Power and Systems

Witnesses from Schopenhauer to Frances Perkins agree that a sense of responsibility accompanies choices made by force of will, whether in the life of an individual or a nation. If I or we choose, then I am or we are accountable.

Yet on occasion something happens that looks very much like choosing, and it seems impossible to assign accountability. Nobody takes responsibility.

The French philosopher Michel Foucault (1926-1984) more than anyone else has brought forth a new understanding of hidden power in Western society. In his analysis, people who might otherwise view themselves as acting responsibly get caught in a complex, evolving web of social interactions that determines the course of their lives and others. The determinative factors are neither the laws of nature alone nor accountable decisions made by humans, but arise through mostly unconscious interactions of natural and human responses in a power system. Here is a brief description from Foucault:

Power, if we do not take too distant of view of it, is not that which makes the difference between those who exclusively possess and retain it, and those who do not have it and submit to it. Power must be analyzed as something which circulates, or rather as something which only functions in the form of a chain. It is never localized here or there, never in anybody’s hands, never appropriated as a commodity or piece of wealth. Power is employed and exercised through a net-like organization. And not only do individuals circulate between its threads; they are always in the position of simultaneously undergoing and exercising this power. They are not only its inert or consenting target; they are always also the elements of its articulation.[1]

What is Foucault saying? His words have been translated from French into English, but can we get a clearer understanding?

Power transactions might be modeled by computer programs designed for systems analysis. In medical school I came across DYNAMO, a computer language that surfaced at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology around 1960. DYNAMO was barely a decade old when I pursued an M.D. thesis called “A Mathematical Model of Immediate Glucose Homeostasis,” performed with decks of computer cards on the IBM 370-165 mainframe at MIT. I learned the language well enough to get my first major scientific paper, derived from the thesis, published in the journal Diabetes.[2]

Neither that paper nor DYNAMO matter much anymore, but systems analysis has grown hugely important for the scientific understanding of complex phenomena. Bear with me as we work through glucose homeostasis as an example.[3]

A systems diagram for the “glucose sector” of my mathematical model is shown below. The boxes represent amounts of glucose within various blood vessels or tissues of various organs in the body, the arrows represent movements (fluxes) of glucose between compartments, and the decanter-shaped objects are rate controllers that govern glucose flux. In the Figure “GH” is glucose in the heart, “GHD” is glucose in blood vessels in the head, “GHDS” glucose in the tissue space of the head, “GL” glucose in the liver, and so on.

Power glucose metab 2The regulatory system for insulin can be represented in a similar manner. In the overall model I was proudest of the simulation of beta cells in the pancreas, which incorporated “the heterogeneous fast pool theory of insulin release” proposed by Gerald Grodsky a few years earlier. Here it is. If you have 20 minutes sometime, I could try to tell you how cool it is.

Power insulin metab 2What can be done with computer models of glucose-insulin regulation? You set up the conditions, and then the model does the rest. You can run experiments on the computer just as if you were infusing glucose or insulin into real people in the clinical research ward. Here is a simulation of giving a pulse-infusion of glucose at 3 different dose levels.

Power Pulse infusion curves 4

The glucose curves (top) and insulin curves (bottom) trace the levels of glucose and insulin that you could measure by drawing repeated blood samples from a real person. Notice the rapid bump of insulin near the beginning of the infusion. That comes from the “fast pool.” By modeling and then performing critical experiments in the real world to determine if the model works, and what its parameters should be, you learn a great deal about the movements of glucose and insulin and the behavior of all the organs involved. You can play with the parameters of biologic life as if it were a video game. It’s a lot of fun.

My model of glucose-insulin regulation made it into a prestigious journal, but in the end it turned out to be small stuff. Mones Berman and Richard Bergman, both of them real mathematicians, developed SAAM (Simulation Analysis and Modeling), which became the standard simulation program for metabolic kinetics.

One of the most influential of all computer models simulated the human circulatory system. It was developed by my father, Arthur Guyton, and colleagues at the University of Mississippi Medical School in Jackson over his 40+ year career in physiology. In his early work with this model, my father realized that the kidney, and not the heart, was the organ that controlled blood pressure in animals and humans. It was controversial at first, accepted today. Here’s how the model looked in 1972, about the halfway point in its development.

Power AC Guyton circ model 2
Now after 40 more years of development, we have “HumMod – The best, most complete, mathematical model of human physiology ever created”! Check it out at

Even the brain can be modeled and studied by systems analysis, although Paul Nunez has emphasized how difficult and perhaps impossible it may be to develop a completely accurate model.[4] But we may learn enough to understand schizophrenia and bipolar disorder as examples of systems failure.

Let me get back to the DYNAMO computer language. I learned it from Richard Foster, then a young assistant professor at MIT who by that time had moved beyond studying human physiology. He was using DYNAMO to study the economic system of the United States. Instead of glucose and insulin movement around the body, his models simulated the movements of goods, services, and capital around the country. The next figure shows one such model.

Power DiagFuncMacroSyst 2

In terms of functionality it’s all the same. The economy is a system, just as the human body is a system. Government is also a system. We can model mathematically how bills get through Congress (or don’t) and how federal initiatives might meet resistance in the states, or get transformed through bureaucracy, or how constituencies may develop for various entitlements. Mob behavior in cities, the rise to power of dictators, and even the outbreak of wars around the world have been studied by systems analysis.

Sometimes in a mathematical model it helps to provide one or more random inputs. A standard computer subroutine is a random number generator, usually providing a decimal fraction between 0 and 1. It may help to put some chaos into the model! This is a procedure, for example, that enables prediction of statistical probabilities of weather events. For any given computer run, the outcome is unpredictable. But if you run the model 10,000 times, you find out what is likely and what is unlikely.

The output of a computer model of societal behavior, whether the object of study is economics or politics or anything else the social scientist might want to study, can look very much like the manifestation of free will decisions made by real people. It does not have to be predetermined, because it can include random number functions.

On the other hand, the science of systems analysis shows us that system behavior can be largely determined by system structure. A system with appropriate feedback loops can be self-regulating. Like the human circulatory system modeled on a computer targeting blood pressure around 120/80 mm of mercury, the responses of an economic system or social movements can appear to be directed toward a goal. 

In functional terms – that is, as represented in a computer model – societal behavior can be simulated in a way completely analogous to the physiology of the human organism. Society, then, is an organism. If we ascribe free will to the human organism, then shall we not ascribe free will to the organism that represents society?

My initial answer is yes in principle, but very often not in practice. Humans can join to make free choices together. However, the structure of societal systems often pushes our behavior into patterns that could be modeled with a sufficiently adept computer program. What we think are free choices in that setting really are not.

Michel Foucault defined “power” as the interplay between structural system behavior and free human response. Here are his words:

Power is exercised only over free subjects, and only insofar as they are free. By this we mean individual or collective subjects who are faced with a field of possibilities in which several ways of behaving, several reactions and diverse comportments, may be realized. Where the determining factors saturate the whole, there is no relationship of power; slavery is not a power relationship when man is in chains. (In this case it is a question of a physical relationship of constraint.) Consequently, there is no face-to-face confrontation of power and freedom, which are mutually exclusive (freedom disappears everywhere power is exercised), but a much more complicated interplay. In this game freedom may well appear as the condition for the exercise of power (at the same time its precondition, since freedom must exist for power to be exerted, and also its permanent support, since without the possibility of recalcitrance, power would be equivalent to a physical determination). The relationship between power and freedom’s refusal to submit cannot, therefore, be separated.[5]

In many situations the right thing to do is to submit to the common will, whether that common will rests in family, community, or culture. After all, two (or more) heads are better than one. What older and wiser mentors have decided is often best. Cultural tradition is precisely that which has already been critiqued by many decent people. However, in other situations what appears to be the common will can be instead a self-regulating – even self-organizing – behavior defined by system structure. In that case every effort should be made to understand and sometimes to defeat a “will” that arises without responsibility and without accountability.

For all the talk above about computers and postmodern thought, the concept goes back at least 2 millenia. First century Jewish tradition stated that service and obedience to God were paramount. However, among wealthy and ruling families, economic concerns demanded continual attention. Stability of power structures also required constant effort. Jesus of Nazareth told his followers–

No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.[6]

The acknowledged choice for the Jews was to trust God’s will as their guide. And the alternative? One might presume an evil will as a counterpart to God’s will. To be sure, Satan is mentioned in other Bible passages. But not here. What appears to be an evil master is plainly the economic system of the time. This point is made very clear by the preceding parable, told by Jesus, about how money can be used for good or evil.[7]

Money, mammon, or the economy doesn’t care what it does, takes no responsibility for its deeds. The same can often be said for systems of government, systems of pleasure and sport, health care systems, and even systems of theology.

Foucault worked hard to explain how power relationships developed in their historical and cultural context. He studied complex systems in order that human will, the will of the people, might be exerted over them. Otherwise we relinquish what we should own, the will to choose, and we become servants of mammon, government, ideology, or whatever power system confronts our better nature – the highest expression of our common will.


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Header image:  Economic system diagram, by Beyond silence, CC0 Public domain, Wikimedia commons. Glucose-insulin figures from M.D. Thesis, John R. Guyton, Harvard Medical School, 1973. Functional diagram of the human circulatory system by Arthur C. Guyton, 1970s. Diagram of a functional macroeconomics system,  by Macrocompassion, own work, 2011, CC by SA 3.0.

[1] Foucault, M. Power/Knowledge. Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977. Edited by Colin Gordon. Translated by Colin Gordon, Leo Marshall, John Mepham, Kate Soper. Pantheon Books, New York,    http://uwf.edu/dearle/foucault.pdf, accessed 12/19/2015.

[2] Guyton JR, Foster RO, Soeldner JS, Tan MH, Kahn GB, Koncz L, Gleason RE:  A model of glucose-insulin homeostasis in man that incorporates the heterogeneous fast pool theory of pancreatic insulin release. Diabetes 1978; 27:1027-42.

[3] “Homeostasis” is a word applied to biological systems that can respond and maintain equilibrium when acted upon by varying environmental inputs.

[4] Nunez, P.L. Brain, Mind, and the Structure of Reality. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 176.

[5] Foucault, Michel. “The Subject and Power.” In Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics, edited by H. Dreyfus and P. Rabinow, pp. 208-226. 2nd ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1983.. URL: http://foucault.info/documents/foucault.power.en.html accessed 12/19/2015.

[6] Luke 16:13, RSV.

[7] Luke 16:1-9.


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