Insights from Complexity

Adoption of a ‘complexity’ framework as an analytical tool provides insights into a number of features that characterise the present situation. For example, frequent failure of ‘experts’ and ‘leaders’ to anticipate or control events have been taken as chance events or evidence of personal shortcomings of the individuals concerned.

Treatment of social, political, and economic phenomena as complex adaptive systems offers a radically different interpretation of reality. The failures mentioned above are seen as regularities associated with the innate nature of the system: it is virtually impossible for leaders and experts to predict or control most events.

The same applies to inequalities and the emergence of elites in most situations. In nested complex adaptive systems (the prevailing pattern in the life and social sciences), average ‘complexity’ tends to increase and the system with the highest ‘complexity’ stands to make the greatest gain. ‘Complexity’ could be equated with power and/ or wealth in many instances. Trying to force a system not to behave in that way (through command economy models such as communism, say) will not work as is becoming obvious. Complex systems theory explains why this policy will not work. Understanding of this feature allows us to take steps to steer the system (re-iteratively and over a long period of time) along more desirable paths.

Limits on expertise

For thousands of years, the design principles of human societies have incorporated an assumption that certain individuals are endowed (through divine intervention, birthright, affiliation, training, or whatever) with special attributes that give them an enhanced usefulness, and therefore status, well above the rest. Rewards follow this skewed view of society. In the olden days, priests formed the elite. Later, kings and emperors occupied the top of the hierarchy. Nowadays leaders in various guises (shrewd entrepreneurs, charismatic politicians, clever economists, and a collection of ‘experts’) make up the privileged elite. Naturally, this is a cherished position that brings huge privileges, including power and wealth.

The moment one moves to a ‘complexity’ based view of reality, the above assumption is threatened with exposure as a nonsensical model. Loss of special status for ‘leaders’ would challenge the very foundations of the current structure of society. Those wishing to move onto a new paradigm often underestimate what this radical change entails, and hence the resistance that they would have to recognise and overcome.

Does it matter that the ‘experts’ persist in their efforts to predict the unpredictable? Yes it does. At best, their efforts might have a neutral effect on events. Regrettably, the results often prove to be harmful. For instance, the misguided efforts of local and international development ‘experts’ over the last fifty years have left many of the most needy countries worse off than they would have been had they been left to paddle their canoe. Similarly, and not unrelated to the previous example, America’s efforts to bring US style economic and political liberalism and democracy to the world demonstrate the pitfalls associated with this sort of global charlatanism.

In some instances the question of expertise is relatively unimportant. Certain social, political, and economic systems could survive and prosper because they have learnt from past experience that the future is uncertain, regardless of whether that fact is explicitly recognised or otherwise. The USA, for instance, might do reasonably well come Democrat or Republican. The ‘noise’ made by bogus leaders and experts might be acceptable to those satisfied by the social contract that exists in that country between the elite and the rest. However, domestically some might not be happy with the arrangement, and internationally many might be highly disadvantaged by this setup. Domestic unrest and international terrorism are just two examples of the consequences that could arise from taking the expertise of ‘experts’ too seriously.

Why are there limits to expertise? An essential task in dealing with complex adaptive systems is to recognise the significance of the passage of time in the way these systems operate and evolve through successive cycles of learning, adaptation and survival. This mode of progression imposes certain constraints:

  • Time is needed for the system to evolve proactively within an environment that is substantially affected by what other co-evolving systems are doing.
  • The pattern of a system at any time is clearly a function of everything that happened in its past up to that moment.
  • What happens next depends on too many factors, which makes detailed prediction (and therefore rigidly planned action) hazardous to say the least.
  • All the while positive feedback threatens to magnify small perturbations into avalanches of unpredictable and uncontrollable change.

Evolutionary change

Systems have to expend energy to stay within stable, but evolving, self-organised patterns that accumulate complexity over time. Today’s prosperous nations took a very long time to amass wealth through small but steady increments. That span of time itself is merely a brief moment in a lengthy project of ‘complexity’ acquisition that has gone on for thousands of years, a sequence of occurrences that does not have a beginning or an end.

In this context, it is quite wrong to imagine that the sum total of conventions and beliefs that describe what we know as ‘Western democracy’ for example, started at the Renaissance or the Enlightenment. There was something there before these, admittedly important, episodes made their presence felt, and that past was instrumental in what happened later. History of that part of the world evolved along a punctuated equilibrium path; the Enlightenment is one spike on that journey.

In short, culture, society, democracy, economics and politics evolve towards increasing ‘complexity’ and it takes time for that build up to occur. This imposes yet another constraint: many layers of interconnections and adaptations have to come into being at a pace that could not be accelerated appreciably. Money, imported expertise, and grim determination to ‘adopt democratic norm’ are no substitutes for the time needed for a complex system to generate ‘depth’. Basically:

  • The past affects the future.
  • The future is unpredictable in detail.
  • Change follows an evolutionary path.
  • There are no shortcuts to sustainable evolution.

Fundamentally, therefore, evolutionary changes in a complex adaptive system are not the work of one person, or group of people, or even a whole generation of experts and leaders. The time span and local interactions are too long and too numerous to be influenced much by such a thing as individual effort (see ‘In My Time’ syndrome). The same could be said of futile actions undertaken by one state to ‘right the world’. Complex adaptive systems are simply not amenable to that form of treatment.

Whenever efforts are made to overcome this self-evident feature of the way ‘complex’ systems behave the results prove to be at least unsatisfactory and at worst disastrous. We are not talking theory here, but real life activities that cause serious harm to many millions of people. Recent machinations by the neo-conservatives in the USA are a case in point. The Guardian (12 August 2003) described the problems well:

“The neo-conservative approach to military intervention was set out with admirable clarity by Paul Wolfowitz in his infamous 1992 defence policy guidance paper: ‘While the US cannot become the world’s ‘policeman’, by assuming responsibility for righting every wrong, we will retain the pre-eminent responsibility for addressing selectively those wrongs which threaten not only our interests, but those of our allies or friends…’

Humanitarian interventionists aspire to a world order based on the universal and disinterested pursuit of justice. Neo-conservatives are motivated by the selective and self-interested pursuit of their own geopolitical goals. This rapaciously ideological project starts from the proposition that the American social and economic mode represents the ideal form to which all other forms must ultimately comply. In what the neo-cons call this “distinctly American internationalism”, US national interests and the interests of humanity are indivisible. It remains to be seen what happens when this assumption collides with the reality of an Iraq determined to make choices that conflict with the White House.”

The question becomes infinitely wider when Iraq in the above quote is replaced by the whole world. But the problem could be seen on the micro scale just as well. Pension ‘experts’ base their advice to clients on predictions made by ‘economic experts’ who base their conclusions on pronouncements made by ‘political and corporate leaders’. This nested series of speculations lead to a decision by an individual to place his or her life savings into this or that scheme to provide for old age. The various ‘experts’ involved will not be there in forty years. Instead, there will be new ‘experts’!

Predictable inequalities

Average ‘complexity’, in a group of complex adaptive systems, increases and entities with the highest ‘complexity’ experience the largest growth. Communities of people (and nations) are, therefore, stratified in wealth as in most other respects, and the gap between those at the top and others, if left unregulated, has a propensity to grow (see Elites). Sustainable evolution is a long-term process aimed at producing best results under prevailing conditions. On its own it does not promise equality.

The hierarchical model is an inevitable consequence of this process, and it is now firmly fixed as a frozen accident in most instances where people are involved, including the international political economy.

The rigidity and shape of the hierarchy in the context of a political economy is determined by a number of factors, including history, tradition and form of government. The hierarchy is steep under a dictator or a despotic royal family; those who monopolise political and economic interactions might amount to no more than a handful of people. In a reasonably democratic country, by contrast, the hierarchy is somewhat flatter; the elite embraces more individuals, and people are free to interact locally in nested hierarchies where they have ‘bosses’ above and ‘underlings’ below.

The global hierarchy, comprised of leading powers and their international regimes, and less developed countries, is a typical manifestation of the above feature of ‘complexity’. Without appropriate rules of engagement, interactions inevitably lead to greater disparity between the two camps. The rich (and powerful) will become richer (and more powerful).

Understanding of this propensity for inequality in the way complex adaptive systems behave is a positive step towards achieving better results in human and economic development, and the spread of real democracy. It is not enough to leave the system to its own devices. The rules that govern interactions have to be defined in a way that counteracts this tendency. However, this has to be done in a way that works with and not against the innate nature of the system.

Cooperation and competition

Contrary to expectations, interactions in social systems are not simply driven by blind self-interest. This adds an added layer of rationality to self-organised ‘complexity’. Explanations for spontaneous cooperation are emerging through the field of Game Theory. In a game (or encounter) involving two players, if one always cooperates when the other persists in competing, the former would lose badly while the latter would gain handsomely. But if both were to cooperate at all times, then there is a high probability that they would both benefit. Admittedly the rewards in this instance might be less than those derived when one competes against a foolishly cooperative opponent. Equally, there is a good chance that the rewards would be more than those arising from costly mutual competition.

Many encounters in life, including the relationship between elites and others, could be shown to be variations on this theme. Does one cooperate or compete for best results? When two parties meet for the first time the temptation to compete is high, in the hope that the other side would choose to cooperate. As the encounter is repeated more times, it becomes clear that cooperation could lead to more reliable benefits. A constant state of competition is costly to both sides. Dictatorship (and hegemony) are costly systems: they are founded on a short-term view of life. ‘Democracy’, on the other hand, provides mutual benefits: it is based on a longer lasting relationship.

Game Theory defines two key requirements for spontaneous cooperation to emerge:

  • There has to be a significant probability of continuing future encounters between the same parties, otherwise the possibility of quick once and for all profit becomes too tempting. If future encounters were unlikely then the only evolutionarily stable policy would be to compete on all occasions (as dictators often do; quick profits, etc.).
  • The two sides should be able to recognise (and trust) each other and recall actions in previous encounters. In this context, Game Theory recognises reputation and communication as significant factors in determining the nature of interactions between partners, including communities and nations (spin is not a new innovation).

As copious variety and freedom for internal elements to interact are essential for optimal performance by a complex adaptive system, Game Theory suggests preference for minimal controls, by national governments and international regimes say, and ability to trust the other side. The obsessive intent of dictators to enforce total compliance is revealed as costly and irrational. Basically, the price of enforcing compulsion is routinely too high for it to be an evolutionarily stable strategy.

Sustainable control could be achieved more efficiently by adopting rules that ‘elicit compliance from a majority of the governed’, because they ‘find it profitable to obey most of the time’ (Axelrod). Game Theory, in that way, throws light on the poor performance of dictators. As they also risk an early and violent death, they come out as all time losers. Heavy-handed attempts by the USA and its allies and agencies, such as the IMF, WTO, and the World Bank, to impose global cooperation based on a specific view of world affairs are just as short-sighted.

Prosperous and powerful states have more scope to compete against weaker states. Moreover, they are able to cooperate with partners at the same level in the global hierarchy. In this case mutual cooperation is more profitable for both sides. Room for manoeuvre for the weaker nation, by contrast, is strictly limited. Morality, fairness, and ideology have little to do with this inevitable scenario, it is rational and predictable. However, weaker nations are not completely powerless. They could adopt strategies that would materially improve their performance in international encounters. Basically, they have to increase interactions with partners at roughly the same level in the global hierarchy. Just as important, they have to ‘play the game’ with respect to reputations and influencing domestic and international opinions.

All the above factors feature prominently in Game Theory. Knowledge of how each side might behave and, even more importantly, what they are capable of doing affects future interactions between players. Powerful countries strive to acquire a reputation for toughness (and moral superiority!) to ensure voluntary compliance by other players, without the need to ‘fight’ on each and every occasion.

A reputation for toughness could be acquired by soundly, and very publicly, defeating a weaker miscreant, as demonstrated by American continual agitation against numerous apparently highly dangerous ‘enemies’ such as Cuba, Libya, Iran and Iraq, although in the normal course of events they are hardly worth the effort as real or even potential threats. An elaborate edifice of weighty ideological and moral disagreements is normally erected to justify action and to highlight perils to vital interests. In this way negative labels (especially the supposed or real absence of ‘democracy’) brand enemies and positive labels extol the virtues of the dominant power and its supporters. Enemies are all bad, and friends are all good.

These are not simple academic possibilities. The Financial Times of 13 August 2003, for instance, suggested that the war against Iraq might have been a warning to Saudi Arabia to move away from terrorism and fundamentalism:

“There are at least four plausible channels that together might explain the speed with which the decision on Iraq was taken after September 11. First, September 11 was a dramatic confirmation that the stability of Saudi oil was in jeopardy. …The only quantitatively significant alternative to Saudi oil was Iraqi oil… Second, a substitute had to be found for the US military bases in Saudi Arabia…Iraq would become a new base of US military operations. Third, the Bush White House needed to issue a powerful threat to the Saudi leadership: one more false step and you’re finished. Attacking the next-door neighbour was no doubt judged to be quite persuasive…Finally, there was probably a strong hope that the public could be diverted from the true roots of September 11.”

In the same article the Financial Times wrote:

“The Bush administration needed to turn the public’s eyes away from the intelligence failures and head off the danger, however slight, that Saudi associates of the Bush family and friends would be implicated in the attacks. Mr Hussein was the perfect target: a true despot, long-standing public enemy of the US and a wastrel of energy resources needed by US consumers.”

Leading powers favour voluntary compliance with their wishes from most nations to avoid the need for overt compulsion. In that effort nothing is left to chance, including the use in sport, culture, fashion, and history ofmemes, described by Dawkins as a replicator of cultural transmission. British ‘fairness’ in sport was a meme adopted for a long period to sell the idea that Britons are uniquely fair in all their dealings. That ploy delivered handsome returns. For instance, it was difficult for most people to believe that the British government told an untruth when Egypt was attacked by Israel in 1956 following nationalisation of the Suez Canal by Nasser. It was claimed that Britain and France stepped in to restore peace. Years later it was revealed that the three countries had conspired to attack Egypt in concert.

The tactics described above are now well understood. Scholars consider world affairs in three sets:

  • State-making (‘high politics’): balance of power, etc. (IR).
  • Wealth-making (‘low politics’): trade, economic development, etc. (IPE).
  • Mind-making: ideologies, social movements, global public relations, cultural ‘warfare’, etc.

The tactic, when used effectively, allows the countries concerned to compete while encouraging others to cooperate. Israel’s masterly application of this means of acquiring a good reputation is a classic illustration of the power of that tool. Before and after the creation of the Jewish state in 1948 it managed to break every rule in the book without having to suffer any penalties worth the name.

Why do so many states fail to adopt the above strategy, either to gain a good reputation or to avoid being saddled with a bad one? Cultural sophistication, education, and wherewithal have a great deal to do with differences in performance:

  • There has to be an element of truth in what is being said: there is a substantial difference between effective public relations and crude propaganda.
  • A meme is not unlike a gene; it has to sink or swim in line with its success against other memes competing on the fitness landscape. Willingness by most individuals to back one meme in preference to another, therefore, is fundamental to a successful outcome.
  • The meme of ‘good reputation’ has to be reinforced by constant repetition and transmission without a need for the state to supervise the effort at every turn.

Consequently, with a reasonable level of democracy a country could win a large measure of compliance at home and abroad and, hence, a good reputation. Conversely, it is relatively easy to tag a dictator with a bad reputation, as people would be inclined to believe the worst in that situation. Furthermore, higher levels of ‘complexity’ confers on a nation, or more accurately a state or an elite, better capability to engender consensus at home and a desired reputation abroad. Herman and Chomsky described the power of the media and the means by which they are manipulated. They presented a propaganda model with filters that ultimately determine what the public are told and what they are conditioned to believe. They highlighted in particular the use of ideological labels to differentiate ‘friends’ from ‘enemies’. ‘Democracy’ features prominently in this tactic.


An assumption that certain individuals are endowed with special attributes (elites as part of the design principles of most societies). This could be very harmful assumption (see IMT syndrome).

Failure of experts and leaders to anticipate or influence events is only to be expected (complexity and long-run evolutionary change).

Recognition of the above failure threatens elites and their substantial rewards.

Without proper rules to regulate interactions, nested complex systems move towards inequality (elites and hierarchies).

Spontaneous cooperation is quite possible but under specific conditions as suggested by Game Theory (continuing future encounters, and recognition).

Dictators compete, democracies are based on cooperation, but the aim is essentially the same; survival of the elites and their rewards.

Reputation, image building, influencing opinions are key to ‘success’.

Mind-making (ideologies, social movements, global public relations, cultural ‘warfare’, etc.) is nowadays a recognised part of studies of world affairs.

Presumed or real presence or absence of ‘democracy’ is a tool in the demolition or building of reputations.