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:
- We can better understand the disruptive and, often, unjust and inequitable public policy shifts that seem to “just happen;”
- 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).