Those Who Control the stories that define the culture of a society control its politics and its economy. This truth is crucial to explaining how a small cabal of right-wing extremists was able to render the democratic safeguards of the U.S. political system ineffective and gain control of the governing institutions of the nation. It is also crucial to framing a strategy for advancing the Great Turning.
The leaders of the New Right view the world from the perspective of an Imperial Consciousness that holds elite rule to be the only viable option for maintaining social order. To build their political base they set about to frame the larger stories that would legitimate this worldview in the public mind and bind the political debate to their interests.
Thus, the true believers of the New Right gained power not by their numbers, which are relatively small, but by their ability to control the stories that answer three basic questions: How do we prosper? How do we maintain order and keep ourselves secure? How do we find a sense of meaning and purpose in life? We might call these our prosperity, security, and meaning stories. The New Right has carefully honed and incessantly retold imperial versions of these stories to legitimate, even celebrate, the ordering of society by hierarchies of domination.
Given the long history of elite rule in the United States and other Western democracies, many elements of the stories they needed were already familiar within the culture, as they are but variations of the stories imperial rulers have relied upon for millennia to legitimate injustice. The leaders of the New Right only needed to organize them into simple messages and recruit sympathetic scholars, preachers, politicians, media personalities, and think tank pundits to repeat them constantly through the megaphone of the corporate media. Together they created an echo chamber that embedded their stories in the culture and limited the boundaries of public discourse to a choice among policies that favor elite interests.
We hear these stories echoed so often in so many different contexts that we come simply to accept them as statements of reality. Their narratives become prisons of the mind that confine us to the lower orders of consciousness and possibility. To liberate ourselves we must first recognize these narratives for what they are.
IMPERIAL PROSPERITY STORY
By definition, imperial elites inhabit a world of power and privilege based largely on their ownership of the productive assets on which the lives of all depend. They understandably favor stories that affirm the importance and legitimate the privilege of the owning class.
These are the essential elements of the imperial prosperity story:
Economic growth, which expands the pie of wealth to create prosperity for all, depends on investment and therefore a wealthy investor class. The greater the financial returns to members of the investor class, the greater their incentive to invest. The more they invest, the faster the economy grows and the faster the lives of all improve. Since the market rewards individual investors in proportion to their contribution, inequality is natural, healthy, and essential to prosperity. Only the simpleminded or mean-spirited would begrudge the rich their due reward, because as the rich get richer, so does everyone else.
Through regulation, taxes, and trade barriers, government limits profits for investors and reduces their incentive to invest, raises prices for consumers, and destroys jobs-thus impoverishing the society. Through welfare programs, government eliminates the incentive for the poor to work-thus eroding the moral fabric.
In a free market capitalist economy, anyone can make it if they really try; individual failure is the mark of a character defect. Eliminating welfare programs to force the poor to work builds their character and brings them into the mainstream of society.
To achieve prosperity and end poverty, we must free the wealthy from taxes, regulations, and trade barriers; sell off public assets and services to private investors, who are by nature more efficient and responsive to consumer interests; and eliminate the disincentive of public welfare programs. The free market will put people to work, eliminate poverty, get money in people's pockets so they can make their own choices, create the wealth necessary to protect the environment, and provide people with better services at a cheaper price.
Global corporations are benevolent, efficient, public-spirited institutions with an unequaled capacity to find and exploit natural resources, drive technological innovation, open new markets, create employment, and maximize the efficient use of productive assets to meet human needs. The greater their freedom, the faster poverty is eliminated, the environment is restored, and the people of the world enjoy universal freedom, democracy, peace, and prosperity.
Global integration, market deregulation, and privatization are inexorable and beneficial historical forces that advance the wealth-creation process. Economic globalization is inevitable, there is no alternative, and resistance is futile. The winners will be those who adapt to the reality and take advantage of its opportunities. It is the beneficent mission of the Bretton Woods institutions-the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and World Trade Organization-to facilitate the orderly advancement of these processes. Only the misinformed or mean-spirited who would deny the poor their opportunity for a better life oppose these institutions and their sacred mission.
This story is commonly referred to as the Washington consensus, because it is propagated by the U.S. Treasury Department, the World Bank, the IMF, and various related think tanks, lobbyists, and contractors based in Washington, D.C. It is also known as economic liberalism, neoliberalism, and corporate libertarianism. Because advocates of the Washington consensus cling to their story with the blind faith of true believers in denial of all contrary evidence, international financier George Soros calls them "market fundamentalists."
Of the contemporary stories of Empire, the New Right prosperity story is the most often repeated and celebrated in policy papers and scholarly publications, taught in universities, and recited by pundits of the corporate media. Corporate globalists subscribe to it as their catechism. They differ among themselves mainly on their views of the extent to which it is appropriate for government to subsidize private corporations or to provide safety nets to cushion the fall of the losers in the market's relentless competition.
Neoliberal Elitism Economist Milton Friedman, the leader of the Chicago school of monetary economics, and technological futurist George Gilder played leading roles in legitimating and popularizing the neoliberal story. They were favorites of President Ronald Reagan (1981-89), who presented both with presidential awards.
Friedman's most influential work, Capitalism and Freedom, first published in 1962, argues that individual freedom is the inviolate moral absolute of economic life and that it is best secured through markets that guarantee the freedom of persons of wealth to use their money and property in whatever way they consider most beneficial to their individual interest. He is famous for his extraordinary assertion that it is immoral for any individual to sacrifice personal gain for a public interest. "It is easy to argue that he [the monopolist] should discharge his power not solely to further his own interests but to further socially desirable ends. Yet the widespread application of such a doctrine would destroy a free society."2 Friedman argues against any public intervention that would constrain the ability of private monopolies of capital to maximize private financial gain. There is only one form of private monopoly that in Friedman's view constitutes a threat to freedom— a monopoly created by a labor union to raise the wages of working people.3
In his most influential work, Wealth and Poverty, originally published in 1981 at the beginning of Reagan's tenure, Gilder is explicit in his view that the direction of influence in setting political and economic priorities properly flows from the top down. He dismisses any demand that might flow upward from "mass sentiment" as a threat to national progress and the proper social order.
In Gilder's words,
In a democratic system, a reversal of the appropriate direction of influence allows impressionable figments of mass sentiment to dictate to the powerful and permanent mechanisms of representative leadership. The result is a restive and alienated electorate, a failure of political authority, a sluggish and uncreative government, and a tendency toward national decline.4
Friedman and Gilder provide useful reminders that the elitist bias of the New Right economic agenda is not accidental or inadvertent. In the tradition of Alexander Hamilton, it is a clear intention of influential individuals possessed of an Imperial Consciousness who abhor democracy and any infringement by ordinary people on the prerogatives of the imperial elite.
The elitist prosperity story has a superficial coherence and a logic that on critical examination quickly fall apart. It assumes, for example, that prosperity can be measured solely by goods and services available for purchase in the marketplace. It takes no account of many of the essentials of a healthy life, such as clean air and water, mutual trust, job security, safe neighborhoods, well-maintained streets, loving families, and much else that unregulated markets cannot provide and often actively undermine.
Many things neoliberal economists count as positive contributions to economic growth actually devalue the quality of our lives. Examples include the sales of tobacco, guns, and violent video games to children; the fees of divorce lawyers who specialize in breaking up families; the costs of security guards and devices; the production and use of toxic chemicals; and the costs of treating the illnesses that toxins cause.
The claim that unregulated markets allocate wealth in direct proportion to individual contribution neglects the obvious reality that many personal fortunes began with a large inheritance or were acquired all or in part through fraud and deception, monopoly power, corporate welfare, preferential tax breaks, usury, financial speculation, market manipulation, and the exploitation of workers and the environment. Recall that many of the early American fortunes were the product of privateering, war profiteering, trading in slaves, and the utilization of slave labor. Corporate history is replete with stories of financial fraud and abuses of power; only the scale is unique to our time.
The unregulated market has a persistent bias for financial values over life values, short-term private profits over the long-term public good, inequality over equality, and rich people over poor people. To work efficiently, markets require impartially enforced rules to assure honest dealing, limit monopoly power, place the costs of pollution on the polluter, secure the health and safety of workers, and maintain a living wage. As societies all over the world are now experiencing, unregulated markets lead to collapsing environmental systems and an ever more obscene division between the super-rich, who enjoy lavishly extravagant lifestyles, and the desperately poor, who lack basic food, clothing, and shelter. As the devastation spreads, institutional legitimacy erodes and the anger and desperation of the disaffected create fertile recruiting grounds for political demagogues and terrorists, increasing the security threat for all.
For all its flaws, the imperial prosperity story carries the day in the political discourse because it is the only prosperity story most people ever hear. Progressive voices are often heard calling for the redistribution of existing wealth to help the poor and save the environment, but we only rarely challenge the imperial definition of prosperity. Our stories of how we would create new wealth in environmentally sustainable ways are ill formed and rarely communicated beyond insider groups of activists.
Imperial demagogues accuse progressives of taxing the productive to reward the lazy and sacrificing people to save exotic species. No matter how truthful our progressive claim that imperial economic policies actually destroy wealth, take from the poor to give to the rich, and accelerate environmental destruction, the elitist story will carry the day until it is regularly countered with a more compelling prosperity story. There is a progressive prosperity story, as outlined in chapter 18, but most people rarely hear it.
IMPERIAL SECURITY STORY
One of the primary imperatives of imperial rule is to maintain a military and police establishment sufficient to secure the system of elite privilege against dissent and rebellion. Recall that the move in the founding days of the United States from a loose confederation of independent states to the creation of a federal structure was prompted in part by Shay's Rebellion, where farmer patriots faced foreclosure on their property by war profiteers. The imperial elites of the day decided that they needed a strong federal government with the necessary troops to keep the disaffected in line and maintain the established order.
It is awkward for the rulers of a presumptive democracy to tell the working classes they must pay more taxes to support the military and police forces that enforce their bondage to the owning class. The classic answer has been to cultivate fear of domestic criminals—particularly criminal elements among the disaffected classes—and foreign enemies. The "evil empire" of the Soviet Union provided the external enemy from World War II until its collapse. The imperial elites of the United States were desperate to find a suitable replacement. On September 11, 2001, Osama bin Laden handed them a solution.
Because the imperial security story centers on the cultivation of fear, it involves far more than simply justifying an outsize military and police establishment. It resonates at a deep psychological level and plays to the desire of the alienated and insecure for a replacement for the strong father we either had or longed for as children, a protector who provides for the security and needs of the family in return for loyalty and obedience. We need simply substitute the corporation, the religious leader, or the political ruler for the father.
Thus, the imperial security story becomes more broadly an imperial political story in which elections are reduced to choosing between candidates for the role of surrogate father, each of whom promise that in return for our vote they will keep us safer and more prosperous than their opponent. In so doing, the candidates affirm our status as dependent children and suppress development of our higher orders of consciousness and active civic engagement beyond voting every two years.
Bush II gave the imperial security story new national prominence following September 11,2001. Taking the attack as his call from God, he gave the classic story a messianic edge and made it the defining framework of U.S. national policy, his presidency, and his public image. With time it became clear that, in fact, boots on the ground was his answer to every security problem, whether it be terrorism, flood, or pandemic— revealing the reality that the real goal was to centralize power.
The contemporary imperial security story goes something like this:
We face evil enemies who hate us for our freedoms and our righteousness and who seek to destroy us with weapons of mass destruction. We must have strong leaders who will use the full force of the police and military power of the state in preemptive action to destroy them before they can do us harm.
The war against evil is perpetual; war is the natural state of humankind. Peace and order prevail only when imposed by the military power of a righteous nation. It is the responsibility of such nations to bring peace, liberty, and prosperity to the world by eliminating evil rulers and bringing democracy and free markets to oppressed peoples. As a righteous and powerful nation, we will act accordingly, in concert with our friends when possible and unilaterally when necessary.
There can be no compromise in the war against evil. Those who do not stand with us stand with evil, and we must deal with them accordingly.
We must be equally firm in dealing with domestic evildoers. To protect the good and the righteous and to deter others who may harbor evil intentions, we must punish criminals who threaten the established order and remove them permanently from society through imprisonment or execution.
Imperial rulers have been telling versions of this story down through the ages, adapting the details to their particular time and the designated enemy.
The imperial security story draws attention away from the economic injustice that lies behind most crime and terrorism and justifies the suppression of all forms of dissent to protect the imperial status quo. The emphasis on loyalty and obedience to a strong ruler minimizes the role of responsible citizenship and, most particularly, the essential role of the citizen in holding those in positions of power publicly accountable for their actions.
The imperial security story also draws attention away from threats far larger and more certain than terrorism: for example, climate change; the growing scarcity of freshwater; the chemical contamination of land, air, and water; the rapid spread of deadly viruses; the consequences of peak oil; and skyrocketing trade deficits. It results in misguided decisions to invade and occupy whole nations at the cost of tens of thousands of innocent civilian lives in a largely futile effort to capture a few hundred terrorists scattered in hidden networks. The misplaced priorities create instability, fuel terrorist recruiting, and waste resources needed to address the most serious and immediate threats to human security.
In the case of the United States, terrorists hate us not for the freedom bestowed on us by democratic institutions, but rather for our frequent use of our economic and military power to arbitrarily oppress and humiliate other nations and peoples. Terrorists must be brought to justice, but this can be achieved only through international cooperation among nations working together in the spirit of trust and respect. A counterterrorism strategy based on launching unilateral preemptive wars against weak nation-states is counterproductive, because it weakens the moral authority of the invader, undermines the systems of international cooperation needed to identify and bring actual terrorists to justice, squanders military resources in no-win conflicts, and swells the ranks of terrorist organizations with rage-filled recruits.
With regard to keeping the public safe from more ordinary criminals, the United States has the highest per capita rate of incarceration of any nation in the world—an indicator of significant social breakdown. Instead of dealing with the breakdown, the imperial elites use prisons to treat its symptoms. This is the mark not of a democracy but of a police state. More than two million people are now held in U.S. prisons— the majority for nonviolent drug offenses. A young African American male has a greater prospect of going to prison than to college. The interests of security and public morality would be far better served if most of the immense budget now devoted to maintaining the U.S. military and criminal-justice establishments were devoted to social and economic programs that address the root causes of violence and criminality —for example, improving public education and recreational and employment opportunities for marginalized youth.
Every society has its criminal elements, and there are among them habitual criminals who are beyond redemption and who must be locked up for the good of society once their guilt is established through diligent due process. Such persons are few in number, however, and they are randomly distributed through the population without regard to class, race, education, or religion. When petty nonviolent criminals and minor drug offenders receive long prison sentences and crimes of much greater consequence committed by political and corporate power holders go unpunished, it is evident that the domestic security agenda is more about securing privilege than securing the rule of law.
Yet for all its flaws, the imperial security story carries the day because it is the only security story most people ever hear. Progressives call for peace and justice but we do not offer a compelling story of how we will deal with real threats to those who fear for the safety of themselves and their loved ones. Imperial demagogues portray progressives as traitors who hate America, side with terrorists and criminals, and pose a security threat.
IMPERIAL MEANING STORIES
We humans have long shared our deepest beliefs about the origin and meaning of our being through creation stories that help us make sense of what often seems an arbitrary and hostile world. Because creation stories are foundational to all human belief systems, the legitimacy of the dominator structures of Empire ultimately rests on creation stories that affirm the righteousness of unjust institutions. The imperial elites of the Western Christian tradition offer two somewhat conflicting creation stories, a biblical story for the religious and a scientific story for the secular. As elaborated in previous chapters, both serve to affirm the legitimacy of Empire.
The Imperial Biblical Meaning Story
There are many versions of the biblical meaning story. One commonly promoted by the imperial elite goes something like this:
God created the world in six days, rested on the seventh, and gave his creation to man in return for strict obedience to his will. God is all-powerful and all-knowing, and all that happens in creation is by his will. In his righteous judgment, God favors the obedient with wealth and power and thus identifies them as the pure arid righteous; poverty and suffering are the fate of the impure and the disobedient.
It is both the due and the responsibility of those God has marked as the pure and righteous to judge the less righteous and to make and enforce the rules others must follow in the marketplace, politics, and relations among nations.
Life on Earth is but a way station to the afterlife. Our work here is to prove our faith through our piety. The pious and obedient will be rewarded with eternal salvation in the afterlife; the impious and disobedient will be doomed to eternal torment.
A hierarchy of authority and righteousness defines the natural order of creation: God over human rulers, rulers over their subjects, humans over nature, men over women, white races over other races. We each serve God's plan by finding and accepting our place in the hierarchy and obeying his word as revealed in scripture.
The Imperial Secular Meaning Story
The imperial secular story favored by the New Right is grounded in outdated Newtonian physics and the pseudoscience of social Darwinism.
Matter is the only reality. The whole of the cosmos is a product of the orderly playing out of physical forces amenable to description and prediction by mathematical equations. Life is the accidental outcome of material complexity. Consciousness and free will are illusions, nothing more. Because life has no intrinsic meaning, the only rational course for the intelligent individual is to seek material gratification through the accumulation of wealth and power.
The evolution of living species occurs through a competitive struggle in which the fittest survive and the less fit perish. Mammalian species naturally organize themselves into hierarchies of dominance for mutual protection and breeding success.
Human progress likewise depends on competitive struggle in which the most fit triumph and those of second rank serve the most fit. The winners prove their superior worth and thereby their contribution to the betterment of the whole by virtue of their victory. They have a natural right to the rewards of their victory as their just due. There is no reason for guilt or for concern for those whom the struggle destroys or leaves behind, as their loss is itself proof that they are the less fit. For the betterment of the whole, we must all accept that this is their proper fate.
The imperial biblical story claims biblical scripture as its source of authority. Yet it presents an interpretation of scripture that dishonors the life and teaching of Jesus, who chose a life of poverty, taught that the poor enjoy God's special blessing, urged compassion for all people, and preached a gospel of peace and justice that challenged the defining premises of Empire. It ignores the Gospels that biblical scholars believe present the most accurate accounts of the words and teachings of Jesus —the ones that speak of love and compassion. Most religious faiths, including Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism, have their equivalent extremists who twist the teachings of their scripture to support programs of domination, exploitation, and violence wholly contrary to the messages of love and compassion that are foundational to every major religion.
The imperial science story is based on physical theories that predate the findings and insights of quantum physics and on ideological interpretations of the theories of Charles Darwin. It also ignores the findings of the new biology—documented in subsequent chapters—that life is at its core a cooperative enterprise and that successful species survive by finding their place of service to the whole.
Although the two imperial meaning stories are grounded in wholly contrary starting premises, both lend credence to a morality of self-righteous elitism in the service of Empire. Both obscure the deep truth that much of the arbitrary violence we humans experience in our daily lives is the work neither of a righteous God nor of some law of nature. Rather, the violence is the self-fulfilling prophecy of cultures based on imperial stories that legitimate injustice.
Most people accept one or the other of these imperial meaning stories because they are pretty much the only two articulated with any coherence and recited with regularity in public discourse. For most Americans who desperately seek a source of sacred meaning, the imperial elitist biblical story is the only creation story with a spiritual foundation to which they have ever been exposed. Except for the civil rights movement, progressive movements have generally been self-consciously secular— carefully avoiding discussion of the sacred. Although most leaders of progressive movements are acting from a deep sense of spiritual connection and responsibility and strenuously reject social Darwinism, we rarely speak publicly of our beliefs one way or another. Imperial demagogues say progressives have no values and hate Christians.
NARROWING THE DEBATE
Once the debate on economic policy is framed in terms of what courses of action will most effectively drive growth as measured by GDP or, more recently, as measured by share markets, from there on it is simply a matter of working out the details. Whatever policies are forthcoming will serve to further the concentration of power in elite hands.
As soon as the security debate is framed in terms of what measures will most effectively protect us from evil criminals and foreigners, the security debate is already defined as a need to strengthen the police and military powers of the state. From there it is simply a matter of debating the details of how best to do it.
The deeper cultural underpinning for these prosperity and security debates is provided by the imperial biblical and secular creation stories. The imperial biblical story affirms the righteousness of the rich and powerful, demands faith in the divine order, renders challenges to its authority a sacrilege, and dismisses efforts to improve the conditions of the poor or protect the environment as irrelevant. Whatever exists manifests God's will, and the imminent Rapture will lift the faithful to heaven and destroy the wicked. The future is preordained, and the faithful need to do nothing but pray and wait. This version of the biblical story also celebrates material displays of power and affluence as symbols of righteousness.
Although it proceeds from a rejection of any divine or supernatural being, the imperial secular story serves virtually identical ends. It sanctifies a hierarchy of domination as the natural order, provides a logical basis for dismissing demands that the rich and powerful accept responsibility for the public consequences of their actions, and celebrates the benefits and legitimacy of material accumulation and public display.
Stories are a key to the New Right's success in gaining control of the U.S. political system. The imperial stories of the New Right are contemporary versions of narratives that can be traced back to the empires of ancient times. The culture-specific variants of these stories shape the public cultures of most all the world's nations and are often told and celebrated by their own imperial elites.
Media pundits, intellectuals, think tank spokespersons, politicians, and religious figures sympathetic to the imperial worldview create a cultural echo chamber by endlessly repeating elements of the factually flawed and morally bankrupt imperial narratives as if speaking from an identical sheet of talking points. A concentration of media ownership in the hands of proponents of the imperial agenda amplifies their voices far out of proportion to their numbers in the population—shaping the political culture and defining right and wrong for the swing voters who view the world through the lens of the Socialized Consciousness.
As these stories become embedded in the culture, they systematically diminish our collective sense of human possibility, undermine our commitment to public-interest politics, and limit political debate to choices that strengthen the dominator relations of Empire. It never occurs to most of us to deconstruct the narratives to examine the validity or the devastating implications of their premises for the societies in which we live.
Empire's prosperity story celebrates the idolatrous worship of money and material acquisition and a concentration of ownership that leads to spiritual impoverishment for all and material impoverishment for the vast majority. Empire's security story focuses on building strong police and military forces to impose order by physical coercion to protect established relationships of domination, thus perpetuating a system of oppression and injustice that leads to environmental destruction, social unrest, and faux democracy. Empire's biblical meaning story focuses on the afterlife. Empire's secular meaning story reduces life to matter and mechanism. Both lead to alienation from life and strip our earthly existence of meaning and purpose.
Individually and collectively these stories legitimate imperial rule, deny our humanity, and lead to the material and spiritual impoverishment of human societies. Yet they are very effective in serving the New Right's intended purpose because they are the only stories most people hear. Logic suggests that exposing the flawed assumptions of these imperial stories would strip them of their power. That is, however, a false conclusion. We humans live by stories. Once a story has currency in our minds, we inevitably return to it because it provides the only answer we know to our very real questions about things that are important to us.
Stories are the key. To redirect the course of humanity, change the stories by which we live. Stories that deny life's possibilities and sacred purpose have stifled the development of the higher orders of human consciousness and held us captive to the sorrows of Empire. Stories that affirm life's possibilities and sacred purpose liberate our minds from this self-imposed limitation and call us to carry forward the Great Turning.