Democratization and its Obstruction: A Complexity Perspective
by Michael F. McCullough
“The Difficulty of Democracy: Diagnoses and Prognoses”
8th Annual Telos Conference, February 16, 2014
Immanuel Wallerstein, in his book The Uncertainties of Knowledge (2004), claims we
are living in the midst of an epistemological crisis. It is a crisis caused by the split between the
so-called two cultures, the physical sciences on the one hand and the humanities including the
social sciences on the other. He likens the crisis 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 and we need to find ways to close the
divide, a theme long echoed by French complexity theorist Edgar Morin (1973, 1977, 2001).
So, what does this two-culture gap, this crisis in knowledge, this hurricane, have to do
with the theme we have gathered here to discuss, namely democracy? Well, what if our
understanding of democracy is hampered by the two cultures divide? What if all human social
systems including the social and political systems where we wage our democratic struggles have
a physical dimension? And what if, in order to understand the physical dimension of social and
political systems, we need to collaborate with the physical sciences?
In the 1970s, I developed a keen interest in how physical science concepts might apply to
understanding democracy. This interest had what may seem an unlikely cause, namely my
experience living in a dictatorship for three years. In late 1968, I arrived in military-ruled Brazil
with the Peace Corps, just in time to witness what most analysts now consider the most
politically repressive period in Brazilian history. When I returned to the US, I was convinced
that the dictatorship’s obsession with controlling information made the concept of information a
key to understanding the dynamics of the dictatorship. I sought out political science studies of
information but what I found most useful was a concept originating in the physical sciences,
namely Claude Shannon’s definition of information as negative entropy. Philosophically and
scientifically rooted in the 20th century overthrow of absolute certainty in physics, this concept
(Wiener, 1950) struck me as an ideal tool to adapt for criticizing political absolutism and
developing a democratic information theory. I pursued these ideas in some graduate work at
Stanford and published an essay that speculated about the political significance of Shannon’s
view of information (McCullough, 1977). But I ended up putting this kind of theoretical
speculation on the back burners. In recent times, in the process of revisiting these themes, I have
discovered many fresh new efforts underway to bridge the two cultures, largely under the rubric
of complexity theory. Indeed, Wallerstein champions complexity theory as a potential means to
build a partnership between the physical and social sciences. And in Wallerstein’s case this
partnership took on an unusual personal dimension in his collaboration with Ilya Prigogine,
winner of the 1977 Nobel Prize for Chemistry and one of the prime movers of complexity theory
(Prigogine and Stengers, 1984; Prigogine, 1997).
So what is it about complexity theory that can bring together a sociologist and a chemist?
More particularly, how might complexity theory shed light on issues of democratization and its
In a nutshell, complexity theory is part of a scientific revolution in physics which
involves the clash of diametrically opposed views of order and disorder (Slide: The Inversion of
Orders). In the traditional Newtonian view order is based on equilibrium. From a complexity
perspective, however, order emerges out of far from equilibrium conditions. Fritjof Capra put it
“This new perception of order and disorder represents an inversion of traditional
scientific views. According to the classical view…order is associated with
equilibrium…In the new science of complexity…, we learn that nonequilibrium is a
source of order…In living systems the order arising from nonequilibrium is far more
evident, being manifest in the richness, diversity, and beauty of life all around us.
Throughout the living world chaos is transformed into order.” (Capra, 1996:190)
We get a fuller picture of this inversion when we include the views of disorder that
accompany these conflicting views of order (Slide: The Mechanical, the Complex). Then we see
that Newtonian order becomes disorder from a complexity perspective and Newtonian disorder
becomes a source of order in the context of complexity.
What does complexity imply here? We can situate complexity within this
framework using the three levels of complexity identified by Warren Weaver in his seminal
essay “Science and Complexity” (1948). Each level corresponds to a new stage of science.
The first level, problems of simplicity, corresponds with the largely two-variable
problems characteristic of Newtonian science. In Newton’s so-called clockwork universe,
nature is a machine, operating perfectly, following absolutely certain laws. Disorder and
uncertainty are anomalies. In an order that is perfect, there can be no disorder. Where certainty
is absolute, there can be no uncertainty.
By the end of the last century, pioneers like Boltzmann and Gibbs realized that, in order
to analyze millions or billions of variables, as in a ball of steam, absolute certainty would have
to be abandoned in favor of a statistical approach. It would be necessary in Weaver’s terms to
address “problems of disorganized complexity”. Closed system thermodynamics and its second
law inextricably linked disorder with movement toward equilibrium.
Missing in this picture were questions of organic wholes like social groups, what Weaver
called “problems of organized complexity”, the kind of problems that nonequilibrium open
system thermodynamics and theories like Prigogine’s view of self-organization now appear to be
addressing. For Prigogine, an indeterminate, self-organizing dynamic lies at the heart of matter.
Greater self-organization emerges in far from equilibrium bifurcation or restructuring crises.
Does the complexity perspective nullify Newtonian science? By no means. Thanks to
Newton, we can read in this morning’s paper the precise times that the moon, Jupiter, Mars, and
Saturn become visible. In our human time frames, the solar system does seem to operate like a
clock. But the marvel of Newtonian science only holds when it sticks to its proper domain, its
appropriate level of complexity. The Newtonian clockwork becomes a problem when its
advocates portray it as a model for all of nature, for all of reality. Human freedom cannot fare
well from efforts to make human behavior as predictable as the ocean tides.
So far I have only referred to physical complexity. How might this framework apply to
our human complexities, political, economic and social? In order to test this in the political
realm, let’s make political order and disorder metaphors for physical order and disorder (Slide:
The Mechanical, The Complex, Political Order). And, to throw things in sharper relief, let’s
introduce the notion of power (Slide -- Power: A Hybrid Approach). I favor a hybrid approach to
power, one that recognizes fundamental differences between the exercise of power to dominate
others – as with, for example, slavery, apartheid, or dictatorships -- and the exercise of power to
eliminate or lessen certain types of inequality – as with democratically empowering
developments like emancipation, racial desegregation, or transitions away from authoritarian
rule. The former type of power, power that is imposed is inherently unequal and asymmetrical. I
will refer to it as “power over”. The latter type of power, the exercise of power that achieves
greater equality among power actors, I will refer to as “power with”.
A complexity theory of power begins to emerge when we map these notions of power to
the complexity framework (Slide: A Complexity Theory of Power).
From the mechanical perspective, the viewpoint of the party imposing power emerges. It
is a mechanistic ideology of order and disorder. From A’s point of view, order ensues as long as
B responds obediently and without question. Power imposed achieves a very real equilibrium-
oriented order but it is a mechanistic human order; it mechanizes human relationships. From the
point of view of B, to be pressed toward equilibrium is the inverse of an orderly process. It is
incapacitating and disorganizing. But for B to take some autonomous action – to question or
disobey -- is to disrupt A’s order, to generate disequilibrium and disorder. From a complexity
perspective, on the other hand, such questioning or disobedience may introduce a bifurcation
crisis – what I interpret as a power restructuring crisis -- whose end result, if B succeeds in
exercising power on equal terms with A, is an enhanced state of self-organization.
Power dynamics cut across scale. A and B could be nations, people in a workplace, or a
couple in a relationship. Here are three brief examples that give a little flavor of what happens
when we test this framework with empirical data.
Consider the case of getting mugged (Slide – A Complexity Theory of Power: Getting
Mugged). I’ve been mugged once in my life. I was strolling down a sleepy side street of the
Upper West Side in my normal carefree far from equilibrium mode of self-organization. The
mugger jumped out from behind a parked car, flashed a knife in my face and demanded money.
This action suddenly thrust me into a mechanical, equilibrium-oriented power relationship. I had
become the mugger’s ATM and, like an ATM, I was expected not to question or talk back but to
simply hand over some money. In the eyes of the mugger, my obedience was essential to
keeping this mechanical order intact or in a state of equilibrium. From my perspective, however,
the inverse was happening. To be forced into the mugger’s clockwork universe was to
experience not order but disorder or disorganization. I was being incapacitated. I could disobey
and throw the mugger’s design into a state of disorder, into disequilibrium –and if I was
successful in foiling his plan, we would be equal partners in power. But, the knife in my face had
the intended effect. I felt fear like the paralyzing fear that often occurs with the threat of
violence. And I obeyed. I handed over the few dollar bills I had in my pocket.
During the Jim Crow era, blacks in places like Montgomery, Alabama had to give up
their seats on public buses to whites if all other seats were occupied (Slide – A Complexity
Theory of Power: Rosa Parks). From the perspective of those whites who believed in their racial
superiority over blacks, the inequality evident in this machine-like protocol reflected an
unquestionable natural order of things. For blacks, however, this experience was degrading, a
type of disorder. On that day in 1955 when Rosa Parks stayed put instead of giving her seat up
to a white passenger, when she exercised what Frances Fox Piven calls interdependent power or
the power to disrupt (2008), she was exposing and calling attention to equilibrium-oriented
disorder in complexity terms, although this cast her as a source of far from equilibrium disorder
in mechanistic terms, triggering, of course, the punitive forces aimed at the restoration of Jim
Crow order. Hence her arrest and booking. From a complexity perspective, the year long bus
boycott by blacks that followed created a power restructuring crisis whose outcome was to open
and socially democratize a closed system. Anyone who enters a public bus in Montgomery
today will, I trust, find that seating arrangements are racially equitable and self-organized.
When I lived in Brazil, the military regime regularly produced and displayed propaganda
posters all around the country (Slide: Ordem e Progresso). One time in 1969 or 1970, the
regime issued a poster of the Brazilian flag but it had one tiny change to the national motto
“Ordem e Progresso” which means “Order and Progress”. There was an inflection over the “e”
thereby changing the “and” to an “is”. It read “Ordem é Progresso” meaning “Order is
Progress”. For the military rulers, order was not a mere motto; it was an ideology. And the
political order that the dictatorship produced during its 21 years in power was a very real and
tangible type of order – but only by mechanistic, equilibrium-oriented standards. The sources of
chaos, the disequilibrators, in this clockwork universe were many – the voters not considered
“responsible enough” to elect presidents and the editors, students, academics, artists, labor
leaders and politicians whose exercise of free expression threatened system equilibrium in the
eyes of the military. Suspension of elections, censorship, prohibiting labor strikes, canceling
citizenship rights of selected individuals for 10 years, arbitrary arrest and the systematic use of
torture of political opponents were kind of tools needed by the military to chase after its
particular Holy Grail of order and equilibrium. From a complexity perspective, however, the
chief effect of these measures was to keep citizens disorganized.
Among the many ways that Brazil eventually succeeded in breaking with the politics of
equilibrium in Brazil were a series of labor strikes led by Lula Ignacio da Silva as in this 1980
photo) that predictably attracted military wrath. When I interviewed Lula in 1982, he had been
sentenced to three years in prison for leading the 1980 strike and had come to the US in an effort
to gain international support for his court appeal (McCullough, 1982). As this mug photo of Lula
following an arrest by the São Paulo political police suggests, his association with
nonequilibrium made him a source of disorder in the military’s eyes. On the other hand, this
photo of Lula following his presidential inauguration in 2003 offers evidence that
nonequilibrium self-organizing processes have reentered Brazil’s political life, at least with
regard to the public’s power to choose a chief executive.
The name of this British website – Non-equilibrium Social Science (2014) – is a good
indicator of what we can expect to hear more of as complexity science makes inroads into the
social sciences (Slide: Non-equilibrium Social Science). But a nonequilibrium approach will do
little good if it does not also get to the roots of how power imposed presses individuals, groups
and sometimes entire nations toward a stifling and asphyxiating equilibrium. If in this century
we succeed in building nonequilibrium social sciences that illuminate these debilitating effects of
power, then I think we will look back and see that 20th century social science was insufficiently
grounded in physical reality, that it did not help us understand that the virtual mechanization of
human relationships is not only an abuse of power but a physical disorder. Physically-integrated
social sciences that align the human passion for freedom with the indeterminism at the heart of
matter can hopefully set us on the path to building genuinely self-organizing social, political and
economic structures. In learning how to exercise power with not over others, we can integrate
ourselves with the self-organizing pulse of nature.
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