When I was young and idealistic in the 1960s and 1970s, I blamed “the system” for the problems of the day. I didn’t give much thought to the connection between “the system” and the people who, presumably, ran it, directed it, and were responsible and accountable for it. We even used the anonymous term “the Man” to refer to those who were responsible for creating, perpetuating and enforcing “the system”. At about that point I began meeting some of the people who were associated with “the system” — senior politicians, business leaders, regulators, and police. I was puzzled that they didn’t seem to know as much as I thought “the Man” should know about what was going on, and didn’t seem to have any real control over “the system”. In more charitable moments I even admitted that they seemed to be as much victims of “the system” as the rest of us.
Fast forward 40 years. In last week’s New Yorker, Hendrik Hertzberg writes something eerily similar to what I began to suspect all those years ago:
[What is called] “pathetic fallacy” is … the false attribution of human feelings, thoughts, or intentions to inanimate objects, or to living entities that cannot possibly have such feelings, thoughts, or intentions—cruel seas, dancing leaves, hot air that “wants” to rise [or "America", or "the company", or "the government"]. The American government has its human aspects—it is staffed by human beings, mostly—but its atomized, at-odds-with-itself legislative structure (House and Senate, each with its arcane rules, its semi-feudal committee chairs, and its independently elected members, none of whom are accountable or fully responsible for outcomes) makes it more like an inanimate object. In our sclerotic lawmaking process, it is not enough that the President, a majority of both Houses of Congress, and a majority of the voters at the last election favor extending health care to all citizens.
So, “the system” again. Not “us”, not an identifiable “them”. It. This Frankenstein monster that defies the will of the people, even that of the people supposedly in power. In his book “The Corporation”, Joel Bakan personifies the corporate monster, this “it”, as having a psychopathic “personality”, as the graphic above shows. The same prognosis, using Hertzberg’s analysis, could be given to governments, and in fact to all institutions — political, economic, entrepreneurial, educational, health, media — especially those that have grown to a size where they have taken on a life and mind of their own and are no longer simply extensions of a small group of identified individuals. Lawyers and judges, not the swiftest profession at the best of times, have greatly compounded the problem by granting corporations (and most institutions are now incorporated, even political ones) the “rights of personhood”, without the commensurate responsibilities.
It’s easy to say that any institution, even the collective set of institutions that comprise “the system”, is/are made up of people, and if there’s something wrong with “the system” it can/should be fixed by piercing the institutional veil and obligating the people behind it to act responsibly. Unfortunately, if you’ve spent any time trying to get “the system” to work from within, at various levels in the hierarchy, you quickly discover, as Hertzberg says, that the institution is not merely the sum of its people. I’ve spoken to oil company executives, cabinet ministers, university presidents, and many other “leaders’ in “the system” and they are, mostly, informed and aware of the need for reforms. But they feel helpless to institute that reform unless everyone moves at once and together. A”level playing field” is needed so that one irresponsible or opportunistic company or national government or other institution does not gain “competitive advantage” by refusing to make the change. And we know from WTO and G20 and Copenhagen and the US Health Care debate, just to give a few recent examples, that getting “everyone” on side is impossible. All it takes is one renegade and you have a race to the bottom with the renegade in the lead. That’s the way the “system” inherently works.
So to change “the system” it is not sufficient to persuade a majority of the people who work within it (up and down the hierarchy) that a change is needed and appropriate. Like Frankenstein’s monster, “the system” has enormous inertia when you want it to start moving somewhere new, and enormous momentum when you want to stop it or shift its direction. As Clay Christensen has written, the larger a corporation gets, the less capable it becomes of any innovation whatsoever, and the same is true for other types of institution.
So what can be done about it? How do we “bring down the monster” if persuasion and democratic means, even when available, will inevitably be ineffective? If changing “them” isn’t enough, how do we change “it”?
Perhaps the first thing we need to do is to get past the “pathetic fallacy” and realize that this “monster” has no human attributes. It is not capable of feeling or morality or judgement. It is an automaton, doing what it has been programmed to do. It is not psychopathic or like Frankenstein’s monster — these are both personifications. It is not really a “monster” either — the word literally means an omen or portent. It is not sentient, not like any living creature in that sense, since it has no identity or singularity. It is, in a sense, programmed to grow.
The best analogy for this monster is probably cancer. Cancer is an unintended consequence of the evolution from unicellular creatures to organisms. The survival advantage of organisms (ranging from amoebae to whales) comes with a price — individual cells in an organism can’t replicate without restriction like their simpler cousins or they’d outgrow the boundaries of the organism, so nature evolved processes called cellular apoptosis (death) and senescence (cessation of replication) to keep the total number of cells of each specialized type in the creature’s body in balance. These processes are set off by chemical triggers in the body. Cancer cells don’t respond to the triggers, so they grow out of control. In the short run, that’s an evolutionary success; in the long run, since it kills the organism and then the meta-organism (the creature), it’s a failure.
By analogy, our industrial systems, which ignore nature’s checks and balances designed to keep each type of creature in the global organism Gaia in balance, are an unintended consequence of our evolution of large brains, a short-run evolutionary success and, in the longer run, will kill our species and, through the sixth great extinction now in process, many, perhaps most, of the species in Gaia.
In both cases, these monsters are ultimately self-limiting — when they kill the host (the creature, or the species), they will lose the support mechanism they need to survive and will die themselves. Cancers are very very rarely contagious, and aren’t passed down from one generation to the next. Our cancerous human civilization systems, likewise, aren’t likely to be picked up by other Earth species, or inevitably recreated by the small number of survivors of civilizational collapse who build post-industrial human society. That post-industrial human society is therefore likely to thrive, in balance with the rest of all-life-on-Earth, for millions of years (weather, or rather climate, permitting) before it develops another monster.
Doctors talk bravely about defeating cancer but it’s very unlikely they’ll succeed. Because cancers are evolutionary phenomena, trying to prevent cancers is like trying to prevent evolution. Only members of highly delusional religions believe you can fight (or deny out of existence) the reality of evolution.
But bringing down the monster of “the system”, like fighting cancer, is not hopeless. It’s just very difficult. Best way to prevent both is to live a healthy life that discourages the monster from preying on you or your community. The three types of actions that Joanna Macy talks about in her work, and which I have adapted in my “what you can do” diagram, map analogously to the three ways in which doctors and patients fight cancers:
|Strategy||As applied to cancers||As applied to civilization|
|Learn, self-manage||Know what you can do, and how cancers develop and spread, build personal and support network capacity and competence||Know what you can do, and how “the system” really works, build personal and collective capacity and competence|
|Fight||Work to defeat the cancer through healthy living, good practices, positive attitude, and use “holding actions” (therapies) to prevent the disease from growing and getting worse||Work to undermine and defeat industrial systems, use “holding actions” to prevent the systems from growing and getting worse|
|Live differently||Feed your healthy cells, your body, and your immune system so that the diseased cells have less opportunity to grow||Create new natural structures and model communities, that show people an alternative so “the system” has less opportunity to grow|
The analogy isn’t too far-fetched, is it? In both cases, the options to ‘reform’ what’s sick and dysfunctional, to ‘persuade’ it to behave better, are limited, and insufficient. We have to use a combination of strategies, and manage our expectations. In both cases, there’s a chance we can bring down the monster, at least for awhile, and a chance we cannot. In both cases, if we limit ourselves to personal actions, try to go it alone, we’re not going to succeed nearly as well as if we work collectively and collaboratively with our communities. We can either try or we can give up.
Giving up, for me at least, is not an option.