In business it is said that you cannot manage what you cannot measure, but you can neither measure nor manage that which you can’t even define. It is claimed that the industrial revolution had been under way for 80 years before anyone really glimpsed what was going on – which suggests that the question we need to be asking ourselves at present is precisely that:
‘What are the questions we should be asking ourselves as a species right now?’
This is because I suspect the most urgent and pressing need in global politics at the moment is to change the discourse at a fundamental level: to change the way we think about influence, change and the human ecology. Everything else feels to me like so much shifting about of deckchairs on the titanic. It is said that in turbulent times the most dangerous thing is not the turbulence itself, but the attempt to navigate it using yesterday’s logic.
But what does this mean? The current discourse has several features that I believe are intractably pathological. The first is what I would call ‘the fallacy of causality’; this is the idea that although everyone acknowledges that global politics doesn’t take place in a vacuum, it none the less is generally seen to be involved in cause-and-effect style relationships that we understand quite well. As self-evident as this appears I believe it to be a gross simplification of socio-political dynamics and therefore an impediment to effective action.
This Newtonian billiard-ball model I believe prevents us from effectively grappling with the non-linear nature of complex systems and hence complex problems. What is required I believe, is a transition from seeing the world around us as so many different ‘things’ to seeing the world instead like our Indigenous brethren do, as a spaghetti bowl of relationships. Like the Great Red Spot of Jupiter, socio-political things are defined better as self-perpetuating processes that can only be interacted with via the web of relationships that sustain them. You can’t dissipate the high pressure and turbulence of the red spot itself, but you can have a damn good crack at interacting with the hydrosulfide upstream from it. Complexity theory suggests to me that political storms are not so different. This is the chunking-down or one-mouthful-at-time approach to eating the elephant in the room that none of us can see (to mix several metaphors unabashedly).
Those of us in the social sector, or ‘the people’s government’ are constantly confronted by the messy realities of deeply entrenched social problems, and chunking down systemic change is the only available option. Like living systems, social problems can be seen as auto-poetic or self-assembled – emerging out of the cyclic interactions of the constituents that compose them – whether that be carbohydrates and cellulose or inequality and overcrowding. To change these complex systems we need to first understand how the relationships between their interactions give rise to the emergent properties we associate with the issue at hand. ‘Issues’ are thus perhaps better seen as symptoms or epi-phenomenon of the dance of complex social determinants. To give a common example, rather than approaching high cholesterol as a proxy for and a cause of heart disease, we can instead see it as a symptom of a cluster of determinants such as diet, exercise, stress and income bracket. Both medically and politically we really need to get over our love affair with Panacea and our Arthurian search for the holy magic bullet. Attempts to directly tackle gargantuan issues like ‘unemployment’ also require a systems based approach that tackles a wide array of the determinants involved.
To positively effect social change the heroic linear narrative of power that the current political discourse rests upon thus needs to be significantly expanded. Although hubs of influence and leverage-nodes of power do indeed exist, in the rainforest-like ecosystem of the human landscape any single given node is by definition influenced by as many factors as it in turn influences. This is to say, political health is just as much a symptom of social health as it is a driver or cause of it.
‘The deep irony however is that by chasing political health too myopically we run the risk of actually undermining that which we sought to promote.’
Of relevance here is the Primary Health Care movement of the 1970’s which grappled with the complex social determinants of human health. What was discovered, was the shocking realization that health had little to do with healthcare, and was perhaps better seen as a side effect of a healthy society. Furthermore, any attempts to relieve specific diseases problems, such as measles or cholera deaths, either failed outright or instead resulted in replacement morbidity and mortality. This is the circus parlour game of ‘whack-a-mole’ writ large. So whilst ring-side legislators still wanted simple directives such as ‘fund more polio vaccines’ health policy experts started making suggestions like ‘decrease inequality’ or ‘improve social mobility’.
These kind of solutions however are profoundly unpopular, and the worse things get, the more people seem open to simplistic solutions to complex problems – as a quick perusal of Trumpisms will quickly affirm. In fact, as the current social order shakes, we can recognize its core narratives more easily with the high visibility of reactionary political movements that seek to stabilize the social system with the level of thinking that created the problems inherent to this paradigm. This is the key, for strategy is indeed best thought of as the art of knowing what not to do.
What we need to stop doing is approaching social and political problems as though they are billiard balls. It is the reign of Newton’s all-pervasive snooker metaphor that is at the heart of the red storm of yesterday’s logic. We are not in a game of billiards. The universe is not a snooker table. We desperately need a new metaphor.
Fortunately for us, nature has provided us with the syntax for a new discourse: we are in a complex system at the edge of chaos – but although we are far from an equilibrium state, we already know that this is the only place that change really happens. We are entangled – at both the quantum, the social, and the economic levels. Even before the Gates-Zuckerman era, we were, and always have been a part of a world wide web; network theory is no longer a theory. And although political non-linearity may be disorientating at first, like climate change, the scientific consensus is unambiguous: shift happens. Finally, to fight snooker with snooker: it’s not about keeping your eyes on the ball, but as the masters all know – where you’re looking is where the ball will go. It’s time to change the lens.
Rather than trying to change the world, I think our main focus should be on trying to change the discourse. Shift this, and the rest will follow.
– Jimi Wollumbin