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.

Complexity and Society

Antonio Gramsci famously said that politics is ‘everything that concerns people’. So how come political discussions are far removed from the lives of ordinary people? How come there is a set of issues for politicians and a set of issues for the rest of us? Is it because politics is too complicated for ordinary people? Maybe not. Maybe it is because we’re not thinking about things in the right way. Here then is the start of my attempt to put the complexities of people and politics together on the same page.

Complex Processes and Social Systems

Dan Dennett: Philosopher and Gent

Daniel Dennett, at the Second World Conference...

Daniel Dennett, at the Second World Conference on the Future of Science, in Venice, 2006 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Dan Dennett is a distinguished American philosopher. Over the years he has moved away from mainstream philosophy to tackle such tricky subjects as evolution and religion.

In his latest book he gives the benefit of his extensive knowledge and experience to set out the basic rules of good thinking. This Observer article is a good introduction.

Being the philosopher that he is, Dan does not push a party line other than good sense and I for one agree with every word.

If you want to know why Dan’s message deserves to be heard, switch on the news and learn about religious wars, corporate hegemonies and general double-dealing. Yup, I’m saying it here: Dan is one of the good guys.