The Evil of Systems

As random thoughts do, a thought about the movie The Hunger Games popped into my head a few days ago. One thing that bothered me about the movies – aside from the overt and ridiculous feminist crap – was the way the government of the capital city of Panem was set up. The Capitol: the glittering, futuristic city; surrounded by twelve destitute and muddy districts populated by slaves who do all the dirty work for The Capitol’s hyper-fashionable and wealthy citizens. The Capitol and the twelve districts are ruled by a dictatorship. Early in the movie, you see the faceless side of the dictatorship being violently and regularly exercised against the inhabitants of the twelve districts: terrifyingly large airships which stalk the skies of the districts, watching for illicit activity; and the ‘peacekeepers’: a kind of paramilitary force, clothed in figure-hugging white, with white helmets which mask the face. You never see the faces of the men in white – they are but automatons carrying out the will of the government. Think Star Wars Stormtroopers, but sexier. Later in the movie, we see the face of the dictatorship: President Snow, a man with a soft, silky voice and calculating eyes. You can tell he is vicious, evil and very, very clever.

What is the nature of this dictatorship? How does Snow rule? You find out in the third movie that The Capitol is just as oppressed as are the twelve districts. The denizens of The Capitol have luxury, yes; and entertainment, certainly – Panem et circenses. But it turns out they are just as subject to the whimsical despotism of Snow as are the slaves in the districts. I was rather disappointed when the plot took this particular turn. Because, for a short while, I had laboured under the impression that Panem was under a government somehow similar to that of Orwell’s novel, 1984: a faceless government where absolutely all are kept in perfect and permanent subjection by a perfectly tuned system. In 1984, no man takes the position of dictator: the system is the dictator. Obviously Snow, being both man and dictator, represented a departure from the system of government we saw in 1984, but aside from that, I thought we might see some parallels. But I was to be disappointed.

Plot holes

I hardly expected a continent plot from modern-day junk entertainment, but Snow’s form of government is completely unbelievable. It is a government in in which literally one man, Snow, runs the entire show and there is no suggestion of a bureaucracy. He tyrannizes both the districts and The Capitol, and the faceless peacekeepers (seemingly) unquestioningly carry out his will. But where are the governmental departments? Where are the ministries? Where are his ambitious officers and advisers? Even in the cruelest autocracy, a ruler depends on the assistance and support of lackeys. The problem for such a ruler is that this creates hierarchies of power, and hierarchies lead to political machinations and thus plots, assassinations and rebellions. But lackeys also provide a form of protection between the autocrat and the masses because they provide the appearance of a legitimate and functioning system of government. For Snow to govern without the use of lackeys seems to be impossible.

It should be clear that Snow’s government is more benign than the one we see in 1984, for Snow presents a clear target to anyone who would rebel against the government. In 1984, there in no one against whom to rebel. The more supreme the position of the autocrat, the more visible he is as a target. The autocrat is the undisputed head-of-the-snake: cut of the head and the snake dies. Yet this is why systems are so dangerous: there is no head. In 1984, Big Brother didn’t truly exist, he was just an idea. The system reigned supreme. There was no target for a rebellion. It was a perfectly perpetual system.

Systems of government

There are different kinds of societal and governmental systems. Capitalism is one such system in the economic realm, which as Friedrich Hayek would argue, has spontaneously arisen and is thus a beneficial system. ‘Capitalism’ contains within it a tradition of unarticulated expectations of conduct which permit certainty and predictably in the realm of trade. In contrast to the spontaneous system is the created, or manmade, system. I don’t entirely agree with Hayek that systems can spontaneously develop, but I do agree with him that created systems are, at a societal level, generally pernicious. Whilst there’s no one in charge of a free-enterprise economy; a planned economy is a created system and requires a manager and a purpose. In socialism, the manager is supposed to be the pure, god-like ‘bureaucracy’; but in practice we end up with a tyrant who is supported by bureaucrats. The reason for this is that created systems are created using imperfect knowledge, and are thus susceptible to corruption.

How did the USSR system survive when almost everyone was so damn miserable? Surely Lenin would have been an easy target for assassination? But the Soviet leaders were not leaders in the same way as President Snow. Rather, they had a coterie of lackeys to help manage affairs in exchange for the country’s wealth. Lenin’s Bolshevik supporters would have flowed down his power to tyrannize the masses in exchange for material consideration. The masses were unable to group together to resist this oppressive power, even though they were a majority, because of the system that was in place. They had accepted the tyranny as being ‘the way things are done’. Hypothetically, even if a benevolent leader had succeeded Lenin, I believe he would have had no success in improving the lot of the Russians by acting to improve the system: the system itself would have prevented him from doing so.

Thus, a benevolent leader in charge of a bad system is unable to rule justly. Yet an evil leader in charge of a good system will still find ways to rule unjustly. Democracy, with all its ‘checks and balances’, is supposed to be such that even an evil man will not be able to subvert it. Well, I don’t believe this is at all possible. No group of legislators is capable of knowing all things, and any created system of laws will have flaws and be susceptible from its very outset to subversion by unprincipled men. When well-meaning men create a system in an effort to prevent the subversion of government, they entrench that much more the power of those very men who finally succeed in subverting it. People who had come to trust the system and accept it as being ‘the way things are done’ are left with corrupt men in power who are protected by a bureaucratic system that was designed to keep them out. You might say “at least democracy governs justly for longer than the monarchy”; and I would say “maybe, but the subverted democracy also tyrannizes for longer than the monarchy.” Today’s Western democracies are so corrupt and ineffectual precisely because there’s no one to blame: the fault belongs to the system, apparently. The system shields an ineffectual or corrupt ruler from accountability; and the more complex and developed the system, the greater the protection. And such a system also prevents just rule from occurring: by its sheer deviousness, it trips up even those with good intentions and turns them into a clown.

Less is More

If I think democracy is a created system, and all created systems are prone to subversion and can in fact exacerbate tyranny, do I think democracy is a bad idea? Maybe. But don’t call me a spoiled child of the West: many others from Plato to Edmund Burke have also been skeptical. (Yes, I know the Greek conception of democracy was different to ours). Across the Western nations, democracy has already devolved into a bureaucracy: a system of laws that are supposed to improve certainty, but in reality tyrannize the citizen. Because the laws must be applied indiscriminately to all individuals, they must cater to the worst individuals in society, and must therefore treat all individuals as the worst type of individual. The more centralised a bureaucracy is, the wider the range of potential individuals it must cater for, and the more general and less relevant its criteria must be. In the age of big data and instant communication, the bureaucracy is ever-increasing in its efficiency, and in the words of Eugene McCarthy, “The only thing that saves us from the bureaucracy is inefficiency. An efficient bureaucracy is the greatest threat to liberty.”

Good government is not a function of clever systems of laws. It is a function of the morality of a people. No amount of legislation will prevent evil men from turning governmental power to their own ends. As Tacitus wrote: “The more numerous the laws, the more corrupt the government.” Thus, if any created system is capable of subversion, we would be better off with the least amount of created systems as possible. As we see morality collapse in a post-religious West, it may well turn out that the relatively recent experiments in democracy were actually a deceptive exercise: it was not our cleverness that allowed democracy to flourish, but our morals. And without our morals, we will see the collapse of the democratic experiment.

All this from a random thought about The Hunger Games?

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