When the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union disunited, many people thought that the system of democracy and capitalism, particularly as it was exemplified in America, had proven to be a superior system for everyone. Today, though, many people are looking at the huge disparities of wealth in America and at the number of people struggling with profound poverty, and are looking for another system.
I think there are significant changes for the better that could be made in the American system, and I plan to write about them in upcoming posts. But this is a prelude to any thoughts I might express about systems.
The answers do not lie first and foremost in the system. The total answer does not lie in any system, no matter how noble, how intelligent, how meant to serve humanity, how righteous. The Roman Catholic church tried it for centuries through the Middle Ages; Muslims and Communists have not succeeded in re-creating a Garden of Eden, nor have societies guided by Buddhism or indeed the myriad of societies and communities which have appeared, sometimes prospered, and then disappeared over the 200 milleniums humans have walked this earth.
Why? Two reasons, I think. First, the needs of any society are vastly diverse. What works depends on culture, on religious values, on the natural resources, on populations, on educational levels and on technological resources which have been invented and implemented. Not only that, but all of these variables are constantly changing with immigration, communication systems, environmental changes and disasters, sometimes disease.
But the second reason is even more fundamental. All systems operate for but also by individuals. Groups are always made of separate people, and we are immensely diverse. We want different things, we have different talents, different needs, different ideas and values, life deals each of us a different hand. And so there will always be individuals whom the system does not serve well. And there will always be individuals who can subvert the system to their advantage or invent ways to improve it. It might or might not be ethical or even legal, but for better or worse, no system has ever succeeded in totally suppressing individual creativity and innovation. Some systems will slow diversity and creativity down, will divert it, will punish it. But if they stop it altogether, history shows us that the system will ultimately destroy itself.
Each of us as individuals often feel very small and helpless. But that is not exactly the case. There isn’t and, despite our adulation of heroes of the past, there never has been a person who has changed the world alone. It is often possible for relatively small numbers to change societies, sometimes for better, sometime for worse. But the changing organisms are always individuals and remain individuals. There is no substitute for the individual, either to make the whole work, or to bring it down.
I sometimes find myself feeling almost hopeless about the insignificant part I can possibly play in making the world a better place. And then I ask if I would rather find myself in a place like Nazi Germany with someone who is willing to try to help me escape being sent to a concentration camp. Or would I rather be a Black teenager facing a racist policeman with a gun in a country that says it guarantees equal rights for all. In other words, would I rather be in a bad system surrounded by good people, or in a supposedly good system faced with a person bent on destroying me. The deciding factor for me is not the system but the individual whom I am facing.
It might take thousands of worms to make silk for a purse. But a pig is never going to produce anything but a sow’s ear, however insignificant worms might look in comparison.