Complexity, single-celled socialism and neo-fascism

There seems to be some confusion about what ‘complexity’ means in both philosophy and science, but also in radical political theory. 

It is not the juxtaposition of multiple against binary, or multiplicity against dialectics—though I can see why some would imagine it is, or why they might wish to present the concept of complexity as if there is some grand debate being staged between the camp of ‘complexity’ and that of ‘dialectics’ or ‘unicity.’

But this is nonsense. It simply misunderstands what complexity means in the philosophy and history of science.

Complexity refers to the evolutionary tendency toward variation. Complex-systems theories, by contrast, are those theories which attempt to grasp that variation.

In C&C I argued that many complex-systems theories are indeed forms of capture, such as those in finance, management and so on. But it does not follow, and it has never been true, that complexity is a creation of or reducible to those theories.

The pertinent juxtaposition is not complexity versus unicity (or dialectics construed more or less as a totality). Or, it isn’t if you do not want to describe the politics of the Second and Third Internationals as the socialism of single-celled creatures. Though even a prokaryote is not that simple.

There is no question about whether there are one, two or many. The relevant contrast—one that exists as a paradox within concepts of time and history—is complexity and entropy.

In his published lecture The Function of Reason (1929) Whitehead’s point of departure for a discussion of reason is the temporal paradox of entropy and complexity, or as he puts it: “degradation” and “renewal.”

He takes issue with the evolutionary (though I think specifically Spencerian) suggestion that “fitness for survival is identical with the best exemplification of the Art of Life.” He goes on to add:

In fact life itself is comparatively deficient in survival value. The art of persistence is to be dead. Only inorganic thing persist for great lengths of time. A rock survives for eight hundred million years; whereas the limit for a tree is about a thousand years […] The problem set by the doctrine of evolution is to explain how complex organisms with such deficient survival power ever evolved. They certainly did not appear because they were better at that game than the rocks around them. It may be possible to explain ‘the origin of the species’ by the doctrine of the struggle for existence among such organisms. But certainly this struggle throws no light whatsoever upon the emergence of such a general type of complex organism, with faint survival power.

I would take issue with many of Whitehead’s arguments, but I think that his presentation is remarkable in the sense that it renders both theories of an inevitable ‘degeneracy’ (such as Malthus, and various fascists) as void as it does those which insist on vitalism.

Whitehead’s insights are part of why I think both accelerationism and conservation (false equilibrium) are absurd responses to the more important (and actual) question of futurity. The question is not reform or revolution, or the rate of degeneration as the accelerationists would have us believe, or (as Berlant illustrates) the embrace of another “cruel optimism,” but continuity and mutation as ateleological processes that are integral to life and, as it happens, any concept of revolution worthy of the word.

By the by, I disagree with the status Whitehead assigns to the faculty of reason, but I think it is significant that he decries those forms of reasoning that do not partake in variation, novelty, mutation: “In the stabilized life there is no room for Reason. The methodology has sunk from a method of novelty into a method of repetition.”

Neither the socialism of one-celled organisms, nor the neo-fascist rush of accelerationism, nor even the dull fatigue and stability brought on by having interesting politics repeated as doctrinal method, but simply life, variation, mutation.


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