The System Works

by Ran Prieur

May 13, 2002

Creative Commons License
[Edited November 29, 2012]

A couple weeks ago in Montreal, an old man fell on the subway tracks and a young woman jumped down and pulled him to safety seconds before the oncoming train would have killed him; the transit authority condemned the woman for violating the rule against going on the tracks. America's military and intelligence agencies failed to prevent the 9/11 attacks, at best through spectacular incompetence; after the attacks, these institutions were not investigated, but made more secret and given greater powers. American airports began tedious and intrusive searches of ordinary flyers, confiscating harmless items like tweezers and nail files; but when testing of security systems continued to show that skilled people could get bombs and guns through, this testing was restricted.

Is this insane? Is it stupid? Incompetent? Irrational? Should we be shocked? Confused? No! It all makes perfect sense, and we shouldn't be any more surprised than if we were on a battlefield and the other side shot at us. The system is quite sane, quite intelligent, and knows exactly what it's doing. We are just stubbornly refusing to understand it.

"The system," the global net of governments, corporations, technologies, beliefs and habits in which we are all more or less trapped, presents itself as a collaboration of decent and sensible people trying to do what's best and not always succeeding. The system accepts mild dissenters who lamely complain that it's run by idiots, or lazy people, or greedy people, making mistakes or doing crimes, and that if it weren't for this human nature the whole setup would work fine.

The system does not accept the idea I'm suggesting here: That real human nature is extremely malleable and wants to be intelligent and good, but that it has been twisted into its present unnatural shape for sinister purposes. That greed and stupidity are more effects of our situation than causes of it. That powerful people who know each other and conspire in secret to get more powerful are only the surface of a deeper phenomenon. That what we think of as normal human society is, from its very foundation, an evil collective consciousness, a giant brain made up of people, like our brains are made of neurons that have no view of the action of the whole. And that it is evil because of its motive. What the system does, rationally, sanely, skillfully, predictably, relentlessly, is concentrate power: take power and awareness away from every living thing and give power to artificial central authority, and increase the strength, the perfection, the depth and breadth of central detached authority's knowledge and control.

Why are we in a system that behaves this way? How did it get started? What is its deeper meaning, or what are its unseen relations? These are metaphysical questions with answers I can barely guess at. All I'm trying to do here is help people get out of indignant denial and calmly face the horrifying truth of the system in action.

Look back at the example I began with. The system doesn't care if an old man dies. But if it can get people to put obedience to a rule ahead of their natural instinct to care for each other, even if it means allowing a horrible death, then it has won a great victory. Multiply this by a few million: War and genocide are not what we get when the system fails, but when it is most successful.

The system doesn't care if airplanes crash and buildings collapse -- in fact it wants airplanes to crash and buildings to collapse if that will get it what it really wants: for people to consent to degrading searches, to go along with ridiculous rules, to deny their inner strength and vision so they can respect and obey people with titles or uniforms, which mark them as the channels of still higher powers.

From the system's perspective, the zero tolerance fad in schools is not to prevent violence, but to train people to follow rules even when they seem totally insane, to obediently suspend, expel, or arrest harmless kids for bread knives or chocolate guns.

The war on drugs is not to stop people from selling or using addictive substances, but, by criminalizing very common behaviors, to sort the population into the obedient and the disobedient, to put the disobedient in a lower class (prison laborers, convicted felons who can't vote or get a good job), to make these two classes hate, fear, or resent each other, and to make the obedient be even more obedient out of fear of falling into the criminal class.

The medical system is not to heal or prevent sickness and injury, but to divert attention away from all the ways we can treat sickness and injury without a professional class, to steer people into treatments that require more money and specialization and more obedience to the larger system, and in the best case, to get people to submit to extremely painful and expensive treatments that harm more often than they help, just because it's what they're supposed to do.

The tax system is not to collect money for the government, but to get people to consent to give money to a central authority, and also to get them to fill their minds with a vast and complicated system of rules.

Environmental regulations are not to save the earth, but to use the earth to make people support and obey regulations. Of course we need to stop cutting down forests and damming rivers, but the point is how the system channels this need to feed itself, getting millions of liberals to emotionally sympathize with unforgiving exercises of state violence against loggers and farmers.

The more we fear the earth is dying, the more we will go along with any use of authority to save it. If the system can dream, maybe it dreams of a global green party ecocracy, where people are jailed for eating meat or not recycling. Of course, the earth will have to be prevented from recovering, kept constantly in crisis to keep people in fearful obedience.

There are non-authoritarian bottom-up ways to help the biosphere, to heal sickness, to get out of patterns of addiction and exploitation and violence. But the system will tell us that these ways are naive or irresponsible or dangerous, and it will try to head them off or overrun them by copying their goals or surface appearances onto its own structures, to keep those structures standing on top of us.

I'm thinking of the hippie and punk movements, where raw bursts of freedom were channeled into styles and frozen into status systems. I'm thinking of thisist or thatist intellectual movements, where wild thoughts are herded into theories and chained into abstruse books of ideas about ideas. I'm thinking of populist movements and near-revolutions, where people are fighting to be free of their rulers and owners, but are bought off with new rights and regulations, for which they are dependent on the system, and through which the system becomes just barely tolerable so it can keep going.

I'm even thinking of full-on revolutions, which disprove the common belief that our oppressors are simply bad people or bad varieties of central management. Many revolutions have killed the former rulers and toppled what passed for the system, and after every one a new corrupt elite and a new oppressive system fell into place.

Into place in what? Like seeing the bottom of a stream in the water patterns on top, we can see something deeper lurking beneath the patterns of history. What is it? Here's another opening for occult thinking, but I'm going to stay with psychology: Authoritarian societal patterns come from authoritarian emotional patterns, from the habit of identifying with the controlling side in any conflict, pavement over weeds, police over outlaws, conquerors over natives, management over workers over slackers; from the habit of imagining self against other and defining your self as your bank balance and social status more than your feelings, your authority more than your friendships, your religion or country or local sports team more than your own body. These habits keep the system going through the most extreme revolutions, and the system keeps these habits going in every generation through parents and teachers quite rationally making kids compatible with the only world they know. We're stuck in a horrible loop. How can we get out?

We get out one little step at a time, but first we have to understand "out," and want to get out, and believe it's possible. The system tells us that joining the system is good: It's good for a failed artist, with a small local audience, to become a successful artist whose works are duplicated for millions of strangers through industrial technology to enrich corporations. It's good for a fringe idea, learned with excitement by free explorers, to become a dominant idea forcibly taught to bored inmates of schools. It's good for an enhanced sense of right and wrong to become a new law, enforced by the threat of violent punishment by police and prisons. It's good, as you get older, to own more expensive stuff requiring more reserved behavior, to adjust your tastes so you're easier to bother and harder to satisfy.

Or, even when this path is not good, it's supposed to be inevitable. A capitalist version of this doctrine is "What doesn't grow dies." But it's not true! There are shops and pubs in Europe that have stayed tiny for centuries while proud corporations have bloated and collapsed. Increasing in scale and detachment and centralization and dominance is not the path of survival, but the path of prolonged suicide, and we don't have to follow it.

It's not quite that simple. We were all born and raised on a runaway train; we can't get off and survive, and we can't stop it from crashing. But a lot of us can survive the crash and learn why and how to stay off the next train. Our bad path has good paths within it.

There are people who stay radical their whole lives, or even get more and more outside the system. And there are strong competing systems everywhere that we don't even recognize as systems because they're non-authoritarian: gift economies invisible to the money economy, networks of friends linked by empathy not exploitation, goal-less leader-less movements riding aliveness wherever it takes them, and the whole infinite system, which we patronize as "nature," in which our exalted history is only a little aberration.

Does the forest have a king or a class of experts or a list of rules deciding which plant can grow where? No! They all work it out amongst themselves, and the result is a billion times more complex than our tinker-toy corporations and governments. It's a vain projection for us to speak of "laws" of nature -- I think nature has agreements and understandings. And our civilization is not attacking the earth for human good or evolution, or out of greed or clumsiness or ignorance. It's attacking the earth out of jealousy, because it knows the earth has a better system. Wait and see.