Why Chaos Is Here To Stay

Journal of Political Risk, Vol. 7, No. 5, May 2019

By Laurent Chamontin

A confusing traffic light system with multiple signal heads. Getty

The 2010s are characterized by an exceptional amount of political volatility (e.g., Brexit, and Donald Trump’s election). This volatility resulted from an unprecedented level of complexity, whether at the level of individuals, nations, or the world, generating outbursts of populism, loss of long-term orientation, dysfunctional newspeak, and decay of international institutions. To overcome this challenge, democracies must rethink their education policies and promote a redesign of multilateral institutions to better coexist with the nation state.

If the purpose of politics is to provide mankind with the consideration of perspectives for the purpose of organization, then indeed we are experiencing a world-scale political crisis. Any nostalgia for supposedly more stable eras put aside, political volatility has increased to a level unprecedented since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

At the very time when the intensification of globalized exchanges makes common policies more necessary, it becomes more and more difficult to define them, and to keep on heading for them. This is one of the big paradoxes of our time: on the one hand, issues are more and more global, whether we talk about trade, finance, the environment, technology, public opinion, migrations or health; on the other hand, the minimum level of solidarity and coordination is more and more difficult to reach, so that a dystopic globalization caused by decay of multilateral institutions is becoming more and more possible.

This crisis is especially visible in democratic countries due to their transparency and acceptance of free speech. Yet no country is able today to escape from our world’s increasing complexity, which is threatening to grow out of control at every level, from the individual to the society, and finally to the global community.

Increase of complexity at every level

The individual’s contribution to today’s complexity is rooted in an unprecedented autonomy, whose patterns the philosophers of the Enlightenment probably did not imagine (which provides in passing a piece of explanation for the crisis of representative democracy, that they founded in the 18th century).

This new-style autonomy takes root in several different phenomena. First, the old model of organization of mankind – holistic societies with politics dominated by the precepts of a common religion – is more and more fading away[1]. This does not mean that religion is absent in today’s world, only that its power to shape political communities is vanishing.

For example, if a pure Islamist regime could stabilize, it would experience what the followers of the Marxist secular belief did before: that in the modern world’s competition for capital and labor, holistic religion-based societies are not best placed to develop and take profit from educated autonomous individuals and their assets. This is a major competitive drawback to theocracies of all varieties.[2]

In fact, the worldwide expansion of literacy and tertiary education contribute to develop human being’s self-consciousness. With the possibility of keeping away precepts shaped by religiosity, today’s individual thus enjoys possibilities to radically resist any kind of old-style top-down authority, and define his own political doctrine in a manner that could only have been dreamt of by his ancestors.

This new situation should be seen as the very source of identity politics, of new global identities that emerge online, and their sometimes disturbing groupthink devoid of historical prudence. Indeed, with regard to today’s uncontrollable complexity, self-forged doctrines lead individuals to pull themselves from their communities, wrap themselves in their own particularities and lose sight of the moral and historical narratives that any community needs to exist.

The immeasurable amplification of this new autonomy by the progress of technology is a critical factor that increases volatility. Winston Churchill, paying tribute to the pilots of the Royal Air Force (RAF) Fighter Command, said that “never was so much owed by so many to so few”. He was pointing out the dramatic increase of the individual’s power, in a time when the measure of the man remains yet the same as it used to be in the past. Today, low cost technologies are widely accessible for better or worse, and contribute at various levels to the unpredictability of politics. This enables in particular the development of horizontal communities that turn the old-style politics upside down. They also tend to reduce the necessity of collective efforts in everyday life, in communities where, moreover, the disappearance of mass wars removed a strong incentive to cohesion. This contributes to fuel the individual’s illusions of self-sufficiency.

The pulverized societies resulting from the re-aggregation of atomistic individuals into self-centered molecules, like a pro-Brexit U.K., are chaotic by nature. What we are talking about here is not only the emergence of anti-system political movements. The whole architecture of society is concerned; for instance, neo-liberal deregulation policies put in place from the 1980s on might well have been produced by the emergence of our anarchist individual. After the 2008 crisis, no one would deny that they lead to a very high level of global instability.

This volatility puts states and politicians under strong pressure, but it is not the only factor of complexity with which they must contend. The extraordinary development of interdependences makes any move in any direction more complex than what it used to be. Highly sophisticated decision-making procedures are needed today to consider multiple stakeholders and put under control multiple impacts – all the more with the development of mega projects. This makes political games less readable, and fuels suspicions of opacity and cronyism, whether justified or not.

The technological context also has an impact at this level. First, disruptive innovation in such fields as artificial intelligence, the internet of things (IoT), big data and genetically modified organisms generates disturbing questions, in particular in terms of ethics, adaptation of regulations, and impact on human work.

And second, the environmental crisis we have been facing for decades is here to stay. Indeed, there is a permanent gap between the ever-increasing knowledge on adverse impacts and the availability of technically and economically sound solutions to minimize them. It is difficult for politicians to say a word on ecological questions, that are emotional in nature, in a field characterized by its technical complexity, where the belief in possible minimization of all the impacts simultaneously is widely shared but often erroneous. An electrical car will show low CO2 emissions provided the electrical power production emits little CO2 (which is far from always being the case), but such a blinkered view elides the environmental impact of the power plant and battery manufacturing processes.

Last but not least, complexity is also growing out of control at the global level. It is of course due to rapid changes that can be observed today in the balance of power, e.g., the competition between the USA and China, the emergence of India, Russia’s disruptive behavior, and the North-Korean nuclear challenge. All of these issues contribute to make the world less predictable. In these conditions, non-state actors also enjoy huge possibilities to influence global politics. This is the case for NGOs and big companies, but also for mafias and terrorist groups, operating in particular in cyberspace.

Yet the complexification of international relations does not derive only from such a classical factor as a shift in the balance of power. In particular, multilateral institutions also contribute to this phenomenon. In a context already saturated with complexity that makes consensus difficult to reach, the cardinal rule of alignment of their members generates a lot of inertia or blocking, that grows in direct proportion to the heterogeneity of membership. On top of this, these institutions suffer from the same kind of discredit as national ones – lack of visible achievements, democratic deficit of technocracy, distrust caused by suspected opacity of decision-making processes – with the additional drawback of not being rooted in a national community.

Finally, with globalized networks, national communities are put in contact with foreign cultures and political systems in a way that can be disruptive. One could think here about the perceived threat of too much immigration on British identity and its consequences on the Brexit vote, but this phenomenon can be observed in other domains. In particular, the Russian meddling in western elections is a pure example of import of practices from a state with poor checks and balances and a solid authoritarian tradition to the very core of western democracies, in a way that was not possible before the emergence of today’s information society.

Risk of complexity growing out of control

In total, for the individual, this unprecedented increase of complexity is a source of anxiety and frustration. Realizing that one’s life can be deeply impacted by events occurring in countries one does not even know, that sophisticated procedures can track one’s life and intimacy very effectively, that one’s say can be diluted by the multiplicity of stakes and stakeholders in issues that do matter, is quite a demoralizing experience. In such a situation, the response to the challenge posed by complexity is highly dependent on the individual’s own ability to face it. In other words, the complexification contributes to deepen existing inequality gaps and, as a consequence, to sharpen tensions inside societies.

This challenging context and the negative feelings it causes, together with the individualistic and rebel mood we mentioned above, probably explain the current outburst of identity politics and populist rhetoric. The latter is characterized[3] by the promotion of simple solutions that must be implemented immediately, and the denunciation of elites plotting against the united people. As such it contributes of course to create illusions – denying the world’s complexity, explaining it with conspiracy theories, or assuming that the people when spontaneously united will never help to solve any issue – but this is not its most adverse consequence.

Indeed, due to the very favorable reception this rhetoric meets with, the available room for measures oriented on long term or universal aims is daily receding. The ability of politics today to federate societies with a common vision is diminishing, at the very time when it becomes more necessary for the progress of globalization.

As one can imagine, such a context is challenging for political practitioners and thinkers, and ultimately for the very concept of political representation. What can the latter mean, if the voter’s prerequisite is that his own agenda must be imperative, denying any room for the complexity of today’s public life? What we touch upon here is the reason why the French yellow vest movement was unable to develop an alternative political vision.

When it comes to classical political games, some politicians are indeed able to federate voters with the simple solutions we mentioned above – Brexit, or a wall at the Mexican border – but generally these solutions turn out to be not so simple, or useless. The other politicians must struggle with the world’s complexity, with wars without a beginning or a clear end, with down-to-earth issues that are at the opposite of narratives of religious inspiration and can dissolve any amount of charisma, with voters that headphones and smartphones make permanently half-absent. Simultaneously, they must continue to personify the power, as expectations for this are still here – in short, they must be managers of burdensome technocratic processes that can by no means be explained in 280 characters, whilst retaining the aura of the rulers of antiquity.

The obvious impossibility to fulfill this extravagant demand is the very reason why politics is today highly contaminated by newspeak. Its use contributes to enlarge the gap between politicians and voters, who are aware enough of unpleasant realities to understand that the narrative they are hearing has been edulcorated or outrageously simplified. Yet this is not the most adverse consequence of this trend: at some point, the political narrative tends to build a parallel reality in which, for instance, the erection of a wall at the Mexican border is the ultimate solution to control illegal immigration, with very concrete impacts on the real budget of the United States.

In such a context, the democratic institutions are weakened insofar as they face growing difficulties to avoid overextension, stagnation and chaos. This is clearly a serious challenge for them, to which we will revert further; yet one should not think that the authoritarian regimes are better positioned in respect to management of complexity. Their lack of checks and balances can indeed provide practical advantages for Mr. Putin to devise and enforce disruptive strategies, or for Mr. Xi to design a plan for China in 2049, as opponents are deterred from protesting against them with the help of state-of-the-art technologies.

On the other hand, their regimes must face specific challenges linked precisely to the lack of checks and balances in a complex world: uncontrolled corruption, devastation of the environment at a level that cannot be compared with the situation in advanced democracies, and more generally dysfunctional public services and weak economic governance. In such a context, the use of diversion strategies (such as the annexation of Crimea) can help to take the citizen’s mind off his causes of anger (provided he did not emigrate before), and the distortion of rules of the game (such as counterfeiting) can help to some extent to gain some competitive advantage on the world market. In other words, the latent internal instability is converted here into external one. Authoritarian countries pose negative externalities on the rest of the globe.

This being said, the disruption of international order is not only the doing of authoritarian regimes. Actually, there are scores of examples showing that democratic countries also contribute to it, though perhaps with a lower intensity due to the deep-rootedness of their liberal values. In total, breaches committed by all of today’s major powers lead to a worrying “planned obsolescence of international law”[4], that contributes to increase volatility.

Does this mean that globalization could recede? Probably not. The multiplicity of actors and links between them decreases the probability of a sharp decrease in international flows of goods, investments, information and people. Except in the case of a major catastrophe, disruptions of exchanges should be confined at a local level and remain limited. The example of Russian – European trade after 2014 is here to show that interdependence is a source of resilience for relations between countries, which contributes to mitigate the consequences of international political chaos.

How to survive it?

In short, we are probably moving enduringly inside a world of radical individualism where the viscosity induced by a very high level of complexity generates in reaction a certain amount of disruption, turmoil and chaos. This situation will not change easily or quickly.

As we saw above, a first factor of complexity is individual’s autonomy and its extravagances. Even if we consider an optimistic standpoint, that anti-vaccination activists will realize some day that their deeds have an adverse effect on public health, we must admit that it will take a lot of time. As long as the measles epidemic remains relatively confined, these activists may well stand their ground in what we could call, in Blaise Pascal’s words, the distrust of the semi-learned to medical authorities. In other words, although the actions undertaken by journalists, citizens, social networks and governments to fight against fake news are necessary, they cannot be sufficient. The only sound response here is a long-term effort of education.

This would require a preliminary and uneasy step, namely to identify how education could contribute to restore trust and respect for authorities that any free society needs to work well. Whereas this question will be pending for long, it is clear that the response should avoid what has been a major shortcoming of globalization narratives until today: the mantra “globalization is good for you, you just have to adapt to it and the national community is an outdated concept” served by the elites to the society for decades has significantly damaged political authority.

This kind of naive declaration just shows that decisionmakers are generally poorly trained to take seriously into account the cultural factor in their decisions. From the creation of Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia in the 1920s to European construction – let alone the Soviet experience – the overuse of wishful thinking and its consequences indicates the need for more caution when designing future supranational institutions.

To give room for the existence of national communities is clearly a challenge in today’s globalized world, but to address it is important for several reasons. First, as weakened as it can be by the games of the transnational actors, the state remains, and will remain an important player in the regulation of human life, whether we speak of justice, protection of individual property, defense, health, education, ecology, or infrastructure. And second, the national community is probably the level where a social pact to keep the complexity under control can be devised, in connection with local culture and preferences, in particular in terms of social inequality.

We must more deeply reflect on how to increase consistency in national political decisions. The Brexit case shows that the use of the referendum can bring a very bad predicament; how to make use of referenda more reliable is a critical question. Another problem democracies face is their fickleness, which can create serious problems when it affects long-term strategies. Would it be possible to make decision-making processes more resilient for the latter, without hindering people’s sovereignty?

To reinforce national communities does not mean that multilateral approaches should be entirely discarded. As mentioned above, global issues require global responses; besides, multilateralism is crucial for small countries to have their say in a fight of giants. This is in particular the case for the members of the European Union.

Even if the European Union is rather an outcome of peace (under U.S. protection) than a peacemaker, it is a precious example of transcending old antagonisms, in a world where many roadblocks inherited from conflicts are still present, for instance between Russia and Japan. On the other hand, the troubles it experienced these last years are a strong incentive to modesty and flexibility in the design of multilateral institutions. They must be adapted to coexistence with the local communities they include. The lessons of the tower of Babel should be revisited again; the image of a flexible mosaic is difficult to translate into legal terms, but it gives a good idea of a goal for which to strive.

Today’s free market democracies are challenged by an unprecedented wave of complexity – we could have as well spoken about the problems of monopoly in social networks at this point[5]. This creates an impression of powerlessness. Yet it should be noted that nobody is able to propose a more efficient system in terms of protection of the individual and property, and that this protection has been over the long term a crucial factor for the achievement of the highest ever collective standard of living. Democracies can address this challenge, and if they don’t, they will continue to experience both stagnation and chaos.

Laurent Chamontin, born 1964, is a French consultant, writer and teacher in geopolitics, and expert on republics of former Soviet Union. He has more than 28 years of experience in industrial projects, including three years in eastern Ukraine. Since 2018, he has been an associated professor in geopolitics at the ESCE International Business School, and a member of the Scientific Council of Diploweb, the first French website dedicated to geopolitics. He authored two books on Russia and Ukraine. He is a graduated engineer from École Polytechnique (France – MSc – 1987), and a graduated statistician – economist from École Nationale de la Statistique et de l’Administration Économique (France – MSc – 1989). He also holds a degree in Chinese language and civilization (Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales, France – 2001). JPR Status: Opinion.

[1] This theory is developed by Marcel Gauchet, “L’avènement de la démocratie”, Gallimard Paris.

[2] Turkey is a Muslim country with an Islamist government; It is also one of the most secularized Muslim countries, and one of the most developed. This is not by chance. Iran is indeed an Islamic republic, but also a complex society with a majority of female students in the younger generations. Saudi Arabia is a special case due to oil reserves – but it faces tough reforms to prepare for the post-oil era, and will face some issues with compatibility between strict religious precepts and pragmatism, for instance in the development of tourism.

[3] Definition set by Marc Lazar, a French historian, political sociologist and expert in the far left and Italian political life.

[4] Frédéric Charillon, L’Opinion, Apr. 10, 2019.

[5] Chris Hughes, “It’s time to break up Facebook”, New York Times, May 9, 2019.