We need a new story
It may seem that the uprising of peoples in the Middle East and Northern Africa represents a desire of millions to have what we in the United States already have. To assume so would be a giant mistake. Though out the Middle East (what do we mean by the “middle east”?) people are not only rejecting the story in which they have been living, but also are creating new stories. We need to listen to their stories, and to become involved in telling new stories for ourselves.
In official discourse, we seem to be trapped in the story of United States as exceptional. Even President Obama has to chime in with the chorus that we are better than anyone else. What makes us better? Answering this question opens up the contradiction at the center of the American narrative: We are the land of freedom that depended on slavery for our prosperity. We had a Civil War, and we continue this war, not in the language of slavery, but in the language of states rights and the rights to property.
The story that fundamentally informs our life together is not from the Bible, but from the Scottish Enlightenment. One finds it throughout the major text of this period: Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. For Smith, we evolved from a nation of hunters, to shepherds, then to a nation of farmers, and finally a nation of traders: a commercial society. In the final stage, property and property rights function as the foundation for human freedom and economic prosperity.
The United States represents this highest form of evolution—we are all traders aiming to make a good deal with others. In this story, it is price that determines the value of something. If it cannot be priced, it is worthless.
The peoples on the streets of city after city in the Middle East are creating a different story. It is a story of human dignity. In this story, it is not ownership that makes a difference, but membership. The statement, “I am an Egyptian,” is about belonging to a community, instead of about what belongs to me.
In Civilizing the Economy, I propose that all human communities must do three things: provide for one another, protect one another, and create social meaning. How we do that with different technologies and in different locations; that is the real story. How we do it here, in the United States, is the story waiting to be told.