The system is a term that enables individuals to speak about interlocking social institutions, discourses and practices in a positive, negative, ambiguous or ambivalent manner. It can imply almost anything, so it’s (usually) a safe way to talk about the undesirable aspects of society and human nature without fear of repercussion.
Along these lines, the idea of the system often carries negative connotations about systemic corruption. Sometimes the system is used to advocate some kind of practical compromise. For instance; “You gotta work the system” (i.e. play the game).
More commonly, we hear people say something to the effect of… “s/he’s a nice person… I hope s/he doesn’t get gobbled up by the system.”¹
This whole conundrum is perhaps best expressed in the arts.
In the song “Maybe the Poet” (1984) by Canadian folk-rock musician Bruce Cockburn we hear:
Don’t let the system fool you
All it wants to do is rule you
Cockburn, who is a bit of a green/social/spiritual activist, nevertheless played a concert sponsored by a major cigarette company, with a visible billboard ad on stage.
The awesome rapper Guru, rest his soul, had this to say in “Living in this World” (1995):
It’s critical, the situation is pitiful
Bear in mind, you gotta find somethin’ spiritual
We never gain, ’cause we blame it on the system
You oughta listen whether Muslim or Christian
Or any other type religion or creed
‘Cause what we need is less greed²
Personally, I don’t think anyone can totally remove themselves from the system. Even the street person who eats garbage from fast food garbage bins survives on food that, in its production, is endangering the South American rainforest.³
¹A similar situation is found with the words “politics” and “political.” When people use these words in the small-p sense, they’re probably saying, “I know what the heck is going on, but I’m not so stupid as to say it outright.”
² Read more: Guru – Living In This World Lyrics | MetroLyrics