Why politics needs some systems thinking


by David Blockley

I am no politician. I did not foresee the rise of so-called ‘populism’ (by that I mean support for the concerns of ordinary people), calls for independence in all of its forms, major shifts such as Brexit and the all too many public financial and sexual abuse scandals. We are all struggling to deal with the competing trends and demands for localisation, ‘false’ populism and globalisation in the ways that we do things together. The scope, scale and speed of change, especially in science, engineering and technology pose enormous challenges.

The public debates around these topics concern me and have done for some time. I have come to realise that some of my discomfort stems from a lack of recognition of two important ideas underpinning systems thinking.

Politics is about power – collective decision making and action. Power is the capacity to influence each other and to make changes. Technically speaking (what many call ‘hard’ physical systems), power is volts times amps and velocity times force – more generally it is potential times flow (of change). Potential is the capability of becoming. In human (what many call ‘soft’) systems I believe that potential derives from the ‘why’ questions we ask of ourselves and others. ‘Why’ do we think, decide and act in the way we do – it is human purpose. Individual and collective actions are driven by the ‘voltage’ of purpose to achieve change. In this way we can begin to connect people with things.

In brief the two important systems ideas that need to be more widely understood are firstly, the natural life cycle of the evolution of dependence to interdependence and secondly, the intimacy between wholes and parts. After describing these two in a little more detail I will reflect on the very practical consequences of this lack.

The natural life cycle consists of three slowly emerging stages. It begins with total dependence. As babies we depend totally on carers – usually our parents or foster parents. As we grow we begin to develop as individuals and seek to move to our second stage – independence. In this stage we attempt to find out who we are – to ‘find ourselves’ as some express it. Some people seem to get stuck here unhappily as they struggle to exercise their individuality with their need to belong. Maturity emerges as we move to the third stage – interdependence. ‘No man is an island’ is John Donne’s famous truism. In this stage we begin to understand how much we need others. We learn to reconcile our individualism with need for recognition from our peers. In my personal view the key is to realise that our own selfish needs are best served by serving others and treating them as you yourself want to be treated. All religions include some form of the Golden Rule ‘Don’t do to others that you wouldn’t have them do to you’. Understanding our interdependence is a key to civilised life.

The second systems thinking idea is that we can think of everything as both a part and a whole at one and the same time. Arthur Koestler coined the word holon to capture this concept. Of course holism has a long history beginning with Confucius, Buddha and Aristotle. South African Prime Minister, Field Marshall and philosopher Jan Smuts was the first to coin the term in 1926. Holism emphasises thinking about wholes. It is sometimes confused with mysticism and some kind of ‘new age’ thinking and is used sometimes to the detriment of thinking about parts – as though parts don’t matter. By contrast holons focus our thinking on both – on ‘looking outwards’ and ‘looking inwards’ at the same time – they are one. Looking outwards a whole is a contextual part. Looking inwards a whole consists of interdependent parts which themselves are wholes.

How are these ideas relevant to politics? Firstly what is true of an individual life cycle is also true for a group. Here I include organisations whether companies, societies and political parties in governments or opposition and whether regional, national and international (e.g. the EU and multilateral free trade areas with the UN including the whole world). I also include politics with a small or a big P where some people have more power than others. Every group is full of holons. So for example I am and you are a holon. Looking inwards I consist of interdependent holons of structure (muscles and bones), nervous, respiration, digestion, blood circulation etc. that make me the person who I am. Looking outwards I am just as much an individual as a Bristolian, a family man, a west countryman, a professional, an Englishman, a Briton, a European and indeed a member of the entire human race. So I ask myself why would a Barcelonan see himself as a Catalonian but not a Spaniard. Even more puzzling why would a Scot not want to be a Briton but would want to be European. I think that the explanation, in essence, is the perceived need for independence because of some kind of unfairness from the larger organisation – without recognising the importance of interdependence. It is something we need to understand much better.

I suggest that better understanding lies in seeking much more clarity about what should be decided at each level within and without a given group. Some things are fairly obvious – others are not. In my experience lack of clarity about the latter causes endless confusion. For example in the Brexit referendum many people voted on the basis they did not like remote unelected bureaucrats telling us what to do. They wanted national politicians to control immigration. But population growth crucially depends on our relationships with other countries. Should we decide locally in isolation how to dispose of waste when climate change requires international co-operation? We don’t decide at local level which side of the road we should drive on and the conditions for the employment of workers – it would be obviously foolish for each region to make different choices. But is it appropriate for Brussels to make laws about shopping hours? Can we decide on security and defence without recognising our reliance on other counties through NATO for example. Should not there be an international agreement about people using tax havens – surely tax should be paid at the appropriate level where the monies were gained? The EU defined a principle of subsidiarity in 2007 but seems not to have followed it in making decisions. Nevertheless the principle expresses sound systems thinking. It says that models should be created at the lowest practical level consistent with delivering their purpose.

We are living through a time when these things matter. There are major concerns about the governance of all organisations because of corruption, exploitation, abuse and the growing disparity between the highest and lowest income levels. We are conducting major trade negotiations within the context for the need for the whole world to face up to the impact of changes in our climate.

So let’s initiate a public debate on what kinds of things should be decided at each level. Systems thinkers can help but it requires our politicians, political academics, commentators and opinion formers to clarify what constitutes appropriate governance levels. We need to discuss the way in which decisions at each level should relate to each other.

If we succeed then maybe all of us can feel improved control of our own lives whilst at the same time understanding our interdependence with others and the power they have over us. The purpose should be to define what it means to belong to each level. How should I feel about myself as an individual, as a Bristolian, and Englishmen, a Briton, a European and a human being all at the same time?

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