The fallacy of system

System blaming is the engine of passivity

Words & images © Paul Ransom

Note: This is an excerpt from the book: The Pointless Revolution! (Everytime Press, 2019). The original version was published as part of Chapter Six: The Emancipation Equation.

The System. We’ve all heard of it, spoken of it, felt ripped off, wronged and hemmed in by it. Conversely, most of us have also endeavoured to exploit it in our favour. It is, we tell ourselves, an inevitable part of our lives. Whichever ism we apply, whatever name or frame we use to describe it, and regardless of how we elect to fight against it, we have convinced ourselves, culturally and individually, that it exists.

Yet when we drill into this ‘system thing’ we discover certain qualities that are common across its numerous incarnations.

  • It is essential – as though woven into the background fabric of things – it’s been here for ever, or at least for ages – it’s unavoidable – the natural order of things, etc.
  • It is machine-like – it operates with a grinding, mechanistic inevitability that overrides mere individuals, sometimes even those at the top – it is a rule-based function – cold, ruthless, programmatic, etc.
  • It is monolithic – it is the way, the order of things – even apparently divergent ‘ways’ are really part of its way – it has a totalitarian and/or omnipresent quality.
  • It utilises an invisible hand – it is secretive, covert – sinister puppet master or benign mysterious deity.
  • It insists upon your obedience – legality & associated enforcement/punishment mechanisms – inducements in the form of eternal life or Earthly reward in return for compliance – render unto Caesar and, hey presto, bread & circuses, etc. 

In addition, many of the most popular system models have an in-built and forever imminent apocalypse. Jesus may be a tad overdue but rest assured He’s not far off now. Various days of judgement, atonement and reckoning are already pencilled in. The Caliphate is nigh. The Jewish/Bolshevik international banking conspiracy will soon be revealed. The lizards will be unmasked. Our under siege pineal glands will soon awaken from their fluoridated slumber to herald the dawn of a new golden age. Viva le revolucion!

Whether it’s the result of destiny, despotism or divine scheming, The System brings overwhelming force to the table; a force that reduces the individual to a cog, a pawn, an actor. At best, a child in God’s grade school, (a barefoot novice struggling on the rocky lower slopes of a seemingly endless slog up the Everest of nirvana).

At worst, little more than a slave.

Therefore, in the shadow of this almighty behemoth it’s perfectly acceptable to yield meekly to the way of things, or even to protest loudly whilst nonetheless capitulating – and of course to keep up a grumbling narrative of resentment, complaint and blame.

Hence, my pithy assertion: system blaming is the engine of passivity.

However, in my view, there is something even more remarkable about the so-called system; namely, that it doesn’t actually exist.

  • Okay, so at a ‘whole of universe’ level I can’t be absolutely 100% sure there isn’t a divine plan for me, or that some extra-cosmic conscious entity hasn’t intelligently designed the exquisitely mathematical jewel that is the cosmos in order to realise some alpha-plan for something I will never fully comprehend but… a) given the paucity of evidence for such a thing and, b) the high likelihood that such notions are anthropogenic, wishful thinking projections, it seems a better bet for me to believe that the only universal imperatives I am bound to obey are the same ones that govern atoms, gamma rays and the catalysation of proteins. While this is indeed evidence of a highly ordered, gloriously beautiful, supremely elegant system, it has no favourites. It is not moral, nor is it political, (even if it is as mechanically deterministic as some models suggest). It does not exalt or vilify me because I’m straight, male, Anglo-Saxon and able to ingest gluten at will. I am neither its victim nor its hero – and I am most certainly not ‘entitled’ by it. 

Back down here on the everyday human/social scale, The System is only ‘real’ because we make it so. Indeed, system is just another word for custom, for standard practise, for business as usual. The cold, impersonal machinery of government isn’t impersonal at all – in fact, it’s made entirely of people (computerisation and algorithms notwithstanding)1. Every rule bound, process driven decision is made by an individual or groups of individuals in consultation; and even if precedent, prejudice, penny pinching and ‘computer says no’ do play their part, and grossly unfair outcomes result from this, it is still the upshot of human action.

Quite simply, government, economy, the law, science, academia and religion are all human institutions. Our habit of externalising and dehumanising these activities, reducing them to monolithic system narratives, lets both perpetrator and victim off the hook of accountability. All the while we humans regard system as the other we will continue in a slave relationship with it.     

Yet, when we prise apart the structure of the various system models what we discover are simply patterns of repeated behaviour. We can call them received wisdoms or isms if we wish but the description doesn’t alter the basic underlying fact. System is habit.       

  • In saying this I am in no way seeking to minimise or deny the existence of cruelty, injustice, oppression, exploitation, entrenched privilege or the essentialisation of out groups. These are sadly frequent human traits. The list of our nasty, stupid and destructive customs is long – and all of them are enshrined and enacted through the agency of individual and group choice. Each act of violence is just that, an act. It’s people who are responsible for this shit – not systems. Not the machines we’ve invented or the Gods we made up. It’s us. Folks remarkably like you, dear reader. 2

You may, at this point, be saying ‘yeah, so what, that’s obvious’ and my response would similarly be ‘yeah, I know, but…’

The ‘but’ in this case would be that, despite this indisputable fact, many of us continue to relate to The System not as something that humans choose but as though it were a kind of immutable law. We have successfully separated The System from ourselves, casting it as an externality, a nigh abstract and essential function. As for the people who work for (or in) The System we have delineated them as an out group. Politicians, merchant bankers, media magnates, members of the Rothschild and Windsor families, and even faceless bureaucrats are routinely considered nefarious, stupid or corrupt. Indeed, even those who are employed by governments, banks and television stations are wont to rail against the heartless, moronic, pocket lining ‘higher ups’ who make their lives a misery. As a consequence, the notion of system allows us to dehumanise one another along inside/outside lines.

In short, when we drill down, power and the folk who exercise it are resented, if not demonised; this despite the fact that almost all of us would gladly accept a position of rank, wealth and influence were it offered, and may actually be working assiduously towards such a goal even as I type. Indeed, many of us probably believe we would make excellent world rulers or CEOs. No wonder so much that commonly passes for dissent is little more than envy rebadged or infantile ‘it’s not fair’ dummy spitting. Observe the endless slurry of simplistic populist outcry that parades as common sense solution or people power on talkback radio, Facebook feeds or in the pages of Murdoch owned tabloids. (The irony of all these whinge-friendly platforms being operated by mega-corporations and funded by evil banking cartels is clearly lost on the so-called 99%.)

Whilst it’s entirely understandable that we don’t enjoy feeling powerless or relish the fact that decisions we have little or no say in may adversely affect us, our belief in so-called systems dulls the pain of this by allowing us to convince ourselves that our helplessness is an inevitable corollary of history, destiny or fiendishly hatched conspiracy. This then leaves us free to blame The System for the fact that we find ourselves living lives that don’t bring us joy and pursuing objectives that we don’t really believe in. After all, it is easier to be a whinging infant bemoaning the unfair restrictions of the parental/external3 than it is to accept full adult responsibility. Simpler to be an almost blameless slave than free to own up.

The System doesn’t so much force us to obey, as we prop up The System with our continued obedience.

Of course, in saying this I do wish to distinguish between those living with genuine poverty and oppression, or in war zones, and those currently residing in the beige comfort of middle class suburbia. The seventeen year old girl being married off to the dirty old fucker who raped her, or the slumdog kids eking out a grubby subsistence from other people’s rubbish have a damn sight less wriggle room than the Audi driving, iThing wielding, Netflix subscriber who rails against glass ceilings, political correctness or working too hard.

In the West – where levels of physical wellbeing and security are historically high, and where the erosion of once rigid customs has allowed for a far greater social and economic mobility than exists in more traditionally rule bound societies – there is a palpable sense of discontent. The widespread idea that things are fundamentally fucked and that we’re all going to hell in a handbasket is evident in phenomena as diverse as the retreat into mawkish, generational nostalgia and expressions of full blown ideological rage against the machine. Whether we’re bemoaning the fact that it’s no longer acceptable to thrash the children or that modern democracy has devolved into a relentlessly idiotic adversarial spectacle, we have developed countless ‘world gone mad’ scenarios to imprison ourselves in a slave/master relationship with The System.

All the while we cling onto beliefs that tell us that we have to get a steady job, upgrade the phone or wax our genitals to a pre-pubescent shine, we are effectively talking ourselves into a state of helplessness. The System doesn’t so much force us to obey, as we prop up The System with our continued obedience.

In short – and perhaps somewhat brutally – what I’m suggesting here is that blaming the so-called system for your unhappiness, resentment and sense of incarceration is disingenuous at best. You are not, in fact, a slave – you’re just addicted to the idea that you are and, if you’re honest, you get a perverse kick from the righteous thrill it gives you.

Poor, noble me battling quixotically against the numerous evils of the poison world. And look, here my chains, here my badges of honour. (Here my cast iron excuses.)

Thus, in order to dilute that beloved victim narrative, we need to wean ourselves from the breast milk of systems – from the apparent inevitabilities of the parental/external3 – and to view the social world (culture, politics, economy, etc) as human and not as some kind of abstract mechanism. Our societies are behavioural, and it is with our personal contributions that we either bolster the status quo or offer up alternatives.   

Once we come to think of cold dystopian machinery as simply the result of human choices – behaviour – the overwhelming nature of system power dissolves. In this light it becomes clear that we can no longer continue in system blame or recognise The System as something that exists outside of us. Indeed, when we disavow ourselves of the multitude of externalised power complexes and the Essentialist4 imperatives they uphold, we can begin to regard ourselves as the true source of power in our lives. For better or worse.  

Now we are finally ready to be free.

PS: For more on this topic – and others relating to freedom, happiness and meaning – check out my recently published book, The Pointless Revolution! (The Economics Of Doing Whatever You Want), available now by clicking this link.


1: The advent of AI technologies may well change the landscape here. However, even if the mechanisation of decision making processes has an Orwellian ring to it, I am reminded that ‘off’ switches still exist. Whilst tech-dystopias have been with us since the invention of dark satanic mills, the most telling aspect of machine apocalypse scenarios is that they reveal, in their central dread, a core humanity; namely, that what we fear most is a dehumanising force, something that strips out or overrules the agency and potential compassion of human beings. Perhaps our deepest psycho-emotional sense of dystopia is one in which the world becomes fundamentally inhuman – i.e. not of our tribe.    

2: In The Pointless Revolution! and elsewhere on this site I have raised the topic of dehumanisation. Our tendency to be afraid of (and quick to lurch into) dehumanisation is, in my view, one of the principal ethical/philosophical problems we face. That manifold cruelties flow from our habit of dehumanising the other is glaringly and horribly obvious, yet perhaps more subtly, it is the manner in which we dehumanise social mechanisms (government, economy, etc) that most visibly erodes our trust in one another and feeds into the common perception that the world is fucked and Armageddon is just a software update away.  

3: In The Pointless Revolution! I speak about what I call the parental/external authority complex. This is the ubiquitous construct of gods, karma committees, customs, national/ethnic tropes and family/tribal orthodoxies that tell us who to be, what to do and why it matters. At a psycho-emotional level, this complex operates as a parent-like force, rewarding good behaviour but always ready to admonish. However, because it is also an externality, we can locate all blame with it, casting it as a monolithic force of injustice and oppression. Thus, our relationship to it is most often that of the child (trying to please & placate) and the slave (trapped but indignantly railing). 

4: The term ‘Essentialist’ refers to those belief systems which insist upon life, the universe and everything as having essential, in-built purpose(s). Anthropomorphised gods, destiny & higher purpose narratives and so-called Enlightenment pathways generally hinge upon this. As indeed do system narratives.

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