In this blog, I present a power-based interpretation of complexity theory and test it with commentary on power conflicts in the news and in daily life. More specifically, I’m passing these conflicts through the lenses of what I call a complexity theory of power, a fusion of complexity theory and power theory. The basic premise of the theory is that 1) power imposed by one party on another fosters “disorganized complexity” and 2) power exercised collaboratively advances “organized complexity” or self-organization. From complexity theory this draws on Warren Weaver’s distinctions between organized and disorganized complexity in his seminal 1948 essay “Science and Complexity”. From power theory, this places on a continuum two sometimes conflicting currents, one that tends to view power in terms of domination and another that emphasizes democratic empowerment or democratization.
Like power — of which there is, as Steven Lukes put it “an endemic variety of concepts” (Essays in Social Theory, 1977:5) — complexity is a highly contested concept. Complexity thinkers whose ideas make sense to me include, in addition to Weaver, Edgar Morin, the pioneer of critical complexity theory, physical scientists like Ilya Prigogine (whose identification of self-organizing dynamics in matter opens the possibility of bridging the so-called “two cultures divide” between the physical and social sciences) and sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein whose intellectual partnership with Prigogine demonstrated the direction that efforts to close this divide can take. (For anyone wishing to get an historical overview of the concepts and issues underlying the shift from a mechanistic to a complexity perspective in modern physical science, I highly recommend Fritjof Capra’s The Web of Life.)
To people unfamiliar with complexity theory but who are concerned with issues of power and inequity, I hope to show that an understanding of complexity (in both its enabling and disabling forms) can shed useful light on power struggles taking place around us at all scales. In an early entry, for example, I bring the notions of disorganized and organized complexity to bear on a simple power clash I witnessed not long ago among co-workers at my local grocery store. News reports also supply regular fodder for explication of the proposed theory. Consider the subjects of these recent pieces in the New York Times: “Slave Labor on the High Seas” (a 2-21-2016 editorial), “Crackdowns on Free Speech Rise in a Europe Wary of Terror” (2-25-2016) and a report on an Oscar-winning Pakistani documentary that exposes “honor killings”, the culturally sanctioned murders of women who elope or partake in relationships not approved by their parents (3-3-2016). Each is a tale of how power imposed by one party on another has a disorganizing effect on those subjected to power imperatives. But each story has an inspiring flip side in the actions of those who question and challenge disempowerment. Whether these challenges are tiny sparks or mighty movements, it is possible to view them as efforts to transform disorganized human complexity into organized (or self-organized) complexity.
But why go to the trouble of trying to frame these matters in terms of complexity? The key motivating factor for me is the prospect that complexity concepts can play a fundamental role in addressing the epistemological crisis now posed by the two cultures divide. Classical science has tended to model nature as a machine. This worked well for “simple” problems (like the motions of the planets) but hides from view the realm of complexity, the vast domains of unpredictable, nonlinear phenomena more typical of nature’s operations. A failure to develop a science that illuminates these phenomena poses a very practical danger in a world facing rising complexity on multiple fronts. As Immanuel Wallerstein put it (with a metaphor that inspires the subtitle of this blog), “We are living in the eye of the hurricane”. Wallerstein sees “complexity studies”, along lines proposed by Prigogine, as a means to bridge the physical-social science divide and to develop means to more surely navigate in an intrinsically uncertain world. Prigogine, says Wallerstein,
“…has moved physical science onto the central epistemological terrain of social science. He has renewed the call for a unified science, but not in the spirit of the analytic philosophers who wanted everyone to adopt the premises of Newtonian mechanics and become social physicists. Rather, he has in effect suggested that the natural scientists become part of a larger family in which the sociocultural premises and links of all knowledge activity be its unifying theme, one in which we overcome the two cultures because science and philosophy are conjoined activities deriving from a common epistemological base” (Uncertainties of Knowledge, 2004: Kindle locations 508-13).
If such a “unified science” with “a common epistemological base” is ever to bridge the two cultures, it must have rich empirical bases. This blog’s commentary on the news and other quotidian events is proposed as one way to lay concrete foundations in this respect.
Since at least the 1980s, many have argued that the study of complexity places us on the threshold of a new era of science, one that would bridge the divide between the physical and social sciences. But today complexity studies remain on the margins of most scientific communities. Why? One reason is that physical complexity is still far better understood than human complexity. If complexity studies are ever to fulfill their great promise, enormous advances will have to be made in our understanding of human complexity, specifically in the realms of social, economic and political complexity. And another reason suggested by a complexity theory of power is that we need to characterize humans, ourselves, not only in terms of our magnificent self-organizing potential but also in terms of our calamitous disorganizing potential, a reality long embraced by Edgar Morin’s designation of humans as Homo Sapiens-Homo Demens. This blog proceeds on the assumption that humans exercise power for better or worse but that we can better organize ourselves through an understanding of complexity.
Understandably, a great many of the examples of self-organizing phenomena cited by complexity theorists have few if any ethical ramifications. For example, the way that drivers on a highway speed up or slow down in response to immediate traffic conditions and produce an overall traffic pattern is one commonly cited instance of self-organization. One might even argue that complexity, if is ever to become “a real science”, must stick to such value-free models — in which case references I made above to ethically-sensitive issues like slavery, inequity and democratization stretch complexity beyond its domain. A contrary view adopted here is Edgar Morin’s contention that “Ethics cannot escape the problems of complexity” (La méthode 6, Éthique, 2004:11). For Morin, the more deeply one explores complexity, the more one confronts ethical issues, issues for which a complexity perspective offers a sense of direction. “…[C]omplex thought”, according to Morin, “leads to an ethic of solidarity and non-coercion…Of itself, complex thought nurtures the ethical.” (La méthode 6, Éthique, 2004:76). It is in such a spirit of solidarity, one of non-violent, collaboration in the resolution of power conflicts, that this blog proposes a complexity theory of power as a potentially valuable way to navigate complexity.
You may note that some blog entries here have posting dates to times when blogs and even the Internet did not exist (a few more of these are on the entry ramp). Several entries copied here are from blogs I started but abandoned. This blog I am taking very seriously and have every intention of posting regular entries.
My statements to date on a complexity theory of power are accessible at Academia.edu. They are “Democratization and Its Obstruction” (delivered at the 2014 Telos conference at NYU) and “Grounding Political Science in the Physical World” (presented at the 2014 IPSA Conference in Montreal). I will soon post “The Montgomery Bus Boycott: A Complexity Perspective on Crossing and Erasing a Color Line” (presented at the November 2015 Self-Organizing Solutions conference at Auburn University in Montgomery).
If you feel moved to comment in any way, please do so. Any feedback in the form of suggestions or support, questioning or criticism is greatly appreciated.