Beat the system, work the system, drop out of the system, smash the system, reform the system: we’ve all seen them on demo placards over the years. But as always with Hubris sapiens, the ultimate denialist, we ignore the real problem.
A common phrase in the newspapers of my youth was ‘the Body Politic’. The human analogy was obvious. We used in turn to talk about a body of knowledge, the body of the Kirk, and so forth. Then several bright but useless persons in America realised they had to invent a need for themselves. This became Management Consultancy. Management Consultancy began to stress the need for systematic analysis: the way to more efficient company performance, they lied, was to improve the process – the system. From this came an early example of jargobollocks: the word ‘systemic’.
I first heard somebody say ‘systemic’ on arriving at Liverpool University in 1966. The chap who used it was an Ulster-born lecturer with even odder than usual English pronunciation, so what he said sounded like “Sastomach”. It must’ve been at least a month before I plucked up the courage to ask another student what it meant. He said he didn’t know either. He’d heard “Sir Stammock”. But as luck would have it, two days later the bloke quoted from a social theorist, and the book was called Talcott Parsons and Systemic Social Theory. So at last we knew.
Obviously, it means ‘something pertaining to and part of a system’. Today it is in much wider use: we talk of a ‘systemic crisis in capitalism’ and ‘systemic abuse in the care system’, but in truth it’s a bit of a non-word. In fact, over the last half century it has given systems an importance in the hierarchy of life they do not deserve….and something behind which the Bad Guys can hide.
The word ‘system’ is from the Latin word systēma, via the Greek σύστημα systēma. Fascinatingly, its meaning has a long history going back to Plato (Philebus), Aristotle (Politics) and Euclid (Elements) in which human beings are central to what it’s about. It had also meant “total”, “crowd” or “union” in even more ancient times, as it derives from the verb sunìstemi, uniting, putting together. What I’m driving at is that for Greek (and earlier) thinkers it was inextricably linked to people: a united group, a crowd – the totality of a tribe or society. When Plato talked about how the systēma worked best, he meant the anthropology of citizens and their interaction. From this approach he developed the ‘demos’ concept – literally ‘the Mob’ – and his (to my mind) entirely sensible idea of only giving suffrage to those who were capable of rational thought alongside the higher sentiment of social service on a regular basis. Plato would’ve voted for Jeremy Hunt to be executed, and denied the vote to over 80% of the contemporary citizenry. The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.
In fact – to the best of my knowledge – the French physicist Nicolas Léonard Sadi Carnot was the first thinker to adopt the noun ‘system’ for something divorced from people. His specialism was thermodynamics, and thus for him a body of water vapour, in steam engines – and the production of ‘work’ when heat is applied to it – was a system. In the 180 years since Carnot broke this ground, systems have gradually come to represent something increasingly mechanical. Perhaps not surprisingly, Carnot was a military engineer.
By the time Franz Kafka wrote The Trial in 1914, a system had morphed into something that could easily enslave a citizen. Indeed, the title of his book in German was ‘Der Prozess’ – a process, a system. In the book, Mr K is accused of something, but never allowed to know what. As a result of Britain’s Child Care System a century later, the same is true of those languishing in prisons on the spurious grounds that they dared to challenge a Secret Family Courts Judge.
Between 1832 and 1914, socio-cultural thinkers had moved increasingly away from a focus on the human being – for example as with Hobbes’ “Life is nasty brutish and short” – to the desire to create a Utopian system. Marx wrote of the thesis > antithesis > synthesis process as a system – but barely ever mentioned the human element at all. He referred to the Class System, the Capitalist System, the means of production, distribution and exchange, and his preferred Communist system: but it was clear that Homo sapiens would be subordinated to The System. Not for nothing did Soviet wags in the 1950s remark that “Under Capitalism, man exploits man….and under Communism, it’s the other way round”. You were either part of the system, or being ruled by the system; but either way, it was all about the system.
After the Second World War in Britain, faith in systems became synonymous with planned efficiency. Hugely influenced by Soviet ideas, the landslide-elected Labour Government under Clem Attlee brought the NHS, controlled banking, targeted nationalisation and Social Welfare into British life. Amazingly, Britain did not overnight turn into East Berlin: when I first entered a hospital as an NHS patient in 1956, the spotless efficiency created by the cleaners and the disciplined devotion of nursing staff made an impression that has never left me. There is a key learning in this observation, and it is central to this essay: in 1956, the NHS was a system working with – and with the universal approval of – the staff within it…for the sole benefit of those using it. My parents (both right-wing Conservatives) saw the NHS as the Wonder of the Age….literally, a matter for national pride. The entire medical world at the time journeyed to Britain in order to share in the adoration of this ‘system’.
Around this time however – most notably typified by the Beatnik movement – the meaning of system moved on yet again by acquiring a definite article and a capital letter: it became The System. This was a term used by all those who saw themselves as non-conformist. They included writers – The Angry Young Men – film directors, middle class Labour supporters, and perhaps above all, satirists. The satire boom – ushered in by the genius of people like Peter Cook and Willie Rushton – ridiculed the rigidity of The System. What everyone wanted, it seemed, was to be free of The System….and able to express themselves as outrageous individuals.
During this fundamentally ‘hooray’ view of the individual in society, we experienced – in one big rush – rock n roll, Ban the Bomb, That was the Week that Was in Britain, The Beatles globally, Student radicalism, Carnaby Street, Hippies, Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In in the States, the Counter-Culture across Europe, White Bicycles in Amsterdam, anti-Vietnam protests on every campus on the planet, the legalisation of consenting homosexuality in private, and the abolition of the Death Penalty. The all-powerful system was out: the right of Humans not to be abused by the system was in.
But this was in reality just a blip. Hippydom’s naivety – and its music – turned into the drug culture, student radicalism ended with a degree, and capitalism’s non-stop 30-year growth run hit a wall. Suddenly, people had to look for a job: tuning in to the job pages took over from turning on and dropping out.
Since roughly that time – around 1972 – systems have had less and less to do with people, and been built more and more to serve power, money, ideology….and the needs of the builder rather than the user. The citizens of the USSR and CPR, of course, had already had decades of systemic unreality: for the citzens of the ‘liberal’ West, this was something new. But the systems took over because 95% or more of our populations didn’t even notice.
The political Party had always been, to some extent, a lobbying system serving the biggest purse and the loudest mouth. Now it became a human fodder production system unlikely to challenge the leadership but ever-willing to do the bidding of special interests. The trade union movement thought less and less about its membership, and more about baron-power and econo-political ideology. It turned to systemic violence and Moscow syntax.
Mixed-economy capitalism morphed into a globalist system of business monopolies. It openly refuted any responsibility for the well-being of the community, inisting that profit, size, shareholders and growth were the only worthwhile objectives. Television, the great civilise-and-entertain invention of the mid 20th century, eschewed serving the viewers in favour of offering its quivering ring to the advertisers. The BBC swopped being the most trustworthy news provider in the world, for churning out politically correct rice pudding – using banality as its censor in order to avoid incurring the wrath of vicious politicians.
On and on, without respite, this process has developed. The NHS became a means of employment and political point-scoring, and the EEC free-trade organisation turned from being an economic peace-maker into the fascist monster we know as the EU. The British schools system stopped teaching and started moulding, and the Universities gave up as seat of learning, opting instead to process dumbos – ready to enter an economic system no longer able to offer them a job.
Marketing went from being the craft of persuasion through product enhancement to being a process-driven copycat system, while manufacturing promoted accountants to systemically cut margins….and consumer appeal. Football ignored the fans and instead courted the media: once an entertainment industry, it is now a money-churning system riddled with fear, misbehaviour and crazy business models.
And most of all, we have the internet – probably now the most perverted invention in history after the clock. What began life as a wonderfully convenient information flow capable of democratising the learning process no longer cares about the 3 billion of us who buy the increasingly obselescent hardware just to use it. What broke through thirty years ago with the idea of telling us stuff has degraded into a system for selling us stuff.
I’ve nothing against selling, but I have a major bone to pick with lying, update subterfuges, information stealing, cheating investors, collaborating with the security services, airbrushing the truth via Wikipedia, and sitting in a silo pretending you just abolished customers. The internet has become, in fact, the template for commerce as envisaged by the Friedmanite zealots: a deregulated wild west for controlling governance, carrying out surveillance on the citizen, and force-feeding them unnecessary shit. A system designed initially for the military, and then for the entire human race, has in three decades become one answerable to perhaps 100 businesses and institutions around the world….none of which have the real interests of that species in mind.
Ironically, it is people who take systems off people, and give them to bureaucracy, security and amoral Mammon. We hear an enormous amount from radical organisations today about changing the system, but as ever it is at best an irrelevance, and at worst a Trojan horse for the establishment of their system. Neocons bang on about markets, but markets are only another crowd. Free trade areas, Soviet Unions, Air forces, missile systems, pharmaceutical conglomaterates….none of them mention people, but they are things run by and for people: almost always the wrong, damaged people, but still people.
There is no point whatsoever in changing the system if the same gargoyles wind up running it. The only solution is to eradicate the gargoyles. Thus, the Conservative Party is changing the Care Home system – but not removing the attitudes and perversion of those involved in it.
There is no point in changing the process if you don’t change the culture. Thus, MPs tighten up the expenses system – and within a year, the same cochons have simply found different troughs in which to bury their snouts. Newspapers are to have a tougher regulatory regime, but the same Piers Morgans, Rupert Murdochs and Andy Coulsons will be in place. Last time it was phone hacking, next time it’ll be something else.
There is no point in changing the architecture if the foundations are rotten. The economic foundation of Britain, the US, Europe and Australia in 2013 is one whose very precepts dictate a financially-driven dash for monopolistic volume that has not a hope in Hell of employing anywhere near enough citizens. If you design a system for bankers and shareholders, it will in very short order cut out the People. That, surely, is common sense.
The problem, my friends, is the Fall of Man. Dr Jacob Bronowski did the world an enormous disservice in the 1950s when he wrote his evolutionary tome The Ascent of Man. There was and is no such thing as an ascending Homo species: Homo sapiens is an accident, a highly intelligent thug created by the need to expand the blood supply to the cranium when man came down from the trees killed by climate change. Put a highly intelligent thug in charge of things, and he or she is going to mess up.
Among things he’ll do are: keep on exponentially multiplying, increasingly wanting more, killing, terrorising, and enslaving. If that lacks credibility from time to time, he’ll invent patriotism, religion, sport, gadgets, fashions, programme formats and globalism as combo rationales and distractions.
But the irony is that all those things were – for some well-meaning folks – higher-order things to which they could aspire: while the fear of deities in particular could be used to increase the civilised quotient within our normal behaviour pattern of thwacking all and sundry with the jawbone of an ass.
Ever since those things were overturned by science, individualism, socio-political liberalism and technological advance, systems have been forced to become increasingly draconian, extreme, and controlling – in a nutshell, human. This has happened, I suspect, because the dream of untold wealth is a fantasy, and alone motivates only a small minority of us. The excellent research done by British researchers in 2010 (and the link to which I’ve lost – help anyone!) proved beyond any real doubt that most people prefer family and community recreation to making money. Thus, only with an insanely enslaving, deregulated employment system alongside falling real wages could we all be persuaded into staying within the herd on the 7.10 to Waterloo. The rape of our pensions is the next step.
The one thing Friedman freaks in general (and poor naive old Dan Hannan in particular) simply cannot grasp is that grafting a deregulated economic regime onto a declining civilisation increasingly free of ethics is going to be an unmitigated human disaster – as indeed, it already is.
We need a higher order ideal – secular in my view – to temper our natural instincts…until such time as Homo Superiotens makes an appearance. And before that, we need to wrest the provision of health and education away from government and into mutualised bodies free from materialist influences. But please, please save me from yet another attempt to Change the System. Improve the species, and a better system set will follow.