Systems exist independent of ideology

“The idea that systems exist independent of ideology was sparked by a Donella Meadows essay, Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System (you can read it on donellameadows.org).

Prior to reading this essay, I accepted the conventional narrative that economic and social systems were ideological: capitalism, Marxism, democracy, socialism, and so on. People believed in the system or rejected it for ideological reasons.

That systems can be broken down into inputs, rules and outputs that have nothing to do with our beliefs about their goodness or efficacy was a revelation. Simply put, systems succeed or fail independently of our ideological convictions about the system.

Though the psychology of beliefs is complicated, it boils down to identity: our belief in a system’s value is core to our identity. We believe in the goodness and rightness of subsidized housing, for example, because we believe in social justice and housing for all. That it doesn’t help low-income people is counter-intuitive and unacceptable: it must help low-income people because we want to help low-income people.

Similarly, we believe that maximizing private gain guides the system to prosperity because we believe in economic freedom. How could anyone not see the goodness and rightness of economic freedom? That maximizing private gain destroys the system is counter-intuitive and unacceptable: maximizing private gain must make the system function properly because self-interest is the core of liberty.

And so on. Every ideological belief can be broken down in this fashion.

We resist this analysis because it challenges our identity. No wonder we resist: what is more core to our sense of self than the beliefs that anchor our identity? Once we understand this, we can separate our beliefs from systems. We can maintain our beliefs but understand that the system’s success or failure has nothing to do with our

If we want positive output, we must examine the system as a system, not as an expression of our identity and beliefs.

Strangely, we insist on supporting systems whose outputs are precisely opposite to what we profess because we feel that an uncritical belief is an expression of our conviction.

That leaves us with a stark choice. We either set a goal of designing a system that produces a positive output, or we indulge our ideological beliefs. It’s one or the other.convictions.

Once we understand this, we can separate our beliefs from systems. We can maintain our beliefs but understand that the system’s success or failure has nothing to do with our convictions.”

A Radically Beneficial World: Automation, Technology and Creating Jobs for All: The Future Belongs to Work That Is Meaningful, pp. 15-16, by Charles Hugh Smith