by Alnoor Ladha and Martin Kirk
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
Martin Kirk is co-founder and Head of Strategy for /The
Rules. Formerly, he was Head of Campaigns at Oxfam, GB
and Head of Advocacy at Save the Children, UK, working
with governments and multi-lateral institutions. He has
been published by The Guardian, Al Jazeera and authored
Finding Frames: New Ways to Engage the UK Public in
greatest epidemic sickness known to humanity.
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.
"The Priests of
the Golden Bull" 1
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
What if we then
told you that this 'mind virus' can be described as a form
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
The history of this
infection is long, strange, and dark.
But it leads to hope.
Viruses of the
The New World
fell not to a sword but to a meme.
Daniel Quinn 2
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.
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
of the Spotted Eagle 6
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:
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:
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,
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
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
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
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.
| 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
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.
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...
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
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
the initial act,
even when driven by necessity, creates a residual, unnatural
desire for more
the host carrier,
which they called the 'victim,' ended up with an 'icy heart'
- i.e., their ability for empathy and compassion was
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
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.
In other words, any system that is sufficiently infected by wetiko
logic will reward cannibalistic behavior.
Or, in Jack Forbes'
"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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
sitting 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
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
rational and rationality is everything; therefore selfishness is
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
labeled '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.
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'
And as for those who are
actually poor - well, they are effortlessly labeled not just as
practical but also moral failures.
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
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
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
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
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
- Antidote Logic
Launch your meme
boldly and see if it will replicate - just like genes
replicate, and infect, and move into the organism of
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.
and Community 18
You might just be a black Bill Gates in the making.
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
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.
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
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
Forbes reminds us that we cannot 'fight' wetiko in any traditional
"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 wetiko capitalism.
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
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 birth
right 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
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...
1 These are lyrics
from a song entitled "The Priests of the Golden Bull" by the
Native Canadian singer/songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie from her
1992 album entitled Coincidence and Likely Stories. The authors
believe this was their first encounter
with the memetic mind virus of wendigo (a version of wetiko).
This will all make sense at the end of this article.
2 Quinn, D. Beyond civilization: Humanity's next great
adventure. Broadway Books (2008), p. 50.
3 Dawkins, R. The selfish gene. Oxford University Press (1990).
4 'Intra-action' is a neologism created by Karan Barad and
described in her book, Meeting the Universe Halfway (2007).
Barad writes about intra-action, rather than interaction, to
illustrate how entanglement precedes thingness. In other words,
there are no things as such, just relationships - and these
ongoing relational dynamics are co-responsible for how things
5 Recent research, for example, has shown how the grandchildren
of Holocaust survivors have different stress hormone profiles
than those from otherwise very similar circumstances but whose
grandparents did not suffer through the Holocaust. Rodriguez, T.
"Descendants of Holocaust survivors have altered stress
hormones," Scientific American (March 2015), accessed at:
6 Luther Standing Bear. Land of the spotted eagle. Bison Books
7 Forbes, Jack D. Columbus and other cannibals: The wetiko
disease of exploitation, imperialism and terrorism. Seven
Stories Press (2008), p.46.
8 See Not in His Image (2006) by John Lamb Lash for a
comprehensive account of the systematic annihilation of paganism
by the new Christian religion.
9 Cooper, J.M. "The Cree Witiko Psychosis" in Primitive Man,
Vol. 6, No. 1 (Jan., 1933), pp. 20-24: The George Washington
University Institute for Ethnographic Research.
10 Darley, J. M., and Batson, C.D. "From Jerusalem to Jericho: A
study of situational and dispositional variables in Helping
Behavior." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (1973),
Vol. 27, Number 1, pp. 100-108.
12 Capra F, Luisi P, A systems view of life: A unifying vision.
Cambridge (2014), Chapter 8.
13 Forbes, Jack D. Columbus and other cannibals: The wetiko
disease of exploitation, imperialism and terrorism. Seven
Stories Press (2008), p.46.
14 A version of this argument was originally published on
Occupy.com by the authors in a two-part essay entitled
"Capitalism is Just a Story and Other Dangerous Thoughts." See
15 For example, see this forecast report by the World Bank:
17 Forbes, Jack D. Columbus and other cannibals: The wetiko
disease of exploitation, imperialism and terrorism. Seven
Stories Press (2008), p.37.
19 These lyrics are from Beyoncé's song "Formation," which was
originally debuted at the 2015 Super Bowl. For a critical
analysis, see Dianca London's article entitled Beyoncé's
capitalism, masquerading as radical change.
20 McKenna, T. The archaic revival: Speculations on psychedelic
mushrooms, the Amazon, virtual reality, UFOs, evolution,
shamanism, the rebirth of the goddess, and the end of history.
Harper Collins (1992).
21 John Shotter, "Agential realism, social constructionism, and
our living relations to our surroundings: Sensing similarities
rather than seeing patterns'' Theory and Psychology, 2014.
22 Forbes, Jack D. Columbus and other cannibals: The wetiko
disease of exploitation, imperialism and terrorism. Seven
Stories Press (2008), p.61.
23 Karan Barad talks about the confluence of ethics, knowing,
and being as an 'onto-ethico-politico-epistemology.' Ontology
refers to what is in the world. Epistemology is about how we
know what is in the world. And ethics is how we should engage in
the world. These are not separate, but emerge materially in an
ongoing dynamic. The nature of reality and the nature of
knowledge are entangled - not fixed or final or determinate -
and thus cannot be divorced from power and what we find valuable