With the UK election upon us, it is a fitting time to take a look at the offerings from a complexity perspective. It is also a fitting subject matter; complexity theory is as fundamental to politics as it to climate science, or any other study of complex adaptive systems. Unfortunately, unlike climate science, participants in politics have yet to fully grasp the implications of this fact.
Rather than examining each of the parties policies and methods to find areas compatible with complexity theory, it will be a lot easier to briefly summarise what I believe are some core facets of complexity theory that are relevant to today’s political environment, before outlining their relevant political implications. Then we can see how the parties match up.
Here then are some core facets of complexity theory, and how I think these they should roughly translate into political policy:
1. Complex adaptive systems, be they society, economics, finance etc, are inherently unpredictable, proportional to the specificity and time-span involved. That is, the more specific the prediction, and the further you predict in time, the less likely you are to be accurate.
Political policy should not be solely determined by, or legitimised by, confident assertions concerning specific predictions and time-frames. This is most commonly found in the influence economics has on political economic policy, with targets for revenue collection, cuts, and growth figures creating a budget relying on what amounts to a vast accumulator bet. If an economic prediction included all of the disclaimers it should rightly give, people would be far less happy about trusting the policy it supports.
Put it this way: if all you have to support economic policies that will inevitably have massive negative impacts on vulnerable people’s lives is some cherry-picked forecasts from a sub-section of economists, don’t be surprised if you get ever more blow-back as awareness of complexity seeps ever more into the public consciousness.
2. The more homogenous a system is, the more fragile it is, and the more susceptible the system is to rapid change (a cascade). Conversely, the more diverse a system is, the more resilient and adaptable it is.
The question of homogeneity versus diversity isn’t found at one level or institution alone. Within politics as a whole, one could apply the dichotomy to the press, MP’s, the civil service, the voting public, governmental institutions at all levels, access to power, etc. Yet the answer will always be the same; the more homogeneous a system is, the more vulnerable it becomes. Issues such as proportional representation, donor transparency and accountability, and the centralisation of power (see point 5) therefore come to the fore.
Between Labour and the Conservatives, the two dominant parties contesting the election, there is a general consensus in terms of political economy. Both broadly accept the neoliberal model, to the extent of agreeing that austerity is a necessary component of future economic policy. While it is encouraging to see alternative views being expressed by minority parties that are slowly gaining support, we are a far cry from the two party ideological dichotomy the UK experienced for the majority of the 20th century, and so is more homogeneous.
This homogeneity will have two consequences, I believe. One, on inherently uncertain matters that receive undue cross-party support, maladaptive path-dependencies will (and have, I would argue, with regard to austerity) emerge that will cause increasing tension. Two, and in reaction to the prior dynamic, the system will succumb to rapid change. If we are lucky, this change will be in the form of a new political movement unhindered by established power. If power resists however, the only thing that will be accomplished is an ever decreasing likelihood of our being lucky.
3. Given the inherent uncertainties involved in complex adaptive systems, it is best to avoid potentially long-term path dependencies, and seek to maximise agility and adaptive capacity.
Path-dependencies represent risk. Therefore it is vital that decisions with the potential to lock-in massive resources for a long period of time be taken very carefully, transparently, and with clear accountability. Additionally, path dependencies that feature modern technology should simply be laughed out of the room at this point in time. I’m looking at you HS2 and Trident, for which both points apply.
Technology is progressing at such a pace that the idea of spending tens of billions of pounds on a rail systems that wont be ready for 20 years simply should not be entertained, especially I would argue at a time when cuts are so vigorously being sought in areas of social policy (I’d respect ideologues more if they were at least consistent). There is every chance the country will be serviced by a fleet of flying autonomous, hydrogen and solar powered vehicles by 2035. This kind of long-term thinking and scenario building is vital to consider in politics, and where once this was relatively simple, today’s world of parabolic technological advance demands adaptability, not 20 year turnaround times for yesterday’s technology.
4. Also due to inherent uncertainties, the management of complex adaptive systems requires an iterative process of planning, implementation, monitoring, and evaluation to identify potential maladaptive pathways and adjust/reverse policy where necessary. This is important in order to identify unforeseen feedback effects early, before they accelerate out of control.
It is easy to form the impression of politics today that policies are introduced to great fanfare and promise, only to not work, be counter-productive, and either require yet more reorganisation, or else be allowed to slip into obscurity never to be mentioned again (ahem,
Big Society). Rarely are policy failures the mistake of those designing and implementing the policy; it is all to easy to view complex adaptive systems subjectively and come up with any number of unforeseen problems that were entirely beyond his or her control. Failure is not only unavoidable, it should be welcomed. Failure done right, with adequate monitoring, assessment, and sharing of information, is data that everyone can use. Only through accepting and embracing failure and uncertainty, rather than the traditional misplaced confidence and bluster of ideologues, can we hope to advance.
Instead of a linear process of guess, impose, and take credit or shift blame, we need a circular process, an evolving dynamic that focuses on predictable means, not unpredictable ends. It needs to constantly monitor policy holistically, and be able to adapt to changing circumstances. Politicians
5. Our inability to confidently model highly complex adaptive systems means an experimental approach is required. Without data rigorous comparative data, prediction is simply fancy guesswork.
To embrace failure in as productive way as possible, we need to be able to experiment. While it would be ethically dubious and highly problematic for a central authority to impose different policies on different people at random, one could get the same effect through maximally devolving our political system. Subsidiarity therefore represents what I think to be the most compatible political model with complexity theory. This is the optimal way to generate the much needed comparative data, mitigate the risks associated with centralised, top-down, system-wide policy implementation, and maximise opportunities to find, share, and amplify successes.
For politics to be compatible with complexity theory, policy and practice would need to: ensure devolution of powers to a subsidiarity model, and promote experimentation and information sharing; practice iterative policy planning, implementation, monitoring, and evaluation cycles in a transparent and participatory fashion; substantially increase the diversity of actors and perspectives influencing policy, across multiple lines such as race, gender, class, etc.; take into account the place of our political system within the wider, global system we are a part of; and to promote diversity and civic freedom at all levels, and in all sectors of society, particularly the press.
It is clear then that the established parties are far from anything approaching this ideal. After all, the AV vote referendum alone was touted as a once-in-a-lifetime change, and even that failed. Certainly some of the smaller parties are attempting to go in the right direction, be it over devolution, anti-austerity, or renewing participation through the use of social media. However, at least this time around, there appears little chance that significant change of the like I have outlined will result from this election, regardless of whether Labour or the Conservatives win. Even if Scotland were to get independence, the end result would merely be greater homogeneity for both Scotland and the rest of the UK!
In my opinion, the most likely best-case scenario would be the sudden rise of a brand new political party in England, a la Podemos in Spain, or a sudden surge in support for one or more of the smaller parties, such as the Greens, a la Syriza in Greece or the Pirate Party in Iceland. It is certainly a better scenario than what might cascade should neoliberal hegemony still reign in British politics in the aftermath of another financial crash.