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Blaming the System

July 17, 2019

A common trend on the left is to blame the “system”, for the problems in society. An inability to distinguish the details of all the specific power relations of society, leads to this generic notion of a system. It is also a convenient thing to bring up after the fact whenever anything happens in society that is bad. It is conveniently always that same “system” at work which is to blame.

It doesn’t make much thinking to see that this notion of the “system” has no empirical content and is just a changeable placeholder for whatever the latest trend in power is. This notion of a system at work beyond human agency was brought to us by Karl Marx and his notion of the superstructure of society. In the 20th century it was transmuted into the doctrine of this “big other” of the world by French marxist thinkers such as Lacan. A big other that we are always fighting a battle of oppression against.

Now, I won’t deny there is some truth, for instance, to the notion that some social systems acquire a degree of inertia once in place that makes their actions much slower to change. As a result we often see the same patterns in cultures, in economics and in wars, for instance. But this inertia is not a robotic, mechanised foolproof system. Like the Shrike in Dan Simmons novels, or the terminator in the terminator movies. We are not dealing with some relentless untouchable and unchangeable machine. We are dealing with a social organism that has certain habits and ways of acting, that, to change it takes time, and the change must be enacted by human effort and agency with continuity and gradually.

Society and civilisation insofar as they exist, exist on a continuum. It is like a fabric, where to change its shape we have to avoid rupturing the fabric, because this undermines the whole society. This is the problem, once we set up this immovable object, terminator like entity of the “system”, we make ourselves the victim of it. We make it impossible to change it or overcome it. We force ourselves to indulge in fantasies and utopian visions as the only alternative and we force ourselves into a corner where the only change to that system can come through lashing out blindly and mindlessly, creating a violent revolution that will only destroy, or tear a hole in the social fabric and replace it with nothing new. But only, at best, if not with total death and destruction, replace it with something far worse and more primitive.

So, yes we need a healthy appreciation of the inertia of social institutions, but still the only way to change them is through human effort and agency, negotiation and compromise. It all sounds so limited compared to grand Utopian visions. But the latter is based on dealing with a monster that doesn’t exist, “the system”. And involves taking away the agency to do anything about it from ourselves, except random outbursts of violence.

Many on the extreme left today, for instance, refuse to engage in a reasonable debate anymore, they have decided that their opposition is an evil monster like Hitler, and so once this pent up emotion builds up out of control it inevitably finds its only release in random outbursts of violence. If this was not such a pressing and urgent problem, so destructive to our society, we could have the luxury feel sorry for them, as they have been victimised so much that they have lost any ability at this point to enact their own ideas and thoughts through their own body.

What all of us can do, is much earlier, before it gets to this point, is to show more responsibility in our dealings with people so we don’t set them down this destructive path of victimisation by some unbeatable system, but teach them more practical ways to cope, negotiate and reason in socially difficult circumstances, so that they can become empowered in their own bodies, channelling their ideas and thoughts through their bodies, rather than deferring it to some utopian dream or delusion of revolution. Every left thinker who sets the seed in peoples minds that there is this “system”, machine-like, out of our control, is engaging in a generic, lazy, irresponsible form of conspiracy thinking that sets people down a dangerous path to self destruction.

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