GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

December 29, 2014

System’s Theory

Filed under: GA — adam @ 3:05 pm

Whoever first started talking about “society” as a “system” has a lot to answer for. The notion that society functions automatically, that dysfunctions can be repaired, externalities absorbed and crime and corruption recycled seems perfectly suited to put people to sleep, precisely when system failure starts to set in. After all, nothing that seems to be happening (whether it’s a decline in productive investment, an uptick in crime, outrageously irresponsible political posturing, riots, protestors calling for dead cops, politicians warmly greeting those protestors, dead cops) can really be happening—it all really is being blown up by the media (itself a familiar part of the system), or activates some reparative mechanism in the system that will restore some pre-determined balance. This way of thinking encourages more irresponsibility—after all, if nothing can really go wrong, what difference does it make how I go about getting my piece of the action?

There is no social “system.” What “system” can, on occasion, serve as a useful shorthand for, and more often serve as a misleading obfuscation of, is the ever emergent articulation of millions of agreements, tacit and explicit, long-term and short-term, some firm and some flexible, between individuals and communities (usually represented by selected individuals). This also means that there is really no such thing as “individuals,” except insofar as individuals are created by those agreements, as a partner in them. Modern individuals are simply those who participate in so many different agreements that they can’t be reduced to or made utterly dependent on any one or few of them. Every gesture any one makes, any word any one speaks, affirms, revises, subverts, rebels against, opts-out of, disputes the terms of, one or more of those agreements.

All that is fairly obvious. Much less obvious is how high faithful participation in social agreements must be in order to ensure that the more fundamental, tacit and long-term of all those agreements remain in force. To take a simpler question, just to use as a model: in a single neighborhood, containing, let’s say, 50 families in 50 houses, how many of those houses must become sites of criminal activity before a critical threshold is reached at which families begin abandoning, irreversibly, the neighborhood, leaving it to be taken over completely by criminals and those with nowhere else to go? How many houses would have to be given over to immoral, if not criminal, activity (parties going all night long, female led households with revolving door boyfriends, a strip club opening up, etc.)? It is very hard to be precise here, but the answer is certainly: very few.

I’d say that 3 houses gone bad is enough to get the ball rolling. On the other hand, the second makes the third more likely. We’re dealing with a version of what philosophers call the “heap paradox” here—when does a few of some item become a stack, become a pile, become a heap? Which pebble started the avalanche? It’s easy enough to see that thinking in these terms would lead to a very “Puritan” approach to social relations. Now, think about how much of the popular culture of the West of the past 60-70 years has busied itself with protecting the inhabitants of those first few houses gone bad, presenting them as victims of a hypocritical puritanism. I too imagine that I prefer today’s hedonism, but that doesn’t change the fact that the wager upon which consumer society depends might very well be a losing one: We (i.e., those who make consequential decisions) can release more and more people from their tacit and explicit obligations, thereby benefiting from the subsequent wealth generation and upward flow of power, because enough consumer goods will be spread around to keep enough people working and enough people passive.

The wager seemed reasonable enough at first: people can now have things they never had before, like homes, and things that never even existed before, like cars and TV sets. All they need to do is show up to work 40 hours a week. Most people accepted the deal. But here we are confronted with the heap paradox: how many is enough? New possible arrangements appear as alternatives: work less, live with less; demand more, hold the system hostage; exploit grey areas in the new set of agreements; make work out of undermining other industries (class action lawsuits, environmentalism, etc.). It doesn’t take much for things to start to fray. It’s no coincidence that, even setting victimary discourses aside, the most consistently stereotyped figure in contemporary culture is the middle class white guy who goes to work, tries to satisfy his wife, get some respect from his kids, and enjoy some leisure. What a sucker! A buffoon—a loser. It’s starting to look like fewer men are signing up—how many would be enough to make a difference? The heap paradox again.

Here’s another paradox, one that I think could be considered a sociological law (I wish I could run it past Durkheim): by the time enough people agree that the more fundamental, tacit and long-term agreements can no longer endure to begin to restore those agreements it will be too late to do so. Maybe this is just a law of civilization, which requires that we not look too closely that those fundamental, tacit and long-term agreements. But that agreement will still be worth arriving at—something always has to come “after.” Those who have arrived at that agreement can, at least, accustom themselves to a bluntness that will seem a bit barbaric to those who think their local agreements guarantee civilization because they are the people who really count. In other words, if the game is over, there’s no point to playing it. Those no longer playing can recover old vocabularies and generate new ones. To refer to my previous, maybe somewhat barbaric, post, a little (mostly indirect) debate on National Review over how far responsibility spreads for the murder of two police officers in Brooklyn is interesting. The more libertarian and “moderate” want to insist that it would be very wrong to consider anyone other than the killer himself responsible. Even if everyone is shouting “kill him,” that is, at a cornered man, only the man who throws the first stone is guilty. (A terror of mimetic contagion motivates this attitude: the same fear upon which modern leftism is based, that the normal is really a barely repressible insatiable appetite for scapegoats.) But Andrew McCarthy made some fairly obvious counter-arguments, using terms that people don’t seem to be very comfortable with anymore, like “incitement.” If you lie (or acquiesce in lies) about specific events (say, what happened in Ferguson) in order to create a bigger lie (that whites in general, and white cops more specifically, are deliberately targeting young black men), and people draw the obvious conclusion that we need to “fight back” against the police, and then, at the end of the chain, a few people shoot at actual police officers, I will say you have blood on your hands. And I will say that anyone who associates with you has a little bit of that blood on their hands. And I will refuse to have dealings with anyone with that blood on their hands (thereby doing my little bit to restore some frayed social agreements). And if that proves impossible—i.e., if there aren’t enough people to vote for, work for and with, listen to, learn from, be friends with, etc., who haven’t signed onto the blood libel—well, what we have then is a heap.


  1. What you’re discussing here seems related to the “prisoner’s dilemma,” which we’re all familiar with. Does the prisoner’s decision change when he thinking not in terms of his fellow criminals but rather in terms of society as a whole, the “system”? No matter how unscrupulous one may be, one can always retort that others, who are more privileged, are getting away with much more. This kind of thinking leads to the kind of corruption we see in third world countries, which end up being dysfunctional for all, even if those in power enjoy certain perks. Since you mention the Puritans, we might consider whether Weber’s thesis about the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism still has any validity for the 21st century.

    Comment by Q — December 30, 2014 @ 8:48 am

  2. It seems to me that a successful civilization erodes prisoner’s dilemmas, which in turn tends to make it less successful. I think that the attitude you describe (“No matter how unscrupulous one may be, one can always retort that others, who are more privileged, are getting away with much more.”) is much more characteristic of first world, welfare state thinking than of the third world. The warlord or high level corrupt bureaucrat in an African country doesn’t really need to “retort” to anyone, does he? He doesn’t have to justify his actions in terms of universal, formal principles, because he still lives within a gift economy where radical differences in wealth and power don’t need justification (they do need legitimation, but that is accomplished through gifts, i.e., bribes, promotion of loyalists, etc. and ostentatious shows of power). It’s the healthy person on welfare or disability who feels a need to say “what about all those fat cats on Wall Street?” At this point, for more and more people, there is no dilemma at all: you don’t really need to cooperate with other citizens, because you have rights and entitlements; and you don’t need to cooperate with others in your local community, because your benefits come from the state.

    It has been noted (by Charles Murray, among others) that the “Protestant ethic” has migrated upward–executives, high powered lawyers, Wall Street traders, academics and other elites work 70 hour weeks, while those on the lower end look for ways to opt out. I think that’s an effect of the lost “wager” I refer to in the post–the carrots as well as the sticks that kept the middle class running are becoming less effective. Meanwhile, the leftists who promote more entitlements and unrestricted sexual behavior get and stay married, have one or two kids (upon whom they lavish royal care), stay sober and work their tails off. Still, there are different kinds of renunciations and indulgences–it doesn’t all come down to sex, drink and drugs. Ideological fantasies and their uninhibited expression, along with unrestrained political hate are also kinds of incontinence. Maybe these days they are the most satisfying and destructive kinds. In that case, a new “puritanism” might be located as much in language, a kind of linguistic “temperance,” as much as in personal behavior. Why would people adopt such a linguistic temperance? Ultimately, the same reason anyone has for self-discipline: liberation from enslaving passions.

    Comment by adam — December 30, 2014 @ 9:29 am

  3. In fact, to follow up on that last comment (although this should be another post), there is absolutely no reason why the kinds of sins and vices social conservatives tend to focus on (usually involving sex, but secondarily intoxication) should be given prominence over things like bearing false witness, encouraging recalcitrance, hardening resentments, even to the point of vendettas. (The social conservatives themselves may take the basic elements of civilization too much for granted–and so, perhaps, did Max Weber.) It’s only if we see leftism as just another political opinion that we don’t see that it excuses and encourages violence against civilization systematically. The luscious pleasures such marination in hatred provides would be a very interesting topic of discussion in its own right.

    Comment by adam — December 30, 2014 @ 10:47 am

  4. Methinks you have got ‘system’ wrong. Nothing noted as good or bad about society detracts from it functioning as a system. And there is nothing about a system that necessarily precludes failure should one or more parts fail – absent some deliberate or accidental feature. Of which, civilization has many.

    And the sky is not falling. The rate of police being killed is at the lowest in the US since about the Civil War. The current rate is about 4 cops per year per 10 million population, down from a local peak of 13 in ’73 and ’74. The peak in the US was over 24 cops per year per 10 million population in 1930. (About 20/year from 1919 – 1934).
    The overall war + homicide rate is lower through Europe and the Americas than ever – from the dawn of man based on anthropological and historic data. Life has never been better, civilization never stronger. A good time to raise the bar on acceptable deviation and crack down on incitement.

    Comment by Alan — December 30, 2014 @ 2:47 pm

  5. The killing of police officers is just one, particularly current issue–and politically motivated killings (perhaps the numbers will start to rise now) are a bit different than killings resulting, say, from shootouts between police and desperate criminals.

    Yes, I am familiar with the secular reductions in violence, but to present that as proof that everything is fine begs the question I raised in my post: how many is too many, and how do we know? And, naturally, we are not just speaking of violence. But I don’t think there is any good way to argue about these things: everyone has their own measures, responds to the events they find compelling. If you think everything’s fine, that just means the areas of overlap between our observations is fairly small–and there are bigger problems in the world than that, I’m sure we can agree.

    I suspect our discussion of whether society is a system will end up looking like our discussion of whether the mind is a computer. I’m willing to give it a go, though. I didn’t say anything about good or bad: my argument is simply that scenes are not systems; the originary scene did not mechanically articulate itself, and so neither does society. Needless to say, calling society a “system” can lead to lots of interesting observations. So could calling it an organism, or a machine–but I don’t think it’s either of those things, either.

    Comment by adam — December 30, 2014 @ 3:01 pm

  6. I don’t think it particularly productive, but examples from the past are the series of plagues that devastated Europe through the Middle Ages – civilization survived though smaller and a significant loss in development vs. Roman Empire. And the French Revolution where the society survived and Napoleon essentially put the French civilization back together fairly quickly. By my reckoning, the originary scene was about 70k years ago, civilization 6 to 10 thousand. We could lose the republic, but not civilization.

    Comment by Alan — December 30, 2014 @ 4:03 pm

  7. I’m not sure what you don’t think is productive, but I do agree that specific societies and political forms can fail while civilization continues or recovers. Of course a lot depends on what the fall looks like. Regardless, I think the distinction between civilization and “the republic” is worth keeping in mind, and if the two come into conflict, I’d side with civilization.

    The point of referring to the originary scene was to frame the discussion in terms of the most basic question: what is the human? The originary scene is GA’s answer to that question, and if there is an originary “methods,” central to it is certainly that whatever is human exists in potential on the originary scene. And I, at least, don’t find a system there.

    Also, you were right to point out that speaking in terms of “systems” doesn’t imply that failure and collapse isn’t possible; it’s just that there’s no way of speaking about “repair” as coming from outside the system, so that must also be something we count on the system doing for itself. There’s no coherent way of bringing human intention into the equation.

    Comment by adam — December 30, 2014 @ 4:22 pm

  8. I guess I’m on the flip side of several of those coins. I see no way of extracting human intention (as it is both cause and chance for solution – so I may be misreading your comment), nor do I see a way of erasing the knowledge of the Event that has permeated humanity these tens of thousands of years. Here also, I am in conflict with orthodox GA: I (as a systems engineer – so be aware of my bias) see the Event as a deliberate occurrence which created (even if accidentally) a system of human order within a population of humans which had existed for hundreds of thousands if not millions of years without this order. So what you are understanding as human is what I see as a human within a social system which he(s) has learned to sustain through ritual renunciation. This knowledge, I think, is as core to our socialization of our children as language.

    Without the social system allowed by the wisdom of the originary scene, the beast that is human lives as a beast. We certainly retain the capacity to re-adopt bestial behavior at will – and have demonstrated same throughout history and the anthropologic record. But this always appears very temporary as if in response to some crisis or opportunity, and we soon return to civil behavior either of our own volition or when subdued by a greater power – whether this be an external invader or a response from our own government. Police often respond to riots by waiting for them to blow over and come out in force after the miscreants have simply gone home, their energies spent and emotions muted. I do not see that we ever forget how to be civil, we just choose not to on occasion. Often a charismatic individual will step to the fore and charm an angry mob into going home in peace. Other times the armies are deployed and order is restored by suppression. Even here, these armies are not ‘teaching’ civility, but convincing those who have been taught civility from birth to re-accept it after briefly renouncing it.

    We have never stopped being beasts, only learned alternatives to beastly behavior that we are unlikely to unlearn.

    Comment by Alan — December 31, 2014 @ 11:03 am

  9. The event was “deliberate,” and its consequences unintentional, so we agree on that. What you call a “system,” I call a set of tacit and explicit agreements; so, I suppose we could see what difference this difference makes, so as to ensure it’s not merely semantic.

    I don’t think humans ever re-adopt bestial behavior, in the literal sense–humans can obviously behave brutally, much more so than animals, in fact, but when they do so they are not behaving like or as animals. But this may be a different kind of disagreement than the one over “systems.”

    You may also be defining “civil” behavior more broadly than I do–you seem to identify it here with non-violent behavior, but when I speak of civilization or civility I mean something much more specific: the way we act when we believe violence has been permanently eliminated, and that we need not prepare ourselves for it, at least in any situation we are remotely likely to be in. This, too, seems to be a different kind of disagreement than any regarding “systems.”

    If there is a relevant difference here, it would manifest itself in one’s willingness to use terms like “the system will adjust to this dysfunction,” or “the dysfunction is itself part of the system,” or “the system functions in this or that way,” etc. Any suggestion of automaticity or mechanistic functioning, in other words, falsifies social order, and so I don’t speak in those terms (even though I’m sure I slip up at times, since these phrases have been built so deeply into our language). Everything is renunciations, remissions and transgressions, agreements affirmed, revised and flouted, all the way up and all the way down.

    Comment by adam — December 31, 2014 @ 2:27 pm

  10. I can agree that my use of ‘bestial behavior’ is largely figurative – relating to behavior rejecting the social agreements. But what I am calling a system includes the people as active, deliberate actors within the set of tacit and explicit agreements. Now I do not talk of society as a system either, for the reasons you note – it is too confusing, too hard to explain to the un-trained (non-engineers). The self-correcting nature of our social systems can be willful but are typically unconscious – it is the people that make it self correcting (except for those occasions where they don’t).

    Comment by Alan — December 31, 2014 @ 6:01 pm

  11. Now we’re getting somewhere interesting. Yes, “self-correcting nature” is exactly the kind of “systems talk” I have in mind; and I acknowledge that it makes a lot of sense–you can describe a lot in those terms. (You can describe a lot using biological terms as well–parasite, symbiosis, virus, cancer, health, etc.) So it’s not as if I would ban them–sometimes they get to the point that needs to be made more quickly. But, in the end, what you call self-correcting, I would call a return to more fundamental agreements in the face of violations of more tangential ones. Similarly, what I would sometimes call “viral” (obviously not just me, but the term fits uncontrolled mimetic behavior) is really an abandonment of some social agreements in the face in the face of violations that seem a source of power because they attack some of the more poorly articulated or obsolete agreements. Etc.

    Comment by adam — December 31, 2014 @ 6:16 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Powered by WordPress