Can We Make the System Work?

You cannot change systems without changing systems.

By Dennis Loo

I’m sure you’ve heard people say it: “Let’s make the system work”: The system is not working properly and efforts for change should be directed at getting the system to produce different outcomes; any other paths are unrealistic. Today I received, for instance, this from For those not familiar with it, it is a liberal news and analysis site. Here are the first three paragraphs:

“Dear Readers,

“Yesterday President Obama laid out a broad plan and committed to fighting for some of the most essential social contracts on which our country relies. The next step is accountability - something that has been lost in the shuffle over the past 27 months since his inauguration. 

“Truthout has been experimenting with new programs like ‘Solutions: Making Government Work,’ in which experts have been digging into the tax-dollar black hole we call the Pentagon and proposing real changes. And we recently launched ‘Walking the Walk,’ a series that showcases creative budget ideas playing out in real communities - such as the story of how Oregon balanced its budget through a unifying tax education campaign.

“Our work to bring new ideas into the conversation and to maintain an independent, noncommercial platform for free thought is key to keeping politicians honest. We’ll never be shills for any political party - instead we’ll continue to represent our readers’ needs for real information and a thoughtful expression of the progressive morality.”

Let’s begin with the first paragraph of their appeal. They say that Obama has “committed to fighting for some of the most essential contracts,” but we need to hold him accountable for this because he has not been true to his promises on his other commitments which have “been lost in the shuffle.” I am wondering after reading this: what has Obama done to merit Truthout thinking that this time Obama’s commitment is real?

Notice that consistent with this, Truthout won’t directly blame Obama for reneging on his promises as in: Obama has reneged on his promises. He’s now promises us things but all the other things he promised us he reneged on, so why should we believe him now?

No, according to Truthout, who is responsible is left up in the air because it all just got “lost in the shuffle.” Who did this shuffling? Certainly they’re not saying that Obama is shuffling?!

In the second paragraph they speak of new programs that will make “government work.” 
Make government work. If something has been operating a certain way year after year and decade after decade, and century after century, perhaps there’s a reason why it’s doing that. If it was something that was amenable to simply changing the faces in the system at key positions, then after all these generations, wouldn’t it have changed sometime over all of that time and with the efforts of so many people?

In sociology we study human groups and group dynamics. In other words, we study systems. Systems are called systems because they have a specific system-logic to them. They function in predictable ways. That is why a study of history is so useful and so important to anyone who seeks to bring about change. If you look at history you see certain patterns and you see that people have had some of the same mistaken and useless or even harmful ideas about how to go about change for generations. What are those harmful or at least deeply mistaken ideas? The chief among them is the idea that by voting into office the person whose declarations you like the best that change will happen.

You cannot change systems without changing systems. You change systems by substituting a new system for the old one. You don’t change systems by shuffling the faces. You have to institute a system that operates on an entirely different logic to the one you want to replace.

In Truthout’s third paragraph they say they are committed to “keeping politicians honest” and that they will “never be shills for any political party.” But Truthout is still being a shill for Obama and his party because it won’t point out the obvious, though difficult fact to face, that this is a system and the problem is the system itself, not the individuals in leading positions. Honesty and truth are not immune to being distorted by one’s ideology and value system. Truthout wants some truth to come out, but not the whole truth, because the whole truth is hard for them to face. The whole truth would mean that they would have to call for people to act to do something radically different than cheering on and sometimes criticizing one major political party versus the other major political party. It would mean that they would have to tell people the hard truth that no real change can come in a positive direction under this system and that if you’re really serious about wanting a different world than you have to struggle for a fundamental, structural change. And doing that is hard because it means people have to stir themselves and take risks and make sacrifices that some people are unwilling to do. For them, the semblance of change is enough.


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