John Newton (1725-1807) is best known for penning the hymn Amazing Grace in the later years of his life as a minister in the Church of England. In 1788 he published a pamphlet entitled Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade, in which he spoke out strongly against what he called “a disgraceful branch of commerce.” But for much of his life Newton worked on slave ships, including four years as captain of his own vessel taking stolen African men and women to the American colonies.
Newton’s transition from slaver to minister and activist was inspired by one particular event. On a return journey to Liverpool in 1748, a great storm had threatened to sink his ship, and the fear he was forced to face affected him profoundly, changing his views about the people who were imprisoned beneath his feet. He referred to this event as his “great deliverance,” and afterwards gave up the slave trade to campaign against it from his new position in the church.
What had happened to Newton to cause such a change? Did he suddenly develop a new sense of empathy with others, or was it always there, suppressed by the social norms of the time—the collective stories that were told to justify the enslavement of a different race?
We live our lives through stories that reinforce certain values and beliefs. What’s true or false, acceptable or not, are constructs that are held aloft like a scaffold in the collective psyche. But when a critical mass of individuals lets go of these stories, a tipping point is reached, and the scaffold collapses. So it was when the slave trade was abolished.
A cascade of individuals like Newton let go of the story that slavery was acceptable, and change rapidly accelerated. As the historian Adam Hochschild has written, “If you had proposed, in the London of early 1787, to change all of this, nine out of ten people would have laughed you off as a crackpot. Yet by 1807 the British Parliament had banned the slave trade.”
Capitalism is a similarly constructed story, a collection of social perceptions that create a dominant world view. But that’s all it is—a world view. It’s easy to see capitalism as a system external to ourselves, but it’s much harder to acknowledge the stories we carry inside of ourselves that create and reinforce the values that sustain it. Transforming capitalism requires that we step outside of ourselves and examine our own roles objectively. That’s never easy, but it can help to look through someone else’s eyes.
Viola Cordova was a philosopher who examined how Native Americans viewed Euro-Americans as self-centered, greedy, acquisitive, and unaware of the needs of others—or of the fact that they shared the world with other beings and with the living earth itself. Cordova critiqued the search for absolute, universal truths that characterizes Euro-American belief systems, and the notion that such knowledge will grant them control over their own destiny.
What could be offered in response to this critique? What is the story that underlies how Euro-Americans are perceived?
Here’s my interpretation. First, we view the self as separate, one from another, the individual from the environment that surrounds them. Our possessions are seen as extensions of that separate self, to be shared only with those we trust. But most people, we’re told, cannot be trusted.
Second, individual success is paramount, and requires that we compete with each other in a winner-takes-all struggle to come out on top. To come second is a shameful burden. For those who win, there’s a perception of great achievement; for those who lose, a life of suffering awaits.
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Third, knowledge is valued above all else, but knowledge is external, something to be held and controlled by experts who demand our trust. Internal knowledge—inner knowing—is always to be suspected.
These beliefs produce a pervasive sense of powerlessness, and the story that’s erected around them—the story of capitalism—inevitably becomes a narrative of fear and domination. This narrative has been used to create monetary systems and other financial institutions that are built on debt and insecurity; education systems that place people in competition with one another; and criminal justice systems which place blame solely on offenders, with no assessment of responsibilities in a wider context.
Trying to change these institutions without altering the stories that underpin them won’t create the paradigm shift that’s required to alter our self-destructive course. We might even replace one system with another that’s just as ugly. Dr Gabor Maté, who grew up in communist Hungary, is fond of citing a common satirical observation from his youth to prove this point: ‘What is capitalism? It is the exploitation of man by man. What is Communism? It is the opposite.”
As a therapist I know that such perceptions can’t be deconstructed by force. That reinforces the problem, especially when stories are founded on fear since people hold on tighter whenever they feel threatened. Successful deconstruction happens with compassion, love and acceptance, or when a greater fear is thrust upon us – like the storm at sea in John Newton’s case. At those moments people may be open to allowing a hand of grace to lead them in a radically different direction. Climate change could be that perfect storm.
In 2014 I enrolled on a ‘Sustainable Leadership’ course with the Institute for Leadership and Sustainability in Cumbria, UK. The first week residential took us through a myriad of learning experiences that were designed to develop our critical thinking, deconstruct our perceptions of social norms, reconnect ourselves with the planet, and understand the realities of climate change.
All of this together had a profound effect on me. In the weeks that followed, I journeyed through many emotions, from despair to grief and more, but ultimately—and to my surprise—I arrived at a new sense of liberation. A letting go had occurred. Some of my own ‘inner capitalist’ had been dissolved, especially around the notions of competition and success. I found my own ‘hand of grace’ in books by Cordova, Charles Eisenstein and others who are writing new stories to replace the old.
I believe that a tipping point to a new paradigm beyond capitalism will only be reached when enough individuals and communities rewrite their stories in this way. Change has to happen from the ground up. Groups that come together to face the difficult realities of climate change through mutual education, watching films, and hosting discussions and debates can strengthen their communities and break down the inner and outer underpinnings of the current economic system. Who are we? How much is enough, and what can we share?
Frameworks such as permaculture can inspire a different way of being that reconnects people with the earth as a living organism through agriculture that is modeled on natural ecosystems, with human beings as an integral component. Local currencies like the Brixton Pound and concepts like the gift economy inspire a way of sharing that goes far beyond debt-based central finance, shifting our perspectives from scarcity to abundance.
Grassroots movements like “incredible edible” (which grows food in urban spaces) reconnect people with what it means to work directly with the sun’s energy in order to sustain life. Local food economies create greater self-reliance in communities, and help people to develop an internal locus of control that can free them from fear and the urge for domination, thus creating the new values and beliefs that can sustain a different economic system.
This revolution is a quiet one. Change seems slow to come at first, but I believe a cascade will eventually develop like the one that lead up to slavery’s abolition in 1807. We can help by encouraging each other with new stories that describe a different sense of what it means to be human in the world. These stories will become our truth.