Wetiko:

Energy, Domination and

Human Societies

By Martin Kirk

May 9, 2016

We are transforming. Everything.

When a caterpillar becomes a chrysalis, its physical form dissolves into a sort of primordial goo and then re-forms as a butterfly. The entire life-system reboots its organising principles. It changes how it looks, the way it moves, how and what it feeds on; it is, to all intents and purposes, a wholly different thing. The butterfly is made from the same basic material as the caterpillar, but that material is organised so differently from what came before that it is unrecognisable in almost ever way.

It’s difficult to conceive of our human world changing quite as dramatically as the caterpillar but that is what is happening. Old organising principles are dying and new ones are emerging. Much of our day-to-day reality feels predictable and familiar, if not solid and immutable, and so we can feel a sense of continuity that is deceptive. In truth, we are entering a chrysalis state. Our old caterpillar structures are slowly dissolving; the animating energy is being redirected and reorganised; and a new form, or, more accurately, forms, will emerge in time.
Wynwood Art District Miami, Photo: C. Rappich
To be able to read the signs of this transformation, we first need to understand the organising principles we are living with now. We need to describe why the caterpillar looks and behaves the way it does in order to understand what is changing. And what can change. Because unlike the caterpillar, we are not operating purely on instinct. Our cognitive abilities mean we live in a state of co-emergence with the world around us. We use our intelligence to study, analyse, make choices, and direct vast flows of energy but are subject to laws and energies far beyond our understanding or control; in short, we shape and are shaped, we direct and are directed. We are forever becoming-with the world around us.
Wynwood Art District Miami, Photo: C. Rappich

There is a concept common to many North American Indigenous nations that provides a useful way of understanding the organising principles we are – hopefully – transcending. It is variously called wetiko, windingo, and wintiko, depending on the nation. It is a strange, often frightening thought-form. It is not bound by Western scientific frameworks, but rather has grown out of profoundly non-Western worldview. As such, it is particularly useful for Western, non-Indigenous audiences because it can, if approached with an open mind, free us from some of the assumptions that limit our thinking.

We cannot understand the myriad possibilities for what manner of butterflies we may become if we are tethered too tightly to our old caterpillar ways of thinking and being. Wetiko is a vehicle to help us understand where we have come from and why, and help us shape – such as we can – where we may be going.

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 Eagle, Bison Books (2006)

Wynwood Art District Miami, Photo: C. Rappich
Many spiritual traditions, including Buddhism, Sufism, 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 direct the energy of individuals and whole societies.
Similar notions 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 the material world 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.
Wynwood Art District Miami, Photo: C. Rappich
What all of these conceptions share is the idea that the deepest, most foundational of these thought-forms are the base units of perception that determine our understanding of reality. From that understanding emerges our intentions, and from our intentions flow our behaviours and actions.
Wetiko is the Algonquin word for what they termed a cannibalistic spirit, and we might also call a thought-form, that manifests as greed, excess and selfish consumption. It deludes its host into believing that cannibalising whatever energy it can lay its hands on (including that of other humans, animals and other forms of life) is a logical and morally upright strategy for a successful life.
Wetiko short-circuits an entity’s ability to see itself as an enmeshed and interdependent part of a balanced environment and raises the self-serving ego to supremacy. The false separation it creates between humans and the rest of nature means those infected cannot see what is inherently cannibalistic about certain types and levels of consumption. It numbs them from being able to sense the ultimately self-consuming nature of its actions, and commands them to consume far more than they need 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. I will stick with the term wetiko as it is the original, and it reminds us of the wisdom to be found in Indigenous cultures.
Wynwood Art District Miami, Photo: C. Rappich
Source: Unknown
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 other words, the wetiko thought-form can act as an organising principle that directs the focus and energies of individuals and whole societies.

It doesn’t ultimately matter whether the sources of energy are renewable or finite. The point isn’t what type of energy is used, but rather the intentions driving that use. A wetiko-infected entity will feel it necessary and moral to consume at the fastest possible rate their technology allows and transform all efficiency gains into ever-more consumption. If the intention is unchained from any sense of limit, and driven by a desire for excess, selfish and self-aggrandizing consumption, we are dealing with wetiko.

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.” (Forbes, Jack D. Columbus and Other Cannibals: The Wetiko Disease of Exploitation, Imperialism and Terrorism. Seven Stories Press (2008), p.46.)
Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library; Photograph from the mid-1870s of a pile of American bison skulls waiting to be ground for fertilizer.
It is hardly a stretch to describe the behaviour of the European colonialists in North America as cannibalistic. The engine of the invading culture sucked-in the energy of millions of other beings and turned them into wealth and power for themselves. The operating principle of their culture both required and desired dominion over others in order to fulfil its purpose.  Moreover, it was all done with a moral certainty that any and all destruction was justified in the name of this purpose, which was called ‘progress’ and ‘civilization’.
So blinded was this culture by self-referential ambition that it had no capacity to recognise other life and cultures as being as valid as its own. The invaders could not see past what today we might call their ideological blinders to the intrinsic value of life or the interdependent nature of all things, despite this being the dominant worldview 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 the viral spread of a thought-form whose vector was determined by deep patterns of history, including those that empowered Europeans to drive ‘global exploration’ as certain technologies emerged.
Wynwood Art District Miami, Photo: C. Rappich
Finding Wetiko
The wetiko thought-form has almost certainly existed in individuals since the dawn of humanity. It is, after all, something that lives though and is born from the human psyche.
Wynwood Art District Miami, Photo: C. Rappich
We know, for example, that the fingerprints of wetiko-like beliefs can be traced at least as far back as the Neolithic revolution 10,000 years ago, when humans in the Fertile Crescent first learnt 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.
Then, the social historian Riane Eisler documented a profound re-orientation of European and Middle-East cultures beginning approximately 5,000 years ago. In her telling, the primary shift was from societies in which goddesses of creation sat atop the pantheon of deities, to societies that replaced them with male gods of war and domination. Instead of worshipping the energy of creation and life, and seeing all life as part of sacred webs and networks, they began to worship the energy of destruction and domination, and see life as hierarchical. It is often referred to as the emergence of patriarchy as an organising principle but it could just as easily be described as wetiko.
This logic received a boost 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. This now monotheistically validated logic was driven across Europe at the point of Roman swords in the two hundred years after Christ’s death. It is no co-incidence that, in order for Christianity to become dominant, the existing Pagan belief-system, with its still-dominant worship of goddesses and understanding of humanity’s place within rather than above nature had to be annihilated.
Consumer Christ, Banksy, Photo: reubeniz

The point is, the epidemiology of wetiko has left clear tracks. 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 channelled the energy 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
When Western anthropologists first started to study wetiko in the 1930s, they believed it to be only a disease of the individual, and a literal form of flesh-eating cannibalism. 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 cultural evolution: (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.
Wynwood Art District Miami, Photo: C. Rappich
The reader can probably already sense from these two traits the wetiko nature of modern capitalist culture. Its insatiable hunger for finite resources; its need for perpetual hyper-consumption; its disregard for the pain of cultures and species it consumes or destroys; and its overriding obsession with its own material growth. It is accurate to describe neoliberal capitalism (the heir incarnate of historical capitalism) as cannibalising life on this planet. This, of course, is not truth in a vacuum – capitalism has also facilitated an explosion of human life and ingenuity – but when taken as a whole, capitalism is certainly eating through the life-energy of this planet in service of its own growth.
This infection is so far advanced that it now requires exponential capital and material growth. The World Bank tells us that we have to grow the global economy by at least 3 percent per year to avoid recession. Let’s think about what this means. Global GDP in 2014 was roughly USD $78 trillion. We grew that pie by 2.4% in 2015 which resulted in the commodification and subsequent consumption of roughly another $2 trillion in human labour 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 does not collapse.  In order to achieve this rate of growth, it is destroying our planet, causing mass species extinction, and displacing millions of our brothers and sisters (who we commonly refer to as “poor people”) around the world.
This is the context and the outcome of the wetiko operating principles that we are right now living with. Paul Levy has dubbed it the Wetikonomy.

So when people tell us that the growth is the answer, or market knows best, or technology will save us, or philanthrocapitalism will redistribute opportunities, we have to understand that all of these seemingly common sense truisms are embedded in the Wetikonomy. And the more these growth/market/technology/philanthropy based dreams of salvation 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 looking at, such statements are like signposts for where the greatest change is needed.

Wynwood Art District Miami, Photo: C. Rappich
It is not that we need to be against growth, markets etc.– they are wonderful, in the right context – but we do need to recognise when they are being used as alibis to excuse the insanity of the wetikonomy. And when choosing who we look to for hope, we should heed 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 behaviour. And too, if I am correct, they were, and are, also insane.”
Seeing Wetiko: Antidote Logic
So what are we to do about all this? Forbes argues 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.”
Wynwood Art District Miami, Photo: C. Rappich
The good news is that the simple act of being conscious of thought-forms makes us less likely to succumb mindlessly to them. Conscious awareness is like green shoots through concrete, cracking the control wetiko exerts. Thus, one of the starting points for healing is the simple act of ‘seeing wetiko’, in ourselves, in others, and in our cultural infrastructures.
Then, we each, as active participants in a wetiko culture can focus on understanding our consumption with a much broader, deeper, more critical eye. By seeing wetiko in ourselves, we can meld our journey towards self-knowledge with our journey towards understanding the systems that govern us. The micro reflects the macro, the trivial reflects the profound.
Let’s take a simple hairdryer as an example. A wetiko logic would lead us to believe that new and more powerful dryers, that use less electricity, will dry our hair faster and save us time that we can spend doing other things.  Win-win sustainable consumption, in other words.
A non-wetiko logic tells us instantly that this is wrong-headed. The very idea of sustainable consumption within the confines of the wetikonomy is a contradiction in terms. The cannibalistic logic that governs the whole governs everything that serves its material growth imperative. Sticking the word “sustainable” in-front of growing consumption does not change that fact in any way.  A lot reform-based initiatives, from the sharing economy to micro-lending, have succumbed to the flawed logic that we can tweak means of production within the wetikonomy and affect its overall impact. Nothing could be further from the truth. Non-wetiko logic frees us from such fallacies, allows us to transcend the imperative to do more in order to channel more energy into ever-more consumption.

Instead of swallowing these ‘lose even if you win’ ideas, we can target the wetiko logic where it most powerfully lives, for example, in the idea of GDP as a measure of progress. Our politics start to become the politics of transformation when we set an intention to change the rules that give life to wetiko logic.

Seeing wetiko is a first step in the practice of de-learning its logic in order to re-learn our vast and innate capacities for non-wetiko ways of life. Holding a structural perspective and an unapologetic critique of the wetiko operating principles of modern capitalism serves our ability to direct our energies where they are most needed, as well as see the myriad alternatives that exist.

Martin Kirk is Head of Strategy for /The Rules, a global network of activists, organisers, designers, coders, researchers and writers dedicated to changing the rules that create inequality and poverty around the world.

1 Comment

  1. KulaSekhar

    Very Enlightening indeed. Thank you for Sharing your views. Would love to keep this in mind. Look forward to Reading more on this. Regards
    Sekhar

    Reply

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *