The Paradox of Individualism
(What’s the Relation Between Systems and Individuals?)
By Dennis Loo (5/28/14)
Demonstration outside of Obama's May 28, 2014 West Point Address
Conventional wisdom holds that individuals are not affected by the systems they live in and that society instead takes on its character wholly because of the individuals within it. Those who see things this way almost invariably also say things like the following:
“Things never change,”
“People are sheep (or stupid, or in denial),” and
“People are naturally selfish and greedy.”
This presents us with a strange paradox.
According to the common view, individuals are in charge and free to change things, but we don’t or can’t change things because human nature is unalterable.
In other words, we’re free but we’re not free because we’re enslaved to our unchanging “human nature.”
Let me offer an alternative view to this intellectual cul-de-sac:
The world is not static but always in motion. Change is going on all of the time. If you use a way of thinking that doesn’t account for motion and development (e.g., static views that species were as they have always been versus the revolution of Evolutionary Theory), then you are going to be unable to see the underlying and hidden dynamics beneath the surface. You are going to only see what appears to be happening right now. You are going to miss the momentum and trajectory of things.
Either/Or thinking (aka Dichotomous Reasoning) sees society as either a product of the total dominance of individuals or the reverse of this, the total dominance of systems with no role at all for individual choices. The “system” that people believe in who say they don’t believe in systems is therefore “unchanging human nature.”
In contrast to this prevalent view, the two sciences entirely devoted to the study of human societies both reject the idea of “unchanging human nature.” Both sociology and anthropology are sciences precisely because they are based on recognizing systems’ centrality and how systems profoundly shape human behavior, even as individuals within systems retain scope for their actions.
What, then, is the correct relationship between individuals and systems?
Dialectics tell us that at any point in time there is a principle aspect and a secondary aspect to any phenomenon or thing. It is not either/or; it is mainly this and secondarily that. For example, systems are mainly why most people behave as they do (since systems lay out what the paths of least resistance are) but there is variability among individuals in those systems and what they do in subgroups or as individuals can vary from the paths of least resistance within those systems.
Change within systems can only happen by systems being replaced with a different system. Systems don’t change because individuals in them suddenly decide that they are going to do something differently. Systems change when a conscious effort led by some individuals launch and lead a social movement to overthrow the existing system and succeed in replacing it with a different system. I’m not talking here of merely changing the faces and the names. I’m talking here about smashing the existing system and replacing it with a radically different system.
When Obama, for example, announces that the US is the sole and indispensible guarantor of world order and peace and that he wants to close Guantanamo but then behind the scenes blocks any efforts to close it, he is a) carrying out the logic of the system of an empire that is using fear to dominate others, and b) as an individual consciously choosing to be deceitful to the public about his intentions and about history.
He is, in other words, mainly doing the part expected of him by the system, but he is also, secondarily, playing a fake role in order to deceive others. If he wanted to go against the system he could do so, though he would pay a price as an individual for doing so. He could, for example, hold a live press conference in which he announces that he is ordering as of that moment the immediate closure of GTMO. He has the power as the Commander in Chief to do that. His orders would result in GTMO’s closure. But he knows that if he did this he would face a huge amount of flack openly and especially behind the scenes for doing this.
If Obama really wanted to do the things that he publicly claims to uphold, such as the rule of law, due process, transparency, and protecting the planet from global warming/climate catastrophe he could announce to the world in a live press conference that he is ordering the end of preventive and indefinite detention, is no longer going to use drones to assassinate thousands, is pardoning Pvt. Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning and Edward Snowden for daring to tell the world the truth, is not going to approve of the XL Keystone Pipeline because it would mean game over for the planet, is ordering a fast track emergency program to replace fossil fuel burning that is burning up the earth with wind and solar energy alternatives, and so on. He would not even need other countries to agree to follow this example. He could order this to be done by the leading industrial power and set an example for others to follow. He could do such a thing, as this is within his power as an individual.
You know what would happen to him if he did such a thing though, don’t you? People all have some level of understanding of how systems operate, even though many people due to the dominance of functionalist thinking explicitly argue against the reality of systems. In practice, due to our life experiences, we know things to be true that the paradigms that many people use to interpret the world contradict.
But Obama could do these things that I have mentioned above if he really wanted to do the right things that he claims that he wants to do and claims he is doing. He’d pay a price for doing it, but he would be doing a tremendous service to the planet if he were to do so because his actions, for however many minutes he was allowed to speak in this live broadcast before “technical difficulties” ensued, would spark widespread upheaval. He would probably spark a revolution. And then he would see happen the things he claims to want to see happen: the restoration of the rule of law, due process, transparency, and the safeguarding of the planet. The price he would pay for this would probably be his life. But if he really believes in the things he claims to believe in, then that would be a small price to pay for humanity and the planet.
The fact that he does not do these things or even any one of them is not a sign that he really in his heart of hearts wants to do the right things but simply can't. It proves that those who think he is being prevented from doing the right thing by the system are overlooking the fact that he could do the right thing if he cared enough and was not a liar who presides over an imperialist superpower. He says the things he says to the people because he knows that the Empire's continued existence depends upon lying to people in a very specific way. He knows that the vast majority of the people believe in fairness and due process and justice. The fact that the vast majority believes in these things is not a sign that the government is all-powerful but the fact that the government is in fact vulnerable, like a colossus with feet of clay.
That the government must promise these things as it does exactly the opposite of what it's claiming makes it vulnerable to being exposed for its deceit. If it wasn’t dependent ultimately upon the people’s acquiescence then the government would not open itself up to being shown to be lying. If the government were invincible, it would not risk having to lie as they do. They are telling us implicitly through their consistently claiming that they are doing the opposite of what they’re actually doing, that they need us and cannot do this without public acceptance. They are admitting that they are vulnerable to public opinion and actions, if you know how to properly interpret this. See here.
The fact that Obama chooses not to act in true correspondence with his public statements of thinking GTMO should be closed is partially, in other words, a conscious individual decision on his part that he should be held accountable for and responsible for, just as the Nuremberg Trials ruled that “I was only following orders” was not an excuse. At the same time, the point of this is that the main problem is not individuals but the system and its logic - the relentless and ruthless pursuit of profit.
For the further development of these points please see these three articles:
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)