The furore over the police response at Sydney airport to the bashing death of the brother of a bikie gang member, once again highlights our false faith in systems and our misguided belief that somebody else will look after us and tell us what to do (passengers assumed that security would stop the melee; security assumed that the Australian Federal Police would stop the melee; the AFP assumed that security or the public would alert them to the melee via the emergency triple 0 number… everybody assumed that “increased airport security” would come to the rescue, but in reality, no-one took responsibility).
This event highlights the weaknesses of systems, and particularly, the danger that arises when we place too much faith in the supremacy of systems to manage our lives. There are clear parallels to our response to this incident in the recent bushfires in Victoria, the US government response to Hurricane Katrina, and in the global financial crisis.
All of these events illustrate that systems, and a belief in the rational operation of these systems, have the ability to lull us into a false sense of security. Perhaps the biggest issue in all of these events, is that in each case, everybody assumed that the system would take care of itself, and it is this ideology of systems and rationality that has brought about this malaise and disconnection from the complexity of existence in contemporary society.
But there are clear historical precedents. The Age of Enlightenment (or Age of Rationalism) came about as a rebellion against the orthodoxy and dominance of religious authority as the controlling force in life, and the divine right of Kings. To some degree, it brought about a collapse (or reduced influence) in these traditional institutions, and led to both the French and American revolutions. At its core was a critical questioning of traditional institutions, customs and morals, largely because of their failure to protect ordinary citizens, and partly because ordinary citizens believed (falsely) that these institutions would protect them. At this time, the intellectual and philosophical developments aspired toward rational discourse, personal judgment, liberalism and the scientific method. And, to some degree, this was a very enlightened perspective.
In effect, this movement resulted in a variety of 20th century movements and ideological beliefs. The faith in rationality, systems (including the preeminence of the market as a means of governing the flow of capital), government as the protector, and neo-liberalism, are all artefacts of The Age of Enlightenment. However, the underlying foundations of the Age of Enlightenment have been bastardised by modern interpretations of rationalism, and systems based around efficiency and short-term gain.
The major issue here is that any system, whether it is a religious system, a monarchical system, an institution, or an ideological system (such as the global stockmarket), works on a principle of what Gideon Haigh refers to as “near-rightness”; it works okay as long as nothing out of the ordinary occurs. Once we give over to that system decision making is restricted by its structure, and enhanced by a false belief in its self-correcting ability. Sadly, a system doesn’t have the faculty of consciousness, so when something goes wrong that doesn’t fit into the system, it is slow to respond (if, indeed, it can respond). In other words, in a system, no individual can take responsibility, because the structure of the system removes the ability of individuals to make autonomous judgments without forcing them to conform to a structure pre-determined by the system – it is a cyclical dilemma, a Catch-22.
What happened at Sydney airport, what happened in Victoria, and what happened on Wall Street show that if we place too much faith in systems, then we will continue to have these types of tragic events. Because systems and rationality are based upon a foundation of reductionism and efficiency, we will never be able to respond quickly and appropriately to extraordinary events such as the Victorian bushfires, the bashing in Sydney, or the GFC. What we need to recognise is that any system, any institution, any structure, has its weak points, and that there is a compelling and immediate need to re-situate consciousness, and individual autonomy and responsibility, into these structures. Systems and people can work together, but it is about balance.
Suggestions by some that the secularisation of society has led to this malaise are unsound – religion is just another system – it is just as circuitous, self-supporting, and pernicious as a management system. This is why the Enlightenment occurred, along with the French and American revolutions. The values of the Enlightenment were sound – it is the corruption of those values which we are currently living with.
This is a shorter version of an article published at Online Opinion.
Epilogue (Posted 3 April, 2009)
Having recently done a bit of flying between Sydney and Melbourne, I came to realise that “near-rightness” is simply not an option when it comes to piloting a commercial aeroplane. For a situation that throws up a significant amount of opportunities for massive failure, the airline industry makes few mistakes, and when they do, they spend a large proportion of resources to discover how and why. However, what I did realise is that the piloting of a plane requires the correct mix of both rational systems and human involvement. As a model, the way in which air is managed and monitored is a good one. The amount of resources involved in doing this, is traded off against managing the significant risks involved in flying a big steel tube through the air.