Without denying that personality and culture may make a difference at the margins, the violence sweeping the region from Afghanistan to Algeria (call it the “Mideast”) is better understood in structural terms as an example of a complex-adaptive system gone wrong, a political system falling over cliff on which complexity balances and into the abyss of chaos. It is not arguments over religion or ethnicity or personalities but deep structural change that will be required to resolve this conflict.
The Mideast regional political system now incorporates a highly destabilizing array of mutually incompatible elements:
A conservative plutocracy that exports fundamentalist Salafi radicalism;
A racist, colonial, expansionist garrison state that is both insecure and driven by fundamentalist Zionist expansionist dreams;
An emerging, nationalist power emboldened by messianic, fundamentalist Shi’ism;
A collapsing state floating on an ocean of oil but so ruined by foreign invasion and ripped apart by domestic rivalries that it cannot govern itself;
National liberation movements of Palestinians, Baluchis, Kurds, Yemeni, and Bahraini constantly throwing sparks onto the dry political tinder;
A barbaric but administratively and militarily effective fundamentalist Sunni tidal wave dissolving the political sand castles erected by the host of incompetent regional politicians.
Every actor is highly dissatisfied with its position but cannot stand without stepping on the toes of others; the aspirations of every pair of neighbors are perceived, with good reason, as mutually exclusive. The Mideast today is the very picture of a complex, adaptive system collapsing into chaos: fully in a state of chaos in some regions, precariously balanced on the edge in other regions, with the borders unpredictably shifting and wild self-adaptation occurring everywhere.
This is the classic environment of creativity: utter complexity, i.e., no accepted rules of the game, extreme risk-acceptance, rapid tactical and strategic rates of mutation. Political weather prediction is impossible; political climate prediction is, conversely, easy: sudden changes in temperature, violent storms, floods today, drought tomorrow.
Expect rapid shifts in tactics, sudden creation and dissolution of coalitions between those with no long-term interests in common, the empowerment of extremists, socially irrational explosions of violence for the personally rational pursuit of short-term profit by whatever pirate happens to sail by.
Up to a point, complexity confers the blessings of creativity and high performance plus the redundancy that makes creativity bearable. But the Mideast political system has evolved beyond this theoretical sweet spot to, and over, the edge of chaos, where individual initiative is both uncontrolled at a large scale (i.e., the scale of society) and under the control of extremists at a small scale (i.e., the scale of self-empowered small groups, e.g., radical factions in a regime or self-organized militias). The result is complexity gone wrong, like the rapid (and usually fatal) mutation rate of life that survives in a zone of high radioactivity.
In a regime of true complexity, local autonomy inspires creativity but system-wide links channel that creativity to enrich the system. Coordination is released from the deadly shackles of totalitarianism or a numbing bureaucratic insipidness even as coordination is maintained in the flexible and enriching manner of the respiratory subsystem of a great athlete or the financial subsystem of a well regulated capitalism under the control of a highly participatory democracy.
“Complexity”—let us define it simply as a network of autonomous, local power centers, each with its own internal rules and dynamics, with every local power center following an evolutionary path that, while unique, is nonetheless influenced by all the others—is hard to comprehend because effectively infinite variation can be contained within the system. The 13th century Mongols, with their empire-wide set of general practices plus the great local decision-making power of regional rulers, ran a complex empire. Capitalism is in theory a classic complex system, with significant but unique economic decision-making powers residing at every scale (individual, family, private business, corporation, and the various levels of government), and that complexity of capitalism constitutes the secret of its power to enrich all participants. To the degree that monopolies and corruption hamstring the decision-making freedom of certain actors, capitalism is simplified…and crippled. But complete freedom, e.g., the right to drive on whatever side of the road one wanted or the right to make laws to cheat consumers, would destroy the secret of capitalism’s success. Implementing a complex system, like walking a tightrope, requires balance.
Such “true” complexity is hard to see in the political and cultural free-for-all of the contemporary Mideast, where it thus is no surprise that the string of failed efforts at sincere, positive-sum compromise seems endless. Ankara’s good-neighbor policy gets blown out of the water. Egypt’s military will not permit a new democracy to get its feet on the ground. On the eve of ISIS attack, Maliki will not allow the Kurds an oil deal to keep them in the governing coalition. Israel will not allow Gaza to govern itself even after Israel “withdraws” from its occupation: putting someone in jail confers the responsibility for feeding them.
It is also no surprise that those in power choose short-term personal advantage over national survival. Assad watches his country collapse in civil war rather than sharing power. Netanyahu moved instantly to undermine an emerging Fatah-Hamas compromise, preferring the comfortable (for him) pattern of endless Israeli military repression to the potential emergence of a unified Palestinian government that might actually gain enough power to rule and thus bring stability. Maliki risks the dissolution of his country rather than resigning to make way for a regime of national unity.
“Those in power” include not just formal leaders but self-organizing militias, which also tend to favor short-term, private advantage over national survival. Typically ethnically-based, militias claiming to be fighting for their country undermine their own cause by attacking not their enemies but innocent bystanders who happen to have different ethnicity or religion, further fracturing and weakening society. Israeli settler violence against the moderate and submissive Fatah and even politically quiescent Palestinian civilians is a classic example of local autonomy being misused to weaken the links between sub-systems (in this case, the mutually dependent settler and Palestinian sub-systems, both of which would benefit from stability, security, and economic growth). The non-discriminatory policy evidently implemented by the Kurds as they moved toward declaring independence in the weeks following the initial attack of ISIS is a striking exception.
By thinking in terms of complex-adaptive systems, one can see that the current Mideast political mess is explicable in terms of dysfunctional structural characteristics in the system. Individuals may make a difference, and some may indeed be relatively evil or good; culture may matter. Nevertheless, personality, morality, religion, race, tribal status are all unnecessary to understand and even to predict the broad course of Mideastern events. It follows that neither individual leaders nor any particular religious or racial affiliation is likely to make any real difference to the core dynamics that are making the Mideast such an unpleasant place for its inhabitants and such a danger to world peace and global economic development. This conflict will not be resolved by finding the right allies, arming the right religious faction, or labeling someone as “evil.” Only profound structural transformation seems to hold much hope of eliminating the highly destabilizing array of mutually incompatible elements that powers the collapse of governance in the Mideast.