by Paul Dean
August 21, 2003
Monoculture: n. 1. The cultivation of a single crop on a farm or in a region or country. 2. A single, homogeneous culture without diversity or dissension.
Monoculture in agriculture is the practice of planting and cultivating crops in tracts containing a single species. For corporate factory farmers, there is an increase in efficiency that obtains from planting huge tracts of land with a single plant. Machines designed specifically for tending and harvesting the crop can be used. All plants theoretically need the same nutrients and irrigation, and can be treated with the same type and quantity of pesticides and chemical fertilizers. The single crop can then be harvested, processed and marketed without differentiation, etc.
But of course, there is also a big downside to monoculture. Populations of insects that feed on a plant that is planted in huge tracts, can explode if they can manage to overcome the chemical poisons that are intended to keep them out. Diseases that affect a certain strain of plant can devastate a monoculture crop. Almost without exception, any infected plant is surrounded, sometimes for miles in all directions, by plants that are susceptible to the same disease. If society depends on a single crop for a large percentage of its food supply and that crop fails, this can lead to big problems. Monoculture reduces biodiversity, which is necessary for the survival of healthy ecosystems. And any ecologically harmful agricultural practice, such as mass application of chemical poison, which results from a method of farming, damages the environment in direct proportion to the scale of the practice.
In recent years, responsible agriculturalists, most often small-scale organic farmers, have identified many of the problems inherent in monoculture and have worked hard to develop methods of farming that avoid them. What has emerged, is nothing less than a new way of viewing agriculture. By placing it in a much broader context, short term profitability and industrial efficiency are given a lower priority, and a whole range of other considerations which are not a factor at all in large scale industrial farming practice are considered. These include concern for the environment, for the health of agricultural workers, for the quality of the food product itself, and, at the broadest level, an attempt to take responsibility for all foreseeable effects of the process of food production.
The above considerations are a radical departure from the corporate capitalist viewpoint in which all processes are valued in accordance with their ability to create money. The product itself, food in the above example, is almost irrelevant in the industrial capitalist approach, except as a means to accumulate capital. If a company produces something that looks like a tomato, and people will buy it, it does not matter whether the tomato itself is healthy to eat or whether the process of producing it has sickened workers and left a trail of environmental destruction in its wake.
This paradigm extends to most other industries as well. Building contractors, for example, often rush to slam up new homes, skimping on materials and overlooking and concealing flaws in order to get the product on the market as cheaply as possible so that the profit will be greater. If at the end, the product looks like a house, it must be a house. If this process leads to flaws in design and construction that plague the building for the next forty years, that will be the problem of the homeowner and not of concern to the builder.
When a builder is not a builder, but a profit maker, and when a farmer is not a farmer, but a moneymaking machine, there are gross inefficiencies and unaccounted for problems that arise as a result. All businesses that view money as the ultimate product are practicing a type of monoculture. For all practical purposes they are growing only one crop, and that crop is money, despite all appearances to the contrary.
Now consider this concept of monoculture in a broader context. There has been considerable conversation among progressives about corporate consolidation of media ownership. Let’s assume that this consolidation is the rough equivalent of development of a monoculture news media, art and entertainment environment. In this environment, the real product, from the perspective of the corporate boardroom, again is not reliable and accurate news, challenging and enlightening art and music, or socially redeeming entertainment. The real product is corporate profit, and all of these other endeavors are subordinate to the creation and maintenance of a profit delivery system.
But the consolidation of media ownership in America is only part of a larger pattern. If we think of corporate media as a profit motivated entity driven entirely by a need to sell newspapers or to attract and hold viewers for news programs, we miss the point and fail to see the larger context of corporate monoculture in America.
The oligarchs of the monoculture would have you believe this: Corporate news and entertainment media admittedly present a limited view of life and reality, but we are constrained by the nature of “free market” competition, and thus have no choice but to give the people what they want, i.e. fluff, half truths, outright lies, and diversionary entertainment with no political or social content. Widespread belief in this deception serves them in two ways. The first is that it diverts attention from the fact that the establishment of an interconnected corporate monoculture has degraded, and will continue to degrade the global environment and the quality of life for the overwhelming majority of the worlds citizens. The second way that it serves them is that it assigns responsibility for the crime to its victims. “Sure, we at Mega Corporate News feed you shit, but YOU love to eat shit. And as long as YOU love to eat shit, we have no choice but to keep feeding it to you.”
There is a large volume of empirical data which tends to refute this perspective, as does a basic common sense analysis. The most obvious generalization that demonstrates the point is that scandal sells newspapers. What would the financial impact have been for a major corporate news outlet that might have dared to run a top story, front page headline proclaiming the Jessica Lynch “rescue” to have been a complete fraud? Would such an outlet have suffered a decline in readership or of viewers? If you believe, as I do, that the answer is no, then you must attribute the failure of corporate media in America to pursue that story, and dozens of others like it, to something other than financial considerations. Unless, of course, those financial considerations extend well beyond those of the individual corporation itself, and are based on the creation, maintenance and defense of a greater corporate monoculture.
Other informational media can be subjected to similar analysis and found to be operating under similar constraints. The story of the book Stupid White Men by Michael Moore, provides a perfect example. The book was completed prior to the events of 9/11. Thousands of copies had been printed and were awaiting release, but after 9/11 the publisher attempted to suppress it and Mike was asked to re-write it, supposedly because they felt it would not sell in the current climate of America. The book reveals damaging details concerning the election fraud that brought Bush to power, and is harshly critical of the corporate takeover of democracy in America. But when the book was finally released, it became an instant bestseller and remains one today, despite virtually no advertising or support of any kind from the publisher. What gives when a company that sells books behaves as if it doesn’t want huge profits generated by certain kinds of books?
Now look at art and entertainment. In the 1960s, when folk and pop musicians such as Bob Dylan and the Beatles began to create music that had social and political relevance, did they or their record companies experience a decline in sales and profits as a result? Far from being the case, this development was actually accompanied by a huge increase in sales. Do you think record company executives really believe that contemporary music must be expunged of all political and social relevance in order to be marketable?
When a giant radio and entertainment corporation like Clear Channel retaliates against artists who criticize Bush, they are reducing cultural diversity, and they are actually violating the basic principles of “free market” capitalism. In the Disneyland version of free market capitalism, the one we are supposed to believe actually exists, a free market offers people a wide variety of choices, and they decide which books to buy, what music to listen to and, by extension, what ideologies they wish to support. But corporate censorship and large-scale political activism on the part of huge corporations, such as the recent pro war rallies sponsored by Clear Channel, are irrefutable evidence that the corporate oligarchy has no faith in, or use for, the values they espouse. Their real values are made clear by their actions. They pursue monopoly, and use it aggressively to silence opposing viewpoints, and they attempt to deny economic opportunity to anyone whose words or artistic works express those forbidden viewpoints.
In the world of corporate consolidation, a record company may not award a record contract to the talented, creative young radical whose music is filled with political references. And the denial of such a contract has nothing to do with the potential for marketability of the music. It may owe more to the fact that perspectives that oppose the corporate monoculture itself, are viewed as the equivalent of weeds in a giant field of bio-engineered corn.
But unfortunately, the weeds, those strange little plants that have been overlooked, ignored or persecuted, embody the essence of all that is vital and essential for our survival and prosperity. This is both a metaphor and a literal truth. Virtually all food plants now grown on corporate factory farms were once wild plants that would today be considered weeds.
And in our human culture, the top of the food chain in American society today is occupied by corporate oligarchs who practice a particularly severe type of mental monoculture. They begin with a set of flawed assumptions and an ideology which does not conform to observable reality, violates common sense, and is not predictive of anything; case in point, just one of a myriad of possible examples: Iraqis will welcome us as liberators after we kill them by the thousands and occupy their country.
In the process of selling its ideologically flawed and counterintuitive policies, the oligarchs of the monoculture isolate themselves from real debate, and reject or ignore all arguments, no matter how strong, which contradict their aims. They repeat known lies over and over, and when said lies are exposed as such, exchange the original set of justifications which were based on lies for a new set of justifications which are based on even more, but slightly different, lies. Then, when their policies and actions inevitably obtain results that are fundamentally at odds with their publicly stated predictions and justifications, they employ a number of strategies which are intended to make the public believe that reality itself is something other than what direct observation and common sense indicates.
Of course the preceding refers primarily to the Bush administration’s Iraq war, but the Bush administration is just the most glaring example of mental monoculture taken to absurd extremes. Strong evidence of the development of global corporate mental monoculture was in evidence long before the Bush people seized power. In fact, they could never have seized power to begin with if it weren't for the existence of a corporate and mass media monoculture.
But the problem with monoculture is that it is ultimately self-defeating. Even those that think they are profiting from the monoculture, or their children, will ultimately suffer the same fate as those that are immediately victimized by it. When Bush stands up on stage and says we can't harm our economy by taking global warming seriously, what he is really advocating is setting fire to the platform that he is standing on. Money, or power, or global domination, ultimately cannot substitute for clean air, fresh water, healthy food, and an environment capable of sustaining life. If we allow the course to proceed along its present trajectory, by the time the polar ice caps melt, the Bush people will probably be long gone. But it will be tough for the PR man whose job it is to insist that we need more studies to determine whether global warming is real, while citizens of Manhattan wade through knee deep and rising water in the streets.