Thursday 2 February 2017

Umberto Eco's characteristics of fascism, and how trump stacks up.

Umberto Eco's characteristics of fascism, and how Trump stacks up.

1. The cult of tradition. “One has only to look at the syllabus of every fascist movement to find the major traditionalist thinkers. The Nazi gnosis was nourished by traditionalist, syncretistic, occult elements.” 

America First, Christian holy war versus Islam, American exceptionalism, backing by KKK, neo-nazi's and nationalists. 

2. The rejection of modernism. “The Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, is seen as the beginning of modern depravity. In this sense Ur-Fascism can be defined as irrationalism.” 

War on science and truth, ignoring evidence of risk viz a viz terror threats 

3. The cult of action for action’s sake. “Action being beautiful in itself, it must be taken before, or without, any previous reflection. Thinking is a form of emasculation.” 

Er... yeah. Chaotic executive orders without reflection. 

4. Disagreement is treason. “The critical spirit makes distinctions, and to distinguish is a sign of modernism. In modern culture the scientific community praises disagreement as a way to improve knowledge.” 

Sacked AG because deciding something may be unconstitutional is a "betrayal", anyone who doesn't think the same can get out. 

5. Fear of difference. “The first appeal of a fascist or prematurely fascist movement is an appeal against the intruders. Thus Ur-Fascism is racist by definition.” 

Targets immigrants, refugees, LGBTQ, PoC.. 

6. Appeal to social frustration. “One of the most typical features of the historical fascism was the appeal to a frustrated middle class, a class suffering from an economic crisis or feelings of political humiliation, and frightened by the pressure of lower social groups.” 

Appeals to economic anxiety, plus "culture wars", plus fear and demonisation of the oppressed protesting their oppression 

7. The obsession with a plot. “The followers must feel besieged. The easiest way to solve the plot is the appeal to xenophobia.” 

Hysteria over impossible Sharia takeover, the "War on Christianity", and the threat of terrorism from foreigners 

8. The enemy is both strong and weak. “By a continuous shifting of rhetorical focus, the enemies are at the same time too strong and too weak.” 

Islam is a massive threat to the might of the US, and also the ideology of backward sub-humans. 

9. Pacifism is trafficking with the enemy. “For Ur-Fascism there is no struggle for life but, rather, life is lived for struggle.” 

Wanting to protect minorities, refugees, and asylum seekers from persecution is a betrayal of the country. 

10. Contempt for the weak. “Elitism is a typical aspect of any reactionary ideology.” 

This is Trump we're talking about. He and his followers feel contempt for those they perceive as weak. 

11. Everybody is educated to become a hero. “In Ur-Fascist ideology, heroism is the norm. This cult of heroism is strictly linked with the cult of death.” 

All of the above encourages people like the Quebec shooter to be a hero. Hopefully, it won't have a chance to be explicit teaching.

12. Machismo and weaponry. “Machismo implies both disdain for women and intolerance and condemnation of nonstandard sexual habits, from chastity to homosexuality.” 

I don't need to insult your intelligence and add anything here. 

13. Selective populism. “There is in our future a TV or Internet populism, in which the emotional response of a selected group of citizens can be presented and accepted as the Voice of the People.” 

The selected group of citizens were literally targeted and gamed by big-data via Cambridge Analytics, on whose board Bannon sits. FOX now the voice of the people. 

14. Ur-Fascism speaks Newspeak. “All the Nazi or Fascist schoolbooks made use of an impoverished vocabulary, and an elementary syntax, in order to limit the instruments for complex and critical reasoning.” 

A creationist is now reviewing the education system, and this was already shit to begin with..

So don't fucking tell me I don't know what fascism is when I say Trump et al are fascists.

Tuesday 15 November 2016

A few words for anyone thinking about the possibility of the Left taking back the Democrats: Lessons from complexity theory and the UK Labour party.

This election was close enough for any one of a dozen or more mistakes or actions from either party to have been a determining factor. All those who are pushing one reason over all the others are merely exposing their own ideological biases, and that's understandable. Lot of people hurting. But, the only way to tackle a problem with so many aspects is a solution that tackles all of them simultaneously.

This is hard. Real hard. That's why we simplify it. We find a meta-narrative that implicitly encompasses as many of the problems as possible, so that everyone can be on the same page as they go about their own way in doing things.

IMO, the most meta-narrative, and the most useful narrative given it's existing, increasing, and global reach, is that of Neoliberalism. Neoliberalism encompasses a vast multitude of issues that both Left and Right each face, and want rid off. It's also a fight currently being fought on every continent, and believe me, they see the US and UK as the epicenter of it. It is synonymous with neocolonialism for a reason.

So, in that context - The Democrats. Brief history: With the arrival of Reagan and Thatcher, the conservatives either side of the Atlantic borrowed and brutalised Hayeks ideals, ushering in the start of the Neoliberal hegemony in the West and Commonwealth. This hegemony was only cemented however when Clinton, then Blair, brought the major "Left-wing" parties in the US and UK into the neoliberal fold. Sure, when it comes to the "liberal" part, Democrats and Labour include social policy where conservatives do not; the Neo-part however, the economic side of things, was a bi-partisan agreement that gave the banking and finance sectors freedom to become integral players in politics, to the point that politics has become subservient to markets, and beholden to discredited economic dogma.

So Neoliberalism had an uncontested hegemony for two generations, in which time the neoliberal corporate media normalised it to such an extent that it managed to frame itself as the political centre, as a benevolent, technocratic, even un-ideological alternative to the much maligned Left and Right. This is a lie. Neoliberalism is none-of-this. It is has ideological as any political ideology before it, though there is one key difference.

Neoliberalism is not merely another political economic ideology, let alone a mere economic theory as some still manage to maintain. I recently came across a description of multi-national corporations as "meta-nationals", and this is *far* more appropriate. Neoliberalism is not bound by geographic borders, as other political ideologies most often find themselves. In fact, what neoliberalism represents is nothing short of an attempt to syncretise the scale of the nation-state, meaning to create an umbrella-like complex-system that incorporates nation states under it.

I'm not saying this is by design, though many no doubt recognised the significance. This did not need to be planned; complexity always finds new scales of complexity to grow into, and just as the nation state once syncretised religions, so too will nation states be syncretised into something new. But neoliberalism is not it. It has inherent flaws, like maximising efficiency, that make it increasingly more fragile and prone to collapse, and the climate change narrative will ensure that the arguments that worked in the 1970s and 80s will not cut it any more.

Ideologies emerge and spread if and when they are adaptive. Then, through dogma and institutionalisation, ideologies plateau and then start to fall behind the more rapidly evolving society outside of its bubble. That is where neoliberalism is now. There is no going back. There is no establishment rehabilitation. We are talking about a party for whom many have spent their entire political careers under a neoliberal, cross-party hegemony. Their contacts are neoliberals. Their thinking is neoliberal. Their donors are neoliberal. Their offices and colleagues and "enemies" are neoliberal. A shock event doesn't erase that memory, not at the individual scale, or the institutional scale. They will rationalise away blame. They will think they have to tack right just a tad more to capture Trump voters. They will maintain the same contacts and lobbyists, and friends that all stand to potentially lose in the event of any genuine change coming from the Left. They will fight.

The old order must come down before the Dems will be effective in opposing Trump. In the UK, Corbyn, with politics like Sanders but minus the imperialism, won the leadership contest against three cookie-cutter establishment neoliberals. From day one, the neoliberal right of the Labour party, Blairites, connived and opposed Corbyn, briefing the press against him, putting far more energy into rebellion than opposing vicious Tory policy. Smear after smear from the press, from his own party, led eventually to most of the party resigning their Westminster posts and holding a vote of no confidence, which they comfortably won.

So, another leadership contest, this time with purged members galore, 800% rise in party membership fee, and one opponent. Owen Smith. Former lobbyist for Pfizer (Incidentally, today a lobbyist for the Podesta Group announced his candidacy for Democrats Chair - took me back to the spring for a moment, before 2016 had done most of its damage), and on record as saying he thought himself and Blair as "socialist" (this is what I mean by the insidious way neoliberalism has effectively utilised the left to obscure right-wing structural ideology with social ideology and language.). Cobyn won. Again. With an improved mandate.

So, we won? Nope. Not really. Neoliberals in Labour are still there. They are still agitating. Who knows how many awkward conversations they have had with the likes of Richard Branson, private health-care and rail owner who surprisingly doesn't like Corbyn, and the prospect of nationalised rail and a protected NHS.

These kinds of conflicts are going to occur in the US. The establishment Democrats - by the way, "establishment" literally means neoliberal by 2016 - will fight anything that resembles actual change. As will the Hillary supporting neoliberal twitterati, comedians, and celebrities. That's why I was suspicious of Harry Reid and others endorsing Ellison. Everyone needs to make sure that they do not escape accountability, not for punishment's sake, but in terms of actually learning something.

In some ways, I envy you; we didn't have the kind of shock doctrine moment to make use of. Maybe that can make a difference? Maybe Trump is so bad, the shock so deep, that they can reassess in ways Labour MP's could not? It's not impossible; one impassioned appeal by one to a group at the right time could unwind a number of ways. *But it is very unlikely*. In fact, I think doing so smoothly would be historically unprecedented.

So, go forward expecting a fight. Establishment Democrats will not take kindly to the Left (who many still blame for Trump winning) demanding that the party get tough on the TPP, Fossil fuels, banking, finance, wealth redistribution or any of the many other things that desperately need addressing. That would lead to some many awkward conversations with peers and contacts over issues they essentially agree on, and guess what? They won't do shit, and like Labour in the UK, they will likely put far more effort resisting such changes.

They will say it's "far-left", that Hillary got more votes than Sanders, that you can't win an election by being "soft" on immigration and crime, that whoever emerges is "unelectable", that finance is too important to risk it moving abroad, and many other things besides. Do not listen. They have proven how good they are at political analysis plenty enough already.

So. Expect a fight. If it doesn't come, ask why not. Don't get caught up with what to promote; that is varied and messy and potentially divisive. Join people from Argentina, Brazil, Australia, Canada, the UK, Germany, Spain, Greece, India, South Africa, Nigeria, and wherever neocolonial neoliberalism has spread, and focus on opposing Neoliberalism. In the Democratic party, in meta-national organisations, and in your families and bars. If that is done, you may find that left and right have more in common than you think, given neoliberalism is neither, and fucks both.

Countries most searching google for Neoliberalism (Blue) and Neoliberalismo (Red). 

Also, even if the Democratic party were to pull a Corbyn, intra-party sniping and rebellion aside, it would still only be one step. The problem, at heart is meta-national. The risk is meta-national, and for that matter, existential to many. We must become meta-national in our response, and, if possible, make that a central pillar of whatever comes next. For now, it looks like Neoliberalism is about to take a step back from the globalising trend many foolishly took for granted, but that needn't be bad. I mean fuck, the planet could do with a break from the needless stream of novelty trash being transported around the globe so we can spend more on things we know we will probably throw away. It doesn't mean that culture and communication will stop; we just need some time to get our fucking shit together regionally.

TL:DR Rather than focus on what to promote, focus on what to oppose, something that encompasses as many of the individual problems as possible: Neoliberalism. But Neoliberals in Democrats will fight. Hard. Expect it, and use the unifying banner of anti-neoliberalism to win back the US system, and use it as a springboard to join the rest of the world in tackling the meta-national problem that is Neoliberalism.

EDIT:  By now, February 13th, it's pretty clear that a significant fascist element is challenging Neoliberalism. Resistance to this is paramount, but it is also vital that it not stop there, that we not allow Neoliberalism to try to take us back to an unsustainable "normal". That's done, it's broken, it's over. If they try, we will just suffer more and more until power is finally held accountable, and the US can rejoin the modern world in a new, more sustainable, and more time-appropriate, form.. 

Tuesday 26 July 2016

The dynamics of the hegemonic ideological life-cycle AKA Why we are fucked in the West

I wanted to quickly outline the dynamics at play in the US and UK, to show how the betrayal of the left by the Democrats and New Labour set us on this terrible path. Again, I do not speak as someone who identifies as left. I speak as someone who is anti-ideological hegemony (so it just comes across that I am far-Left sometimes), and who understands these dynamics as universal dynamics across all complex adaptive systems. This is merely written in the context of political economy..

When an ideology has cross party (or dictatorial) support for long enough, when that ideology is reflected in all shared cultural production at the expense of other identities, then it becomes hegemonic. Not just in power, but as part of peoples identities and their culture.

To give you an extreme example. The Nazi's took over all shared cultural production, from film to schools to public spaces.. everywhere was saturated with Nazi ideology. This feeds into people identity, either directly making them agree, making them ambivalent, or making them not disagree either through fear of some sort, or through thinking everyone else might agree. 

In the US and, to a lesser extent the UK, a handful of corporations own all shared cultural production via national media, and have done for over two generations (except BBC/NPR/PBS - but they tow the state line anyway). Both parties support (or supported, until Corbyn) the Neoliberal political economic regime: the FED, the World Bank, the EU, the IMF, Central Banks, the Washington Consensus, Neoclassical economics, global finance, etc. Every piece of shared culture is filtered and shaped through a myriad of conscious and subconscious forces to, if not reinforce neoliberal ideology, then to not oppose it.

Now, party politics only functions when you have a Left and a Right. You go one way for a while, then the other party takes a turn and goes the other, correcting the previous mistakes. And thus we move forward in a balanced way. But when Bill Clinton and Tony Blair embraced Neoliberalism, they turned their parties from the left to the anti-left, and thus broke the functioning of party politics.

When you have a hegemonic consensus, progress in governance doesn't happen. You simply keep moving in one direction, regardless of party. This creates what are known as path dependencies; the longer you go down said paths, the harder it is to reverse course.

So, what happens? Well, without any challenge to the hegemony, those involved do not see the root of the problem. Previously, religion acted as a moral challenge as in the Great Depression, but no more. Since government and institutions evolve at a much slower rate than the rest of society due to their doctrinal, ideological structure, tension begins to build. Like an earthquake.

This is where we are now. Power is in an ideological bubble, unable to see that it is their own ideological path dependencies and doctrine that are causing the tension. A growing number of people in society outside of that bubble do recognise it however, yet they are denied any route within the system by which to make reform.

And you know what JFK said about reform, right? Those that make peaceful revolution impossible and violent revolution inevitable. It's not just a slogan. It's real.

The only way that a hegemonic ideological structure can maintain itself in such a situation is to get more and more authoritarian. The hegemony doesn't evolve, society does, and so the tension grows and grows and grows until SNAP.

The way that these ideological hegemonies collapse is called a cascade event, or a transition. They happen quickly, suddenly, and unpredictably, and the violence (or energy) involved is determined by how much tension the ruling power has allowed to build. Not by those responding to it.

Voting Clinton or Owen Smith doesn't release the tension. It simply allows to keep building, because they are ideologically blind and unable to deal with the root causes of the tension, the root causes of why we have Trump. It doesn't make the threat of fascism go away with Trump losing, it makes the the eventual fascism likely to be even worse.

That's because the energy in the tension will be higher. Which direction the cascade event falls depends on which force outside of the hegemonic system triggers the cascade. If to the right, we move *even further* right, meaning unsustainable fascism. If to the Left, we return to the mean, and correct the mistakes that were made over the last 40 years.

Right now, the main priority should be in ensuring it breaks to the Left. I fear that should Clinton get in, the momentum from outside forces will come from the right; liberals won't mobilise in the same way if their own President is in. It could mean that come 2020, the insurgent challenger is on the Right once again, and the Left will once more be urging us to support the lesser evil. If Trump gets in, however fucked up that will be in the short-term, at least the Left will be the insurgent force, and the Neoliberal consensus will be well and truly shattered.

There is no happy ending here. At least in the UK we have managed, somehow, to repel the Neoliberal backlash and maintain an anti-neoliberal Labour leader. The US is a much bigger shit-show.

Sunday 24 July 2016

Why Hillary may be a worse option than Trump (beyond the short-term).

The following is a scenario that merely extends current, long-term Neoliberal trends, making two base assumptions that Clinton is a) Neoliberal, and b) Hawkish. I consider these premises to be self-evident, and I make no attempt to justify them in this short post. This scenario is why I think that Hillary winning in 2016 may be worse than Trump winning, in the medium-to-long term.

It’s 2020.

Hillary Clinton is once again the Democrat nominee, with Elizabeth Warren long ago having sold out and no other anti-neoliberals left in the party. Third parties have failed to make headway, thanks to the rigged electoral commission still being half Democrat and half Republican. America is slowly “recovering” from yet another global economic crash - which people this time blame on those such as Kaine who pushed for more deregulation just before it happened - and any systemic reform is still being resisted. Hillary’s friends and donors hold sway in the White House, which has allowed Goldman Sachs to avoid collapse through yet more bailouts. The wealth of the rich continues to grow.

National debt has increased even more (in line with wealth inequality), a situation not helped by increased military funding to counter the growing threat of Iran and Russia (due a deterioration in relations that's the result in large part of Clinton’s hawkish foreign policy strategies), as well as combatting both ISIS and white nationalist terror attacks domestically. This also results in even more powers for the FBI, NSA and CIA, and further expansion of the NSA base in Utah and enforced corporate cooperation.

The police have continued to kill blacks with impunity, and to become even more militarised, as “super-predators” start fighting back in larger numbers. Riots and bomb threats from a new Black Panther resurgence and KKK groups (empowered since the loss of Trump) rock major cities throughout the summer, while the media scream about the need to crack down on radical anti-neoliberals, far-left, and far-right (somewhat less so, mind).

TPP has been passed, and foreign-owned corporations are suing states that seek to pass environmental regulations to adapt to the increasingly violent and extreme impacts of climate change across the country. The subsequent rise in environmental activism has been labelled as domestic terror, with police forces infiltrating and preemptively arresting anyone with any connection to anti-fossil fuel direct action, including thousands of indigenous peoples. Drought and hurricanes rock the West and South like never before, yet corporations are largely untouched by water sanctions, and investment in infrastructure and adaptation is not forthcoming.

From this situation, a new fascist emerges. Using the same language and techniques as Trump, only this time more conservative, and far less easy to ridicule. The Republican base takes to this newcomer in a broader fashion, the establishment more willing to work with him. People on the left who were anti-Hillary in 2016 remember the emotional blackmail and refuse to succumb to the same cries of “Vote Hillary or you support Fascism!”.

The fascist wins. Suddenly, the (neo)liberal “left” realise their mistake. They realise that this fascist has all the infrastructure he needs, infrastructure built under Democrats watch - to immediately impose fascism through declaring a state of emergency. They go to protest, and they are crushed by a police force that welcomes new poers and military equipment. Many ask.. "Maybe if things hadn’t gotten this bad before we stood up, we might have saved America?"

I don’t say I told you so, even though part of me scream it. I say welcome to the club, now let’s do something about it.

Saturday 23 July 2016

An Open letter to establishment Democrats and Republicans, and US liberals.

Let me begin by saying that America does not become fascist simply because a fascist becomes President. The US political system was explicitly designed for that not to happen. 

No. Trump needed Obama and Bush to create fascist infrastructure first.

Bush & Obama militarised police, built an unprecedented surveillance state, killed US citizens with no trial, gave sovereign power to banks and financial institutions, codified torture and pre-emptive war, and only now y'all are freaking out about fascism? 

Where the fuck have you been for the last 15 years? This is merely a culmination of decades of ideological hegemony.

Bush and Obama, Democrats and Republicans, Neoliberals, the lot of them, have together, with all of your help, created a turnkey fascist police state. Now that an actual fascist - recognisable to you only because he isn't a Neoliberal - might turn that key, now is the time you all realise? 

This isn't an aberration. This is the telos of consistently voting the lesser of two Neoliberal evils, interspersed with Neoliberal hope (but still neoliberal). Any ideological hegemony, be it a dictator or a "democratic" cross-party consensus, will devolve into authoritarianism as it tries to sustain its doctrine in the face of societal evolution and growing dissonance. By ignoring that, you've all contributed to this approaching fascism. 

And if Trump doesn't win, it doesn't matter a jot in the medium-term. You've done fuck all to stop what is now inevitable. It will simply be 4-8 more years of increasingly authoritarian Neoliberal oppression, exponential inequality, unaccountable finance, militarising police.. until another fascist comes along, but this time in conditions worse than now.

And it will keep going like that until shit gets so fucking bad that people revolt. You had a chance. You could have broken the Neoliberal hegemony. But Clinton’s hubris and ambition, the DNC's neoliberal colluding heart, and the indoctrination of neoliberal "left" scuppered Sanders.

That was your shot. You won't get another. Not unless HRC wins, the DNC allow a democratic challenger in four years, then you vote for them. But all you Neoliberal "left" will be like "Don't split the party! Don't fight amongst ourselves! Look at the fascist! Support our Hillary!"

Unless you break the Neoliberal hegemony, you will get fascism, sooner or later. And it won't be non-voters fault. It will be Neoliberals. The "Liberals" that besmirch the name recognisable to those in the 60s. The New Liberals. The Neoliberals. The now inherently anti-left Neoliberals thanks to the rapidly disappearing Overton window.

Only Neoliberalism has the power to change course, because only Neoliberals have power. But they won't. Not without a fight. Ideological hegemony doesn't just look in the mirror one day and say "Huh, we've gone too far, let's allow our opponent a turn to correct our mistakes". That's not how ideological hegemony ends.

Democrats and Republicans alike, both those in power and you who have supported them, have collaborated in creating a fascist infrastructure the likes of which the world has never seen. And now a fascist - only recognisable to you because he isn't Neoliberal - has come along with the key to the turnkey state, and now you freak out.

You have stood aside while your guy built a fascist state, whether Bush or Obama, and instead of self-reflection, you guilt trip those who have had enough and can no longer continue to facilitate the gradual decline into authoritarianism.

Fuck that. Fuck you. Everybody who has supported Neoliberalism, or even failed to learn what the fucking word means, you all helped make Trump. Even worse, you supported the making of the tools and the infrastructure that means that simply having one psycho in one office is enough to have fully fledged fascist state.

If the US wasn't in the grip of a dying ideological consensus, if it was a functioning democracy, Trump couldn't do fuck all. Again, the whole point of the US governance system was to avoid one man being able to create a tyranny. That fucked up way before Trump appeared.

It fucked up under Bush. It fucked up under your precious Obama. I mean, how good a President can Obama be if Trump inheriting his system is such an existential threat?

So don't give me "Vote Hillary coz Trump!", because another Trump is inevitable anyway, and it was your bullshit ignorance and apathy that made it so. Unless every one of you can make a pact to never again vote for the lesser of two evils, to take Trump as the warning he is, to reflect on your own role in this shit-show and commit to becoming dedicated political reformers should conscientious people vote for Hillary against their will, then excuse me while I angrily dismiss your emotional blackmail. 

If Trump alone can make America a fascist state, you need to take a long damn look at yourselves and ask why that is so. All of you. You don't get to participate in building a turnkey fascist police state, and then blame others for allowing one to turn the key.

Saturday 25 June 2016

Brexit: the aftermath

So, did everyone have fun?

Some did. I didn't. Not because I desperately wanted to stay. I didn't. Neither did I want to go. I seem to have been in an odd, sidelined group that couldn't decide either way. So let me get my own view out of the way so you can account for whatever biases you may think you find in here.

IN: To me, this meant nothing more than a slow decline in a neoliberal system of supranational governance that was going to face insurmountable existential threats regardless of the way this referendum went. Don't get me wrong; there are things about the EU I love, with free movement of people and environmental protections among them. But there are things I hate about the EU too; the way they sided with neoliberal institutions to undermine Greece, the way they have handled refugees, and the seeming lack of any hope of reforming it out of it's neoliberal mode of being.

OUT: There are things about leaving the EU that worry me greatly, not least the danger it poses to the things I love about the EU. I also feel deeply for those in the UK that are directly affected by the prospect of leaving the EU. I hate the idea that it emboldens the far-right, and the fact that it leaves even more hard-line neoliberals in the Conservative government empowered. On the flip-side, I think it is easier to reform one's own government that that of the EU, and I support the global trend of devolution and smaller-scales of governance.

So to me, there was no good result from the out-set from this referendum. It should never have taken place, in my opinion. Not so much because of anything inherent about referendums, but because it is so damned complex that it is completely unreasonable to think that the population could come to an educated decision. Now, before one thinks I'm being patronising, I'm not criticising people's capacity to make decsions, not inherently. I'm criticising the media and those in power for having spent the last twenty years or so demonising everyone except those actually responsible.

We've all seen the many examples of misinformation that have influenced people's thinking. Stretched services and infrastructure blamed on immigrants and not the chronic under-funding by government. A press that demonises the poor and minorities because fear sells papers. The incredibly simplistic and misleading soundbites perpetuated by a news media that barely bothers to actually parse fact from fiction. As many have said, the establishment can hardly complain that, after years of blaming immigrants for their own failings, the people then go out and blame immigrants for the stagnation they feel in their lives.

So no, I don't think it should have happened. But it has. And now the shit has hit the fan.

Personally, I'm disgusted by both sides of this debate. There was no good option here in my opinion; at best, there was a least worse option with the promise of worse to come anyway, Yet one would think from social media that we have voted to leave a land of milk and honey and opted for the Fourth Reich instead.

Someone called Ahmed Gatnash posted this on Facebook that nicely summed up my feelings about the reaction of remain supporters:

If you don't know a single person who voted leave then you need to get out of your bubble. If you don't have different opinions on your news feed or timeline then you're living in an echo chamber and likely only get the other side's arguments as interpreted through your own side, after application of appropriate spin. And that means that you're part of the polarisation.
It's easy to dismiss half of the entire population as ignorant bigots and racists if you've never tried to understand them or had even one genuine, heartfelt conversation. Even easier if your life rarely brings you into contact with them, which is especially the case for students.
I actually see the same condescending attitudes from my (overwhelmingly young, cosmopolitan, progressive) friends towards their fellow citizens here that I see from white western orientalists commenting about what's happening in the Middle East - looking down, talking about but never to, and trying to fit everything into pre-conceived boxes without admitting a possible knowledge (let alone empathy) deficit.
Populism and xenophobia aren't being normalised, they were normalised long ago. If you want us to head in a different direction you can either ignore the problem and hope it'll fix itself somehow, try to abuse people into change (good luck with that), or suspend democracy. If none of those options sound appealing then get out there and burst your bubble. This is a polarised country, and it certainly won't be politicians that fix that.

There are not 17 million people worthy of being labelled racist bigots in this country. There weren't before the vote, and that hasn't changed. I understand the frustration, but trying to seek a single answer to why Leave won is never going to work. There is never a single reason for such large scale complex emergence. That is true technically, and it is true if you just look. Yes, 71% of graduates voted Remain, but 29% voted Leave. Yes, two-thirds of people who value multiculturalism voted Remain, but one-third voted Leave. However you look at it, this isn't simply a right vs left issue, nor educated vs uneducated, or even urban vs rural. And it certainly isn't Racists vs Good People. 
Let me set this within a wider context. Neoliberalism is dying. The world economy is waiting to crash again. Nothing was reformed since 2008, and little has changed. The same people in power then, globally, are in power now. In that time, their wealth has grown significantly whilst everyone else wealth has stagnated. This merely extended a trend evident since the 1970's, and while the population at large may be unaware or unclear on what or who is to blame, they recognise their situation regardless. They look to London as a symbol of that exploitative power; do not be surprised that there is such antipathy toward it, and those pontificating from within its prosperous bubble.
These people have been failed by neoliberalism, and calling them a bunch of racists isn't going to help. There was no coherent proposition that spoke to these people's needs in the contexxt of Remaining in the EU. There was no anti-neoliberal, pro-EU movement. There was no rationale presented that simultaneously sought to keep us in the EU whilst also addressing the stagnation and insecurity felt by millions around the country. Instead, we got project Fear, that wheeled out the very CEO's and economists that constitute the neoliberal hegemony to tell us, again, that we have to align with their interests because it is also in the peoples interest. People don't believe them anymore (I don't blame them), and the failure of the Left and Remain campaign to realise this cost them the referendum.
At the end of the day, people were presented with successful talking heads telling them the status-quo was great, despite the status-quo being a dying ideology that has seen growing wealth inequalities across the country. A status-quo where the global rich invest in London properties driving the whole market up from already high levels. A status-quo that includes an unaffordable rental market that continue to climb. A status-quo which for years has blamed everyone else but themselves. 
The choice was that status-quo, or a roll of the dice. A roll of the dice that would simultaneously say Fuck You to those in power, and to those that failed to appreciate the perilous state millions find themselves in.
You don't need to think 17 million people are bigoted racists to explain why Leave edged it, unless you are unable to see other reasons. If you cannot see that, you are part of the problem. In framing this referendum as bigots vs the enlightened, the Remain camp have played their part in making actual racists feeling like they are somehow representative of 17 million people. That has to stop now. We have to combat the threat from the far-right not by alienating those on the left who voted Leave, but by undoing the poisonous and exploitative systems that generated both the fear and misinformation, and the structural tensions and inequalities. 
We need to target neoliberalism. We need a coherent alternative. The SNP did it. The pirate party have done it in Iceland. Podemos have done it in Spain. Yet in the UK, many in Labour are still utterly blind to the state of neoliberalism, and are determined to undermine any effort by Corbyn to present a united front. I'm not a particularly big fan; I'd rather someone more dynamic and engaging. But he's got a mandate. He has support. And he potentially has the easiest job in the world: rallying people to an anti-neoliberal banner at a time when neoliberalism is on its last legs (which incidentally is when it is most dangerous).
So quit with the generalisations, quit with the blaming each other, quit with the divisiveness. The core problems facing both Leave and Remain voters are the same problems, so start acting like it. We have an emboldened far-right to slap down. Get to it.

Tuesday 6 October 2015

First draft, first chapter.

Chapter one.

The first sign of trouble came with a small, red, flashing light illuminating the cold, metal corridor that had remained dark for several years. It was joined by a dull green glow as screens lit up from their hibernation. The first noise for several years quickly followed; a hissing cacophony from a row of pods whose bottom edges slowly protruded from the opposing wall, joined moments later by the sound of an alarm. Consoles kicked into life, turning the green to a warm, white light as the front panels of the pods slowly opened.

Of the five pods, the occupant of the middle one was first to stir. Despite the soft lighting and relatively low volume of the alarm, designed to minimise sensory overload in such situations, the face revealed by the clearing vapours scrunched it's eyes and slowly raised a hand to shield the light. The alarm was harder for the subconscious to ignore however, and within seconds the training kicked in. Stretching and bending his legs, the man emerged from the pod, unclipped a variety of tubes and sensors from the hood-to-toe, skin-tight, outfit, and turned to help the others wake from their long slumbers.

He didn't hang around. Unclipping the others, he gently but firmly slapped their cheeks, bringing the sound of the alarms to their senses. Sickness and disorientation was to be expected, and he quickly gave two who were struggling a shot in the neck to bring them round. It took a couple of minutes for everyone to become functional, in which time two of the personnel were already at the screens, trying to ascertain what could have happened that required them to be brought out of deep-sleep and into a world of flashing lights and alarms. Why couldn't the ship handle this?

All five personnel, four men and one woman, almost identical looking except for their exposed faces, were now frantically working the touch-screen consoles. Something was very wrong, that much was clear. They appeared to have no access to the computers AI, which would explain why they had had to be thawed, and were having to diagnose the problem themselves.

They didn't have to wait long to get a major clue as to what was up. A console turned red, warning of a hull breach in sector 7G. Worse, the hull breach extended as far as sector 7D, a cargo hold, meaning the breach extended through four layers of the ship.

“Have we been hit by something?”

“Shields are operational, no indication of damage.”

So what the hell was happening? Yes, they were going fast, very fast, but between the AI, the sensors, the offensive capabilities, and the shield, the ship was designed to bare practically zero risk from unexpected asteroids. Some sort of attack, perhaps? Yet, despite the AI apparently not being operational, the shield appeared unaffected.

“The hull breach came after we were already awoken. Had it been an attack that had caused it, what had happened previously to warrant the emergency protocol initiation? Jones, you work thought the ship's log, find an answer. I'm going to try and find out why we can't communicate with the AI. The rest of you, manually initiate containment and repair. Go.”

Jones was already doing just that. It appeared that the first indication of trouble had come from sector 7D: atmospheric changes, temperature rising, breach. Followed by the same indicators in sectors 7E, F, and finally the hull breach itself.

It looks like whatever happened, it happened from the inside-out, originating in sector 7D. Sir, do you copy? Sir?”

The commanding officer, for without the AI that was he was, at least temporarily, was silent. He was staring, confused, dumbfounded, at the screen before him. He was completely locked out.


“It's useless. I can't even begin to diagnose the problem. All the ships read-outs are consistent, but the AI's completely inaccessible.”

He checked on the progress of the automatic contingency protocol, which, for by now obvious reasons, operated separately from the ship's AI. Every pod on the ship was by now primed for evacuation, just in case things got critical. Which they did.

“We have more immediate problems, sir. The hull breach is getting worse, and without the AI, I cannot say for sure what is causing it.”

“Best guess, Jones?”

“Best guess? Given where it started and the time between each floors atmospheric changes, something from the cargo hold is eating through the structure; acid, or something similar”.

“No way something like that would have got on board. Too big a risk for something we can easily synthesise.”

“Well, whatever it is, it was onboard, and it was a risk. Or a hope.”

The commanding officer looked at Jones, and quickly thought through the implications. It couldn't have been an accident. Significant resources had been committed to working through each and every risk, and to mitigate them to incredible odds. That meant that whatever was going on, it was most likely hidden, complex, and worse of all, intended. And no one would intend to only do localised, repairable damage. What's more, it was likely tied to the reason the AI was out of commission.

“If this is intended, then this is likely about to get much worse than it currently appears.”

“Initiate evacuation, Sir?”

“Do it. We can always pick them up when we are done. It's not like they would even know.”

Jones ran along the gangway at full speed. The full speed his legs could manage after years in the freezer, anyway. The echoes of his steps rang out in rhythm with the alarm, his mind taking a moment to recognise the synchronisation. Moments later, he came to a halt in front of a control panel, lifted a protective shield, and placed his hand against the screen. Nothing happened. Jones shouted down the corridor.

“Sir, we have a problem! The controls are dead!”

“We have more than a problem; two more cargo holds are reporting atmospheric changes!”

Jones could see the commanding officer frantically hammering on the controls. He moved quickly, and was already at the nearest pod when he heard the officer shout.

“Start manually ejecting the pods, now!”

Jones yanked open the manual ejection mechanism next to the pod, pulled out the pin, and pulled down a large, red lever 180 degrees. A hiss of air made him step back, and without waiting to see if the pod ejected, was on to the next one. Twice more he went through the procedure, all the while calculating. Six thousand pods. Roughly ten seconds per pod, no doubt slowing with fatigue long before the end. Even assuming the other four joined him, that was well over 5 hours work. Not nearly enough.

“Sir, we need more hands!”

The officer nodded, turned, and started methodically moving along the line of pods directly next to those they had themselves emerged from. Engineers. Security. The expendables. Jones hurriedly joined him. If they could get enough people un-thawed, they might be able to get everyone off the ship in as little as half an hour. They didn't have half an hour.

A new sound gave the two men pause for a moment. Then another. More alarms. The officer turned and looked at the displays. Two more hull breaches. Red, flashing warnings everywhere. The increasing damage was relentless, the cause still unknown. Jones and the officer looked at each other, each searching the other for an answer. None came.

“What the hell is going on here?”

One of the newly awoken crew was trying to make sense of the noise and the lights. Others started to stir. Jones looked at them, looked at the screens, and started to cry.

“I'm sorry. I'm so sorry..”

The situation was hopeless. He knew that. All along the ship, the computer was reporting atmospheric changes consistent with those before. Whatever was happening, it was happening everywhere, all at once. All he had done by awakening his colleagues was to allow them to experience their final moments.

He looked along the gantry. About two hundred yards away, he could see the empty spaces that had formerly been the home to free pods. With any luck, they might be able to harvest enough energy to keep going until they found somewhere hospitable. But even if they didn't, they were still guaranteed a better death than the people he had awoken. He would even pick eternal slumber than experience the certainty of death first-hand.

“We might be going to die, but that doesn't mean we can't save some. Everyone, start ejecti...”

He got no further. Gravity failed, pressurisation failed a moment afterwards, and the entire ship was shaken and blown apart. For what is was worth, their deaths were quick.

Speeding away from the explosion, three pods were adjusting their trajectory and powering away from the ship. Not fast enough to completely escape the resulting explosion, but enough to survive it. Whether surviving meant anything at this point, only fate would decide. Fate, and the on-board computers that charted a course for the nearest star cluster with known potential for life-sustaining planets.

Introduction to Complexity Resources


The Complexity of Hayek:

Greg Fisher, Synthesis, February 2012
There are a number of similarities between complex systems and Friedrich von Hayek’s work  fleshed out in this blog.  For those who want to build on Hayek’s broad approach to social systems, they need look no further than complexity theory.

Life Before Earth?

Cornell University Library, March 2013
This study suggests an extrapolation of the genetic complexity of organisms to earlier times suggests that life began before the Earth was formed. Life may have started from systems with single heritable elements that are functionally equivalent to a nucleotide. The genetic complexity, roughly measured by the number of non-redundant functional nucleotides, is expected to have grown exponentially due to several positive feedback factors: gene cooperation, duplication of genes with their subsequent specialization, and emergence of novel functional niches associated with existing genes. Fascinating idea to consider.

Want simplicity in leadership? Then embrace complexity first

Bettina von Stamm, Guardian, June 2013
If you want to thrive rather than just survive, understanding and embracing the principles of complexity theory can be extremely valuable, and by embracing and living by those principles you will be able to achieve what everyone is yearning for: simplicity.

What to make of the complexity paradigm?

Ben King, Synthesis, October 2013
With so much at stake – global warming, resource depletion, growing complexity etc – it is vitally important that we understand the dynamics of paradigm shifts, so that we may both effectively communicate this new paradigm and have realistic expectations of the challenges ahead.

How science is telling us all to revolt

Naomi Klein, New Statemans, October 2013
Is our relentless quest for economic growth killing the planet? Climate scientists have seen the data – and they are coming to some incendiary conclusions using complexity and systems theory.

Stop trying to save the world; big ideas are destroying international development

New Republic, November 2014
Fascinating article about the risk of unintended consequences and negative path dependencies in international development, and the need for the field to embrace complexity theory.


Franz contemplates complexity

ContemplateThisDotOrg, April 2011
I am not ashamed to say that by the end of this video I was crying actual tears. Extremely beautiful short video about complexity theory and complex adaptive systems.

Trial, error and the God complex

Tim Harford, TED, July 2011
Economics writer Tim Harford studies complex systems — and finds a surprising link among the successful ones: they were built through trial and error. In this sparkling talk from TEDGlobal 2011, he asks us to embrace our randomness and start making better mistakes.

Complexity theory and panpsychism

Dr N. Theise, 2013
Dr. Neil Theise, LIver Pathologist and Stem Cell specialist, explains complexity theory, and how sentience could be a function not only of human brains, but of all life, and indeed, of all existence. Sentience, according to his view, is the very interaction that creates all patterns in the universe, including all matter and space. This is the closest thing I have found to someone else explaining what I also concluded; that consciousness is a spectrum stretching from the very small to the very large.

Puppies! Now that I’ve got your attention, complexity theory

Nicolas Perony, TED, OCtober 2013
Animal behavior isn’t complicated, but it is complex. Nicolas Perony studies how individual animals — be they Scottish Terriers, bats or meerkats — follow simple rules that, collectively, create larger patterns of behavior. And how this complexity born of simplicity can help them adapt to new circumstances, as they arise.

Complexity, Culture & Consciousness panel discussion, January 2014
On the intersections of complexity theory, cultural studies, and the evolution of consciousness, this google hangout features Neil Theise, Complexity Researcher; Richard Doyle, Information Scientist; Erik Davis, Religious Scholar; Michael Garfield, Evolutionary Philosopher; Mitch Mignano, Cultural Historian; and Bill Ottman, Open Web Activist. Incidentally, it was nice to see a bit of derision towards the skeptical communities inability to deal with politics.

Complexity theory: an introduction

Complexity Lab, April 2014
A short introduction to the new area of complexity theory. For those not familiar with the technical aspects already, the short film below may be better.

Complexity Theory: A short film

Complexity Lab, June 2014
An inspirational short film about complexity theory and the shift in paradigm from the Newtonian clockwork universe to complex systems, produced by Complexity Labs.


LSE Complexity Group

The LSE Complexity Group has been working for over 20 years, with organisations in the private and public sectors to address practical complex problems. In the process it has developed a theory of complex social systems and an integrated methodology using both qualitative and quantitative tools and methods.

Complex Care Wales

An example of complexity as applied to healthcare, in 2010, a multi-agency network was established across Wales, bringing together practitioners from a range of disciplines and services to form the Complex Care Forum. The purpose was to explore and develop practice, aimed at supporting people who live with complex needs. This article is intended to describe a new understanding of demand and capacity with in healthcare, through work undertaken within Hywel Dda Health Board – an integrated health organisation based in West Wales.

Santa Fe Institute

The Santa Fe Institute is a private, not-for-profit, independent research and education center, founded in 1984, where leading scientists grapple with some of the most compelling and complex problems of our time. Researchers come to the Santa Fe Institute from universities, government agencies, research institutes, and private industry to collaborate across disciplines, merging ideas and principles of many fields — from physics, mathematics, and biology to the social sciences and the humanities — in pursuit of creative insights that improve our world.


Synthesis is a think-tank devoted to using the emerging paradigm of complex networks in the social sciences to tackle social and public policy concerns.


Aid on the Edge of Chaos

Ben Ramalingam, Oxford University Press, 2013
An excellent expose on the follies of international development sans an understanding of complex systems.
“This excellent book does three important things. It provides an informative tour of the reductionist thinking and over-simplistic approaches that characterise so much current development policy and practice. It draws on the ideas of complex adaptive systems research to show that such flaws are neither inevitable nor incurable. And it presents a series of powerful cases of how these new ideas are beginning to make a real difference to the way we think about and work in aid. A must-read for anyone interested in development, its current discontents, and its future potential.”
– Ricardo Haussmann, former Chief Economist, Inter-American Development Bank and Director of the Centre for International Development, Harvard University

Online training and e-learning courses

Complex Systems Theory: An Introduction

Complexity Lab
This course is an introduction to the core concepts of complex systems theory, an exciting new area that is offering us a fresh perspective on issues such as understanding our financial system, the environment and large social organizations. The aim of this course is to bring the often abstract and sophisticated concepts of this subject down to earth and understandable in an intuitive form. After having started with an overview to complex systems this course will focus upon five of the core concepts. It costs £16 to take, includes 17 lectures, and is intended for a broad group of people but will be particularly relevant for those with a background in a technical domain such a some area of math, science, engineering or business.

University of Surrey Complexity Workshop: Rearranging the theoretical deckchairs.

This week I attended the fourth workshop of the Constructed Complexities series, organised by the University of Surrey.  The theme for the workshop was ‘Socially constructed complexities, institutions, and power’, a theme that has been at the heart of my philosophising on complexity for the best part of a decade. That said, I have never really delved into any established academic theory on the topic, and so I feel extremely lucky to have had the chance to finally immerse myself into how the complexity field is progressing within academia.

It didn’t surprise me therefore that I had never heard of 90% of the people referenced by the guest speakers, nor the majority of the established theories covered. That said, much of the material felt like familiar ground; generally what I would have expected from the application of complexity theory to institutions and power. The first day saw talks on the complexities of water management in New Mexico, the nature of (and need for) social ontology, and the normative implications of complexity for politics. Day two focused on various frameworks of institutionalism (historical, sociological, rational-choice, critical, etc), with a particular focus on historical-institutionalism. The speakers were, without exception, top-notch, and the discussion, like the food, was both delicious and nutritious.

Since so many of the concepts and terms were new to me, I won’t attempt in this blog to critique the various modalities that were presented; a lot of great minds have been debating the various forms of institutionalism for two or three decades now, and I wouldn’t deign to think two days of talks would be enough for me to do justice to them. Instead, I want to provide an outside, critical perspective on the overall endevour at hand, placing it within a wider, global, un-academic context.

Complexity is that rare beast; a framework pursued by multiple disciplines that constitutes a paradigm shift in the way we see the world, a la post-modernism and modernism. It is not surprising therefore that much of the academic process has involved a) a lot of effort going toward finding common terminology, and b) a continuous process of changing focus, as new theories seek to emphasise elements neglected by previous concepts. At various points, rational-choice theory, sociology, the state, historical context, and others have been made the focus of how to best view institutions, resulting in decades of publications and a number of tools and frameworks to use in analysing institutions and power.

Before I go any further, I want to say that I am grateful for all of that. Such discourse is the raw material for inspiring paradigmatic change, and while academia may not itself be first unto the breach, so to speak,  it is nevertheless a vanguard of sorts. However, it is apparent that it is not for me. Allow me to explain.
For me, I see the implications of complexity theory on institutions and power as being really very simple. Yet clearly this is not reflected in the myriad of institutionalisms emerging. So what, I thought, is the cause of this disparity. Am I overly idealistic in my ideas? Was there more nuance for me to find? Or was it something else; were we in fact comparing apples and pears?

A thought occurred to me on the way home that I felt wrapped up the dissonance I had been feeling: I use complexity theory to critique power, while academia uses complexity theory to critique theories of power. This is a crucial difference. Theories of power emerge from study, from the examination of the existing processes and dynamics of institutions, laws, behaviours, and relationships. Naturally, this is going to result in a whole raft of ideas about ‘how things work’, a process that is potentially endless, and almost impossible to quantify with any conviction. The cynic in me cannot help but chime that here is fertile ground for the replication of academia’s own historical institutionalism; the numerous niches and nuances facilitating a production line of publications that can nevertheless safely avoid what for me is the central implication of complexity theory on institutions and power.

See, if you take out the theory, the bottom line is this: complexity theory utterly de-ligitimises almost all manifestations of institution and power that exist in the world as of today.
This was, I felt, something of an elephant in the room. While there was ample evidence of a general disdain for neoliberalism and conservatism on display, the bulk of the workshop could legitimately be described as an effort to make existing structures better. This throws up a quandary that I was at pains to subtly introduce in my questions; can institutions and power actually use this complexity theory discourse to reform itself from within, and within the timescales necessary to avoid a) revolution, and/or b) catastrophic impacts from ideologically-based path dependencies?

My experience from studying history tells me that not only are the two potential consequences just stated all too likely to recur given enough time, but also that they tend to come about precisely because power very, very, very rarely makes significant ideological u-turns once path-dependencies have been established. Once we take this into account, it gives a somewhat pessimistic perspective on the capacity for directly inspiring real-world change via the academic process. At best, it can hope to achieve lagged baby-steps of progress, yet I cannot escape the feeling that, for many a reason that the various institutionalisms could no doubt describe when applied self-referentially to questions of funding-, sponsorship-, and publication-systems, such discourse will always be constrained in its ability to directly critique power itself.

This is a big problem. The wider, global context is such that to examine complexity in this constrained manner is akin to re-arranging theoretical deck-chairs while a very large, distinctly non-theoretical iceberg is baring down upon our shared ship. Climate change, biodiversity loss, inadequate pandemic mitigation and management, the threat of future bio- and nano-technologies; all present very real, existential dangers to billions of people within the next three decades.

Another simple implication of complexity theory I consider to be true; that new modes of top-down power transition from adaptive to maladaptive over time, as a result of the difference in cultural evolutionary speed between institutions and the society they govern. Furthermore, this dissonant gap exhibits exponential growth that results in bottom-up, system-wide phase transitions (revolution) unless the pressure is adequately released. This is certainly possible in some contexts – civil rights for instance – but is highly unlikely, even when faced with existential threats, when the required reform means voluntarily letting go of central tenets of power’s ideological underpinning.

I have read hundreds of sustainable development reports, yet I could count on one hand those that have even mentioned the eternal growth doctrine, neoliberalism, and the intentional creation and reproduction of consumer identities, despite the central role they play in climate change, biodiversity loss, and environmental degradation. We all have a duty, no matter how difficult the institutional, relational, and systemic contexts we find ourselves in, to keep pushing, keep challenging, and to never let go of our human context in the work that we do.

It is my great hope that the work done by those at the workshop, and the many influential thinkers they referenced, has been doing enough in the background to quietly inspire and influence a broader coalition of people who are less constrained in their application of complexity theory to power; artists, musicians, activists of all shades. Certainly, academia has a crucial part to play in the process of paradigmatic change, but history tells us that rarely is it considered the focal tipping point. Indeed, it is often one of the last to defend the status-quo. Personally, I see myself as operating in something of a mediating role; always trying to provide formalised weight to activism, but equally motivated to agitate amongst academia.

Time is short, the stakes are high, and power is at the heart of the problem. Perhaps then it is time to move away from describing what is happening using complexity theory, and more toward utilising that expertise to judge what is happening. Sure, it won’t be for everyone, and there is always a need for theory. Let’s just not forget that there is a growing number of people suffering out there who see in academia an un-mobilised and potentially powerful ally, and would really appreciate us moving away from the deck-chairs, and focus more on helping to wrestle the steering wheel from those too ideologically blind to change course.

Complexity and Vaccines.

Complexity is hard. It is hard because each and every one of us develop in a cultural system, with the same pattern-finding brains, conditioning us to identify cause and effect. Yet in sufficiently complex systems, without computers to aid us, identifying causality is simply impossible without the creation of, and attachment to, a subjective narrative drawn from our own personal experience and mental schemas.

A consequence of this is the sustained phenomena of ideology, where particular narratives are continually reinforced within a powerful, sub-cultural sphere, pontificating on highly complex social issues with an authority and certainty that complexity theory objectively denies them. This holds true at multiple scales, whether its a village council, an online forum, or Westminster.

And so here we complexity theorists sit, witness to opposing forces shouting at each other with stunning conviction, often needing nothing more than a few cherry-picked quotes from a single, possibly self-interested, source. Every time we hear an economic forecast stretching two, three years into the future, every time we hear a prediction on how much a 20 year infrastructure project will cost, what do we propose? Are we to just sigh wearily while the opposing groups have their turn reading the tea-leaves and proclaiming Truth? It’s seriously getting boring shouting at the Today programme on BBC Radio4, “but complexity!”.

Now, I’m not saying that beliefs and values should have no part in our collective self-organisation. By all means have idealism, I encourage it highly, but it has to be recognised as a goal to aim for, the objective of the strategy, and not the strategy itself. Almost by definition, blanket, immediate reform shaped from an ideal tends to emerge from initial conditions that were so crap that they inspired the mandate for idealistic, radical change to begin with. Initial conditions are important, really important, and history has shown what happens when they are disregarded. It aint pretty.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Once you get past the conditioning, complexity is by definition intuitive. But damn, that conditioning..

Case in point: the vaccination debate.

Take vaccinations. Recently, vaccination rates in the U.S. have declined to dangerous levels in some areas, resulting in outbreaks of measles such as that which occurred recently at Disneyland. Some parents are choosing not to vaccinate their children, with many citing the low but real chance of side-effects, and others going so far as to claim the whole thing is a Big Pharma based conspiracy. More people still are hung-up on the issue from a question of personal freedom, the immorality of being compelled to do something, and think that there should be a choice, perhaps together with education.

These people do not understand complexity theory, on a number of levels. Primarily, I think the major problem is an inability to switch between scales of reference, due to the cognitive dissonance that it might entail. In this case, personal freedom is enshrined at the scale of the individual only, with the systemic scale ignored, or else presumed to emerge according to a bottom-up process only. It’s easier to discern cause and effect at the scale of yourself, and more tempting to elevate the risk factor, when viewed selfishly. It also signals a lack of understanding regarding the potential for bottom-down emergent forces; the way in which systems influence people. Conversely, the more extreme anti-vax crowd impart the kind of cause and effect seen at the scale of the individual – intent, control, homogeneity – onto the system, personified as an evil there to fight, a powerful and well-established narrative to cling on to.

Where cause and effect is relatively simple to confabulate narratives for at the scale of the yourself (it’s actually just as hard, objectively, hence relying on epidemiology in pharmacology), resulting in numerous anecdotes spread with personal belief, the systemic scale is something of an abstraction. Time and distance conspire to hide cause and effect from us, leading us to rely on those actively looking and reporting back. Most do a good job, but it only takes one for enough people to latch onto, with their worries and confirmation bias, to suddenly create doubt in the public’s mind; a mind manipulated with fear for the sake of click-bait headlines and newspaper sales. Whether doubt is good or bad is not an inherent trait, it requires contextualisation, and with vaccinations, doubt has a death toll.

This is why it is particularly emotive for me – I can think of no other area of research where so much effort has gone into satisfying people that have made names for themselves through constant criticism of proven work. I feel for the parents whose fear has been manipulated, but I am also angry that so many can disregard the majority of people in their community, and demand the right to bring back diseases that should have been eliminated by now.

I cannot imagine that their choice really is to usher in another age plagued by avoidable, devastating illnesses, killing thousands of children. But if you do understand that risk, and you still want both sides given attention and respect, even for idealistic reasons, then sorry, you’ll get no respect from me. And if you don’t care and actively profit from this fear, than shame on you.

You aren’t allowed to drive on the other side of the road, but no one whines about losing their freedom because of it. I know vaccines feel more invasive, but its the same deal. We all have to do it; we all have to make sacrifices for the good of the whole. Order doesn’t just magically spring from the rational self-interest of one scale of emergence, whatever Ayn Rand might have you believe. So vaccinate your kids, please. We collectively earned this opportunity, and no individuals can claim the right to impose themselves, and take that away.

Its the best that we have, but it can be better

Any form of governance, whether it’s politics, health systems, education, etc, has no choice but to manage the complexity by applying the same rules to everybody. That is how how the nation state and it’s laws (should) operate, and that is how we practice medicine (to a degree). It is far from perfect; having to rely on the use of averages, probabilities, catering for the lowest denominators, and not having the capacity to tailor rules to the scale of the individual, governing a whole system will inevitably, unintentionally, screw individuals occasionally.

We just have to accept that, for now. We have no other choice. With any controversial area, the alternative is to introduce chaos into terrible initial conditions. As I said, argue for your ideal, but before that ideal can touch decision making that affects all of us, first it must be granted space to influence the scientific consensus. Not until individualised decision-making is actually plausible will it start to become immoral not to utilise it, but until then, we have to accept this is the best we can do. You don’t have to like it, and you wont always get what you want. Personally, I’m happy to listen to thousands of passionate experts that have spent their lives trying to understand that which I accept I am, objectively, personally blind to.

Incidentally, if we do want individualised governance within self-organisation – making each individual as free as possible, removing the one-size-fits-all approach of age restrictions, drug prohibitions and the like – we would need so much data available that it is hard to imagine it not going terribly awry without a radically different political economic structure than today. As I said, initial conditions are vital to consider.

My/A conclusion

It’s imperative that the limits of knowledge, and the absurdity of conviction, revealed by complexity theory is pummeled into all levels of culture and governance. Shift the focus from ideology to methodology, learn what constitutes good evidence so you can hold authority to account without succumbing to frauds like Andrew Wakefield, and stop being so selfish when it comes to accepting consensus, especially in cases where the stakes are so high (climate change is another one).  Recognise the importance of the systemic scale, and learn to love synthesising the dissonance that comes from incorporating the two scales together.

And yes, I do feel conviction in speaking of the absurdity of conviction, and no, that isn’t hypocrisy. Belief and conviction is not inherently bad, it’s the imposition of said conviction on others that is bad. And when complexity applies as it always does in heated debates, showing that conviction to be inherently unknowable, be it in anti-vaxers, economists, politicians, whoever, that’s when I have to clench my fist, sigh, and try not to feel too downhearted. Its a necessarily slow process, this alternative to imposition – the gradual accumulation of wisdom and knowledge – and I for one have no problem using conviction to protect those gains. Join me in continuing to speak out about these many abuses of authority, fellow complexity theorists, so that we might get to a better place sooner rather than later.