Distinguishing Structures from Individuals and Primary from Secondary Factors Part 2
By Dennis Loo (3/7/14)
Systems are qualitatively different from the individuals who occupy those systems. Systems operate according to system logic … – from Part 1 of this series
Systems that involve people can be usefully understood as a consistent pattern of mutual expectations among those within the system and that system vis a vis other systems. People occupy statuses and roles within systems and their behavior and attitudes are primarily shaped by those statuses and roles, not by their individual personalities. As I state in the Preface to Globalization and the Demolition of Society:
Individuals do not principally give systems the character that those systems possess; systems and structures principally shape individuals’ behavior. (p. xii)
If you are operating within a system and are abiding by that system’s logic, your actions are predictable within certain parameters. Everyone individually is a little different – some more different than others – but the nature of a system is such that highly idiosyncratic individual behavior is just that, idiosyncratic and not the norm. If most people did not adhere to the norm of a given system, then that system would not be a system.
Contrary to most people’s understanding, however, what keeps a system a system is not the individuals who occupy them deciding whether or not to adhere to the system’s norms. Systems do not collapse because a certain percentage of the individuals within them decide roughly simultaneously to stop behaving in the ways that the systems expect. Nor do systems come into being because a certain percentage of people simultaneously agree to behave a certain way without acting in a consciously collectively directed fashion. Systems do not come into being and they do not pass out of existence through individual action. Systems exist through and because of a collective set of factors and can only be replaced by another system that is governed by a different set of collective factors.
You do not change systems, in other words, by changing the faces of those who occupy the statuses and roles in those systems. You do not change the essential character of the US Presidency, for example, by electing a different individual to be the US president. The reason for the continuity between the Bush White House and the Obama White House is because the US president is still the leader of the sole imperialist superpower in the world today. His actions are fundamentally determined by the nature of that system: imperialism, which is governed by the logic of expand or die.
The only way you could change US public policy would be if the statuses and roles that characterize this imperialist system were to be radically transformed and such a transformation could only occur through a massive movement that overthrows the old system and replaces it with a radically different one in which statuses and roles are dramatically different and the logic of the system was radically different. This is not something that an individual or even several individuals could do, no matter how highly placed they were, absent a movement that sought directly to overthrow the old system.
In a general sense, enforcement for abiding by a system’s norms primarily come from above – by those who occupy the leading positions within the system. Furthermore, conformity matters more than consensus overall: people adopt the mode of behavior and thinking of others around them in order to “fit in” more than they do so because they are convinced by and agree with the values that mark the system that they are in. Humans, after all, are social creatures and belonging within a group is the highest priority for most people under most circumstances.
People who live in predominately racist neighborhoods, for example, tend to have racist ideas, though not all of them do and certainly not in equal measure, but the maintenance of racist behaviors by the community is primarily by social conformity to the behaviors of those in charge. The people in charge are the ones that others tend to model themselves after or at least take their social cues from.
The behavior of individuals according to a system’s logic goes on largely unconsciously although if you queried individuals within a system to articulate what that system’s unwritten rules were, they generally could tell you quite clearly what those unspoken rules are and distinguish between the official, public rules and the more powerful unofficial, private rules. People in general know which rules they have to abide by and which ones to give merely lip service to.
Individuals don’t invent systems any more than individuals invent their native language that they learn from their primary caregivers as they are growing up. We are initiated into pre-existing systems like language, family structures, schools, jobs, political systems, clubs and associations, gangs, and so on.
The Problem with Dichotomous and with Eclectic Reasoning
If you want to understand reality, distinguishing primary from secondary factors is an indispensable element. If you are accustomed to thinking in dichotomous ways – it’s either A or B and it cannot be some hybrid of the two – then these matters will remain puzzling to you. When Michael Steele, for example, was head of the Republican National Committee (the first African-American to fill that role) he was interviewed by NPR’s Steve Inskeep in 2009 about Medicare. Steele was trying to have it both ways regarding Medicare. He wanted to keep it while nonetheless railing against government run programs, despite the fact that Medicare is a government run program. In the course of the interview Inskeep pointed out to Steele that a comment of Steele’s seemed to show a more “nuanced” approach regarding Medicare than previously. Rather than feeling complimented by this, Steele expressed umbrage that Inskeep would call him “nuanced”: “I’m not trying to be nuanced. I’m not trying to be cute.” To Steele, “being clear” meant not being nuanced. To some such as the leadership of the Republican Party, reality is black and white. Or as Bush put it in relation to the war on terror: “You’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists.” This is the kind of reasoning that dovetails with those who think it’s perfectly all right to indefinitely detain suspects in a war that Dick Cheney said will last generations. “These men are our enemies,” they declare, “and until they give up their war against us, we can do what we want with them.”
This horrendous reasoning makes sense if your standard is your own skin: whatever has to be done and can be done to protect my skin is ok with me, even if it means violating people’s rights, up to and including torture and torturing people to death, invading countries and slaughtering people there who had nothing to do with attacks on Americans, and targeting and killing children. The ones we’re indefinitely and preventively detaining are to blame, not those of us who are doing this to them. If they are killed, they brought this on their own heads and it’s up to them to stop it. As Michael Nunn, the murderer of 17-year-old Jordan Davis, put it: “It was Jordan Davis who kept escalating this to the point where I had no choice but to defend myself.” As George Zimmerman said of his point-blank murder of Trayvon Martin: “it was all God’s plan.” This is the very definition of simple-minded reasoning. There is a reason why reactionaries do not think in nuanced ways.
A far, far less egregious but nonetheless also incorrect approach to reality is to be eclectic. Eclectic reasoning involves taking two relevant variables and treating them as both equally important. Dialectical reasoning, by contrast, treats relevant variables in terms of their relative importance, with at any point in time there always being a primary compared to a secondary factor.
For example, prejudice and racism are both relevant factors in accounting for racism as a general phenomenon. But while they are both relevant, they are not both equally important. Prejudice is epiphenomenal to racism. Racism, on the other hand, is an ideology and a system of domination and it does not continue to exist mainly because of prejudice. Prejudiced ideas are propagated and given impetus by racist systems, but racist systems do not come into being simply because of prejudice. Prejudice involves stereotyped thinking whereas racist systems produce racially discriminatory results even when racial animus – i.e., prejudice – is missing. Ethnoccentrism - the idea that your group/tribe is superior and "normal" - is something that occurs spontaneously and naturally. But for ethnocentrism to evolve into racism requires other elements to come into play: one group exercising superior power over the other(s) over the division of resources.
The rise of capitalism as an economic system can also be used to illustrate the erroneous nature of eclectic reasoning. Greed exists in capitalist systems but greed did not bring capitalism into being nor does greed keep it going. Greed is an individual personality trait that capitalism helps to promote but the system of capitalism functions by the logic of expand or die. You do not need to be a greedy person to function as a personification of capitalism's logic. Indeed, capitalism's inherent logic actually more encourages frugality and reinvestment rather than conspicuous spending on one’s self.
If you reason eclectically and attach equal importance to both what should be seen as the primary factor and the secondary factor, you end up unconsciously elevating the secondary factor to primary status – because it is impossible to in practice treat both as equally important – and end up blaming individuals for the sins of systems. “It’s not the system, it’s the people, and it will continue this way indefinitely because the people are the ones doing it to themselves.” Besides being historically completely uninformed, this sentiment is boring. It gets you nowhere and sheds no light on any subject.
Rape, to take a third example, is an interpersonal crime. A rapist (or a group of rapists) commit a crime upon another person, usually but not always, a female. Those who commit the rape are guilty of a terrible crime and they are responsible for their actions. At the same time, the solution to rape needs to be understood dialectically, not eclectically. Eclectic reasoning would state that rapists are individually just as responsible as systems of male supremacy in the ongoing problem of rape. Individual rapists, however, are not the source of a culture of rape and a culture of male supremacy. Individual rapists reflect patriarchy. They do not on their own create patriarchy. To eliminate rape requires understanding this distinction. You cannot properly re-socialize someone who is a rapist if they and you do not understand the social roots of their attitudes and behaviors. This does not let them off the hook in the least but it is the path by which someone who is guilty of rape can possibly be reformed. Any other path is futile.
As I indicated in the first installment of this two-part series, failing to understand the difference between structures and individuals leads those who are thinking eclectically to emphasize and blame individuals for their attitudes as the primary or equally important reason why the systems that are problematic – such as racism and sexism and exploitation - continue to exist. Getting clear on the vital distinction between structure and individuals and, in another expression of this, the distinction between primary and secondary factors, is key to being able to actually do anything about society or any other phenomenon.