Easton has developed his systems theory as a conceptual framework for empirical political analysis. His approach, as such can be considered as a brainchild of behavioural revolution. It can be regarded as a blueprint for developing an empirical political theory. His input-output analysis presents a flow model of political system. He goes beyond stability and equilibrium as goals of political systems and finds them as dynamic systems capable of coping with not only the stresses and crises arising from the environment, but to transform even itself and the goals themselves.
He looks not only into the system, but also other systems and subsystems, and the totality of environment. As his ‘theory’ is analytical or conceptual, it is not attached to any particular ideology, system or culture. The ‘Systems theory’ gives a complete set of categories which can be utilised for the analysis of any particular system as well as for making comparative; study of political systems.
Easton, in order to develop a general theory of political life takes up the basic unit of ‘interaction’, and sees persistence as the goal of a political system. The latter is an interaction system, conceptually devised by a scholar. It is separate from actual or concrete system.
So is ‘political’ analytically separate from ‘non-political’. Oran Young regards it as ‘the most inclusive systemic approach so far constructed specifically for political analysis by a political scientist’. Meehan also considers it as ‘one of the few comprehensive attempts to lay the foundation for systems-analysis in political science and provide a ‘general’ functional theory of politics’.
The approach is particularly useful for analysis of political life and its process. It is different from other systems in the sense that a political system has its own dynamism and its operations are purposive and goal-directed. Each segment of a political system is susceptible to its own special types of stress and maintenance-difficulties which are counter balanced by the typical regulatory mechanisms peculiar to that segment. It is based on a combination of deductively derived categories and generally accepted empirical material.
However, the theory has had a promising future in the field of international relations, international politics, regional associations and unions, world-systems and the like. Kaplan has used Systems Approach with mechanical and engineering perspectives.
He has proposed structures of six global or international systems:
(1) Balance of Power System;
(2) Loose Bipolar System;
(3) Tight Bipolar System;
(4) Universal International System;
(5) Hierarchical International System; and
(6) Unit Veto International System.
He could empirically test only the first two till the seventies. With the spread of LPG (Liberalisation, Privatisation and Globalisation) and global economic reforms, time has come when scholars can make use of even General Systems Theory on empirical grounds.
Easton’s ‘systems theory’ is not a ‘theory’, and lacks explanatory power. He intended to develop such a theory and made a start, but remained at where he was. Even in 1965, he could not produce a general theory of politics. His theory is unable to deal with fundamental, basic or revolutionary changes, such as, revolutions, growth, decline, disruptions, breakdowns, etc. His political system is confined to deal with variables which seek persistence and remain within ‘the critical range’.
It has various mechanisms to cope with stresses, like overload, lag, and others, at the most marginal or incremental changes. His approach is more interested in systems maintenance, and has little material to go beyond its persistence. His approach has no room for problems concerning power, the elite, leadership, mass politics, representation, etc. As input-output analysis has not been put to empirical investigation, actual utility of the approach cannot be anticipated beforehand. It has not generated any general political theory which Easton has wished to obtain. His concept of ‘persistence’ also does not appear to be logical or inclusive.
In fact, he mixes the two aspects of ‘political system’, as an analytical concept, and, as a membership system. He could not stick to his original conceptual scheme. While elaborating his system’s analysis, he has before him a concrete national system, though he tries to use it in abstract sense.
Even while taking up the problem of ‘allocation of values’, he left the distributive aspects like who gets, what, when, and how? He does not discuss the problems of attaining and retaining the values. In fact, concrete entities like persons, groups, roles, etc. find a secondary or no place in his scheme of analysis. He has neglected actual political facts for an abstract scheme of political analysis which suffers from reification, rationalism and formalism.
His categories of concepts of a certain extent have distorted the reality of politics. Easton has not been very successful in separating political system from non-political systems. He could not explain how allocation of values m a club or a firm is separate from that of a political system. He is vague about the meaning and scope of the term ‘political’. It is difficult to understand how, after standing for persistence of political systems, it is possible to develop a general theory of political life.
Political interactions are not restricted to the allocation of values and their implementation for the society. His attempt to narrow down the political system to ‘roles and interactions relevant to the authoritative allocations for society as a whole’ is simply and empirically not true.
Easton, like other functionalists, has committed the error of using members and their behaviour in a concrete political system for abstract political interactions. He proceeds on the basis of some self-made definitions which are related to each other. In consequence, he has a conceptual framework from which he wanted to get empirical relevance of a high order; this has resulted into an abstract structure which, according to Meehan, is logically suspect, conceptually fuzzy, and empirically almost useless. His approach according to Hannah Arendt is Archimedean wherein one thinks everything ‘in terms of processes’ and is not concerned with single entities.
Paul Kress, Runciman, Gvishiani, etc. have severely criticised Easton’s conceptual framework. According to Kress, Easton’s analysis lacks empirical basis, and is empty of facts. Runciman regards it as a shield against Maraan analysis to protect western capitalist society. Gvishiani regards it a symbol of bourgeois attitudes to maintain the status quo.
Easton is not interested in knowing the impact of a political system ‘on individuals who constitute the system’.” In his claim to move from the institutional to the behavioural approach, he, because of his interest in the ‘interactions’, really hangs somewhere between the two. He has dissolved the traditional political action in the acid of interaction,” ‘men are without qualities, lacking all essentials, and remain as containers’. Kress describes Easton’s theory as ‘an empty vision of polities’.
Implication for the Third World:
Easton’s system theory, though not an empirical political theory, provides a useful conceptual framework to analyse, understand, and compare politics of the Third World countries. It gives them a systemic perspective to know their environment and relationship with other inter and intra systems. Mostly these countries are passing through a transition, and are not interested in maintaining the status quo.
They have certain goals, which they want to realise without confronting major crises, conflicts, or breakdowns. Rulers are relatively new to politics, and have limited knowledge of understanding the forces underlying the political system. Concepts like feedback, output, and support can prove very fruitful to them. Equilibrium approach, obviously, could not serve the purpose.
Systems approach enables them to know the sources of stress, and finds the way to remove them. It makes necessary that the rulers get some minimum support at all the three levels. It permits them to modify their internal structures, and other regulatory mechanisms to achieve desired goals which too may be reformulated to cope with the prevailing environment.
Still it is useful for them to a limited extent only. Some of the developing countries are interested in bringing about major political changes: social, economic, cultural, and political. They even prefer radical changes. For them, persistence is not enough. The countries look for basic and fast structural changes, though they do not know the direction. There is internal turmoil and conflict, even violent struggle between various segments of society.
Some of them are not so ‘open’ and ‘adaptive’ political systems. Political power is confined to the elite – traditional or modern. The elite sometimes fear that ‘if they loosen their hold over the power-structure more backward and conservative forces may take over the system. Even their administrative system is in the making. With a backward economy, the people are unprepared to live with the prevailing socio-economic structure.
Moreover, Easton’s theory is not an empirical theory, and hence unable to generate confidence, guidance and support to the ruling elite to deal with actual politics. It is merely a conceptual framework for doing research and analysis. That too is born of the experience of advanced countries like the USA. The elites play a critical role which finds no place in his systems approach. There is neither consensus on available scarce values, nor on their acceptable or binding allocations, nor on their proper implementation.
Sometimes, para-political systems or subsystems appear to be more powerful than the political system. When the environment to them appears more compelling than their own political system, what sort of help or explanation can Easton’s theory render to them? Often the problem for them is to find out ways and means to adjust under the umbrella of a super political system, yet claim survival and independence. Obviously, Easton’s systems theory has a limited and restricted capacity to speak on their problems. But it certainly paves way to them for making their own political theory.
In recent years Easton has turned to structural constraints as a second major element underlying political systems. He has recently completed a book about the influence of political structure on various aspects of political life. He has also been associated with a project inquiring into the effects that variations in the structure and organisation of democratic political systems have on the effectiveness of their public policies.