The choices are moral ones and should be contested in that sphere. One pole in each of several opposites represents green social democratic (ecosocialist) choices for culture. Our argument here is that we cannot achieve too much of one pole, nor too little of the other. Of the many dichotomous variables that might apply to culture, we single out for discussion here: nonviolence versus violence, science versus irrationality, imaginationversus dogmatism, and education versus ignorance.     

Historically, in relation to feudalism, capitalism paved the way for science, imagination and education to develop, but limits their development. The formal achievement of an ecologically sustainable (ecosocialist) society corresponds to the removal of legal impediments to their unlimited development, including removal of the legal right to use economic power to influence decision-making, removal of the right of unrestricted use of property, removal of the legal right to substitute religious education for scientific education, removal of laws restricting freedom of thought and expression, removal of laws that create barriers to cooperation, and removal of legal obstacles to educational access at any level.

Achieving a society in which these elements are characteristic will necessarily be a process, not an event. It includes making these the distinguishing characteristics of those working towards an ecologically sustainable society. That is, as Tolstoy claimed to be true of all desired changes in human behavior, this change begins with ourselves. Such self-development occurs in the process of our engagement in making these the cultural practices of the society we participate in constructing. Cultural changes take place in the process of the struggle.

Perpetual war and the culture of war or an alternative course?

The main obstacle to achieving an ecologically sustainable global community is war and the culture associated with war, a reality understood by autocrats world-wide. War and preparation for war means military organization and psychology (hierarchy, autocracy, dictatorship, authoritarianism). It favors obedience, conformity, secrecy, and blind loyalty. It provides cover for chauvinism, racism, jingoism, xenophobia, and sociopathic behavior, particularly, but not exclusively, in relation to the “enemy”. It also means wastefulness in the extreme. In other words, it means destruction of people and nature and puts up barriers to science, education, imagination, solidarity, and democracy.

A culture exemplified by fear of the “enemy” greases the wheels of war-profiteering, enhancing the super-profits to be made by the defense and security industries when the public can be persuaded to squander natural and human resources on preparations for war, making war and addressing the consequences of prior wars. War and war preparations beget more war and more war preparations, displacing the attention needed to address poverty, hunger, disease, inequality and environmental destruction and for a just, sustainable future, built on investments in education, healthy people, a healthy environment and global human solidarity.  

A peaceful alternative culture is enabled by a peace movement built upon a foundation of education, science, imagination, human solidarity and democracy. Such an alternative is enhanced as it becomes clear to the decisive majority in all regions of the world that further war-making carries a growing potential for the mutual destruction of the contending parties and an environmental certainty of reduced possibilities for our common future. 

Commercial advertising and consumerism as culture

Surplus value created in the process of capitalist production is only realized upon the sale of the goods and services produced. The profit motive, therefore, is the primary cause of consumerism as a disease, that is, consumption for the primary purpose of satisfying the capitalists’ need for realizing the profit it makes off labor, not for the primary purpose of satisfying the consumption needs of people. 

The monopoly capitalist practice of planned obsolescence of the products that must be sold for capitalist profits to be realized translates into the simultaneous production of an ever-expanding consumer culture and environmental devastation.

The primary weapon at the disposal of for-profit production and sales is the misapplication of the science of psychology. Instead of putting this science to the service of human health and well-being, it is employed through commercial advertising to divert people from satisfying their real needs. Contrary to the neo-liberal claim that the capitalist market serves to meet human needs, the domination within most sectors of that market by small numbers of supersized corporations has another result.  

Commercial advertising is used by them to falsely associate the satisfaction of real human needs with the purchase of the goods and services they need to sell. The disease of consumerism is the result. The cultural fight against consumerism, when directed against its lethal source in monopolistic capitalism, is an integral part the struggle for an ecologically sustainable society in a natural environment not only far less burdened by waste, but unburdened by the further production of waste that cannot be recycled, reused, repaired or stored without irreparable harm to the environment and human health.

Whereas today the power over our lives of for-profit corporations is everywhere evident by their virtually unfettered right to dominate and pollute our cultural landscape with their omnipresent, misleading for-profit advertising, the achievement of an ecological civilization will be most evident by the replacement of in-your-face advertising by scientifically validated information accessible, if people insist on this, only on request by the consumer, not by imposition of the advertiser. This will occur as consumer advocates bring for-profit advertising under stringent regulation, including the requirements that:

- an advertiser’s claims - explicit or implicit - be based on and include the best, relevant, available science needed by the consumer to make a rational decision in their own interest,

- the advertiser is fully liable for damage to the consumer that results from any message contained in the advertisement - explicit or implicit - that is misleading, incomplete or false, and 

- the producers of commercially available products are required by law to provide the information consumers need for a rational choice at point of sale.

Make science, art and information technology public!

Nothing better defines the boundary between the rule of capital and people power in an ecologically sustainable society than the ownership of ideas. On the one side, authoritarianism, secrecy, copyrights, patents, that is, private ownership of the products of science and imagination are the rule.  On the other, democracy and the free flow of ideas, including free access to information, knowledge, and education are the alternative.   

Only by the green social democratic (ecosocialist) route can the promise of the revolution in digital storage and communication technology be fully realized. Capitalism is incompatible with the revolution in information technology. Only an ecologically sustainable civilization can liberate humankind from the barriers placed by for-profit economic activity to the realization of the full promise of information technology. 

The need for an expanding role for creative cultural activity, including work in the arts, sciences and technology, can best be met on the scale required when the creators of intellectual products and services no longer need the protection of intellectual property rights in order to live and work as intellectuals. Only in this changed circumstance can all intellectual products and services be freely shared.  

The expansion of non-market activity in the transition to an ecologically sustainable civilization would open the door to unprecedented opportunities for intellectual activity, including creative work in the arts, sciences and technologies. With increasing free time and public support, the door would be open to every person to contribute and participate actively in the cultural and intellectual life of the community.  

In the transition to an ecologically sustainable civilization, the enormous amount of human intellectual talent and associated material resources wasted in the capitalist market place on false advertising and other intellectual means of propping up a private-for-profit system becomes available for intellectual activity in the service of a culturally rich and environmentally sustainable society. Governments from the local community level to the national one would have the political and economic power to re-allocate these resources to support for voluntary cultural activity in the expanding non-market sector and paid activity in the market sector. Cultural activity could then be as diverse and rich as the decision-making process is democratic and healthy.     

A green social democratic society could thus give to everyone with sufficiently strong motivation and ability what a class divided society provides primarily to its wealthier members:  the opportunity to work as creative scientists, artists, writers, technologists and inventors.   

Parenthetically, a further comment on so-called “intellectual property rights”, corresponding to capitalism, may be in order here. Contrary to a popular misconception, the main beneficiaries of such “rights” are usually not the average intellectual engaged in creating intellectual products.  Like other workers, most intellectual workers are obliged to give their work to their employer as a condition of employment. But not all intellectuals, of course. Some work at least for part of their time as free-lance creators of intellectual products, often supported by other forms of employment, frequently teaching. In the same way that many small businesses work as suppliers of services and physical goods to larger corporations, many free-lance intellectuals supply intellectual products to these corporations. 

The principal financial beneficiaries are usually those with the capital to employ the intellectual products, and not the independent intellectuals who create and may nominally hold or share the copyrighted and patented intellectual work. The supplying intellectuals, just like many small businesses, generally provide their products at a cost that is cheaper than the cost of their direct employment by the corporations that capitalize on the products of their intellectual labor. In essence, free-lance intellectuals, like many small businesses, function as employees, not as capitalists, intellectual property rights notwithstanding.  

Concurrent economic and cultural revolutions

The defining economic and cultural characteristics of an ecologically sustainable civilization are essential to each other, that is, together they define a qualitatively distinct form of society. As such, each becomes a reasonably full and stable characteristic of the society when the others are also achieved. A corollary is that none of the essential economic or cultural characteristics of an ecologically sustainable civilization can be fully and securely achieved in isolation from each other and so long as a capitalist market economy remains dominant.   

An ecologically sustainable society, as we have argued in prior articles, would necessarily be characterized by a non-market economy. Its achievement, however, is likely to take the time needed for a mutually supporting economic and cultural revolution. 

In the process of transition, all economic units would be obliged to report and carry out the will of the people’s popular assemblies. The achievement of rule by these assemblies would mark the transition from dominance by a capitalist market economy to dominance by an ecologically sustainable non-market economy. During this transition period all economic units, whether participating in the remaining market economy or in the non-market economy based on reciprocity and sharing, would be responsible to the people’s assemblies for carrying out their policy decisions, right up to the complete replacement of market activity by non-market activity if that is what the people decide. 

The characteristics of this revolutionary transition period would thus necessarily include:    

  • economic and social policy established by democratically formed governing bodies, in a bottom-up form of democracy in which the highest authority would be the community in which a given economic unit is located or is licensed to operate; 
  • conflict of interest legislation that would prohibit privately owned economic units, including their owners and managers, from participation and influence over democratic decision-making, reserving that right to the individuals who comprise the community, one-person-one-voice-and-vote, with violations punishable by loss of the continuing right to own or manage capital and with financial liability for any resulting harm; and 
  • the limitation of stewardship of resources – private or public - to optimal scale through the right of communal government to require the break-up of privately or publicly owned economic units or the merger of two or more such units in order to achieve an optimum combination of maximum social benefit and minimum waste of human and natural resources.    

In our next article we will consider further several of the major elements of a green social democratic (ecosocialist) culture and their relationships to one another.

Charles Posa McFadden and Karen Howell McFadden

Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada