Politics on the edge of chaos

The times they are a changing! Following the vote to leave the European Union, whether we like it or not, life in the UK will change. Even if, by some miracle, we do not end up leaving the EU, British political and economic life will never be the same. Whilst many ‘brexiteers’ dream that these changes will be the dawn of a golden age and a cure for all our ills, many others feel that we are sleep walking into chaos. I would probably situate myself in the latter category – but (potentially at least) in a positive way. I don’t think a little chaos will do us too much harm. It could even do us some long term good!

Critics of the current government, quite correctly in my view, point to the lack of a basic plan as to not only how they should respond to the vote to leave, but to what leaving actually means. The government itself appears chaotic, with one crisis following another; their negotiations with the EU regarding our terms of leaving reflecting this chaos. At the heart of all this is the fear of uncertainty. People from other EU countries living and working in the UK obviously fear the uncertainties regarding their status, whilst business leaders point to their need for certainty on a number of key economic issues. However, if we take a lesson from complexity science we should be re-assured that too much certainty is as unhealthy for us as too little certainty, that too much order is as bad as chaos, a total lack of order; that systems are at their healthiest, and at their most creative, when they are on the edge of chaos.

Complex systems are systems that have a very large number of highly connected parts. Whilst these parts are usually only connected to each other at the local level, to their immediate neighbours, by relatively simple ‘rules’, because of the overall richness of these connections, and due to features such as feed-back loops, the flows of energy or information through the system produce phenomena that cannot be reduced to their parts. Any living cell or organism is an example of such a system, as are individual plants or animals, as are any colony of plants or animals. Nature presents us with sets of such systems nested within larger, more complex (greater number of parts and degree of connectivity) systems, which in turn are nested in even more complex systems – and so on and so forth. None on these systems are closed: there are flows of energy not only within each system, but through them – flows that connect them together. And most importantly, the greater the complexity, the greater the degree of uncertainty.

OK, end of science lesson. If you want to know more contact me and I’ll recommend some excellent books on the subject. The point I’m getting to is this. Any system you look at is nested within a larger system that forms its immediate environment – an environment that is constantly changing due of the complexity of its environment. In order to survive, any system needs to be capable of adapting to changes in its environment – changes that it has no control over. If a system has too much order, if the ‘rules’ that hold it together are too rigid, it becomes incapable of responding to these environmental changes and eventually stagnates. On the other hand, if the system is chaotic, if there is too little order, too few ‘rules’, then any change in its environment forces it to simply break-up. A system is at its healthiest when it has sufficient order to keep its parts connected when change occurs, but not so much order that these connections are prevented from adapting to the changes. Such a system is often described as being ‘on the edge of chaos’. This is the point when it is also at its most creative.

Social systems are complex systems – possibly the most complex systems we can image. Their parts are individual human beings connected to each other by sets of habits, norms and laws. If these sets of connections are too rigid, too prescribed, there is little or no room for innovation. There is no social action outside of what is permitted. Such a social system would be fairly described as totalitarian. All such systems are doomed to fail at some point – they simply do not possess the ability to respond to perturbations in their environment. And one of the few certainties in life (other than death and taxes) is that the environment will change at some point – sometimes radically.

The hippy or anarchist dream of total freedom is equally doomed to failure. Any social system held together with very few or very weak norms and laws may be idyllic whilst its environment is benign, but if and when a sudden change in that environment creates a severe perturbation to the system it will simply break up. But such perturbations should not be feared. In fact, I would go as far as to suggest that they should be welcomed with open arms. They are not only a way of testing both the robustness and the flexibility of any social system, but also its potential for creative adaptation. But to be truly creative we may need to go to the very edge. Much needs changing in society, but history has shown that revolutions do not work; they end in either chaos or totalitarianism. Healthy and creative change takes place at the edge chaos.

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