The Siren Song of Systemic Solutions

by Peter Saint-Andre


One often hears that "systemic problems require systemic solutions." Although I used to agree, now I'm not so sure.

Consider Carol Hanisch's famous 1969 essay The Personal is the Political, in which she asserted: "There are no personal solutions at this time. There is only collective action for a collective solution."

On the one hand, I suppose it might be energizing to believe such a thing, at least if you have an activist mindset. On the other hand, it can close off the pursuit of any and all non-systemic solutions. That might be of questionable value, since individualized, ad-hoc solutions have several benefits, chief among which that they can be achieved more easily and more quickly (even if not more completely). If you believe only in collective, systemic solutions, it seems likely that you will never solve the problems you have identified; instead, you'll be living only for the distant future, like the Marxists who believed that true human happiness would flower only after the withering away of the state.

Even worse, eliminating personal solutions from your field of vision and action can lead to a kind of learned helplessness, since there is nothing you can do that applies to your particular situation. Yet I cannot emphasize strongly enough that life is always lived in the particulars. Strictly speaking, all those ideas and abstractions floating around in books and people's heads and the culture at large don't have an independent existence. Naturally, we humans are linguistic and encultured beings whose concepts utterly infuse how we understand and experience ourselves and the world around us. Yet it is all too easy to believe that the isms we endlessly invent are the primary realities in human life. They are not.

Instead, what's primary are things like the people we love, the conversations we engage in, the stories we tell, the authors we treasure, the music we make, the artifacts we create, the activities we experience, the dwellings we inhabit, the towns we build, the places we visit, and the food we eat. (It would take a book by the likes of Lin Yutang to unfold all the implications of this aphorism by Epicurus: "The beginning and root of all good is the pleasure of the stomach; even wisdom and refinements have reference to this.") These are the things that are near to us, and they have far greater value in our lives than systemic solutions to systemic problems.

(Cross-posted at


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