Degrees of Complexity

This article is a follow on from my previous essay on the false narratives of Brexit and the wider meta-political discourses that it has shrouded. It also looks to add to some of the arguments Chris Dillow presents in his article on plebiscitary politics.

The world as it currently exists, despite the attempts at universalisable discourses and the production of narratives that are black and white in their dichotomies, is extremely complex and full of varying degrees of socio-economic knowledge. A full calculatory system that can aggregate these variable forms of knowledge and processes is practically impossible, as was seen in the failures of state socialism and in the many failures of capitalism (which requires continual subsidy to exist). These are the most important lessons of Hayek and Mises, but also the most ignored. Utopian thinking of a top-down kind continues to exist, with everyone from neoliberals to modern leftists believing that everyone is rational or believers in the universal. Things like parochialism, gaps in knowledge and complexity are tacitly ignored.

This seems to be the inherent problem associated with Brexit and a wider plebiscitary politics. Our modern world of centralisation and technocratic governance isn’t amenable to a generalised plebiscite. All that can really happen is that centralised knowledge (which is inherently problematic and open to generalisations) is contradictorily disaggregated to plebiscites. This is ignorant of the original problem, which is the institutional paradigm of centralising knowledge and processes, and pushing narratives through these institutions that are top-down and controlling. All a plebiscitary politics can do is complicate matters further, eliminating elements of checks and balances which can constrain these institutionalised processes.

The false narratives that effected Brexit were an inevitability when thinking of the governmental situation Britain finds itself in, with a highly technocratic base and a representative democracy emplaced on top of it. This is why I was so ambivalent when it came to the EU referendum, despite voting to leave. A more-than-50-year history of consensus politics and the production of petty political divides that don’t question the micro, macro and meta-political structures that exist means that any referendum on a complex, constitutional question is bound to produce nonsensical arguments and positions of ignorance. The fact that the debate descended into emotional responses and a lack of recognition of what the EU even is was hardly surprising.

Now that the UK is leaving these questions need to become even more important. The need for decentralisation, a ground-up perspective on micro and macro-economic systems and a politics of subsidiarity and complex diversity are more pressing now we’re leaving what was fundamentally a centralising bloc of European governance. Solutions could include a decentralised common law system that can deal with European legal matters and the multiplicitous elements of UK and EU regulatory law. Varying degrees of openness to the EU amongst the many British polities could be another. Yet with the direction Theresa May is taking Brexit, these seem increasingly unlikely. Instead, a politics that ignores complexity, pushes false narratives of “the will of the people” and further closes down debate on immigration, sovereignty and citizenship seems the likely outcome.

Until a politics is produced that recognises complexity and sees decentralism and a ground-up subsidiarity as ways of producing a calculatory system for a modern economy, Brexit will be just another pointless historical juncture that produced very little of anything, with plebiscitary politics being another mode for further centralising politics and economics.

One thought on “Degrees of Complexity

  1. Mises and Hayek didn’t know anything about complexity theory (and in general, their knowledge of science was tenuous at best) or how markets actually work, and I don’t think they cared either way, they mostly were interested in picking metaphors here and there to justify their political program..

    Philip Mirowski is pretty good at sketching the neoliberal (mostly the Hayek and Mont Pelerin Society wing of it) ideology in this video:

    (though he’s really bad on socialism and tend to associate it with Mises/Hayek’s interlocutors and completely ignore anarchism and the libertarian wing of marxism).

    Economists also tend to completely ignore the fact that most of our economy today is already non-market:

    If you want a good (but still somewhat flawed) critique of “high-modernist” schemes, look at James C.Scott’s “Seeing like a state – James C. Scott”:

    This critique is directed at the both state-planning and markets, because as he puts it himself:

    “…as I make clear in examining scientific farming, industrial agriculture, and capitalist markets in general, large-scale capitalism is just as much an agency of homogenization, uniformity, grids, and heroic simplification as the state is, with the difference being that, for capitalists, simplification must pay. A market necessarily reduces quality to quantity via the price mechanism and promotes standardization; in markets, money talks, not people.
    …Put bluntly, my bill of particulars against a certain kind of state is by no means a case for politically unfettered market coordination as urged by Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman. As we shall see, the conclusions that can be drawn from the failures of modern projects of social engineering are as applicable to market-driven standardization as they are to bureaucratic homogeneity.”

    Talking about standardization, since you’re a student and you might want to take a look at Harry Cleaver’s “On Schoolwork and the Struggle Against It”:

    Cleaver is one of few marxists who like anarchists, he’s written this very good article about Kropotkin:

    There’s also George Caffentzis’ essay “A Critique of Commodified Education and Knowledge”:

    Click to access caffentzis_critiqueeducation.pdf

    And since you cite Aglietta a lot, you might also like Bob Jessop’s primer on state-theory “The State: Past, Present, Future “:


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