Medora Woods

The Myth of Capitalism

Medora Woods is a St. Louis Park-based author who has also been a high school English teacher, a banker, and a lawyer.

This is adapted from a book by retired Jungian psychoanalyst Medora Woods, “Collapse: Dreaming Another World,” published by Wise Ink Creative Publishing. The book explores the possibility that we are at a critical moment when the structures of our shared world are collapsing.

I am so accustomed to thinking of myself, my life, and my world in terms of the hero myth, it is difficult to imagine how humans might live without it. The hero myth underpins the idea of individualism, rejecting the reality of our profound interconnection and interdependence on each other and everything else. In the Western imagination, the community doesn’t channel creative energy into form — only the individual alone can create.

The hero myth is reflected today in the veneration of the individual and in capitalism, an economic system based on individual choices. The idea of capitalism assumes a marketplace in which an aggregate of individual decisions creates the best of all possible worlds, itself a creation myth that many accept as simply how the world works.

Capitalism is only one of many possible economic arrangements, all of which have flaws. But the degree to which capitalism is revered and other economic  arrangements are denigrated in public conversation is, to me, a sign of mythological thinking.

When a story becomes a myth, it gains a timeless power. An unconscious myth can do damage because it is not subject to examination. The myth of capitalism is perpetuated, perhaps knowingly and cynically, by those who benefit most from the system as it is.

The U.S. government decided in the 1980s, for example, that American corporate interests in Central America required a policy of supporting right-wing governments engaged in the repression, torture, imprisonment, and murder of their people. That policy was justified by claiming that these rural villagers, like villagers in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s, were communists. That mythic idea of service to political and economic  interests  underlies  unspeakable  atrocities,  such as what happened in a small Mayan village I visited, where thousands of innocent people had been slaughtered.

Creating Communal Heroism

Communism. Community. The similarity of those words is not accidental.

The glue that holds us together as human communities, the understanding that we are all connected to and responsible for each other, has been rendered invisible by the myth of the heroic, self-sufficient individual who holds transcendent importance in Western cultural imagination.

Economic theory has been perverted to that end. The  social safety net, Medicare, Social Security, health insurance, unemployment insurance, food stamps, student loans — these expressions of our collective responsibility to support and care for each other — are always on the verge of destruction by those whose ideology is identified with the myth of the hero.

Those who want the destruction of these programs say openly that they don’t want their tax dollars to support anyone they imagine to be unwilling to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. The imagined narrative is that a large percentage  of people are sitting passively waiting for the government dole.

What the Safety Net Does

Researchers published a study — “Long Run Impacts of Childhood Access to the Safety Net” — that conclusively showed that, over a 50-year period, access to food stamps for women led to “increases in economic self-sufficiency (increases in educational attainment, earnings, and income, and decreases in welfare participation).”

The study’s author, Hilary Hoynes, an economist at UC Berkeley, said that her work indicates that there are important benefits of the safety net that have been ignored. She posits that a more generous safety net could reduce health disparities and that investments in early life generate important returns in terms of better economic outcomes in adulthood.

Obscenely wealthy people are a small minority of our political universe, but their voices have increasingly dominated the national conversation and the behavior of our government.

The Military Myth

In the years following World War II, we were told a story that served the interests of our corporate military establishment. We were to base much of our economy on the expansion of the military-industrial complex. We  were to imagine that  we were in a state of permanent war, a war against “godless communism,” which threatened each of us individually and the ‘free’ world.

The collapse of the Soviet empire required that fear and hatred be directed at a different target, and the idea of ‘terrorism’ allowed us to maintain our collective psychological primitivism. We made our fear, our own terror, into the target. The U.S. has once again constructed foreign policy out of deepest irrationality and hatred, creating another unending feedback loop in which we kill them, they kill us, and countless innocents are caught in the crossfire.

My fear, my terror, as I watch my government bomb one country after another in the Middle East, after invading two of them, is that this insane feedback loop cannot be stopped.

Who Are We?

In the consciousness that rules the world, the hero of our imagination is dependent on nothing and no one other than himself. He is born alone and he dies alone. That heroic consciousness blasts the tops off mountains, dumps toxic chemicals into our waters, and pollutes the air we breathe.

When I imagine myself as separate from the earth and not dependent on her, I do not understand that everything that poisons the earth poisons me and the people I love.