Complexity theory and the fundamental challenges to democracy in the 21st Century


As the 20th Century came to an end, Western style liberal democracy and free market economics appeared to be completely triumphant. Anti-democratic communism had been defeated and the era of one-party states had come to an end. Even developing countries, possibly in response to pressure from the IMF/World Bank, international opinion, and internal forces, were becoming increasingly democratic and free market oriented. There were some significant exceptions, China in particular, but many saw the victory as being complete and irrevocable. The academic zenith of this position can be found in Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and The Last Man.

Not surprisingly, Fukuyama’s viewpoint, and the liberal triumphalism which it typifies, has been criticised from a variety of directions. Neo-Marxists decried it as capitalist propaganda. Third world authors have complained about its Western bias. In this paper, we are not interested in exploring Fukiyama’s book nor its legitimate critics. Instead, we seek to challenge the Newtonian philosophic and scientific framework upon which the perceived triumph of liberal economics and Western democracy rests. Using relatively recent discoveries in nonlinear dynamic systems theory (also know as Complexity Systems theory) we will argue that the current claims of the triumph of democracy and liberal economics and the subsequent notions of new consensus-based politics and economics (or “third way” 1) are actually troubling indicators of increasingly stultifying rigidities in the democratic and economic processes of advanced industrial countries. Moreover, we argue that these models when imposed upon the weak and impoverished countries of the Third World, yield highly uncertain results at best and growing economic impoverishment and social and political disintegration at worst.

Basically, linear systems, as seen in the industrial assembly lines, thrive on order, top-down and command-and-control management styles based on distinct hierarchical structures. The end product is known and knowable, and given causes lead to predictable results, each and every time. Reductionist methods of that ilk are anathema to nonlinear phenomena that are better suited to integrative methods that rely more on cooperation and participation than on direction from the top. The paper strongly advocates that problems, solutions, opportunities, and challenges in the social science arena, and hence in democracy for the present purpose, could not be considered sensibly unless and until the nature of the processes involved has been determined explicitly. In short are we dealing with linear or nonlinear processes? Up to the present there has been an implicit assumption that the processes are linear. We assert that that is not the case, and then go on to argue that fundamental consequences flow from this shift in paradigm.

To demonstrate our arguments we have divided this paper into four main sections. In section one we will briefly summarise the development of linear and non-linear scientific paradigm. In section two we will examine the linear paradigm in the social sciences and its transition towards a non-linear systems paradigm. In section three, we will demonstrate the linear foundations of traditional liberal democracy and the implications of the non-linear systems paradigm shift for democracy and liberal economics. In our concluding section we will outline some of the major challenges to liberal democracy and economics in the 21st century and explore these challenges from a non-linear paradigm.

From a Linear to Non-linear Paradigm in the Natural Sciences

Up to recent decades, discoveries in the natural sciences were formulated within a linear paradigm. Here the system is assumed to change in a smooth and predictable manner in which given causes lead to known results at all times and places. Linear systems respond best to hierarchical command-and-control styles of management. Above all else linearity is associated with high levels of order and predictability. Reductionist methods that envision the whole as the simple sum of the parts are perfectly adequate for that situation.2 Newtonian mechanics and the Industrial Revolution, for example, were based on linear principles. The Age of Enlightenment in Europe, reaching maturity in the 18th century determined human beliefs and methods for centuries. Descartes and Newton were the principal architects of the new paradigm. The former advocated rationalism while the latter presented a whole raft of fundamental laws. Other discoveries in fields such as magnetism, electricity, and chemistry soon followed to create a high degree of confidence in the power of reason to tackle any situation. By the end of the 19th and the early years of the 20th century many scientists believed that few surprises remained to be discovered.3

Just at this moment of certainty, the natural sciences began to experience a Kuhnian ‘revolution’4 that propelled them beyond the confines of the Newtonian linear paradigm. Not surprisingly, the process was both lengthy and convoluted.5 Doubts about the current paradigm appeared soon after World War I, although there were earlier indications that a shift was due.6 Einstein, Bohr, Schrödinger, Heisenberg, and Dirac probed and then expanded the limits set by Newton and Descartes. In doing so they gradually influenced attitudes and methods in many other disciplines, including eventually the social sciences.

It is important to point out that the above pioneers and others who followed them did not prove Newton to have been wrong. Essentially, they demonstrated that some phenomena in physics, and other fields, are probabilistic. The shift within the natural sciences from utter certainty to questions of probability was well established by the early 1930s. But there was a time lag between its adoption by the exclusive niches occupied by particle physicists, cosmologists and mathematicians and its later propagation amongst the rest of the science fraternity. Due to narrow fields of specialisation and other factors, shortcomings of the old paradigm and the emergence of the new paradigm were missed or ignored by many of those working in the natural sciences. Basically, linearity and its reductionist methods continued to be seen by many scientists as the proper means to render difficult situations more amenable to analysis. And for some specific purposes they were quite appropriate.

The process of transformation gathered momentum in the second half of the 20th century. As before, mathematicians and physicists were in the lead, but now meteorologists, chemists, geneticists, and economists joined the fray.7 Researchers became increasingly interested in a family of systems each involving numerous components that interact with each other to influence the whole system in a manner that could not be discerned by observing the activities of the internal elements themselves. Such entities are referred to variously nowadays as nonlinear, complex, dynamical or dissipative systems, to highlight particular aspects of their behaviour.8 Those capable of evolution in line with changing conditions are known as adaptive systems. A game of chess is a dynamical system. Moves are made according to simple rules, but the outcome of any game could not be predicted by knowing the rules of interaction and the history of previous moves. On the other hand, a ball falling to the ground under gravity is a linear system. Simple calculations indicate how long it would take to reach the ground. By contrast, and in the words of Gleick, analysing nonlinear systems “is like walking through a maze whose walls rearrange themselves with each step you take.” 9

Admittedly, within the new frame of reference humankind is being asked to accept a large measure of unpredictability. Change in nonlinear systems involves discontinuities, rapid changes as opposed to smooth ones, and persistence, low for instance does not necessarily follow high. That is not a comfortable development for people accustomed to promises of order and control no matter how tenuous. Dynamical systems are comprised of a large number of internal actors that interact locally in what looks like a state of anarchy that somehow manages to create self-organised stable global patterns. The patterns, however, often evolve in ways that could not be modelled for the purpose of predicting the future course of events. Typically, tiny differences in initial conditions might be magnified, through feedback, into large unforeseen developments.

Assimilation of nonlinear systems and their integrative methods into the natural sciences is still in progress. Nevertheless, enough has been learnt about the new methods to command acceptance of their validity as scientific analytical tools.10 The new paradigm has expanded beyond physics to include other disciplines. In biology, for instance, animals and plants are now routinely treated as dynamic adaptive systems.

From a Linear to Non-linear Paradigm in the Social Sciences

The success of the linear paradigm in the natural sciences had a profound effect on attitudes and practices in all sectors of human activity, spreading well beyond the disciplines embraced by the original scientific discoveries. The social sciences were no exception. Surrounded by the technological marvels of the industrial revolution which were founded on a Newtonian vision of an orderly, clockwork universe driven by observable and immutable laws, it did not take much of an intellectual leap to apply the lessons of the physical sciences to the social realm. Adam Smith and David Ricardo claimed to have captured the laws of economic interaction. Karl Marx wedded his vision of class struggle to an analysis of the capitalist mode of production to create the “immutable” and deterministic laws of capitalist development. Academics in all the major fields of social science welcomed the new age of certainty and predictability with open arms. Economics, politics, sociology all became “sciences”, desperate to duplicate the success of the natural sciences. Moreover, this desire was institutionalised through the development of modern universities which created and reinforced the disciplinarisation and professionalisation of the social sciences.11

The high point of the linear paradigm was reached in the 1950s and 60s, particularly in universities in the United States. Strengthened by the success of planning programmes during WWII and the early post-war period, pressured by the growing Cold War, and lavishly funded by the expanding universities, American academics strived to demonstrate, and hence control, the fundamentally rational nature of human interaction. This traditional Newtonian approach was clearly expressed in the modernisation theories of the Third World development, the realist vision of international relations, the behaviouralist writings of sociologists, the positivist foundations of liberal economics and the rational plans of public policy experts and urban planners.

Using the Newtonian frame of reference modern social scientists unjustifiably assumed that social phenomena were primarily linear and therefore predictable. They, consequently, applied reductionist methods founded on the belief that stable relationships exist between causes and effects, such as the assumption that individual self-interest is an explanation and/or a model for national level self-interest. Furthermore, based on this linear thinking they assumed that society and social institutions had an “end-state” towards which they were evolving. Hence, economic interaction, democracy, fundamental social orders, etc. all had final stages towards which they were evolving. Nation-states, societies and even individuals could be positioned along this developmental pathway and policies could be devised to help them towards the next level.

The remarkable dominance of the Newtonian frame of reference is brilliantly captured by a quotation from an early critic of the “scientific” approach in politics argued in 1962:

“So deep and widespread is the belief, so eminent and able the believers in the value of the contemporary scientific study of politics, that there is not a little impatience with any attempt to question it… All of us who profess the study of politics are confronted with the prevailing scientific approach, no matter how practical our concern, how slight out interest in methodology, or how keen our desire to get on with the business of direct investigation.”12

However, even at its peak countervailing tendencies in the social sciences survived. As mentioned earlier, there is nothing new about questioning the fundamental order and rationality of human existence. A belief in the fundamentally rational and orderly nature of human existence only emerged in the Western philosophical tradition in the 17th and 18th centuries. Before this period, much of the human and physical world embraced unknowable mysteries that were cloaked in the enigmas of religion. During the 19th and 20th centuries, there continued to be a huge variety of potent critics of human rationality from the hermeneutical tradition of Freud and Weber, the post-empicism of Habermas, the French post-modernists and deconstructivists, etc. Consequently, from the 1970s onwards as social scientists continually failed to capture the ‘laws’ of society and economic interaction and were continually frustrated over their inability to do so (a major example being the application of universal structural adjustment programmes to deal with the remarkable diversity of the Third World debt crisis), social scientists began to abandon the Newtonian framework by reasserting earlier anti-Newtonian philosophies. Some reasserted the inherent irrationality of human existence (particularly post-modernist and constructivist thinkers). Many drifted towards a middling position between the extremes of a strictly scientific Newtonian framework and the fundamentally irrationalist constructivist one. It is this movement that has led the social sciences to the threshold of a ‘scientific revolution’ that could shift them into a nonlinear paradigm.13

Non-linear systems theory has become a legitimate area in the social sciences.14 Its fundamental implications can be found in other readings particularly David Byrne’s, Complexity Theory and the Social Sciences: An Introduction. As Byrne argues, non-linear systems theory (complexity theory) charts a middle path between the certainty of positivism and the irrationality of post-modernism:

“Complexity/chaos offers the possibility of an engaged science not founded on pride, in the assertion of an absolute knowledge as the basis for social programmes, but rather in a humility about the complexity of the world coupled with a hopeful belief in the potential of human beings to do something about it.”15

Instead of repeating the various implications in detail, we merely summarise them in the following table relative to the Newtonian framework of Order and an extreme version of Disorder.

  Order (Linear) Complexity(Nonlinear) Disorder (alinear)
Based on Complete rationality Bounded rationality Complete irrationality
  Total Certainty Limited certainty Uncertain
  Predictability Limited predictability Unpredictable
  Linked causes and effects Causality is indeterminate Causality is meaningless
  Determinism Evolutionary change Chaos
Consequences Researchers look for rational foundations to all phenomena Researchers look for both rational and irrational foundation.????? No rational foundations
  There are no inherent limits to human knowledge. Only constrains are effort and technology Significant limits to knowledge due to complexity and uncertainty. No inherent patterns. Knowledge creation is not possible.
  Humanity can develop and improve. Progress is possible and inherent in greater knowledge Humanity may or may not develop/improve. Progress may be possible, but much more uncertain. No inherent possibility for development/improvement/progress
  Researchers can obtain predictable and repeatable experimental results Experimentation is possible but within limited contexts Experimentation is impossible.
  History is progressive, cumulative, and leads to an ultimate end. History may be progress and display fundamental patterns, but it is also uncertain and tortuous The concept of history is meaningless
  Based on a progressive vision of expanding human dominance over nature Based on holistic vision of human and natural interactions, heterogeneity, and uncertainty Human progress and/or dominance over nature is not possible due to lack of order.
General Intellectual Representatives Behaviouralist and positivist theories and approaches, rational choice, methodological individualism Comparative approaches, historical approaches, qualitative theories Post-modernism, constructivism, post-structuralism, anti-rationalist theories

Range of outcomes for Complexity Theory

 Order—-Stifling Order—-Creative Complexity—-Destructive Disorder—-Chaos

From Linear to Non-Linear Theories of Democracy

At first glance, one may think that the Newtonian foundation of the social sciences would have little to do with liberal democracy. Democracy as a concept is neither simple nor clear. It is made even more obscure because it has been adopted over the ages as a marketing slogan by all kinds of political movements, businesses, interest groups, and individuals. On the face of it, the Western liberal meaning of the word is easy to grasp; a country is democratic when the people are free to choose their own form of government and to elect their representatives at regular intervals. In general, modern liberal democracy offers personal freedoms, equality before the law, and universal suffrage. The Declaration of Independence adopted by the American Continental Congress in 1776 and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen approved by the French National Assembly in 1789 are often quoted as sources for the main features of Western democracy. The Atlantic Charter, agreed in 1941 by the USA and Britain and later embraced by most countries, lead to the formation of the United Nations in 1945 and provided a modern interpretation of what is understood by democracy at the national and international levels.

However, in some respects the above features are sometimes as flawed in practice as the ancient concepts of Greek and Roman democracy. It is easy to describe what democracy might entail but adoption of the principles and applying them broadly to involve all facets of the life of individuals, businesses and nations follows a lengthy, uncertain, and tortuous route. For instance, a constitution dating back to 1874, and amended regularly after that date, allowed women in Switzerland to have a voice in choosing their government only as recently as 1971. Equally, the American Declaration of Independence stated categorically that “all men are created equal”, but black people were excluded from that lofty aim up to the second half of the 20th century. Similarly, the Atlantic Charter was clear on the need to allow nations to choose their own national boundaries but leading powers have routinely ignored that requirement. The Charter’s stipulation that armaments and arms sales should be reduced met a similar fate.

Nevertheless, a core Newtonian foundation can be found for the current structure of Western liberal democracy. The key work, which most clearly uncovers this foundation, was Benjamin Barber’s Strong Democracy: Participatory Politics for a New Age (1984). Arguing from a pre-complexity framework and drawing heavily on the American philosopher John Dewey,16 Barber convincingly demonstrates that liberal democratic theorists preconceptual and epistemological frameworks are entirely Newtonian. As Barber points out, in an attempt to duplicate the success of the Newtonian method, both classical and modern liberal theorists (Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, John Rawls, Robert Nozick) searched for firm and certain foundations to their theories and then attempted to build logical structures upon these foundations. These foundations are usually founded in the belief in self-interested atomistic individuals rationally pursing their distinctive self-interests in a context of other individuals pursuing their own interests. Given this base, noticeably similar to Newton’s theory of particles in motion, a full-scale theoretical construction of social and political relations was created, neatly mirroring the physical sciences. As Barber demonstrates with the concepts of liberal freedom and power:

“Rendering freedom and power in physical terms not only misconstrues them, it produces a conception of political liberty as entirely passive. Freedom is associated with the unperturbedness of the inertial body, with the motionlessness of the inertial frame itself… The modern liberal appears to regard it as a republican ideal: man at rest, inactive, nonparticipating, isolated, uninterfered with, privatized, and thus free.”17

The fundamental problem for liberal democratic theory is its quest for a certain, knowable and universal base. If this base could be found, like the laws of gravity for Newton, then the fundamental aspects of society could be deduced. However, given the rational/irrational and chaotic development of human history, this search would not be a fruitful one. Moreover, it tends to lead the theorist towards a rigid, inflexible and dogmatic view of human nature and social order. For example, once liberal democrats have found their certain foundation they tend to concentrate on the implications and logic of their initial positions rather than the complex reality of human interaction. Again, as Barber succinctly argues:

“The quest for certainty in political thinking seems more likely to breed orthodoxy than to nurture truth and in practice tends to promote the domination of method over substance… In an attempt to mimic the hard sciences, of which they rarely have a true understanding, these social scientists have tried to subordinate every understanding of reality to some orthodox construction of understanding. For a brief period, now happily passed, metatheoretical analysis threatened to become the only legitimate form of political theorizing.”18

What Would a Non-linear Theory of Democracy Look Like?

The move to nonlinearity is broader than the long-running argument between system-based and unit-based theorists. Waltz, for instance, advocated that international politics should be treated on system-wide bases.19 He assumed that causes and effects could be linked and future events could be predicted accurately as long as enough data is collected and the system is taken as a whole. That would not work in the case of nonlinear dynamic systems in which some global patterns are predictable but useful interventions are restricted to enabling interactions to proceed in a manner that produces self-organised stable patterns rather than chaos. In this instance local freedom of action, learning, and access to information are vitally important, as control is limited to observation of outputs and ‘encouragement’ for the system to evolve towards desirable ends. Management of dynamic adaptive systems is, therefore, a reiterative process that relies on slow, and uncertain, progression. Command-and-control methods, effective for linear systems, are inappropriate as it is not possible to select sensible actions to achieve desired objectives in situations where effects could not be traced back to specific causes.

The delicate balance between variety of local interactions and global stability is a key factor in enabling a dynamic system with a nonlinear mode of operation to survive through continual adaptation, steering as it does so an uncertain path between deathly order and rampant chaos. Under these conditions, minor variations cause some change but this is normally contained within the overall pattern existing at the time. The system seems to be in deceptive state of order and tranquility. The ongoing feverish activity occasionally, and inevitably, succeeds every now and then in triggering a major shift into a new pattern that is more suited to the ambient environment existing at that point. In evolutionary terms this form of change; long periods of apparent inactivity interspersed with few large upheavals, often referred to as punctuated equilibrium.

It is vital that the system should survive long enough to allow local interactions to take it onto the next evolutionary stage. Freedom to interact and innovate locally, survival, and adaptation are, therefore, linked in a circular process. Clearly, variety is a major asset for survival and successful evolution: some of the components of the system would be able to thrive even though other elements may perish under the new conditions brought about by continual flux in local circumstances. Hence, it is reasonably clear why evolution, of democratic practices as in all other dynamic adaptive processes, does not lead to an optimal end-state. It is “an open-ended process by which a structure evolves through interaction with its environment to deliver a better performance” by means of small effective improvements.20 ‘Good enough’ seems to be the sum total of what a healthy dynamic system should strive for.

There are two significant regularities in Complex Systems theory. Firstly, average complexity tends to increase. And secondly, entities with higher complexity stand a good chance of making the most gain. The ubiquitous presence of elites and hierarchies in businesses, nations and within the interstate world system, the emergence of hegemonic powers, and the inclination for the rich to get richer, hint at political economic similarities. Time piles complexity over even more complexity. Culture, society, economics, politics, and democratic practices evolve towards increasing complexity in the same manner, and as elsewhere it takes time for complexity to build up. Layers of interconnections and adaptations have to come into being at a pace that could not be rushed or acquired through higher spending, imitation, external pressure, or imported expertise.21 And the process has no end.

It is natural for egoist individuals, businesses, and nations to compete in the search for survival and dominance.22 The hierarchical model is an inevitable consequence of that process, and it is now firmly established as a frozen accident in most instances where people are involved. The rigidity and shape of the hierarchy in the context of democracy is determined by a number of factors, including history, tradition and form of government. In undemocratic situations, the hierarchy is steep and political and economic interactions are monopolised by a few people. Order is achieved at a high price involving slow, or even negative, evolution. Under democratic conditions, by contrast, the hierarchy is distinctly flatter, the elite embraces more individuals, and most people are reasonably free to interact locally in a huge variety of ways. Here healthy evolution is not only possible but also probable. The global hierarchy comprised of a hegemonic power, leading nations, and others, follows similar traits. Speedier progress is more likely when that hierarchy is less steep and where local variety is not seen as a ‘threat to world order’. It is argued here that heavy handed attempts by the USA and its allies, the IMF, WTO, and the World Bank, to impose global ‘cooperation’ based on a specific view of world affairs modelled on Western democratic practices and liberal economic principles might be short-sighted. It is quite possible that it might be harmful in the longer term.

Cascading rewards and penalties are deployed to keep the hierarchical system in being, structured around the needs of the elites at individual, national and international levels. For instance, chairmen of companies ostensibly recruit non-executive directors to their boards to foster good governance. But, non-executive directors also set salaries for chairmen. In practice, a few persons serve as chairmen in one corporation and as non-executive directors on a number of other boards.23 Politicians, even in Western democracies, play a similar game of musical chairs: they are either in power or in opposition but even when they are out of power they are readily assimilated into a number of lucrative positions for the duration. In other words, democracy is a matter of degree and style rather than an absolute state as normally claimed by spin-doctors of the various ideologies. Hence, in a Western democratic country, distinction is still made between tactical day to day affairs and matters of strategic significance. Commentary of every conceivable variety is welcomed in the former instance, while little if any debate is permitted on topics bordering on fundamental issues such as the distribution of wealth and power, and the basic political structure.

The above points are included to highlight two related issues. Firstly, Western democratic systems have not reached a state of perfection; there is no such end-state in any case. Secondly, buffeted by both challenges and opportunities they are continually evolving under changing circumstances. The current fashionable drive for ‘consensus politics’ and the growth of vast global corporations in the name of liberal economics, for example, could easily drive the hierarchical structure in Western societies vertically upwards in a trend that would diminish democracy rather than enhance it. Significantly, wealth differentials within these societies, as well as between nations, are already escalating at a fast rate.24 The risks to social stability are not yet fully recognised although the danger signs are steadily mounting. Drug dependency and persistently high anti-social crime levels are examples of this process of change. These comments are not intended to be judgmental. On the contrary they are designed to be constructive at the local and global levels. A full understanding of how a nonlinear process unfolds and how it is shaped by many influences that determine the overall domain it occupies is essential to safeguarding past gains and encouraging future growth in democratic beliefs and practices.

The Real Threats to Democracy

Strange as it may seem we do not class puppet dictators here and there, fundamentalists of whatever colour, and sporadic terrorist activity as credible threats to democracy. As sketched out above, there are more serious threats to democracy that should be confronted. These include: (1) the continuing belief in and pursuit of an “end” state for democracy based on Western experience, (2) economic globalisation and associated inequalities, and (3) the internationalisation and imposition of preconceived models of democracy.

Despite the mounting evidence of the limitations of the linear framework and the dynamic nature of democracy, linear theories continue to try to demonstrate that it has reached a final “end” state. Ready-wrapped in convincing and possibly inviting garb, democratic theories that argue for the end state of democracy are actually potent threats. Reduction of choice and variety are the biggest dangers in view of the dynamic nature of the processes involved in the emergence and development of democracy. One illustration would help to clarify this point. The economic and political thinking behind the Third Way, advocated by Bill Clinton and Tony Blair and articulated by Anthony Giddens25 is patently attractive and deceptively innocent. Using a fundamentally linear logic, the theory argues that with the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the traditional division between capitalism and socialism, a new consensual phase of politics and economics has arrived.26 Calls for ‘consensus politics’ on the assumption that there are given needs and aspirations that all people could subscribe to and for all time belong to the same genre. Similarly, blind belief in the virtues of globalisation, unconstrained liberal economic practices, and the imprudence for governments to ‘intervene’ in economic and business matters are potential challenges to democracy. They rule out vast areas of debate and innovation that might well safeguard the wider democratic rights of individuals and groups without necessarily obviating the clear benefits of these ideas.

From a non-linear perspective, an idea that has at the heart of it a vision of consensus and uniformity could lead to stultifying order as opposed to healthy creative complexity. The concept is suspect because it presupposes the possibility of an end-state that certain countries, such as Britain and the USA, have already reached beyond which there is no likelihood of further development. This challenge to democracy in effect suggests that citizens should not seek new, and possibly markedly different, practices from those existing at present. Worse still, any such attempt is seen as a deviant step that should be nipped in the bud; a pleasant mask that might hide an unpleasant face of political tyranny. The current clamour to depict differing viewpoints within a political party as a weakness of leadership or as sinister developments that should be quelled ruthlessly are early manifestations of that gathering cloud.

The second major challenge is the growth of market based economic forces. At both the national and global levels, economic developments based on superiority of market forces and free trade across boundaries are themselves powerful challenges to democracy, despite their undeniable efficacy as instruments of economic growth. The personal preferences and needs of individuals are swallowed up within the giant global economic machine. A wide chasm is developing between what people want and require locally and nationally and what giant firms are willing to provide. The concept of real service is gradually being replaced by efficiency presented by spin-doctors as ‘service’, as seen within the banking sector for instance. Automated means of communication and service delivery have replaced more traditional methods despite every indication that the customers do not favour the change. The high rewards that such ‘efficiency’ measures yield in profits mean that other companies are sure to follow suit. The often-repeated free market mantra that competition would correct the problem, as customers would gravitate to firms offering better service is more hope than reality.

Clearly, theorists of democracy cannot ignore the economic context within which democracy is nestled. Democracy must have real and tangible benefits to the individual. It is still unclear, however, whether the cherished right to criticise a Prime Minister or a president, for instance, without fear of persecution by the state is more or less valuable than other rights relating to jobs, food, health, education, old age, and incomes. In addition, if the political parties offer almost identical policies, elections become irrelevant in practice. They would simply result in rotation between a group of people intent on retaining the status quo. Globalisation is a major factor in accentuating this challenge to democracy. Power is shifting away from national governments to larger political alliances far removed from the grassroots and to vast corporations managed by a few people who are, at most, answerable to their boards and shareholders and no one else. The unwillingness, and in fact inability, of governments to ‘intervene’ in business and the virtual impossibility of having an effective global trade union movement leaves the field clear for the economy to triumph over all other considerations. Early advocates of the liberal economic doctrine were not unaware of these potential pitfalls.27 However, we now know more about how dynamic systems evolve, and about the ability of those with high levels of complexity, or wealth and power, to accumulate more of the same at the expense of real democracy.

The point here is not whether globalisation is good or bad from an economic point of view, and much could be said about that especially from the perspective of poorer nations. However, the threat to democracy is hard to miss. Almost all the checks and balances, such as socialism versus capitalism, parties of the left versus parties of the right, and trade unions versus business interests, that helped to reign in the excesses of one group as opposed to another are being dismantled. That regression includes the surrender of many welfare reforms introduced after much thought and effort and over a long period of time. The end result is diminution of real democratic rights and dilution of what remains still in existence.

The third major challenge is the internationalisation of linear models of democracy. The previous paragraphs described certain trends, such as the drive for consensus politics, the uncontrolled (or uncontrollable) spread of liberal economics, and burgeoning globalisation, that pose serious challenges to democracy in countries that are thought of as being established democracies. Variety and choice as well as checks and balances are in a state of decline leading to hostile and inappropriate conditions for adaptive dynamic system, such as democracy, to survive and prosper. However, the dominance of certain leading economic and political powers and their wish to impose precise models of democracy, and commerce and industry, on other nations is equally alarming. External pressures beamed at constraining local choice and freedom of action provide the most inhospitable conditions for the dynamic process of democracy to gather momentum.

There are suggestions that the leading powers are simply promoting their particular interests.28 Calls for liberalisation in recent times certainly had a sub-text that related to the wish by global economic powers to seek growth in international trade where that was in their favour. Pressure on China to ‘reform’ are a striking example, although there are now fears that China might prove to be too successful! Equally, there are indications that the efforts are basically well intentioned in many instances. Either way they are perceived as a threat to the emergence and progressive evolution of democratic practices.29 More importantly, they are unlikely to succeed because they are based on a misconception that the process of democratisation is linear and that it would therefore respond to command-and-control styles of management imposed from above. In many locations the efforts proved not only ineffective but also counterproductive, as was the case in Africa, Nigeria and Algeria being good examples, in South America, as in Chile, and in Asia, as in Afghanistan and Pakistan.30

Consequently, democracy must be viewed as a wider issue that embraces more than elementary political and legal rights of individuals and organisations. The rights to learn and to have medical services, to name only two examples, are just as valid as components of the democratic system. Furthermore, the interactive links to other factors, such as income, cannot be ignored in the adaptive dynamic process of democratisation. Collier wrote that damaging conflicts arise when a small group of people monopolises the rewards. He argued that democracy and personal incomes play a major part in whether conflict would occur in the first instance. But the emergence of democracy is unlikely unless incomes attain a certain acceptable minimum level. In short, calls for democratic reforms are meaningless without actions to improve basic living conditions. The reverse is also true, hence the suggestion that democracy could not be considered in isolation.


This paper argues that study of opportunities and challenges to democracy on the bases of reductionist assumptions suited to linear systems is doomed to failure. Policies and actions grounded into a top-down command-and-control style of management whether exercised by states, multinational corporations, international regimes such as the IMF, or dictators are seen as potent threats to democracy. Evidence is mounting that political economic processes, including the development of democratic convictions and practices, conform to the mode of operation of nonlinear dynamic systems. Such systems thrive on interactions between their internal components; in the present case people as groups or individuals. They require high degrees of adaptability and variety to survive and prosper. Restrictive practices and rigid rules imposed from above, even with the best of intentions, provide inappropriate conditions for the sustainable evolution of a dynamic system. Basically, measures of that type do not produce evolutionarily table strategies.

The paper draws a distinction between the global growth of liberal economic policies, themselves imposed with ruthless rigidity by leading powers and international regimes, and sustainable democracy. That should not be seen as criticism of or disagreement with that economic ideology: the paper merely highlights the obvious but often-ignored difference and conflict between the two processes. Adoption of liberal economic policies, or socialist policies for that matter, does not imply or guarantee democracy despite vocal assertions to the contrary. The paper suggests that development of lasting democratic beliefs and practices is a complex process that requires time as well as helpful global and local conditions. External influences are immaterial at best and harmful at worst. Such efforts have not succeeded in the past and could not succeed in future because they ignore, intentionally or otherwise, the true nature of the processes involved. If the system operated as a continually evolving dynamic process, success and sustainability, and possibly even survival, would depend on variety, adaptability, and ability of local actors to interact and innovate. Present trends continue, and in fact rely on, an assumption that the system is a linear process that benefits from centrally determined and enforced reductionist modes of management and control. That is the ultimate challenge to democracy in the 21st century.


  1. The dominant academic on the third way is Anthony Giddens.
  2. For a discussion of reductionism and a contrasting “integrative approach”, see Capra, The Tao of Physics, 1991 and Coveney and Highfield, Frontiers of Complexity, 1995.
  3. S. Hawkings provides an insightful analysis of the way scientific beliefs and methods changed throughout the ages in S. Hawkings, A Brief History of Time, 1988.
  4. Thomas Kuhn advanced a convincing case that “normal” or “mature” science progresses through major shifts, Kuhn’s scientific “revolutions”, from one paradigm to the next. A paradigm embraces the rules and assumptions and associated problems that require resolution at a particular stage of a science’s history. In effect the paradigm defines the envelope within which workers in that field conduct their affairs. When problems are encountered that the paradigm fails to resolve over a long period one or more individuals advance a new paradigm to replace the old regime. A new paradigm is only accepted after considerable, and on the whole healthy, scepticism and resistance, and providing it fulfils its promises. Henceforth, scientists work within the confines of the new paradigm until the next revolution arrives. Examples of “paradigm shifts” are aplenty; such as the move from Ptolemaic to Copernican astronomy and from Aristotelian to Newtonian dynamics. Kuhn added that the competing “schools characteristic of the early stages of a science’s development” are brought together into a new unified formulation of problems, beliefs and analytical tools. Eventually, a paradigm emerges and that activity achieves the status of a ‘mature science’. At the present the social sciences appear to be in a pre-paradigm state with a multiplicity of competing schools and ideologies and associated theories and assertions. See: Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 1970, 6-17.
  5. It is quite risky for a scientist to question the existing paradigm. Galileo, for instance, was promptly put under house arrest when he declared his preference for the Copernican view that the Earth revolved around the sun. The Roman Catholic Church eventually rehabilitated him in 1992.
  6. Poincare, possibly the greatest mathematician and physicist of the late 19th and 20th centuries, voiced disquiet about certain hallowed scientific beliefs of his era and anticipated chaos theory by some 70 years.
  7. See Coveney and Highfield, Frontiers of Complexity, 1996 for a detailed history of the tortuous route that led to recognition of complex systems as a major scientific discipline and the role played by computers in that task.
  8. See Nicolis and Prigogine, Exploring Complexity, 1989 and Kauffman, At Home in the Universe, 1996.
  9. Gleick, Chaos, 1988, p.24.
  10. Gleick, Chaos, 1988; Nicolis and Prigogine, Exploring Complexity, 1989; Kauffman, The Origins of Order, 1993; Gell-Mann, The Quark and the Jaguar, 1994; Coveney and Highfield, Frontiers of Complexity, 1995; Kauffman, At Home in the Universe, 1996; and Bar-Yam, Dynamics of Complex Systems, 1997 are all essential sources on this topic.
  11. Gulbenkian Commission, Open the Social Sciences, 1996, p.7.
  12. Strong, Herbert, (1962)Essays on the Scientific Study of Politics, p.v
  13. Non-linear systems theory (complexity theory) has established footholds in all of the major areas of social science. Main examples include: Barnett (et al.) (eds.) Nonlinear Dynamics and Economics, 1996; ByrneComplexity Theory and the Social Sciences, Routledge, 1998. Coveney and Highfield, Frontiers of Complexity, 1995; Day, Complex Economic Dynamics, 1994; Elliot and Kiel (eds.) Chaos Theory in the Social Sciences: Foundation and Application, 1997; Eve (et al.) (eds.) Chaos, Complexity and Sociology: Myths, Models and Theories, 1997; Hodghson, Economics and Evolution, 1993; Ormerod, The Death of Economics, 1994 and Butterfly Economics, 1998; and Waldrop, Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos, 1992. Nigel Thrift, “The Place of Complexity”, Theory, Culture and Society, Vol.16, 3, pp31-69, 1999. P. Mirowski, Natural Images in Economic Thought, 1994. Cioffi-Revilla, C. Politics and Uncertainty, CUP, 1998. Rycroft, R. and Kash, D., The Complexity Challenge: Technological Innovation for the 21st Century, Pinter, 1999.
  14. However, as pointed out by Nigel Thrift it has also become a key metaphor a variety of dubious business and media gurus.
  15. Byrne, Complexity Theory and the Social Sciences, 1998, p.45.
  16. Particularly John Dewey’s work, The Quest for Certainty (New York: Capricon Press, 1960).
  17. Barber, Strong Democracy, 1984, p.36.
  18. Barber, Strong Democracy, 1984, p.47.
  19. Waltz, Theory of International Politics, 1979.
  20. Coveny and Highfield, Frontiers of Complexity, 1995, p.118.
  21. See Gell-Mann, The Quark and the Jaguar, 1994, for a discussion of “depth” in Complex Systems.
  22. For further reading on the topic of elites and hierarchies see Marger, Elites and Masses, 1986; Bottomore, Elites and Society, 1993; Cassis, Business Elites, 1994; and Etzioni and Halvey, Classes and Elites in Democracy and Democratisation, 1997. For a critical look at elites in the USA see Lasch, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy, 1995. Lerner et al., American Elites, 1996, presents an interesting concept of “strategic elites” as an explanation of the pattern in the USA.
  23. Taking ten large American media companies as an example, it was shown that the same 95 non-executive directors, “had directorships in an additional 36 banks and 255 other companies (aside from… their own firm of primary affiliation).” Herman and Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent, 1994, p.8.
  24. “Worldwide, the richest fifth of the population now receives 60 times the income of the poorest fifth, up from 30 times in 1960. In the United Kingdom, the ratio between the top and bottom 20 percent went from 4:1 in 1977 to 7:1 in 1991. In the United States, it went from 4:1 in 1970 to 13:1 in 1993.” Brown, et al. State of the World 1997, p.121. See also, ILO, World Labour Report 1993, UN Research Institute for Social Development, State of Disarray: The Social Effects of Globalisation, 1995; and Dembo, The Underbelly of the US Economy, 1997.
  25. See, Giddens, Beyond Left and Right 1994. Giddens, The Third Way, 1998
  26. Giddens work is not so simplistic and recognises the distorting impact of liberal economic globalisation. However, he does not say how the impact of globalisation can be balanced against the legitimate demands of individual societies.
  27. Adam Smith used an entire chapter of his famous book, The Wealth of Nations, to describe the distorting economic impact of the British and Dutch East India Companies. In conclusion he wrote: “Such exclusive companies, therefore, are nuisances in every respect; always more or less inconvenient to the countries in which they are established, and destructive to those which have the misfortune to fall under their government” Smith, The Wealth of Nations, p.606.
  28. The British Secretary of Defence, in announcing reforms to the armed forces in 1998 based the case for Britain to be a major military power partly on the premise that others should not be allowed to dominate regions of interest to Britain. Britain’s right to have ‘areas of interest’ and to protect these interests by force if necessary was implicitly taken as being self-evident. It would seem that certain nations might be denied the democratic privilege of ploughing their own furrow. The secret services of leading powers consider that to be one of their main occupations.Saudi Arabia’s Ambassador in London does not harbour any ill will towards the West. However, he had some forthright words to say in 1998 regarding the importation of ideas from abroad. Democracy as defined today, Dr. Algosaibi said, “is a Western product, part of a long-evolving Western history… Yet the attempt to impose democracy on all and sundry is relentless”. He felt that there were prerequisites for that particular brand of democracy that might not necessarily be acceptable to nor appropriate for other societies. Journal of the Arab-British Chamber of Commerce, Vol.5, Issues 7/8, March/April 1998.
  29. In the 1990s, some African states became multi-party “democracies” to the delight of the “free-world”. Elections, however, were “seldom tests of popular opinion.” Cynics, the Economist reported, call it sham “donor democracy” which offers “just enough to keep aid-givers happy.” Economist, 23 November 1996.
  30. Collier, The Political Economy of Ethnicity, 1998, p.5. See also Horowitz, Structure and Strategy in Ethnic Conflict, 1998, for scholarly analysis of this issue area.