Is a Demagogue in Power?

If today we had just inaugurated one of the Republican presidential aspirants other than Donald Trump, we would still be facing the dour prospects of right-wing ossification on the Supreme Court, the repeal and replacement of Obamacare, an EPA about to be dismantled, US withdrawal from efforts to avert climate disruption, further enrichment of the top one percent through drastic tax cuts and a host of other changes guided by the illusion that unregulated markets magically make the world a better place.

Donald Trump adds a disturbingly distinctive quality to these regressive movements, something I found myself blurting out once when listening to him on TV during the Republican primaries. “He’s a demagogue!” I declared to my wife.  I don’t remember exactly what he was saying at that moment but I’m sure it had to have been one of the many instances when he was pulling punches at a time when any civil citizen would be going on the attack.  Maybe it was the time he tried to distance himself from David Duke, claiming he didn’t know who Duke was (something incredible for an even casual observer of American politics and clearly a lie by Trump who had had no problem speaking publicly about Duke before that).  The demagogic element in such behavior lay in Trump’s coldly calculated decision not to upset a racist mob element in his constituency, not to risk losing the votes of good people whose latent bigotry could be stirred to the surface by a power-hungry leader willing to build and exploit such a constituency.  It is the kind of behavior that caused Duke to encourage Trump to say whatever he had to in order to get elected, the kind of behavior that won him the endorsement of the Ku Klux Klan.

At that time, early in the primaries, one edition of the New Yorker had a cover with a balloon, Trump’s face imprinted on it, rising into the ether.  The clear implication was that the balloon was about to burst.  That’s what so many of us took as a foregone conclusion.  Surely, we thought, the primary process of debates and media scrutiny would expel such a candidate. With the system’s failure on that count, we moved on to the next, bigger test of our system.  Would the intense presidential election process turn back such a candidate?  Now, today, the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration, with our system also having failed on that count, we face the ultimate, three-strikes-and-you’re-out test of whatever strains of democracy remain in our society.  Can our system through checks and balances, through an accountable Congress, through a democratic judiciary, through questioning media coverage, through public pressure assure that the Oval Office does not become a vehicle for demagoguery?  Will the system tame Trump? These are open questions.  It is too early to conclude that a demagogue is in power. But now is a time for vigilance of the highest order.

The Complexity Revolution at the Hairdresser’s

I will soon turn this blog in a new direction.  What I’ve been doing so far is using current events to try to show how a complexity theory of power can help bridge the two cultures divide between the physical and social sciences.  No theory worth its salt can evade such empirical grounding.  While I will continue to use current events this way on occasion, I’d like to make a case for how complexity theory needs the progressive left and how the progressive left needs complexity theory.  I’m also keeping an eye out for ways that Donald Trump’s far-right, authoritarian impulses could exacerbate “disorganized complexity” nationally and internationally.

But, first, here’s one more “complexity event in the news”.  The event that popped out at me from today’s New York Times (“Salon Workers in Illinois to Train on Signs of Abuse”, December 18, 2016, Page A4) is a new first-of-its kind law in Illinois that adds to the licensing requirement for hairdressers training on how to spot domestic abuse symptoms among their customers.   Continue reading

Political Science is Insufficiently Grounded in Physical Reality

I presented my most complete statement to date on a complexity theory of power at the 2014 International Political Science Association meeting in Montreal.  It is entitled “Grounding Political Science in the Physical World.” Following is the final paragraph of the paper.  To view the entire paper, click here.

A British website called Non-Equilibrium Social Science (2014) is a good indicator of what we can expect to hear more of as complexity science makes inroads into social and political science.  But a nonequilibrium approach will do little good if it does not also get to the roots of how power imposed presses individuals, groups and sometimes entire nations toward a stifling and asphyxiating equilibrium.  If in this century we succeed in building a nonequilibrium political science that illuminates these debilitating effects of power, then I think we will look back and see that 20th century political science was insufficiently grounded in physical reality, that it did not help us understand that the virtual mechanization of human relationships is not only an abuse of power but a physical disorder.  A physically-integrated political science that aligns the human passion for freedom with the indeterminism at the heart of matter can hopefully set us on the path to building genuinely self-organizing social, political and economic structures. In learning how to exercise power with not over others, we can integrate ourselves with the self-organizing pulse of nature.

The Devil and the Demagogue

In the presidential debate on Sunday, Donald Trump charged that Bernie Sanders had sold out to “the devil.”  The devil?!  Oh, yes, of course.  Hillary. “She’s the devil.” That’s how the aspiring exorcist-in-chief put it in a Mechanicsburg, PA rally in August.  And he has reportedly repeated this rant once again on the campaign trail this week.

Trump’s Manichean disposition – his tendency to demonize or dehumanize opponents – has been on such stark display over the past year there’s no need to offer further documentation.  That may be found among the 36,600 hits that a “Manichean Donald Trump” search calls up on Google today.

What is of interest from the complexity perspective advanced by this blog is the reality disconnect in which political Manicheanism is rooted.  It is a phenomenon that Norbert Wiener, writing at the height of McCarthyism, devoted attention to in his still timely and exciting work The Human Use of Human Beings (1950, 1954).  Continue reading

North Korea: Clashing Orders, Clashing Reasons

A New York Times column asks in this morning’s paper “Is North Korea irrational? Or does it just pretend to be?” Its answer is that, far from crazy, it is all too rational  (“North Korea Crazy? Worse. It’s Calculating” by Max Fisher, September 11, 2016, page A6).

The problem with this approach is that it assumes a single rationality shared by North Koreans and everyone else.  In my presentation at the 2014 International Political Science Association conference in Montreal, I called North Korea “exhibit A of currently persisting political closure.”  More to the present point, I argued that political conflicts within authoritarian regimes (like the one I got to know while living in Brazil at the height of its military dictatorship) reflect a clash of orders – or a clash of distinctly different types of rationality.  Authoritarian order is a very real type of order but it is mechanistic.  It tries to mechanize human behavior.  It is based on the absolutist assumption that disorder and uncertainty can be eliminated.  Those who actually acknowledge the existence of uncertainty defy the “reality” of absolute certainty; they must be repressed.  The dissenters also effectively acknowledge a radically different view of reality, one affirmed by 20th century science, namely that disorder and uncertainty can never be eliminated.  They can only be reduced.   Political conflict within North Korea reflects these clashing orders, these diametrically opposed views of rationality.  In its dealings with the world, the North Korean regime is hypersensitive to real or perceived threats and tends to be irrational.  Much of the challenge in dealing with it on the world stage is psychological.  Is it possible that cracks in the absolutism of the regime can develop and that it might pursue more reasonable policies (notably, backing off of capacities for nuclear warfare)?  I know too little to even speculate.  But, for starters, I think we need to acknowledge that a mechanistic vision of order guides the North Korean regime and this also shapes its view of what is and is not rational.

Big Sugar and the FDA: a Glimpse of Self-organization at the Edge of Disorganization

Ok, let’s try another exercise in putting a complexity theory of power through its paces. (Or, to put it in terms of the broader purpose of this blog, let’s view one more power conflict through a complexity lens to see if it can cast light on how to bridge the two cultures divide between the physical and social sciences.)

Some fodder for this purpose can be found in a May 22, 2016 New York Times article by Sabrina Tavernese entitled “F.D.A. Finishes Food Labels for How We Eat Now”. It reports on new rules issued by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that food producers must follow when labeling their products with nutritional information. When the FDA announced the proposals in 2014, “… consumer advocates worried that many of the major elements would not survive lobbying by the powerful food industry.” The stiffest opposition came from the D.C.-based Sugar Association over a new line requiring disclosure of the amount of added sugars contained in a product, information that helps consumers identify how much sugar above and beyond the naturally occurring sugars has been added to a product. Public health advocates pressed for the new line as one way to help combat an obesity epidemic affecting more than one-third of adults in the United States that has, in turn, “caused rates of diabetes to soar and has increased risks for cancer, heart disease and stroke”. NYU public health professor Marion Nestle, calling the FDA ruling “a huge win”, echoed the feelings of many health advocates. The Sugar Association, on the other contrary, stated “We are concerned that the ruling sets a dangerous precedent that is not grounded in science, and could actually deter us from our shared goal of a healthier America”. Food producers must include the new labels on their products by July 2018 (New York Times, May 22, 2016: A3).

As the sugar industry’s key lobby group in Washington, the Sugar Association represents what many health advocates refer to as “Big Sugar”, intentionally alluding to “Big Tobacco”. Like the tobacco industry, Big Sugar has a long history of obfuscating the growing body of scientific evidence linking products high in sugar with a host of illnesses. For an excellent job documenting this history, check out “Big Sugar’s Sweet Little Lies”, a Mother Jones investigative piece by Gary Taubes and Cristin Kearns Couzens (http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2012/10/sugar-industry-lies-campaign).

The tug of war over the added sugars line is just one of the components of the conflict over the new nutritional labels but it shall be the exclusive focus here because it maps particularly well to the complexity/power model I wish to demo. In terms of that model, the key actors in the conflict – Big Sugar, public health advocates (including, in this instance, the FDA) and the sugar consuming public — constitute a complex political system, or a system whose analysis can call upon assorted concepts in the complexity theory toolset like self-organization and disorganization or entropy, openness and closure etc. Because these concepts originate in pre-biotic physical science, their application to something as mundane as K Street politics is a good way to test their relevance to human affairs and ultimately to the challenge of bridging the two cultures divide between the physical and social sciences.

Applied to this conflict, the general picture that emerges is a struggle between opening, self-organizing forces and closing, disorganizing forces. Health advocates are trying to pry open a relatively closed system and to make available potentially empowering information, information that, by helping consumers make healthier choices, advances consumer autonomy and self-organizing capacities. Big Sugar, on the other hand, by trying to keep the public in the dark, favors a consuming public that is disempowered and disorganized in terms of its ability both to understand potential consequences of its purchasing decisions and to make informed decisions.

One of the essential dynamics of a closed system is its entropic movement toward the probable or the predictable, toward equilibrium.   For marketing purposes (i.e., for the purpose of exerting power over consumer purchases), Big Sugar needs a sufficiently passive and predictable consuming public, a public that is amenable and receptive to mass media advertising campaigns for sugar products. The last thing sugar marketers wish to have to deal with when mounting such campaigns is a consuming public questioning whether a certain amount of sugar consumption is healthy or not and making purchasing decisions on those grounds.

The goal of health advocates in pushing for the added sugars line, however, is precisely to stir things up, to get the public to start asking questions about its sugar-related purchases. They seek to break consumer population’s mold of passivity, to move consumers away from an equilibrium-oriented passivity toward a creative nonequilibrium, to advance active, questioning, autonomous consumer behavior.

A closed system, a system intolerant of questioning, typically possesses an ideology that guides its intolerance. The Sugar Association’s “mission of educating health professionals, media, government officials and the public about sugar’s goodness” (https://www.sugar.org/about-us/) offers the seeds of such an ideology. Closure to uncertainty about the “sugar’s goodness” breeds an absolutely certain, not-to-be-questioned doctrine of Sugar Goodness. Such a doctrine would certainly help explain how public disclosure of added sugars becomes “a dangerous precedent that is not grounded in science”. In the complexity approach adopted here, any system closed to questioning or the recognition of uncertainty fails to incorporate one of the great reality breakthroughs of 20th century science – namely, uncertainty can never be eliminated; it can only be reduced. To believe blindly in Sugar Goodness is to be on a collision course with reality, specifically with realities exposed by medical science linking sugar consumption to a host of illnesses.

To look at the interactions of actors in this ‘added sugars’ conflict is to look at a tiny slice of a complex dynamic political system. My claims that the sugar lobby is, vis a vis the sugar consuming public, a disorganizing, passivity-inducing force and public health advocates are a self-organizing, activity-inducing force only apply to this narrow snapshot, the tug of war over inclusion or inclusion of this particular bit of information on food labels. I suspect, however, from bits and pieces I have glimpsed while looking into this topic, that the conflict depicted here is part of a larger pattern in which Big Sugar is indeed a disorganizing force and that health advocates whose work in the trenches has given them a good deal of expertise on this matter would be fully capable of making the broader case. I’ll gladly engage in dialogue with anyone who would like to look further into or undertake this type of analysis.

Sweeping Pain and Economic Suicides

On April 22, the New York Times published an article entitled “Sweeping Pain as Suicides Hit a 30-year High”.  According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the number of suicides in the United States rose from 29,199 in 1999 to 42,773 in 2014.  The issue that jumped out at me was the increase in suicides motivated by economic distress among middle-aged adults.   Katherine Hempstead, one of the researchers in the study, said in a PBS News Hour interview that

“We did look to see [if] we could associate any type of circumstances associated with this rising rate of suicide amongst the middle aged.  And, sure enough, we did see an increasing reference to things like job problems, personal finances and foreclosures, bankruptcies, things that really accelerated during the time of the recession. But we see that those trends are kind of persisting even when a lot of people feel like the economy’s recovered quite a bit — but maybe those improvements aren’t being felt by everybody. And the middle-aged are particularly vulnerable to those kinds of pressures because they’re breadwinners, they have dependents, their own retirement might not be secure, they might have children to put through college so they can be particularly affected by those kinds of economic problems.”

While Googling, I came across an article with the same theme entitled “Economic suicides in the Great Recession in Europe and North America”. (Reeves et al., 2014, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24925987. The authors, three psychiatrists, start by acknowledging Durkheim’s classic 1897 finding that economic crises aggravate a “suicidal tendency”.   By extension to the latest crisis, they note that “There has been a substantial rise in ‘economic suicides’ in the Great Recessions afflicting Europe and North America. We estimate that the Great Recession is associated with at least 10,000 additional economic suicides between 2008 and 2010…Job loss, debt and foreclosure increase risks of suicidal thinking.”

Can a complexity theory of power (CTP) cast any light on this tragic phenomenon?  If so, where is the power?  How can the seemingly impersonal, anonymous forces of international and national economies “exercise power”?

A theme I have long wanted to (but have yet to) incorporate into a complexity theory of power is Galtung’s notion of “structural violence”, described in Wikipedia as “a form of violence wherein some social structure or social institution may harm people by preventing them from meeting their basic needs.”  This complements the CTP notion of power exercised by one party over another with disorganizing (harmful) consequences for the party subjected to power.  But who then is responsible?  The “economy”?

The key word in addressing this question is “avoidable” and it plays a central role in both Galtung’s discussion and the psychiatrists’ study.  For Galtung, violence is structural, if, for example, “people are starving when this is objectively avoidable”.  And the psychiatrists write that “A critical question for policy and psychiatric practice is whether these suicide rises are inevitable (emphasis added). Marked cross-national variations in suicides in the recession offer one clue that they are potentially avoidable (emphasis added).”  Lead researcher Aaron Reeves told the BBC that countries successful in breaking the link between economic downturns and suicide “invest in schemes that help people return to work, such as training, advice and even subsidized wages…” (Huffington Post).  The authors conclude that “some [European] societies have successfully de-coupled economic shocks from adverse mental health outcomes” and this inspires “hope that it will be possible to eliminate the association of economic shocks with a rise in suicidality.”

Knowing that economically triggered suicide can be avoided by enlightened public policy enables us to place the locus of responsibility for eliminating this association squarely upon every human society, a responsibility that weighs extra-heavily on U.S. society where powerful, increasingly concentrated economic forces guided by a laissez faire cum social Darwinist ideology effectively dismiss such suicides as an unfortunate but inevitable product of “market adjustments”.

Suicide is self-inflicted maximum entropy.  Like all deaths, it is a personal descent toward the ultimate form of disorganized complexity.  The absence of safety nets aimed at preventing economic suicides is an indicator of disorganized complexity at the societal level just as the presence of support networks is an indicator self-organized complexity in the society at large.

Entropy is not a state that suddenly occurs at the moment someone takes his or her life.  The fall into disorganized complexity occurs over time.  It is a process of closure.  This approach to complexity theory differs radically from those systems perspectives that define human beings and human society as open systems by definition.  As Edgar Morin has long argued, human systems have not only opening but closing potential.  Human complexity theory flounders when it fails to recognize this potential.

References

Galtung, Johan. 1969. “Violence, Peace, and Peace Research”, Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 6, No. 3.

Huffington Post, “Great Recession Linked To 10,000 Suicides”,  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/06/13/suicide-recession_n_5491687.html

Reeves, Aaron, Martin McKee and David Stuckler. 2014. “Economic suicides in the Great Recession in Europe and North America”, June, British Journal of Psychiatry.

“Move!” A power conflict at the grocery store

Not long ago, a woman cashier at my local grocery store was scanning and bagging my items.  Close by a man, her co-worker, was sweeping the floor in the area where customers exit.   He whisked his broom across the neighboring exit lane and then directly into the area where the woman who was busy packing my bags was standing.

Suddenly, speaking to her, he proclaimed, “Move!”

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Re-enfranchising ex-felons: an evolutionary perspective

So, what in the news can inspire some thought on closing the two-cultures divide between the physical and social sciences?

Saturday’s New York Times (April 23, 1016) reported that Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe “used his executive power on Friday to restore voting rights to more than 200,000 convicted felons”.   In Virginia, where one in five African-Americans is unable to vote due to felony disenfranchisement, this action is of special importance to the African-American community.  But it can also be placed in the more generic context of historical struggles over the right to vote in the U.S.  I hypothesize that expansions or contractions of the franchise since the founding reflect self-organizing or disorganizing dynamics common in processes of growth or decline throughout the course of biological and in some instances even pre-biotic evolution.

First, a quick historical review of American suffrage: Continue reading

What this blog is about

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.

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