The Benefit of Benefits

The current Tory government likes to paint a picture of a nation of hard-working people paying off debt incurred through the fecklessness of others. The task of paying off this debt is made harder, they say, by foreigners claiming benefits, by the unemployed scrounging benefits and the sick who simply won’t try to contribute.

But is this true? Is this analysis based on a careful understanding of the modern state or is it a case of politicians indulging in opportunistic rabble rousing? And more importantly, is the government acting for the people or to serve their own interests?

To examine these questions we should step back and look at how we came to live in neighbourhoods and to form a society that each of us can value. And we can do this through the account of society given by Jean Jacques Rousseau in his Discourse On Inequality, 1754. For Rousseau;

“The philosophers, who have inquired into the foundations of society, have all felt the necessity of going back to a state of nature; but not one of them has got there. Some of them have not hesitated to ascribe to man, in such a state, the idea of just and unjust, without troubling themselves to show that he must be possessed of such an idea, or that it could be of any use to him. Others have spoken of the natural right of every man to keep what belongs to him, without explaining what they meant by ‘belongs’. Others again, beginning by giving the strong authority over the weak, proceeded directly to the birth of government, without regard to the time that must have elapsed before the meaning of the words ‘authority’ and ‘government’ could have existed among men. Every one of them, in short, constantly dwelling on wants, avidity, oppression, desires and pride, has transferred to the state of nature ideas which were acquired in society; so that, in speaking of the savage, they described the social man.” Jean Jacques Rousseau, Discourse On Inequality, 1754.

So Rousseau’s desires sustainable and accountable communities where everyone contributes and no one is left out. He goes on;

“I should have chosen a community in which the individuals, content with sanctioning their laws, and deciding the most important public affairs in general assembly and on the motion of the rulers, had established honoured tribunals, carefully distinguished the several departments, and elected year by year some of the most capable and upright of their fellow-citizens to administer justice and govern the State; a community, in short, in which the virtue of the magistrates thus bearing witness to the wisdom of the people, each class reciprocally did the other honour.” Jean Jacques Rousseau, Discourse On Inequality, 1754.

Sounds familiar? Furthermore;

“I should have desired only, to complete my felicity, the peaceful enjoyment of all these blessings, in the bosom of this happy country; to live at peace in the sweet society of my fellow citizens, and practising towards them, from their own example, the duties of friendship, humanity, and every other virtue.” Jean Jacques Rousseau, Discourse On Inequality, 1754.

But, alas, Rousseau sees that we are very far from this happy state, and says we only have ourselves to blame;

“The great inequality in manner of living, the extreme idleness of some, and the excessive labour of others, the easiness of exciting and gratifying our sensual appetites, the too exquisite foods of the wealthy which overheat and fill them with indigestion, and, on the other hand, the unwholesome food of the poor, often, bad as it is, insufficient for their needs, which induces them, when opportunity offers, to eat voraciously and overcharge their stomachs; all these, together with sitting up late, and excesses of every kind, immoderate transports of every passion, fatigue, mental exhaustion, the innumerable pains and anxieties inseparable from every condition of life, by which the mind of man is incessantly tormented; these are too fatal proofs that the greater part of our ills are of our own making.” Jean Jacques Rousseau, Discourse On Inequality, 1754.

So where did it all gone wrong? Well;

“The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying ‘This is mine’, and  found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows, ‘Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody’?” Jean Jacques Rousseau, Discourse On Inequality, 1754.

In other words, for Rousseau, political equality means abolishing the ownership of property rather than propagating it and focussing on the development of each person in society rather than grouping people as either hard-working or feckless.

“All the inequality which now prevails owes its strength and growth to the development of our faculties and the advance of the human mind, and becomes at last permanent and legitimate by the establishment of property and laws.” Jean Jacques Rousseau, Discourse On Inequality, 1754.

In taking this position Rousseau adopts an ethical viewpoint at odds with that of the Tory government. For;

“ … moral inequality, authorised by positive right alone, clashes with natural right, whenever it is not proportionate to physical inequality; a distinction which sufficiently determines what we ought to think of that species of inequality which prevails in all civilised, countries; since it is plainly contrary to the law of nature, however defined, that children should command old men, fools wise men, and that the privileged few should gorge themselves with superfluities, while the starving multitude are in want of the bare necessities of life.” Jean Jacques Rousseau, Discourse On Inequality, 1754.

In other words, the way to improve the communities in which we live is to form an equal society free from property rights, oppressive legislation and blatant privilege. For Rousseau, this improvement stems from consideration of our natural state and not from looking at the latest opinion polls or reading tabloid headlines.


Complexity Made Simple

There is no single definition of complexity science or an agreed general definition of complexity. Different practitioners use different definitions. There is, however, general agreement that complexity stands apart from positivism or research methods that offer single solutions to single problems.

Complexity is therefore best deployed in cases where we are not sure that we can find a single answer or where more than one approach may be taken. For example we may talk about:

“complex systems in which the ‘simple, microscopic’ components consist of people (or companies) buying and selling goods, and the collective behaviour is the complex, hard-to-predict behaviour of markets as a whole, such as changes in the price of housing in different areas of the country or fluctuations in stock prices” (Mitchell, 2009, p. 9).

This casts the starting point of complexity as interactions and what emerges from those interactions. This approach defines complexity as ‘emergence from interactions’. This open definition allows complexity to apply to different domains (Stacey, 2005).

Complexity also uses the term ‘autopoiesis’ to refer to something capable of reproducing and maintaining itself. Autopoiesis is basic to the living individual. What happens to the individual is subservient to its autopoietic organisation for, as long as it exists, the autopoietic organisation remains invariant (Maturana & Varela, 1987).

This means that the identity of an individual, and therefore their emergent global properties, are generated through a process of self-organisation, within their network of components. Here the process of self-organisation is conditioned by a two-way process of local-to-global and global-to-local causation.

Complexity work often uses complex adaptive systems. As systems they are not explicitly in the present or in time at all. However, they shape our thoughts and actions which are in the present (Johnson-Laird & Byrne, 1995).

For the current purposes we can say that complex adaptive systems use models to develop and build theories of interactions. They imply the use of models and indeed regard systems as models. The models show how systems behave within fixed constraints i.e. the terms of the model. It would therefore be wrong to say that models deliver a rich epistemology.

So by way of a general definition we may say that a complex adaptive system is something that exhibits a particular kind of behaviour. This particular kind of behaviour requires self-organisation, and it requires behaviour that leads to the emergence of something new, here at the social level. This emergence is then revisited and fed back into the system in such a way that something else emerges.

Complexity may also be considered in terms of complex responsive processes. They deal with interactions in the present and involve reflections on interactions that take place in time. You cannot, however, stop time so these present reflections always refer back to a present now gone (Stacey, 2011).

These approaches to complexity may be considered as complementary for both complex adaptive systems and complex responsive processes address how we behave, respond and think within a context. The context could be the wellbeing of communities or the prevention and management of disasters. This means that we may identify and explore the strengths and similarities of both approaches.

We may take a general definition of complexity and use complexity terminology to work out a complexity approach that suits our research activities. In the social realm this is relatively easy to do for people interact and as they do so the situations they are involved with become more and more complex. We may then consider the complexity of human situations in terms of the awareness of the people involved in those situations and their competence in judging, emoting, planning, etc. (Zeeuw, 2011).


Johnson-Laird, P. & Byrne, R. (1995).  A model point of view. Thinking and Reasoning, 1, 339-350.

Maturana, H. & Varela, F. (1987). The tree of knowledge: The biological roots of human understanding. Boston, USA: New Science Library.

Mitchell, M. (2009). Complexity: a guided tour. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Stacey, R. (Ed) (2005). Experiencing emergence in organizations: Local interaction and the emergence of global pattern. London: Routledge.

Stacey, R. (2011). Strategic Management and Organisational Dynamics. Harlow: FT Prentice Hall.

Zeeuw, G. (2011). Improving non-observational experiences: Channelling and Ordering. Journal of Research Practice, 7(2), Article M2.

Complex Community Governance

The idea that local people should be involved in the governance of their communities is not new (Briffault, 1990a, 1990b). However, little of real substance has so far emerged from efforts to engage and empower them. If local people are to be in a position to oversee or even run their communities then two questions need to be addressed: Should communities regulate themselves? And can legislation be used to promote community activities that will benefit local people?

What is important about local people is their connection with a particular place, whatever that connection may be. Local people by definition are not specialists in law or legal processes. Their value is their local knowledge and their network of contacts relating to their local area (Geertz, 1983).

We can explore these questions from this point of view by adopting a complexity-informed approach that uses interactions, iterations and emergent factors to set out and explain social, economic and environmental concerns. The resulting understanding may then be used to ask how laws and regulations are to be understood and used by people living and working in their communities (Kirk, 2012).

This brings us to the notion of ‘social complexity’. Social complexity considers real people together with their involvement in actual, ongoing situations. The relevant variables are held and judged together. Conclusions may be drawn but they are temporary or ‘for the moment’. Circumstances will change and so will the complexity outcomes. It is an important part of the complexity approach that social situations are held to be changing. Equally important is the ability of the complexity approach to account for this (Gerrits, 2012).

These considerations are timely, relating to a number of recent public debates on issues such as Scottish Independence, the treatment of refugees, re-shaping the National Health Service, Conservative welfare reforms and the Labour leadership (Corbyn, 2015).

The connection between complexity science and community governance is not immediately obvious and needs to be explained. Complexity science originated in physics and mathematics but is now an interdisciplinary field with a widening number of applications in the social sciences. As an interdisciplinary field, complexity-involving research takes different forms and approaches. Some understand complexity as emergence from the rule-based interactions of discrete agents and explore it through agent-based modelling. Others argue for a more general use of complexity and for the development of case-based narratives deploying a wide set of approaches and techniques (Mitchell, 2009).

What is shared is the notion that complex phenomena are greater than the sum of their parts. The parts are interdependent, interacting with each other and combining to produce non-reducible products and behaviours. Small interactions can have large effects and large interactions can have small effects. Furthermore, complex phenomena are related to their initial conditions. What emerges depends on the initial conditions. In some cases the initial conditions can produce long-term momentum or what is termed ‘path dependence’. Here we see a role for governance as allowing beneficial initial conditions and providing ongoing careful guidance (Geyer & Cairney, 2015).

And this is different from what usually happens. Taking a complexity approach shifts assessment and particular performance management away from individual items such as indicators or outcomes. Complexity instead assesses how the items relate to each other. It examines these interrelations and their consequences asking questions such as; which items go together? Is this what was expected? Are interventions required to join or to separate particular items?

Taking a complexity-informed approach allows communities to look at how interactions come together to form networks, partnerships and alliances. These formations are distinct from their component parts. Such formations produce behaviours and actions that cannot be reduced to the behaviours and actions of each component part. For example, a meeting may agree to set up a creche. No single part of that meeting is the agreement. What may be minuted is that agreement has been reached but the agreement itself is formed by those present, together as a whole (Large, 2015).

In such a way, insights from complexity may be used to govern and to regulate community-based social activities, local economies and the environments in which they take place in ways that are sensitive to the needs and the best-interests of those directly involved. In doing this, complexity-informed governance functions not as the imposition of an outside authority but as a helpful regulatory tool that is both sensitive and responsive to the needs of community members acting in local situations (Cairney, 2012).

Recently community governance in England has been considered in terms of ‘localism’ and the local regulation of local public functions. ‘Localism’ here refers to a devolution of powers from central government to local government and neighbourhood organisations (HMG, 2011). However, legislating in this way does not change the balance of power between central government and local government, nor does it change the balance of power between central government and communities. This is because the relevant powers and budgets remain in the hands of central government. Rather than allowing communities to make local decisions, government relegates local people to the role of consultees on projects or of grant recipients. Such an approach does not devolve power to local communities and does not give local people the self-determination they require to carry out local governance procedures successfully (Briffault, 1990a).

So the proposal here is that if communities were to be represented by independent, democratically elected neighbourhood organisations then local people could be directly involved in making the decisions that affect their lives. They could shape the place where they live or work and they could determine the services that they wanted to use. Further in times of cutbacks, such as the present, they could look at prevailing arrangements and determine how savings to budgets were to be made. Such neighbourhood organisations could negotiate with central government departments, local government officers and interested parties such as utility providers and developers working in the neighbourhood to obtain the best deal for local people (Morell, 2009).

However, the recent community legislation does not recognise the need for the establishment of locally accountable governance structures. Rather the result has been to move the responsibility for some budgets from central government officers to local government officers. The legislation has established a number of community rights but it has not moved control of resources from government to community. Consequently there has been little opportunity for local people to participate in making the decisions that affect them (Pipe, 2013).

For example, public health funding has been transferred to councils but then ring-fenced in large measure to activities run by the council and the NHS. This has meant that local communities have been unable to make decisions about how this money is spent in their neighbourhoods. Instead they are offered consultations on programmes that are set up, operated and controlled by the council and the NHS (LGIU, 2012).

Yet the benefits of community control and local leadership are clear and are shown by current evaluation procedures. Consider, for example, welfare-to-work schemes. Fewer than 15% of unemployed people were in sustained employment after being referred to the centrally-controlled Work Programme. In contrast local schemes have rates at more than 30%. This represents clear evidence that running local employment schemes controlled by local organisations is a more effective way of getting people into work than contracting large organisations to the job regionally or nationally (NAO, 2014).

This suggests that the value of a complexity-informed approach to community governance lies both in listening to the views of local people and in allowing them to run the services they need. This in turn requires community-specific legislation that separates neighbourhood powers from local government powers. At the same time, checks and balances are required so that community initiatives do not run off the rails. And here we find a difficulty. For, where local powers have been allowed, these checks and balances have followed the line of ‘the local authority is running the risk therefore the local authority has full control’ (NCC, 2011).

So how are we to give local authorities the confidence to allow communities to hold and to exercise local powers independent of government influence? Well, by placing the emphasis on complexity-informed considerations we begin to view community governance as a matter of how the community sees things in the present. We begin to lose concern for past procedures and precedents and we begin to see how governance processes and procedures may be applied and may operate in neighbourhood settings.

Once this has been done we will be able to consider each member of the community in full and be able to recognise and respond to the rights they are entitled to as fully-fledged community members. This in itself is a step towards revitalising democratic participation and to creating space for informed and relevant political debate. In other words we are both bound to and able to consider the people concerned as genuine participants, contributors, stakeholders and owners of the relevant governance processes. This, in turn, points the way to fuller, more genuine participatory democracy (Dworkin, 1977).

We have been considering the governance of local communities in terms of the interests and contributions of local people. We may now draw the following lessons and make positive suggestions for academics, policy makers and legal officers.

The failure of measures such as the Localism Act to empower communities shows that for meaningful, community-led governance a more radical approach is required. Nevertheless they indicate that there is a will within government circles for further community-based powers both to empower local people and to allow the delivery of local services in a time of public sector budget reductions (HMG, 2011).

Communities can be given the powers and the freedoms they need to shape and develop their own social and physical infrastructure. Addressing this task in terms of interactions and emergent factors allows relationships to be formed and maintained that are informed, engaged and responsive to the requirements and needs of local people. In taking this approach, complexity gives a way to form governance frameworks that incorporate structures that are focussed on local people and laws that are not only for the community but may be formed by the community. These frameworks would allow local government powers to intervene or to leave the community governance structures alone. Once agreed centrally, these governance frameworks would be applied to communities on a case by case basis as each community decided the route they wished to take. Local government would provide safeguards at the same time as encouraging local people to take control (Large, 2015).

In this way local people would become empowered and be able to take control of their neighbourhood. One way to promote this would be through a new ‘duty to involve communities’. This duty would apply to all bodies be they public, private or voluntary sector. Under this duty, organisations working within a community would be required to ask local people about governance issues and inform them of the options allowed within current legislation. Such a change would begin to move local authorities away from holding on to control and would encourage local people to become more involved in the governance of their community (Morell, 2009).

Overall, this means that by using complexity considerations, government and legislators are able to answer the questions of who is responsible and who has control. By taking a complexity-informed approach to governance, responsibility is shared among those involved at the level of their involvement, be this court, local authority, community organisation or local individual. Furthermore, the creation of a complexity-informed governance framework provides a legal foundation for a true community-centred localism and points the way to empowered, confident and mature community decision making.

A version of this material was presented at “A Jurisprudence of Complexity?”, Lancaster University, 25 September 2015. I thank all those who commented.


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Briffault, R. (1990b) ‘Our Localism: Part II – Localism and Legal Theory’. Columbia Law Review, 90, pp. 346 – 454.

Cairney, P. (2012) ‘Complexity Theory in Political Science and Public Policy’. Political Studies Review, 10 (3), pp. 346 – 358.

Corbyn, J. (2015) The Economy in 2020. Accessed 15 August 2015.

Dworkin, R. (1977) Taking Rights Seriously. Cambridge, USA: Harvard University Press.

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Kirk, D. (2012) ‘Peoples Law’. The Journal of Criminal Law, 76, pp. 187 – 190.

Large, (2015) Communities and Complexity. PhD Thesis. Newcastle: Northumbria University.

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Mitchell, M. (2009) Complexity: A Guided Tour. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Morell, K. (2009) ‘Governance and The Public Good’, Public Administration, 87, (3), pp. 538 – 556.

Newcastle City Council (NCC) (2011) Udecide Information. Accessed 5 August 2015.

Pipe, J. (2013) Two years on, what has the Localism Act achieved? The Guardian. Accessed 10 July 2015.