What if we told you that humanity is being driven to the brink of extinction by an illness? That all the poverty, the climate devastation, the perpetual war, and consumption fetishism we see all around us have roots in a mass psychological infection?
What if we went on to say that this infection is not just highly communicable but also self-replicating, according to the laws of cultural evolution, and that it remains so clandestine in our psyches that most hosts will, as a condition of their infected state, vehemently deny that they are infected? What if we then told you that this ‘mind virus’ can be described as a form of cannibalism. Yes, cannibalism. Not necessarily in the literal flesh-eating sense but rather the idea of consuming others—human and non-human—as a means of securing personal wealth and supremacy.
You may dismiss this line of thinking as New Age woo-woo or, worse, a lefty conspiracy theory. But this approach of viewing the transmission of ideas as a key determinant of the emergent reality is increasingly validated by various branches of science, including evolutionary theory, quantum physics, cognitive linguistics, and epigenetics.
The history of this infection is long, strange, and dark. But it leads to hope.
It’s delicate confronting these priests of the golden bull
They preach from the pulpit of the bottom line
Their minds rustle with million dollar bills
You say Silver burns a hole in your pocket
And Gold burns a hole in your soul
Well, uranium burns a hole in forever
It just gets out of control.
~ Buffy Sainte-Marie, “The Priests of the Golden Bull”1
Viruses of the Mind
The New World fell not to a sword but to a meme.
~ Daniel Quinn2
One of the most well-accepted scientific theories that helps explain the power of idea-spreading is memetics.
Memes are to culture what genes are to biology: the base unit of evolution. The term was originally coined by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene. Dawkins writes, “I think that a new kind of replicator has recently emerged . . . It is still drifting clumsily about in its primeval soup, but already it is achieving evolutionary change at a rate which leaves the old gene panting far behind.” He goes on, “Examples of
memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain, via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.”3
One of the high priests of rationalism, the scientific method, and atheism, is also the father of the meme of ‘memes.’ However, like all memes or ideas, there can be no ownership in a traditional sense, only the entanglement that quantum physics reminds us characterizes our intra-actions.4
Of course, similar notions of how ideas move between us have been around in Western traditions for centuries. Plato was the first to fully articulate this through his Theory of Forms, which argues that non-physical forms—i.e., Ideas—represent the perfect reality from which material reality is derived.
Modern articulations of the Theory of Forms can be seen in Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s idea of the Noosphere (the sphere of human thought) and Carl Jung’s Collective Unconscious, where structures of the unconscious are shared among beings of the same species. For Jung, the idea of the marauding cannibal would first be an archetype that manifests in the material world through the actions of those who channel or embody it.
For those who prefer their science more empirical, the growing field of epigenetics provides some intellectual concrete. Epigenetics studies changes in organisms caused by modification of gene expression rather than any physical alteration of the gene itself. In other words, how traits vary from generation to generation is not solely a question of material biology but is partly determined by environmental and contextual factors that affected our ancestors.5
The Wetiko Virus
We did not think of the great open plains, the beautiful rolling hills, and the winding streams with tangled growth as “wild.” Only to the White man was nature a “wilderness” and only to him was the land infested by “wild” animals and “savage” people. To us it was tame. Earth was bountiful and we were surrounded with the blessings of the Great Mystery. Not until the hairy man from the east came and with brutal frenzy heaped injustices upon us and the families we loved was it “wild” for us.
~ Luther Standing Bear, Land of the Spotted Eagle6
Many spiritual traditions, including Buddhism, Sufism (the mystical branch of Islam), Taoism, Gnosticism, as well as many Indigenous cultures, have long understood the mind-based nature of creation. These worldviews have at their core a recognition of the power of thought-forms to determine the course of physical events.
Various First Nations traditions of North America have specific and long established lore relating to cannibalism and a term for the thought-form that causes it: wetiko. We believe understanding this offers a powerful way of understanding the deepest roots of our current global polycrisis.
Wetiko is an Algonquin word for a cannibalistic spirit that is driven by greed, excess, and selfish consumption (in Ojibwa it is windigo, wintiko in Powhatan). It deludes its host into believing that cannibalizing the life-force of others (others in the broad sense, including animals and other forms of Gaian life) is a logical and morally upright way to live.
Wetiko short-circuits the individual’s ability to see itself as an enmeshed and interdependent part of a balanced environment and raises the self-serving ego to supremacy. It is this false separation of self from nature that makes this cannibalism, rather than simple murder. It allows—indeed commands—the infected entity to consume far more than it needs in a blind, murderous daze of self-aggrandizement. Author Paul Levy, in an attempt to find language accessible for Western audiences, describes it as ‘malignant egophrenia’—the ego unchained from reason and limits, acting with the malevolent logic of the cancer cell. We will use the term wetiko as it is the original, and reminds us of the wisdom to be found in Indigenous cultures, for those who have the ears to hear.
Wetiko can describe both the infection and the body infected; a person can be infected by wetiko or, in cases where the infection is very advanced, can personify the disease: ‘a wetiko.’ This holds true for cultures and systems; all can be described as being wetiko if they routinely manifest these traits.
In his now classic book Columbus and Other Cannibals, Native American historian Jack D. Forbes describes how there was a commonly-held belief among many Indigenous communities that the European colonialists were so chronically and uniformly infected with wetiko that it must be a defining characteristic of the culture from which they came. Examining the history of these cultures, Forbes laments, “Tragically, the history of the world for the past 2,000 years is, in great part, the story of the epidemiology of the wetiko disease.”7
We would presumably all agree that behavior of the European colonialists in North America can be described as cannibalistic. Their drive for conquest and material accumulation was a violent act of consumption. The engine of the invading culture suckedin lives and resources of millions of others and turned them into wealth and power for themselves. The figures are still disputed, but it is safe to place the numbers killed in the tens of millions, certainly one of the most brutal genocides in history. And the impact on non-human life was equally vast. Moreover, it was all done with a moral certainty that all destruction was justified in the name of ‘progress’ and ‘civilization.’
This framing belies the extent of the wetiko infection in the invader culture. So blinded were they by self-referential ambition that they could not see other life as being as important as their own. They could not see past ideological blinders to the intrinsic value of life or the interdependent nature of all things, despite this being the dominant perspective of the Indigenous populations they encountered. Their ability to see and know in ways different from their own was, it seems, amputated.
This is not an anti-European rant. This is the description of a disease whose vector was determined by deep patterns of history, including those that empowered Europeans to drive ‘global exploration’ as certain technologies emerged.
Founding Fathers. illustration | Native Americans
The wetiko meme has almost certainly existed in individuals since the dawn of humanity. It is, after all, a sickness that lives through and is born from the human psyche. But the origin of wetiko cultures is more identifiable.
Memes can spread at the speed of thought but they usually require generations to change the core characteristics of cultures. What we can say is that the fingerprints of wetiko-like beliefs can be traced at least as far back as the Neolithic revolution, when humans in the Fertile Crescent first learned to dominate their environment by what author Daniel Quinn calls ‘totalitarian agriculture’ — i.e., settled agricultural practices that produce more food than is strictly needed for the population, and that see the destruction of any living entity that gets in the way of that (over-)production—be it other humans, ‘pests’ or landscaping—as not only legitimate but moral.
This early form of wetiko-logic received an amplifying power of indescribable magnitude with the arrival of Christianity. “Let us make mankind . . . rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground,” said an authority no less than God in Genesis 1:26. After 8,000 years of totalitarian agriculture spreading slowly across the region, it is perhaps not surprising that the logic finds voice in the holy texts that emerged there. Regardless, it was driven across Europe at the point of Roman swords in the two hundred years after Christ’s death. It is no coincidence that, in order for Christianity to become dominant, the existing pagan belief-system, with its understanding of humanity’s place within rather than above nature, had to be all but annihilated.8
The point is that the epidemiology of wetiko has left clear indicators of its lineage. And although it cannot be pathologized along geographic or racial lines, the cultural strain we know today certainly has many of its deepest roots in Europe. It was, after all, European projects—from the Enlightenment to the Industrial Revolution, to colonialism, imperialism, and slavery—that developed the technology that opened up the channels that facilitated the spread of wetiko culture all around the world. In this way, we are all heirs and inheritors of wetiko colonialism.
We are all host carriers of wetiko now.
Wetiko Capitalism: Removing the Veils of Context
I don’t know who discovered water, but I can tell you it wasn’t a fish.
~ Attributed to Marshall McCluhan
When Western anthropologists first started to study wetiko, they believed it to be only a disease of the individual and a literal form of flesh-eating cannibalism.9 On both counts, as discussed, their understanding was, if not wrong, certainly limited. They did, however, accurately isolate two traits that are relevant for thinking about cultures: (1) the initial act, even when driven by necessity, creates a residual, unnatural desire for more; and (2) the host carrier, which they called the ‘victim,’ ended up with an ‘icy heart’— i.e., their ability for empathy and compassion was amputated.
The reader can probably already sense from the two traits mentioned above the wetiko nature of modern capitalism. Its insatiable hunger for finite resources; its disregard for the pain of groups and cultures it consumes; its belief in consumption as savior; its overriding obsession with its own material growth; and its viral spread across the surface of the planet. It is wholly accurate to describe neoliberal capitalism as cannibalizing life on this planet. It is not the only truth—capitalism has also facilitated an explosion of human life and ingenuity—but when taken as a whole, capitalism is certainly eating through the life-force of this planet in service of its own growth.
Of course, capitalism is a human conception and so we can also say that we are phenomenal hosts of the wetiko mind virus. To understand what makes us such, it is useful to consider a couple of the traits that guide the evolution of human cultures.
We have decades of evidence from social science describing just what highly contextual beings we are. Almost all aspects of our behavior, including our moral judgments and limits, are significantly shaped in response to the cultural signifiers that surround us. The Good Samaritan studies, for example, show that even when people are primed with the idea of altruism, they will walk by others in need when they are in a rush or some other contextual variable changes.10 And the infamous Stanley Milgram experiments show how a large majority of people are capable of shocking another human to a point they know can cause death simply because an authority figure in a white lab coat insists they do so.11
We really are products of our environment, and so it should be taken as inevitable that those who live in a wetiko culture will manifest, to one degree or other, wetiko beliefs and behaviors.
Looking through the broader contextual lens, we must also account for the self-perpetuating nature of complex systems. Any living network that becomes sufficiently complex will become self-organizing, and from that point on will demonstrate an instinct to survive. In practical terms, this means that it will distribute its resources to support behavior that best mimics its own logic and ensures its survival.12
In other words, any system that is sufficiently infected by wetiko logic will reward cannibalistic behavior. Or, in Jack Forbes’ evocative language, “Those who squirm upwards [in a wetiko system] are, or become, wetiko, and they only perpetuate the system of corruption or oppression. Thus the communist leaders in the Soviet Union under Stalin were at least as vicious, deceitful and exploitative as their czarist predecessors. They obtained ‘power’ without changing their wetiko culture.”13
This ensures that the essential logic of cultures spreads down through generations as well as across them. And it explains why they self-organize resources to maintain a high degree of continuity in distributions of power, when those distributions efficiently serve their survival and growth. When this continuity is interrupted or broken, revolutions occur and the system is put under threat.
However, as the above quote suggests, the disruption must happen at the right level. Merely trading one wetiko for another at the top of an otherwise unchanged wetiko infrastructure (as in the case of Stalin replacing the czars or, more contemporarily, Obama replacing Bush) is largely pointless. At best, it might result in the softening of the cruelest edges of a wetiko machine. At worse, it does nothing except distract us from seeing the true infection.
The question, then, for anyone interested in excising the wetiko infection from a culture is, where is it? In one respect, because it is a psychic phenomenon that lives in potential in all of us, it is non-local. But this, though ultimately important to understand, is not the whole truth. It is also true that there is a conceptual place where the most powerful wetiko logic is held, and that, at least in theory, makes it vulnerable.
In the same way that a colony of bees will instinctively house its queen in the deepest chambers of the hive, so a complex adaptive system buries its most important operating logic furthest from the forces that can challenge them. This means two things: first, it means citing the logic in the deep rules that govern the whole. Not just this national economy or that, this government or that, but the mother system—the global operating system. And second, it means making these rules feel as intractable and inevitable as possible.
So what is this deep logic of the global operating system?
It comes in two parts. First, there is the ultimate purpose, which we might call the Prime Directive, which is to increase capital.
We often dress this up in a narrative that says capital generation is not the end but the means, the engine of progress. This makes the idea of dethroning it feel dangerous and even contrary to common sense. But the truth is, we have created a system that artificially treats money as sacred. At this point in capitalism’s history, life is controlled by, more than it controls, the forces of capital. The clue is really in the name. But if you need further proof, look no further than how we define and measure progress: GDP. More on that below.
Then, there is the logic for how we, the living components of this system, should behave, which we would summarize with the following epithet:
Selfishness is rational and rationality is everything; therefore selfishness is everything.14
This dictates that if we all prioritize ourselves and maximize our own material wealth, an invisible hand (ah, what a seductive meme!) will create an equilibrium state and life everywhere will be made better. We are pitted against each other in a form of distributed fascism where we cocoon ourselves in the immediate problems of our own circumstances and consume what we can. We then couch this behavior in the benign language of family matters, national interests, job creation, GDP growth, and other upstanding endeavors.
Put these two parts of the puzzle together and it’s easy to see why the banker who generates excess capital receives vast rewards and is labelled ‘productive’ and ‘successful,’ almost regardless of the damage s/he causes. Those who are less ‘successful’ at producing excess capital, meanwhile, are rewarded far less, regardless of the life-affirming good they may be doing. Nurses, mothers, teachers, journalists, activists, scientists—all receive far less reward because they are less efficient at obeying the Prime Directive and may even be countermanding the ‘self-interest’ operating principle. And as for those who are actually poor—well, they are effortlessly labelled not just as practical but also moral failures.
book cover | Paul Levy
This infection is so far advanced that the system now requires exponential capital growth. The World Bank tells us that we have to grow the global economy by at least 3 percent per year to avoid recession.15 Let’s think about what this means. Global GDP in 2014 (the last full year of data) was roughly USD $78 trillion.16 We grew that pie by 2.4% in 2015, which resulted in the commodification and subsequent consumption of roughly another $2 trillion in human labor and natural resources. That’s roughly the size of the entire global economy in 1970. It took us from the dawn of civilization to 1970 to reach $2 trillion in global GDP, and now we need that just in the differential so the entire house of cards doesn’t crumble. In order to achieve this rate of growth year-on-year, we are destroying our planet, ensuring mass species extinction, and displacing millions of our brothers and sisters (who we commonly refer to as ‘poor people’) from around the world.
So when people tell us that the market knows best, or technology will save us, or philanthrocapitalism will redistribute opportunities (pace Bill Gates), we have to understand that all of these seemingly common sense truisms are embedded in a broader operating system, a wetikonomy, with all that that means. And the more they are presented as ‘unchangeable,’ the more often we’re told, ‘there is no alternative,’ the more we should question. There is actually a beautiful irony in the fact that, when we know what we’re up against, such statements are our signposts for where to look.
It is not that we are against markets, technology, or philanthropy — they can all be wonderful, in the right context—but we are against how they are being used as alibis to excuse the insanity of the wetiko paradigm that they are inseparable from. We are reminded of Jack Forbes’ heavy words; “It is not logical to allow the wetikos to carry out their evil acts and then to accept their assessment of the nature of human life. For after all, the wetiko possess a bias created by their own evil lives, by their own amoral or immoral behavior. And too, if I am correct, they were, and are, also insane.”17
Seeing Wetiko: Antidote Logic
Launch your meme boldly and see if it will replicate—just like genes replicate, and infect, and move into the organism of society. And, believing as I do, that society operates on a kind of biological economy, then I believe these memes are the key to societal evolution. But unless the memes are released to play the game, there is no progress.
~ Terrence McKenna, Memes, Drugs and Community18
You might just be a black Bill Gates in the making.
~ Beyoncé, Formation19
A key lesson of meme theory is that when we are conscious of the memetic viruses we are less likely to adhere to them blindly. Conscious awareness is like sunlight through the cracks of a window.
Thus, one of the starting points for healing is the simple act of ‘seeing wetiko’ in ourselves, in others, and in our cultural infrastructure. And once we see, we can name, which is critical because words and language are a central battleground. To quote McKenna again:
The world is not made of quarks, electromagnetic wave packets, or the thoughts of God. The world is made of language.. Earth is a place where language has literally become alive. Language has invested matter; it is replicating and defining and building itself. And it is in us.20
His last line is critical for exploring our own agency in the replication of wetiko. We are all entangled in the unfolding of reality that is happening both to and through us. In place of traditional certainties and linear cause-and-effect logic, we can recast ourselves “as spontaneously responsive, moving, embodied living beings—within a reality of continuously intermingling, flowing lines or strands of unfolding, agential activity, in which nothing (no thing) exists in separation from anything else, a reality within which we are immersed both as participant agencies and to which we also owe significant aspects of our own natures.”21
If wetiko exists, it is because it exists within us. It is also entangled with the broader superstructure, relationships, and choice architecture that we are confronted with within a neoliberal system on the brink of collapse.
Forbes reminds us that we cannot ‘fight’ wetiko in any traditional sense: “One of the tragic characteristics of the wetiko psychosis is that it spreads partly by resistance to it. That is, those who try to fight wetiko sometimes, in order to survive, adopt wetiko values.
Thus, when they ‘win,’ they lose.”22 A lot of reform-based initiatives, from the sharing economy to micro-lending have succumbed to the co-optation and retaliation of wetikocapitalism.
However, once we are in the mode of seeing wetiko, we can hack the cultural systems that perpetuate its logic. It is not difficult to figure out where to start. Following the money usually leads us to the core pillars of wetiko machinery. Those of us that are within these structures, from the corporate media to philanthropy to banking to the UN, have access to the heart of the wetiko monster.
For those of us on the outside, we can organize our lives in radically new ways to undermine wetiko structures. The simple act of gifting undermines the neoliberal logic of commodification and extraction. Using alternative currencies undermines the debt–based money system. De-schooling and alternative education models can help decolonize and de-wetikoize the mind. Helping to create alternative communities outside the capitalist system supports the infrastructure for transition. And direct activism such as debt resistance can weaken the wetiko virus, if done with the right intention and state of consciousness.
By contracting new relationships with others, with Nature, and with ourselves, we can build a new complex of entanglements and thought-forms that are fused with post-wetiko, post-capitalist values.
We have to simultaneously go within ourselves and the deep recesses of our own psyches while changing the structure of the system around us. Holding a structural perspective and an unapologetic critique of modern capitalism—i.e., holding a constellational worldview that sees all oppression as connected—serves our ability to see the alternatives, and indeed, all of us, as intricately connected.
Plato believed that ideas are the ‘eyes of the soul.’ Now that the veils obscuring wetiko are starting to be lifted, let us give birth to, and become, living antigens, embracing the polyculture of ideas that are challenging the monoculture of wetiko capitalism. Let us be pollinators of new memetic hives built on altruism, empathy, inter-connectedness, reverence, communality, and solidarity, defying the subject-object dualities of Cartesian/Newtonian/Enlightenment logic. Let us reclaim our birthright as sovereign entities, free of deluded beliefs in market systems, invisible hands, righteous greed, chosen ones, branded paraphernalia, techno utopianism and even the self-salvation of the New Age. Let us dance with thought-forms through a deeper understanding of ethics, knowing, and being,23 and the intimate awareness that our individual minds and bodies are a part of the collective battleground for the soul of humanity, and indeed, life on this planet. And let us re-embrace the ancient futures of our Indigenous ancestors that represent the only continuous line of living in symbiosis with Mother Nature. The dissolution of wetiko will be as much about remembering as it will be about creation.
Alnoor Ladha -- Co-founder, Executive Director – The Rules (www.therules.org) Founding Partner – Purpose (www.purpose.com) Board Member – Greenpeace USA (www.greenpeace.org) Alnoor’s work focuses on the intersection of political organizing, storytelling and technology. He is a founding member and the Executive Director of /The Rules (/TR), a global network of activists, organizers, designers, coders, researchers, writers and others […] Read full bio
Martin Kirk -- Head of Strategy, /The Rules Martin Kirk is co-founder and Head of Strategy for The Rules (/TR), a global network of activists, organizers, designers, coders, researchers, writers and others dedicated to changing the rules that create inequality and climate change around the world. He leads /TR’s campaign framing, strategies and execution, and supports partners and allies […] Read full bio