A Complexity Theory of Power, Part 1

Sunday, May 19, 2013

[The following is based on a presentation I gave last year at the 20th Winter Chaos Conference in Montpelier, VT on March 23, 2012.   Originally entitled “A Complexity Theory of Politics”, I now find it more appropriate to call it “A Complexity Theory of Power”.]

35 years ago, I made a bold claim when I wrote that “…dictatorship can be described as the politics of the probable or the politics of entropy and democracy as the politics of the improbable or the politics of negative entropy. Because democratic and dictatorial systems are in these terms respectively analogous to open and closed thermodynamic systems, we may begin to speculate about the possible future development of a science of political thermodynamics” (McCullough, 1977).

I spent the better part of the 1970s focused on this prospect. Given that, over three decades later, I still don’t hear people talking quite along these lines, perhaps the wisest course of action is to let these ideas rest in peace. But, in recent times, I have been drawn back into this line of thought as if pulled by some strange attractor. In the process, I have found myself combining perspectives of complexity theory and political power theory. The result is something which extends beyond political systems to broader processes, what I am calling a complexity theory of power.

I will get into the logic behind my theoretical speculations then and now – but first I’d like to say a few words about the personal experience that launched me on this out of the mainstream trajectory. These ideas grew directly out of living in Brazil for almost three years during the height of its military dictatorship. I arrived in Sao Paulo, Brazil in late 1968 with the Peace Corps. Three weeks later, on December 13, 1968, there was a coup within the military coup in which hardliners took over the already four year old authoritarian regime. This action ushered in an ominous new phase which most analysts now characterize as the most politically repressive period in Brazilian history. On that day, Brazil’s military shut down the national Congress, replaced civilian with military judges on the Supreme Court, instituted rule by “decree-law’, placed censors in the newsrooms of all major media and suspended habeas corpus. Most horribly it instituted a regime of torture of political opponents. These repressive policies made Brazil a pariah nation in many quarters at the time. An authoritarian U.S. foreign policy which embraced such regimes as long as they had an anti-communist intent became even more hard-edged in the Nixon-Kissinger era that had just begun.

As someone who had been involved in 1960s civil rights and anti-war protests in various ways, I fully expected that there would be massive demonstrations in the streets, just as there had been earlier that year in Brazil when huge protests against the dictatorship were held in major cities.   I was shocked when these draconian actions by the military were greeted with silence. Not long into my stay I jotted in a notebook “the silence is deafening”.   What I was beginning to learn at that point and what I would discover over my three years in the country was that a dictatorship, one that lasts– and the Brazilian dictatorship lasted 21 years – actually succeeds in turning normal political behavior into a crime.   Although the military regime gradually liberalized before it finally permitted resumption of civilian presidential elections in 1985, the government I saw in action in those years was, you might say, a full throttle dictatorship. Such a regime succeeds in putting a lid on street demonstrations, on political expression in the media, popular music and other art forms, and on organizations that can in any way question its authority. Employing the classic tools of dictatorship – censorship, arbitrary arrest and imprisonment, varied degrees of coercion, brutality and violence including torture and sometimes murder of regime opponents, it inculcates a politically paralyzing climate of fear. It makes the price of opposition too high for most people and imposes in the end an eerie political silence in which the illusion of order and conformity masks the reality of a political life in shambles.

Weeks before leaving the country in 1971, I had a sort of epiphany-like, “Aha!” moment. A single idea rose to the forefront of my mind: the concept of information. Information, I concluded, was the analytical key to understanding the entire dictatorial phenomenon. Among the various things that ended up pointing me in this direction, were official pronouncements by the regime that revealed a high degree of interest in controlling information. I remember, for example, reading one official statement in Rio’s Jornal do Brasil that prohibited all messages public or private, direct or indirect, which in any manner violated national security. While there was no way the regime could enforce such a drastic policy – it would have required an effort of totalitarian proportions – I was struck by the fact that elements within the regime had conceived their task of political repression in terms of message control.   It gave me a framework for viewing not only the strict media censorship in effect at the time but the way in which the vast majority of people ended up censoring themselves with anything having to do with politics.

After I settled back into the U.S. in Manhattan in 1972, I began looking into the concept of information and soon encountered a strange notion — Claude Shannon’s definition of information as negative entropy.   Having been an English Lit major with little scientific background, perhaps I should have turned around and run the other way. But, as I investigated this view of information, a number of things drew me in.   I was amazed to discover (through readings like Norbert Weiner’s Human Use of Human Beings) that entropy could be viewed as a measure of the sameness or conformity in a system. It had an uncanny resonance with way I viewed the dictatorship.   If information was the negation of entropy, would not its systemic suppression by a dictatorship constitute a politics of entropy? Indeed “political entropy” seemed to be an apt description of the marginalization of political activity, the imposition of political conformity and the snuffing out of political life.   And, if entropy was a measure of disorder, was not the suppression of information an indicator of disorder, making the dictatorship a force of disorder, the polar opposite of its proud claim to champion order? This was certainly a counter-intuitive notion in terms of the popular association of “dictatorship” with “order” but it seemed an ideal way of criticizing the dictatorship so I eagerly grabbed onto it.

Further encouraging me to pursue this line of investigation was Wiener’s depiction of entropy as a concept on the frontlines of a probability revolution that was overthrowing Newtonian absolutism. I imagined that such a concept could also be fashioned into a means to criticize political absolutism of the sort I had just witnessed in Brazil. At this same time, a West Side neighbor (whose name I no longer recall) who got the drift of where I was headed loaned me Ludwig von Bertalanffy’s General System Theory. Somehow my Brazilian experience had plunged me into the fledgling efforts to find common ground between the natural sciences and the human sciences by way of the political.

[Part of a 3-23-2012 presentation to be continued.]


McCullough, Michael F., “Teilhard and the Information Revolution”, The Teilhard Review, February 1977

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