Jean Boulton on the politics of systems thinking.
(Based on a post posted earlier this year on Duncan Green’s Oxfam blog).
What are the implications of complexity for how we understand power and politics? Bitter experience (as well as complexity theory) tells us that it is generally the case that the powerful get more powerful and the big get bigger. This is captured in complexity language by the notion of ‘positive feedback loops’ which equate to the economists’ ‘increasing returns’. In general there is no reason to expect that economies will self-regulate and find a ‘natural’ balance. Even forests, if left to themselves for long enough, reduce in diversity, increase in efficiency and become ‘locked in’ to ecological patterns that are hard to invade and change and can easily collapse.
Complexity suggests that if we want economic development that equalizes power, reduces inequality and incorporates longer-term environmental goals, there is a need for some sort of regulatory processes to counter the seemingly inevitable coalescing of power and wealth in fewer and fewer hands. Otherwise the rise out of poverty is linked more to growth than to development (development meaning a qualitative change in shape and form of the economy rather than a quantitative change – you can obviously have both). And an economy that is growing can in fact take our attention away from underlying structural exacerbations of inequality. Growth cannot go on forever, as land, water and minerals are consumed (not to mention the pesky issue of climate change) – but growth can mask just who captures the bulk of resources and who can, as a result, exert control over governments, markets and societies.
This may seem counter to the fact that complexity thinking is often tied up with a seeming trust that self-organising processes, the free market for example, will lead to the ‘best’ outcomes, following some sort of natural law – the so-called ‘invisible hand’. But, complexity, along with economist Stiglitz, would argue that there is no invisible hand. To maintain and enhance diversity requires strong and shared intentions to do so, and ways (e.g. focus on values, community engagement, joined up social/economic/environmental thinking and innovative approaches to governance) of countering the concentration of power that tends to arise.
Indeed, sometimes, drastic and disruptive action is needed, not gentle adaptation and responsiveness. For example, in situations which have very locked-in political and social factors, the focus needs to be on how to break the deadlock, perhaps with high level political interventions and sanctions. No use approaching economic development in Palestine with an adaptive mindset. Equally, if the situation is chaotic, like say in South Sudan, then finding ways to build on (any) emerging shoots of political stability is likely to be a first priority.
So, with last May’s elections in the UK fresh in mind, what about the political persuasions of Complexity? If she is interested in social and economic justice, Complexity would never stand for election for a party based on a ‘free market’ ideology for reasons already discussed. The reduction in numbers of small banks, the constant pushing of legal boundaries, the size of bankers’ bonuses, the risk-taking which led to bail outs, show what can happen in a deregulated market. Power and money give the means to dominate, to win the advertising campaign, to push governments, to squeeze supply chains. There is no such thing as a free market.
It could be argued that Complexity is more of a socialist than anything else (a very Green one though – she understands the need to consider long-term consequences to the system of which we are a part). Complexity understands market failure. As we’ve said, she does not take the naïve view that self-organizing processes are shaped by some sort of ‘natural law’ and can be trusted to provide the ‘best’ outcome; she understands the importance of governance and ways of upholding the needs of the less powerful, the poor, the longer-term and the environment. This is not to suggest that she would impose a top-down model of governance dreamed up on a plane by consultants and lawyers and plopped fully formed onto a developing country or region. Rather she sees the need to facilitate the emergence of socially-owned processes of governance and civic empowerment, and to build on those practices that already exist.
There’s more. Complexity is community-minded (would balance freedom with responsibility), keen to work at the appropriate scale, keen not to impose solutions, but to work with enhancing and protecting what is already there. She is passionate about embracing diversity and brave enough to wander well outside any narrow remit to identify blockages, join things up and say the unsayable. She understands that you have to work from the smallest household to the biggest government or corporation – and back again -to enhance the conditions for economic development in a way that leads to equality and sustainability.
Jean’s book, ‘Embracing Complexity: Strategic Perspectives for an Age of Turbulence’ (written together with Peter Allen and Cliff Bowman) published by Oxford University Press is now available via the OUP website.