Sunday, December 11, 2016

It's The System, Stupid

Imagine if we had a self-regulating political system that responded automatically to efforts to expand political participation and the freedom of expression, but in a negative fashion. For example, suppose every time a policy was proposed, or put in place, to allow citizens greater ability to express their preferences, the system automatically responded by reducing the range of policy issues that would be accessible to popular input.  Thus, expanding political participation and freedom of expression in the name of democracy would actually result in less democracy. How would we respond to such a situation? Would we simply give up trying to expand the opportunities for democratic expression? Or would we question and seek to change the political system that produced these perverse results? 

Now consider a comparable situation but in the economic system. Suppose every time we proposed a policy that would improve the working and material conditions of the citizens through, for example, a minimum wage or unionization, the self-regulating market system responded by producing  fewer jobs or by disinvesting and capital flight. Thus, attempts to improve the lives of workers would actually result in negative consequences for workers, and this would then be used as the basis for opposing any such labor reforms. How would we respond to this situation?  As it turns out we are much less likely than in the case of the political system to consider the system itself as the problem. Instead, we assume the system is a natural force that cannot be changed or modified [aka TINA – “there is no alternative”] and therefore our only choice is either to abandon all efforts, or work to accommodate the system to minimize the negative consequences.   

When people tell us that any effort to improve material conditions won’t work because the “market” will respond negatively and the action will be counterproductive, we need to consider the problem to lie not with the policy proposal but with our economic system itself.

The economist Michael Perelman [in The Invisible Handcuffs of Capitalism] has framed this issue similarly and more colorfully in the context of the Greek myth of Procrustes and the infamous Procrustean Bed. In that fable, Procrustes invites travelers to spend the night but they must conform to the dimensions of his bed which results in his sadistic practice of amputating limbs that are too long, or stretching the bodies of those who are too short. The Procrustean bed is the metaphor for a system that requires absolute conformity to its logic and the negative consequences for those who deviate.  This is how Perelman describes the operation of the capitalist market.

Recognition of the systemic sources of our problems has fueled a several movements aimed at fundamental political-economic change. One prime example is “TheNext System” project.  

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