Chaos is found in greatest abundance wherever order is being sought. Chaos always defeats order because it is better organized.
~ Terry Pratchett
My last words on the gallows will be to praise the study of chaos. For the sake of our very survival as a species, the destructive and dysfunctional nature of our highly-structured world may soon force humanity into an outburst of intelligence. Should that occur, an understanding of the creative and orderly processes of chaos may save us from the consequences of our collective hubris.
What can be more insane than mankind’s continuing insistence upon playing out the simple-minded notion that the intricacies and variability of our complex world can be fully comprehended and rendered manageable by wise leaders? In a world caught up in the madness of wars, genocidal campaigns, economic depressions, and the resort — by some — to the despair implicit in suicide bombings, there is no better occasion for us to consider a major paradigm shift in our thinking.
"Desperation" may well be the best word to describe our current responses to the ubiquitous malfunctioning of social systems premised on the necessity for vertically-structured, top-down, command-and-control organizational forms. Western civilization collapses all around us, and yet most of us continue to insist upon a renewed commitment to variations of the Platonic vision of a world made orderly by philosopher-kings.
Perhaps the clearest expression of just how desperate mankind has become in its efforts to restore social order without, in the process, deviating from the premise of centralized authority, was seen in President George W. Bush’s usurpation of personalized decision-making power. Having tested the water to see if there was any significant objection to his stated preference for political dictatorship — of which there was little — Mr. Bush proceeded to turn the direction of American society to whatever whim or vision fascinated him at the moment. If war was an attractive course, he would declare it on his own initiative — constitutional grants of such authority to congress notwithstanding. Nor did it seem to matter to Boobus Americanus, or the media, or the corporate owners of American society, what the pretext or identification of enemies for such wars happened to be.
And as decades of government economic planning, direction, and other interventions began playing themselves out in the dislocations that now threaten to pull the marketplace into the destructive vortex of a black hole, resort is once again had to the premise of centrally-directed political power. Far from even pretending to the status of philosopher-kings trying to rationally manage the present crisis, the president, members of congress, the Federal Reserve Board, and other government officials operate upon no greater insight than the unstated assumption "let’s try this and see what happens!" Having long been accustomed to believing that no problem was too considerable that could not be overcome by the infusion of money, congress and the executive branch began sending trillions of dollars to their corporate sponsors. Contrary to the presumed premises of "economic planning," there were no announced directions as to how such money was to be spent, or what specific consequences were anticipated. It was enough that members of the corporate-state hierarchy were in menacing straits, and that the federal government owned a printing press that could alleviate such difficulties! The ancient saying, "desperate times call for desperate measures," were invoked to rationalize this grand-scale looting. But in so doing, the political system inadvertently confessed to its incapacity to efficaciously plan in a world of complexity.
Boobus — unaccustomed to thinking outside the circle of his institution-serving conditioning in the necessity for centralized authority — has been unable to envision any alternative other than replacing a failed wizard with a new and improved model. Barack Obama became the establishment’s well-hyped candidate, being packaged and sold not as yet another failed philosopher-king, but in the nature of a god-king. Gods, after all, are looked upon as both omniscient and all-powerful, capable of transcending the limited capacities of mere humans to deal with the uncertainties of complexity. Obama promised "change" to a beleaguered public without, in the process, altering any of the fundamental practices or structures that produced the disorder. Indeed, as announcements of his forthcoming cabinet revealed the names of many of the political retreads whose past efforts helped to produce our current problems — including Obama’s retention of President Bush’s present Secretary of Defense! — expectations of "change" eroded to little more than the placing of corn flakes in a more attractive box. When Obama proves as incapable as his predecessors of imposing greatness upon the country; and his presumed godliness evaporates to reveal just another ambitious politician; I wonder if his idolatrous followers will be as inclined to deal with him as fiercely as Daniel Dravot was treated by the denizens of Kafiristan in Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King?
At no time do I recall such a frequent recitation of the definition of "insanity" as "continuing to repeat the same behavior, expecting a different result." Perhaps this reflects a growing awareness of the need for a major transformation in how we think about the nature of social systems. The Ron Paul phenomenon seems to have tapped into an undercurrent of energy — particularly among people in their twenties, thirties, and forties — that goes far beyond opposition to war, the burdens of taxation, and government regulatory and fiscal policies. I was in Minneapolis for the Ron Paul alternate convention, and was stunned to hear an audience of some twelve thousand people cheer Tom Woods’ reference to the "Austrian theory of the business cycle." The kids know that "the system" just doesn’t work anymore; that it cannot deliver its promised order; that they will simply continue to be ground up in the machinery that serves only a privileged elite, and not themselves.
The foundations of Western civilization are fast crumbling. Like hillside homes caught in a landslide, there is little rational people can do other than distancing themselves from the descent while, at the same time, helping to establish more peaceful, free, and cooperative ways of working with others. In the words of the late Thomas Kuhn, mankind is in need of a fundamental "paradigm shift" in our social thinking. An increased familiarity with the nature of "chaos" may provide the catalyst for such a change.
We humans have long allowed ourselves to be dominated by linear thinking. We have become too attached to structured forms of thinking (e.g., regarding emotional expression as inferior to logic and rational thought; treating the literal as superior to the metaphoric), which has led us to prefer structured organizational forms to the more informal. Linear thinking has also led us to the worship of technology as the principal means by which to improve our quality of life. None of this is to condemn such thinking outright — if I were going in for major surgery, I would want the surgeon to approach the operation in a linear fashion rather than as a "stream of consciousness." It is, however, to suggest a more balanced relationship between linear and non-linear thinking.
The study of chaos makes us more familiar with the non-linear nature of complex systems. From our own bodies to social systems to the rest of the physical universe, our world is far more characterized by spontaneous, informal, and unplanned behavior than our linear thinking chooses to acknowledge. Even giving institutional officials the benefit of the doubt as to their motives, we are fated to play out the "unintended consequences" of our best of intentions. This was the essence of Ron Paul’s debate quarrel with Rudy Giuliani concerning the "blowback" of American foreign policies that led to the events of 9/11. Paul was but applying Newton’s "third law of motion" (i.e., for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction), a proposition that a thoroughly institutionalized and linear Giuliani was unable to grasp.
The forces of chaos will continue to play themselves out, regardless of the self-righteous arrogance with which they are opposed by politicians, public opinion polls, and the babblings of journalism-school-trained news "reporters." The trillions of dollars of "bailout" funds will have unforeseen "trickle-down" consequences long after the checks have cleared the Treasury. Learning how to function within a world whose forces are indifferent to our demands is the opportunity provided by the study of the order that lies hidden within chaotic systems. It is a field of inquiry whose insights will prove discomforting to members of the political class; the philosopher-kings and god-kings who will continue to ignore its teachings to the peril of us all.
Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law. He is the author of the newly-released In Restraint of Trade: The Business Campaign Against Competition, 1918—1938 and of Calculated Chaos: Institutional Threats to Peace and Human Survival.