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So that’s the first question asked: How did we get here?
I live on a street. Perhaps you can relate.
The street is my street. The house is my
house. I live in it. And yet if my suburban house were standing alone in a
Michigan forest with me and my family in it, with no other houses nearby, my
house would be a bizarre curiosity. Anyone buying it would have to take on the
additional effort and expense of living in a wilderness. My house would be very
hard to sell, and it wouldn’t sell for as much money as it would in my city.
Indeed, it likely wouldn’t sell. The expense and effort and risk of living in
such a way would be too prohibitive to manage, even among those who can afford
(As an aside: It occurs to me that an ultra-modern house in
the middle of a wilderness is one signature of modern ultra-wealth: a picture
of one’s individual ability to live independently of any other—an illusion,
yes, because even this picture relies on hidden supply chains, but the picture
the illusion presents is of an elevated human individual having cut the
offensive tether of our inextricable social connectivity. Which some might call
The American Dream.)
Fascinatingly, this means it’s everybody else that gives my
house most of its value—considerably more than I do. The value others add to my
house is the greater value. It would be impossible for me to add more as
an individual to the collective than the collective provides me through our
natural human system. There exists a great and inextricable human
interconnectivity that reaches its way everywhere, into everything: a natural
A natural human system is natural. It grows out of
something natural that no human ever built or bought or created.
A natural human system is human. It’s the way a society
delivers the full momentum of its intentions to other humans, in a way that is
shared, foundational, generative, invisible, automatic, inextricable, configurable
And a city is, of course, people. Everybody around me.
Everybody, actually. The ultimate natural human system is nothing more or less
than our entire planet.
The configuration of a system reflects the true intentions
of a city, because they reflect what actually happens—good and bad, just and unjust.
And the cumulative effect of both the good and bad are
inherited, whether we intend it or not.
And so we all belong to one another, by which I mean: at the
deepest levels of reality, we are all responsible for one another.
|Yours for only $12 million and helicopter fees.
Now seems like a good time to acknowledge the fact that I
don’t just receive value from everybody else for my house. I also create value
for my personal house by my individual choices. And, while these choices mostly
bring value to me and my property, if I make good choices about my property,
which benefit me, it will contribute to the value of all the properties around
me. My personal maintenance and enhancement of my property benefits, to
shrinking degrees, my neighborhood, my city, my state, my country, and the
world. It matters.
I feel I should acknowledge this truth now, at this precise point,
because I think my previous conclusions will have been extremely offensive to
some people—especially any who have decided that the idea of a shared and
interconnected life doesn’t exist, but rather the only value that exists is
value that we ourselves create through our own personal choices and intentions—and
so I’d like to assuage them.
I’m talking to the individualists now. Huddle in,
You do create value for society through your
individual choices. Your decision to be a hard worker, for example, makes
society better than if you had decided to be a drunken loafer—provided the work
you do assists society rather than drains it for your own gain. Your decision
to not personally show overt conscious intentional bigoted hatred to people in
your life different from you does make the world better than if you had
chosen to do so—provided it isn’t only a show.
Thank you! Well done!
And, also, to validate: Yes, we do create value for ourselves
through our choices. We do earn things for ourselves by our ingenuity and
determination and effort and skill. Our intentions matter. Our choices matter.
Our decisions matter. What we personally individually think matters.
Our achievements are real, and they matter. By working hard, or by
making more wise choices than unwise choices, we frequently can create better
circumstances for ourselves and others than we otherwise could, albeit within a
range of possible circumstances constrained by any number of factors, including
what choices the city decides should be available to me.
Rejoice, individualists! Celebrate the individual!
So yes, when I choose to (for example) maintain and enhance my
home, I increase its value for myself, and I also help maintain value for the
houses around me. That decision matters.
|By my math this belongs to someone who works 9,500 times harder than the average American.
But see, we’re already getting into trouble, aren’t we?
Because if my positive choices positively affect those around me, then it
stands to reason that I’m also receiving the positive effect of the
cumulative choices of everyone around me, too, right? And it comes to me
automatically? And the effects of choices made before I was born play into this
overall value? And my existence here, in my house on my street, and the value I
receive, is all part of an overall strategy enacted by a collective group of
people, reaching back generations? And we know (unless we deliberately choose
not to know it) that overall strategy included an inheritance of unjustly diverted
value, which afforded me a wider range of available choices than other people,
yet a narrower range than some.
So what I’m actually doing through my choices is choosing
whether or not to align myself with this invisible, automatic,
inextricable, shared, inherited system of value, negative and positive, just
and unjust, value and harm, within which I find myself. In so doing, I actually
recognize the existence of an interconnected society.
Or I choose to live in an unsustainable lie, that insists I
did it all myself.
I’m sorry, individualist. I tried. Reality intruded, as it inevitably
Listen—there is enormous value in the power of individual choice.
I’ll say it again. The individual is something that exists,
and each individual is crucially important. (We’ll get to why presently.) It’s
just that the effect of individual choice, as much as some individuals might
insist otherwise, isn’t the only thing that contributes to reality, nor is it
the most powerful contributor, nor could it be, nor should it be—any
more than it would be possible (or even a healthy option if possible) for your
personal house to be more valuable than all the other houses in the city
combined. There is also collective value. It contributes more. It’s the
context that makes most individual choices possible. And we’re all associated
Your individual choices simply aren’t the outer bounds of
And then there’s this: you chose to be a hard worker,
and a profitable one. But notice what that must mean. It’s something easy to
miss unless you have eyes for it. Do you see it?
It means that being a hard worker was an available choice.
It means that profitability was an available outcome of that choice.
Did you personally choose for those choices to be available?
It was an available choice because the shared, foundational,
generative, invisible, inextricable, configurable, inherited natural human system
within which you live, from which you partake far more value than you could ever
give, provided you that choice.
The city decided to make that choice available to you (and many others), because it
decided it needed there to be a someone who does what you do, and that someone
turned out to be you. Isn’t that great?
Question 1: What if not everybody had the same choices as
Question 2: When did you choose to have a body and a mind that
functioned well enough to do the work you do?
Question 3: When did you choose to be born in a place and
within circumstances from which you could develop that body and mind to do what
Question 4: The people who don’t have a body or a mind that function
as yours, the people who weren’t born in a place with the opportunity to
develop them … when did they make those choices?
Question 5: Can you stop providing value? We live in a society that clearly believes that you can, because it clearly measures human value by the metric of profit, and people can certainly become profitable—indeed we know that all people eventually will become unprofitable, eventually. Or is it possible that profitability is only one metric of value, and even the least profitable person provides incalculable value along other metrics?
Question 6: If you can stop providing value ... should you then stop receiving value? Can you stop receiving value? What would we think of a society that tried to make sure you did? What do we make of a society that believed that, because of your perceived worthlessness, you should now die? What should we say about a society that insists you can, or have, stopped providing value? Should we say that you, because of unfortunate circumstance, or bad choice, or inevitable decline, have stopped producing profit, are therefore worthless? Or should we say that this is a society that has made itself deliberately ignorant of all other ways of calculating human worth?
If choosing to being profitable is the only way you receive
your value … what happens if you’re no longer able to make that choice? What if
you are one of the unfortunate sort of person, like me, who owns a body that
over time will get old and sick? What if you’re like me, and you live in a
dynamic world of unpredictable change, in which the reality today isn’t the
same as the reality tomorrow, and some force arrives that constrains the
available opportunities upon which you staked your fortune? What if the career
you’ve chosen can be done by a robot? What if the illness you specialize in
treating is cured? What if the value you provide is overtaken by human
These questions matter, even if you’re motivated only by self-interest. Even if they don’t apply to you, some day they will apply to you, and to everyone you love.
Because here's the crucial thing: the value you provide will eventually be overtaken in time, either by innovation or by age or illness. The realities of forward human progress or the realities of a temporary human body will get you, one way or another.
This is inevitable. So, given this inevitability ... what kind of world do you want to create?
If you lived in a world in which every person is considered a part of the human family, and valuable for that fact alone, and fully as worthy of receiving the good and value, then an innovation that replaces your life's work might be exciting, if your life's work was devoted to solving a problem that is now solved. Or, even if the innovation removes from the society the tangible financial value of what you do, the natural distress of that would be curtailed, because you'd live in a world where profit and production was not the measure of your worth, and in which far more metrics for value than profit existed. If the thing that were no longer financially necessary were merely a job to you, then it would be the opportunity to do something else. If it were something you'd have done even without getting paid, then maybe you'd go on doing it anyway.
But if you live in the sort of world I live in, where value
is determined by profit, then it’s death.
The good and bad choices you made, you made from the context of the range of available choices you inherited—and remember, the range of choices before you will change.
And, very observably, not everybody gets the same choices.
|Read story. (Odette Yousef/WBEZ)
There’s the effect of individual intent. Intentional.
Specific. Optional. Momentary. Tactical.
Then there’s the effect of collective intent. Automatic. Generative.
They both matter. They both matter a lot.
One simply matters more, practically speaking.
The value of individual action matters more in only one way: you control it.
Therefore, the most important choice you can make as an individual is deciding how to interact with the reality of your place within society—which first requires acknowledging that you belong to a society, and acknowledging that you exist in the context of that society in ways your intentions will never touch, and acknowledging the value you receive, not just the value you give, and acknowledging the ways others don’t receive the same value as you. To acknowledge how you have received that value—and, crucially, to accept whatever responsibility exists for where you are and what you have, and recognize who has choices and who does not.
Let’s return to an example I provided in the last chapter. Suppose I’m
driving and I strike an old lady with my car—let’s say on a totally deserted
street, with nobody else in sight. I didn’t mean to—which matters, but surely
you can see it’s not all that matters. If I’m sitting behind the wheel
and the old lady is on the pavement, I have an opportunity that the old lady
does not. I get to answer a crucial question with an obvious but difficult
answer, which the old lady doesn’t get to ask. I have the responsibility here,
because only I have opportunity to do anything about it.
In a practical sense that question really is the most
important thing in the world, the entirety of your individual contribution, the
sum of your individual value.
That question, again, is this:
Does this have anything to do with me?
Put it another way: do you want to admit you know who put
your street there?
Try this: suppose you belong to a society that has done
something good. Suppose you belong to a society that has organized in such a
way that when the city decides, it represents the voice of all people as
equally as possible.
Not all societies have done this, as I’m sure you know. In
fact, in human history, this is a fairly recent idea, and its execution has
been largely imperfect. In my country, which is the United States, it’s only
been that way since at best 1968, when we passed legislation that finally recognized the truth that millions of people still refuse to accept—that Black
people are human beings of equal value to everyone else—legislation that recognized them as the equal citizens they always deserved to be, and attempted to allow them to vote free
of the many, many, constraints that had until then denied them. And in my country,
this legislation made millions of people very very angry. They’re still very angry about it, it turns out, and they’ve taught many of their children and
grandchildren to be very angry, too.
For most of human history the assumption has been that there
are people that mattered most—and many many others who mattered much much less, and then masses of people who don't matter at all. The way it worked, we’d have king, or the landed gentry, or the
patriarch, or the warlord, or the billionaire—and they will decide, and
everybody else will obey, and that’s how it all gets done. We still have that
situation in many places, even in places who have opted into this new innovation
of equality, and in those places, the effects of those choices affect the
people who live there the same way all collective action affects people, which
is automatically and inextricably, etc.
But pretend for just a moment that you belong to a society
that has chosen equality and enacted it perfectly. Everybody has a voice. For
purposes of scale, everybody chooses representatives. But everybody gets to
choose the representatives, without restriction.
In this hypothetical, you are born into a society that is dedicated to equality.
And you are a part of it.
And you don't get to choose about that.
You can choose to not like it, but you're still a part of it.
If you don’t take direct action to abet it, you’re still a
part of it.
If you don’t even know anything about it, you’re still a
part of it.
Even if you’re actively working against it to change it,
you’re still a part of it—though your choice to align against it may indeed
someday change it, and that choice matters.
If you belong to an equal society your choice is not whether
or not to be a part of an equal society. Your choice, if you are aware of the
reality of your context, is whether or not to align with it, and in so doing,
with the effort to preserve it or to change it.
The default, by the way, is to align with it. If you don’t
know about it, then you are carried along in the current of your natural human
system, which will do its work with or without your knowledge or consent or
intent, even though you still participate in it.
We know this instinctively, I’d observe, we Americans. We’re
very proud of having “freed the slaves,” for example, and for “saving the world
in World War II,” and liberating concentration camps, and for founding the
world’s oldest active democracy, and for the Civil Rights movement, and for
being an economic superpower, and going to the moon, and so on.
We personally didn’t do these things. Yet we seem to
understand that we’re a part of it, and we’re proud of that. It’s nothing we
did, understand. It came to us automatically, inextricably.
Here in America, many of us like to inherit only the good.
This is our alignment.
This alignment exists on my street.
Now I’m going to ask you to stretch your imaginations again:
suppose you belonged to that society that was not perfectly equal.
Imagine you belonged to a society that until fairly recently
had not allowed women to vote, to own property apart from their husbands, to
make decisions about their own bodies, to participate in society. Imagine that
when the city decided, it did not represent the voice of women. Imagine
the full weight of that inherited inequality.
Imagine you belonged to a society for which this was also
true for people who were not deemed white. Or who were not property owners. Or
who were not Christian. Imagine the full weight of that inherited inequality.
Imagine that, even though this society now did permit people
outside the original constraints to make their voices heard, it still had
preserved many foundational practices that took these inequalities as assumed,
and which allow them to still reverberate through the presumptions of its
narratives and its halls of power.
In this hypothetical, if you were a man, if you were deemed
‘white,’ if you owned property, you’d benefit from all this—automatically, and
if you were a woman, if you weren’t deemed ‘white,’ if you didn’t own property,
you would suffer just as automatically. In this hypothetical, you would belong
to a society founded in inequality. If you were deemed ‘white,’ or a man, or a
property owner, or any other vector of inequality that might exist that hasn’t
yet been explored in this example, then you would benefit. If you were more of
those things, you’d benefit all the more. If you were all of these things,
you’d benefit the most.
You’d have inherited more value—much of it unnaturally
diverted. Stolen from others, to whom it otherwise would have come automatically.
Here’s what could change that fact: nothing.
If you don’t take direct action to abet it, you’re still a
part of it.
If you don’t even know anything about it, you’re still a
part of it.
Even if you’re actively working against it to change it,
though your choice to align against it does matter— because that choice may indeed
someday help change it—it doesn’t mean you’re not part of it, or don’t
participate in it.
If you belong to an unjust society your choice is not
whether to be a part of a just society or an unjust society. Your choice, if
you are aware of the reality of your context, is whether or not to align with
or against it, and in so doing, with the effort to preserve it or to change it.
And until you acknowledge it exists, until you admit your context within it, you
can’t align against it.
We refuse to know this, I’d observe, we Americans. We reject
the notion that we enslaved the people we’re proud of freeing, that our
heritage doesn’t only include a fight that ended with slaves freed, but also a
fight to keep them enslaved and expand the territory of enslavement. We refuse
to admit that we’ve inherited not just the moral weight of the Civil Rights
Movement, but also the angry, energized, powerful, violent, and murderous
opposition to it. We credit ourselves with defeating the Nazis, but refuse any
culpability for having generated the racist practice and theory that energized
and inspired them.
We Americans are very offended at the notion that we should
inherit responsibility for harm. All the more so, the more we still benefit
from that legacy of harm; the more male, and white, and straight, and Christian
and wealthy we are. We’re so opposed to the very question “does this have
anything to do with me?” that we never ask it, and we reject out of hand any
who ask it. It is for us a disqualifying question. We give ourselves license to
ignore anyone who asks it, for the offense of having asked.
Here in America, many of us love to inherit wealth, but
refuse to inherit responsibility.
This, too, is our alignment.
This, too, exists on my street.
If you are aligned with injustice, that alignment is a fact that largely overwhelms your intentions
for doing so. Finding a non-racist reason for joining with a white supremacist
political party remains a racist decision. Finding a non-authoritarian
rationale for joining with authoritarians remains an authoritarian choice. If
you decide to join with a Nazi party for economic reasons, you’re still nothing
more than a god-damned Nazi.
And—your choice to oppose the harm and theft and abuse of
injustice doesn’t free you from the responsibility you’ve inherited for
benefitting from it—invisibly, inextricably, naturally. The attempt to free
yourself from that responsibility reveals a deeper alignment with the
It’s not a question of being a part of the problem or part
of the solution. We don’t face such easy dichotomies as that, no—it’s a
question of whether or not we accept the extent to which we are already a
part of the problem. Which we are, to the extent that we are beneficiaries
of that problem.
Accepting we are already a part of the problem means we have
to face a second choice, even less comfortable, which is whether or not to do
anything about it.
Individualist, understand this: your alignment is the only
real choice you’ve got.
It’s time for us to finally acknowledge who put our streets there.
It’s not all bad news for the individualist, though.
Individualist, here’s some very good news: The individual choice
of alignment matters. It matters more than anything else you do. Here’s
why: it’s the start of the good work of positive innovation.
Your choice is how what is broken gets fixed. It’s how what’s
wrong goes right.
How? The same way you fix a street.
Remember: human intention has a momentum. Systems work the
way people decide they should work. Which means that what people decide matters.
To say something rather obvious, the only way systems change is if people
change it. The only way they change is when people realize change is needed. And the only way they decide that is by
changing how they are aligned relative to the existing system.
In my experience, streets go from one place to another
place. Perhaps you’ve noticed this, too. No matter where you live on your
street, it still goes from one place to another place, and what those places
are doesn’t change, unless you tear up part of the street and build a new one to
somewhere else—a systemic change.
A system of injustice is always heading toward greater
injustice. It has a slope to it, a path, a gravity. Think of a ball in a
groove, or rain in a spout. Injustice is heading toward an unjust end as
inevitably as water seeks the ground. A system designed to consume people for
profit will always consume more and more people. To avoid this end, we can’t
just put the ball back further up the groove; we have to change the system. To
change the system, it is necessary to change our alignment with it.
And: this is true even if you’re motivated only by
self-interest. Eventually a system designed to consume people will consume you,
if you’re a person. Eventually you will become disabled, or sick, or old, or
unprofitable, or something will happen—a global pandemic, to choose a random
example—that will strain that system, force it to accelerate what it does to
sustain itself, which is to consume people.
As an individual, you can be personally opposed to the system
consuming you without actually being aligned against the system, if you don’t
want to pay the price of changing the system. You can even be opposed to the
system consuming other people without being aligned against the system, if you
don’t want to pay the price of changing the system. That opposition is
situational, not systemic; simply an opposition to where we are in the system’s
progress, rather than an opposition to the system’s design. It’s a desire for
deferment; to move the ball a bit further up the groove, move the rain further
up the gutter. But the unchanged system will still always bring us to the same
end. If we don’t change it, we can perhaps push the ball back up the channel …
but we’ll inevitably find ourselves here again, and then somewhere worse.
Look where we are. Trump and all of it. Our system
got us to this point. He released a new strain of that old virus, bigotry, which
taxed that system, made it more vulnerable than it would have been. That virus
must be defeated—but our vulnerability to viruses stems from a system founded
in harm and loss, a cancerous system that consumes people for money.
The question of alignment is so vital, because it addresses
the question of whether or not we desire the system itself to change, even it
costs us something—and changing an unjust system does always have a cost, particularly
for people who benefit from the injustice.
The costs are these: The loss of the unjust value, and the disruption
that comes with change.
Here in my country, we do
anything we can to avoid these choices. We’d rather reject the entire concept
of systems before we face the questions that naturally come when you belong to
a system. We’d rather die than face these questions. Increasingly, more and
more of us are dying—increasingly of actual cancers and actual viruses,
not because these things aren't preventable, but because the virus of racism has convinced
so many of us to align with the cancer that insists that we don’t belong to one
other, that life must be earned through profit, that those who cannot earn have
committed an unforgivable sin worthy of death, and that violence redeems that sin.
As the intentional thieves who configured our natural human
system divert more and more of the shared value of society only to themselves,
cutting off more and more of it from more and more of us, those of us who still
choose, because of the benefit we still receive, to align ourselves with the
thieves, choose to align with the death.
Those of us who make that choice call this death “freedom.” Some
of us call it “realism.”
It’s death either way.
The thing about an unjust system is, it’s unsustainable. An
unjust system will need to be changed, systematically and dramatically, if it
is to survive. The more unjust the system, the more dramatic the needed
The thing about an unsustainable system is, it doesn’t
sustain. You change it or it collapses. Virus and cancer: all either needs to
devour a healthy system is for you do nothing—they’ll do the rest.
The only real choice an unjust society—which is an
unsustainable society—has before it is this: a willing, guided change? or an
unwilling, forced one?
The thing about systemic change to an unsustainable system
is, it’s not optional. Change will come.
Death is a change, after all.
Time to ask the second question.
|Read story (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
A.R. Moxon is a writer. His novel The Revisionaries, is available now, with the paperback edition releasing December 1, 2020.
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