Self-Organization: Tool of the Oppressed

I previously proposed hypotheses about how self-organization in social systems might be expected to work suggesting that the rate and creativity of the self-organizing process will correlate positively with the energy inserted into the system from the outside and the desperation of the population. I further suggested that in general one might anticipate a roughly linear relationship at mid-ranges. That superficial assessment might be true for a system that received all its energy from a single source—imagine a completely isolated population suffering from external oppression, for example. But in the real world…

In the real world of globalization today, the degree of linkage between marginalized populations and the rest of the world is rising significantly faster than the technological power of those actors attempting to keep these populations cut off. Iranian Green Movement use of the Internet and the global campaign to deliver medicine to Gaza are obvious examples: neither the Iranian regime nor the Israeli army can isolate its adversaries from the world.

In reality, energy is likely to enter a social system today both from adversaries and supporters. Neither flow of energy is likely to be steady: attackers have bombing or political suppression campaigns of finite duration, supporters have funding campaigns or send an emergency shipment of aid. With two fluctuating and uncoordinated flows of energy provoking behavior, wild oscillations can be anticipated. Given that these two flows are working at cross-purposes, no matter how much more powerful one side is compared to the other, dominance can eventually be expected to shift: a weak victim will by chance receive an aid shipment or find inspiration from a new tactic during some arbitrary pause in the status quo power’s campaign of oppression, pushing the situation past a tipping point allowing the initiative to shift from the oppressor to the oppressed.

On average, the stronger player is stronger, but it is not about averages. In complexity, the weaker player can temporarily gain dominance. Time also has a different meaning to the two sides. For the world power, time is of the essence. The battle with the colony or some marginalized domestic political opponent is a distraction to be shoved under the rug as soon as possible. But for the marginalized, the contest is everything: for the marginalized, even momentarily gaining superiority (especially when that superiority is shown on global TV) is everything; the value of a momentary victory for the marginalized lasts a long time. Hamas won a democratic election to govern Palestine in January 2006; the fact that Israel subverted Hamas’ legal government within weeks does not end the significance of that victory. Hezbollah fought Israel to a draw during the summer of 2006, and the impact of that “tie” remain in the face of every strategic Mideast player.

When the weak cannot be isolated, temporary victories or even ties amount to huge, long-lasting defeats for their status-quo adversaries because the unexpected victories of the weak impact other dimensions of the system. The weak gain sympathy and respect; the powerful look foolish, and their allies begin to hedge their bets. Having in hand proof that victory is possible, the weak begin to self-organize to come up with further winning tactics.


H3 = The more complex the system, the more likely are tipping points.


A status quo power is at a distinct disadvantage in such a complex contest. When the status quo power hears no backtalk, sees no resistance, it relaxes. The status quo power is not concerned with the details of life; it simply wants the absence of resistance. Once, even for a split second, the absence of resistance is achieved, the status quo power starts to refocus on whatever it really cares about, and the last thing it really cares about is the population it is trying to marginalize. The oppressed population, in stark contrast, cannot help but be concerned with its life every second of its existence: the oppressed population, after all, has nowhere else to go and nothing else to do. It cannot but continue to worry about its security, its rights, its source of food. The more complex the system, the more third parties there are to distract the oppressor and the more potential supporters there are to help the oppressed. And our political world is steadily becoming more complex. Now Shi’ite Iran, moderate Islamic Turkey, and a range of Western public figures including one former U.S. presidential candidate are helping Hamas.

This rise in complexity means that new forms of behavior are increasingly likely to emerge, surprising everyone. Since it is the disadvantaged who are most desperate to change the situation, it is they who are likely to think up or at least benefit from these surprises. Status quo powers are permanently in reactive mode. They of course do not have to be in reactive mode, but the more satisfied humans are, the less likely they are to risk their comfort fomenting revolution, so in practice status quo powers are in reactive mode, i.e., playing catch-up: NATO moves into Afghanistan, and the Taliban target fuel trucks in Pakistan; Washington leads a global embargo of Iran, and Iran blocks the delivery of fuel to Afghanistan; Israel puts a wall around Gaza, and Hamas drives bulldozers across the Gaza-Egypt border, allowing thousands of people to go shopping in Egypt.

In global affairs, H3 translates into: the more complex the political system, the more likely are opportunities for the weak successfully to combat the strong.


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