A Complexity Theory of Power (full text of journal essay)

Here is “A Complexity Theory of Power” as it appears in the Fall 2018 issue of the Journal on Policy and Complex Systems.  It took a little while to discover how to display the PDF of the article here without having to upgrade to a WordPress Business Plan but, when I asked, WordPress informed me about the free Scribd option deployed here.  While there doesn’t appear to be a way to download the PDF below, it is possible to download it directly from the journal or through ResearchGate here.

This is a provocative piece in a variety of ways I intend to make more explicit in coming blog entries.

RELEASE: Rep. Khanna Urges Secretary Pompeo to Uphold Democratic Values in Brazil

The following October 26 letter to sscretary of State Pompeio from Congressman Ro Khanna (Dem-CA) expresses why a victory in Brazil’s presidential election by the right-wing Jair Bolsonaro would, by any democratic standards, be a disastrous outcome. The letter’s hyperlinks document the frightening scope of possibilities a Bolsonaro regime would pose. Now, with his win today, that disaster has occurred.  If Bolsonaro, widely called the Tropical Trump, acts on his demagogic promises, a great political tragedy is in the making.  And Donald Trump, with his authoritarian leanings and a studied aversion to even pronouncing the words “human rights” in foreign policy, is likely to make matters worse.  Now is a time to monitor closely U.S. policy toward Brazil — and to denounce any coddling up to those who seem prepared to dismantle Brazil’s fragile democratic structures.


Dear Secretary Pompeo,

We are deeply concerned by rising threats to democracy, human rights and the rule of law in Brazil. A far-right extremist named Jair Bolsonaro is the leading contender in the country’s presidential election on October 28 and is benefitting from an electoral campaign marked by political violence and a deluge of false news reports and misinformation.

As you may be aware, Mr. Bolsonaro regularly praises Brazil’s former military dictatorship, has been charged with hate speech toward minority groups and said that he will not recognize the election results if he loses. In response, we ask that you make it clear to the government of Brazil that the United States of America finds these positions unacceptable and that there will be severe consequences if Mr. Bolsonaro follows through on his threats during the presidential campaign.

Mr. Bolsonaro’s actions conflict with free and fair elections: Hecalled for the execution of his opponents and more recently threatened to jail leaders of the Worker’s Party and “banish them from the homeland.” He also called for the members of the internationally respected Landless Workers Movement to be branded as “terrorists.” Along with threatening to dismiss the election results, Mr. Bolsonaro’s son Eduardo – one of the main spokespeople for his father’s campaign –talks of militarily intervening against the country’s supreme court should it fail to confirm his father’s victory.

It is now widely acknowledged in both the Brazilian and international media that Mr. Bolsonaro has benefited from a massive false news campaign on social media, which has reportedly received millions of dollars of illicit funding from private sector actors. Among other inventions, this campaign has “reported” that Bolsonaro’s opponent defends incest and homo-erotic content in primary school curriculums. It is heartening to see that Facebook hasorganized a “war room” in response to this misinformation campaign and closed accounts responsible for producing and distributing false news reports to millions of Brazilians, but these actions may well be too little, too late at this point.

Finally, it is particularly troubling that political violence, primarily directed at supporters of the Worker’s Party, has erupted over the past few weeks. More than one hundred cases of political violence have been reported. Among the victims is a well-known capoeira master from the state of Bahia, who died from twelve stab wounds after publicly defending the Worker’s Party candidate. Mr. Bolsonaro, himself the victim of a recent stabbing that we strongly condemn, has refused to denounce these attacks and continues to express hatred towards Afro-Brazilians, the indigenous whose protected lands could be opened up to logging and mining if Bolsonaro has his way- and members of the LGBT community. It is chilling to imagine what could happen to these communities that have endured growing discrimination and attacks under a potential future Bolsonaro government.

Mr. Secretary, as you are aware, Brazil only emerged from years of brutal dictatorship in the late 1980s. With a leading presidential candidate who is calling for widespread purges, the militarization of the entire country and who promises to stack his cabinet with military officers, it is not inconceivable that Brazil could return to the dark authoritarian days of its recent past. Given the regional repercussions of this sort of a development, this is not a threat that our country can take lightly. It is incumbent upon you and other spokespeople for our government to condemn all political violence in Brazil and take a strong stand in opposition to such backsliding; leaving clear that U.S. assistance and cooperation with Brazil is contingent on the upholding of basic human rights and democratic values by its leaders.

My colleagues and I look forward to your response and working with you to ensure that liberty, equality and transparency remain firm pillars of U.S. foreign policy toward Brazil. It is imperative to ensure that democracy prevails wherever it is threatened.

Signers of the letter are: Reps. Alma Adams (NC-12), Keith Ellison (MN-5), Raúl Grijalva (AZ-3), Pramila Jayapal (WA-7), Henry C. “Hank” Johnson Jr (GA-4), Barbara Lee (CA-13), Alan Lowenthal (CA-47), Betty McCollum (MN-4), James P. McGovern (MA-2), Eleanor Holmes Norton (D.C. At-Large), Frank Pallone Jr. (NJ-6), Mark Pocan (WI-02), Jamie Raskin (MD-8), Bobby L. Rush (IL-1), Jan Schakowsky (IL-9), José E. Serrano (NY-15), and Nydia M. Velázquez (NY-7).

The letter is endorsed by: The Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), Just Foreign Policy, AFL-CIO, Washington Office on Latin America, United Steelworkers, and United Auto Workers (UAW).

Homo Potens: A Species Most Complex and Powerful (my “poster”)

A few months ago, I learned about the Cambridge, Mass 9th International Conference on Complex Systems literally just a few hours before the deadline to submit presentation proposals.  I quickly found their site and sent in the opening paragraphs of a piece I’ve been preparing to submit to a particular journal.  For whatever reason, it was accepted as a poster and not as a presentation. Regrettably, I was unable to attend. But “my poster” is included in the conference abstracts at http://www.necsi.edu/events/iccs2018/index.html.  Here it is:

Homo Potens: A Species Most Complex and Powerful

We are a species whose astounding powers of creativity and innovation are matched by destructive powers so enormous we could easily subvert — for ourselves and all other species — the very conditions of life on Earth. We are, as Edgar Morin says, Homo Sapiens-Homo Demens, a whirling mix of the wise and the foolish, the rational and the irrational. In a word, we are “potens”, the Latin for powerful. As Homo Potens, we are a species whose extraordinary potential for better or worse is realized through the exercise of power. To avert the perils that lurk in our Demens and to nurture the immense promise of our Sapiens will depend to a large extent on how well we understand ourselves as Potens.

There is yet another essential respect in which humans far surpass other species that we would do well to try to understand: our complexity. As with power, we partake in complexity for better or worse. Failure to deal with complexity tends to transform small problems into larger ones. Complexity can overwhelm. But it also poses challenges that, once mastered, make it possible to explore complex problems in greater depth. Advances in recent decades in understanding the nature of complex dynamical systems raise hopes that, over the long term, novel approaches to science itself can help us navigate the promise and perils of complexity.

As a means to cast light on Homo Potens as a most complex and powerful species, this essay proposes a complexity theory of power, a combination of power theory and complexity theory. The proposed theory correlates the ability of one party to exercise power over another (A.Allen; R. Dahl; S. Lukes) with disorganized complexity (W. Weaver) and the power to collaborate (A. Allen; H. Arendt; T. Parsons) with self-organized complexity (I. Prigogine). In this view, power exercised by one party to dominate another is a disorganizing process and power exercised by different parties to collaborate with one another is a self-organizing process. These processes can occur across scale in human systems. Whether at the level of interpersonal, national or global politics, self-organizing is a democratizing process through which the disorganizing effects of domination and authoritarianism can be countered and overcome. While complexity perspectives teach us that there nothing is inexorable or guaranteed about the future generally and the advance of self-organization more specifically, they also offer the hope we can better diagnose the debilitating effects of power imposed and learn how to exercise power with not over others.

‘To Make Gentle the Life of this World’

Fifty years ago today, on the morning of April 4, 1968, an electric sense of excitement brimmed over in the capacity crowd of 2000 that I had joined in Notre Dame’s Stepan Center. We were waiting for Senator Robert Kennedy to arrive and launch his Indiana presidential primary campaign. There was no hint we were entering into one of the most star-crossed days in the history of the country.

A 21 year old senior at Notre Dame, campaigning for Senator Eugene McCarthy, I was there to check out the opposition. It came as no surprise that Kennedy, in a bid for volunteers, would inaugurate his Indiana campaign before our largely non-voting student audience. A few weeks earlier in New Hampshire, anti-Vietnam war campaigners for McCarthy dramatically demonstrated that voting ineligibility was not necessarily an obstacle to influencing elections. I picked up many of those “veterans” at the Michiana airport, dropping them off at corners all over South Bend and joining them in door-to-door canvassing for McCarthy.

It was clear not only from the size and enthusiasm of the crowd but from Kennedy’s passion that he was a formidable opponent. He spoke movingly about the need to “end poverty and deprivation” and declared we must “bring this agonizing war to a conclusion” [1]. By comparison, McCarthy’s stump speech was studied and without a comparable spark. In a rally I attended, he managed only to fill a small auditorium. I greatly admired McCarthy for his courage in taking an early stand against the war but I felt that morning I was listening to the candidate most likely to succeed.

After Kennedy’s rally, I walked south over the grassy quarter mile stretch that, before a boom in dormitory construction, used to separate the Library from the Stepan Center. I heard cheers. I turned back, watching Kennedy emerge from the Center enveloped by students. He climbed into the back of a waiting open convertible. Students swarmed the vehicle trying to shake his hand. As the car moved out slowly, Kennedy, arm outstretched, obligingly reached out to the students. The sight of the boisterous crowd giving chase with no visible security and a Kennedy in the back seat of a convertible caused me to shudder. As a 12 year old student at nearby St. Joseph’s Grade School, I had obtained the autograph of my hero, that other Senator Kennedy, during another primary season at the back entrance to the North Dining Hall just a few hundred feet from where I was standing at that moment. As a high school senior, I had been unable to bear the pain of watching his funeral on TV.

I watched Robert Kennedy’s car exit Notre Dame down a stretch of Juniper Road that has since disappeared due to development. He was en route to the Michiana Airport and to Muncie where he spoke with another enthusiastic student crowd, and finally to an inner city black neighborhood in Indianapolis where, as he got up to speak, news of Martin Luther King’s assassination arrived. In video recordings of the event, one hears a pained collective gasp rise from crowd as he informs them of the tragedy. He speaks of bitterness, polarization, a desire for revenge and, as he had never publicly done before, about the killing of his brother. Then, calling upon the spirit of Dr. King, he talks of the need for not only for understanding but for justice. “What we need in the United States”, he says, “is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country”.

People heeded Kennedy’s call to return home. He is widely credited with having prevented riots in Indianapolis at a moment when violence was erupting across the country in black communities traumatized by the news of Dr. King’s death. Rising far above the current din of fear-mongering by authoritarians here and elsewhere, Kennedy’s call “to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world” resonates as never before.

[1] The remarks quoted from RFK’s speech at Notre Dame were reported in the April 5, 1968 edition of Notre Dame’s student newspaper The Observer (http://www.archives.nd.edu/observer/1968-04-05_v02_062.pdf).

Mystery Solved: Identity of Forger of Trump Nobel Peace Prize Nomination Revealed

This morning’s New York Times reported that the Norwegian police are trying to find out who forged Donald Trump’s nomination to receive this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. A large but limited number of people – heads of state, legislators, past recipients, etc. – qualify to make such a nomination. The person who ostensibly made the Trump nomination, when contacted by the Nobel Committee, informed them of the misuse of identity. A lengthy forensic examination is expected by the police.

Before the Norwegian police spend any of their valuable time on this matter, I can with full confidence identity the culprit for them. He is someone who is known, in the 1980s, to have made anonymous phone calls to New York City gossip columnists to fill them in on the latest activities of Donald Trump. He is someone who placed fake Time magazine covers featuring himself in at least five of his golf clubs (see the Guardian “ “Time magazine asks Trump to remove fake covers from display at golf clubs ”. He is someone fined 25 million dollars for running the scam Trump University. He is someone for whom the word “shady” would had to have been invented if it did not exist (see The Atlantic, “The Many Scandals of Donald Trump: A Cheat Sheet” by David A. Graham).

Simply put, Donald Trump’s fingerprints are all over this. The Oslo police forensic division should take a breather and move on to cases more challenging than this one.

The Michael Flynn Story

Michael Flynn is back in the public eye again with the news that he’s struck a deal to cooperate with Robert Mueller’s investigation. Last January, as Flynn’s outsize role in the newly empowered Trump regime became apparent, I decided to learn more about him by reading his memoir The Field of Fight: How We Can Win the Global War Against Radical Islam and Its Allies. I never completed the post or the book, but I did manage to save a number of passages on my Kindle. The one I found most disquieting reads:

Most Americans mistakenly believe that peace is the normal condition of mankind, while war is some weird aberration. Actually, it’s the other way around. Most of human history has to do with war, and preparations for the next one. But we Americans do not prepare for the next war, are invariably surprised when it erupts, and, since we did not take prudent steps when it would have been relatively simple to prevail, usually end up fighting on our enemies’ more difficult and costly terms. (Kindle lines 121-125)

When I mentioned, separately, to a couple of friends that Flynn sees war as normal, each reacted saying that there is something to it. That is, war has indeed been a regular feature of human history. Indeed if we go simply by the frequency with which wars have occurred throughout human history, an argument can be made that there is a certain “normalcy” to war. But I think this passage goes much further than just acknowledging the regularity with which we have faced war. Listen again. Flynn states that it is a mistake to “believe that peace is the normal condition of mankind, while war is some weird aberration. Actually, it’s the other way around.” Peace, in other words, is the “weird aberration” and war is “the normal condition of mankind”. This is an Orwellian character’s vision of human nature! It’s the kind of nihilist thinking that makes it possible to talk nonchalantly about war, as if it’s something routine, something to plan on as surely as a rising sun, something that as a national security assumption makes it easy to exclude the peaceful course of action in favor of the bellicose path.

Flynn describes a tough upbringing as one of 11 kids growing up in an impoverished household in Rhode Island.

I was one of those nasty tough kids, hell-bent on breaking rules for the adrenaline rush and hardwired just enough to not care about the consequences. This misguided mind-set and some serious and unlawful activity by me and two of my co-hoodlum teenage friends would eventually lead to my arrest. The charges warranted a very unpleasant night in “Socko”—the state boys reformatory—and a year of supervised probation. Saved!

By “Saved!”, he means this experience caused him to mend his ways; it was the turning point in a bad-kid-makes-good story. But now the last chapter is being written. Even if saved by a Trump pardon, the personal enrichment schemes in which Flynn got involved even while working in the White House already make clear that this is a bad-kid-makes-good-makes-bad-again story.


Donald Trump, Rosa Parks and David Duke

Lost in Donald Trump’s latest tweet tantrum this past weekend was one post with a link to a video narrated by Trump.  It commemorates Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott. (It was “lost” in that I, at least, saw no mention of it in the MSNBC and CNN coverage).

The video, considered completely apart from the narrator, is marvelous, even inspiring, lauding the defiance of Rosa Parks and the black citizens of Montgomery rising up against Jim Crow. But putting the message and the messenger together gives me an eerie Orwellian feeling of unreality.  Did I really hear these words coming out of Donald Trump’s mouth?  Or were they read by an impostor, like, for example, the one who, as Trump would now have it, mouthed his words in the Access Hollywood video?  Is this the Donald Trump who pretended not to know who Donald Duke is when publicly confronted with Duke’s support during his primary campaign?  Is this the same Donald Trump whose retweets of Islamophobic videos, just days before the 62nd anniversary of Rosa Park’s civil disobedience, caused David Duke to declare:

“Trump retweets video of crippled white kid in Europe being beaten by migrants, and white people being thrown off a roof and then beaten to death, He’s condemned for showing us what the fake news media WON’T. Thank God for Trump! That’s why we love him!”

Is this the same Donald Trump now on the stump for a U.S. Senate candidate in Alabama who successfully led the charge against removing from the state constitution now antiquated and purely symbolic clauses mandating racially segregated schools?

Yes, indeed.  There is an impostor narrating that video about Rosa Parks.


In the Eye of the Hurricane

I have not been giving this blog the attention it deserves.  One basic oversight: I’ve never explained “In the Eye of the Hurricane”, the blog’s subtitle.  This is a term Immanuel Wallerstein uses to describe the precarious situation we are in due to the effective divorce between the physical and social sciences. That physical and social scientists tend to have no intellectual reasons to communicate with one another has produced an epistemological crisis that he likens to a hurricane.  He writes:

“The modern structures of knowledge, the division of knowledge into two competing epistemological spheres of the sciences and the humanities, is in crisis. We can no longer use them as adequate ways in which to gain knowledge of the world…We are living in the eye of the hurricane” (2004:49-50).

In other words, the division of knowledge between the physical and social sciences is compromising the very process of scientific enquiry.  It obscures for researchers fundamental aspects of reality, a point stressed by Edgar Morin when he noted that “The great disconnect between the natural sciences and the human sciences hides at once the physical reality of the latter and the social reality of the former” (1977:11).  The challenge this poses to political scientists is the following: we need to illuminate both the physical reality of politics and the political reality in which the natural sciences are embedded.

Morin, Edgar. 1977.  La Méthode : La Nature de la Nature.  Paris: Éditions de Seuil.
Wallerstein, Immanuel. 2004. The Uncertainties of Knowledge. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

The Fire and the Fury in the Authoritarian Minds of Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un

In the wake of Donald Trump’s reckless “fire and fury” comment yesterday, what I said here in my post “North Korea: Clashing Orders, Clashing Reasons” (September 11, 2016)  is more relevant than ever – but it now needs to account for the alarming Trump factor. Here is part of what I said in the earlier blog:

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.

Given Trump’s authoritarian mindset – his embrace of right wing nationalism here and abroad, his coziness with the Putins of the world, his intolerance of criticism, etc. — an implicit assumption in the above is no longer true.  For the United States government to be able to achieve a perspective more rational than that emanating from Pyonyang, it must understand that assumptions of absolute certainty are reality disconnects and deal with them in psychologically- and policy-appropriate ways.  But such understanding or the hope of achieving it fades to the extent that our president is also consumed by know-it-all delusions (“I alone can fix it”, “I know better than the generals”, “etc.).  Today’s talking point of official and unofficial Trump people trying to defend his “fire and fury” comment is that Trump was just speaking the language of  Kim Jong-un, a language he can understand.  That is to say, it’s OK for Trump to speak in intemperate, irrational terms so long as Kim Jong-un does.  The clashing of these two poles of unreason is a recipe for disaster.

This is just one of myriad reasons that our country and the world need Donald Trump to exit government as quickly as possible.   For that outcome to occur our 18th century democracy must pass a test.  It must be able to expel someone whose absolutist tendencies make him inimical even to the minimally democratic features built into the Constitution by its elitist authors.  It is in no way reassuring that the surest solution – his impeachment and conviction – does not appear to be possible any time soon – if at all.  But hopefully Trump’s penchant for shooting himself in the foot will somehow hasten this outcome — – before some tragedy occurs “like the world has never seen”.

Crisis: Thoughts last November on Trump’s election

Some of my thoughts from an email exchange (11/28/2016) I had with my two sisters as we lamented Trump’s election:

The Trump we got to know in his campaigns was a demagogue, clearly appealing to the worst base instincts knowing he might win that way.  Based on that, I’d have to say the country faces an unprecedented crisis.  But now we have to see him in office to know if that same demagogue is the one who exercises power.  On “the jury’s out” side, he’s said some conciliatory things and has not held grudges religiously.  On the demagogic side, he just re-circulated the notion put forth by some conspiracy theorists that millions did not vote legally, the kind of thing Bannon gets wind of and might have urged on him. The power of the presidency being used for this!  The laundry list of other dire possibilities –the fact that he must stop being a businessman and devote full time to the presidency, the gutting of the EPA, climate policy and social policy, the real possibility that he will launch dangerous foreign policies (I hope he selects Romney as Sec of State to lessen this possibility) etc.  We have to see what he actually says and does in power.  But we may well be facing a great crisis.