Chaos in the Streets

On January 19, 2011 by Philip Auerswald

In my last post (motivated by an exchange with @keithkall on the topic of complexity theory), I noted that the observations of actual changemakers held real insights that we students of change do well to heed. Here’s an example that wonderfully illustrates the notion of extreme sensitivity to initial conditions in complex systems:

The critical hour of contact between the pushing crowd and the soldiers who bar their way has its critical mininute. That is when the gray barrier has not given way, still holds together shoulder to shoulder, but already wavers, and the officer, gathering his last strength of will, gives the command: “Fire!” The cry of the crowd, the yell of terror and threat, drowns the command, but not wholly. The rifles waver. The crowd pushes. Then the officer points the barrel of his revolver at the most suspicious soldier. 

From the decisive minute now stands the decisive second. The death of the boldest soldier, to whom the others have involuntarily looked for guidance, a shot into the crowd by a corporal from the dead man’s rifle, and the barrier closes, the guns go off themselves, scattering the crowd into the alleys and backyards. But how many times since 1905 it has happened otherwise! At the critical moment, when the officer is ready to pull the trigger, a shot from the crowd–which has its Kayurovs and Chugurins–forestalls him. This decides not only the fate of the street skirmish, but perhaps the whole day, the whole insurrection.

The author is Leon Trotsky, certainly one of the 20th century’s great changemakers (and one who, coincidentally, also bears a striking resemblance to @bill_easterly) writing in his book The History of the Russian Revolution.

Now, what is the point of this reference to chaos in the streets, beyond its connection to deterministic chaos and the dynamics of complex systems? Two points, actually:

1) The actions of changemakers don’t always turn out so well in the long run. (USSR? No.) Indeed, as Paul Polak  (a.k.a. @outofpoverty, founder of IDE, an organization whose treadle pumps have dramatically increased the productivity and incomes of over 17 million smallholder farmers worldwide) has recently and insightfully written, “institutions” are nothing but “radical ideas cast in concrete.” Furthermore, “The failure of development is closely tied to the ossification of big institutional structures.” (Read the post. It’s great. He’s a guy to pay attention to.)

2) Emergence in real (as opposed to theorized) human societies does not arise as a consequence of some pseudo-mystical force called “spontaneous order.” It arises out of the choices and decisions made by actual human beings on a daily basis. Many of those decisions are routine; most occur within the context of existing institutions (a.k.a. radical ideas set in concrete). But, every once in a while, an individual or group of people organizes to challenge powerful incumbents. (#sidbouzid) The process may look chaotic from the outside. But it has its own internal logic, planning, agency, decisive minutes, and decisive seconds.

Development in human societies is nothing but the process by which novelty is created, reinforced, and then challenged. People with initiative and vision make that process happen. The study of development without reference to, and understanding of, the people who make development happen is ultimately the study of nothing.