Pedro L. Sotolongo
Instituto de Filosofia de la Habana, CUB
Many current social complexity writings and models—and their writers and modelers from the right and the center of the political spectrum—do not seem to take into consideration the global historical limits of global social complex phenomena; taking for granted that they will always exist and/ or will continue to be of the same sort as they now are. Thus exercising, whether consciously or unconsciously, a ‘There Is No Alternative’ or TINA approach, that, while giving shape to a contradictio in adjectum, that is, a contradiction by itself with a truly complexity approach, is nevertheless considered ‘scientifically correct’ (because non-ideological) and ‘politically correct’ (because it does not deal with any alternatives to the social status quo). In this paper I examine five methodological circumstances (ideologically induced, even in the case of advocates of ‘non-ideological’ writings and models) leading to this TINA treatment. Many current social complexity writings and models—and their writers and modelers from the left of the political spectrum—while emphasizing those global historical limits, do so without due consideration of their complex, global, organizational and systemic nature. These complexity-lacking SARA (Some Alternatives Remain Always) type treatments, sometimes considered ‘radical’ and even ‘revolutionary’ by those that put them forward, are nonetheless mostly rhetorical and lacking any truly heuristic ‘cutting edge’. I examine two methodological circumstances (also ideologically induced) leading to this complexity-lacking SARA treatment. In the face of some of the dramatic circumstances of today’s global world situation, I argue in favor of the urgent need of a real Complexity-SARA-type treatment (stemming from the right, the center and the left of the political spectrum) of current global social problems, if we all want to avoid a global a ‘Titanic’-type catastrophe.
The recent Complexity and Philosophy Workshop that was held in Rio (November, 2004), was an alternative to the ‘developed’ region of the World, i.e., it was an event held in the so-called ‘Third World’; in Brazil, a country that is showing that alternative ways of thinking, and most significantly, alternative (to the prevailing one) ways of development are possible. As such, it seems proper enough to address the topic of “Complexity and TINA”—TINA being the acronym in English for the quite often heard statement—especially since the 90s—“There Is No Alternative”: TINA to a free market economy, TINA to neoliberal globalization, TINA to Capitalism and more recently—after 9.11.01—well you guessed it, TINA to open military aggressions against terrorism.
But Complexity and TINA give shape to a true contradictio in adjectum, that is, a contradiction by itself, in its own formulation. Complexity theory has shown us that every stage of real open systems—as our modern societies are—has historical limits, that they are always ‘in the making’, and so for them TINA does not hold, but SARA (Some Alternatives Remain Always) does. If this is truly the case, as Complexity Theory would suggest, then why are we being made to believe—and most of us indeed have come to believe—in the TINA argument-plot? Why does the TINA argument-plot often seem so plausible to many, including many noticeable (and noticed) Complexity Theory scholars (most probably even to the majority of those who gathered at the Rio workshop)?
This paradoxical situation is worthy of being addressed, particularly given the apparent inability -whether from the right or from the left of the political spectrum—of much current social Complexity thinking and social Complexity modelling to deal appropriately with SARA instead of TINA. When it comes to the study of complex social systems that go beyond separate organizational systems (business-type separate social organizations and/or enterprises) and their interactions in a changing global social environment SARA is always true. Such systems are not reducible to mostly businesslike and/or managerial (i.e., linear) ones. This inability is preventing social Complexity thinking—and social Complexity people and their Journals, Meetings and actions—to make a more substantial and serious contribution to many of the more pressing global issues of today’s world. Such contributions remain, however, much needed.
As a possibility: what contribution could the social Complexity community (from across the entire political spectrum) make by showing convincingly that even the most stubborn advocates of TINA-to-the-western-way-of-life have brought upon themselves (and upon others) their own SARA—and the worst SARA: fundamentalist terrorism. And, moreover, that one of the responses to the now often proclaimed TINA—to-open-military-aggressions-against-terrorism is the feeding of reasons to adversaries advocating TINA-to-terrorism: the narrow minded cause is co-creating an equally narrow-minded response.
Let’s give a closer look to the situation just outlined.
Two main reasons are found underlying this undesirable state of affairs:
This Complexity-TINA-type treatment of such key problems and issues (in spite of its unfaithfulness to—and inconsistency with—a true Complexity approach) is nevertheless widely considered in the social Complexity community as ‘scientifically correct’ (because it is supposedly ‘non-ideological’) and ‘politically correct’ (because it does not deal with any alternatives to the social status quo).
This Complexity-lacking-SARA-type treatment of such global social problems and issues (because of its mostly ‘rhetoric’ pathos and the absence in it of any true Complexity heuristic) makes it much easier for Complexity scholars to label it as ‘scientifically incorrect’ (because it is ‘ideological’); in addition to ‘politically incorrect’ (because it deals with alternatives to the social status quo). Although, it should also be said, this last labelling would most probably occur one way or another ideologically (and precisely by those, paradoxically enough, that advocate only ‘non-ideological’ thinking). Such circumstances, at the same time, and equally paradoxically, help considering such a treatment as ‘radical’ and even ‘revolutionary’ by those that put it forward, and by their left-wing followers, thus wrongly reassuring themselves to be ‘on the right critical path’.
We shall now examine in more detail some of the circumstances through which the above labelled ‘thought-action’ ‘barriers’ are constituted.
Five circumstances are, among others, most commonly involved in the process through which the TINA-only axiomatic base (whether consciously or often unconsciously) is constituted:
These circumstances, feeding upon each other, lead unmistakably to the consideration of only distinctionally closed (social) systems; that is, those in which nothing ‘of—the-other—sort’ can ever emerge. Which is equivalent—whether one wishes (or likes) it or not—to de facto validation of the (social) status-quo.
Let us take those TINA-only-constituting-circumstances one by one:
This is a circumstance that is present in—and thus affects—much actual social research, including much Complexity social research and modelling. It refers to the overwhelming attention given to the so-called ‘macro’-social processes and phenomena (that is, those that are taken to be decisive in triggering historical events—social and political changes). The downside is that there is little or no attention given to the (small-scale) events and processes that stem from the everyday contributions of ordinary people, day in and day out, that in the long run lead to those (large-scale) social and political changes.
More often than not those ‘small’ phenomena are overlooked, as if they did not exist and/or as if they did not lead to any significant effects. In reality, it is these ‘small’ social phenomena that turn into, more often than not, the time limits and the historical character of the ‘big’ phenomena, of any prevailing social reality.
It is worth noticing that ‘small’, in reference to this particular circumstance, means not only one or another ‘small’ quantifiable phenomenon in time (low frequency phenomena) and not only one or another ‘small’ quantifiable phenomenon in a spatial-geometrical sense (phenomena of restricted social, geographical or demographical extension), i.e., those that are ‘small’ in a scalar way; but it means also those which are ‘small’ in a qualitative, relative way to the privileged ‘macro’-social processes and phenomena. Thus, the Third—under-industrialized—World (the ‘South’) as a whole, and its events and processes, are taken as ‘small’ phenomena (relative to the First—industrialized—World: the North) in many social inquiries, including many social Complexity inquiries. These ‘small’ phenomena are regarded as anomalies that will be ‘removed’ with further rigorous TINA-type thinking.
What is then taken as a ‘small’ social phenomenon is then often labelled with a negative label or resonance, sometimes even caricaturized. Special terms are coined—so that they can be supposedly be dealt with ‘rigorously’—in a ‘single-stroke’ manner; terms which (inadvertently?) wash over much of the Complexity of those social realities: underdevelopment, underdeveloped, periphery, peripheral, ‘third-worldly’, ‘southern’, etc.
There are also some other phenomena that, while belonging to the ‘big’—industrialized—First World, are often considered as ‘small’ in much social research, and thus they receive their own negatively-charged (and equally Complexity reducing) terminology too: marginal groups, ethnic minorities, immigrants, below-poverty-level-income-persons, the political left. The reverse side of this coin is of course the existence of developed—First-World—enclaves in some underdeveloped societies. Paradoxically enough, these realities are often also considered as ‘small’ (although ‘of-the-right-type’) phenomena when characterizing those societies.
‘Small’ in this sense, thus, is what is considered not worthy of being included in the researched reality; what is undervalued in it, not granted credit, remaining ‘in the shadow’; what is invisible or not seen, in a word, what ‘does not exist’ for much social research.
What is the ontological equivalent of a treatment of social affairs that is not faithful to the bottom-up emergence of variety? What is the ontological ‘price’ paid by neglecting ‘small’ phenomena? Answering this question leads us into the next of the aforementioned TINA-only-constituting-circumstances.
The ontological consequence of not taking into consideration the importance of ‘small’ things is no other than overlooking that social terrain from where ‘what-is-different from the prevailing social realities’ could emerge. It leaves no social space left for coming into being by its own merits of anything socially qualitatively different from those social prevailing realities. Thus, in an a priori fashion, no social space is conceded for alternative, diverse, ‘different from the status quo’ events and processes to occur and uprise.
The under-developed social realities as well as those ‘southern-in-the North’ social realities (such as marginal groups, ethnic minorities, etc.), are thus (for the second type of TINA-only-constituting-circumstances) what-ought-not-to-exist; being considered as residual and infertile realities not worthy of being taken seriously into consideration unless they are regarded as social negativities, i.e., as sources of social disorder and disintegration. From this particular perspective these sources of disorder and disintegration can only be avoided by promoting those ‘undesirable’ social realities to the status of developed, centered, ‘first-worldy’, ‘northern’ realities, i.e., the only way to ‘correct’ the infertile realities of the ‘south’ is to either ignore them or try to rebuild them through the eyes of the ‘north’. This view conveniently overlooks that the reality of the ‘north’ is very much dependent on the maintenance of the ‘south’ as is!
Again, through this second class of TINA-only-constituting-circumstances those ‘undesirable’ (‘southern’) social realities can find a proper place in social research only by turning themselves into the realities of the prevailing social type (‘northern’), i.e., those that are characteristic of the developed, industrialized, centers of power (and in a way that only God should know, since it is seldom explicitly argued by the advocates of this kind of treatment). In other words, by making them become precisely what-they-are-not. The result of this cognitive procedure, which in my opinion is certainly not faithful to the range of emergent phenomena allowed by social Complexity, is the elimination of the potential for any social qualitative diversity; for any social truth or real alternatives to the existing social status-quo of the dominant ‘north’. The only social emergences that are admitted are those within the range of “more-of-the-same (prevailing social realities)”. In other words, TINA!
The two TINA-only—constituting-circumstances already examined reinforce—and are reinforced by—the next one to be examined.
It is not possible to deal with one or another phenomenon without first bringing forth some starting premises. That is the nature of any human cognitive enterprise—to begin the process of thought and examination we must first identify/construct the initial boundaries to the process. Thus, when studying social phenomena we often assume, for example, a given set of (always present) social interests, social aims and social ideological commitments. Such commitments are characteristic of one or another person, social group, social class, type of society and/or historical context. There is nothing wrong with that (assuming, of course, that the right assumptions were made in the first place; which is, of course, a major assumption on its own). But even if the social assumptions made prove to be right, that is only the beginning. Those social interests, aims and ideological commitments must be taken both in their social enabling capacities (that is, in terms of what they socially favour, agree with, make possible, impulse, push forward, foster, praise—whether rightly or wrongly—or, encourage) and in their social constraining effects (that is, in terms of what they socially unfavor, fight with, make impossible, restrain, push backward, hinder, criticize—whether rightly or wrongly—or, prevent from emerging). In this way we see that social assumptions enable as much as they disable, and we must wonder as to the possibilities that might be realized if the potential realities disabled/suppressed by the prevailing social assumptions were allowed to flourish.
More often than not, in much social research (including much social Complexity research), one of these two ‘sides’ of the inquiry is omitted in favour of the other. And the omitted ‘side’ (the disabled side) is strongly linked with the researcher’s own social interests, aims and ideological commitments exemplified by the social group, social class, type of society and/or historical context, in which the researcher ‘exists’.
This is, of course, one of the ways ideology sneaks ‘through the back door’ into science (even into supposed non-ideological research). Thus, in much social Complexity work, when the Complexity specialist shares the assumed premises for a given person, social group, social class, type of society and/or historical context, their social enabling potentialities are explicitly considered, developed and assessed. However, no equivalent explicit consideration and assessment is made in relation to their restraining potentialities.
Granted that such one-sided inquiry can be made in regard to any person, social group, social class, type of society and/or historical context involved in the studied social phenomena. But we are now primarily concerned with TINA-only—constituting-circumstances and because of that we will point at this moment only to the case when the researcher’s social interests, aims and ideological commitments coincide or converge with those of the empowered person, social group, social class, type of society and/or historical context in the studied reality (with those at the ‘helm’ of the researched social reality). In such cases, such one-sided use of the social premises leads to not taking into due consideration the restraining effects of those same social premises.
And it leads to that TINA-only treatment of the researched reality as a direct result of the fact that the prevailing consideration of only the triggering effects of the assumed social premises favours the recognition of emergent phenomena (of the ‘more-of-the same’ type, which of course is a direct consequence of the previous TINA-only—constituting-circumstance examined above) in detriment of the recognition of phenomena related to persistent unresolved social problems; persistent social problems that remain unsolved precisely because of the restraining effects of the starting social assumptions made, which are systematically omitted from the analysis.
Thus, this type of TINA-only-constituting-circumstance (which is not simultaneously faithful to both the enabling and constraining effects of much social dynamics) results in a distortion of the studied social reality. This distortion reinforces the previously examined types. This is because due consideration to the restraining effects of the assumed social premises is not given, which seriously restricts the scope of the covered social phenomena and, thus, introduces a bias towards considering ‘the probable’ ones and ignoring ‘the possible’ ones.
This bias towards probabilities helps shape the result—already pointed to above—of the TINA-only-constituting circumstances considering only distinctionally closed (social) systems; those in which nothing ‘of—the-other—sort’ can emerge.
To consider any system as distinctionally closed means considering it as:
However, real social systems do not exhibit any of these traits. Many events in them are not synchronic but concurrent (exhibit independent time series); social systems are not (completely) causally connected, not all events in them are causally connected with all others; and social systems are open systems, permanently and overwhelmingly exchanging mass, energy, information and meaning with their natural and social surroundings.
The logic-of-probabilities works well in distinctionally closed systems. It does so because it refers to series of event occurrences determined on their own and that can be accurately specified. But it does not work so well in distinctionally open systems. The modern notion of ‘probability’ arose within a definite epistemic atmosphere—that of the linear paradigm—and around specific and definite (although not necessarily simple) problems; but it is not the only one feasible. A logic-of-possibilities arises in another epistemic atmosphere and around different problems; it refers to the becoming of events not clearly determined and not sharply specified on their own (as, for example, network events).
A logic-of-possibilities intends to capture the shaping of the ‘conditions of possibility’ for one or the other phenomenon to happen. It is not biased in favor of ‘the probable’ events, but is in favor of any ‘possible’ one. Thus it is better suited to apprehend the emergence of ‘anything-of-the-other-sort’ with respect to the prevailing realities, thus, helping not to lose sight of the time limits—historical ones—of such systems.
The bias towards probabilities and not possibilities of much of the social Complexity studies (not faithful to the presence of a whole range of alternatives inherent in social Complexity) ignores all these circumstances and enhances its TINA-only-constituting-circumstances. But it is not its only bias.
This bias stems as a resulting effect from all the other TINA-only-constituting circumstances examined here, i.e., not taking into consideration ‘small’ phenomena; not paying attention to ‘the different’ for its own merits, considering only the triggering effects of the adopted social premises while omitting their restraining effects; giving preference to probabilities and not possibilities. Little by little—even if inadvertently—the researcher constructs a rationalized version of the historical social realities under scrutiny that makes invisible that historical character and turns it into a kind of transcendent universal (acontextual) reality. This turns the assumed social interests, aims and commitments into a justified—and justifiable—social status quo (because you do not argue against what is ‘universal’).
What is ‘universal’ and ahistorical does not posses time limits, it is historically limitless and thus there is no use in trying to consider any such thing. It is only worthy of being studied in its ‘objective’ existence. Thus, through this theoretical ‘hocus pocus’ three things are achieved:
Sooner rather than later, such reductionist, standardizing, homogenizing, cognitive procedures, lead to not taking into consideration the historical limits of global-scale social complex phenomena (the historical limits of a free market economy, of neoliberal globalization, of capitalism, of open military aggressions). Because of the reflexivity of social systems (well known to—and characterized by—contemporary second-order epistemology) such an approach begins to create its own social reality (through the circulation of its ideas in society, and their social diffusion), i.e., ideas that do not initially reflect social reality, can become to define social reality—social reality becomes our idea of what (the dominant party thinks) social reality should be.
The social result: the TINA-only-axiomatic-base of much social research. This includes much of the social Complexity research coming from the right and the center of the political spectrum when dealing with the global problems and issues of our time. This is a considerable ‘barrier’ for any critical social thinking and conduct.
But we pointed above to a second class of ‘thought-action’ ‘barrier’. This time one common to many critical social thinkers. Let us now consider it.
Two circumstances are, among others, commonly responsible for the process through which, what we have termed the ‘SARA-only axiomatic base’, is constituted:
Let us examine them.
It is a well known fact that the contemporary techno-sciences (those that pose their central problems in relation to techniques, using technical instruments, and with the aim of attaining technical solutions to those problems) began to dominate after the second World War; and that Complexity thinking emerged as a recognizable and recognized field of research in the late eighties of the 20th Century. In both cases, the mainstream of those achievements did not ‘run’ through left-wing critical thinker’s territory. In fact, those achievements were primarily used in ways that here and there strengthened the empowered social forces of that period, which had (and still have) no real interest in fostering, even less in provoking, any radical change in the existing social realities. Indeed, some of the applications of contemporary techno-sciences and of a Complexity approach (by the social forces interested in temporarily postponing those phenomena from approaching such historical limits) have in some respect allowed them to do so. These circumstances have led many critical social thinkers and researchers from the left of the political spectrum to a unilateral—and wrong—appraisal about the techno-sciences and the Complexity approach, as though they were inherently social-status-quo-defending cognitive and practical tools.
So, although it is commonplace from the side of these critical social thinkers (due to their inherent pathos in favor of social change) to take into consideration the historical limits of global scale social phenomena, more often than not, these historical limits are taken into consideration by them without due attention to the complex global-organizational systemic nature of the alluded social phenomena and to the real possibilities provided by the use of a Complexity approach, and by the techno-sciences for the social-change-fostering social forces. This results in a lack of global-organizational systemic and Complexity considerations in such critical social research and, furthermore, in a (relative) downgrading of its real heuristic ‘cutting edge’.
But the above mentioned circumstances surrounding the historical emergence of the techno-sciences and of the Complexity approach, in no way mean that the techno-sciences and the Complexity approach are ‘owned’ by the empowered social forces. On the contrary, Complexity thinking and the contemporary techno-sciences are up for grabs, as any scientific achievement sooner or later is—and, as such, can be used with all their heuristic potential by anyone. Of course, they will be put to use in accordance with—and for the social aims—of those that implement them. But that is as it has always been, and as it will always be. And thus, in the case of their implementation by critical social thinkers, they can and would be put to use accordingly to their social critical points of view and in favor of their social aims fostering—and not hindering—social change and making it happen.
Thus, to consider contemporary scientific achievements as only social-status-quo-defending cognitive and practical tools has turned into a ‘thought-action’ ‘barrier’ inherent to the SARA-only axiomatic base. This is true for most critical social thinkers from the left of the political spectrum, when dealing with problems and issues of global social changes; and one that hinders a more realistic appraisal of the feasibility of such advocated changes in the global social phenomena concerned. In addition, it hinders the use of those powerful cognitive and practical tools for purposes of fostering and working in favor of the desired and proclaimed needed social changes that such critical social thinkers—justly—advocate.
In the case of the critical social researchers belonging to the dialectical tradition there is still another circumstance that reinforces the ones mentioned, which we will next consider.
Since ancient times the dialectical current of thought has claimed the priority of movement over rest; of transformations over standing still; of dynamics over statics. It has tried, from Heraclitus to Hegel and Marx, to apprehend in philosophical terms—through the well known dialectical regularities—the behavior of nature and society. Complexity thinking is convergent with this line of thought; it also characterizes the world in dynamical terms, shows us the inevitability of spontaneous fluctuations and perturbations which disequilibrate any system, thus leading it to bifurcations and to the emergence of qualitative new patterns of order, without (necessarily) the intervention of external forces.
But ‘convergence’ is by no means ‘identity’. Dialectical thinking has developed predominantly on philosophical grounds; Complexity thinking, while presenting undoubtedly philosophical implications, has originated in scientific grounds. It is not, by any means, a re-formulation of (which adds nothing new to) dialectics. On the contrary, it is a new scientific formulation which, in some important cases, specifies some of the traditional dialectical philosophical formulations which, thus, achieve concretization from the facts gathered by contemporary science.
So, instead of the inability of many critical social thinkers to recognize the renewed cognitive ‘cutting edge’ of Complexity thinking, it should be emphasized that this new approach to the world and to knowledge is capable of supplying them with fresh flesh and bones for social critical inquiry. Paradoxically enough, whilst contemporary scientific thinking is arriving, on its own, to conclusions that converge and support what the dialectical tradition has for centuries advocated in abstract philosophical terms, many critical social thinkers from this tradition are turning their back on the new Complexity thinking: dialectical in deeds—in the name of their old tradition—dialectical in words.
The above characterized circumstances that have brought about the mentioned ‘thought- action’ ‘barriers’, need to be put in relation to our present global world situation in order to more properly assess their significance.
There is not much possibility to do this in a proper way in a short paper like this. But the present world situation is so dramatic, that even a few references to some empirical data would suffice:
So, we could ask ourselves: Which countries are financing the luxurious way of living of the industrialized developed countries? For how much longer will the masses of the poor countries endure their poverty while financing the wealth of a world minority? For how long will they put up with it without rebelling in one way or another? Will that rebelling be accepted or will it be repressed by the developed states? And the ‘question-of-questions’: How far away are we from the historical limits of such an unjust, unethical distribution of wealth?
Complexity thinking might help us realize that the present world has already accumulated such substantial social asymmetries that, although we cannot predict it, we can nonetheless foresee the possibility of the present world situation approaching a bifurcation point. In this world context, the TINA-only axiomatic base of much social Complexity thinking, without any consideration of global alternatives—whether consciously or unconsciously—leads, and in fact is already leading us, to not being able to prevent the possibility (more and more easily foreseen through the empirical data brought forward above) of a planetary (‘Titanic’ type) catastrophe. Whereas the SARA-only axiomatic base of much critical social thinking, without any significant Complexity global-organizational system concepts and ideas—whether consciously or unconsciously—leads, and in fact is already leading us, to nowhere worthy of being termed as real contributions to facilitate specific contemporary roads (stemming from contemporary circumstances and realities and not from rhetorical abstractions) towards the much needed and urgent social advances and changes.
Thus, the social Complexity community—from both ends of the political spectrum—should not be so pleased with the ‘Complexity world’ that they are now collectively co-constructing. On the contrary, a real Complexity SARA-type treatment of current global social problems and issues (stemming from every part—right, center, left—of the political spectrum) is urgently needed—together with Complexity SARA-type journals, Complexity SARA-type scientific meetings, and other Complexity SARA-type publications, events and initiatives.
Following further the ‘Titanic’ metaphor used, Complexity scholars should be urged to come out from their comfortable and separate social Complexity cabins (from which the surrounding ocean, together with the height and strength of its waves and the proximity of its icebergs cannot be sensed) and go out, if not to be at the helm, at least to step into their common upper deck (to be able to envisage where we all are heading) and thus to be able to advise (and whenever possible, convince) those at the helm to forsake TINA by showing them SARA.