I spend a lot of time thinking about systems: how they influence us, how to undo their power, and the importance of building new ones. What I haven’t delved into much is how to build new ones, systems that serve the paradoxical function of empowering individuals.
First, I define the term “system” loosely. In my mind, it’s a catch-all term for “the tendency of certain things to do certain things, when that tendency grows strong enough to shape the behavior of the things that interact with it.” Gravity is a system. American Racism is a system.
My blanket view on systems is this: 1) systems in general will always exist; 2) some systems in particular cannot be eradicated (I call these systems “natural laws”); 3) a system that is not a natural law can always be resisted; 4) new systems can be formed, and formed deliberately.
Building a system for individual empowerment is, at first glance, a contradiction. For a system to be a system, the simple pattern of behavior of the individuals within it has to hold enough force to condition the behavior of individuals. By its very nature, it exerts control over individuals without the individuals explicitly consenting to it, or often being conscious of that control. So, what then could a system of individual empowerment possibly be?
I imagine systems like momentum, or currents. We each float down the proverbial river of life, society, existence, desire, and interaction, carried along by the currents that have conditioned our selves and the world around us since before our birth. I would go so far as to say that the existence of systems is itself a natural law: patterns of behavior with the power to shape behavior will inevitably emerge out of anything, regardless of whether there exists some codified power hierarchy to enforce them.
We cannot escape the fact that we exist within a current. Our very swimming within this current pushes the current in different directions, and we and every other life form and structure of natural law will continue to push the current as well, simply by our existing and acting.
But any system that is not a natural law can be changed, resisted, subverted or dissolved. Systems cultivate behavior, so, why couldn’t it be possible for systems to cultivate a behavior of personal empowerment?
Resisting Systems — Stepping into Freedom
At the end of the day, if you can do it, then you can do it. If taking an action does not contradict natural law, it is within the realms of possibility that you can take it. This does not mean you can take it with impunity; impunity doesn’t exist. There will always be consequences of some form for every action you take. This is, quite literally, a natural law.
To step into the place of understanding that we are always able to take a physically possible action is perhaps the most powerful way to undo the vice grip of the system. Why don’t you get naked at Starbucks? Why don’t you slap a cop in the face? Why don’t you tell everyone your absolute honest and vulnerable truth? Honestly, why not?
Likely, because you fear the consequences of taking those actions. At the core level, you fear harm, so you control your behavior accordingly. What can bring you harm depending on what action you take, and what fears in particular you are instilled with that determine in what ways you control yourself, these are products of the conditioning (systems) of your surrounding environment.
Saul Newman has an interesting term that I want to draw on here, and that term is ontological freedom. Academic obfuscation aside, my view on ontological freedom is simply that it is the process of stepping into the knowledge that we are already free.
We are never in absolute freedom; at the very least, we are always constrained by natural law. However, beyond that, we always possess freedom to act or not act in particular ways. This does not mean that any or all options available to us will be desirable, however, there is always an element of choice involved in every action we take. At the fundamental level, we can always choose to die. We can always choose be harmed.
Resistance to death and harm are, paradoxically, a natural inclination. I would not go so far as to say they are natural laws, as there are countless examples of individuals choosing death or allowing harm to be inflicted upon themselves. What is innate is that we will seek out our self-interest in each moment, and wind like a river to the sea towards our version of the good life. If we choose to die to save someone we love, we have made a self-interested choice that their life mattered more to us than ours in that moment.
By stepping into our ontological freedom, or our awareness of the fact that we are already free to make choices beyond the conditioning of the systems in which we find ourselves, we have resisted the power of systems and stepped into personal empowerment.
Resistance as a Practice — The Importance of Being Incorrigible
Breaking the conditioning of systems is a deeply difficult and terrifying thing to do for many, many people. Why? Because systems exist, their conditioning power exists, and our fear of reprisal for breaking their conditioning is a very real and legitimate issue.
However, the “muscle” of stepping outside the conditioning of a system can be strengthened like any other. To step off the beaten path, quite literally to step out of the current of a system, can be made into a practice. I believe strongly in cultivating a practice of daily rule-breaking, and like all practices, it begins small.
What are you afraid to say? Say it. Where are you not supposed to walk? Walk there. What are you supposed to wear? Don’t wear it. What are you afraid to be seen as? Radiate it.
Do the opposite of what you’re supposed to do, and do it deliberately. Start small. Treat it as practice.
The maximum freedom we can have is an openness to all available options. When we are as unafraid to break rules as we are to obey them, the rules cease to have any power over us at all. However, we cannot become as comfortable breaking rules as we are obeying them if we don’t make a practice of breaking them.
Internal Systems — Your Freedom Ends Where Someone Else’s Begins
We often conceive of systems as these over-arching, societal structures that exist above and outside of the individual. This could not be further from the truth. Systems may not be consciously chosen, formed and obeyed by individuals, but their force can only ever be felt at work inside the individual body and psyche. Gravity will continue to exist in the universe whether or not there is mass, however, without a mass to act on, gravity holds no power. It might as well not exist without a space for its existence to carry weight.
When we speak of societal systems, while they may be unconscious tendencies within a given culture, the systems only come to hold power within individuals.
The individual self is, of course, a paradox. It is a combination of everything outside of it (through genetics, biology, experience, and conditioning) that has formed into an entity that goes on to influence everything outside of it (through passing on genetics, forming experiences, interacting with the outside world.)
There’s a feedback loop. The external goes in, the internal comes out, always and continuously and irrevocably. It’s a natural law. There is no way to get out of the feedback loop of external influence becoming internalized and internal action becoming externalized.
The goal, then, is not to stop the loop, but to step into it from a place of consciousness. Consciousness is nothing more or less than the awareness of ability to make choices. You cannot decide for anyone other than yourself what their ability is to make choices, or what choices they will make. You can only change yourself in the hopes that the changes you make within yourself, when externalized through action, will become internalized in others in ways that push the current in the direction you want to go. Even with a gun to someone’s head, you cannot be certain what their choices will be. Even in bondage, you cannot decide the content’s of someone else’s mind. We cannot truly control anything but ourselves, and our selves are just an amalgamation of everything around us that continuously shapes us.
The same goes for everyone.
We are distinct, but not separate. We literally would not exist without one another. We all have skin in the game.
Reimagining Collective Power — From Control to Trust
It is easy to feel powerful in a current where everyone around you is swimming so as to carry you the direction you want to go. It is easy to become attached to such a feeling and seek to control others’ actions, or control their ability to make choices that benefit you.
In understanding that our identities are quite literally inseparable from the world around us, we step into a particular understanding of the phrase “to have skin in the game.” We would not be ourselves without each other. We cannot be ourselves without each other.
When we seek to control others, what we’re focused on is their ability to make certain choices. However, we often ignore the issue of their incentive to make certain choices. When we seek to control others, we do so because we fear harm will be done to us. That harm can manifest as either a lack-of-a-good-thing, or a perceived bad thing.
Control always, irrevocably, comes from fear. We fear that if we do not control the situation, the things we want to see happen will not happen.
The opposite of fear is trust. Because they are opposites, they cannot exist without one another. To trust is to open our proverbial throat to a knife and believe we will not be cut. It is to believe that others will take our best interest on as an irrevocable component of their best interest.
It is to believe that in swimming whatever direction it is they swim down the river, their current and our current will be in harmony.
Building Systems of Empowerment — From Homogeneity to Harmony
Harmony is a fundamentally distinct term from homogeneity. Homogeneity is, biologically speaking, often tremendously harmful to the flourishing of life. It is also the thing we seek out when we build systems on control (and by extension, on fear).
Our identities are not separate from the world around us, but they are still distinct. To be in harmony does not mean that all identities behave in the same way, but that the diversity of identities exist in a harmonious balance that uplifts the ability of each distinct identity to serve its self interest.
The freer we all are to meet our needs, the safer we each are from harm. Why? Because we do harm to one another when we feel that individual stands in the way between us and our needs. We quite literally view the individual as the path to our needs, when our needs are only ever a feeling.
Think of the last time you shoved someone out of the way of where you were walking. Think of robbing someone, or being robbed. Think of the desire for revenge. Think of a time you yelled at someone who did something that hurt you. In each case, the person who inflicted harm did so because their need was not being met, and doing harm to another seemed like the only immediate option to meet that need.
I’ll repeat: the freer we all are to meet our needs, the safer we each are from harm. The more we step into our ontological freedom, that is to say, become aware that we are already free in far more capacities than we have been conditioned to believe by the systems in which we exist, the less need we have for systems of control. The more possibility we have for systems of trust.
Now, the How-To:
Like the formation of identity, the changing of systems exists in a feedback loop: the internal manifests externally, and the external is internalized. The loop will spin faster in a new direction if it comes from both sides.
From the internal to the external, building a system of empowerment comes from stepping into our internal power. It comes from practicing freedom. It comes from growing comfortable resisting systems. It comes from strengthening our ability to do so. It comes from relinquishing control over anything but ourselves, and stepping fully into control of ourselves. It comes from allowing ourselves to be vulnerable, thus allowing ourselves to trust.
From the external to the internal, building a system of empowerment comes from allowing all individuals involved to have skin in the game. It comes from creating structures that allow for relative freedom to meet needs, and eliminating power hierarchies. It comes from allowing naturally-emerging tendencies to occur, and building system-wide norms that resist rigidity. It comes from cultivating the space for spontaneity. It comes from free association, free disassociation, and value structures built on intrinsic worth of action rather than an anticipation of reciprocity.
The issue is not the existence of systems, this cannot be resisted. The issue at hand is becoming aware that they exist, that many of them can be formed and resisted at will, and choosing to build them deliberately.
At the end of the day, we can only ever change ourselves. We can only change our actions internally. But those internal actions invariably influence others, and we can use our force, our weight in this world, as a force to further allowance.
How do we further our ability to allow? We build trust.
How do we build trust? We allow ourselves to fear harm, and do it anyway.