Outlining an Emergentist Framework for Politics

Sand formationsI never knew until I had written a manuscript that writing it is actually only a small part of working through problems. In reality, creating a text or video or piece of work is the best way to figure out what you think. Knowing this is liberating, it lowers the bar on what you should expect to produce when creating something big, and gives a better sense of the time it takes to do something like write a book. Only now do I feel like I’m starting to see how the pieces fit together in the relationship of emergence to liberatory politics. The discoveries made during the process could end up producing other books and work that I never anticipated (like my exploration of the concept of time intersecting with cognition, agency, and emergence).

Out of the revisions I’m working on, I’ve extracted a few core basic theses that drive the project. My goal is to be able to give the gist of the arguments in a few pages, though much would be left out and unclarified. Thinking about the differences between using emergence and other tools led me to see a few aspects that are significant.

1. Recognition of the difference between the perspective of political agents and the emergent social world.
2. The development of social orders by the complex interactions of agents at differing levels, and shifting into and out of equilibriums across time.
3. Recognition of the relationships between differing events and potentials for actions and the production, changing, and breakdown of social equilibriums.

The first thesis starts from pulling apart different orientations towards our social reality. As people we come at the world as creatures that think about what to do, experience the world acting on us, and figure out how to respond. Political agents wrestle with how to act based on this perspective. From another direction though there is also the world of society, classes, institutions, nations, etc. Even though political agents constitute and ultimately make social formations do what they do, the logic of both are fundamentally different. Groups do not deliberate in the way that individuals do, and individual decisions do not add up neatly to the actions of groups. As simple as it sounds, much political thinking tries to build from the perspective of political agents, the sum of individuals, or only social formations. Emergence is a approach that tries to work out the logic of many different levels of organization, and a theoretical framework for their interrelationships. Part of the outcome are some surprising changes to how we think about political change, individual action, and the lifecycle of social orders.

The second thesis pinpoints the nature of social orders across time. For example, we live in a capitalist society not because each of us wanted it to be that way, nor because of the designs of any individual or organization, but because capitalism is produced by all of us interacting every day even without knowing it. Building from the differences between the perspectives of agency and social organization, social organization is analyzed in terms of systematic relationships that function differently from how we experience them as individuals. The special types of cause and effect seen in societies and they way they are produced has political implications for what sustains unjust societies, how they fall, and the role of our individual actions in the picture.

Societies likewise reach points of equilibrium and lose them. Social equilibriums are stable balances of social forces that produce a system that can adapt and reproduce itself as times goes on. Various forms of capitalism have had changing equilibriums across its life changing say with social democracy, war, imperialism, etc. Equilibrium is reached, and it falls apart, and does so based on the logic of emergent order as above.

Shifts in equilibrium brings with it a different landscape for action. Different things are possible when equilibrium breaks down, and the mechanism of maintaining dominant power start to change in their function. For example governments can’t rely on their military, police can’t expect their officers to reliably follow orders, stockholders revolt and sabotage markets, people stop respecting private property, etc. When equilibrium breaks down, the rules of the game change & understanding emergence those changes are deep, wild, and surprising to us down here in the world of agents. In a way an emergentist politics could be seen as a 3d map that changes in time based on changing orders. Potentials and limits themselves evolve with emerging and descending orders. As agents, welded to our perspective, these changes are not naked to us though we experience them. How to sort out the scope of our actions, the differing challenges of periods of unrest or stability, and how to connect our collective activity in pursuit of liberation with an emergent world beyond our creation; these are the task of a framework of emergence.


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