A society is not neutral; it is the result of traditions, beliefs, particular developments, and the choices of those who govern.
You may have realized that some countries emphasize one value over another. Let’s look at four values that shape four very different societies: mana, philotimo, culture, and money.
Mana: the first principle of Polynesian societies
Mana corresponds to prestige, spiritual, or magical strength, vigour, bravery. It is a set of things that cannot be translated into other languages without the meaning being somewhat corrupted. It has been a driving force for societies in the South Pacific for millennia. These societies often went to war. There were many ways to increase mana: war, human sacrifice, and sex. This explains why sexuality is not as taboo in Polynesia as it is in other regions, despite Christianization.
At the top of the social pyramid were priests, below them warriors, and then the rest of the population according to each individual’s ability, through his profession, to acquire mana. This structure is very similar to the one that prevailed in Europe before the so-called modern era. The fundamental difference is that there was a kind of social elevator for those who are able to demonstrate bravery by, for example, defeating an enemy warrior. That said, slavery was practised there and it was rare for a slave to be able to claim the rank of warrior, since very often they were former enemy warriors taken prisoner, deprived of their mana and therefore dehumanized.
Philotimo is a term that has no equivalent in other languages. It literally means “the love of honour”, but this is an often inaccurate translation since the word “honour” has different meanings in different languages and countries. Philotimo is selfless love; it is the highest love, according to the Greek conception. One who has philotimo is willing, for example, to sacrifice himself for his community, without expecting anything in return. It corresponds to loving kindness, a kind of Christian love mixed with the flamboyant love of the Greek warriors of yesteryear. There is panache in philotimo. Greece has often been criticised for not meeting European budgetary requirements. This is partly due to the fact that its society still places philotimo above all else.
Scholarship and culture have always been prerogatives of sedentary human groups. In order to read, write, or learn, one first must be relieved of laborious constraints such as working the land. This explains why, in France for example, the possession of literary knowledge is still a sign – unfairly – of belonging to the upper echelons of society. Culture was the most refined and immediate social filter: by discussing for a few moments with someone you could validate or refute their knowledge of references specific to the ruling class. Culture is a strong elitist marker in France even today; one can’t erase 1500 years of a tri-functional system. That said, culture as an aristocratic marker has appeared quite recently if you look at the history of France. This is illustrated in the conspicuous transition from the nobles of the sword (warrior) to the nobles of the robe (and salon). There came a time when the majority of nobles were no longer assigned to military positions. They instead were relegated to administrative staff, allowing the king to take more and more local power away from them. The centralization of power in France had the effect of turning the nobles into courtiers at least partially, and thus the sword became the pen.
Some companies place money at the heart of their ethos. An example of this phenomenon is the United States where it seems that everything can be bought (except by those who put God before money, of course). How does one explain such a phenomenon? Money is the “great equalizer”. To unify a cosmopolitan society whose members have different basic values, one must find a common, fundamental value upon which all people can easily agree. In homogeneous societies, there is a stronger understanding of concepts that may seem opaque or subtle and cannot be quantified (cf: philotimo and mana). On the contrary, in a heterogeneous society, the possibility of quantification must be created to easily know one’s place and how one can progress from there. In the U.S., money is the accounting element par excellence. Add to this the work ethic of the first Protestant settlers and you create a society based on a system of work, exchange, and money, commonly known as capitalism. In addition to that, we must not forget that capitalism allows for nepotism because of the monopolies or oligopolies it necessarily creates. Thus, on the surface, one might claim equality based on work in a system that has benefited a certain part of the population for centuries (white Americans). As a result, you get a country that propagates the myth of equality, yet where whites have largely retained economic and political power because of nepotism (communal or racial) made possible by the fact that they initially owned the vast majority of capital (financial and symbolic). Being white in the United States is still, alas, an outward sign of status. Thus, in the United States there are two value systems: money (official) and race (unofficial). Perhaps the latter will disappear in time; indeed, only time will tell.
Of course, all these considerations should not make us forget that the great equalizer – “money” – is the work, under the combined effect of globalization.
It is not surprising to see an Anglo-Saxonization of the world and the disappearance of traditional values.