By looking at human behaviour as an emergent property of a system, which we shape and which shapes us, we can see that our political economy is not fit for purpose; we are not ambitious enough in its design and far too pessimistic about what is possible.

Part 1

Part 1 looks at the the Human Activity System looking for the emergent properties that matter for political economy

First I look at the Human Activity System at its highest level, this means looking at its components: Knowledge and Ways of Acquiring Knowlede about our place in Nature, our Minds, Body and Culture. Much of this is a recent development and has not yet entered mainstream culture. My hypothesis from this review is that a large portion of Human Behaviour should be considered as an emergent property of the Human System system. Looked at in this way there are implications: the sort of political economy we have will influence our behaviour, similarly changes to the political economy will result in changes to our behaviour.

To anticipate the following sections on the practice of holistic economy (a new politics); there is both an opportunity to make positive change and a huge challenge for those those who want to bring it about. 


The opportunity it presents is simply to grasp the implications and use the knowledge we have to catalyse the mindset change and paradigm shift that will bring change in its wake.


The challenge arrises because if the inherent difficulty of the task: although a mindset change and paradigm shift is the most effective place to intervene and change a system it needs:

  • The articulation of a vision - the status quo is all round us - proposing something different must be convincing. The left does not have a good record here. However we are also fortunate to have many real world examples from cooperatives to partnerships (and all sorts of things in between) to help show the alternative in action, we don't need to depend on abstract appeals.
  • The inclusion of people at all levels in running society, the trends that need reversing are those that centralise and scale up, getting people to share power is never going to be easy.
  • The politicians and activists who support it to be credible. indulging in the rough trade of politics with gusto makes a mockery of appeals to more cooperation and collaboration and the electorate senses it. 



Figure 1a - Components of the Human Activity System

This schematic captures the components of what can be called the "human activity system" in which we all live. If we look at humans in a holistic way, as part of a system, our behaviour emerges from the interaction of the component parts (knowledge, ways of acquiring it, nature, mind, body and culture). Our behaviour in this sense is an emergent property of the system.

The boxes and the lines highlight the components, which are both areas of knowledge and sub-systems. The lines represent major interconnections. This is the simplest representation of what is a massively complex system that I could devise. Because behaviour is an emergent property of the human system (taken in total) it is fundamental to political economy. This is because the structures and culture that make up any instance of political economy are themselves subsystem of the whole. We see that the are created (constitutions get written) and the behaviours we observe are different in different political systems and cultures. (Note: Human System Schematic)

  • By the human system I mean the interaction of nature, mind, body and culture taking in the way we acquire knowledge and use it to shape our ethics and beliefs and culture.
  • By political economy I mean the way in which we negotiate the rules of our coexistence to enable us to rub along and earn a living. I use the term political economy in much the same way as Adam Smith or Karl Marx – economics is not separable from politics.

I use knowledge in the standard sense that it is the understanding of something based on organised study and discovery, knowledge can be thought of as well founded belief. Because of my IT background I think of knowledge as the top of a hierarchy that goes from data, through information to knowledge. In this sense data is just facts and figures, information is usually collections of facts and figures that tells us something and knowledge is when we gain understanding. Before looking at the way knowledge is accumulated, disseminated and used I explain the way I have represented it in the Human Activity System.

To what extent can we change behaviour by changing what we think?

Included here is the discussion of norms and beliefs that are also part of culture.


For this I am relying mainly on these sources; (Capra and Luisi, Ch12)(Damasio) and (Hands Ch24)

It appears that there are several levels of consciousness

  • Cognition is the sense of detecting the environment and taking things from it (nutrients) to enable the organism to maintain itself is ubiquitous.
  • Core Consciousness is the ability to sense the environment; a simple biological phenomenon that provides the animal with a sense of self at one particular moment in one particular place
  • Reflective Consciousness which I call self-consciousness; at some point in evolution our consciousness passed a threshold, we no longer just sensed and reacted to the environment but also had a continuing sense of self through time. This is not limited to humans but reaches a peak in humans when augmented by language and writing.

A place in nature

Our knowledge of people has progressed; we recognise that as primates we are part of the animal kingdom and we learn a lot about our natures by looking at our closest relatives. This is a recent development that depended on the work of Wallace and Darwin on evolution in the C19th. It has now entered the realm of common knowledge; Desmond Morris famously used the term “naked ape” and Jarred Diamond wrote the best selling the Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee (Dimond, Chimpanzee).

An encyclopaedic round up of current knowledge about evolution and humans within it is provided by John Hands, Cosmo Sapiens (Hands).


The etymology of the word is that it is linked to cultivation. It is useful to rediscover this overlay of meaning since the implication that we can cultivate society in order to make our culture is empowering and something that this site advocates.

The Cambridge English Dictionary states that culture is "the way of life, especially the general customs and beliefs, of a particular group of people at a particular time." In the schematic of the human system all individuals with overlapping group memberships would feel some affinity for the whole represented by the larger grouping of society. Systems are never static, within the human systems cultures vary and are never static; at any point in time is both the interplay of our artefacts combined with our valuers, beliefs and norms of behaviour which in turn is influenced by the groups we form and the interplay of many minds and the knowledge we have built up and all of these things over time - the playing out of history.  In systems thinking terms culture could also be emergent from this interplay of individuals and groups acting and reacting with/against each other. Up to now all of this may be described as accidental or contingent. 

As noted in Our Natural Selves we have groups because we are primates, we have groups as part of our culture.

The key point of systems thinking and the knowledge we have that goes with it is to locate people within a physical system – the world (actually the bio-sphere) within which we exist as individuals and groups.

If human behaviour is an emergent property of the whole system as has been described then some parts are given; these stem from our physiology and our primate inheritance. However other parts are malleable; these are the parts we have control over, the artifacts we use and culture that goes with them together with a large set of norms and beliefs. Our brains plasticity means we can change the way we behave. We have only have to look at other cultures and past ones to see how different these can be.

Figure 1b - Implications for political economy

Not all of this system is fixed, behaviour is therefore mutable; it is realistic to hope that by learning from what we know and going with the grain of our natures we can in fact build a better society.

Once we start looking at the world through the lens of systems thinking we begin to appreciate the richness of and complexity of reality and the delicate balances that keep the world in equilibrium. We see that there is as much co-operation in nature as there is competition and we remember (rediscover, learn) that altruism occurs naturally.

When we treat behaviour as the emergent property of the human system the first thing we realise is how plain destructive and criminally insane it is to continually tell ourselves the story that the world is driven by competition and greed and that when good things happen its is as a happy by-product of greed and selfishness (as if). The thing we need to realise is the sheer power that telling a different and true story has to change things. In the appendix on systems we learned that changing the paradigm is the second most powerful way to change a system and that keeping an open mind is the first. The new story acknowledges that we can be destructive, selfish and competitive but is clear that if we reign in these tendencies and play to our collective strengths, that we cooperate and collaborate we will get better results all round. A growing number of people get this instinctive but their voices often go unheard. Whilst it may be difficult is is entirely possible to begin changing this as I discuss in What can be done and the following sections on practical politics. 

So what are the implications for knowledge and its acquisition that are relevant to the political economy we build?

Systems Thinking

There are two big implications;

  • as a way of changing something we can alter the way we think about it,
  • for this to happen systems thinking itself has to become more widely appreciated.

Given what we know about behaviour, it is sensible (from the point of enlightened self interest) to construct a culture that is designed to bring out the best in all people. That is simply the least we can do to ensure we have the best chance of living our lives free from the unwanted attention of others.

Our natures mean that there are both opportunities to envision a better way of doing things and some constraints.

A new (true) story

We can tell a different story, we can adopt a different mindset and work towards that paradigm shift that is the key to change.

We make our culture competitive by choice it is not an analogue of nature and this cannot be used to give it that legitimacy. We inherit a much higher degree of natural cooperativeness than is allowed by prevailing norms. I go further and say a new politics, based on our natures could aim to build a political economy that emphasise collaboration.

The key is that culture, being an artefact can be changed. It will change anyway so its up to us to change it into something better – that is with more utility.

If we do change the culture it will have an impact on our behaviours, so if we shape structures that increase involvement, cooperation and collaboration we do have a chance to create virtuous circles leading to further improvement.

The model I have developed represents human behaviour as an emergent property of the human activity system. It is the simplest I could make it which allowed all the major sub-systems to be covered. Look into any of the things represent ed on the schematic and they soon becomes massively complicated. Thats just how it is. However, and this is vital, it is sufficiently rich to capture the interacting elements which generate the emergent property of human behaviour. Emergence is only observable at the system level.

Human behaviour is the critical property of our current political economy and for the development of an alternative.

My case is that the current system seems almost perfectly designed to bring out the worst in people and is a caricature of democracy. OK it clearly is not the worst in the sense that we don't do mass executions, but it is close to the worst we could get if we were to use Organisational Design to devise structures that allowed for cooperation and were intended to produced good governance. My case is that we can actually design a political economy which will bring out the best in people. Why? Because political economy is a thing we made - we can alter it. How? Well first, by knowing improvement is practical and well within what we can achieve as a species and second, by acting decisively and collectively on that knowledge.


The human system and its sub-systems at its highest level.

The implications for political economy of systems thinking and recent knowledge, especially the implications arising from the insight that human behaviour is an emergent property of the human activity system.