The system: Society as a complex system

Society is an entity that nobody chooses, designs, understands or controls; yet, it controls everybody’s lives.

In the following we are going to refer to society as ‘the system’.

What is the system?

The system is a complex entity formed -like all complex systems- by the interaction of a multiplicity of differentiated constituting parts (see Complexity). In the case of society, it is formed by the interaction and mutual dependence of individuals following their natural behaviour.

We, the individuals, are ourselves complex natural beings. And the complexity of human nature is reflected on its multi-dimensional constitution (see Human nature). Among the multiple dimensions of human nature, there are a self-preserving, competitive and social nature, with a sense of justice and a need for freedom (see Human nature). Another aspect of human nature is the faculty of reason. Yet, our behaviour is mostly irrational, since, despite being endowed with reason, there is a hierarchy in our complexity that make us follow our self-preserving and competitive nature regardless any truth or logic. Many aspects of human nature are also conflictive and contradictory. And because of this, we are engaged in permanent and irreconcilable struggles, like for example, for power on the one hand, and freedom, equality and justice on the other.

Because complexity is a universal natural phenomena, society follows universal properties and patterns of change common to all complex systems. Furthermore, these properties and patterns can be followed at all levels of complexity, form family structures, to communal, national and global systems.

Complex systems are characterised for being non-linear; that is, the response of the system is not proportional to its causes, nor it can be explained as the sum of the different responses of the system to each cause.

The non-linearity of complex systems is related with two properties: they are unpredictable and irreducible. Complex systems are irreducible because the behaviour of the whole is different to the sum of the behaviour of the constituting parts. Indeed, when there are feedback relations, the behaviour of the whole affects the behaviour of the constituting part and vice-versa; so the whole cannot be reduced to the sum of the part. With societies this is also the case. It is a whole which is formed by individuals but which affects individuals, so it cannot be reduced to the sum of individual behaviour (nor individuals can be isolated from society). The ‘system’ then, like all complex systems,  acts as an irreducible, unified whole; hence, the lack of design or control from individuals. Individuals have participation and influence on the events that shapes the system, but no design or control over them.

Complex systems are also unpredictable. In non-linear systems, the slightest variation in the initial conditions can result in unpredictable large variations in the system’s response. In socities something similar happens. Social events often lead to unexpected, unforseable and sometimes undesired consequences.

Another reason for the unpredictability of complex systems is that they often involve an element of randomness. If we think of a colony of ants as a complex system for example, each ant goes out in search of food in totally random directions. It is the choerent behaviour of the whole that, out of this random search, allows the colony to find the best food around. In human societies there is an element of randomness too. Cultures for example, have a fundamental influence on social orders; yet, they can be shaped by totally arbitrary and fortuitious events.

What is the structure of the system?

Complex systems, in general, are in rigor unintelligible. So to analyse them we are forced to simplify them into models. In the following we are going to consider a model of society based on the already familiar dimensions of institutional, cultural and socio-economic relations, with the addition of their mutual dependence to human nature.

Social Structure

Social Structure

Each one of the social dimensions (socio-economic, cultural, institutions and human nature) is  itself a complex entity formed by the combination and mutual dependence of more basic aspects. The socio-economic order is formed by combination of labour, social relations and personal activity. Institutions involves two aspects: public and private organisation. Culture have three aspects: knowledge & technology, world views and values. And human nature is formed by the combination of an inherited nature and a developmental nature (see Human nature).

Like all complex systems, society is irreducible. Society is a complex whole that cannot be reduced to a single essence nor a single aspect. Any explanation of society in terms of a single aspect, like culture, human nature, power struggles or institutions is partial and incomplete. Society, like all complex systems, ought to be contemplated as the interaction of multiple dimensions forming an irreducible whole.

And as in all complex systems, its constituting parts doesn’t function in isolation. The understanding of each constituting part, like culture, institutions or the economy, ought to be contemplated in their relation with the rest.

A fundamental aspect of human social organisation is its hierarchic structure. All forms of social organisation, from hunter gatherers to civilisations, are characterised by unequal distributions of power or hierarchies. Not all hierarchies are the same. Some are steep with centralised power and stratified societies. Others, like in hunter gatherers, are less vertical, more democratic, equalitarian, and might even lack permanent leaders. But all societies have something in common: the distribution of power in never the same. There is always a dominant sector, either males, leaders, clans or healers, the distribution of power is never equal.

There is a biological reason for hierarchies which lies in our competitivenature. Competitiveness is one of the many aspects of our nature. Many aspects of human nature are conflictive and incompatible. For example, by nature we are not only competitive but also social. That is, by nature we need to bond and relate with others; while at the same time we compete with others. Human competitiveness takes us to organise ourselves in structures with unequal distributions of power. Hierarchies then, or the unequal distribution of power then, are an inevitable aspect of social organisation.

What is the function of the system?

The system doesn’t have any inherent function. Unlike organisms or colonies, whose behaviour respond to a given function, societies don’t behave with any particular function.

Although not inherent, social systems do have a function, which is mostly determined by the political structure of the system. Social systems with a hierarchical structure work for the benefit of those above at the expense of those below.

The idea that societies are inherently beneficial for the people is mistaken. Social system can work either for the benefit or the detriment of people. How the system works for people usually depends on fortuitous and arbitrary historical and geographical events. And attempts by individuals to control or design the system usually results in unforeseeable and often in undesirable consequences.

Can systems be objectively judged or compared?

Opposite to relativistic views, systems can be objectively judged and compared on the benefit they bring to individuals. As we mentioned before, systems don’t have any function, so they can work either for the benefit or the detriment of people. So systems can be objectively compared on the general well-being they bring to people. Some systems are good. Some systems are bad. And some systems are better than others.

How good a system is depends on the benefits it brings to people. A good system would be a system that promotes the general well-being. A bad system would be a systems that works for the detriment of people, or that promotes the good of some at the expense of others.

Can social systems be changed?

We began this essay by saying that social systems are entities that nobody chooses, design, understands or control, but which at the same time controls everybdy’s lives. Does this mean that systems are self-sustained entities that controls people and over which people have no control? Can social systems be changed by people?

As Noam Chomsky said, social systems are not ‘written in stone’. There is no reason why people cannot change the system. People should be able to choose the social system that works for them.

Yet, there are several reasons why this doesn’t happen  easily. First, individuals cannot change the system by themselves. Only collective action that can bring any change. And collective action is difficult to galvanise. One of the reasons collective action is difficult to galvanise is that individuals are conditioned by the system to form part of it rather than to rebel against it.

Second, those who benefit the least from the system and have more reasons to change it, are those who have less power. Those in power will always oppose any change to the system.

How responsible are individuals for how the system works?

Overall, individuals have little responsibility. We have little awareness, understanding and control of our own nature; let alone of the complex behaviour of social orders. Nevertheless, within the limited responsibility that individuals have, responsibilities still exist in a relative form.

Those above are the most responsible. They are the ones who usually have better education, health, resources, opportunities, and the power to bring change. Yet, they are the less likely and the least capable of improving the system. They are the less likely, for they are the ones who benefit the most from the system; so they would either tend to resist change or support any change that furthers their interests. And they are the least capable, for they have the least critical or analytical capacity. The higher on the hierarchy, the stronger the tendency to conform, adjust and play the system to defend their power, or even to dominate the system to increase their power within it.

Those below are the least responsible, for they usually have the worst education, health and resources, and they lack opportunities and power to bring change. Furthermore, they are often exploited, manipulated or controlled by those above. And they are usually pressed by more fundamental and immediate needs.

The middle sectors of society share almost the same responsibilities as those above (depending on how vertical the hierarchy is). Those above, in order to protect the system, would try to keep those in the middle content (and in lower hierarchies those bellow too). So the middle sectors also benefit from the system, with opportunities, resources and limited power; therefore, sharing responsibility with those above. Unlike the upper sectors who are the least likely and capable of bringing change, the middle sectors have the opportunities and resources for critical views of the system. Nevertheless, in their struggle for power, the middle sectors are characterised for adjusting to the system and for emulating and aligning to the interests of those above. So the middle sectors have the additional responsibility of legitimizing the system.

Unawareness, lack of control or lack of understanding doesn’t exempt the upper and the middle sectors from their responsibility. Unlike the lower sectors, they have the opportunities and resources to be aware and understand the system, and they are the only ones with the power to change it.

Conformity to what others do doesn’t exempt responsibility neither. If the system is detrimental, adjusting to it is to contribute and become part of a negative system. Adjusting to such a system because others do, doesn’t exempt individuals from their responsibility. Despite the collective complicity in rationalising, justifying or ignoring the wrongs of the system, individual are still responsible for their negative contributions to the system.

In unequal societies challenges to the system often comes, not from above or bellow, but from a minority within the middle sectors defending freedom, justice, equality, the interests of others, of those below, of future generations and the natural environment. Although the majority of the middle sector usually adjust to the system, there is always a minority who, for one reason or the other, are critical to the system, don’t identify with the system, sometimes find it difficult to adjust to it, and who have the education, resources and enough power to challenge it.

Revolutionary changes from these challenges often resulted in the replacement of one form of hierarchy with another (and in some cases even worse). On the other hand, enduring improvements to the system comes when they are part of a process. We call this process social development.

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