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Journal on Policy and Complex Systems • Volume 4, Number 2 • Fall 2018

A Complexity Theory of Power

Michael Francis McCullough
Brooklyn College (Ret.), New York, NY

A complexity theory of power combines power theory and com-
plexity theory in an effort to develop a framework for the empirical
analysis of political power conflicts. The proposed theory correlates
the power to dominate (Dahl, 1957; Lukes, 1974) with disorga-
nized complexity (Weaver, 1948) and the power to collaborate (Ar-
endt, 1969, 1986; Parsons, 1963) with self-organized complexity.
In this view, power exercised by one party to dominate another is
a disorganizing process and power exercised by different parties
to collaborate with one another is a self-organizing process. This
perspective makes it possible to interpret a wide variety of power
conflicts as instances of political complexity. Empirical examples of
power clashes I touch upon here include a mugging, struggles over
the expansion and contraction of suffrage in the United States, the
Montgomery bus boycott, the authoritarian breakdown of demo-
cratic regimes, and transitions from authoritarian to more open
political systems.
Keywords: political complexity, self-organization, complexity the-
ory, power theory, authoritarian, democratic, domination, collabo-
ration, equilibrium, nonequilibrium

Acknowledgments: Special thanks to my good friends Drs. Charles Herr,

Jon Rynn and Jeremy Shapiro who, for decades, have helped me wrestle
with these and related ideas. I’m also grateful to Dr. Fred Abraham and the
Winter Chaos Conference community for allowing me to introduce some
political chaos into several of their gatherings.

31 doi: 10.18278/jpcs.4.2.4
Journal on Policy and Complex Systems

Una teoría de la complejidad del poder


Una teoría de la complejidad del poder combina la teoría del po-

der y la teoría de la complejidad en un esfuerzo por desarrollar un
marco para el análisis empírico de los conflictos del poder políti-
co. La teoría propuesta correlaciona el poder de dominar (Dahl,
1957; Lukes, 1974) con la complejidad desorganizada (Weaver,
1948) y el poder de colaborar (Arendt, 1969; Parsons, 1963) con
una complejidad autoorganizada. Desde este punto de vista, el
poder ejercido por una de las partes para dominar a otra es un
proceso desorganizador y el poder ejercido por las diferentes par-
tes para colaborar entre sí es un proceso de autoorganización.
Esta perspectiva hace posible interpretar una amplia variedad de
conflictos de poder como ejemplos de complejidad política. Los
casos empíricos de choques de poder que menciono aquí inclu-
yen un atraco, luchas por la expansión y contracción del sufra-
gio en los Estados Unidos, el boicot a los autobuses de Montgo-
mery, el colapso autoritario de los regímenes democráticos y las
transiciones de sistemas políticos autoritarios a más abiertos.

Palabras clave: teoría del poder, complejidad, conflictos de poder,

teoría de la complejidad del poder



使用无组织复杂性(Weaver, 1948)的主导权(Dahl, 1957;
Lukes, 1974)、和使用自组织复杂性的合作权之间的联系。

A Complexity Theory of Power



Introduction something exercised over others or with

others. Is it a matter of domination or
complexity theory of power collaboration? In the former, some-
combines power theory and times referred to as “power-over,” party
complexity theory in an effort A exercises power over party B in one
to develop a framework for the empiri- manner or another. Dahl suggests, for
cal analysis of social and political power example, that “A has power over B to the
conflicts. The task of bringing views of extent that he can get B to do something
power and complexity together on the that B would not otherwise do” (1957,
same analytical terrain needs to start pp. 202–203). Similarly, Lukes propos-
with the acknowledgment that clear es that “A exercises power over B when
definitions of these concepts have elud- A affects B in a manner contrary to B's
ed analysts. There is, as Steven Lukes interests” (1974, p. 30). In the latter,
put it, “an endemic variety of concepts sometimes called “power-with,” parties
of power” (1977, p. 5). And the Santa Fe A and B exercise power in a coopera-
Institute’s Melanie Mitchell notes that tive manner.1 Such collaborative power
“... neither a single science of complexi- has been defined by Arendt as “the hu-
ty nor a single complexity theory exists man ability not just to act but to act in
yet” (2009, p. 14). So, any attempt to de- concert” (Arendt, 1969, 1986, p. 64) and
velop these concepts whether separate- by Talcott Parsons as “the capacity of a
ly or in tandem must start by selecting social system to mobilize resources to
certain approaches over others. attain collective goals.”2
This essay favors broadening the
scope of power to include both pow-

mong the many issues that have er-over and power-with, an approach
divided power theorists, one developed in some feminist theories
of the most fundamental has of power (e.g., Allen, 1998; Townsend,
been the question of whether power is Zapata, Rowlands, & Mercado, 1999).
1 In order to sharpen the significance of the exercise of power-with as an essentially collaborative
process, an important qualification is needed. Collaboration often occurs for purposes ultimately
intended to exercise power over others. In this essay, all references to the exercise of power-with are
intended to denote processes whose end-purpose is cooperative, what might be called “power-with-
2 Quoted by J. Habermas in “Hannah Arendt’s Communications Concept of Power” in Lukes, 1974,
p. 76.

Journal on Policy and Complex Systems

Although dynamics of collaboration of discussing the merits of and issues

and domination are clearly distinct and posed by the varied views of complexity
require different analytical strategies, theory in this short space, I will go di-
depicting them as competing categories rectly to an approach I believe to be the
of power cuts short some lines of inqui- most promising for fusing complexity
ry. If, for example, the exercise of power and power theory and address, in that
always refers to A exercising power over context, some differences over how to
B, it is not possible to explain instances define complexity.
in which B exercises power—as, for ex- Complexity theory incorporates
ample, when B becomes democratically
a scientific revolution in physics which
empowered. And the power to domi-
involves the clash of diametrically op-
nate or coerce becomes an oxymoron
posed views of order and disorder (Fig-
for those who would make collabora-
ure 1).3 In the traditional Newtonian
tion the exclusive domain of power.
view, the view of classical physics, or-
In order to fashion a broader der is based on equilibrium. From a
focus on power, it is useful to view all complexity perspective, however, order
power-related phenomena on a contin- emerges out of far from equilibrium
uum or spectrum ranging from domi- conditions. Fritjof Capra put it this way:
nation-oriented to collaboration-ori-
ented processes. Such a continuum This new perception of order
accounts not only for both oppressive and disorder represents an in-
and collaborative processes per se but version of traditional scientific
for transitions from one end of the views. According to the classical
power spectrum to another, whether view ... order is associated with
from powerlessness to democratic em- equilibrium .... In the new sci-
powerment (i.e., democratization) or ence of complexity ... , we learn
from democratic openness to authori- that nonequilibrium is a source
tarian closure (the breakdown of demo- of order .... In living systems the
cratic regimes). Along this continuum, order arising from nonequilib-
many of the classical views of power be- rium is far more evident, being
come properties rather than definitions manifest in the richness, diversi-
of power. ty, and beauty of life all around
us. Throughout the living world
Complexity chaos is transformed into order

(1996, p. 190).
s with efforts to understand
power, attempts to cast light on That is, order has polar opposite mean-
the nature of complexity raise a ings depending on whether it is associat-
host of contentious questions. Instead ed with equilibrium or nonequilibrium.
3 Useful insights can be gained by distinguishing order from organization and disorder from disor-
ganization. See, for example, Morin’s discussion on how organization emerges from the interplay of
order and disorder (1977, pp. 132–133). At the high level of generality of this essay, however, I am
using “order” interchangeably with “organization” and “disorder” with “disorganization.”

A Complexity Theory of Power

Figure 1. Clashing views of physical order and disorder.

Each of these conflicting views The first level, problems of sim-

of order has a corresponding view of plicity, corresponds with the largely
disorder and these views are also dia- two-variable problems characteristic of
metrically opposed to one another. In Newtonian science and for which New-
the mechanical view, nonequilibrium ton needed to invent calculus. In New-
is a source of disorder. In the complex ton’s so-called clockwork universe, na-
view, disorder is associated with equi- ture is a machine, operating perfectly,
librium. a deus ex machina following absolutely
The complexity view of nature certain laws. In this realm, disorder and
effectively turns the tables on mecha- uncertainty are anomalies. In an order
nistic Newtonian science. that is perfect, there can be no disorder.
Where certainty is absolute, there can
We can situate complexity within
be no uncertainty.
this framework using the three levels of
complexity identified by mathematician By the end of the last century,
Warren Weaver (1948) in his seminal pioneers like Boltzmann and Gibbs re-
essay “Science and Complexity.” Weav- alized that, in order to analyze millions
er identified three successively more or billions of variables (as with, say, the
complex levels of problems: problems particles in a ball of steam), absolute
of simplicity, problems of disorganized certainty would have to be abandoned
complexity, and problems of organized in favor of a probabilistic, statistical
complexity. Each level corresponds to a approach. Such phenomena, distribut-
new stage in the history of science and ed in “in a helter-skelter, that is to say
each requires a new type of mathematics. a disorganized, way” (Weaver, 1948,

Journal on Policy and Complex Systems

pp. 537–538) represented what Weaver facturers, or a racial minority?” For

called problems of disorganized com- these kind of phenomena, neither min-
plexity. For these purposes, the calcu- imal-variable nor statistical techniques
lus of Newtonian mechanics gave way apply (1948, pp. 539–540).
to the probability-oriented statistical Some novel patterns that were
mechanics of closed system thermody- just beginning to come into view when
namics, challenging in the process the Weaver was writing in 1948 have since
absolute claims of Newtonian science. become clear. The complexity Weaver
As Jacob Bronowski put it “One aim of called “organized” is now more com-
the physical sciences has been to give an monly referred to as “self-organized.”
exact picture of the material world. One The new math needed to analyze orga-
achievement of physics in the twenti- nized complexity is nonlinear.
eth century has been to prove that that
While Weaver clearly associated
aim is unattainable” (1973, p. 353). This
disorganized complexity with the sta-
break with an absolutely certain and
tistical mechanics of closed thermody-
perfect natural order represents one of
namic systems, his essay contains no
the great reality breakthroughs of sci-
hints of the developments in thermo-
ence. In this view of reality, disorder
dynamics that would soon revolution-
and uncertainty can never be eliminat-
ize the study of organized complexity,
ed; they can only be reduced.
namely the use of nonlinear mathe-
Missing in this picture was what matics to understand open thermody-
Weaver called problems of organized namic systems. Notable among physical
complexity. He defined these as “prob- scientists who have advanced this area
lems which involve dealing simultane- of inquiry was Ilya Prigogine (1996).
ously with a sizable number of factors In awarding Prigogine its 1977 Chem-
which are interrelated into an organic istry Prize, the Nobel Prize committee
whole” (1948, p. 539, italics in origi- noted that Prigogine’s thermodynamics
nal). Such problems, touched in one offered ways to bridge the physical and
way or another by the wild card of life, social sciences.4 Prigogine identified a
introduced elements not only of the self-organizing dynamic in seeming-
improbable but of the unpredictable, ly inanimate matter that has inspired
something beyond the comfort zone of novel ways of comprehending self-de-
scientists just beginning to master the velopment processes in living systems.
realm of the probable. And patterns of Coupled with the dynamics of closed
human organization posed these prob- thermodynamic systems, such an ap-
lems like none other. “How” he asked proach offers new ways of modeling
“can one explain the behavior pattern opening and closure processes that can
of an organized group of persons such be tested not only at physical levels but
as a labor union, or a group of manu- at the levels of human social systems.
4 “Thus Prigogine’s researches into irreversible thermodynamics have fundamentally transformed
and revitalized the science, given it a new relevance and created theories to bridge the gaps between
chemical, biological and social scientific fields of inquiry” (Nobel Prize Award Committee, 1977)..

A Complexity Theory of Power

Prigogine’s core concept, the dis- absolutely certain and perfect universe.
sipative structure, has become widely About every organized complex system,
used in complexity theory. Dissipative one needs to ask “How disorganized is
structures are open far from equilib- it?” About any system’s organized com-
rium thermodynamic systems with plexity, one needs to ascertain its degree
both opening and closing potential. of disorganization. Any complex system
Importing energy from and dissipating is in this sense a marble cake of organi-
waste into their environments, they are zation and disorganization, a view that
self-organized in the sense that they can permeates Morin’s pioneering work on
persist or maintain themselves in a dy- complexity (1977).
namic state of equilibrium for extended Another great advance in twen-
periods. In the face of structural crises, tieth-century physical science that in-
resulting from stressful interactions of spires some currents of complexity
internal and environmental processes,
theory is Claude Shannon’s informa-
such systems reach bifurcation points
tion theory (Morin, 1977, pp. 291–312;
whereupon they may evolve into more
Shannon & Weaver, 1949, 1998). The
complex, more self-organized struc-
question of information theory’s rela-
tures or break down through ther-
tionship to thermodynamics is debated
modynamic closure, diminishing in
but made unavoidable by the curious
self-organization and complexity.
fact that it measures uncertainty with
Some question whether Weav- the very same mathematical formu-
er’s notion of disorganized complexi- la that closed system thermodynam-
ty has withstood the test of time. That ics uses to measure entropy. It defines
complexity might ever be disorganized information as the reduction in un-
clashes with the view that ties com- certainty, the reduction in entropy, or
plexity exclusively to the emergence of negative entropy. Mathematically, it is
greater organization. physics’ entropy with a negative sign in
Whether or not a definition of front of it.
complexity needs to incorporate “disor- These chameleon-like shifts from
ganized complexity” is a debate worth one apparent meaning to another have
having. But the argument in this essay made information theory a source of
does not rise or fall on how this issue many analogies, some relating to or-
gets resolved so long as a substantive der and disorder (or organization and
focus on disorganization remains. The disorganization). For example, Norbert
fact that organization emerges out of Wiener observed that, “Just as entropy is
disorganization makes the concept of a measure of disorganization, the infor-
disorganization an indispensable part mation carried by a set of messages is a
of complexity theory. measure of organization” (1950, p. 31).
One of the issues that inextricably Information theory also offers an entrée
ties organization with disorganization into notions of freedom of choice. As
is complexity’s historic break with an Warren Weaver noted, “ ... information

Journal on Policy and Complex Systems

is a measure of one’s freedom of choice The mathematical views of en-

when one selects a message” (Shannon tropy and negative entropy help define a
& Weaver, 1949, 1998, p. 9). probability boundary that distinguishes
Combining these analogies, we open from closed systems. To one side
may assert another possibility, that or- of the boundary, phenomena exhibit-
ganization is a function of freedom of ing greater probability, increasing dis-
choice and disorganization is a func- organization and diminishing choice
tion denial of choice. This is suggested indicate entropic closure. To the other
by one of the classic insights of infor- side, phenomena exhibiting decreasing
mation theory. It stems from consid- probability, greater self-organization,
ering the difference between the single and enhanced choice indicate negen-
possible outcome of a two-headed coin tropic opening.
toss and the two possible outcomes of
a regular coin toss. Because the choice A Complexity Theory of Power

presented by the two-headed coin is a complexity theory of power
foregone conclusion, it really poses no combines power theory and
choice at all. A two-headed toss pro- complexity theory in an effort
vides no news, no information. A regu- to develop a framework for the empiri-
lar coin toss, on the other hand, creates cal analysis of political power conflicts.
uncertainty. It presents a choice. The re-Briefly, the proposed theory correlates
sult of the toss makes news. It produces the power to dominate (Dahl, 1957;
information. Lukes, 1974) with disorganized com-
Plugging the number of possible plexity (Weaver, 1948) and the power
outcomes into Shannon’s mathematical to collaborate (Arendt, 1969, 1986; Par-
measure of information, the logarithm sons, 1963) with self-organized com-
for the two-headed toss, log (1) to any plexity. In this view, power exercised by
power, always equals 0. The logarithm one party to dominate another is a dis-
for the regular coin, log (2) to any pow- organizing process and power exercised
er, always has some value greater than by different parties to collaborate with
zero. one another is a self-organizing process.
Or, viewing information as a This perspective makes it possi-
measure of organization as Norbert ble to interpret a wide variety of pow-
Weiner (1950) suggested, the regular er conflicts as instances of political
toss, because it presents us with some complexity. These processes can occur
choice, measures some organization. across scale. Whether at the level of in-
The absence of choice posed by the terpersonal, national, or global politics,
single possible outcome, on the other self-organizing is a democratizing pro-
hand, measures zero organization. This cess through which the disorganizing
has political (albeit analogical) impli- effects of domination and authoritari-
cations—to be made explicit later and anism can be countered and overcome.
tested with empirical examples. And, of course, in a complex world, the

A Complexity Theory of Power

fact we are capable of achieving greater How then build an analytical

political self-organization is no guaran- framework for this purpose? First, let’s
tee that we actually will. make political order and disorder ana-
In order to make a formal prop- logues of physical order and disorder.
osition about a complexity theory of Such analogies between the physical and
power, here are two hypotheses. political may be made explicit simply by
inserting the word “political” into the
First, power exercised as the
framework. This poses the question of
choice of one person or group imposed
whether or not these conflicting views
on another is homologous to the equi-
of physical order and disorder can offer
librium-oriented process of increasing
insights into similarly conflicting views
entropy in a closed thermodynamic
of political order and disorder and their
system. Power exercised to dominate
associations with equilibrium or non-
others has a disorganizing effect on
human relationships in the sense that
disempowering actions directed at B by This anchors each view of polit-
A have disorganizing consequences for ical order and disorder to its distance
B. In this view, the chief consequence from equilibrium. Politically, it suggests
of authoritarian political systems is the an inversion of the meanings of order
disorganization of political life. and disorder similar to what occurs
with the conflicting physical views of
Second, power exercised as mu-
order and disorder. In this schema, a
tual choice not ultimately imposed on
complexity perspective associates po-
others—or power exercised with not
litical disorder with equilibrium, the
over others—is homologous to the pro-
inverse of the mechanical correlation
cess of self-organizing in an open, far
with nonequilibrium; a complexity ap-
from equilibrium thermodynamic sys-
proach to political order similarly turns
tem. From this perspective, the primary
a mechanistic approach on its head
consequence of democratizing political
systems is a greater degree of self-orga- by correlating it with nonequilibrium
nization. rather than equilibrium.

This theory can be refuted by A framework for analysis of em-

demonstrating that political power is pirical instances of this type of power
merely analogous and therefore not ho- conflict begins to emerge when we map
mologous to physical processes in the to this schema the hybrid power-over/
manner suggested. By the same token, power-with approach to power. This ap-
if, after rigorous testing with empirical proach places clashing perspectives over
data, such comparisons between the what constitutes order and disorder at
physical and political resonate with an the core of power conflicts (Figure 2).
explanatory power extending beyond From the mechanical perspec-
mere analogies, then the hypotheses tive, the viewpoint of the party impos-
may stand, subject to further review ing power emerges. It is a mechanistic
and testing. ideology of order and disorder. From

Journal on Policy and Complex Systems

Figure 2. A complexity theory of power.

A’s point of view, order ensues as long the viewpoint of A resulting in what
as B responds obediently and without Paulo Freire called “a culture of silence”
question. Power imposed achieves a (Freire, 1972). When, however, B calls
very real equilibrium-oriented order. the inequity of the situation into ques-
As in the Newtonian schema, tion, A’s imposition of power comes to
absolute certainty is the premise upon be viewed as the inverse of an orderly
which A claims to have unquestion- process. It is incapacitating and disor-
able authority. The mechanistic order ganizing. While the order produced
is backed by an absolute moral certi- by imposed power is quite real, it is a
tude about its legitimacy, one that fuels mechanistic human order. It mechaniz-
intolerance of dissent. As John Stuart es human relationships. It is degrading,
Mill wrote “To refuse a hearing to an much as Frederick Douglass suggested
opinion, because they are sure that it is when speaking of “the blighting and
false, is to assume that their certainty is dehumanizing effects of slavery” (2008,
the same thing as absolute certainty. All p. 29). Equilibrium instead of being a
silencing of discussion is an assump- condition of political order is a source
tion of infallibility” (Mill, 1859, 1975, of political disorder.
p. 24, italics in the original). Dissent is From this perspective, the abso-
crushed in the interest of “truths” that lute approach to certainty becomes a
rise above questioning. liability. “There is no absolute knowl-
Such power regimes may persist edge,” Bronowski warned. “And those
for lengthy periods. B may internalize who claim it, whether they are scientists

A Complexity Theory of Power

or dogmatists, open the door to trage- disorder are anomalies. Unquestion-

dy” (1973, p. 353). It leads to a thermo- ing obedience is the norm. In the eyes
dynamic-like closure whose enforced of A—the party imposing power—any
conformity only succeeds in draining display of nonconformity on the part
the life from political life, moving it of B is an expression of anarchy or
toward a stifling predictability, an en- chaos. It produces social and political
tropic-like process of the increasingly disorder. It introduces nonequilibri-
probable. As mathematician Robert um. Dissent, questioning, or any other
Marks noted, challenge to the megamechanical order
disrupts equilibrium. As the mere part
Social repression, under whatev- of a machine, B cannot exhibit activity
er slogan, is social inefficiency, of any sort; autonomous action by B is
an inhibition of feedback, dis- intolerable. For a machine part to ex-
ruption in the communication ercise freedom of choice is intolerable.
net. A self-steering system that The Greek root of the word choice is
blocks its internal information, αἵρεσις or heresy. Choice as heresy lies
its capacity for the nursing of at the core of the ideology of mecha-
novelty and innovation, loses its nized human order. As Adam Pzerwor-
ability to meet new situations ski has noted, “Under authoritarianism,
successfully. It diminishes in in- there is no choice” (Pzerworski, 2003,
telligence. It foredooms its striv- p. 266). In a realm of absolute certainty,
ings toward attainable goals in a the mere exercise of choice, the recog-
universe of change. And it ends nition of uncertainty, the act of ques-
like the societies of the Mayans tioning signifies insubordination and
and the Medes, in probable ex- chaos. For A to question in a climate
tinction. This is not a prophecy, intolerant of questioning is to risk en-
but a probability statement. It is gagement with the enforcers of confor-
statistical mechanics applied to a mity and perhaps with violent forces
social net (Marks, 1964, p. 277). of repression. For A, the restoration of
order requires some way of neutraliz-
Although claiming that extinc- ing any who dare question. (In China,
tion is the probable result of social re- one of the favorite terms of the Chinese
pression is an overstatement, the more Communist Party is a surrogate for the
interesting claim here is that statistical word order, namely harmony. Bloggers
mechanics, the mathematics of closed in China who fall victim to censorship
thermodynamic systems, is well applied speak of being “harmonized.”)
to human society when describing re- A’s mechanical view of political
pressive policies. It is a direct assertion order and political disorder fits what
that the oppressive exercise of power might be called a human mechanization
has an entropic-like effect. model. In the eyes of A, order persists if
In the perfect absolutely cer- B, like a cog in a machine, conforms to
tain Newtonian order, uncertainty and the wishes of A. In A’s view, failure by B

Journal on Policy and Complex Systems

Figure 3. A political complexity model.

to conform is to sabotage the machine. Democratization in this view is

Inasmuch as the effect of pursuing these a path of political growth that comple-
ideals of order and disorder is to move ments growth in the physical or natural
the system so governed toward equilib- world. As such, it holds lessons for how
rium, toward the probable, toward the we approach nature. As Capra notes,
entropic, the entire human mechaniza- Instead of being a machine, na-
tion model is best situated within the ture at large turns out to be more
domain of equilibrium-oriented order like human nature—unpredict-
or disorganized complexity (Figure 3). able, sensitive to the surrounding
Democratization occurs when world, influenced by small fluc-
party B successfully contests the in- tuations. Accordingly, the appro-
equality resulting from power imposed priate way of approaching nature
by A on B. Such a development is typi- to learn about her complexity
cally preceded by a far from equilibrium and beauty is not through dom-
bifurcation crisis—here interpreted as a ination and control, but through
power restructuring crisis. If B succeeds respect, cooperation and dia-
in exercising power on equal terms with logue (1996, p. 193).
A, in overcoming the domination of A, For A (humanity) to exer-
an enhanced state of self-organization cise power over B (nature) is a course
is achieved. Such transformation from fraught with peril. The very conditions
the mechanistic exercise of power by A of life on earth are at stake in eschewing
over B to the mutual and collaborative the conquest of nature and fully engag-
exercise of power by A and B mirrors ing in nature’s dance of self-organiza-
self-organizing patterns in nature. tion.

A Complexity Theory of Power

A Complexity Theory a sleepy side street of the Upper West

of Power Applied Side of New York City in my normal

carefree “far from equilibrium mode of
ower dynamics cut across scale. self-organization.” The mugger jumped
A and B could be contesting na- out from behind a parked car, flashed a
tions, groups in a workplace con- knife in my face, and demanded mon-
flict, or any two people involved in a ey. This action suddenly thrust me
personal interaction. Here are several into a mechanical, equilibrium-orient-
examples that give a sense of what hap- ed power relationship. One moment I
pens when we test this framework with was free to move as I wished; the next
empirical data. I was stopped dead in my tracks, not
permitted to take another step. And I
Example 1: Getting Mugged had become the mugger’s ATM. Like an
As we walk the streets where we live, if ATM, I was expected not to question or
we are fortunate not to live amidst vio- talk back but to simply hand over some
money. In the eyes of the mugger, my
lence, we may feel a seamless freedom
obedience was essential to keeping this
roaming where we wish. But all that can
mechanical order intact or in a state
change on a dime.
of equilibrium. From my perspective,
Consider an instance of getting however, the inverse was happening. To
mugged (Figure 4). I’ve been mugged be forced into the mugger’s clockwork
once in my life. (That it has only been universe was to experience not order
once I am grateful). I was strolling down but disorder or disorganization. I was

Figure 4. A political complexity example: getting mugged.

Journal on Policy and Complex Systems

being incapacitated. I could disobey sis that pitted an absolute, closed sys-
and throw the mugger’s design into a tem against a new order of inclusion.
state of disorder, into disequilibrium. If As each new order emerged, it persist-
I was successful in foiling his plan, we ed for many years in a state of dynamic
would be equal partners in power. But I equilibrium, eventually becoming the
was afraid. I felt the paralyzing fear that old order to be challenged by new forc-
often occurs with the threat of violence. es of inclusion. Each franchise system
My will gave way to what Hannah Ar- had its own ideology of inclusion and
endt referred to as “... the ‘unquestion- exclusion (Figure 5).
ing obedience’ that an act of violence The electoral system established
can exact—the obedience every crimi- in 1789 by the Constitution gave eligible
nal can count on when he snatches my voters an unprecedented influence in
pocketbook with the help of a knife the selection of a chief executive, even if
or robs a bank with the help of a gun” that influence was indirect through an
(1969, 1986, p. 63). The knife in my Electoral College. It produced partisan
face had the intended effect. I obeyed. competition and, worldwide, marked
I handed over whatever money I had in the birth of modern political parties.
my pocket. But the vote was restricted to white male
property owners. The ideology of exclu-
Example 2: Suffrage Expansion sion was Locke’s notion of “life, liberty
and Contraction in the United and property.” Men without property,
States the logic went, had insufficient respon-
A historical sequence that lends itself sibility to be trusted with the vote. It
well to the proposed bifurcation mod- was an absolute line. Men thus excluded
el of democratization is the politics of saw this as an injustice, an imposition
expansion and contraction of suffrage of power, a type of disorder. Under the
in U.S. presidential elections since the banner of “Universal Manhood Suf-
country’s founding. The original U.S. frage,” a bifurcation crisis, a restructur-
electorate was made up largely of white ing process occurred. It included major
males with property. Over time, legal conflicts such as the Dorr Rebellion in
voting eligibility expanded to include, Rhode Island in which disenfranchised
successively, all white males, black state militiamen attacked the state ar-
males (the 15th constitutional amend- senal. The following year Rhode Island
ment in 1870), women (the 19th amend- amended its constitution to enfranchise
ment in 1920), and adults 18 and over all free men, regardless of race. In 1856,
(the 26th amendment in 1971). In prac- North Carolina became the last state
tice, these efforts to create a more open to drop the property qualification for
and inclusive electorate very often have white male voters.
been hampered by voting restrictions at The racist ideology of white su-
state and local levels. periority caused the all male voter re-
Each new system emerged out of gime to persist as a closed system ex-
a far from equilibrium bifurcation cri- cluding, outside of New England, most

A Complexity Theory of Power

Figure 5. A political complexity example: suffrage expansion

and contraction in the United States.

free black males from voting. The Civil lying the persistence and equilibrium
War, ultimately understood as an attack of the exclusively male voting regime
on slavery, was a most violent bifurca- until 1920. Violators of this absolutism,
tion crisis. It laid grounds for opening the generators of nonequilibrium and
this system constitutionally in 1870. a bifurcation crisis, included Susan B.
But, soon after the post-war “Black Anthony who was arrested for voting in
Renaissance” (in which the first blacks a presidential election in 1872 and the
were elected to the U.S. Congress), clo- likes of Alice Paul who engaged in a civ-
sure and disenfranchisement set in. il disobedience campaign leading up to
Almost a century later, when the black the 19th amendment.
Civil Rights Movement created a bi- Another closed suffrage system
furcation crisis all along the color line formed around the premise that anyone
that defined the boundary of a racially under 21 years of age was not mature
closed system, significant reopening and responsible enough to have the
occurred. The 1965 Voting Rights Act right to vote. This presumption came
provided legal activists with tools to dis- under attack during the Vietnam War
mantle the most egregious mechanisms when 44% of the more than 58,000
of black voter exclusion and empower American war casualties were under 21
blacks as voters. years old.5 Denunciation that someone
The ideology of male superiority could die for their country but not be
served as the absolute doctrine under- permitted to vote prompted another bi-
5 Percentage calculated using table data listed in “American Casualties by Age Group” in “Vietnam
War Casualties (1955–1975).” Accessed July 8, 2018 at

Journal on Policy and Complex Systems

furcation or power restructuring crisis point would have to stand in spite of

over the scope of the franchise. In 1971, any empty seats remaining in that row.
the 26th amendment to the constitution If, on the other hand, blacks filled up
relaxed the boundary of the system, so the last empty row and a white rider got
that all citizens from 18 to 20 years old on the bus, all blacks in that row had to
became eligible to vote in presidential vacate their seats to let the white rider
elections. sit down. This was the circumstance on
At each step in the expansion of December 1, 1955, when Rosa Parks
the suffrage, resistance formed to an defied this practice.
old closed equilibrium-oriented order The behavior dictated by the Jim
defending an ideology of exclusion. Crow culture on public buses shared
The agitators pried the system open the mechanistic dynamics of New-
by generating nonequilibrium. But the tonian order in several respects. For
exclusiveness of the newly inclusive whites who believed in their racial su-
system was made more apparent over periority over blacks, the inequality ev-
time by new contenders for inclusion. ident in this machine-like protocol re-
Each franchise expansion constituted flected an unquestionable natural order
a broader, more diverse, more complex of things. It was a genuine type of order
electoral system. but a mechanistic one. Its participants,
like parts of a machine, had to follow
Example 3: The Montgomery a strict, ritual-like script. The premise
Bus Boycott of absolute certainty characteristic of
During the Jim Crow era, blacks in the mechanical model was embodied
places like Montgomery, Alabama, had in Jim Crow’s ideology of white superi-
to give up their seats on public buses to ority. For A, crossing the color line was
whites if all other seats were occupied. tantamount to violating deeply held re-
The Jim Crow method for seating on ligious beliefs. For B, under the threat
public transit in Montgomery followed of violence for any insubordination,
a strict racial protocol, the inequality mechanical obedience and conformity
evident as whites filled buses up front became the norm. As long as all parties
to back and blacks filling them back obeyed the strictures of Jim Crow, the
to front. Blacks had to pay in the front mechanical equilibrium prevailed (Fig-
of the bus then get out and reenter the ure 6).
bus through a back door. The inequali- For blacks who had come to de-
ty evident in this ritual came into even plore racial segregation, the bus ritual
sharper relief when only one row re- was a degrading experience. The Jim
mained empty. If at that point a white Crow equilibrium was the inverse of or-
rider got on the bus and occupied one der; it was a type of disorder, one that, by
of the seats in the empty row, the en- denying choice, produced a type of dis-
tire row became a row for whites only. organization. Automatically assigning
A black rider entering the bus at that a contested seat to a white and forcing

A Complexity Theory of Power

Figure 6. A political complexity example: Montgomery bus boycott.

a black to stand was like the two-head- er restructuring crisis whose outcome
ed coin toss—it raised no uncertainty, was to open and socially democratize
it presented no choice, and it reflected a closed system. Anyone who enters a
zero organization. On that day in 1955, public bus in Montgomery today will, I
when Rosa Parks stayed put instead of trust, find that seating arrangements are
giving her seat up to a white passenger, racially equitable and self-organized.
she was exposing and calling attention With equally exercised power, the ques-
to equilibrium-oriented disorder. At the tion of, say, whether a white person or a
same time, she introduced uncertainty black person will get the last empty seat
into a climate of absolute certainty, ex- on the bus poses real uncertainty and
ercising choice where there had been real freedom of choice regarding a reso-
none, defying the absolute, unquestion- lution. And, like a regular coin toss, the
able megamechanical order of Jim Crow. resolution measures a certain degree of
In mechanistic terms, she had become a organization.
source of far from equilibrium disorder,
triggering, of course, the punitive forc- Example 4: System Transitions as
es aimed at the restoration of Jim Crow Probability Crossings
order. What else was there to do but to The military overthrow of democrat-
arrest her and book her as a criminal in ically elected civilian regimes, as oc-
the local police station? curred in many Latin American coun-
From a complexity perspective, tries from the 1960s into the 1980s, can
the year-long bus boycott by blacks that be described in terms of probability
followed created a bifurcation or pow- transitions, or the crossing of probabil-

Journal on Policy and Complex Systems

Figure 7. A political complexity example: breakdown of democratic regimes

and transitions from authoritarian rule.

ity boundaries—as can the transitions became subject to one or another form
back from authoritarian rule to more of censorship. In complexity terms, the
open political systems (Figure 7). transition from tolerance to intolerance
Chilean society, for example, crossed a of the improbable is analogous to the
political probability boundary from the shift from an open far from equilibrium
improbable to the probable as a result thermodynamic system to a closed equi-
of the 1973 military coup. Draconian librium-oriented system (McCullough,
measures of political repression insti- 1977, 8-9).
tuted after the coup created a climate Brazilian society crossed a simi-
of fear in which political expression be- lar probability boundary with the mili-
came highly probable relative to what tary overthrow of civilian government
it had been prior to the coup. This was in 1964, a process that became even
evident throughout Chilean society, more striking when military hardlin-
particularly in the media and the arts. ers staged a “coup within the coup” in
Newspapers and publishing houses of December 1968, several weeks after
political opponents were closed down. I arrived with the Peace Corps for a
Books seized in military raids on book- stay that would last almost three years.
stores, libraries, and private residences During that time, the military regime
were burned in public. Many people regularly produced and displayed pro-
even destroyed their own books for paganda posters all around the coun-
fear of being caught with them. News- try. One of these, I recall, was a simple
papers, books, magazines, TV, radio, poster of the Brazilian flag—but it had
plays, movies, songs, and even poetry one tiny change to the national motto

A Complexity Theory of Power

“Ordem e Progresso” which means “Or- Brazil under military rule offers
der and Progress.” There was an inflec- abundant examples of the disorganizing
tion over the “e” thereby changing the function of authoritarianism through
“and” to an “is.” It read “Ordem é Pro- denial of choice, whether in terms of
gresso” meaning “Order is Progress.” banning elections or suppressing orga-
For the military rulers, order was nized political activity.
not a mere motto; it was an ideology. Consider the situation of the
Anyone who lived in Brazil at the time Brazilian electorate during the 21-year
can vouch to the monotonous regulari- reign of the military dictatorship. There
ty with which the regime publicly por- were six presidents during that time,
trayed itself as a champion of “order” all Army generals, all dictated by the
that had rescued the country from “cha- Armed Forces, none of whom ever had
os.” And the political order that the dic- to face voters in an election. It was as if
tatorship produced during its 21 years the military Joints Chiefs of Staff in the
in power was a very real and tangible United States suspended elections and
type of order—but only by mechanistic, took it upon themselves the power to
equilibrium-oriented standards. The appoint the president. For Brazilian vot-
sources of chaos, the disequilibrators, ers, it was in other words, a no-choice
in this clockwork universe were many— choice—just like a series of two-headed
the voters not considered “responsible coin tosses. By analogy, we can say that
enough” to elect presidents and the ed- the imposed choice reflected a state of
itors, students, academics, artists, labor political disorganization, whereas the
leaders, and politicians whose exercise national elections that have been held
of free expression threatened system since 1985 in the country reflect some
equilibrium in the eyes of the military. state of political organization. This cer-
Suspension of elections, censorship, tainly makes sense if we think concrete-
prohibiting labor strikes, canceling citi- ly about the organization of Brazil’s
zenship rights of selected individuals for electorate. A national electorate which
10 years (cassação), arbitrary arrest, and has no choice to make, nothing to do
the systematic use of torture of political for 21 years, clearly lacks organization.
opponents were kind of tools needed by It is incapacitated. An electorate, on the
the military to chase after its particular other hand, which has elections to par-
Holy Grail of order and equilibrium. ticipate in and actually votes in those
From a complexity perspective, how- elections, clearly, by comparison, pos-
ever, these measures removed the heart sesses some qualities of organization.
of political life. Their chief effect was to The analogy applies equally as
keep citizens disorganized or to disor- well to more particular sectors of Brazil-
ganize the political system. The political ian society during that were at the time
repression effectively pushed the system similarly “disorganized” and to various
toward an equilibrium-oriented ther- degrees politically incapacitated by the
modynamic-like state of closure. dictatorship—the mass media which

Journal on Policy and Complex Systems

often had to face police censors in ed- openings to far from equilibrium cli-
itorial rooms (some offending newspa- mates, friendly to uncertainty or ques-
pers were forced to pay the salary of the tioning and favorable to “improbables”
censors), artists whose songs or works like censor-free daily news stories. The
in other media were banned, students aberturas that have managed to per-
whose organizations were made illegal, sist were bifurcation crises resulting in
labor organizers whose activities were relatively greater degrees of political
criminalized and so forth. self-organization systemwide.
The term “opening” was wide-
ly used to describe transitions in re- Conclusion

cent decades away from authoritarian
n setting forth his views on prob-
rule toward more democratic political
lems of organized complexity in
systems in Latin America and other
1948, Weaver issued an urgent call
regions. Over the course of these tran-
to the scientific community.
sitions, there were many short-lived
openings commonly referred to as ab- These new problems, and the
erturas in Portuguese or aperturas in future of the world depends on
Spanish. These aberturas took place in many of them, require science to
Brazil on several occasions when mil- make a third great advance, an
itary softliners gained the upperhand
advance that must be even great-
on hardliners and announced the re-
er than the nineteenth century
laxation of repressive measures like
conquest of problems of simplic-
press censorship. Amidst such abertu-
ity or the twentieth century vic-
ras, there was a tangible sense of relief
tory over problems of disorga-
among journalists, a feeling of being
nized complexity. Science must,
freed from asphyxiating conditions,
over the next 50 years, learn to
like coming up for breath after being
deal with these problems of orga-
forcibly pushed under water. But when
nized complexity (1948, p. 540)
media outlets tested the military’s lib-
... A revolutionary advance must
erality, publishing, for example, articles
be made in our understanding of
about the torture of political prisoners,
economic and political factors
the censors returned.
(1948, p. 544).
Within the proposed schema,
these politically repressed systems were Learning to deal with organized
thermodynamic-like closed systems, complexity is, in other words, not mere-
pressed toward an asphyxiating equi- ly a new line of investigation open to re-
librium-oriented probability, closed to searchers; it is a requirement for taking
uncertainty recognition (i.e., political a historic next step in the advance of
questioning). The political aberturas or science, an advance that, among other
aperturas—which eventually became things, needs to revolutionize our un-
systemic—were thermodynamic-like derstanding of economics and politics.

A Complexity Theory of Power

But now, well beyond Weav- the long view of evolution about how
er’s 50-year deadline, it is clear we are growth occurs in nature. As theoretical
still far from ushering in the new era biologist Stuart Kauffman notes “... the
of science Weaver hoped for, especial- emerging sciences of complexity ... offer
ly in realms of human complexity like fresh support for the idea of a pluralistic
economics and politics. A major stum- democratic society, providing evidence
bling block has been the epistemolog- that it is not merely a human creation
ical divide separating the physical and but part of the natural order of things”
human sciences. This essay has pro- (1995 p. 5). Viewed in this context,
posed a complexity theory of power as democratization is a form of political
one tool to assist in bridging this divide. development that reflects self-devel-
Drawing analogies between political opment patterns in the natural world.
phenomena and complexity-informed A physically-integrated view of poli-
physical processes, this theory builds tics that aligns the human passion for
a political complexity lens with which freedom with the indeterminism at the
to view social and political power con- heart of matter can hopefully set us on
flicts. Turning the lens on four empiri- the path to building genuinely self-or-
cal instances of power conflicts, it pos- ganizing social, political and economic
tulates that clashing views of political structures. In learning how to exercise
order (Figure 2) are not merely analo- power with, not over, others, we can in-
gous but homologous to clashing views tegrate ourselves with the self-organiz-
of physical order (Figure 1). In this ing pulse of nature.
view, power imposed through a mug-
ging, racial segregation, or the dictates
of military rule reveals a unique type of
physical disorganization. By contrast,
the mutual exercise of power resulting
in expansion of the suffrage or racial
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desegregation generates a unique type
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cal fit provided by the proposed frame- versity Press.
work makes such ties plausible enough
to merit further testing. Bronowski, J. (1973). The ascent of man.
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Lukes, S. (1974). Power: A radical view. Philosophy, 19, 265–279.
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