Complexity and ideology

If you can prevent yourself following the footnotes to the end of the post, try and guess who offered this critique of scientific method when applied to the social:

“Yet the confidence in the unlimited power of science is only too often based on a false belief that the scientific method consists in the application of a ready-made technique, or in imitating the form rather than the substance of scientific procedure, as if one needed only to follow some cooking recipes to solve all social problems. It sometimes almost seems as if the techniques of science were more easily learnt than the thinking that shows us what the problems are and how to approach them.”[1]

Perhaps this is a quotation from a post-Marxist sociologist, or a post-modern relativist worthy of being mocked by natural scientists such as Alan Sokal?

How about this quotation from the same person on the limitations of modeling social phenomena using statistical methods:

“Statistics of limited use because it proceeds on the basis of reducing complexity: it deliberately ignores the structure into which the individual elements are organized. We can talk in generalities, if, all things being equal, certain patterns will occur. We should have developed beyond the understanding that we are in search of simple regularities which will help us with predicting events. The idea that to be scientific we have to produce laws has proved very harmful.”[2]

Maybe these are the thoughts of a famous social anthropologist or a critical management scholar?

Or lastly, the observations of our eminent mystery guest on social complexity:

“Since a spontaneous order results from the individual elements adapting themselves to circumstances which directly affect only some of them, and which in their totality need not be known by anyone, it may extend to circumstances so complex that no mind can comprehend them all. Consequently, the concept becomes particularly important when we turn from mechanical to such ‘more highly organized’ or essentially complex phenomena as we encounter in the realms of life, mind and society. Here we have to deal with ‘grown’ structures with a degree of complexity which they have assumed, and could assume only because they were produced by spontaneous ordering forces.”[3]

Perhaps this is a contemporary of Norbert Elias, another process sociologist? Or perhaps another pragmatist arguing that ‘mind and culture developed concurrently rather than successively’[4]?

Our mystery scholar is in fact the Nobel prize-winning economist Friedrich Hayek, whose ideas have been taken up widely both economically and politically during the last three decades, particularly in the US and UK, but not just there. Broadly speaking they have been adopted in defence of policies which have promoted the marketization and privatisation of economies and the ‘rolling back of the state’; it has been used to support the promotion economic activity, competitiveness and consumer choice as preeminent in government policy. The broad set of ideas, usually referred to as neoliberalism, originally fleshed out by Hayek, his contemporary Milton Friedman at University of Chicago, and a variety of other eminent figures like Karl Popper were enthusiastically taken up by both Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher and have remained the global economic orthodoxy ever since. They have also been imposed on the developing world in the form of structural adjustment, and have been recommended to relatively new democracies such as the Russian Federation.

So it might be worth spending a brief moment thinking about how we get from complexity theory to ideology. As someone who also draws on the complexity sciences to offer a critique of the way in which the natural sciences are introduced simplistically into organisational theory I am concerned about the company I am keeping. I am interested in the connection between being influenced by insights from the complexity sciences on the one hand, and its use in the justification of a particular social and economic order on the other. Thinking about complexity and ideology also makes me reflect upon how I am taking up these ideas. Is it at all possible to adduce ideas from the complexity sciences and not take up an ideological position?

One reaction which often arises routinely when I present insights from the complexity sciences to groups of managers is that if we take the idea of emergence seriously, then there must be no point in planning or managerial activity. Understood in caricature, the complexity argument is a form of quietism, a giving up on managerial interventions because nothing will transpire as one intends. We might as well all pack up and go home.

And to a certain extent, this is exactly the way that Hayek does understand the idea of spontaneous order and our dealings with it. For Hayek the intentions and activities of a myriad of individuals creates an order which nobody can predict, and which nobody can influence, except in very broad and abstract ways. The complexity of this plurality of activity is such that no single mind, or group of minds can comprehend it, even the wisest amongst us, and particularly not governments. This leads Hayek to idealise his idea of spontaneous order and argue that it is the best of all possible worlds, and encourages human autonomy and freedom. The greatest repository of human wisdom lies in system of rules which have evolved culturally. The role of governments, then, is at best to get out of the way, or at the most, to encourage more competitive activity. This has led to what contemporary political economist Philip Cerny has described as the ‘competition state’[5], where the activities of government have changed from protecting economic sovereignty to opening up their economies, particularly state functions, to corporate involvement.

Hayek argues in a similar vein to James C Scott when he points out that some of the greatest crimes against humanity have been caused by people acting in the name of doing good: there are often immoral consequences of morally inspired efforts to bring about social justice, he maintains. The best that can be achieved is equality of opportunity; the concept social or economic justice is an unhelpful distraction empty of content:

“It is now necessary clearly to distinguish between two wholly different problems which the demand for ‘social justice’ raises in the market order.

The first is whether within an economic order based on the market the concept of ‘social justice’ has any meaning or content whatever.

The second is whether it is possible to preserve a market order while imposing upon it (in the name of ‘social justice’ or any other pretext) some pattern of remuneration based on the assessment of the performance or the needs of different individuals or groups by and authority possessing the power to enforce it.

The answer to each of these questions is clearly no”.[6]

Hayek accepts that proper market functioning may produce inequalities which might look like unjust outcomes, but maintains that the concepts ‘just’ and ‘unjust’ simply do not apply, but are imposed constructions on outcomes which are naturally occurring. What we can focus on, he argues, since the outcome of our interactions is unpredictable, is that we engage with each other in a fair and just way. Equally, he has problems with the word ‘social’ since he finds it infused with a morality which he thinks it does not support: it is simply a description of a collective phenomenon. His attitude was reflected in Mrs Thatcher’s now famous observation that ‘there is no such thing as society: there are only individuals and their families’. What she was arguing here, I think, is that ‘society’ cannot act, but is simply the collective of the individual.

In the next post I will spend some time evaluating Hayek’s arguments by setting them alongside what may look superficially like similar arguments from Elias and Scott as a way of reflecting on ideology, ethics and politics. For the time being I think we can conclude that there is nothing inherently ‘progressive’ about a critique of existing taken-for-granted assumptions about the linear state of the social world. Insights from the complexity sciences can be just to support a whole range interpretations of, and remedies for, the functioning of the social. 


[1] Hayek, F.A. (1974) The Pretence of Knowledge, Lecture to the memory of Alfred Nobel, December 11, 1974.

[2] Hayek, F. A. (1967). Studies in Philosophy, Politics and Economics, London,

UK: Routledge & Kegan Paul: 22-42.

[3] Hayek, F. A. (1973/2013) Law, Legislation and Liberty, London: Routledge: 39-40.

[4] Ibid: 489.

[5] Cerny, P. G. (2010) The Competition State Today: from Raison d’E´tat to Raison du Monde, Policy Studies, Vol. 31, No. 1, 521.

[6] Hayek, F. A. (1973/2013) Law, Legislation and Liberty, London: Routledge: 231-232.

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One thought on “Complexity and ideology

  1. Pingback: Politics, impartiality, reflexivity – reflections on the 2015 Complexity and Management Conference | Complexity & Management Centre

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