A Complexity Theory of Power Applied to “Putin’s War on Gays”

Sunday, July 28, 2013

This morning’s New York Times (7-28-2013) has an editorial entitled “Mr. Putin’s War on Gays: Will his crackdown keep people from the Winter Olympics in Sochi next year?”   It recounts these actions taken by Putin:

Earlier this month, he signed a law banning the adoption of Russian-born children to gay couples and to any couple or single parent living in any country where marriage equality exists. Last month, Mr. Putin signed a law allowing the police to arrest tourists and foreigners suspected of being gay or pro-gay and detain them for up to 14 days. He also signed a bill classifying “homosexual” propaganda as pornography with vague wording that could subject anyone arguing for tolerance or educating children about homosexuality to arrest and fines.

Regarding the Winter Olympics to be hosted by Russia next year, the editorial also raises the interesting prospect that “Gay athletes and supporters of gay rights could decide not to attend the Games, or nascent calls for a formal Olympic boycott could gather steam.”

This is the type of power conflict that a complexity theory of power can elucidate.

In traditional power theory, the core characteristic of power is domination. A exercises power over B. It is a unilateral form of power in which party A imposes its will on party B, typically through some form of coercion. This certainly captures one important aspect of power phenomena, including Putin’s current behavior. Whether it’s a matter of locking up parents who educate their children about homosexuality, or jailing tourists suspected of being gay or pro-gay, or trying to extend abroad the long arm of the Russian state by prohibiting adoptions by citizens of countries where marriage equality exists (read USA as of U.S. vs. Windsor), state power is used in a punitive manner in the hope of getting others to conform to a vision of a gay-free universe.

But if domination is the core characteristic of power, where does this leave the dominated, the disempowered, the people who are the victims of such crackdowns? If A exercises power over B, what does B have to do in order to become empowered? Must B exercise power over A? Is it just a matter of turning the tables on A? While it may be unlikely at this point, what if a boycott of the Olympics causes Putin to back down and exercise tolerance toward gays? Would the newly empowered Russian gays and their allies now be exercising unilateral power over Putin and other Russian homophobes?

No, this is where the unilateral view of power breaks down as an overall model.   And this is where the complexity theory of power that I am in the process of developing can go to bat.

Before proceeding, a few words are in order about complexity theory and obstacles it faces in finding more adherents. Complexity theory originates in the physical sciences, notably in the thermodynamics of Ilya Prigogine. The notion that this can lead to a human complexity theory causes alarm bells to go off on both sides of the two culture divide between the physical and the social sciences. There are indeed justifiable reasons for social scientists not to want to do business with physical scientists. Human freedom cannot fare well guided a mechanistic, deterministic, Newtonian science, the type of science which has prevailed for almost 400 years. What most social scientists are still unaware of and what most physical scientists have still not completely bought into is the birth in recent decades of a revolutionary new complexity-oriented physical science which is indeterminist and anti-mechanistic, something beautifully explained in Fritjof Capra’s Web of Life. It is the kind of science advocated by Ilya Prigogine, one that sees in matter a self-organizing potential dating back in evolution as far as pre-biotic matter, hence the evolutionary emergence of myriad forms of life and eventually human societies from seemingly inanimate matter.

Another issue is internal to complexity theory. Many complexity theorists fail to make disorganization as analytically important as self-organization. Once we do so, however, we can deploy the full thermodynamic paradigm of not only opening but closing thermodynamic systems. We can then detect how human societal growth correlates with far from equilibrium movement toward the less probable and societal breakdown with movement toward equilibrium and the more probable. This is not to equate human societies with thermodynamic systems as physicists perceive them. Human societies are after all far more complex than anything studied by physicists. It is to suggest, however, that the novelties of life and human society emerged out of pre-biotic self-organizing matter and as a consequence possess a certain thermodynamic resonance which we have only begun to explore. Power exercised to dominate, to incapacitate, to disorganize correlates with closure, the increasingly probable, the entropic.   Power exercised to advance cooperation and collaboration correlates with opening, the less probable, with self-organization.

Domination is a form of linear power. It is a one-way street going from A to B. It structures inequality of the sort exemplified by gay exclusion in the draconian Russian measures. It imposes entropic probability on a human net. But such unfairness produces instability or bifurcation crises. Gays who now organize to boycott the 2014 Olympics in Russia are using power not to impose another sort of inequality but rather to achieve equality. Non-linear, far from equilibrium social and political structures do not depend on coercion because millions of people agree on what is fair and just and behave accordingly. Presumably consenting adult heterosexuals in Russia are free from persecution and partake in such a non-linear structure. Russian gays are now confronted by the need to dismantle the linear power which deprives them of choice and achieve equal admittance to the non-linear dimension already enjoyed by the rest of their society in this respect.

The same dynamic applies broadly and particularly to the challenges women have faced in overcoming the culture of male superiority and blacks in dismantling the structures of white racial superiority.   In these cases the disempowered have sought not to exercise power over others but to use tactics, whether boycotts, civil disobedience or other non-violent ways of raising hell, which highlight inequities for all to see and oppose, paving the way toward more equitable, more just, humanly richer, more complex societies.

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