There are two types of things that we put money into; the things that we need and the things that we don’t. The former represent our physical needs and the latter our spiritual needs. Food for the body and food for the mind. We need to eat, but we don’t need to see a movie. We need a house to live in, but we don’t need a house of worship. We need a car to get to work, but we don’t need a painting on our wall once we get there.
Culture isn’t a luxury, even the poorest of the poor have it. It doesn’t mean a night at the opera, it can just as easily mean sitting under a tree while the village elder explains where fire came from. But it is optional in the sense that we choose where to put our money or pine cones and those choices are our values economy.
The values economy consists of the culture you support. It’s the books you buy and the movies you see, it’s the paintings on your wall and the house of worship you attend. It’s the concerts and games you buy tickets to and it’s the colleges you attend. It’s all the intangible investments in the intangible things of aesthetics, faith and cultural knowledge.
In a healthy culture, these things mirror your values. In an unhealthy culture they do not. Not only do they not, but they don’t even mirror any stable set of values that can go the distance. Instead they’re a species of insanity, confused and convoluted bits of specialist jargon, perpetual revolutions against good taste, ideas without ideas and taboo hunters with no more taboos left to break.
Cultural industries operate on perception. Everyone must see a movie or hear a song. Everyone must go to college, even though it’s mostly as useful as a donkey on a pogo stick. Everyone must accept that all religions are basically the same and can be boiled down to a love for one’s fellow man. All these things are the means through which the values economy manufactures the perception of the centrality of its own values and the importance of its own products. And its only real product is convincing you of its indispensability.
All cultural products are part of the values economy. When you put money into the values economy, you are subsidizing a particular set of values and regardless of where your real tastes and beliefs lie, you will get more of what you buy. If you buy a set of lead pencils every month, the company will go on making more lead pencils. If you buy cultural products at odds with your values, then more of the same will keep on being made.
Culture is an investment. It might be the second biggest investment there is after the family. Any society can build a dam or go to the moon or harness the talents of its innately gifted artists and musicians to create great works of art… if they have the cultural framework in which that can happen. Without that framework, great engineers, musicians, poets, artists, scientists and architects will be born and their skills will be wasted, as they are wasted in most of the world and in most of history.
Culture is the difference between making things of worth and making worthless things. It is the glue that brings together bold ideas and makes them possible. It is what explains the universe and tells us how to make the impossible, possible. And it’s the most fragile of all these things because it dies easily.
The values economy is how a society maintains its culture, investing its energy, money and structure into maintaining a healthy culture that projects its values and makes its achievements possible. Like any other investments, there are bad investments and good investments. A society can invest in Bach or it can invest in Andy Warhol. It can invest in engineers or Transgender Guatemalan Poets 101. And these investments have consequences, they pay out profits or lead to losses even if they appear to initially be intangible, with Andy leading to more Andy and Bach leading to more Bach.
Highbrow culture had patrons. Lowbrow culture had people who stopped by and threw pennies into a hat. Those boundaries have mostly been erased. Highbrow culture is now the pursuit of the utterly senseless, whose senselessness verifies its superiority, and the vast territory is occupied by a populist culture that is high and low at the same time, blending an empty intellectual superiority with bad taste and worse standards where everything is sincerely a joke, and ironic detachment is a pratfall away.
Aside from fans of one thing or another, most people don’t think of their learning, their religion or their entertainment as an investment, a seed planted in the earth to produce more of its kind. And the failure to think that way leads them to make bad investments in a bad culture.
The culture that we are stuck with now has mostly been one bad investment after another, tracts of smelly swampland where nothing can grow pawned off by sleazy weasels wearing too much polyester and more gold chains than the pharaohs, who haven’t even had to work very hard to pull off their malignant scam. Good has been traded for bad and then for worse.
The values economy is tanking and the economic indicators are just one sign of how awry things have gone. The social indicators are another.
Culture is how we teach ourselves to perpetuate our society. Instead our cultural investments have given us broken families who are willing to sell their rights to the government in exchange for being taken care of from cradle to grave. And the government is willing to make the deal so long as it can bring in more foreign laborers to balance out the gap in the birth rate and then increase the police forces and the military to deal with the fallout from that immigration leading to a police state.
As cultural investments go, it’s not hard to see that this is a bad one.
Our society is less literate than it used to be, it’s less sane than it used to be and less productive. And those are not due to some innate defect in the youth or a fault in the stars, but in our culture. If our society is breaking, it’s because our cultural investments have been bad ones. And if our cultural investments have been bad ones, it’s because we didn’t approach culture as an investment, but as a thing of momentary enjoyment, or as a consensus that we accepted as coming from within the culture.
Reversing that will not be easy, but it is possible. Cultures have dramatically changed, particularly after traumatic events. The culture that we are living in bears the scars of such turnarounds. And that can be done again, which isn’t to say that it will be easy. The first step is to think of culture as a values economy, not just as education, enlightenment or entertainment. An investment that we are making for the future.
This does not have to be some dreary Marxist exercise in art criticism or a dogma-ridden analysis of every show on television. It means, first and foremost, caring about what you consume, instead of consuming culture as junk food, by being enthusiastic about its merits. That experience can be solitary, but it should also be undertaken with an awareness that culture is an investment in the values economy and that what you pay into will go far beyond the books and movies you take in, or the house of worship or college you attend. Culture is a conversation and we are all part of it.
Every person has a set of values that they live by. The test of any cultural investment is whether it meets those values, fails to meet those values or has values that runs counter to it. Most culture is not entirely one thing or another. There are conservative impulses in even the most liberal works and liberal impulses in even the most conservative works. And so our cultural investments confront us with the entirely subjective question of whether a thing will do more to build our culture than to tear it down.
The values economy follows the old principle GIGO, Garbage In, Garbage Out. If you invest in bad culture, you will get bad culture. And your children will get worse culture and your grand-children will get even worse culture. There is a multiplier effect to decay, it feeds on itself and becomes worse with each cycle. The bad culture of five years ago becomes the horrible culture of today and the nightmarish alien culture of tomorrow until a breaking point is reached and there are too few worthwhile things left to keep it all going.
Cocooned in tangible luxuries, it becomes easy to let the intangibles slide, to consume without contemplating the cultural cost of our cultural investments. But there’s only so much lotus that can be eaten before all memory is lost and there is no longer any voyage, only an island of shrinking land with the tide coming in.
The values economy is the calculus of our culture. It determines who we are and who our children will be. If our borders and our buildings, our roads and our technologies are our structure, then our culture is our soul. It is the spirit that lurks within the concrete and steel, it is the soul of the plastic, and if it is lost, then all that remains is structure no different from the pyramids and the countless fossilized relics of dead civilizations; empty stone with no spirit.
The economy decides if our bodies have a future. The values economy decides whether it will have a soul.
Originally published at Sultan Knish.