The critical state of our ignorance of how the international political system works and our abysmal inability to manage global politics in a rational manner demand, for our very survival, that we invent ways to think more clearly about the processes that lead us to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, transform potential cooperation for mutual benefit into a zero-sum dogfight, and bitterly insist on policies that create precisely the conditions we are trying to avoid.
Complex adaptive systems theory, now studied across an impressive array of distinct physical systems, holds the potential for serving as the key to a breakthrough in our understanding of world affairs. An example is the concept of a system operating in a state of criticality.
A number of historical situations that appear to have been such tenuously balanced states of criticality exist: the late Roman empire on the eve of the fateful decision to allow migrating European tribes to cross the Danube – a flood that once allowed to breach the border would end up washing the empire into history; the 13 Colonies with their rising frustration over taxation, representation, and the general lack of respect from London on the eve of the American Revolution; armed Europe on the eve of WWI; the Soviet Union in 1991. In each case, the system was balanced in a state of high tension, ready to slip off a knife-edged ridgeline, but it was anyone’s guess which way it would go.
The Moslem world now seems to have reached this point as numerous variables (frustration with economic deprivation; resentment at the lack of status in the world and corruption; rejection of double standards imposed by the West; rising awareness and ability to organize) interact and intensify. Does that explain widespread violence by small groups from London to Bali? If so, that hints at why we see few 9/11-scale events; there will always be far more small ones. It also, however, in no way implies that another large-scale event might not occur soon – there is no implication that events need be evenly distributed by magnitude. If so, it also suggests that the protests neither begin nor end with al Qua’ida.
The “criticality” concept does not predict a disaster if one goes a step beyond the invisible “edge of the cliff” because the cliff may only be an inch high, and, in fact, usually is. On the other hand, by some combination of causes so intricate as to seem like arbitrary chance, the cliff may be a mile high. So criticality says, “Watch for abrupt change.” It certainly does not predict another 9/11. Not only will the “next time” be of a different size, it may well be qualitatively different.
Here, the analogies to physical complex systems seem to fall short. In a sandpile, an avalance is an avalance – just a bunch of sand. The quantity may vary unpredictably, which is interesting and tells you something about what insurance for a home on a sandpile…or flood plain…or seacoast…or in a time of terror should cost. But qualitatively, not much of interest occurs with sandpiles or even earthquakes. Compared to social systems, these physical systems have few variables and a degree of complexity thus so much diminished that social scientists may have to think up a new vocabulary for social science complexity. It remains to be seen how far toward an understanding of social science complexity analogies to physical systems will carry us. Be that as it may, for now, at least, complexity in physical systems serves as an invaluable model for enhancing the sensitivity of social scientists’ vision of reality.
The lesson is clear: if Islam is in a state of criticality, without significant change in conditions and (this being the social sciences) Islamic people’s perceptions of those conditions, so as to address their grievances, we must expect a long series of political earthquakes of widely varying magnitude and type. And note that “type” is a very simple word for a hugely complicated range of potential surprise behavior. The future behavior of complex systems can be studied because complex systems exhibit patterns. But in a complex system, don’t bet your mortgage on history repeating. The patterns, you see, are complex.