As the world gets increasingly interconnected and increasingly complex, self-organized political activity is becoming increasingly important, so understanding how self-organization works, what intensifies it, and how it can be influenced are increasingly important goals. Unfortunately, it is not clear that complexity theory can offer many insights into these details that would be of value to policy-makers. Be that as it may, complexity theory does make the important contribution of sensitizing us to the probability that self-organization will occur when a society is faced with chaos. The lesson is obvious: govern wisely to prevent the society from organizing itself in ways you may not like.

Beyond that general lesson, what can we say about the process of self-organization? There is a great research project here: look at the rise of Muqtada al Sadr, al Qua’ida, Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Taliban to see if cause-effect patterns can be identified. These would probably include the desperate search for good governance and a reaction to the imposition of external force. But what influences speed or effectiveness or the level of violence employed?

I suggest the following hypotheses:

H1 = The speed and creativity of self-organization are positively correlated with the amount of energy inserted into the system;

H2 = The level of risk deemed acceptable by those organizing is positively correlated with their level of desperation.

Note that these hypotheses are directly contrary to what policy-makers tend to believe. They see the world as one in which obedience positively correlates with the “energy” inserted (e.g., the level of repression). They also see risk aversion as rising with the level of threat, which is surely true for most people most of the time, but that misses the point: self-organization does not require most of the people to take action. Most Saudis did not take action against the West in response to the presence of U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia after the first U.S. invasion of Iraq; bin Laden did.

I also suspect that the correlations may be rather linear at moderate ranges but become extremely nonlinear as one approaches extremes.

The current tendency of status quo powers to insert extremely high levels of “energy” in the form of money, political activity, military activity into societies such as the Iraqi, Iranian, Afghani, Somalian, Yemeni, Palestinian while neglecting even the most basic human rights needs of the members of these societies suggests, in light of the above hypotheses, that the following can be anticipated:

  • very high levels of self-organization;
  • very high levels of risk-taking;
  • very high levels of creativity.

Complexity “philosophy” faces a huge hurdle: as soon as its concepts are explained clearly, they sound so obvious everyone claims always to have believed them. Complexity thinkers need to make clear the areas where in fact we have “always believed” exactly the opposite. The expectation that punitive force, especially collective punishment, can effectively suppress political activity on the part of occupied societies without the payoff of at least halfway effective governance is a prime case in point.

That said, this post should not be read as the “answer” to anything: it is just a warning to politicians (not that any of them will read it) and an invitation to complexity thinkers to focus on how self-organization works in societies under stress.



The informative list of attributes of self-organization across all scientific fields (not specifically in the social sciences at all, much less political science) given below should be considered in carrying forward the above discussion.

Typical features include (in rough order of generality):

  • Absence of external control (autonomy)
  • Dynamic operation (time evolution)
  • Fluctuations (noise/searches through options)
  • Symmetry breaking (loss of freedom/heterogeneity)
  • Global order (emergence from local interactions)
  • Dissipation (energy usage/far-from-equilibrium)
  • Instability (self-reinforcing choices/nonlinearity)
  • Multiple equilibria (many possible attractors)
  • Criticality (threshold effects/phase changes)
  • Redundancy (insensitivity to damage)
  • Self-maintenance (repair/reproduction metabolisms)
  • Adaptation (functionality/tracking of external variations)
  • Complexity (multiple concurrent values or objectives)
  • Hierarchies (multiple nested self-organized levels)

A description of the self-organization of Brazilian sex workers suggests the type of information about marginalized populations in general (e.g., groups from which insurgencies  emerge) relative to self-organization that could be studied:

“On any given day, there are 3,000 women and transvestites working the street, in 20 different locations. We don’t have a red light district here. It is more disperse,” says Szterenfeld. “How many sex workers are there in total? In the neighborhood of Copacabana alone we estimate there are 5,000 sex workers. In Rio de Janeiro, unlike in Sao Paulo, we don’t have a system of pimps. The women and transvestites are independent. They have organized themselves that way.”

“By organizing, I mean, first, they used to have no solidarity among themselves,” recalls Szterenfeld. “One could be preyed upon by a client, harmed, beaten, killed, and only very rarely would another do anything to stop it. But now, they train each other to write down the license plates numbers of the cars that pick up others. They train themselves to recognize the model of a car, the color, other identifying features…”


Islam and Muslim Immigrants in Austria: Socio-Political Networks and Muslim Leadership of Turkish Immigrants

Author: Sabine Kroissenbrunner

One thought on “Self-Organization

  1. Pingback: Self-Organization: Tool of the Oppressed « Analyzing the Future

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