In this blog, I’m making a case for a power-based interpretation of complexity theory. And I’m testing the theory by using it to comment on power conflicts in the news and in daily life. More specifically, I view 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 (cf. 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.
I hope to show here 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.
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 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 us as Homo Sapiens-Homo Demens. This blog tries to cast light in that direction.
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).