A Politics of Humanity: Towards a critique of conflict, identity, and transformation

i-am-the-99-percentThis is a draft of some ideas I’m working through critiquing the role of identification with existing social divisions within capitalism as a transition to the abolition of such divisions. It’s in a rough state, and I’d appreciate constructive contributions.

The transformative potential of conflicts forms the basis for the beginning of any politics today. This point, fundamental and too often missed, gives us ground to stand on and take steps towards collective emancipation beyond the individual liberties and transgressions of mere enlightened thinking. While conflict carries with it liberatory potential, this fact can often obscured the more fundamental issue which is taking a society built on scaffolding of toxic relationships and transforming it into one of solidarity and liberty.

When people enter into conflict, they organize themselves around relationships and lines, existing or constructed, and use the tools they identify to advance their cause.  These may follow the existing norms for how conflicts should unfold (like unions filing charges within the labor courts, class action lawsuits, fielding candidates for offices, official protests, etc.), or they may go outside those norms (occupations, riots, extraparlimentary direct action, viral propaganda, etc). In some cases, even direct action protests can become ritual, institutionalized and contained within the normal state of affairs of society like property destruction at anti-globalization and anti-war protests which are predictable and contained within that period. Any of these examples given can become normalized. In France today there are thousands of riots and violent acts of social malcontent yearly. Despite their illegal and violent nature, they are thoroughly normalized and routine, posing little threat within the balance of power today (though of course these things can get out of hand as well in certain contexts).

The dividing lines and the means for the conflicts both have the potential to radicalize participants depending on the situation. When collectivities use tactics that inspire and spread, they have disruptive potential that goes beyond their immediate value. The Occupy protests are one such example in which the context allowed for disruption disproportionate to the actual act; camping out in a space as protest, something which in previous situations had been largely uneventful. Likewise who does the protesting can effect the events that follow. Continue reading


Lever Points: Complex systems and potentialities for liberation

Archimedes_lever_(Small)“Give me a long enough lever and a place to stand, and I will move the earth.” Archimedes

The perspective which emergence and complex systems give us comes across as limits on our thinking and powers. The separation of the world of agents and that of emergent forces creates a casual gap which exposes the weakness of our thinking and actions to bend the world to conform to our wills. For most purposes simple cause and effect is enough. If I push a ball it will roll. If you shove me, I will move. When it comes to things like poverty, global warming, or racism such an understanding breaks down. Complex systems like society exhibit what’s called nonlinear causation or as I prefer it disproportionate causation. Nonlinear causation occurs in things like runs on stocks caused by tweets, revolts against governments caused by the death of an individual, or the famed example of butterfly flapping its wings in Australia causing a tsunami in Japan. A small cause has a disproportionate effect due to the state of the complex adaptive system in which it occurs through a number of mechanisms (like feedback for example).

The biological and social worlds are largely constituted by complex adaptive systems exhibiting emergence. Within these, disproportionate causation occurs throughout. The majority of this is simply part of the system. The response of the immune system to an allergen in a person with allergies is one example. The body reacts globally to exposure to an allergen that in some cases can cause death. Nothing intends for this to happen, quite the opposite. A smaller group of disproportionate causation occurs when someone or some group does intend for change to occur. These are called lever or leverage points in the complex adaptive systems community. Continue reading

Emergence is a Revolution in Human Thinking

normal_iil-symbol-flying-geese-copyA theme keeps popping up in the news of technologies, ideas, and predictions all based around theories of complex adaptive systems.[1] We hear about things like self-organizing and self-learning computer programs, hive models of military organization, cloud networks, and decentralized intelligence. Dig deeper into the scientific, industrial, and academic literature and a world begins to emerge from view, a scientific revolution under our feet. In places we comes across management theorists proclaiming the end of power as we knew it within businesses, dystopian projections of apocalypse, technoutopias of artificial life, and countless experiments of social control. What is happening here? These currents are little known of or discussed in society except in the passing references of reporters and pop scientists. Politically, the military and powers of industry have been the vanguard of this domain, seeking to harness its findings to bank encryption, missile guidance systems, and redesigning their capacities as widely as possible. Amongst revolutionaries these ideas, industries, and experiments are largely unknown.

Recently, I came upon an article from the journal of the National Association of Engineers entitled Health Care as a Complex Adaptive System: Implications for design and management by W.B. Rouse. The piece is concerned with laying out the implications for system design and organizational management of capitalist industries due to the problems created by increasing understanding of emergence in complex adaptive systems. Looking to health care, the author draws out some themes that are being repeated throughout the literature of society’s institutions and the voices of their power brokers. The growth of our understanding of the biological and social worlds via emergence is creating a revolution of thought, and one that has within it an inherent critique of dominant power. Continue reading

Lessons from a Social Service Worker’s Strike

Barack ObamaThis piece was written in 2004-2005 in the wake of a strike at a behavioral health facility. Through the immediate eyes of those experiences it grapples with a number of forces in working life we find ourselves up against today. Today I would place different emphasis on the final sections about the various committees and conception of revolutionary unionism that was popular in Portland at that time. Still it’s surprising how relevant and contemporary this reads. As something of an aside, it also contains an attempt to understand power (as a cooptive power) through an emergence approach, which I hadn’t remembered anything like that as far back as nearly a decade ago. It also is likely the first place that direct unionism found its way into print, and quotes a never published piece from Pete Little on direct unionism circulated within the IWW that was highly influential at the time. The initial quotes below may read strange, but the Malatesta and Richards are intended to be there as contrast to the account of what follows. Herman Gorter’s piece conversely draws out some of that criticism. Continue reading