The definition of a system, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is:
A regularly interacting or interdependent group of items forming a unified whole.
This definition is fairly broad, but it represents the gist of how systems are thought of in pretty much every field of academic study, from the STEM disciplines on over to the humanities.
It is also a concept that is elucidated in several of the world’s religious and philosophical traditions.
In Buddhism, for instance, there is the concept of dependent origination, sometimes also referred to as interdependence.
Existence is seen as an interrelated flux of phenomenal events, material and psychical, without any real, permanent, independent existence of their own. These events happen in a series, one interrelating group of events producing another.
Put another way, dependent origination can be understood as the “if this exists, that exists; if this ceases to exist, that also ceases to exist,” nature of the world.
The word context is also useful for understanding this concept in practical affairs.
When one thinks about the study of history, for example, it is very limiting to think purely in terms of the actions of exceptional individuals.
The Great Man theory of history was once put forth as an explanation for how human progress is made, and as you might guess, it advanced the notion that society evolves according to the actions of great men of exceptional merit, and not much else.
Critics of that theory — most notably Herbert Spencer — rightfully called this theory out as rubbish and one-sided, as even great individuals must be, to some extent, products of their society and environment.
In other words, no one is great in isolation, one can only be great within the context of where they live, what they do, what sort of society shaped them, etc.
Leftists critics of Western society, then, are right to call out a culture in which the merit of exceptional individuals alone is enough to explain the progress of civilization, as this justifies, of course, an authoritarian culture in which “great” individuals are entitled to have more power and influence than everyone else.
To my mind, there is no doubt about how this connects to the myth of “trickle-down” economics, the nearly religious doctrine of those who advocate for unfettered capitalism.
When we reflect back on our own education, we will find that we often learned it through the lens of what notable individuals achieved.
This isn’t always bad. Learning about what Abraham Lincoln did during his lifetime is certainly important.
There have been exceptional individuals that have contributed much to the development of society, but this should be understood less in terms of a desire to worship these people, and more in terms of what values they had that helped them become exceptional.
But our understanding of history and current sociopolitical problems becomes unbalanced when the focus is entirely on individuals of merit, and not on the context that surrounds these individuals (social and economic factors, etc).
What this unbalanced education has done is produce a society that consciously or unconsciously accepts the political and economic system in which we live, which is why it is so difficult breaking through to people on the need to change the status quo.
Unrestrained capitalism is really just a system of cronyism between people who fancy themselves “great men” (with a few “great women” sprinkled in there as well), such as America’s billionaire class and the politicians they exert undue influence over.
The rest of us are caught up in this ethos and sucked into a soul-draining and self-defeating work culture that pulls us into an environment that is really a giant pyramid scheme: a chain of bosses in a hierarchy leading all the way up to the Big Boss, one of the Billionaires.
For the more religiously-inclined, the Big Boss is the “greatest man of all,” God.
And every point on this chain is toxic, because every person (man and woman, at this point), is competing to be “greater” than everyone else around them, in order to advance further up the corporate chain, which, to many, is their idea of cultivating “merit.”
Because we each want to be “great, exceptional, meritorious” individuals, we have a hard time figuring out how to drop out and not compete within the current paradigm of “success,” as our self-esteem/self-worth has become tied up in how well we can emulate the values we have been instilled with since birth.
Why are things this way?
That kind of conversation can get as weird as you want it to.
There’s no singular answer, but I understand it best by thinking, in an abstract sense, about the connection between religion and our underlying attitudes regarding authority, institutions, and what is “right and good.”
It has something to do with how the Western religious tradition evolved, going all the way back to the ancient Near East when the first civilizations started to install God-Kings as their rulers.
When you put a man in a divinely ordained position to rule, such that that man becomes the medium between God and the rest of the society, the result is that the human being, being fallible as he is, starts to have his ego-inflated, in which he quite possibly starts to see himself as the supreme head honcho tasked with enforcing the Word of God or Laws of Heaven in the worldly domain — Earth.
It should be no wonder then that Trump has tried to court an evangelical base that believes in precisely this sort of thing, going so far as to clear away protesters for a Bible photo-op.
But that’s a bit of a digression.
One could make the argument that several Roman Emperors suffered from such a delusion, as it was common in the ancient world to deify rulers (make of them gods), but it didn’t begin with them.
It goes back further.
There’s an interesting observation to be made about the different ways in which the religious traditions of the West and the East evolved away from one another.
To make a long story short, and make no mistake, this is a simplified summary, the West tended to move further along the path of conceiving of God as an exceptional individual who created the world in his image (which lends itself to extreme distortion when that image is predominantly white and male, as it was for colonial Europeans), whereas the East moved further along the path of God not being an individual at all, but rather every phenomena/object that one can identify in the cosmos, from the atom through onto humans and beyond to the galaxies themselves.
Buddhism, Hinduism, and Daoism all have several ideas that are common to each of them.
This is not an attempt to erase the significant differences between these systems of thought. Those differences certainly exist.
Each one is a philosophical and religious tradition as rich as those encountered in the West.
The biggest reason we don’t see it that way and have likened the Eastern thought of Asia to “fortune cookie wisdom,” is in large due to colonial, racist attitudes that, of course, Europeans thought were the beliefs of non-God fearing, non-Christian “heathens.”
If one’s God is a Divine Patriarch, then, of course, the beliefs of Buddhists, Hindus, and Daoists are going to seem blasphemous, and one is going to feel justified in not really taking their beliefs seriously.
But to get back on track, this notion of reality being a much more systemic thing is encountered not just in the Buddhist doctrine of dependent origination, but likewise in the Daoist concept of yin and yang.
Yin and yang are opposing principles, concepts, ideas, or phenomena, such as black and white.
Daoists believe there cannot be one concept without its opposite. For there to be an “up,” there must be a “down.” These two things are, of course, only what they are in relation to what the other is.
What is “up” and “down” in the cosmos? No one knows because it's dependent on how you look at it.
And so the opposition between yin and yang is only apparent, or “on the surface.”
Underneath that opposition, the Daoist understands that the two are working harmony, and so it is often said that yin and yang “mutually arise” with one another.
This is why, symbolically, there is a seed of yin within the yang, and a seed of yang within the yin.
Black contains white and white contains black.
The reason Westerners have such a difficult time understanding the notions put forth by Daoists is that this concept of “mutual arising” goes beyond our linear, cause-and-effect way of thinking about our history.
In Western society, we have been inculcated with the common sense that things progress in a linear fashion and that every effect has a definitive cause.
A happened, and so B happens.
This is why we break things down into timelines and do our best to highlight notable events that occurred on those timelines.
In reality, each event on that timeline is, via an indeterminable number of other lines, connected to events surrounding it, which were happening simultaneously, and which form the context surrounding that event.
Daoism doesn’t entirely discount the importance of a linear understanding of events, but it recognizes the non-linear nature, or context, in which all things happen.
Whether we think of that as the context surrounding why a particular person did something they did, or in terms of a systemic understanding of why our institutions are the way they are, its the same thing.
We often hear sociologists and psychologists, for instance, talk about violent criminal offenders only within the context of a society that permits the conditions in which violent crime happens, namely a society which does nothing about poverty.
There is something of a web-like, “everything factors into everything” thing happening in reality.
It would seem that we, particularly in America, have a hard time thinking about problems systemically.
We are individual-focused to an extreme, and this is the source of a great many of our frustrations, not only in our personal lives (never feeling like we are enough) or in terms of the larger political struggle for greater equality and justice (which is trying to get Americans to think more about societal relationships and systemic factors that contribute to oppression).
And who seems to understand interdependent, systemic thinking the least?
I’d say America’s billionaires.
If their real motive was to trickle-down their wealth, it would have happened a long time ago, and it certainly would have happened when America found itself in the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But that didn’t happen.
Instead, they continue to enrich themselves to the detriment of everyone else, chasing a higher and higher digital bank account number, which can hardly be said to be corresponding to any tangible increase in their happiness at this point.
They continue to pursue more wealth for no other reason than to keep pursuing it.
Someone who understood dependent origination would not seek to hoard such vast amounts of wealth. They would understand that their wealth is contingent upon the health of everyone else in society who make that wealth possible.
Without consumers to consume, there could be no producers who produce.
It’s that simple.
But because we have such a “great man” focus in America, we excuse the behavior of America’s greediest individuals because secretly, deep down, we wish we could have what they have.
We have inherited a toxic, dangerous view of what being “great” is, and it's now our challenge to dislodge, unseat, and replace that view with something more “other-focused.”
Dr. King was fond of repeating the phrases, “I-centered” versus “Thou-centered.”
In an I-centered society, there is no understanding of interrelationship. There is no understanding of relationship at all.
It all comes down to how meritorious, strong, and exceptional individuals can be, and we must accept the authority of these individuals in order to keep society together.
This happens at the level of the family household as much as it does in the halls of institutional power.
The family is merely a smaller unit, or building block, of society, and one that is no less important than those corridors of power that are inhabited by more influential individuals.
Furthermore, we try to emulate those we think of as “great,” thus perpetuating the same problems in our personal lives, and therefore our institutions.
I can’t tell you how many Medium articles I’ve seen quoting Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, etc, on how to be successful and stand apart from the rest.
Don’t get me wrong, I think we can still be meritorious, and I don’t discount the merit of those individuals entirely, least of all when they themselves express some understanding that their greatness depends on their society as much as them.
I’m partial to billionaires like Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, George Lucas, etc.
Because they at least show themselves to the rest of us.
They don’t hide entirely.
They make some effort to share their worldview with the rest of us, whereas the more Koch-brother types hideaway God-knows-where doing God-knows-what.
We can learn from those who have been successful and have stood apart from the crowd, but if we take that a step further, such that we no longer think of how to form a society that takes care of all of us, then we have missed the point.
In a Thou-centered society, it would be the opposite case.
We’d understand that none of us can really be happy were it not for those around us, and that to some degree, we are dependent even upon people living far away from us for our happiness (many products Americans enjoy every day, such as coffee, are produced using cheap, overseas labor).
It is interesting to me that there seems to be no contradiction between what Buddhists and Daoists speak about when it comes to how reality is a system of interrelated phenomena, in which no singular aspect can exist without all the others, and what modern science — particularly quantum mechanics — seems to be revealing about the complex and interwoven nature of physical processes that give rise to observable phenomena.
But it’s not just in the quantum domain that scientists echo the teachings of ancient religions.
Ecology is a field dedicated to the study of how organisms relate to their environments and how environments sustain organisms.
Pretty much every physical science has put forth arguments in favor of doing something about climate change for this reason: scientists understand that human beings are not separate “rulers” over the Earth, that we are part of a system, and that if we don’t take care to live here sustainably, that system may make human life exceptionally difficult.
Furthermore, the reason Carl Sagan said that astronomy is a humbling discipline is precisely that when one looks out into the vastness of space, realizing how truly endless and sprawling the cosmos is, our egotistical, I-centered focus is supposed to be shattered in the humbling realization that for all we make ourselves out to be, we are still not even a speck on a speck, and our lives happen on timescales so minuscule as to make us wonder if they even happen at all.
And so, if there is some sort of societal revolution happening, I think it is largely a widespread questioning of why things are so I-centered, from the personal on up to the political, and how we can go about breaking beyond that I-centered barrier to think of things from a more interconnected, systemic perspective.
This doesn’t mean abandoning the very good arguments in favor of maintaining individual freedom and liberty.
Not at all.
There is the real danger — exemplified most notably in the history of the Soviet Union — in swinging too far away from I-centeredness to Thou-centeredness.
Collectivism when taken to an extreme becomes as inhumane as reckless individualism.
Some would even say that something Orwellian is going on, in that whether we live in a fascist, far-right state governed by a dictator like Hitler, or in a collectivist state such as the Soviet Union ruled by a Politburo, the point of view of the regular, ordinary citizen is the same: individual power is crushed underneath the boot of state authority.
I don’t think anyone in America seriously wants this.
Critics of the Hindu faith, for instance, will often point to the legacy of India’s caste system as evidence that an “everything is perfect as it is” view of reality lends itself as justification for grotesque social orders that make excuses for oppression.
It is very hard to question social norms if, baked into the very religious bedrock of a cultural belief system, there is this idea that the social order itself is divinely just and ordained, and in need of no change.
There’s a film called Snowpiercer which gets a little bit at this idea.
The movie is about a working-class revolution that takes place on a train, where the last remnants of humanity are surviving following some sort of apocalyptic scenario.
When the leader of the revolution reaches the front car where the engine of the train is, the architect of the system, the “Great Man” who designed the train, tells the protagonist that everyone on the train has to accept their place, otherwise, the train can’t exist, and humanity can’t survive.
And so he justifies the existence of poverty, squalor, and subservience at the “tail” end of the train, and his position as the God-like ruler leading it at the engine room, or “head” of the train.
This is not altogether unlike the view that I imagine some of America’s billionaires to have, when they remain passive in the face of inequality.
Rather than assuming his pre-ordained place at the front of the train, however, the protagonist and his allies destroy the engine, causing the train to crash.
The last two survivors venture out of the wreckage to try and survive in the frozen wasteland that was once Earth.
So it is not that I place the fault for the world’s condition entirely at the feet of Western society.
The pursuit of greater individual liberty, which characterizes the Western philosophical tradition, was a necessary counterbalance to a view of the world that, to some extent, justified the most rigid acceptance of social hierarchy, such as that found in India.
American children of Asian parents, for instance, will often talk about their experience in terms of the tension that arises when they seek to develop a more unique, personal identity, which brings them into conflict with the older generations who are very strict about what is tolerable social behavior.
What we are witnessing in America, however, requires a deep examination of our assumptions about the way the world works and what our relationship to others is.
If we can take some steps back in the direction of Thou-centeredness, we may yet correct the worst excesses of capitalism to become a true social democracy that acts as a beacon of hope and inspiration for the rest of the world.
It is my view that true democracy is a balance between individualism and collectivism, one that tolerates a little bit of fluctuation in its institutions, such that it never becomes “rigid” and “locked.”
To create such a system, however, we ask a lot of uncomfortable questions.
Why do we have the values we have?
Why do we feel the need to be “great?”
What mental blockages are getting in the way of our compassion and empathy?
And from a political perspective, questions such as, “Is there any way to correct capitalism without directly targeting and going after the billionaire class?”
My answer is: I don’t think so.
If we want to tackle income and wealth inequality, eliminate poverty, and therefore help heal our nation from the disease of racism, then we need real, structural change to take place, and that can only happen if we are willing, once and for all, to put a nail in the coffin of “trickle-down” economics so as to replace it with something better.
I don’t believe the billionaire class has to be eliminated entirely, but their tendency to pursue greater and greater wealth must be reversed, such that, in a very real sense, we flip the switch on the flow-valve and get the surplus wealth our society generates flowing back toward the grassroots, where it can act as the fertilizer that will allow that grass to grow.
This can only happen if we seriously question the validity and authority of our “great men” and the institutions that have been built up around them that defend their authority.
Luckily, it appears is if this questioning process is gaining steam.
Let us hope that it doesn’t fizzle out and die down.
The fate of our planet — and therefore our species — depends on our ability to make this work.