Systems and Agency
What is a System, and where are the limits of personal responsibility?
I've discussed the importance of "recovering Agency" a few times recently:
It should come as no shock that as decision-making has become more abstract and obscured, our theories reflect this. Some of the most prominent theorists in economics and sociology have a tendency to see the role of agency as insignificant compared to these supposedly extra-human forces. Capital or Sovereignty or various other forces that somehow define us from the outside. Weber, Marx, Schumpeter, Bourdieu, and many others are guilty of this. We begin to see Systems instead of Men. Of course, these Systems are incomprehensible, fully impossible, absent the actions of Men. Man is not wholly determined by the Systems he is born into. We are shaped by our context but then our own creative agency allows us to reshape that context. The structures we inhabit are reshaped each moment by our decisions. Our behaviors cannot be reduced to structural forces, cognitive wiring, or rational calculation. A recognition of the importance of agency as building, maintaining, and transforming the structures we live in is crucial.
What I have neglected to do so far is present an in-depth analysis of what makes a System...well, a System. In order to understand how Systems and Agency interact (and are truly inconceivable without each other), we must begin by figuring out what a System is.
What is a System?
"Capital," "Power," "The Patriarchy," etc. It would be understandable if one thought a System is just a normal world that is capitalized for no good reason and is spoken about with reverence (or fury).
Understandable, but incorrect. In fact, our ideas of these Systems frequently flirt with full-on reification. So it's time to drill down and figure out how to turn our intuitions about these things into a coherent theory.
Systems are not sentient
To say "Capital does X" or "Power demands Y" or "Z is the Patriarchy's fault" is saying that there is some force that pressures (perhaps even compels!) individual agents to act a certain way.
But we have a problem: Power/Capital is not a thing. At least not a physical/material thing like a rock or a computer.
Is it comparable to a force like gravity? Witnessing repeated, similar interactions between particles in nature allows us to theorize about physical forces and their properties. Can we not say the same about Systems? That repeated, similar interactions between agents in human society allows us to theorize socio-political forces and their properties? This does appear to be the most fruitful pathway. We see particular socio-material phenomena and apparent connections between them, and attempt to conceptualize a unified System with causal mechanisms to explain the phenomena and their apparent connections.
Properly conceptualizing a System
A System refers to a set of incentive structures that emerge from a particular socio-material context: objective social relations and material facts alongside the natures and creative agency of the individuals within the System. An example: as an owner of capital, certain actions are in my self-interest due to my objective position in society. Regardless of how I feel about these things, I have interests simply due to my position in society - these interests are "objective" (or at least "external" to my own subjectivity). But alongside this, I am able to choose whether or not to follow those interests or some other moral code or value.
In many ways, these Systems are indeed measurable because they do impact people - we can measure correlations in how people act when facing different incentive structures. Certainly these fall far short of the ironclad physical laws of nature (you have magnanimous kings and "class traitors"), but most people tend to respond to particular incentives. Even if the correlation disappears (imagine a society has been immersed in the value structure of a cult and doesn't care about anything else), you can plot the incentive structures. You can see the System: it objectively exists, even if a particular society is not governed by it. Capital may still demand certain actions, even if the people refuse to listen to its demands.
This of course implies that Systems are not totalistic (more on this below) and that individuals may decide whether or not to interfere with a particular set of incentive structures. In other words, individuals have the ability to shift Systems. A quick glance at history or a trivial thought experiment is sufficient to demonstrate this (and no, society is not wholly determined by technology + geography + objective social relations).
How a System interfaces with Agency
We are not egoists
A critical flaw of so many 19th and 20th century theorists: simply assuming that humans pursue their self-interest (however defined) naturally. This kind of belief in natural psychological egoism is very, very wrong. Hugh LaFollette's essay "The Truth in Psychological Egoism" is an exceptional takedown of this belief. Some relevant excerpts:
Everyone recognizes that she is frequently motivated to promote her self-interest. Moreover, in reflective moments she realizes she is occasionally mistaken when she believes she is not motivated by self-interest. She may initially think she is acting out of concern for another or from commitment to moral principle, yet retrospectively discern that the principal, if not sole motivation, is self-satisfaction, e.g., she expects returned favors, a better image in the community, etc.
These observations help elucidate the appeal of egoism. Moreover, they must be accounted for by any adequate theory of motivation, either by incorporating and explaining them, or by showing them to be illusory. My contention is that these observations can be best accounted for by the following egoistic-looking thesis: a person will continually engage in an activity only if it has the effect of satisfying what she perceives to be in her own self-interest. Though this thesis is obviously similar to egoism, it differs from it in several notable respects.
Egoism's appeal arises primarily from its ambiguous formulation. The thesis can be explicated in a number of ways. When an opponent objects to one characterization, the advocate shifts to a defense of another. Then, if that version is successfully criticized, still another is forwarded. When the ambiguities are swept away, however, the thesis is demonstrably false.
The first ambiguity arises because of the egoist's tendency to blur or ignore the distinction between the motive for an action and the consequences of it. Simply because an act has certain consequences does not imply that the agent was motivated by that consequence. For instance, all acts invariably have consequences of which the actor is ignorant; hence she could not have been motivated to achieve each of them. Moreover, one may do an act which she can reasonably predict will have certain effects, yet still not be motivated to achieve those effects.
These observations illuminate an important related distinction the egoist obscures: one between an action's being in one's interest and its being in one's self-interest. This distinction further elucidates the difference between the above-described individuals.
The first person has an interest in her spouse. She wants to make him feel cherished: she wants him to be happy. Likely she will be pleased if she helps him satisfy his desires. But that does not suggest that she was motivated to please herself. The second individual wishes to promote her own interest; she "helps" others only as a means to that end.
Psychological egoists gloss over this important distinction. They begin with the evident fact that individuals pursue their interests. Whenever an individual can articulate a reason for her actions they are, ipso facto, her reasons. To say this, however, simply identifies the locus of the interests. It says nothing about the nature or object of them.
And so we reach the foundation of our first conclusion about the interaction between Agents and Systems: Agents follow a variety of interests beyond their egoistic self-interest.
The emergence of rudimentary Systems
Rudimentary Systems can be understood as emerging "organically:" differences in natural aptitudes (strength, intelligence, charisma, attractiveness, etc.) naturally generate hierarchies - different positions within these hierarchies present different interests/pressures. Before any kind of complex organization comes about, you still have Systems (albeit very basic ones). Being stronger, or smarter, or more charismatic, or more attractive generates incentives quite different from the weaker, the less intelligent, the duller, and the less attractive.
This leads to our second conclusion about the interaction between Agents and Systems: Agents are always and everywhere embedded within contexts that generate incentive structures that can reasonably be conceptualized as Systems.
One Context, Many Systems
Every context has a variety of roles/incentive structures/interests at play:
Our external interests are objective, yes. I have interests that emerge from my objective social relations with others: as a member of a particular economic class, a citizen of one town versus another, as a member of one firm versus another, as a parent versus a child, etc. But whether or not these objective interests matter to me depends on the subjective weight I place on them.
And it is important to understand this: disagreements about norms frequently reflect conflicts of interest, but this does not mean norms are a thin veneer over a more fundamental struggle of interests. Conflicts of interests occur around normative arguments precisely because these norms do matter. Even when outcomes do turn largely on material interest, issues of identity are frequently still major determinants of the result. In the words of Mark Granovetter:
'The presumption that identity politics has little to do with the politics of material interest is generally false, and normative beliefs figure prominently in identity politics' in determining which interest identity is triggered.
(Granovetter, Society and Economy)
Yes, the interests someone hasas a workeroras a fathermay be identifiable, but which identity gets activated in any given scenario will reflect a combination of the individual's personal subjectivity and the society's pressures (delivered via socialization processes).
Put more simply: within any particular situation an individual finds themselves in, they will have to determine the standard to judge the various options they are presented with. Should they act in the "best interests" of the firm? Should they follow their own moral compass? This is such a common situation that you can find one of these dilemmas in practically every episode of some tv shows. Each of us have many different roles (ex: daughter, sister, aspiring journalist, sorority president), and each of these roles demand different actions: they provide different incentive structures. And even more stressing, many situations we find ourselves in do not provide clear instruction on which incentive structures, which standards, we should judge our options by. The single most important, most intuitively understood, most personally stressful, and most societally crucial instance of agency comes with our decisions about these standards. There is no way for agency to be "disappeared" from this process (even if some people appear to completely lack agency), as no System is totalizing.
This leads to our third conclusion about the interaction between Agents and Systems: Agents exist in many different roles, each of which provide distinct standards by which to judge actions, and agents must decide which standard is most applicable in each situation they find themselves in.
No System is Totalizing (or, the Resolution of our Maps)
Dilemmas between roles and interests cause crises both within and between people. Charles Taylor's account of goods in Sources of the Self include some stories like this:
The search for pure subjective expressive fulfillment may make life thin and insubstantial, may ultimately undercut itself, as I argued above. But that by itself does nothing to show that subjective fulfilment is not a good. It shows only that it needs to be part of a 'package', to be sought within a life which is also aimed at other goods. This can be the basis, of course, for a cruel dilemma, in which the demands of fulfilment run against these other goods--one which thousands of divorcing or near-divorcing couples are living through in our time, for instance.
Our various interests, in this case as an individual and as spouse, run up against each other. Agency is how we determine which standard we will act according to in each situation.
But with all this supposed agency, why does it seem like so many people have none?
Put in a single word: Oversocialization.
But considering our discussion of agency arising from dilemmas between roles and their respective standards, let's talk about my favorite topic (Maps!) through a new lens: Resolution.
Resolution of a Map
For those who haven't followed me, what do I mean by a "map?":
Inside of our heads, we assimilate (or reject) information into our mental model of the world. Each one of us does this. We construct a mental map of how the World truly is, and we then judge further experiences based on that mental map.
And so, I already have my Truth before I encounter a new event. I may not be consciously aware of this, but there is information that can be assimilated and information that must be rejected. If I fail to properly curate my experience to fit my preexisting map, I will fall into existential crisis.
To have your map proven demonstrably wrong is to lose one’s bearings in the world. Where do you go? What do you do? Who do you trust? Your map is useless. You are Lost.
Bear in mind: we understand the world we inhabit through narrative, motivation, values, and norms. Our maps of the World are simultaneously maps of Moral Space (which is a dimension of the World). And, our identities are directly tied into our values:
“To know who I am is to know where I stand. My identity is defined by the commitments and identifications which provide the frame or horizon within which I can try to determine from case to case what is good, or valuable, or what ought to be done, or what I endorse or oppose.”
(Taylor, Sources of the Self)
That last part is crucial: our Maps of the World are simultaneously maps of Moral Space (which is a profoundly important dimension of the World). So how does this relate to choosing different roles?
Simply: our conflicts between roles/standards represent conflicts between values. This conflict represents some aspect of our Maps that are now unclear: which standard is correct? We are presented with different potential pathways, different Maps, and we have to determine which pathway is the correct one, which Map accurately reflects the Territory I walk on. Sometimes we take the wrong pathway and realize that we made the incorrect decision: we chose the wrong standard to base our decision on.
But similarly to how one generates empathy via analogy without needing to necessarily go through the exact situation as another person to feel their joy or pain, one does not need to actually be in a situation where they are presented with the different pathways: we can think about what we might do in a hypothetical situation.
More importantly though, and here is where the resolution property of our maps comes in, we can consider "what are the implications of X." I propose that the reason so many people appear to lack agency is because what they actually lack is a desire and/or will to engage in this "higher-order" or "meta" thinking.
Without this thinking, conflicts between values remain hidden from view or purposefully ignores. Maps becoming "higher-resolution"/"less blurry" as we decide to deal with conflicts between our values and make choices...and then affirm these choices via consistent action.
As a note: oversocialized people have exceptionally low-resolution maps. Part of developing independence in thought is engaging in self-reflection towards making your map higher-resolution. Asking why you believe certain things/act certain ways, how your values interact (and perhaps synergize or conflict), and what that might apply. On the one hand, yes, each one of us ultimately decides our Maps based on sentiment:
At the core of our Maps, the core of what makes any particular narrativeresonatewith us, is sentiment. We adopt a narrative because, at its core, itfeelsright.
But on the other hand, what resolution does is take us from the abstract-aesthetic into the more concrete. "X sounds nice, but what does believing-in-X actually imply? Do I like those implications?" The oversocialized never leave the abstract-aesthetic. They never venture into the concrete. The self-reflection of an "examined life" is the ongoing process to improve the resolution of our Maps.
And so here we see the fourth conclusion of our analysis of Systems and Agency: Agents develop a better understanding of the standards they use to judge action, and the implications of the demands of each standard, by engaging in self-reflection - in other words, by increasing the resolution of their Maps.
Agency scales with Power. This shouldn't be too difficult to understand. "I make the rules" is far more consequential coming from a parent's mouth than a child's, from a teacher's mouth than a student's, from a boss's mouth than a worker's. The decisions regarding which standards should be used to judge actions have greater societal consequences as we have more Power. (For now, I will leave an in-depth analysis of Power for another time, but I hope the examples above give a brief overview of how Power looks in some situations.)
Those with power have the ability to reshape Systems by fiat...to an extent. These Systems can only be reshaped by fiat within the confines of an individual's power, of course. This is, of course, why the agency of elites is so much more consequential than the agency of less powerful individuals (although that agency is still important - see below). Elites are able to reshape much larger and more powerful Systems based on the standards they choose to guide their actions. Those who disparagingly claim that you cannot change a System simply by convincing elites at the top are, in many cases, incorrect. This is also why battles between elites are so crucial as drivers of history.
And we know this. Call it Power or Sovereignty or whatever, but we are aware of how Systems are either reshaped or invented whole cloth by people at the top:
“The relation between property and sovereignty is contested. The protection of both persons and property are two core government functions. These functions come into conflict when the exercise of a property right harms others. How do we determine when that exercise is legitimately viewed as a self-regarding act that does not affect others, and when such an exercise does harm others and thus comes within the legitimate sphere of government regulation? Property norms help answer this question by orienting us in a moral universe through background understandings that define legitimate interests. Norms orient us, first, by telling us who is an owner with regard to any particular entitlement in a resource, and second, by telling owners when they are obligated to take into account the effects of their actions on others. In so doing, property norms define which externalities we must pay attention to and seek (if possible) to prevent.”
(from “How property norms construct the externalities of ownership” by Joseph Singer)
So we have our fifth conclusion of our analysis of Systems and Agency: Agents are capable of reshaping Systems within the confines of their own power via their choices about standards for action. Individuals with greater power, elites, possess a greater ability to reshape Systems via their own agency.
The Perpetuation and Destruction of Systems
Systems are perpetuated by Agents. That you follow the incentives generated by the System is up to you. Your lack of rebellion is up to you. It may be understandable. But it is not inevitable. And therefore there is no excuse. You must take responsibility for it. You can choose which interests to pursue, and your choice is something you must take responsibility for.
But Systems are also destroyed by Agents. New agents entering Systems and deciding to choose different standards to guide actions reshapes the System (again, bounded by power). Old agents in a System may have an existential crisis or an epiphany and change their standards as well. Systems are constantly reshaped (and even sometimes abolished) via the choices of actors.
Since destroying Systems is more important to understand in today's age than perpetuating Systems, let's engage with that in more depth:
As we noted earlier, Elites are more powerful and have a greater ability to reshape Systems via their own Agency. New elites can be formed either via new blood in existing institutions (less likely - these "new" elites tend to be co-opted more regularly into the Systems they are immersed in) or by forming new institutions. New institutions tend to begin when particular individuals "defect" and build a new institution:
Institutions arise with a goal. Within the network, a group of people may wish to spread the word about some topic. They organize: they become a formally recognized network both internally and, hopefully for them, externally as well.
Institutions become powerful generally by maximizing as much of their capital as they can, whether that be human, financial, physical, and/or social.
Institutions rarely collapse. Instead, they are typically outcompeted.
Of course, an organized group of "new blood" may consciously engage in a hostile takeover of an existing institution as opposed to building a new one. The question of whether this "new blood" ends up actually being new or ends up being subsumed is answered by the cohesiveness of the organized group: are they more loyal to the group than the System? Are they willing to use the standards of the organized group in place of the standards of the System whenever and wherever it is necessary? If not, they will be subsumed. If yes, well, they stand a fighting chance.
But understand something: its not entirely up to Elites. Organized groups of "new blood" can emerge from many different places: secret societies are institutions all their own, and can become powerful forces via their internal cohesion and their members being successful. Elites have more power than the People, this is true, but quantity is a quality all its own. Mass movements have brought change in the past, and can bring change in the future. The key here: organization.
Understand: institutions will naturally birth Elites that will lead the movement. Organization must be done with this in mind: the question isn't suppressing the birth of new Elites, but rather to ensure that when the Elites of this new institution inevitably arise, their interests align with the rest of the institution. That they become leaders, not parasites. Mass movements being more difficult in our digital, dopamine-fueled age is not proof mass movements don't work. It is a call to make better ones.
People like thinking in terms of Systems because it alleviates them of personal responsibility in perpetuating the System via their chosen actions. It justifies their apathy. There is an allure of persecution: it gives an individual a sense of superiority and moral righteousness while simultaneously relieving them of the burden of responsibility or duty that comes with accepting that agency does matter.
And so we have reached our sixth and final conclusion of our analysis of Systems and Agents: Systems are generated, perpetuated, reshaped, and destroyed by Agents. While Elites are more capable at impacting Systems, organized masses can very much have an impact on them. If we want to seriously change society, it is time we engage in a more thorough analysis of institutions, and how we can impact them.
So, we first considered the proper answer to the question "What is a System?"
We see particular socio-material phenomena and apparent connections between them, and attempt to conceptualize a unified System with causal mechanisms to explain the phenomena and their apparent connections.
A System refers to a set of incentive structures that emerge from a particular socio-material context: objective social relations and material facts alongside the natures and creative agency of the individuals within the System.
Then, we saw 6 separate conclusions from our analysis of Systems and Agency:
Agents follow a variety of interests beyond their egoistic self-interest.
Agents are always and everywhere embedded within contexts that generate incentive structures that can reasonably be conceptualized as Systems.
Agents exist in many different roles, each of which provide distinct standards by which to judge actions, and agents must decide which standard is most applicable in each situation they find themselves in.
Agents develop a better understanding of the standards they use to judge action, and the implications of the demands of each standard, by engaging in self-reflection - in other words, by increasing the resolution of their Maps.
Agents are capable of reshaping Systems within the confines of their own power via their choices about standards for action. Individuals with greater power, elites, possess a greater ability to reshape Systems via their own agency.
Systems are generated, perpetuated, reshaped, and destroyed by Agents. While Elites are more capable at impacting Systems, organized masses can very much have an impact on them. If we want to seriously change society, it is time we engage in a more thorough analysis of institutions, and how we can impact them.
So how do we synergize this into a conclusion?
Being embedded in various contexts, agents exist within many different roles, and each of these roles provides distinct standards by which action can be judged and guided. Agents use their creative agency/subjectivity to decide which standards to follow in situations where the agent's different roles demand different actions.
Systems are our conceptualizations of causal mechanisms that explain socio-material phenomena and their apparent connections. We can understand this as being a conceptualization of the impact various roles/standards have on our actions and even our thought (and our Maps of the World). Systems emerge because large numbers of agents tend to pick the same standards in similar situations. Systems cannot be understood distinct from Agency. But Agency cannot be understood distinct from Systems: part of the contexts that agents are embedded in is the very set of Systems the agent interacts with.
Systems are reshaped via shifts in the attitudes of agents possessing a critical mass of power: when different standards to guide action are selected by either large numbers of average agents or a small number of elites, Systems are reshaped. Reshaping the consciousness of Elites and building better alternative institutions and mass movements are required for a System to be reshaped. It can be done. It must be done. There is no other alternative.
If you made it to the end of this, I owe you my gratitude and respect. I hope you enjoyed! If you did, join the email list and consider a paid subscription to support my continued work.
(Thumbnail image: “Social Network Analysis Visualization” [Grandjean, M. (2016)].)
Great article. Systems analysis like this is sadly more rare than it should be. If you don't already know them, Gall's "Laws of Systemantics" are an entertaining and profound look at systems. For instance Law #6: "Complex systems tend to oppose their own proper function. As systems grow in complexity, they tend to oppose their stated function." Or, one of my favorites, Law #18: "A system that performs a certain way will continue to operate in that way regardless of the need or of changed conditions."