The main idea: the twin concepts of “the system” and “they” do not stand for any actual system or group, but are a simplification of the Extended Order by the unconscious mind.
1.1 Allow yours truly to abundantly quote from a great blog I follow. Writing of Django Unchained the author opines that:
[D]iCaprio asks a rhetorical question, a fundamental question, that has occurred to every 7th grade white boy and about 10% of 7th grade white girls[:] “Why don’t they just rise up?” […]
Why did Django rise up? He went from whipped slave to stylish gunman in 15 minutes. How come Django was so quickly freed not just from physical slavery, but from the 40 years of repeated psychological oppression that still keeps every other slave in self-check[?]
You should read this next sentence, get yourself a drink, and consider your own slavery: the system told Django that he was allowed to. He was given a document that said he was a bounty hunter, and as an agent of the system, he was allowed to kill white people. That his new job happened to coincide with the trappings of power is 100% an accident, the system decided what he was worth and what he could do with his life. His powers were on loan, he wasn’t even a vassal, he was a tool[…]
DiCaprio is a third generation slave owner, he doesn’t own slaves because he hates blacks, he owns them because that’s the system; so powerful is that system that he spends his free time not on coke or hookers but on researching scientific justifications for the slavery– trying to rationalize what he is doing. That is not the behavior of a man at peace with himself, regardless of how much he thinks he likes white cake, it is the behavior of a man in conflict, who suspects he is not free; who realizes, somehow, that the fact that his job happens to coincide with the trappings of power is 100% an accident… do you see?
The Last Psychiatrist,
No Self-Respecting Woman Would Go Out Without Make Up (January 14th 2013)
1.2 I do indeed, but what I see is something else entirely.
2. The system
2.1 “The system” is among those concepts which appear to be clear and are yet evasive. Though one can scarcely read anything ever remotely connected to a critique of our societies for any period of time and avoid encountering the mythical “system”, most would still struggle to explain in plain words what this instinctive entity is supposed to be.
2.2 The very same applies to “they”. As with “the system”, “they” are an unspecified group perceived as unhealthily powerful. If “the system” is rigged against you, “they” made it so. As soon as a given struggle is perceived to be directed at anything but the most specific group, the enemies are always “they” and “the system”.
2.3 One can try to rationally fill these concepts, and to do so an ideology is needed. Speaking as libertarians, we may rationalize (no slip of the tongue there) “the system” as the modern version of corporatism, in which “they”, i.e. big business, organized labor, organized crime and governments try to fashion the political system in such a sway as to extract the maximal resources from —or wield the most power on—the general population. Elsewhere, “the system” that freed Django would be the decrepit statist criminal justice system.
2.4 Still, it should be troubling that though someone with an opposite ideology, say some hardcore Marxists, may insist on letting different entities filling these concepts (I suspect that “they” would be the bourgeoisie, and “the system” would be capitalism), he’d still be perfectly at ease with using the very same concepts.
2.5 “The system” may be rationalized into private property, statism, American imperialism, patriarchy or what-have-you, and “they” may be the owners of capital, the bankers, the staffers of the civil services, white males and so on. Yet we all instinctively grasp these concepts regardless and, indeed, we may even succeed in having a full blow conversation with a fellow, discussing how ‘they’ designed ‘the system’ to exploit us all, and only at the end of it all discover ourselves to be in opposite camps, ideologically speaking.
3. The unconscious
3.1 The fungibility and universality of these concepts is not accidental: they derive from the unconscious, where they reside with a host of mental mechanisms firmly put in place by evolution eons ago. We have already discussed (1, 2) how the human mind seems to have been optimized to operate in small, roving bands of hunter-gatherers, and feels alienated in any other setup. Concepts like the Dunbar number go so far as to imply that our neurological ability to feel attachment to anyone beyond our Dunbar circle of 100-150 personal acquaintances is questionable.
3.2 Such is the baggage that one inherits and must take with himself into the modern world. The primordial unconscious is forced to contain its instincts, operate in societies where face-to-face contacts form but a minuscule part of one’s life and bend the knee to artificial (i.e. evolved) rules that appeal little to our inherent sense of justice.
3.3 And so, the mind rebels. Unable to cope with the concept of what F.A. Hayek called the Extended Order—of a society based on the division of labor—it deals with it the only way it can: it dumps every relation besides those in our Dumbar circle into the mythical “system”.
3.4 Yes, it is “the system” that forces us to work at tedious jobs in prescribed and unnatural hours, or to contain ourselves when a strong urge to aggress against ‘trespassers’ of our group’s perceived territory (example of ‘trespass’ ). It is “the system” that forces us into the nuclear family and monogamy or creates artificial lines of private property. It was “the system” of cultural norms that said that it was fine for Django to kill people.
3.5 That all these concepts, private property and the nuclear family above them all, are what allow for our civilized societies (and along with them, for 99.9% of the current population) to exist is beside the point to the unconscious. To it, these strictures seem artificial yet inescapable. If to improve one’s lot a super-ego must be created to reign in one’s instincts, than all goes with such a super-ego is labeled as ‘the system’ by our unconscious mind.
3.6 “They”, than, can be properly explained as “the rest”: whoever isn’t part of our Dumbar circle and must yet be respected. In the days of old, the protocol of human relations seemed clear: friendly competitiveness-with-cooperation within the group vs. total, perpetual war with anyone without. Still, the extended order requires that we shelve these instincts and respect the life and property of groups far larger than 150. At the very least, one is expected to act decently towards his fellow citizens (ex. Americans), if not with his cultural brethren (ex. Westerners), or even with the whole world (ex. The Whole World).
3.7 Again, not knowing any alternative, the unconscious dumps all these other fellows into “them”. We do not know them personally (hence the difficulty in actually describing ‘them’) yet we owe these people something. By God, there must be something fishy with these folks!
4.1 The ubiquitous concepts of “the system” and “they” are thus but a rationalization (if the pun is forgiven) of the Extended Order by the unconscious. When libertarians, as all, try to flesh out these concepts into (in our case) the statist system and the global elite, we must be careful because we deceive but ourselves.
4.2 The alienation brought by the Extender Order will not disappear with the gradual advent of the Free Society. If anything, with such an Extended Order becoming deeper, our instinctive alienation will but grow. Without the pressure valve of militant nationalism, militant religion or militant collectivism in general (though collectivism, nationalism and religion as non-violent activities will probably flourish in a Free Society), the Free Society will have to find other way to help us all contain our alienation. But, good as it may become at this, a civilized order will never be able to rid us wholly of this uneasiness. Django shall always be at a loss to understand why ‘the system’ said that it was fine to kill some ‘foreigners’ but not some others.
4.3 “The system” is here to stay. “They” will not come out of the shadows, yet neither will they disappear. It is important that when we libertarians use such concepts in our discourse, we grasp their actual meaning. There is nothing wrong with using these deep ideas for rhetorical effect, but the risk exists that one may start to believe such devices and lose sight of the harsh reality: “the system” is what keeps all but a tiny bunch of us all alive.