The Information Review
Information, Technology & Systemic Change

Theorising Systemic Change

Mar 15, 2022

The term 'abject poverty' usually invokes an image of dirty-filthy slums in third-world countries. But cleaning up these slums only transforms them into the council estates and public housing of the First World countries, where certain levels of openly visible filth have come to be unacceptable anywhere in the land. All these people still remain poor, just the appearances of their 'slum' keep changing. Why, in a civilisation that has such complicated theories of economics, do these various forms of poverty still persist?

Understanding in purely material terms, poverty is an indicator of societal failure that is universally recognisable. Everybody knows what poverty is. Here I am differentiating experienced and/or perceptible poverty from the statistical approximations of poverty through questionable metrics like the International Poverty Line and daily wages. In a world where poverty can palpably be perceived but apparently cannot be eliminated, two kinds of responses prevail. First, blaming the situation on those experiencing poverty, arguing that the system is more or less fine and with limited help from the government, things can get better if only people would put their back into it. Second, that the system is rigged against the poor, and if people understood this fact, they would make non-negotiable demands for a change in this system. But if everybody knows what poverty is and if everybody knows that it is not a desirable state to live in, what remains to be understood? It is obvious that such a system can be changed and/or abolished considering it is designed and kept running by human beings. By virtue of the very fact that poverty persists, it is also obvious that it is not being changed, the justifications for keeping such a system in place keep coming.

It would not be too much of a simplification to say that what is called Left Wing in electoral politics was traditionally based on theories of class struggle. Wealth disparity was understood as stemming from the exploitation of the labour of the working classes, the proletariat, by the ruling class. While the aim of educating the oppressed on the causes of their oppression is noble, the promised results of raising the consciousness of the working classes never arrived. There was no spontaneous upsurge in support of Left-wing politics permanently. This does not mean that theories of economic exploitation in a stratified society were wrong, but it does raise the question - what theory of effecting change can be put into practice to stop such exploitation?

The humanities and social science departments from which most social theories emerge are often misrepresented as causing these problems. It should be obvious that this is wrong. Even if the theories being put forward at these university departments were entirely incorrect at describing our social systems (which they are not), by no stretch of the imagination can these departments be described as the source of social problems. That accusation has just become a convenient bogey-man for vested political interests who, while villainising these departments, share with them a failure to conceptualise efficient and effective social systems.

No matter how narratives are structured or how much thinkers try to mould sentences in a certain way, the meaning generation process is dynamic and includes all parties. When people of diverse identities and cognition receive ideas, they read them in their own way. No wonder then, that some receive them as conservatives. But this should not lead to exaggerated and alarmist claims that universities are being used for a Leftist takeover of the state. This kind of tabloid delirium masquerading as cultural criticism is merely a front for anti-intellectualism and should ideally fade out of public discourse.

However, all critical analyses cannot be viewed as attacks from the Right on certain schools of thought, specific movements within academia, or particular brands in publishing. A more critical understanding of the research and publishing industry is certainly required.

Well-intentioned scholarship and cultural interventions are wittingly or unwittingly culpable in keeping high-end technology and knowledge-circulation processes subservient to the prevailing social order. Irrespective of what social theories are read there, institutions for formal education produce an entire class of people which reaps the benefits of technology and discriminatory economic structures in education, employment, and entertainment. But do these centers of education and research contribute to representing and explaining the real world to those who are not trained in some discipline or the other? To be fair, currently, digital platforms are inundated with online 'communities' and sub-cultures that are not hoarding knowledge. The internet is teeming with content that breaks down complicated concepts into simpler terms for the layperson. But will these allegedly democratized new media bring down ivy leagues, ivory towers, hoarding libraries, patents and copyrights - the all-encompassing knowledge tyranny of the institutions that mass-produce and pamper a certain class that is segregated from the rest with accolades and financial well-being?

One reason why it is easy to whip up populist frenzy against the intelligentsia is that the book deals, bestsellers, lecture tours, television appearances, newspaper bylines, culturati hobnobbing, uproarious laughter and frantic applauding at videographed events that are associated with them make it easy to provoke resentment in a public that is by definition supposed to be the passive consumers of their intellect. Human societies have always been based upon a degree of trust which allows us to not comprehend everything because someone else may be able to fill the gaps in our understanding. But for this to be possible, the information contained within our collective knowledge has to be reducible to mundane language and be accessible to all people, as and when they might need that information. A robust social system is one in which people can choose to live with the lack of certain knowledge, confident of our guaranteed access to collective understanding at any time of need. But in the absence of such a system, hating the intelligentsia can be easy for those who neither trust the intellectuals nor understand what they are saying. In such a situation, public intellectuals are allowed to be performers within the social system but fail to precipitate the public understanding that can change the social system.

For many people, learning invariably involves looking to famous thinkers and writers from around the world and across time. Most of my arguments here could be reconstructed by a discerning reader by following the analysis methodology of, say, Bruno Latour, Slavoj Zizek, Judith Butler, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Angela Davis, Germaine Greer, Franz Fanon, Eduardo Galeano, etc. Such names would traditionally constitute a list that purportedly aims to supplant the hegemonic White, Male, Heteronormative, Western, Capitalist, Imperialist canon. But thanks to how much they have been studied within academia and the fame that these thinkers have found in popular culture, any such list makes a canon of its own. I am neither denying the importance of challenging hegemonic canons nor the need for creating alternatives to those canons. But for a large readership that is not familiar with the most popular 'debates' within academia, reading works by these thinkers would entail a frantic amount of googling or an outright refusal to read. Not that people are incapable of understanding such scholarly debates, but the texts may (wrongly) seem either unquestionably awe-inspiring or un-navigably dense. It cannot be discounted that a lot of social research and commentary is presented accessibly for laypersons. But conceptually, such expositions end up meandering in ideologically segregated bibliographies that very few people outside of Ph.D. programs are going to go through. No wonder then that people so strongly hate the ideologues associated with different ideologies without even knowing what they are saying.

Universities and intellectuals do not have a monopoly over social discourse. The ownership of ideas that will come to directly impact most, if not all, members of society should not keep changing hands within insular networks. It cannot be denied that academia and the writers’ salon need to break out of systems of patronage and social mobility reminiscent of the sycophancy of feudal courts. But let us not forget that researchers and writers funded by internationally acclaimed universities, global publishing brands, and private sector think-tanks are working within the same systemic limitation as all other human enterprises - they are dependent on capital flows for survival.

We have an unprecedented number of fora to discuss information of social import and an unprecedented number of people involved in some level of such discussions. And yet, we do not seem to have a theory of how to effect system-wide change in human societies. Taking Left, Right, and Center as the largest frameworks from within which to formulate social research and policy has failed. The old categories of the working class and the colonised do not represent all kinds of oppression. Some recent campaigns have tried to reflect this in their rhetoric. The Occupy movement and many subsequent protests have used the ideas of the One Percent and the 99% to represent the wealth gap. But if these are the figures, what is the need for anyone to “rise up” against anyone? The odds are too decisively in the favour of the majority here. How does one percent of the population exploit the rest?

One reason that our present pluralist models have had limited or no success is that the nature of governance still remains representative in a feudal manner - a handful of people lording over the populace from seats of power and issuing summary decrees. And yet, most state functionaries are rarely part of the one percent. They are mere functionaries in a system in which they occupy a sliding scale of privileges that demarcates the entire 99 percent from one another, keeping various identities at odds with each other. We may be lucky that there is no anointed ruling class that needs to be overthrown because the social systems are by now too complex to be under the control of any specific category of people. But the question still remains - for universities, institutions of governance, and entire humanity - what theory of effecting social change can be put into practice to change failed social systems?

Suggested Posts:

Social Systems
Democracy Without the Majoritarian Abuse of Power
Jun 11, 2022
While people have tried to critique or defend populism, it has just become necessary in democracies because it helps whip...
Looking for Effective Social Theories Instead of False Universalisms
Mar 15, 2022
The natural sciences are far from answering all our questions about how the universe works, and yet, there is an...
Social Systems
A Permanent Relief Funding Mechanism
Mar 15, 2022
Does capitalism work? This question should not be considered only as a foil to the question ‘does communism work?’ These two ideas, both with their own history of spectacular failures, have to be unentangled. Capitalism does not work for all of the people all of the time. By that simple and fundamental measure, it is not a good social system. That capitalism persists is forwarded as proof that the people have chosen it over communism.
Social Systems
Thinking Together: Textual and Dimensional Scaffolding For Thought
Oct 08, 2021
Pronouncements of self-avowed heterodox thinking on an assortment of topics, like race, gender, sexuality, religion, academia, freedom, and others, have...
Social Systems
Economics is Not a Mathematical Science
Mar 09, 2021
A lot of science is merely mathematical speculation. Only when verified by experimental observation in the real world is any...
Social Systems
Discursive Incoherence
Mar 09, 2021
We live in circumstances that should not exist by the very definition of civilisation. A lot of situations that are...
This website uses the least possible cookies for functionality. By continuing to browse this site, you agree with our Terms of Use and Privacy Policy.