Reflection 49: Politics: Systems Analysis, Values Response

We exist within systems. The environment, the culture, our families and romantic relationships, even the cacophony of voices in our heads – all of these are systems. So, needless to say, the principles that govern the way systems operate are enormously influential in our lives.

The implications that flow from this reality are, however, deeply obscured by the individualistic worldview that predominates in our culture. The story, endlessly taught and told, is that we are the “captain of our ship;” that good people – through hard work, determination, and smarts – chart their own destiny.

And when it comes to public policy, what matters isn’t the system but the people in it.

This perspective also permeates our view of how change happens. We think it’s all about individual action. “I’m going to fix the situation through my shrewd choices,” or “he could fix the problem if only he would get his act together and do the right thing.” We persist in believing that the way to solve our economic, political and environmental problems is by electing the right leaders.

Unfortunately, the evidence decisively refutes this individualistic approach to change. From time to time, the “right” political leader has been elected, depending on your political outlook – Kennedy or Reagan, Clinton or Bush. But the “problem” always remains: Inefficient and profligate government (for conservatives), an increasingly tattered safety net and regulatory scheme (for liberals). Nevertheless, we persist in looking to leaders for answers. In the process, we virtually ignore the systemic forces that, when it comes to shaping our world, are so much more influential.

In this Reflection, I look at the last 40 years of our politics from a systemic perspective. As you will see, my analysis has very little to do with leaders and elections. Instead, it works from these premises:

  • The system that predominates in our culture places its highest value on the accumulation of capital through the most efficient possible use of resources, both physical and human; and
  • In accordance with the principles that govern all systems, this system drives public and private choices in ways that promotes its singular goal.

Cultivating this more systemic view of the world, my hope is that:

  1. We can better understand the disruptive and, often, unjust and inequitable public policy shifts that seem to “just happen;”
  2. With these new understandings in place, craft strategies that allow us to more effectively influence the course of events.

A Systems Analysis

Over the last few hundred years capitalism has emerged, to a stunning degree, as the system that dominates our lives. What this means, in practical terms, is that capitalism’s outlook is thoroughly embedded, not only in ways in which our businesses, communities and organizations operate, but also in our taken for granted ways of being in our personal lives.

At a macro level, our businesses, schools, and public and private agencies instinctually replicate capitalism’s preferred authoritarian model: What the teacher or boss says, goes. And even most reform minded of our organizations, intent on attracting money and mainstream credibility, are given over to capitalism’s competitive ways; seeking to be the best, to make more money, to become bigger and more influential, to “win.”

Since work and career consume so much of our time and energy, it is not surprising that these outlooks dominate our private lives as well. We are individual operators who go out in the world, each day, seeking to compete to win. And the measure of our success? Money and possessions.

Operating in this environment, here is what I view as the real, front-page story of our politics over the last 40 years. To grow itself – to accumulate more and more capital – this predominant system has tended to two overwhelming priorities: Creating more products, and ever expanding markets in which to sell them.

With our unrestrained commitment to advances in technology and productivity, the first part of this equation is fairly straightforward. All that is required are choices that allow the system’s product creating momentum to continue without interruption. And that has happened.

But the question of ever growing markets is more vexing. On the one hand, with its single-minded focus on increasing capital, the system will always seek to drive workers’ wages down. And over the last 40 years, these efforts have been very successful. But standing alone, wage stagnation is highly problematic since it would result in the progressive impoverishment of the very consumers upon whom the system depends.

So a more realistic take on many of the most significant public policy changes of the last four decades is to view them as self correcting maneuvers of a predominant cultural system, doing what systems do: Preserving itself and extending its reach, in this case by finding ways to maintain and expand consumer spending without raising wages.


Because we habitually see change as the product of individual choices, the emergence of the major public policy shifts that exemplify this process seems mystifying. They seemed to “just happen” with little or no debate or active decision-making on anyone’s part.

But from a systems perspective, there is really no mystery at all.

Because the predominant system has so thoroughly colonized our habitual ways of operating, most all of us – knowingly or unknowingly – make day by day choices that are complicit with its goals. What happens, then, is this: A wide variety of individuals and institutions make decisions – uncoordinated but informed by this common set of values – that naturally cohere and evolve into public policy shifts that consistently promote the system’s priority goal of capital accumulation.

One very good example is the evolution of the women’s movement since it burst on the scene in the late 1960s. Over the years, progress toward its larger goal – an end to our authoritarian/patriarchal ways – has been uncertain at best. But in the area of career options, it has been stunningly successful. Why? Because adding a second wage earner to a majority of American households, beginning in earnest the 1970s, allowed a continuing expansion of household purchases even as wages remained stagnant.

Similarly, the exponential growth in credit card use in the 1980s and, then, of “home equity loans” – a term that didn’t even exist until the mid-80s – didn’t just happen. As this feminist driven second wage earner phenomenon leveled off, these mechanisms allowed consumer spending to continue its growth for another two decades, once again without any increase in wages. The new mechanism? Massive borrowing by individual consumers.

The nationalization and securitization of the mortgage market was the final (I think!) extension of this credit expanding strategy: A financial maneuver that pushed this consumer borrowing/consumption machine into overdrive. And the dark irony, here, is that with pension plans being the ultimate purchaser of so many of the subprime mortgages, the system contrived to have America’s unwitting worker’s finance their continued, credit-driven buying spree with their own retirement savings.

This systems driven, “capital promoting” narrative also makes sense of many other, seemingly unrelated, policy choices: Our complicity with a massive exodus of jobs and capital to other countries; the eerily prescient initiative, five years before the housing market’s collapse, to limit personal bankruptcy relief; the bail out of the banking system; the failure to prosecute so many of the major players in the financial meltdown; the mysterious absence of any serious debt relief initiatives for consumers; and so on. In short, the culture’s predominant capitalistic-based goals are the real driver of many, if not most, of the important shifts in public policy that have occurred over the last 40 years.

A Values Response

Because the mainstream culture’s values drive our public debate and dictate outcomes, our change efforts need to start with the systematic cultivation of an alternative, more humane set of values: Radical Decency. With this new orientation, our lively interest in wealth creation will continue. But it will no longer operate without restraint. Instead, it will be subordinated to, and placed in the service of, the larger goal of a more humane, just and equitable world.

Being decent to your self, others, and the world – at all times and without exception –won’t magically lead to better public policies. But it will shed a clear, critical light on policies – such as those described above – that preserve capital and expand its wealth generating capacity but, in the process, penalize millions of middle and working class people.

In addition, as we immerse ourselves in Radical Decency’s wisdom-stretching equation new, more effective strategies for change will emerge. See, for example, Reflection #12 (how to make “decency to the world” a personal priority); Reflection #15 (identifying business as a key strategic focus); and Reflection #45, (describing a more deeply collaborative approach to social change); Reflections ##35 and 66 (describing tools for creating greater decency in the workplace); Reflections ## 75 and 76 (using decency principles to create a more civil political conversation).

Reflection 48: Naming A New “It”

My friend Gary Gray says a lot of smart things. A few years ago he described how women, in the 1960s, would meet to talk about “it.” They knew something was deeply wrong with the cultural roles to which they were consigned but couldn’t quite put their finger on it. Only after considerable ferment were they able to name it – feminism, women’s liberation – and only then was it transformed into a mass movement.

This act of naming is crucial. Until something is named, its existence is problematic. Either it is culturally invisible or exists only in a series of seemingly diffuse, disjointed, and (at best) vaguely connected thoughts, feelings and activities. But the naming process has the potential to transform this inchoate thing into something coherent, powerful and in its most expansive form, world changing.

In We, the Jungian theorist Robert A. Johnson, focusing on the emergence of romantic love as a cultural phenomenon in the Middle Ages, describes the process in this way:

“At a certain point in the history of a people, a new possibility bursts out of the collective unconscious; it is a new idea, a new belief, a new value, or a new way of looking at the universe.”

And, Johnson continues, it can operate as a powerfully positive force if:

“It can be integrated into the [collective] consciousness” and we “learn to handle its tremendous power.”


The culture in which we live is in the grips of a highly defined and thoroughly elaborated “it,” so much so that we usually think of it as unchangeable reality, as just the way things are and have to be. Compete and win, dominate and control – these values permeate virtually every part of our lives.

What are we supposed to do? For anyone living in our culture, the answer is easy. Get the best possible grades at the best possible school, so you can get a prestigious job where you can make more and more money. And, of course, always strive to be richer, thinner, sexier, more popular.

Do you notice how singular the values are in this prescribed way of living? Compete, win and, ideally, be dominant. Be in control of every aspect of your life. Indeed, the ease with which we can answer this “what are we supposed to do” question graphically illustrates how thoroughly these values have infiltrated our collective consciousness. It is the dominant “it” in our lives – either through conformance to it or in our struggle to loosen its grip.

As I discuss in Reflection #30 In Defense of Our Troubling Values, these predominant values are not intrinsically bad. Properly used, a competitive spirit sharpens our wits, motivates us to higher levels of performance, and creates an intimate bond with co-competitors.

Similarly, lying to a would-be rapist (control by deception) is an invaluable skill. And, after exhausting more respectful options, appropriately modulated counter aggression (domination and control) may be the best option when confronted with an implacable foe, intent on imposing his will.

But we have utterly failed, in Johnson’s terms, to integrate these values into a larger “collective consciousness” that allows us to manage their “tremendous power.” What is starkly absent from our lives is a more expansive and humane “it” that can subsume and manage these competitive, win/lose values so they serve our humanity instead of riding roughshod over it. Radical Decency has to potential to be this new “it.”


There are many, many people who, troubled by the culture’s predominant values, are actively seeking to craft more decent and humane ways of living. But having no shared, values-based idea around which to organize, their energy is fractured and divided.

To further complicate matters, the mainstream culture does a masterful job of encouraging this fracturing process, dividing us up into liberals, conservatives, libertarians, evangelical Christians, environmentalists, free market capitalists, and so – on and on. Then, unwittingly replicating the values of the mainstream culture, these movements compete with one another saying in effect: Our approach is the right one – the one that will create a better world – if only everyone else would fall in line with our program.

The deeper truth about virtually all of these mainstream movements is that, while they capture the energy of many well-meaning people, their message is deeply compromised by the culture’s predominant values. Why? Because they are seduced by the (plausible) possibility that – adopting the culture’s “business as usual” ways of operating – they will be able to tap into its resources: Money, access to the media and other center’s of power, etc., etc. And on the flip side, they are driven by the fear that, failing to do so, they will wither and die – or, at best, remain quixotically small and marginal – due to a lack of access to these resources.

In addition, the mainstream culture’s mechanisms for allocating money, access, and media attention make it almost inevitable that the people who build and maintain these movements will be goal-oriented people who know how to work the system; people, in short, who are experts in “winning.” But that, in turn, means that unless they have extraordinary awareness and mastery over what drives them, these leaders’ instinctual choices will, in large ways and small, reflect the mainstream culture’s ways of operating.

Where does this process leave the well-intentioned people who so passionately identify with these movements? Sadly, because of their powerful emotional identification with the cause, most of them stick with the group’s party line, becoming in the process unwittingly apologists for their leaders and the compromised messages they embody.

  • Liberals who bite their tongues and go along with President Obama’s failure to push for meaningful financial regulation and Hillary Clinton’s vote in favor of the Iraq war.
  • Evangelical Christians who condone wildly uncharitable judgments leveled at gays and lesbians.
  • Catholics who remain loyal to leaders who condone and then minimize massive, systemic child abuse.


If Radical Decency (or a similar formulation) ever “burst out of the collective unconscious” as a “new way of looking at the universe,” it would offer the many well-intentioned people, affiliated with these mainstream movements, a life and, potentially, world-altering perspective.

Their new “it” would be this: The problem is not greedy businesses, or corrupt and profligate government, or the failure to follow the Buddha or Mohammed or a literal reading of the Bible. It is, instead, the pre-eminence of a set of values – compete and win, dominate and control – that deeply compromise our humanity. And the solution is to systematically implement an alternative set of values: Respect, understanding and empathy, appreciation and acceptance, fairness and justice; that is, Radical Decency.

Radical Decency works well as the new “it” because it is specifically designed to deal with the pre-eminent challenge of our time: The indecent values that dominate our lives and world. For a new sensibility to emerge, this clarity of focus is essential.

Because Radical Decency is not a pre-existing religious, political, or social movement, one of its virtues is the absence of additional agendas that might otherwise to deflect and divide energy, or confuse its purposes. This fact makes it a perfect gathering place for people operating from diverse perspectives: Christians, Jews, Muslims, and nonbelievers; liberals, conservatives, and free market ideologues. In short, well-intentioned people who identify with these movements can continue to be who they are and still be radically decent.

If Radical Decency took hold as the new “it,” here’s what could happen. Armed with a new clarity of purpose, these well-intentioned people would increasingly separate themselves from the indecent aspects of their established movements, de-legitimizing in the process their co-opted leaders and flawed messages. And, understanding their deep kinship with similarly situated people – operating from their own unique perspectives – a new more inclusive movement for change would emerge.

How would these reformed and reinvigorated political, religious and social groups be organized? What would their leadership look like? How would they cooperate with one another? What would the inclusive, overarching movement – that they would be a part of – look like? These and many other questions remain to be answered.

But, in contrast to the cynicism and mistrust that our mainstream ways of operating evoke, theirs would be a process worthy of our confidence and respect. Why? Because, with their whole-hearted commitment to Radical Decency, we could trust that they would steadily move toward policies and ways of living that are more decent and humane.

This is the world I long to live in.

Reflection 47: Operationalizing One-ness of the Universe

In My Stroke of Insight, the neuroscientist, Jill Bolte Taylor, described the reality she inhabited after suffering a massive stroke that shut down the left side of her brain. Given over entirely to her right hemisphere, she was aware only of a field of energy of which her body, now fluid and permeable, was an integral part. If someone came into her room feeling tense, she was aware of his presence. If he was calm, however, she could not differentiate him from the rest of the energy that inhabited her and her room.

For me, Bolte Taylor’s testimony is persuasive. I believe in the interconnectedness of all things, what some refer to as the one-ness of the universe.

But . . . and this is a big but. We inhabit this integrated world as humans, and the reality of our biology fundamentally limits the ways in which we can participate in this interconnected universe.

In his brilliant lecture/podcast, Reality and the Sacred, Jordan Peterson illustrates this point with the following example. When we stand in front of the mirror, what do we see? A face, a nose, a mouth.

And what are we are incapable of seeing? The molecules, atoms, electrons, and quarks that are the building blocks of our faces. Equally beyond our perception are the cosmic forces that govern all matter and energy including, of course, the thing I see in the mirror and refer to as “me.” In other words, we humans are designed to experience only a thin slice of the universe’s larger reality.

It is true that a statistically insignificant number of humans have, in the course of our history, reported exceptional moments of transcendent consciousness. But parsing out the reliability of these reports – and I confess to being a skeptic – is beside the point. Even conceding the possibility of transcendent events, far in excess of 99.9% of all of the moments of consciousness, experienced by members of our species, are limited in the ways that Peterson describes. Like it or not that is the reality that defines our lives and with which we need to come to grips in seeking an answer to this question: How best can we act on – operationalize – our one-ness with the universe?

Unfortunately, this question receives far too little attention. Most people are unreflectively rooted in the mainstream culture’s view of reality. They view each individual as an independent entity, charting his or her own unique course, choosing on a strictly voluntary basis where and with whom to attach. For these people, the question of how to operationalize the universe’s one-ness has no relevance.

Then there is a much smaller group of people who embrace the idea of the interconnectedness of all things. But these people, with limited exceptions, are channeled by the mainstream culture into activities that marginalize and dissipate their impact: Prayer, ecstatic religious experiences, consciousness expanding retreats and vision quests, mind-altering drugs, and so on.

My feelings about these people are mixed. On the one hand, I admire their willingness to consider and embrace an expanded vision of reality. On the other, I am disturbed by their pre-occupation with activities that largely ignore the urgent need to translate these understandings into effective change strategies.

To say that the flutter of a hummingbird’s wings in Japan affects what happens in New York – however true it may be as a theoretical matter – is decidedly not a viable strategy for changing a culture that wildly overemphasizes, to our great detriment, the values I summarize as “compete and win, dominate and control.”

The most visible exception to this pattern is the environmental movement’s emphasis on our symbiotic relationship with other species and the physical environment. This is one place where an important part of our interconnectedness is translated into active social engagement. But even here, the approach is partial and incomplete. Lacking a fully integrated model for the universe’s one-ness, the approaches of most environment organizations – as important as they are – fail to follow through on the implications of our interconnectedness in non-programmatic areas: The structure and operation of their organizations; the treatment of employees, vendors, and adversaries; their investment policies; and so on.


So is there a way to more effectively way to follow through on the implications inherent in the universe’s one-ness? In his signature book, Beyond Permanence, Craig Eisendrath offers a way forward. Fully accounting for the interconnectedness of all things, his prescription for living allows us to more meaningfully contribute to a better world and, in so doing, to create richer, more meaningful lives.

Eisendrath’s orienting frame of reference thoroughly departs from the individualistic outlook that dominates our culture and so effectively reinforces its win/lose, every man for himself ways of operating. What he would put in its place is,

“a new way of thinking about the relation of personhood and society, not in opposition, or even a situation in which people view society as a stage upon which to make an effort or impact, [but instead as] an organic, nurturant relationship in which human beings emerge from the physical and social worlds and reciprocally exercise their responsibility to make these environments even more nurturant and beneficial.”

To his great credit, Eisendrath also offers a prescription for operationalizing this view of the world. His first ingredient is “activism.” According to Eisendrath, “understanding one’s condition and the condition of one’s associates and the surrounding world” can only emerge when we actively immerse ourselves in the issues and events of our lives.

But activism isn’t enough. To make wise and strategic choices, our activism needs to be informed by a vision; what Eisendrath refers to as “an effective personal philosophy.”

Finally, he argues for a symbiosis that unites vision and activism: “We [need to] integrate our continuing experience with a developing personal philosophy, creating a basis for principled action in the immediate situations of our lives.”


My personal journey underscores, for me, the wisdom of Eisendrath’s prescription. I can do the mainstream thing with the best of them: Complaining and pontificating about what’s wrong with the world, all within the safe confines of my status quo life.

But my most meaningful growth has occurred when I have been actively involved with the big issues that have marked the time and place in which I’ve lived: Marching for civil rights; doing the nitty-gritty organizing of Common Cause/Philadelphia and the National Constitution Center; traveling to El Salvador to live and work with re-settled rebel fighters; struggling to run a radically decent business; working with my coaching and therapy clients, day by day, to figure out more effective ways of living.

The importance of “activism” has also been driven home for me in my more intimate relationships. For me, professional and community involvements have always been instinctual. But my sense of life’s possibilities really took off when I more fully committed my time and energy to the perplexing task of being a good spouse, father and friend.

With all this, I also recognize the indispensable role that the second half of Eisendrath’s prescription – an evolving personal philosophy – has played in my life.

The mainstream values that dominate our world and permeate our lives are devilishly clever and deeply misleading. They distract us with faux dramas, drawing us into big fights over marginal issues: Which mainstream candidate will win the next election? Will Congress pass a marginal shift in our budget priorities?

The mainstream culture also divides energy, separating the “good guys” into separate silos – education reformers, environmentalists, social workers, meditators, body workers, visual artists, poets – with interactions between people in these silos being, at best, haphazard and episodic.

For these reasons, Eisendrath’s “vision” work is essential. Seeking to live differently and better, we have to knead these disparate, reform-minded perspectives into a coherent and comprehensive philosophy that can provide focus and guidance for our concrete choices. Lacking that informing vision, we are likely to remain confused, frustrated, and discouraged – and, therefore, primed to accept the inevitability of our current ways of operating.

Radical Decency is my evolving answer to Eisendrath’s prescription for living. Accounting for the interrelatedness of all things – the one-ness of the universe – it seeks to unite vision and activism, supporting us (as Eisendrath would say) “in exercising our responsibility to make the physical and social environments from which we emerge – and of which we are so thoroughly a part – more nurturant and beneficial.”