There is a bit of a paradox within all systems in that the point of the system is to regulate human activity, as well as the activity initiated by humans. At the same time, it is just at the point where they reach that goal where they become obsolete. When the humans can no longer change the system or work around it efficiently, the users of the system start to question the system. The end point of all systems is the point at which it reaches its logical conclusion.
The most obvious is business software systems. A company initially buys a software system because it has logic that will implement the business processes the company seeks to implement. Soon, they begin to tinker with it in an effort to wring out more utility from the system. Maybe that is small modifications to parts of the system logic or additional data items to existing data sets. They keep doing this and over time the system does just about everything the business needs.
At some point, they want to make an additional change, but see that the cost of making this change to the nearly finalized software system is higher than the benefit they will receive from the change. At first this is proof that their long work on the system was a success, but in time it is seen as a defect, a shortcoming. They begin to look for a new system that will allow them to begin the process a new, so they can modify it to slowly make it a perfect tool for the business.
This life-cycle of a software system is not unique to technology. It happens in other systems as well. It is not unreasonable to think of revolution as the replacement of a legacy system with a modern one. Politics in this sense is the software of society, purchased by the elite, implemented by the ruling class and administered by the bureaucracy of the state. It is why libertarianism is impossible, by the way. It requires a society to return to pencil and paper on purpose.
Sticking with the software analogy, another thing that is revealed by revolutions and even the successful reform efforts is something you see with software systems, which is the accumulation of cruft. Much of the “improvement” gained by changing systems comes from abandoning old logic and requirements that never made any sense, but took too much time and money to remove. This often means people whose jobs exist because of that cruft in the legacy system.
The same applies in social systems. A genuine reform effort in America, for example, could simply start with firing everyone from the federal system who has an odd number of letters in their last name. Sure, some genuinely essential personnel would be lost, but the thousands of bits of human cruft would make up the difference. Much of what plagues late empire America is the generations of pointless and redundant code along with the associated people that covers the system like plaque.
Revolutions are cast as revolts by commoners over practical issues. The revolt gets out of hand either by circumstance or some failure by the elites. The result is a toppling of the system. To go back to the software analogy, the revolution is a revolt by users that cannot be addressed by the guys in IT. The system cannot be changed to meet the demands of the users, so the system is removed, the IT department is put to the sword and a new software system is purchased and implemented.
That’s true in primitive societies. The Bolshevik revolution could not have happened in an industrial society. Western Europe did not go from feudalism to industrial communism, because it first entered into a period of limited liberal democracy. The Russians were still operating a social system built for the tenth century, but trying to adapt it to technology and thinking from the 19th century. They went from pencil and paper to cybernetics in one big leap forward.
A better way to think of revolution, using the software analogy, is that point in the life-cycle when the cost of change exceeds the perceived benefit. The French Revolution is a good example of this. The aristocracy could not justify to themselves the cost of changing the system they inherited. The bourgeois revolutionary first started as a reformer, like the quality team inside a company. It’s when necessary change appeared to be impossible that they demanded the legacy system be replaced.
We are seeing this with the political class. The first round of efforts to modify the existing system started in 2016 with the election of Trump. We’re seeing a second round now with the apparent nomination of Bernie Sanders as his challenger. Trump was always a reformer who believed in the fundamental integrity of the system. Sanders is a revolutionary who promises to first remove the legacy system. His platform is mostly about removing the old with promises of something better.
In its response to these challenges, the so-called meritocracy is proving the point made by the reformers and the revolutionaries. They could, in theory, easily adjust to co-opt the reformers and delegitimize the revolutionaries. Yet in both cases they assumed the defensive crouch rather than change their behavior. Like the IT guys maintaining the legacy software system, they see change as a threat, so they make change more expensive than the perceived benefits of those changes.
In 2016, the Republican Party could have easily stopped Trump by moving toward him on immigration, trade and endless war. Instead, they advised the other candidates to move the other way, thus paving Trump’s way to the nomination. Something similar has happened with Sanders. Instead of co-opting his bread and butter issues, the party told the candidates to go extra heavy on wokeness, trannies and white privilege. This has made Sanders the default for those who reject that stuff.
If the political class was a business, senior management would be meeting about why the management and administrative layers have been unable to deal with this problem, despite all of the warnings. It would be time for a major shakeup. The trouble is, the so-called meritocracy that controls politics is the senior management. Only a shareholder revolt, to mix metaphors, is going to change things. Perhaps that is what the 2020 election is shaping up to be, a shareholder revolt.
The trouble with these analogies is that when a company buys a new software system or reorganizes its business processes, they don’t execute the people defending the old way or even have them sent to camps. Those people either embrace the new or quietly go away with their severance. In politics, the old people never go away quietly and instead fight to the last man to defend a legacy system that serves them. The last three years of Trump make that abundantly clear.
For those puzzled by the appeal of Sanders, there’s your answer. American politics is controlled by an elite that keeps one large swath of voters in one party and another large swath in another party, then makes them fight one another. In 2016, the voters in one camp revolted against their camp guards. In 2020, the other camp is staging a revolt. In both cases, it is a revolt against legacy code that appears to be beyond reform. We are living in legacy code that must be replaced, if it cannot be patched.
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