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"So is there hope for a truly democratic Africa? Long answer: Only if continent-wide improvements in education, human rights, and public health are coupled with an aggressive and far-sighted debt-relief program that breaks the cycle of subsistence farming and urban squalor. Short answer: No."
Sometimes, it's not anyone's fault. The world everyone inhabits is just broken in some way, or badly designed so that perfect functioning still causes problems somewhere. Stories like this don't actually require a Big Bad, since the world itself comes with free conflict, but they often have one of those, too.
Can overlap with the incompetent version of The Government; whether this is Truth in Television depends on how cynical you are. Vast Bureaucracy is notorious for the way that the bureaucrats don't have to be personally evil to bring about horrors.
Anime and Manga
- In the world of Berserk, between the heresy-crushing Holy See, the corrupt nobility, the warmongering kingdoms, and the evil Godhand and their ravenous demonic Apostles, life just keeps getting worse. Between those four elements, effecting change for the better is about as possible as pushing over a mountain.
- Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex mainly deals with problems inherent in human social systems. But there's also a great deal of government corruption and organized crime.
- The world of Stray Little Devil has a basic flaw: the Law of the Conservation of Luck. The Law states that an angel's good luck is a devil's bad luck, and vice versa. In practice, this means that helping out a member of the opposite species will cause bad things to happen to you, which is one of the primary reasons why angels and devils are so hostile to each other.
- Arguably, Code Geass. The entire Zero Requiem plan seems to be founded on the premise that people are inherently good, but they're stuck living under a incredibly violent and oppressive system, making it into a Crapsack World full of conflict. Lelouch and Suzaku decide to break the system.
- In Akumetsu, pretty much all of Akumetsu's targets claim that they are little pieces in a great puzzle, powerless to do anything to improve Japan's lot despite the high positions they almost invariably have. He refuses to accept that as an adequate excuse for sparing them.
- The shinobi villages of Naruto face a constant cycle of hatred and war due to their nature. Attempts by individuals to improve the situation are usually met with even greater violence than the usual cycle, resulting in an even larger backlash. It is prophesized that one of Jiraiya's students will break this cycle either by saving the world from the violence... or by destroying it utterly.
- Pain in particular was so jaded that his plan to achieve peace was to nuke the entire world into a subsistence state, thus destroying the system, and nuke them again any time they started getting uppity so nobody would ever have the will or ability to fight again. He recognized that this system was also inherently flawed, but felt it was still better.
- Puella Magi Madoka Magica: The eventual demise of the universe as the entropy increases. Madoka's wish only remedies this somewhat, but it can never be completely solved.
- This is, of course, Truth in Television.
- In content cut from the original release of Kingdom Come but included in the trade paperback, Superman goes to Apokolips; it is revealed that Orion had killed Darkseid and taken his place. Orion had tried to give the people freedom, however, after countless years under Darkseid's rule, the people of Apokalips simply couldn't bear to live without a despot. Orion eventually (and at first, reluctantly), steps in to fulfill the same role as his father.
- In Judge Dredd, a combination of an oppressive Police State government, mass unemployment, and chronic overcrowding lead millions of people to simply freak out and turn to crime out of boredom and/or despair. It is often said that Dredd's main enemy is not Judge Death, PJ Maybe, Orlok, or Mean Machine, but Mega-City One itself.
- The Trope Namer comes from a peasant (or, in his words, a worker in an anarcho-syndicalist commune) in Monty Python and The Holy Grail, who criticises the rule of monarchy as system of violent oppression and launches into a tirade when King Arthur tries to assert his authority. "Come see the violence inherent in the system! Help, help, I'm being repressed!"
- Many Our Vampires Are Different films and series subvert this to take out some of the inherent antagonism implicit in such settings by making a readily available alternate blood source, leading to Friendly Neighborhood Vampires. Happens in Underworld with cloned blood (though they aren't that friendly).
- The movie Traffic makes a similar argument to Frederick Forsyth example below about the War on Drugs in relation to international politics.
- David Wingrove's Chung Kuo series: The world is simply a big, corrupt, spirit-crushing prison for both the Europeans and the Han (most of them). The world-encompassing City was created to fulfill the promise of having as many children as you want, a fundamental wish for the clan-oriented Han society. The drawback: you don't get to see the sky and the sun, all birds are in cages, the very nature of the City makes it impossible to improve without physically tearing it down. Which in a world of 35+ billion people would mean mass death.
- Jim Butcher's The Dresden Files: A Crapsack World where humans are picked off by various preternatural predators daily whom we have no way of protecting ourselves from, are too delusional to band together or even recognize they exist, and the few people who do have said power are too busy bickering amongst themselves to do anything. Oh, and using an act of black magic once is tempting enough to send you Jumping Off the Slippery Slope and start thinking about using your kids for raw potion ingredients or sacrificing your friends to an elder god, amongst other things.
- Tom Godwin's short story "The Cold Equations" (along with its various media adaptations) tries for this, but the gross negligence shown by everyone with any authority, and lack of any sort of safety protocol kind of misses the "no one's at fault" mark.
- This is a major theme of Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure. There isn't really a Big Bad, but Jude and Sue's hope of a happy life is doomed from the start because of the strenuous moral standards of Victorian society. It Got Worse, indeed.
- In Brave New World, it's a more-or-less irreversible choice between a brainwashed, hedonistic social hierarchy or grim, egalitarian destitution and misery. If everyone were truly equal and free to determine their own destiny (as was attempted once before), society would collapse into turmoil. Huxley himself notes that he inadvertently created a third option when he invented the islands that the handful of people who don't fit into the system are routinely banished to, and just didn't notice it as he wrote the rest of the book.
- The ridiculously well-researched works of Frederick Forsyth leave one with the feeling that the Real Life criminal underworld is something that cannot be effectively dismantled and only small "victories" can be won against its denizens.
- This is adressed by
Leon TrotEmmanuel Goldstein in his book in Nineteen Eighty-Four: there are three classes, the High, the Middle and the Low. Since the High is oppressive, the Middle asks the Low for help to overthrow the system, so, while the Low continues to be the Low, the Middle is now the High, and will be until the new Middle reacts to the new oppressor, and so on.
- The beauty/horror of Ing Soc and Big Brother being that they have essentially locked everyone into their roles by inverting the levels of oppression. The poverty stricken uneducated Proles (the Low) have the most freedom, the capable Middle live in subjectively better conditions but as members of the Outer Party are subject to the Thought Police and other insidious means of control, while we have O'brien's word that the Inner Party themselves (the High) are subject to even greater scrutiny and required orthodoxy. The system inherently steers those who crave Power as an end unto itself into the upper ranks while ensuring that the Low will never join with the Middle to over throw the High again.
- Ira Levin's This Perfect Day gives us the choice between The Family, a society of helpful, pacifist, cooperative members who never hurt each other, because they are controlled via drugs and genetic engineering by an omniscient supercomputer that euthanises them at age 62 simply to conserve resources...and islands of untreated "free" people which are either anarchic hellholes where the Law of the Jungle rules, or tyrannical military dicatorships complete with an Apartheid system. You can't solve the problems of the second without causing the problems of the first, and vice versa.
- George Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire is set in a World Half Empty that dramatically illustrates what happens when this trope goes really bad. It's understandable, since during the main series, the Seven Kingdoms are being ripped apart by civil war, and the prequel novels illustrate a kind of a golden age.
- Very much Truth in Television, as any student of European history knows, and George Martin was nothing if not true to that with his own world.
- A Dance With Dragons is this trope taken Up to Eleven. There doesn't seem to be anything Daenerys can do with the best intentions for Meereen that doesn't make the situation worse.
- In Anne Rice's The Vampire Chronicles, the psychological weight caused by needing to feed off the blood of the living drives many vampires to suicide. Lestat manages to remain sane by determining to drink only from those he judges "evildoers", while Louis spends much of Interview With the Vampire drinking the blood of rats and other small animals.
- In L. E. Modesitt's Recluce novels, it's eventually revealed that the amount of Order and Chaos in the world must be balanced; if you kill a great Chaos mage, another will be along shortly, and if the forces of Order build a dozen Order-infused ironclad ships for self-defense, the number (and power) of Chaos mages will increase---oh, and maintaining your fleet by making replacement Order-infused parts will also increase the amount of Chaos, without really helping your defenses. The eventual solution is to seal away a big pile of Order and Chaos at the same time, making both sides weaker.
- The Hyborian Age of Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian suggests you are born into one of two destinies: the nasty, brutish and short life of a barbarian, where only the strong survive, or into oppressive, corrupt, decadent civilization. If you aren't a decadent noble, a Cosmic Horror-worshipping evil sorcerer, a ruthless sellsword, cunning thief or perfumed courtesan, you're a slave or dead. And even that's no guarantee.
- A slightly lesser example, but the Deliberate Values Dissonance of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan reads like this in regards to footbinding. Tiny, crippled feet are the sign of beauty, grace, and good breeding; the line of mothers crippling their daughters in a mutually agonizing tough-love scenario is never shown as having an ending in the course of the story. It won't be done away with for hundreds of years.
- Terry Pratchett's Discworld pays homage to this trope. In Night Watch, a young Reg Shoe is convinced Sam Vines' only interest in him is to deliver a savage beating and then to hnd him over to the secret police for daring to stand against the system. Sam becomes ashamed of the unintended cruelty of his reply "Nobody is in the least bit interested in you.." which he expounds at length, as the ineffectual revolutionary Reg looks crushed and about to burst into tears. And in Snuff, the radical blacksmith Jefferson picks a fight with Vimes, the hated symbol of authority on two levels (police chief and Lord of the Manor) for exactly this reason.
- E.M.Forster's A Passage to India, British racism and the inability of the English and the Indians to get along with each other isn't going to go away while the English stay in control of India. One of the main critiques the book levels against the Raj is that it co-opts even the most well meaning of the English into veiwing the Indians as inferior. Also no matter how badly Aziz and Fielding want to be friends they can't.
Live Action TV
- The Wire makes this argument in fictional form about the real-life War on Drugs, and for good measure takes in the police system, the dealers, labor unions, local government, the schools, and the media. One gets the impression that David Simon is not optimistic about institutional reform.
- There's a reason White Wolf calls both of their flagship series The World of Darkness.
- Vampire: The Masquerade and Vampire: The Requiem don't have a readily available alternate blood source. Even if you want to be good, the whole friggin' game system seems designed to have you kill people, lower your Karma Meter, and generally eat the puppies. It's as though the game designers want you to be as casually cruel as possible. (They do.)
- And then we have Mage: The Awakening where it seems there will always be immoral or amoral mages willing to use their powers for their own selfish ends simply because the lure to do so is so strong, and the consequences can be so underwhelming. This is even without considering the anti-reality filled with Eldritch Abominations which seeks to destroy the universe, and can offer mages (and other mortals) dangerous, corruptive powers to further its goals. The saddest part is, that it was the early mages' fault that things got to be so bad in the first place.
- Add Werewolf: The Apocalypse to the list. Of the three most powerful spirits in the Old World of Darkness (and mostly in charge of running it), two are insane and malevolent, while the third lacks any ability to plan and is probably also insane. Actually opposing any of the three is largely futile, and if destroying one of them were possible it would wreck the world even further.
- Then, Demon: The Fallen actually explains what's wrong with the Old World of Darkness: if you read through the Neberu backstory carefully, you'll see that the world they built was a self-sustaining, self-perfecting system with enormous potential to shrug off abuse. Then, soon after the Fall, God in His righteous fury just went and kicked the Creation so hard, it just didn't work anymore. "Righteous", my ass! And ever since that time, the world has been gradually falling apart, descending into the proverbial darkness. No wonder the Neberu hate Him with every fiber of their souls.
- Warhammer 40000. Two reasons: 1. Chaos has always existed, and always will exist, unless someone finds a way to nuke human emotions. (And considering the fact that one of the Chaos gods was born from the decadence and hedonism of another species entirely, even that's not guaranteed to stop it.) 2. It's not like a revolution is feasible. Yes, the world is horrible. Yes, everyone's worshiping the corpse of a dead god. Yes, any other alien species is pretty much exterminated on sight. Yes, the anti-intellectualism is horrifying. Yes, the dogma is stifling, and everyone's just a little bit too quick to scream "Heresy!" But if the infrastructure fell for any amount of time, the odds are good that the Dark Eldar/Tyranids/Orks/Necrons/Chaos would be on humanity like vultures on a dead zebra.
- Technically, that's incorrect. Chaos did not always exist, but was created by sentient emotion (note Codex: Necrons on the time of the Old Ones, and Realms of Chaos on the birth of Chaos). Chaos is also potentially defeatable, through the gradual improvement of humanity. There is a slight problem in that the best hope for the defeat of Chaos is biologically dead, his last few body cells surviving on an arcane continent-sized life support system powered by human souls, and has been for the last ten thousand years, but it remains hypothetically possible, and will never be achieved or finally prevented.
- Each god actually has good aspects as well as the evil ones. Khorne is the embodiment of rage, martial prowess and courage, Tzeench is the embodiment of change and hope, for better or worse, Nurgle is the embodiment of despair and acceptance, and Slannesh is the embodiment of pleasure, in all its forms. The negative aspects simply outweigh the good ones, due to the nature of the universe.
- Paranoia: Alpha Complex is a perfect utopia by the kindly wisdom and matchless grace of Our Friend the Computer. Any suggestions to the contrary are treason, and should be reported to Friend Computer or to your nearest friendly Internal Security agents at once. Citizens experiencing the urge to suggest that Alpha Complex or Friend Computer is less than perfect are strongly encouraged to report to the nearest Confession Booth. Remember, spreading dissatisfaction among your fellow citizens is treason! Stay alert! Trust no one! Keep your laser handy!
- The game system itself is a meta-example, sometimes by design, but it also acknowledges problems inherent in any tabletop system and encourages the Game Master to exploit or subvert them.
- In Infernum, the reason that there aren't any real Noble Demons in said setting (Just less evil ones) is because, even if they are decent and loyal to their fellows, they still have to torture human souls to produce Illiaster, which is their only food.
- In Exalted, it is occasionally pointed out that humanity's dependence on the titular demigods is not at all healthy and has caused a lot of problems--and yet, is utterly necessary in the face of all the demons, Fair Folk, and Eldritch Abominations out for the entire world's blood, and which un-Exalted humans are incapable of dealing with.
- It's well hidden behind the love story and drama and music, but Wicked is the story of two friends who want to change the world. Both are equally able to do so (One has personal talent; the other has influence.) One decides to rebel against the system that is causing her friends so much pain in the name of what is right; the other decides to work within the system, to change it from within, for pretty much the same reasons (A little bit of glory hounding is involved, but not enough to change her fundamental goodness). We learn that neither path really changes anything in Oz.
- Che and Eva's Waltz in Evita both follows and seems to defy this trope (though it depends on how you define the "system") with its chorus: "There is Evil/Ever around, fundamental/System of government quite incidental!"
- Kingdom Hearts is a prime example, as the potential for Black Magic and people becoming The Heartless are a fundamental part of the stories cosmology.
- The problem of The Heartless tends more towards As Long as There Is Evil, since there's no reason why they need to stay around apart from the fact that human nature makes it really hard to eliminate them. Nobodies are a better example of a problem that's Inherent in the System - they're sentient beings whose very existence prevents their Others from existing. 358/2 Days takes this even further with Xion's link to Roxas, which effectively makes it impossible to coexist.
- Shaping in the Geneforge series seems exceptionally prone to With Great Power Comes Great Insanity. The Shapers do their best to control it but never quite can while making themselves look like complete bastards in the process. Eventually, a sect develops that wants to eliminate shaping entirely... but given that shaping is completely ingrained into the society and first game reminds us that "You cannot unring a bell.", you can guess how feasible that would be.
- Geneforge takes it a step into the broader scope, showing the many ways great power leads to great social insanity, as those who have it, those who want it, and those who rebel against it, all have their own brands of madness. The first games had sympathetic characters from various sects with understandable viewpoints based on their experience, led by crazed and callous demagogues. Geneforge 4 inverted this, charismatic and well-intentioned leaders with well-reasoned motivations leading sects filled with desperately crazed individuals justifying atrocities at all levels.
- Dragon Age, in any number of myriad ways. Most obvious is the situation of children born with magical potential. They are taken from their family and locked in a tower under armed guard for what is usually the rest of their life, barring certain exceptional circumstances. When they come of age, they must take a dangerous test with death the penalty for failure--and even afterwards, they always face the looming threat that the fanatic Knight Templar guards will execute them if they step out of line. The alternative to this brutal treatment of innocents for an accident of birth? The very real possibility, even probability that they will become possessed by horrors from beyond.
- There's also the Grey Wardens themselves, who undergo an initiation that frequently kills recruits -- and even those who survive will die or turn into a monster because of it a couple decades down the line. If they didn't, however, the only way to end a Blight would be to kill every darkspawn in existence, everywhere.
- Mass Effect uses this with AI Is a Crapshoot. Organic life will inevitably evolve and advance to the point where it can create synthetic life, which will then destroy all organic life. The Catalyst reasoned the only way to prevent this was by destroying organic civilizations before they could develop synthetic life, and so created the Reapers.
- Girl Genius: "Mad scientists rule the world. Badly." The existing despotism is far from ideal, but before it was around there was lots of violent anarchy, and it's hard to think of a better alternative.
- Othar Trygsvassen (Gentleman Adventurer) has a pretty good idea on how to fix it.
- Except, he's the only one trying, and he's really bad at it. Plus, y'know, outnumbered hundreds or thousands to one. So not really a practical solution.
- Not to mention that anyone could be born a Spark so it would never be fully contained.
- Othar Trygsvassen (Gentleman Adventurer) has a pretty good idea on how to fix it.
- Similar to the Underworld example above, in Last Blood the vampires can live off of small amounts of blood... but still prefer lots.
- In some Talking Animal worlds, Carnivore Confusion may invoke this trope. For example, Talking Foxes might have to eat Talking Rabbits to live, but Talking Rabbits have names and families too! A certain amount of tragedy is inherent in the system, but that's just how life is. Example: Kevin and Kell.
- Truth in Television: Diffusion of responsibility is related to this trope.
- Some Marxists (but not Karl Marx himself) believe this is why Hobbes Was Right. Whether they are right or not is a discussion for another place.
- A lot of the defenders of the system of slavery during the 19th Century used the argument that slave labor was too inherent to the function of the economy, and that getting rid of it would cause a catastrophic collapse of the system. Which, arguably, it did. Although that collapse could have been averted or at least mediated more than it was by a gradual phasing into another economic model. Even the abolitionists couldn't come up with a coherent, practical way to get rid of slavery and deal with its aftereffects. For example:
- Do you compensate the former slaveowners? If so, where does the money come from? If not, you're impoverishing people who had never broken the law.
- Do you compensate the former slaves? Again, who pays and how much?
- Where do the newly-freed slaves go? Back to working on the farms? Would cities in the North accept them? What jobs would they be qualified to hold? What about elderly, or disabled, slaves? Or orphaned children?
- How about sending them back to Africa? Well, the slaves were probably born in America and had no means or desire to go to a foreign country, and what would they do when they got there?
- Civil war made the answer to the first two questions rather tidy: the secessionists were obviously in the wrong, so they deserve no compensation. Instead, they owe reparations which can go to the former slaves. And the rest of it? Well, time marched on and the social adaptation wasn't easy, but even with the benefit of hindsight I don't think anyone could suggest any way it could've been done better, nor suggest that abolition shouldn't have been done in the first place.
- However, there was no such lucky civil war in the UK, and so the former slave owners were compensated quite handsomely, partially by their former slaves being forced to work as their apprentices after having been freed.
- And let's not forget that the fourth point did get both considered and implemented. The country of Liberia gets its name and origin from this issue. But, well, let's just say it started off well enough... The colony of Sierra Leone was also founded to give slaves somewhere to return to.
- Buckminster Fuller had a quote relating to breaking free from this, saying that nothing is gained by fighting the system, and that the solution is to create a new system which renders the old one obsolete. Essentially it's Take a Third Option, or perhaps create new options instead of choosing the existing ones.
- ↑ And just to kick the players who want to be casually cruel in the 'nads, going too low on the Karma Meter will destroy your mind by turning loose your Enemy Within with an Unstoppable Rage. If a vampire ever gets low enough on the meter to enter Wassail, when the Beast takes over completely, the other vamps will band together to put him down like the rabid dog he is in order to keep their society and the Masquerade intact. Seriously, this is a good game, but objectively it can turn into something of an angst-fest sometimes.