“There is No Perfect System”
By Dennis Loo (5/14/14)
The title of this article is taken from a student’s recent comment. It is not unique to this particular student, however, but echoes comments one can hear frequently within and especially outside of academia.
His statement is true in the sense that no system produces 100% the desired outcome. But what is incorrect in the statement is his terminology. He is confusing the concept of utopias with the reality of systems
I agree with his assertion (reworded) that there are no utopias and that there can be no utopias ever, perfect societies in which all social problems have been completely eliminated such as crime and everyone lives happily ever after.
But utopias and systems are very different animals.
To say that no system is perfect reflects a lack of understanding of how systems work and to object to the idea that change is in dire need of happening. It's a claim that if you can't make a 100% perfect world through revolution then you're better off continuing to live with the existing one.
This comes from a position of privilege: my life is not so intolerable so I'm not going to support efforts to make a different world on behalf of those for whom the existing system is intolerable.
Does the planet get a say in this? If the planet Earth could speak, would it be saying right now: SAVE ME! I'm being destroyed!
Systems are ways of organizing human interactions based on mutual expectations. Human existence would be impossible without systems. We have from the beginning lived in groups in which the rules of interaction are understood. In sociology we call these rules of interaction social norms.
Norms are what the vast majority of people understand (by being taught them while growing up and learning the specific norms of specific situations and conditions such as how to function within a school, club, association, place of worship, or workplace’s specific culture and norms).
Not everyone necessarily abides by norms and there is a spectrum in society regarding how faithfully people follow norms and how important they see those norms to be. Some people are particularly disdainful of at least certain norms and they either don’t abide by them or they do so only reluctantly and only some of the time. But norms are norms because the majority of people are aware of them (either consciously or unconsciously) and the majority abide by them. If we had no norms then social life would become so problematic as to be impossible because we would not know what to expect from others around us and they would not know what to expect from us. Social life would be like driving your car in traffic in which no one was abiding by any rules at all, including rules such as taking turns driving through intersections where there are no operating lights. There would constantly be car wrecks if people operated wholly as individuals and had no regard for others and the need to co-operate.
If a majority were to stop abiding by certain specific norms, then those norms would correspondingly change. For example, prior to the US civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, it was normative for black Americans to be discriminated against in public and private settings. Not everyone in white America agreed with and not everyone in white America abided by that norm, but it was the norm nonetheless since by law and by conduct most Americans accepted the second-class status of blacks as “the way things are.”
Systems are governed by system logic. Systems function at a different level than individuals and the system logic in play overall determines how individuals within those systems will behave. Individuals’ behavior, in other words, is not primarily determined by their own thinking, personality, and individual choices. People do all have free will to some extent in that we can choose at any point in time to either go along with or resist system norms. Most of the time, most people take the path of least resistance, which is what gives systems their continuity and coherence. The decision to abide by social norms is not something that people do for the most part consciously. For most people, norms are something they spend little to no time thinking about and most of their behaviors are taken for granted as the proper thing to do without most people even knowing exactly why. One has to take a sociology or anthropology course for them to look with new eyes at behaviors that we take for granted as “the way things are.”
When people take the path of greater or greatest resistance they are violating the norms and in most cases when they do so, unless they’re young children or people who are mentally compromised due to drugs or other factors, they are doing so aware that they are risking social ostracism when they do so, which is why most people don’t depart from the path of least resistance because of the possible consequences. (Note that I said most here and not all.)
In contrast to this, however, what most people are taught and brought up to believe, primarily through popular culture and the dominant ideas propagated through media and public officials but secondarily through schools (especially K-12), is that we are all first and foremost individuals and that we can do what we want.
Identifying the preeminent role played by systems over all individuals is something that most people are never taught. Yet we all understand the importance and impact of systems through experience, even if most people don’t tend to think about them as systems. We know, for example, that criticizing or worse still, ridiculing, your boss at work is a virtually certain recipe for getting fired or demoted, even if what you are saying is absolutely true. People who witness corrupt or criminal behavior by those they work with are less likely to report these things than to stay silent because they know what the unofficial system rules dictate: don’t break ranks or you could suffer the consequences. If you are in the military you do not really have a choice as an individual to only follow the orders of your superiors that you feel like following. You can ignore or countermand a direct order from a superior, but you will surely be punished for doing so.
The founding figure of sociology, Emile Durkheim, laid the basis for sociology when he argued that society is a “thing” that can be studied scientifically. There are two notable bases for his conclusion. First, society is a thing because it is a system and it operates based on system logic, not individuals. Second, human existence is collective in nature. We all live and have always lived co-operatively and can only live as such in order to survive. Most people abide by that system logic or they are quickly ousted or marginalized from the system. The exception to this is that there are sometimes individuals whose skills are so highly valued by others that their idiosyncratic or even anti-social ways are tolerated.
The famous Stanford Prison Experiment illustrates the importance of systems and system logic perfectly. Stanford students readily and quickly adopted the role of prison guard and prisoner in the basement of a Stanford building even though their backgrounds and personal characteristics are antipodal to what people generally assume about guards and prisoners and why they behave as they do.
Some people, in fact most people, especially outside of the academy, take the notion of science somewhat loosely at best and incorrectly at worst, some saying that theories are only theories (and therefore not real), that interpretation is what matters, not objective reality, that interpretation is all that there is, or that sociology is no better than a matter of faith. Among some postmodern sociologists and among sociology students you can find those who regard society and history as things that cannot be studied scientifically.
These views are very prevalent in the current societal climate. They are in fact the dominant ideas, which is why you hear people state them so often as they are essentially repeating things that they have heard from numerous sources. But these views are incorrect and they are quite harmful to humanity’s effort to come to grips with crises such as climate change and grave injustices that we face. They would in essence leave us helpless against that famous admonishment about the failure to learn from history condemning us to repeat those same grievous results.
Systems’ logic is what produces the human behaviors and system outcomes that we see everyday. There is “no perfect system” (and I will get into why in the part 2 of this article series) but systems ARE governed by system logic. In other words, system outcomes are not due to human credulity, stupidity, or venality. System outcomes are the result of systems, not the characteristics of those who occupy those systems.
In a capitalist system the governing system logic is the relentless pursuit of profit. Social needs and environmental needs are treated as externalities to the pursuit of profit. That is as one could expect since profit seeking is the sine qua non of capitalism. Profit seeking isn’t the result of individuals’ greed. Individual greed isn’t what created capitalism in the first place and it’s not what sustains capitalism. Greed is epiphenomenal to capitalism’ dictum of expand or die. If as so many people incorrectly believe, greed and selfishness is an essential human characteristic, then capitalism would have not only existed in the last several hundred years but would have been in existence since the beginning of human societies, some 200,000 years ago. Indeed, if selfishness and individualism were essential human traits, then human society itself would never have existed and humans would have not been able to reproduce and survive.
There is a reason why the first time the word “individualism” appears in the English language is in the1800s and not before. If you are getting a degree in sociology and you think that humans are fundamentally selfish then you are not basing your studies on the most fundamental aspect of sociology itself, a premise of sociology in the absence of which, sociology would never have come into being and has no reason to exist as a social science. If every individual were truly autonomous and not basing him- or herself commonly on social norms and social facts, then we would not be able to probabilistically predict human behavior at all and we could therefore not be a science.
You cannot change the system logic of expand or die within the system since this is precisely how capitalism works. If it worked in a different manner it would not be capitalism; it would be a different system altogether.
Let me give an example.
Imagine a new Walmart CEO who decides that she will make a change that will benefit Walmart employees and suppliers. At the next shareholders’ meeting, she announces that Walmart is expanding its employee benefits program to include a living wage, pension, and medical insurance so that Walmart employees will no longer have to seek government assistance to make up for Walmart’s niggardly benefits package. (Half of Walmart’s full-time employees now seek government assistance, explicitly encouraged to do so by Walmart itself.) Walmart, this enlightened CEO declares with much fanfare, will also cease driving down suppliers’ prices ruthlessly.
“We will henceforth pay suppliers enough,” she announces with great pride, “so that their workforces will be able to live decently and have bathroom breaks and meal breaks. Walmart has a social conscience.”
“This will promote goodwill among our employees,” she continues, “and improve the living and working conditions for those who have been working for the subcontractors supplying Walmart products, elevating living standards in Third World countries and promoting better lives for multitudes of people.”
Imagine the stockholders’ shock at this declaration. Let us suppose, nevertheless, that this CEO is unbelievably persuasive and charismatic and that she convinces the shareholders that this is a good idea. She successfully fends off their first impulses to fire her, even though implementing her daring plan will cut into shareholders’ dividends and profit shares. After the shareholders’ meeting the financial press and the rest of the media report the dramatic developments at Walmart. How does Wall Street react at the next day’s opening to Walmart’s amazing initiative? The answer is obvious: Walmart’s shares would get clobbered.
Walmart, after all, is not only competing for money from those who invest in retail businesses. Walmart is also competing for the investment monies for all possible investments, retail or otherwise. The new Walmart CEO would lose her job unceremoniously; perhaps she would become the inspiration for a feel-good Hollywood movie, but she would be finished and would likely be treated as insane in the corporate world.
You are not compelled to pursue greater and greater profitability within capitalism, but if as a businessperson you do not pursue profitability aggressively, then one or more of the following will likely occur: your business will remain relatively small, even marginal; you will be taken over by a bigger company; your company, or at least you, will go bankrupt. Even companies that have understood this, as did and does General Motors, are also always at risk of being surpassed. (GDS, Pp. 70-71)
If you want different outcomes, then you have to change the system that is in charge now. You cannot change systems from within. They have to be overthrown and replaced with a new system. Changing the individuals in charge of systems without changing the system is useless because if you don’t change the system then the new individuals in charge will simply reproduce what was done or worse than that done by their predecessors. This is why Obama’s campaign mantra of change was such a deceit. He has in fact done the opposite of what so many people erroneously expected of him. They were misled by what Obama looked like and were not closely enough listening and instead heard what he wanted them with his liberally sprinkling good sounding abstractions like “the rule of law” and “transparency” in his speeches rather then their paying close enough attention to what he was actually saying
Will a radically different system from the present one of capitalism-imperialism, which is the overall system now, produce a utopia? No, certainly not. Utopias do not exist and will never exist. But will a radically different system produce a qualitatively and radically different set of outcomes from the present system? Yes.
I will go into these matters in greater depth in the next segment of this series.
This site aims to accomplish two related goals. First, it complements Dennis Loo's book Globalization and the Demolition of Society so that people reading the book can get more deeply into it. (See navigation bar above, labeled "GDS Book Annotations"). We believe that his book is a landmark, providing a solid foundation for politics of a new path. Taking such a path is critical to humanity and the planet's future. As his book's dust jacket states:
[F]ree market fundamentalism - also known as neoliberalism - makes us not more secure or prosperous: it tears the social fabric and undermines security, leading inevitably to disasters on the individual, regional, and global levels.
Neoliberalism is based on the mantra that market forces should run everything. It aims to eliminate job and income security, the social safety net (including welfare and other social guarantees), unions, pensions, public services, and the governmental regulation of corporations. It consequently undermines the basis for people to voluntarily cooperate with authority as almost everyone is increasingly left by themselves to face gargantuan private interests, with governmental and corporate authority ever more indifferent to the public’s welfare.
Those in charge of our collective fates in government and business personify a heartless system based on profit and plunder. They have been relentlessly instituting profoundly immoral and unjust policies even while they insist that they are doing the opposite. We, on the other hand, stand for and are fighting for a radically different system and set of values than this.
Second, in order to get at the truth and because the ways in which humanity's historic striving for understanding and its capacity to wonder and imagine are very rich and diverse, we seek to reflect that richness and diversity on our site. See "About Us" on navigation bar. We intend to be engaging and compelling, as the best investigative journalism and art are, and relentlessly scientific, rigorous, and direct, as those who cherish the truth are. We believe that we can be both accessible and sophisticated. As Loo lays out in his book,
Defeating the empire is not something that occurs only on the literal battlefield. It is also something that is determined throughout the continuum of battles over many issues, including: ideas; philosophy; forms of organization and leadership in economy, politics, and other realms; ways of arguing; ways of responding to and respecting empirical data; interest in truth as opposed to expedience; how people and the environment should be treated; the nature of relations among people (e.g., between women and men, different races and ethnicities, rich and poor countries, etc.); ways of responding to criticism and ideas that are not your own; ways of handling one’s own errors and those of others; and more, all the way up through how warfare is carried out. The contrast between the methods and goals of the neoliberals and those of us who seek an entirely different world is stark. (Globalization and the Demolition of Society, Pp. 326-7)