Culture & Society

The Rise and Fall of Institutions

Alicia Juarrero shows how to think big about democracy

Image credit: Ji Yán Liu/EyeEm/Getty Images

This article is a companion to an interview that Martin Gurri conducted with Alicia Juarrero that is also published on Discourse.

A characteristic of our strange moment in history is our fixation with details and our indifference to the big picture. It should be clear, to anyone with eyes to see, that the institutions of representative democracy are maladapted to the digital age. The democratic system—let’s agree to call it that—has lost the public’s trust and is bleeding out authority. Street revolts and populism are increasingly the result. For those who care about democracy, one would think that adapting the system to digital technology in a way that embraces and reconciles the public would be the main topic of discussion. Instead, we obsess about Donald Trump’s latest tweet, or Dr. Anthony Fauci’s latest thought on surgical masks, or Black Lives Matter’s latest assertion that the great threat to American freedom is posed by urban police departments.

It’s as if we can’t see the forest for a leaf.

If we wish to reform our democratic institutions, we should probably focus on structure rather than noise and raise up our eyes from the parts to the whole. Complex systems like our democracy, it turns out, are found everywhere in natural and human arrangements, and in all cases, they behave in a broadly similar manner. They go through a particular life cycle. In recent decades, a group of scholars has dedicated considerable ingenuity to studying the behavior of existing systems. And, though much remains to be learned, these specialists have uncovered fascinating patterns that can help us think about our institutions from the perspective of the big picture.

That is what drew me to Alicia Juarrero, whose 1999 book, Dynamics in Action: Intentional Behavior as a Complex System, is in my opinion the clearest exposition of how such systems work and, more importantly, how they evolve and sometimes die. Juarrero, an emeritus professor of philosophy at Prince George’s Community College, has been drawn to this field since her days as a doctoral student at the University of Miami, when she was interested in how people justify and explain moral behavior. She wondered specifically how to explain intention, and she first posed a question that has been cited often since: what is the difference between an intentional “wink” and an automatic “blink”? The answer is intuitive to any individual, yet any attempt to articulate it gets entangled in the workings of that exceedingly complex system called the human brain.

That was my first lesson from Dynamics in Action. At the level of a system such as representative democracy, cause and effect function in unexpected ways. It’s remarkable how powerful a hold Newton’s idea of billiard-ball causation has on the modern mind: we speak rather glibly of “social forces,” “political movements,” and “revolutions” as if there were a mechanics of human affairs, and we are constantly predicting events with the confidence of an astronomer announcing a solar eclipse.

But this confidence is wholly misplaced. Individuals and institutions aren’t billiard balls: they push back and act as causes as well as effects. President Obama’s attempt to stimulate the economy gave rise to the Tea Party. Donald Trump’s efforts to “drain the swamp” sparked a fierce resistance. Because causation in complex systems is recursive, we have never been able to predict events with any certainty. Our democracy is the outcome of a unique temporal and geographical history that projects the system into a bounded “space of possibilities,” as Juarrero puts it. The task of wise public officials is to understand that space and work within it.

A system is defined by strange attractors that constrain its behavior. These are the rules and principles that adapt an institution to a given purpose: the Constitution, for example, can be said to function as a strange attractor to American democracy. Adaptation is never perfect or final. Complex systems are dynamic—that is to say, inherently unstable. Juarrero argues that an institution can become stable only in the morbid rigidity of decay. Good health is demonstrated by resilience, or creative scope in that space of possibilities. A democratic system too tightly fitted to the political environment of the 20th century will struggle to adapt to the radical transformations of the 21st.

Over time, the tendency of complex systems is to drift ever farther from equilibrium. As the environment changes, the rules become progressively less adapted to their purpose. Their hold on the system—what I have called their authority—weakens dramatically. Variations at the local level now generate turbulence at the system level. At a certain point, even a single event, called a singularity, can precipitate the disorganization of the old regime. The storming of the Bastille at the start of the French Revolution is the usual example, but we can easily find potential singularities in our own time: consider, for example, the social and economic chaos brought about by the COVID-19 crisis.

The disorganized system is driven to phase change—and here the sensible thing to do is to stick close to Juarrero’s language. “A phase change,” she writes in Dynamics in Action, “is the qualitative reconfiguration of the constraints governing the previous attractor regime”—that is, the established order. “Phase changes signal a reorganization of the old dynamics into a new system with renewed relationships among the parts.” In the last century, for example, communication was almost entirely in top-down, I-talk-you-listen mode, but the dynamics today are characterized by the bottom-up rant and uproar of the web.

I don’t think it’s necessary to argue that representative democracy has entered a moment of phase change: all you need is eyes to see. A tsunami of digital information has driven our established political institutions to disorganization and dysfunction. In my judgment, we stand at the earliest stages of a profound transformation from the industrial model of organizing humanity to something that doesn’t yet have a name. It’s a new world—and the rules, it would seem, are up for grabs. If we look to Juarrero for guidance as to what might come next, she has some bad news and some good.

First, the bad news: “There is no guarantee that any complex system will reorganize.” Once a regime topples into disorganization, it can stay that way permanently. When the Roman Empire in the West collapsed, it was not succeeded by a similar system but, with a few exceptions, by 500 years of disorder and violence. Should our democratic system suffer a great fall like Humpty Dumpty, we have no assurance that it can be put together again.

The good news concerns the possibility of reform. Recall that Juarrero was originally interested in human intentions: she wished to move beyond billiard-ball causation and explain how we can be actors as well as the stuff that is acted on. The answer, for Juarrero, is that intentions are newly conceived attractors—new constraints on the system imposed from within. That is virtually the definition of institutional reform. If she is right—and I believe she is—then we are not in the grip of vast impersonal forces. We are not doomed to barbarism. We can tinker with the rules of representative democracy, as we have done since the birth of our republic, to better adapt the system to the demands of the digital environment. With 50 states conducting separate experiments in government, the United States, as Juarrero notes, is remarkably well suited to the task.

But first we have to accept the need for reform. And once we have come to terms with that intention, we must learn to think at the level of the whole system—by asking, for example, how our governing elites can be brought into closer functional proximity with the public. I don’t know a better guide through this difficult terrain than Alicia Juarrero. Dynamics in Action is not exactly beachside reading, but it is bracing and well written, and it points the reader in the right direction: upwards and onwards, to the Big Think.

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