This week, a group of more than a dozen Rohingya refugees launched a civil suit against Facebook, alleging that the social media giant was responsible for spreading hate speech.

The victims of an ongoing military crackdown in Myanmar, the refugees claimed not merely that Facebook allowed users to express their anti-Rohingya views, but that Facebook radicalised users – that, in essence, the platform changed beliefs, rather than merely providing a conduit to express them.

The suit is, in many ways, the first of a kind. It targets the manner in which systems – whether they be social media giants, video streaming sites like YouTube, or the myriad of bureaucracies that we all engage with in one way or another almost every day – warp and change beliefs.

But what if the suit underestimates the power of these systems? What if it’s not merely that social and financial enterprises alter beliefs, but that these enterprises have belief sets entirely of their own? More and more, as capitalism continues to ratify itself, we are finding ourselves swept up in communities that operate on the basis of desires that are distinct from the views of any one member of those communities. We are all part of a great, groaning machinery – and it doesn’t want what we want.

Pawns in a Game

There is a key sequence in David Simon’s critically adored television series The Wire that sums up this perspective perfectly. In it, three young men, all of them members of a rickety enterprise of crime, find themselves playing chess. The least experienced man does not understand the game – how, he wants to know, does he get to become the king? He doesn’t, the most experienced man explains. Everyone is who they are.

Still, the younger man wants to know, what about the pawns? Surely when they reach the other side of the board, and get swapped out for queens, they have made it – they have beat the system. No, the experienced man explains. “The pawns get capped quick,” he says, simply.

There is a deep, sad irony to the scene: the three men are all pawns. They have no way of beating the system. They will not even live to become queens. When one of them dies a few episodes later, shot to death by his friend, there is a grim finality to the murder. He did, as expected, get capped quick.

This is the focus of The Wire – the observation that members of any community are expendable when weighed against the desires of that community. The game of chess is bigger than any of the pawns could imagine, a system with its own rules that they are merely contingent parts of. And so it goes with the business of crime.

Not only crime, either. The genius of The Wire is the way that it draws parallels between those who operate outside the law, and those who uphold it. The cops who spend the series cracking down on the drug trade are also pawns, in their way: lowly members of a system that they are utterly unable to change. No matter what side of the law that you fall on, you will find yourself submerged in bureaucracy, The Wire says – in the machinations of a vast system of power relations with a goal to constantly perpetuate itself, at your expense.

These are the systems that Sigmund Freud wrote of in his seminal work, Civilization and Its Discontents. For Freud, there is an essential disconnect between the desires of individuals and the desires of the social communities that they unwillingly become a part of. There are things at foot that are bigger than any of us.

Bureaucracies are not the sum total of the desires and beliefs of the members of those bureaucracies. These systems have a life – a value set – entirely of their own.

Image: HBO

The Game Never Changes

If that is the case, then how does change occur? The Wire offers only dispiriting answers. The show’s idealists – renegade cop Jimmy McNulty, rogue crime boss Omar Little – either find themselves subsumed by the system that lords over them or eliminated. There is a hopelessness to their rebellion. They uselessly throw themselves into the path of a giant piece of machinery, hoping that their mangled bodies slow the inevitable march of progress.

It doesn’t work. Those who thrive are those who give themselves over entirely to the system, who align their values perfectly with the values of their community and embrace their own insignificance. Snoop, the show’s most hideous and intimidating villain, is a happy pawn, one who has never once considered changing the rules of the game that will send her too into an early, dismal grave.

But what if we all stop playing? That is the solution that The Wire never considers. If these systems, whether they be criminal or judicial, are to be changed, then it requires a different kind of collectivism. We are all part of many communities, not just one. If we remember this – if we understand that we have the power and solidarity that comes from being a member of a particular class, a particular race, a particular gender – then we can fight collective power with collective power. The solution isn’t to get the pawn to the other side of the board. It’s to tip the board over.