Another attempt to summarise the relations between complexity theory and social life.
i. Complex systems are nearly always in flux and prone to changes. They can be in dynamic equilibrium (although not in stasis), but are not necessarily so. They are subject to accident, either external or internal. Modes of analysis which work at one time may not at another, because of subtle differences in the system, there is always some ongoing variation.
ii. Complex systems can be ‘maladaptive’ as well as adaptive and their adaptation need not be beneficial for humans.
iii. Complex systems interact and have fuzzy boundaries. Social, political, economic, technical and environmental processes are frequently isolated from each other for analytical purposes, but in reality they often interact. These systems do not need to interact harmoniously. For example, the economic system can disrupt the ecological system (which in turn disrupts the economic system), the technical system can change economics and so on.
iv. Systems (particularly biological ones) can seem complex all the way down. For example, humans are colonies of creatures both at the cellular level and in the amount of non-genetically related life that lives in them, and soils can differ in creatural content (micro-ecologies) over quite small distances.
v. Complex systems and their subsystems are unpredictable in specific. As they interact with other systems they are always being affected by apparent ‘externalities’ as well as internal complications and variations. Assuming no major change of equilibrium, trends may sometimes be predicted. For example, we can predict that global warming will produce wilder weather, but we cannot predict uniform heat increases everywhere, and we cannot predict the weather in a particular place in exactly three years’ time.
vi. Small changes can make big differences in system behaviour; as with relatively small changes of temperature. Complex systems can be disrupted by the accumulation of stress which produces ‘tipping points’, after which the system may make an irreversible change into a new form of dynamic equilibrium with only marginal connections to previous states. Tipping points may not always be perceptible beforehand. Changes of system state may also be relatively quick, and if the pressures continue, more changes can follow – this is not necessarily a transition between two stable states (start and end). This possibility of rapid system change increases general unpredictability.
vii. In complex systems, all human (and other) acts/events have the possibility of being followed by unpredictable, disruptive and disorderly-appearing consequences, no matter how good we think the act. In complex systems, it may also be hard to tell which, of all the events that chronologically succeed the human acts, result from those acts. We are not always able to control the results of even a simple interaction between two people.
viii. Technologies may be implemented or designed to increase control or extend a group’s power. As the technologies tend to add or change links between parts of the system, and change relative influence, the results of the technology may be disruptive in all kinds of spheres. At least they may have unintended results and open up unimagined courses of action – as when the automobile changed the patterns of people lives, their accident patterns and the layout of cities.
ix. Unpredictability of specific events, implies that both politics, trading and implementing new technologies, are ‘arts’ involving uncertainty and unintended consequences. This seems more realistic than most views of economics and social action in which uncertainty and unintended consequences are seen as secondary. There is no correct program as such, only a feeling towards a useful direction.
x. Complexity means that analysis/perception of the system (even the perceived borders of the system) will always vary given a person’s position in that system. Therefore there is rarely much unity as to how the systems work, what should be done or a good guides to political action.
xi. Partial and incomplete understanding is normal. With no complete understanding, politics (and planning) is an art of attention to what is happening, together with an ability to try out actions and change them as feedback emerges.
xii. Markets do not give out or represent perfect information, partly because markets are not bounded, but because distortion of information and production of misinformation is a normal political/persuasive tool of marketing and profit and an integral part of capitalist markets and politics, not an aberration.
xiii. Some highly important complex systems can excluded from consideration by, or become invisible to, members of other systems, because of a history of power relations.
For example, environments are largely invisible in classical economics, as sacrificing ecologies has so far made money, with the costs of that sacrifice not counting to the companies involved, even if it counts to the other people and beings living in that ecology. If profit is the ultimate value (or trait of survival) and profit is cut by environmental care, then there is always an incentive not to care, to distort information about that lack of care, or suppress those who do care. Environmental destruction is boosted because environment cannot be valued in the neoclassical frameworks which have grown around this despoilation (other than in an arbitrary, gameable, monetary sense). However, on a finite planet, economics is eventually disrupted by an environmental destruction which cannot be left behind. Environment or natural ecologies are not subordinate to economics. Economies are part of ecologies.
Political decisions and systems affect economics and vice versa, but this is frequently denied. Politics forms the context of economic acts and the rewards available, and economic actors compete within the State for market influence and suppression of other actors, as much as they compete in the market. Unequal wealth allows more political distortion of markets. There is no one set of politics in play at any one time. On the other hand economics forms the context of politics can limit what is possible within the systems.
xiv. As complex systems flux, decisions and procedures which work well in one series of situations are not necessarily very good in another, or if they are applied more rigorously than previously. They can be ‘extended’ to systems or subsystems where they are inappropriate, or ‘intensified’ so that they become disruptive. Systems tend to produce self-disruptive results as their order is intensified.
xv. Sustainability, in the sense of preserving a system in a particular state without change, may be impossible, but systems can be maintained in better or worse states for humans.
xvi. As flux is normal, the results of policies and acts are unpredictable and unclear, and views of the systems partial, politics is always argumentative.
xvii. Humans have complex needs that depend on the systems they participate in. Utility arises within fluxing systems (cultural, technical, power relations), it is not priori, or ‘natural.’ Consequently value is never fixed. For example, what the powerful do, is nearly always considered to be of greater utility and value than what less powerful people do (and this may change as power relations change). Various materials may only have value if the technical, or other, systems require them, etc.
xviii. Humans also have non-economic needs, such as a sense of, or relationship to, the place/ecology they live within, health, companionship, trust, stories and so on. Welfare cannot be completely accounted for by money and goods.
xix. Money may not reflect all human needs, and attempting to reduce needs to money may disrupt awareness of what people need.
xx. Money has utility and is complex like other utilities, becoming a commodity of variable worth, on the market. Putting a monetary value on one’s child’s life, for example, is difficult. Limiting ideas of welfare to what can be bought and what it is bought with, automatically produces bad conditions for poorer people and disrupts the economy.
xxi. In the production of ‘goods,’ economies produce waste and potential harms. If the byproducts of production cannot be processed by the ecology it is dumped in, or the waste is poisonous to humans or other creatures and plants then it can be called ‘pollution’.
xxii. The question arises: ‘is it possible to have an economy without pollution? The distribution of waste and harm, might be as fundamental to political economy as production, exchange or distribution. Waste is dumped on those who lose power battles, or who have already been despoiled. Pollution requires particular relations of power, responsibility and allocation.
xxiii. What is defined as private property, or public waste, can appear to depend on power relations. This power can be expressed as, issued regulations, the use or threat of violence to exclude others, or exclude other items, from being valued, and the ways of determining and enforcing who or what can be sacrificed for ‘success’ (as well as what counts as success). What counts as commons, also depends on power and defense against appropriation.
xxiv. ‘Development’ is often seen in terms of increasing total levels of wealth and military security, with some people being marginalised and sacrificed for that aim. It is another example of the interaction of politics and economy. As development is emulative and competitive, it often aims to emulate the prosperity of capitalism.
xxv. Development can often produce destruction, when wedded to fixed procedures, as when it is seen as tied to coal power. Then it creates coal power interests who fight to stop other forms of power and spread coal elsewhere.