Friday, September 25, 2009

Archetypes in Market Mythology & The Role of Protest

This is a continuation of my previous post, inspired by the G20 Summit in my city this week, and a post on A Heathen's Day about the role of mythology in society...

Heroes of Market Mythology: The Humble Worker & The Fire Thief

The mythology of the Market, like any thriving mythological worldview, has its heroes who exemplify the ideal relationship that man can hold in relation to his gods. The myth of the Self-Made Man is the best example of such a hero in modern Market mythology, and it is familiar to almost anyone who aspires to succeed in the world of the Market today.

The story of the Self-Made Man is summed up simply in the epithet "from rags to riches," but there are in fact two versions of this mythic figure. In one, the Self-Made Man is a simple, humble, hard-working guy who has always believed himself to possess a special gift, talent, skill or idea that he wants to share with the world. Often, this person must struggle against obscurity, inherited poverty and other kinds of set-backs and stumbling blocks before his gift is revealed to the world and he is justly rewarded with wild financial success. This Humble Worker version of the hero rarely has aspirations to wealth, but is more often portrayed as uniquely devoted to the qualitative contribution he can make to his community. He is akin to the hero of ancient myths (such as Perseus or Cu Chulainn) who, though born of the gods and privileged with unique gifts and abilities, does not spend much of his time concerning himself with the gods directly but goes off to make his own way in the world. The archetypal model of this version of the Self-Made Man reflects the common belief that "if you just work hard enough, eventually you'll get your lucky break."

The other version of the Self-Made Man begins much the same way — with someone of humble, lower class origins — but it differs in the story it tells of success. While the Humble Worker plugs away, earning his success on the Market's own terms, the Fire Thief defies the standard rituals and precepts of his gods and goes directly after the power and privileges that they possess, intent on bringing them back to his community or keeping them for his own personal glory. This is the entrepreneur who risks everything on an uncertain business venture and, against all expectation, succeeds; or the musician who quits his day-job to play guitar and ends up with several platinum records and a fanclub of millions. The Fire Thief rejects the standard security of the 9-to-5 job and the corporate ladder, and either earns respect or steals success from the Market through his cunning and bravado. Yet it is understood that most who attempt such rashness fail miserably and suffer the consequences of their disobedience.

These archetypes of the Self-Made Man (and the male emphasis is intentional, for even women are expected to conform to the masculine elements of the mythology in order to succeed) are found pervasive throughout modern society. J.K. Rowling exemplifies the first, the Humble Worker, who might have continued to struggle with depression and poverty had not the Market smiled upon her and brought her work to light. Bill Gates can be cited as an example of the Fire Thief, the unlikely nerd working out of his garage and suddenly rising to obscene wealth and a global monopoly, so powerful and yet so benevolent now that he gives millions of dollars to aid the less fortunate and even has designs on controlling the weather. No one single living person might perfectly embody the Hero in all his aspects, but there are enough familiar, living examples of "rags to riches" stories that, together, they seem to offer convincing evidence that this myth is not just a metaphor, but a reality that can be enacted.

Prophets, Priests and Politicians

In any mythology, eventually the gods — in their power and ineffability — may need to enlist the help of prophets and priests to communicate their esoteric demands to the common-folk, the laity. Priests organize and lead the ritual acts of the community, while prophets come to the forefront as society begins to lose faith in the efficacy or benevolence of its gods as a result of social turmoil, upheaval or rapid change. Traditionally, political leaders ask for the blessings and heed the advice of priests and prophets alike, though at times prophets who offer unpopular or inconvenient ideas may be ostracized or condemned for a time, before eventually being vindicated.

In the mythology of the Market, economists, intellectual pundits and CEOs most often play the role of the priest, acting as an intermediary between the Market and the community, interpreting the god's needs and moods, recommending which ritual acts — tax cuts, bail-outs, consumer spending, etc. — will appease it, which will avert disasters and which will cause them. For a time, a Market-priest may grow to such prominence that his pronouncements are taken as practically infallible; such was the role that Alan Greenspan played for the past two decades as Chairman of the Federal Reserve, his blessings sought by each new president during this time as kings used to seek blessings for their legitimacy from the Pope.

In times when the priests of the Market fail to accurately predict its demands and reactions, faith in its benevolence (though not in its existence) may begin to waver. Up step the prophets, then, with their unique insight into the workings of the mythologies, and sometimes with warnings of doom for those who lose their way. The social stirrings caused by colonialism and the scientific revolution that laid the foundation for the industrial revolution in later centuries also set the stage for political philosophers like John Locke, Adam Smith and Thomas Hobbes, some of the most influential prophets of the Market mythology. These philosophers first articulated versions of the Creation Myth of modern capitalism, as well as laying out a theology of practice still referenced today. The industrial revolution itself led to great social upheavals and sometimes great suffering, making the prophesying of Karl Marx and the advent of communism almost inevitable.

Even Marx, however, does not challenge the existence of the Market, and in fact founds his entire philosophy on the supreme importance of economics. The difference is, in his interpretation, the capitalist Market ceases to be a god worthy of worship and becomes instead a dragon which the downtrodden workers have had to appease with virgin sacrifices for far too long. The hero of Marxist communism is neither the Humble Worker nor the Fire Thief, but the Dragon Slayer. This hero arrives suddenly, and bravely comes to the aid of the harassed village, intent on killing the monstrous beast and freeing the villagers from their burden. From within our modern mythological worldview, the collapse of the Soviet Union eventually proved Marx and his followers as false prophets who failed to understand the true nature of the Market and led many believers and especially political leaders astray. The end of the Cold War is now commonly attributed not primarily to Western military might, but to its commitment to capitalism and freedom (as defined largely in terms of consumerism and the free market).

Heresy & Iconoclasm

In some respects, heresy cannot exist until there are priests and prophets within a mythological tradition outlining and codifying some kind of agreed-upon canon. Pre-Christian pagan traditions in Britain, for instance, were not considered heretical by the Church; but the various early gnostic sects were, as were reemergent pagan aspects within the Church once Christianity had moved in and established its hold. When it comes to the Mythology of the Market, Marx is an excellent example of a heretic according to the dominant capitalist worldview, for he disputes some fundamental assumptions about the purpose and proper relationship of individuals to the Market, but he does not reject the most basic premise of the mythos: that the Market is the primary and essential way in which we should understand human social relationship (and possibly the meaning of human life in general).

We are ourselves currently so entrenched in the modern Market mythos, however, that it is incredibly difficult, perhaps even impossible, to disagree with the established canon without becoming merely heretical. When we disagree with certain consequences or implications of the mythology of the Market, our usual response is to begin tweaking. We work backwards from obvious flaws and failures until we find ways of changing some minor aspect of our mythology without challenging its fundamental premises about the world and how it works. Even when we ascribe to some other supposed mythos about these fundamental premises, we often find that we live our lives according to the mythology of the Market and make room for these other worldviews only as far as they do not conflict.

This seemed to be the case with many Catholics I knew growing up, who attended church on Sundays and thought it all very well and good to speak of charity and the Law of Love during Mass, but who would never have dreamed of taking seriously Jesus' and the early Christians' injunctions against wealth and private possessions in favor of simple communal living. Jesus' own advice to "render unto Caesar what is Caesar's" has been giving Catholics a pass on fully integrating their spiritual and political lives for centuries, so it's not fair to blame modern culture alone for this attitude. More uniquely modern, however, is the development of the Prosperity Gospel, preached especially among televangelists, which seeks to wed Christianity explicitly with the Market mythology in order to ease tensions between the two. In either case, it's difficult to find someone who has accepted and taken seriously the worldview of Christianity in a complete and consistent way, who has not also come into a fundamental conflict with the prevailing myth of the Market.

I believe that this is true of any alternative mythological worldview, including that potentially offered by Paganism. When it comes to the Market, most Pagans are at best merely heretics, struggling valiantly to revise their understanding of consumer capitalism to make it compatible with or at least not painfully contradictory to their concerns for the environment and their appreciation of ancient myths from a pre-Market time. Shopping at eco-friendly stores and utilizing the propagandists of the advertising industry in order to promote "green" living and earth-centered fashion trends are only two examples of this uneasy relationship. The truth is that a consumer-based culture will never fully embrace, support or promote a message of drastically reduced consumption; it will at best find ways to make consumption more efficient so that it can continue to put off any negative ramifications. This is in no way meant to suggest Pagans are any more culpable for the many contradictions of modern Market-embedded environmentalism as anyone else, of course.

Which brings me back, in a round about way, to the G20 and its protests. I suspect that the reason locals are so antagonistic towards and dismissive of protesters is that in most respects they view them merely as heretics, trouble-makers who have no fully integrated, coherent worldview of their own to offer but merely a jumbled collection of complaints and objections about how "life isn't perfect" (to which the humble, hard-working Ordinary Guy replies, "no shit, get over it"). In some instances, this may be an inaccurate and unfair view of the protesters, but it's not unexpected. When we are deeply involved in living out or enacting the story told by the predominant mythology of our culture, it is practically inconceivable that others might completely reject or denounce this worldview. This is precisely because we do not see it as a mythos or worldview at all, but as reality. We are likely to consider those who reject our mythology as quite literally denying or rejecting reality itself; that is, we're likely to view them as insane, and thus unpredictable and potentially even dangerous. Hence all the hype and security measures to protect the city from the influx of unpredictable and unreasonable protesters, "anarchists and other self-described 'anti-authoritarians,'" as one newspaper article puts it.

On the other hand, it is likely that most of these protesters are themselves still enacting, in one way or another, the mythology of the Market as they've known it and lived it all their lives. Their chosen public actions, such as boycotting various businesses and disrupting ordinary consumer activities, belies a continuing emphasis on the Market as the primary definition of socio-cultural relationship and power. In this sense, the protesters are participating in acts of iconoclasm, in which members from within a given culture destroy that culture's religious symbols and images for the purposes of making a religious or political statement.

I do not want to go so far as to suggest that the protests of the G20 are utterly useless, though I expect that in most ways they will remain essentially an ineffective spectacle serving mostly as media fodder. There was a time when, despite the apparent futility and self-contradictions, I would still have been out there myself marching and hoisting signs above my head — not because these acts are themselves revolutionary, but because they are symbols of solidarity and hope, a demonstration that, yes, I too recognize that there is something out of balance and unjust in the way we are living and this needs to change. These demonstrations are important and they serve a purpose. But so too do the quiet poets and dreamers and lovers who are wandering in the deep and intimate work of creating an alternative mythology, who are listening intently to the natural world and its mysteries, and discovering new stories to enact. This work too is absolutely vital if we are to overcome the domineering Mythology of the Market. And I know my strengths and my passions well enough to know that my place is here, watching the setting moon and searching for words in the silence, and not out on the streets amidst the noise of protestation.

At least, for now...

Image attribution:


  1. I've nominated you for a blog award. I don't think you need anyone to tell you that you are at the top of the 'Kreativity' ladder, but I wanted to point it out anyway. Go claim it!

  2. These demonstrations are important and they serve a purpose. But so too do the quiet poets and dreamers and lovers who are wandering in the deep and intimate work of creating an alternative mythology, who are listening intently to the natural world and its mysteries, and discovering new stories to enact. This work too is absolutely vital if we are to overcome the domineering Mythology of the Market.

    That's encouraging. I often forget it, particularly when I have to contend with my parents (whom I am living with again at the moment), who raised me in this mythology/reality and often tell me that while my problems with it are understandable, it's inevitable that I have to be a part of it, and work with it.

    "After all, that's what I had to do. I didn't like, but I shut up and sucked up. And now look where I am."

    Which isn't to say that their own Self Made Man stories haven't brought them happiness, health and many blessings.

    But if the Self Made Man's life is a struggle, and his world is based on a contest and succeeding over one another... I'm just not sure how happy, healthy or blessed I could ever be in it. Why must I participate in that myth, when I don't think of life as a struggle, or my world as an arena, but rather I think of life as a sort of leisurely stroll, a wandering path?

  3. All I can say is these two essays are simply brilliant and some of the most inspired, thought provoking and well constructed pieces I've read on the internet for a very long time. Thank you for sharing this.

  4. You know... I never thought of it like that before, but it fits. What once was reality, can now be viewed as mythology, so it stands to reason that the reality of today will one day be looked back on as mythology. One can hope. A lot to think about. Beautifully written. Thank you.

  5. Magaly, Thanks very much for the award. :) I really should go back and make some sort of page on which to collect and display these (and then fulfill my obligation to pass them on--I'm terrible about keeping up on that!).

  6. Finn,

    I think it's really tough to fight against that insistence that "if you suck it up and just deal with it, you'll make it in the end" mentality, in part because in some ways it's true. The Self-Made Man story only persists because people find it meaningful and relevant; it does describe reality, or at least a version of reality. The mythology of the Market is just as "real" as the myths of our ancestors and the modern religious mythologies found in various monotheistic traditions. But the role of mythology is not only to describe or explain reality, but to create and shape it. Our culture invests a great deal into the Market mythology (no pun intended ;), and so in a great many ways it has become real. People who stick it out can and do find wealth and happiness by enacting the Self-Made Man archetype.

    But like you, it is not the story that I want to live by, not one that I would choose. It is a story of constant struggle, and the success of the Self-Made Man (though often put in terms of community benefit) comes at the expense of others, whose failure can sometimes be devastating. I would rather live a mythology of interconnection and mutual relationship, one in which art, poetry and music grow in value as they are shared freely, rather than value seen as a zero-sum game of quibbling prices; one in which nature is a source of sustenance and freedom, rather than as something to be conquered and used. But, as Daniel Quinn put it in his novel Ishmael, we need to be able to see the bars of the prison before we can break free. We need to recognize the myth of the Market as a mythology, and then we need to recognize ourselves as Myth-Makers in a sacred sense, full of the creative potential to choose our own stories. Capable of choosing to live better.

  7. Lyon and oldmansutton, Thank you both for your compliments! :) I hope you continue reading and sharing your thoughts here in the future. :)