The Merriam-Webster definition of a system 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’s also a concept that pops up in spirituality-related circles as well.
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 “if this exists, that exists; if this ceases to exist, that also ceases to exist.” This is also the way a Daoist — one who interprets the world via the yin and the yang — might see the world.
When it comes to less abstract, more practical affairs, the word context is useful for thinking about the systemic relationship between things.
When one thinks about the study of history, for example, it's 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 — challenged this idea by advancing the notion that even exceptional individuals are products of their social context.
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 often call out this culture in which the merit of exceptional individuals alone is enough to explain the progress of civilization, as they see this as justifying a society in which “great” individuals are entitled to more power and influence than anyone else.
And if we remember back to our early education, we will often discover that we learned history through the lens of what notable individuals achieved. Contextual factors were usually briefly discussed or omitted altogether, unless, of course, one’s history teacher was keenly aware of this issue.
This isn’t to suggest that learning about great individuals is a bad thing, or that it’s completely unwarranted. Knowing who Abraham Lincoln was and what he achieved during his lifetime is certainly important.
I do believe in the existence of exceptional individuals who have done a great deal to help advance human civilization, but we should discuss their merits less from a desire to worship them, and more from a place of wanting to understand how their values enabled them to become exceptional.
The issue, however, is that our understanding of history and current sociopolitical problems becomes imbalanced when the focus is entirely on individuals of merit, and not on the social context surrounding those individuals.
This imbalanced view contributes to a society that consciously and unconsciously mimics the notable individuals who have succeeded well within the current 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 influence over.
The rest of us are caught up trying to mimic them, causing us to 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.
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 c 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 those who seem most successful.
Why are things this way?
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 person in a divinely ordained position to rule, such that they become a medium between God (or the “natural order of things”) and the rest of the society, the result is that their ego becomes inflated.
They may seriously start to think that it’s their job to uphold the Law of Heaven and Earth, and it will be hard for them to question their worldview or accept their own human fallibility.
It should be no wonder, then, that Trump appeals to an extremely evangelical base, as the British philosopher Alan Watts once astutely noted how it’s difficult — if not impossible — for those who believe that Heaven is a monarchy to accept a government that is a pluralistic republic/democracy.
Democracy is a relatively new idea on the timeline of human affairs, so it should come as no surprise that we are still experiencing the growth pangs associated with its birth.
It’s interesting to consider the idea that humanity hasn’t become fully democratic yet because we haven’t yet figured out a way to “democratize” our notion of Heaven, God, and other such religious concepts.
It can be said, then, that those of us born in the United States have a hard time thinking of things systemically — or contextually — because even on the most abstract level (what we think of when the word “God” comes to mind), we are immediately confronted with the image of the most exceptional individual of all, the literal Creator of the universe.
Some of the religious and philosophical schools of thought in the East, however, offer a counterview that is more systemic in its outlook on God and the nature of the universe.
I’ve already mentioned the Buddhist concept of Dependent Origination and the Daoist view of the Yin and the Yang.
I find that there is very little difference between these two traditions when it comes to their underlying picture of the cosmos.
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 can only be what they are so long as they are in a relationship with one another.
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 in 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 history, which is tied up with how we see exceptional individuals as being the “cause” of society’s notable advancements rather than the inevitable expressions of a particular context or moment in time.
To give you an example to think about this, I’d like to briefly mention the plot set-up of an old video game title, Command & Conquer: Red Alert.
At the beginning of that game, Albert Einstein invents a time machine so that he can prevent Hitler from coming to power, thus saving Europe from the catastrophe of World War II.
He succeeds in his endeavor, but in the absence of Adolph Hitler, the Soviet Union becomes the new antagonist, sparking a different — yet equally catastrophic — global conflict.
People who buy into the Great Man Theory of history might think that if only Adolph Hitler was removed from the picture, the war could have been avoided.
But those who see things from a more systemic perspective would put for the notion that all that would have changed would have been who ends up starting the conflict, as the underlying sociopolitical factors of Europe at the time made another global conflict inevitable.
In this way, we can understand exceptional individuals as systemic expressions of their overall context, rather than as point-like “causes” from which all other notable events followed.
Some people are uncomfortable with the systemic view because it seems to reduce or negate individual agency entirely (the free will debate) or because it provides an excuse to explain away the actions of problematic individuals such as Adolph Hitler.
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, such as a society that allows the continued existence of poverty.
But the difference between seeing society as a product of great individuals versus a context of systemically related factors impacts our lives in other ways as well.
One such way is that we often critique the successful — such as America’s billionaires — while deep down secretly wanting what they have.
Funnily enough, I’d say America’s billionaires understand systemic thinking the least — or at least those of them who are completely passive in the face of systemic inequalities.
A billionaire who understood that they could only be a billionaire provided there is a context in which tens of millions of individuals can benefit from their enterprise would be thinking systemically, and would likely seek to give back as much as they get.
But that’s not what seems to be the case, generally speaking.
America’s wealthy seem to hoard more and more wealth without really knowing what to do with it, even though there is no reason to believe that — beyond a certain point — having more wealth correlates to more happiness.
The challenge for the rest of us, then, is how to define “success” in such a way that we can be both ambitious and “other-focused” at the same time.
Put another way, can we satisfy our needs through enterprises that also enrich those around us, or are we doomed to cave to our selfishness for all time?
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. phrased it in terms of creating a “Thou-centered” society out of an “I-centered” one, which is really another way of balancing the exceptional individual view of the world with a systemic one.
In an I-centered society, there is no understanding of the interrelationship between human beings with each other and between human beings and the planet that sustains them. There is only the belief that the individual’s needs come before everything else.
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).
Put another way, a Thou-centered society would care very much about improving the quality of life for individuals by taking seriously the contextual factors that prevent people from reaching their fullest potential.
And so, if there is some sort of societal revolution happening, I think it’s 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.
That’s why I ignore people who seem to be arguing for social justice from a position of wanting to take away individual liberty from some, rather than sticking to the much more grounded method of questioning why some people are still held back within the current status quo.
While I’m skeptical of some of the extreme sentiments on the Left, however, I still come down in support of the point-of-view that we need to shift America’s balance a little bit in the systemic direction.
Doing so requires taking a long, hard look at why we idolize the things we do, why we desire the things we want, and how our actions in the world are manifestations of these things.
At this point, I’d like to mention a wonderful film called Snowpiercer which illustrates many of the ideas brought up in this post.
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 train’s designer — who is the society’s ultimate “Great Man” — ells the protagonist that everyone on the train has to accept their place in the social hierarchy, otherwise, the train can’t exist and humanity can’t survive.
He further justifies the existence of poverty, squalor, and subservience at the “tail” end of the train on the basis that without the poverty and squalor, the upper classes couldn’t enjoy their privileges.
It’s then revealed that the architect of this society wants the protagonist to take his place at the head of the train — the equivalent to being given the ultimate “billionaire” position in their society.
Rather than assuming his pre-ordained place, however, the protagonist and his allies destroy the engine, causing the train to crash.
The last two survivors venture out of the wreckage into the frozen wasteland of Earth.
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 — it’s justified because there’s always going to be some.
Interestingly enough, however, one could see this film’s message as equally critiquing extreme collectivism.
The argument used by the film’s “Great Man” was that the hierarchy was justified because it gave everyone a place and a chance at survival and it allowed at least some people to enjoy privileges rather than none at all.
In India, the Hindu caste-system relied upon a similar “everything is perfect as it is” argument, which for centuries justified the repression of vast swathes of the Indian population — there was virtually no possibility of upward social mobility at all.
So it is not that I place the fault for the world’s condition entirely at the feet of Western society ad its emphasis on individual merit. Societies on the “opposite” end have encountered many of the same issues.
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, but which far predates even their civilization as well.
What we are witnessing in America, however, requires a deep examination of our assumptions about the way the world works and how we relate to others.
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.
In my view, 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?
Luckily, it appears as if this questioning process is gaining more and more steam each day.
Maybe eventually, instead of either blindly accepting the train we’re on or destroying it entirely, we’ll figure out a way to come together to engineer a smoother ride for everyone.