Spitballing the abyss, part deux

by Carl Dyke

Here’s the text I settled on for my part of the Trump in Fayetteville lyceum. I took out most of the snark and some of the handwaving from the first version. (New readers, I recommend the discussion in the comments there.) This one also includes my contribution to what we’re calling the ‘candy round’, where we go against everything we believe as responsible professional historians and take a crack at predicting the future based on the past. I decided for pretty obvious reasons on Berlusconi. Finally, I’ve appended the PowerPoint slides I’ve synced with my text (numbers in parens) as a running paratext. Mostly it’s selected quotes from the interviews themselves, offering ‘evidence’ and commentary.

I’m putting it below the fold so it doesn’t clutter up the blog’s front page. 


Spitballing the Abyss

(1) I’m interested in what we think about how things work. When I’m not interviewing Trump ralliers, my research is on the history and theory of societies as complex adaptive systems. (2) People have always noticed that social processes do not seem to correspond very well to simple cause and effect explanations, or to respond very well to simple cause and effect engineering. Social processes routinely go sideways and defy prediction and control, much like the weather. (3) Back at the tail end of the Renaissance Machiavelli warned the Prince about this ‘fortuna’,[1] and some kind of ‘fortune’ or ‘luck’ explanation is one of the more common ways of accounting for the wonkiness of social processes like politics.

(4) We now know that with the weather, even short term unpredictability is because there are many systems actually involved in the ‘weather system’, all of them are active and effective but none of them are in control, they are all oscillating and linked and dynamically interdependent, and there’s lots of feedback that can amplify very small causes into very large effects, or dampen very large causes into very small effects. This disparity between causes and effects is called ‘nonlinearity’. (5) It is characteristic of complex systems, as are self-organization (there is no designing hand at work) and emergence (the whole is more and other than the sum of the parts).[2]

Plans are worthless, but planning is everything, Ike Eisenhower remarked.[3] (6) Despite Machiavelli’s early attunement to the issue and the routine awareness by better leaders and strategists that you have to expect the unexpected, getting serious about grappling with societies as complex systems that work a lot like the weather has been slow going. (7) For one thing, we have a species prejudice that our reasons and intentions are different and more effective kinds of causes than ocean currents and snow melt.[4] And for another, our own evolutionary adaptation disposes us to act on simplifications rather than get lost in complexity.[5] (8) In most action windows there’s not much advantage in prediction or control to be gained by sorting through dozens, hundreds, or thousands of oscillating, interacting, feedbacking variables with massive uncertainty factors, so our default is to make a best guess and take a stab at it. Styles and strategies of guessing distribute across the population and this diversity, like our distribution across the political spectrum, assures that for most processes and contingencies, a bunch of them will be good enough to at least stay in the game. Sub-optimality is also characteristic of complex systems.

(9) Our interview partners had strategically simplified accounts of how things work that strongly skewed toward a personalized story of American politics. Crooked politicians messed things up; illegal immigrants abused our kindness, competed unfairly, and stole our jobs. Trump will toss the bums out and fix everything. (10) Our partners offered individual intention and agency, motivated by personal character, morals, and formal ideas, as their primary explanation for political processes and actions. (11) Systems routinely appeared in their accounts as illegitimately powerful, anonymously personal, generally malevolent intentional corruptors of wholesome individual action. (12) From a complex systems perspective, their anger at the “rigged system” and eagerness to find a powerful leader to overturn it come into sharp focus as perpetually frustrated and frustrating attempts to enforce legible, predictable linearity on irreducibly non-linear processes. (13)

And complexity can in fact be managed and engineered down to mere complication or even simple linearity in local settings through rigorous organization and massive effort. (14) Our interview partners all had robust histories in these kinds of engineered systems. They were military and ex-military, nurses, librarians, postal and factory workers. The everyday strategies of complexity management by orderly hierarchy, leadership, and procedure had worked well enough for them to at least keep them in the game.

(15) But they felt that was changing. In the parts of the interviews where they were not explaining how they think things work but reflecting on what worried them, they had no trouble perceiving national and global complexity that was far beyond their scope, knowledge, and understanding. (16) They named it ‘Hillary’ and ‘the Establishment’ and ‘Black Lives Matter’, ‘the UN’ and ‘Soros’, but what frustrated and angered them was that it couldn’t actually be pinned down and controlled so easily. (17) In this massively diverse country and interdependent world, we are all subject to dangers and participant in evils we can’t see and don’t know how to name.

(18) When Trump said he could fix all that by closing the world out, shutting down internal turmoil, and making us one great simple undivided America again, he spoke obvious common sense. (19) Trump said nothing our interview partners weren’t already primed and ready to flow with, a model of leadership in complex systems the Renaissance Princes well understood.[6]  And in turn our partners admitted that it was a gamble. But they were going to hurl Trump at the abyss and hope.[7] (20)

Candy round:

In many ways Italy’s modern democracy is quite different than America’s. It was founded as an adjunct of the Northern monarchy under which the peninsula was finally unified during the Risorgimento of the mid to late 19th century.  As such it was from the first well understood to be oriented toward the interests of ruling elites, who during its first half century used it to intercept and coopt pressure from outside the system by taking in just enough of the opposition to pull its teeth. This ‘passive revolution’ and the patronage networks that worked alongside it were the basis of Italians’ profound distrust of their political institutions, even or especially after the parties of the Left were fully included following the second world war, which was also the last time the country tried to be militarily relevant.

In short, Italian politics evolved to not get much done, and succeeded admirably in this mission throughout the 20th century. So when Silvio Berlusconi, a crude, fake tanned, loudmouth, media tycoon rode a wave of frustration and racism into power in 1994, there was perhaps not much at stake. Berlusconi played opponents and allies off of each other, attacked institutions up to and including the Constitution when they didn’t go his way, scapegoated immigrants, made promises he couldn’t possibly keep, lied copiously and openly, hung out with mobsters, bribed, hustled, philandered, and for nine years in power on and off subjected Italians to a constant stream of spectacle and provocation, much to the delight of those who had long given up on politics being about anything meaningful.

Berlusconi was (is) an authoritarian strongman, but not in any systematic way a fascist (which is famously a ‘family resemblance’ kind of category anyway). Nor were more than a fringe of his shifting cast of allies. He was playing Italian democracy, not transforming it. So despite lots of churn he, too, got very little done; but the level of public drama went way up, even by Italian standards. It remains unclear if former comedian Beppe Grillo’s current anti-institutional Five Star movement is more of the same slide of Italian politics into pure theater.

Would we prefer Trump and his crew to accomplish anything, or nothing? America is not Italy; our politics are domestically and globally consequential, so there’s much more mischief an American Berlusconi could get up to, and it’s much weirder to elect one. It is tempting to hope that they manage to smash up some of the institutional bloat and procedural tangle that slowly infests all organizations, while reinvigorating our commitment to active democratic participation and forcing us to revision the purposes and practices of the republic. That’s not what happened with Berlusconi, but again, America is not Italy.


[1]          Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince and the Discourses (Modern Library, 1950).

[2]          C. [Chuck] Dyke, The Evolutionary Dynamics of Complex Systems: A Study in Biosocial Complexity (Oxford UP, 1987); Donella H. Meadows, Thinking in Systems: A Primer (Chelsea Green, 2008); John H. Holland, Complexity: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford UP, 2014); Jean G. Boulton, Peter M. Allen, and Cliff Bowman, Embracing Complexity: Strategic Perspectives for an Age of Turbulence (Oxford UP, 2015).

[3]          Dwight D. Eisenhower, “Remarks at the National Defense Executive Reserve Conference,” November 14, 1957. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=10951

[4]          Alicia Juarrero, Dynamics in Action: Intentional Behavior as a Complex System (MIT UP, 1999); Terrence W. Deacon, Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter (Norton: 2013).

[5]          K.C. Cole, “Why You Didn’t See It Coming: When scale confounds our perceptions, stories can clarify them.” Nautilus, October 15, 2015.  http://nautil.us/issue/29/scaling/why-you-didnt-see-it-coming

[6]          Padgett and Ansell, “Robust Action and the Rise of the Medici, 1400-1434,” http://home.uchicago.edu/~jpadgett/papers/published/robust.pdf; Henry Farrell, “Kissing the Ring,” <em>Crooked Timber</em> 11/20/2016: http://crookedtimber.org/2016/11/20/kissing-the-ring/

[7]          Friedrich Nietzsche, trans. Walter Kaufmann, Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future (Vintage: 1966 [1886]); Albert Camus, trans. Stuart Gilbert, The Plague (Modern Library, 1965 [1947]).


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6 Comments to “Spitballing the abyss, part deux”

  1. Very nice. Very nice, indeed.

  2. That said, I wonder if, in this case, the appeal to complexity and non-linear systems doesn’t ignore a straightforward explanation. To wit, coastal elites, basking in the opportunities that globalization created them, were sucker punched by a campaign that saw an opportunity in the misery of middle America, where globalization meant the loss of jobs and pride and increasingly threatened religious and patriotic identities, where for Constitutional reasons, electoral votes were far in excess of actual population. We see similar dynamics in Brexit and the rise of right-wing parties in Europe, where, in every case, globalization’s winners have neglected and despised the losers, treating them as backward and stupid.

  3. Thanks John! We decided to stay away from trying to explain the election. So I’m focusing on what I could pick out about our partners’ approach to political explanation rather than why they voted for Trump exactly.

    I think clearly most people who voted for Trump did so because he was the Republican candidate. The folks we talked to were a little more volatile, but generally were looking for a personal persony person to shake things up. Many of them were proud to have voted for Obama, at least the first time. They were interestingly not, for the most part, globalization’s direct losers. They had good jobs and relatively stable lives. But even so their sense of being under attack and at the brink of a precipice was strong.

    I think everything you say is true and definitely a thing. But for what it’s worth, I grew up with these people and they’ve been seeing an inscrutably complex world in terms of personal threats to them the whole time. It would have been witches and Catholics four hundred years ago, it was commies and blacks and hippies fifty years ago. So I’m not sure the specifics of globalization and coastal elites do much work as explanatory nexes, except in offering an image and vocabulary for the feeling, as JohnD showed in the commentary on the last post.

  4. Carl, I take your point about the people you grew up with; I have known quite a few myself. From half way around the world, however, it seems to me that a global, or at least OECD and BRICS, phenomenon requires more than a local explanation. One part of that explanation is surely that members of what we might call the DAVOS crowd and their hangers-on and running dogs, among whom I include myself, sorely neglected the fears of the stay-at-homers who correctly perceive their worlds coming apart around them. Ours may be a softer Calvinism, in that we find it distasteful to point at others and call them damned, but that is small comfort to those who concerns we ignore because we see them as being on the wrong side of history.

  5. I see that the Lyceum convened last night. How did it go, Carl?

  6. JohnD, as I expected, and maybe because I expected, it was awkward and uncomfortable but “successful” by the standards of the genre. Everyone was prepared and articulate. We read our texts with professionalism and style. With three presenters, two rounds of presenting, and two commenters, there wasn’t much space for improvisation and we pretty much wore the audience out by question time.

    JohnM, change is hard. I’ve now read dozens and dozens of analyses of the election and its existential paratext. Liberals have not stinted in their mea culpas about the poor ignored victims of modernity’s cruel solid melting and sacred profaning. But since I’m paraphrasing Marx and now Schumpeter, globalization’s creative destruction isn’t sneaking up on anyone any more. What we’re talking about is who gets to enjoy some relative buffering from that predictable churn at the expense of the commons. Our partners were maneuvering to retain their more than fair share, which makes them deeply problematic and not just because their way of life is always already doomed.

    In any case I expect if we had gone to Sanders or Clinton rallies and/or the more recent women’s marches we would have heard much the same strategically simplified stories about how things work. My point was precisely that this is a way people commonly think.

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