I’ve just started reading “The Uprising”, by Franco Berardi, and while I haven’t made it very far in the text, I’ve already encountered an idea that gave me pause. The author touches on Wiener’s Cybernetics quite early — which is in itself tantalizing — but follows quickly with an idea that resonates with what we’ve read in Beer’s “Designing Freedom”.

Swarms and Networks

In the early section titled “Swarm”, the author lays down a challenge:

If we want to understand something more about the present social subjectivity, the concept of the multitude needs to be complimented with the concepts of the network and swarm

Networks are pluralities of beings tied together by common procedures and protocols, which enable interconnection and interoperation. Swarms are pluralities whose behaviour are determined (to some extent) by their neural programming.

We then get the suggestion that:

In conditions of social hyper-complexity, human beings tend to act as a swarm

followed closely by:

In a broader sense we may say that in the digital age, power is all about making things easy. In a hyper-complex environment that cannot be properly understood and governed by the individual mind, people will follow simplified pathways and will use complexity-reducing interfaces

This resonates strongly with Beer’s ideas in Designing Freedom (and throughout his whole career), and we specifically with the Law of Requisite Variety. Humans and the social assemblages they make up must engage in some kind of variety engineering to survive, most often variety reduction. This imperative becomes even more pronounced in a hyper-complex environment, where not only the individual human, but even the social assemblage, has little chance of keeping up with the systemic complexity.

Respectability Politics as Ineffective Variety Reduction

The problem with our contemporary moment is that systemic complexity is so vast that it completely overwhelms both people and institutions, leaving us with a feeling of being adrift on a churning sea. Our codings and procedures worked, at one point, but now we find that the old ways are insufficient for the complexity we’re confronted with.

Unfortunately, in the face of this realisation, the standard response is not to adjust the system so that complexity can be handled, but to simply re-trench and double down on the old procedures and protocols. Needless to say, clenching one’s teeth and hardening one’s shell is not going to stop the current from tearing one to shreds.

At this point in the text, the notion of “Respectability Politics” popped into my head. We can frame this set of ideas as an attempt to establish common procedures that help deal with complexity, by reducing complexity. (I should be clear here, I’m using respectability politics as a convenient umbrella term for all the usual liberal procedures and mores, the rituals, codes, and protocols of a hegemonic system that revels in it’s own inertia. You might know this thing by another name, but it’s the same beast).

And this worked for a while, but the trouble is, as Beer recognized, that the attenuator is installed in the wrong part of the loop. Systemic variety continues to proliferate, while the regulator (the institutions and networks) has its variety reduced. And any change which would shake up the regulator and improve it’s capacity to meet the systemic complexity is rejected in favour of an impotent clenching reaction.

Contemporary liberalism has left itself hamstrung, perilously half-attached to a wild, seething mass of untamed complexity, but the response to this predicament is to doggedly insist on the sufficiency of the “way things have always been done”, and to insist, contrary to all evidence, that if everyone would just use their indoor voice then we could go back to “the way things were”.

A Way Out

So what’s to be done with this? How can we break these circuits and avoid being trapped in them in the future? A minimal commitment would be to ruthlessly evaluate all of our codes and protocols, to evaluate everything in its fitness for the task at hand. To do that, we need to pull complexity and cybernetic principles into the core of our thinking. This is sure to drive the Centroids nuts, as we will be fundamentally undermining the basis for their un-questioning respect for “whatever happens to exist”. To ask whether this or that institution or practice actually manages to succeed in the task it sets itself precludes the kind of dead-eyed capitulation that we’re asked to perform in the name of respectability.

– S