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Free Markets, Competition, and a Single Value Culture

Updated on July 11, 2014

Koyanascatsi: A World Out of Balance (movie title)

Culture is a system of values by which we establish meaning in our lives. The values of a culture include such things as how family and children are raised and attended to, the work ethic, types of work, morality and ethics, various sorts of freedom and concepts of justice, law, the various roles played by members of the society, the divisions of labor, education of the youth, economic systems, and more. But in today’s world where economics dominates, and where competition is the rule, we find that our society or culture has been situated so that a single value dominates to the detriment of balance among all the value systems mentioned above. The reason a single value dominates is that in competition, a means of measuring success, or winning, must be established (Gregory Bateson: “Toward and Ecology of Mind”). In certain aspects of game theory, this would be called a Finite Game, where in we play within the rules in order to win and thus end play (James P. Carse, “Finite and Infinite Games”). This dominance of one value over all the others can be viewed in the context of our efforts to maximize a single value as opposed to optimizing that value in relation to the others (Bateson).

Balance vs Single Value Dominance

Balance is required in our value system, as a culture. If we are out of balance, we suffer psychological as well as cultural trauma, and a bias in governance in favor of those who have measured success in a single value system.
Balance is required in our value system, as a culture. If we are out of balance, we suffer psychological as well as cultural trauma, and a bias in governance in favor of those who have measured success in a single value system. | Source

Polanyi, Alexander, and Dislocation

But what is the impact of such a system, or such a game, on the members of that society? Following Karl Polanyi, by way of Bruce Alexander, we can see that market based systems working on the competition model, result in psychological dislocation of many if not most of the members of that society. Alexander writes:

"Dislocation" is the condition of great numbers of human beings who have been shorn of their cultures and individual identities by the globalization of a "free-market society" in which the needs of people are subordinated to the imperatives of markets and the economy. Dislocation afflicts both people who have been physically displaced, such as economic immigrants and refugees, and people who have remained in place while their cultures disintegrated around them. Dislocation occurs during boom times as well as recessions, among the rich as well as the poor, among capitalists as well as workers. Today, dislocation threatens to become universal, as global free-market society undermines ever more aspects of social and cultural life everywhere. -- Bruce K. Alexander, Professor Emeritus, Psychology Department, Simon Fraser University.

Poll: Is a single value system beneficial to the well being of the members of the society?

Does a single value dominance work to the benefit of the members of the society, or would a balanced value system provide for a higher level of well being in society for each member?

See results

What to do?

When we say people have been shorn of their culture, what we mean, as per the opening sentence of this article, is that the value systems they have lived in and worked in have been stifled, at best, and destroyed at worst, and that when this happens, people lose their bearings, their psychological system of meaning, and become subject to addictions of various sorts in an effort to replace the shorn value system with a new one. We see this in modern societies with not only addictions to alcohol or drugs, but to sex, to the accumulation of goods and experiences, to various forms of stimulation derived from pain and trauma, as with the increasingly common problem of youth cutting themselves, to shopping, etc.

Alexander continues: “Dislocation, in Polanyi's sense of the word, does not necessarily imply geographic separation. Rather, it denotes a lack of psychosocial integration, which can befall people who never leave home as well as those who are geographically displaced. Historically, many dislocated people have moved from devastated peasant societies to urban slums, but many others remained where there were and became increasingly dislocated as their traditional culture further disintegrated around them.”

Cultures dominated by single values, in market based economies, lacking balance, create psychological disorder and cultural poverty. Treatments for such issues at the psychological level are band aides. The answer, as both Polanyi and Alexander, as well as Bateson, point out, is cultural in nature. Without cultural changes, psychological treatment is only going to mask symptoms, not provide any sort of cure.

As an anthropologist, it seems to me this is a problem of huge proportions. I will continue to discuss this issue, getting into more detail about each aspect of it in future posts.

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    • Paul Silverzweig profile image
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      Paul Silverzweig 3 years ago from Portsmouth RI USA

      Yes... seems to me we are developing a monoculture... much as we do with trees and clear cutting... and I fear it will have the same effect...

    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 3 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      We work in other countries and we have seen the growing dominance of a single culture. There was a time when travel was exotic as you are engulfed by a totally different culture and environment when you get to a place. Nowadays, mostly you see the same stores, hear the same music, and people clothe in similar fashion.