Ideas are spread through stories, and stories are how we understand the world around us. We cannot create a world without poverty until we change the story about why poverty exists. For more than 30 years, we’ve been told that markets efficiently allocate resources, and that giving money to the rich helps wealth trickle down to the masses. This dominant narrative wants us to believe that:
- If you are poor, it’s your own fault.
- Rich people are naturally superior to poor people;
- Markets are rational and so are the people who act within them;
- The purpose of an economy is to grow its gross national product;
- Poverty is a natural part of the real world.
This is the story of “free markets” and it has controlled public sentiment for too long.
A vast system of think tanks, media outlets, sponsored academic posts, front groups, and marketing firms have been set up to tell this story—starting in the United States and then as a major export to the rest of the world. Billions of dollars have been spent selling this story under the guises of free trade, economic development, international aid, and World Bank loans.
Companies like Booz Allen Hamilton—NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden’s former employer—bring in more than US$9 billion a year by offering ‘cultural change’ services to governments, large corporations and the defense sector. They hire computer analysts and social science researchers to help them figure out how to manipulate public opinion to accept “free-market” ideology.
The elites that promote “free-market” ideology claim it will strengthen democracy, support the environment, and reduce poverty. But exactly the opposite has happened. Democratic institutions have been crippled, the world’s environmental commons have been devastated in the interest of short-term profits, and the economy could best be described as a system of wealth extraction that takes money from the peoples of the world and gives it to a tiny financial elite. We find it hard to recognise how this system works because we are in thrall to the dominant ideology
To change the system, we have to change the story. Public perception is made up of deeply rooted emotions, strongly held beliefs, and powerful mythic narratives that have kept us from breaking free—until now.
We can fight back by getting smart about how we engage in resistance movements. There are people among us who study the latest findings about human cognition, values and behavior; people who know how to make sense of the complex systems and patterns of our rapidly changing world; and people who know how to connect these insights with everything we know about how societies and economies can work for the maximum benefit of all. And unlike our opposition, we can engage these skills out in the open—in the full service of humanity—and change the story that elites have controlled for much too long.
In many tiny pockets of the world there have already been inklings of a better story. Those among us who strive for systemic change are talking about economic practices inspired by nature. We hear about the role of local communities in helping create resilient markets. Terms like “open source”, “the commons” and “the sharing economy” keep popping up to suggest that organic networks of human beings can cultivate lasting trust and governing practices.
We look to places like Uruguay for inspiration, and a government that has reduced poverty from 40% to 12% and dramatically improved social conditions for women and minorities while rejecting the neoliberal “Washington Consensus”. We note how Finland has built a public education system that serves the future by investing in its children. And we watch closely as Iceland kicks out the international banks and bails out its own people instead.
There is a better story out there and we can tell it together in a way that changes the game. This is what we have set out to do at /The Rules and we are taking it seriously by recruiting the best tools for community organising, empowering storytelling, and technology-enhanced social networking.
Together we can change the story. And in doing so we can change the rules.