- Advancing and Defeating the PEGS Agenda:Socio-Cybernetics and Murray Bookchin
Introduction and Overview
In the third paragraph of its mission statement, PEGS' founders note that, while "institutional analysis and reform" is crucial to tackling the problems of modern society, such matters "currently receive little attention, and existing political and economic theories offer insufficient guidance...."1 The point is dramatised in the film Lions for Lambs —thus suggesting that many people are aware of the problem. The authors go on to say that they hope that PEGS, via The Good Society in particular, will help to promote new thinking. It would appear that, by "new" they really do mean new since they go on to say that the "great traditions of good society thinking—modern liberalism, socialism, libertarianism, and conservatism—have been unable to adapt." My own impression is that, over the eighteen years of its existence, most of the articles published in The Good Society have offered contributions within these domains rather than broken out of the mould. In this brief article, I will attempt to go further.
I will suggest that the intractable nature of the problems that confront us stem from the fact that they are fundamentally interconnected as part of a single system. As such, they cannot be tackled one at a time: any attempt to do so will be negated by the reactions of the rest of the system. Moving forward depends on finding ways of conceptualising, mapping, measuring and harnessing the currently invisible socio-cybernetic forces that control our destiny.2 This task is equivalent to the Newtonian elucidation of the concept of physical force and demonstration that its components could be mapped, measured, and harnessed.3 A second crucial development, in part dependent on the first, involves devising new socio-cybernetic—feedback and guidance—systems for managing society in the long-term public interest instead of the short-term interest of dominators.
Unfortunately, faith that it might be possible to do these things within the time apparently available (see below) is seriously called into question by the (re)publication of Murray Bookchin's Ecology of Freedom: The Emergence and Dissolution of Hierarchy.4 Bookchin appears to have demonstrated: (a) that the societal management arrangements we need are precisely those that we have been evolving away from over tens of thousands of years; (b) that this process has continued inexorably despite the protests of endless thoughtful people and practical demonstrations of the viability of alternatives; and (c) that crucial to the maintenance of the socio-cybernetic network that is driving us toward our own extinction lie some of our most cherished beliefs and activities: the latter include (i) the myth that the kind of work that is most characteristic of our society represents a necessary and desirable contribution to well-being and (ii) the myth that hierarchical organisation is both characteristic of nature and efficient. Bookchin argues that, on the contrary, hierarchy itself lies at the heart of many of the problems we face and that its main function is to compel everyone to engage in the destructive activities that not only constitute the economy of hierarchical society but also legitimise, indeed constitute, hierarchy itself; and (d) that it is precisely this mountain of senseless work that is consuming the resources of the planet and destroying its soils, seas and atmosphere—in essence destroying our habitat—thereby heading us toward extinction as a species, carrying the planet as we know it with us.
If he is right, developing an understanding of the network of socio-cybernetic processes that has been driving this evolutionary trend is crucial to finding a way forward.
I must begin by clarifying the way the terms "systems thinking," "systems," and "socio-cybernetics" are to be used here.5
It is easiest to do so by summarising the results of half a century's research into the so-called educational system.6 We began with a series of studies of what pupils, parents, ex-pupils, and employers wanted from it. It emerged that their top priorities were that the system should, on the one hand, nurture a wide range of different talents in different pupils (i...