Self-Sabotaging Social Systems

A bunch of interesting stuff I’ve read and heard over the past week has prompted me to discern an underlying theme—the capacity within a social system to sabotage itself even as its adherents strive to more fully implement its ideals in practice.


The first piece is an article by Yanis Varoufakis, a former academic thrust into the consequential role of finance minister for the new leftist Greek government. The article is sharply written, critiquing both Marxism and neoliberal capitalism in the context of the contemporaneous economic and political problems in the EU. What struck me most was this:

Every non-Marxist economic theory that treats human and non-human productive inputs as interchangeable assumes that the dehumanisation of human labour is complete. But if it could ever be completed, the result would be the end of capitalism as a system capable of creating and distributing value…

If capital ever succeeds in quantifying, and subsequently fully commodifying, labour, as it is constantly trying to, it will also squeeze that indeterminate, recalcitrant human freedom from within labour that allows for the generation of value. Marx’s brilliant insight into the essence of capitalist crises was precisely this: the greater capitalism’s success in turning labour into a commodity the less the value of each unit of output it generates, the lower the profit rate and, ultimately, the nearer the next recession of the economy as a system. The portrayal of human freedom as an economic category is unique in Marx, making possible a distinctively dramatic and analytically astute interpretation of capitalism’s propensity to snatch recession, even depression, from the jaws of growth.

If you suppose, as I do, that there is indeed an “indeterminate, recalcitrant human freedom” that underpins the creation of things—all objects and ideas, not just stuff that is amenable to economic valuation—then this Marxist critique of capitalism becomes extremely powerful.

I’ve always thought about the problems with capitalism in concrete terms—the way it can overturn communities, the environmental damage that is often overlooked, the seemingly inevitable growing inequality. These problems, in turn, create pressures that undermine the capitalist system. But perhaps there’s also a more fundamental problem that is inherent within capitalism itself—the more that people are dehumanised and commoditised in the name of ‘productivity’ and ‘efficiency’, the less capitalism is able to create and distribute (economic) value. That is a fascinating idea.


The second piece is an ABC Radio National feature produced by my friend Allison Chan titled God on Campus: theology and the secular in higher education. She explores the history of theology as a course that is taught in universities, the sometimes fraught role of government in funding such teaching, and more broadly the place of Christianity in the public sphere.

The thematic element I drew from this piece is not about faith (that’s my next point!), but rather a seemingly innocuous idea that came up during the interviews—that universities provided with public funding should be ‘accountable’ for the ‘results’ they produce. OK, calling this a social system is a bit of a stretch. Suffice it to say that it is an ideal to be striven towards.

Here is the problem that arose for me as I listened. Of course, it is bad for universities to be unaccountable for the funding they receive, wasted resources and all that. So, they should be accountable. But how do we determine it in practice? By what metrics?

Take theology, the subject of the piece. Should it be about improving critical thinking? Hm, that might be a bit hard to measure. What about the number of people that go on to serve in formal ministry? Or maybe the income generated through charity work? That would be more doable. But what happens when the numbers-based benchmarks are not being met? Does that mean funding should be cut, unless changes are made to get the ‘results’ we want?

In that case, universities teaching theology will have a subtle but unmistakable incentive to achieve those benchmarks—an incentive that is, I would argue, not aligned with the purpose of teaching theology in the first place. Of course this is also an issue more broadly in the teaching of humanities. What’s the point of resource-constrained governments spending money on universities if they are not preparing students for jobs in the ‘real world’? Good question, but we should also consider what we are losing by taking a strict ‘results’-driven approach to accountability.


The last piece is a short commentary by Elizabeth Bruenig on a recent poll that found 57 percent of Republicans agreed that Christianity should be established as America’s “national religion”, and why that would be terrible for Christianity. Essentially:

Were Christianity named our national religion, it would only be dubbed such to serve a particular national purpose, that is, to straighten out our morals or boost morale for our confrontation of terrorism abroad. But to do this would be to force Christianity into the servitude of particular national interests, which would only further the degree to which the Christian faith is already wrongly conflated with specific American political aims. But the goals of Christianity are in no sense specifically American, and understanding them as such only instills divisiveness between American and global Christianityand that’s ultimately contrary to the unity sought by the Christians of the world. In other words, establishing Christianity as a national faith would force Christianity into submission to American politics, morphing it into a servant rather than a guide of political thought.

While not many respondents would’ve thought through the full implications of what they were agreeing to, I can understand their sentiment. Specifically, Christianity may constitute their identity or worldview, and they would like to live in a country where this is officially ratified as good and right. More generally, Christianity may be associated with positive notions of service, charity and idealised notions of a ‘better’, Anglocentric past (these are Republicans after all)—therefore they would like the country to be more like this.

This gets to a question that was also raised in the Radio National feature: what is the place of Christianity in the public sphere? Broadly speaking I think Christians can take three positions on this:

  1. Withdrawal — Live within their own communities, no influence in the public sphere (this is also what some of the more aggressive secularists and atheists would like to see)
  2. Presence — Advocacy, service, dissemination of Christians ideas and values
  3. Authority — Christian values and practices have legal force.

My thought that social systems can undermine themselves is directed at the third position. It is understandable that Christians would like more power to influence society, to shape it in ways that they believe is right. But this is actually antithetical to the gospel message. Christians are taught to follow Jesus’ example and give up power for others, not to seek power over others. Christians live by biblical principles out of love and gratitude, not to enforce those principles on others through legal compulsion.

Public participation through authority is not only contradictory to what Christianity teaches, but it is also a kind of self-sabotage. Authority leads to imperfect people abusing their power. Also, as Bruenig noted, Christianity would become entangled with national interests and politics in a way that diminishes its standing and its universality.


Let me be clear: I am not against the systems that I’ve written about.

Capitalism has on balance improved the quality of life for billions of people today. Many of humanity’s major challenges (some of them self-inflicted)—social, economic, environmental—need to be addressed, to varying degrees, by the (appropriately regulated) free market. Of course I’m in favour of accountability in teaching and against universities wasting money. And I also think that Christian ideas and values have profoundly shaped modern Western societies for the better, even in light of historical wrongs (which are numerous and complex),

My point is that these social systems, when implemented in their purest form, are not only potentially detrimental to society but also to themselves.

That still leaves a bunch of questions. Are systems self-regulating to the extent that they will sabotage themselves if they go too far? Even so, should there be countervailing forces in society to prevent a system from doing so and causing harm as result? What do these forces look like for each social domain and how can we create and sustain them? Is there some ‘happy medium’ in each domain that we can or should adhere to?

If you ask me, philosophy is still a very worthwhile pursuit!

Advertisements