No19, 27 October 2011
Human societies are politically organised systems, polities, which are themselves organised within a larger system, the international system (corresponding approximately to the second and third level of analysis of Kenneth Walz). Those systems, the shape they take, their specific socio-political organisation are not static but evolving over time out of various dynamics and underlying processes.
As individuals, we feel rightly those systems as all-powerful, if we are aware of them. They are complex systems, the result of myriads of interactions at various levels that also generate emerging properties, which are then imposed upon each unit according to the level at which it is located. The force of the collective thus animates them. However, as we are also part of the individuals who interact and make the emerging properties, then we are not powerless. It is one of the great strength of Anonymous to have perceived this phenomenon and to spread empowerment in its message. We can also see this at work in the slogan “We are the 99” used initially for A99 Operation Empire State Building (Video March 2011) and now adopted by Occupy Wall Street, or in the emphasis on democracy European revolution movements started last Spring.
Furthermore, trying to understand how those collective forces evolve and where they are heading are one of the best ways to reduce uncertainty and get better prepared for a future that is already in the making, even if the fine details, if the specifics of the coming unfolding events remain shrouded in mystery. It is necessary to know why, where, when and how to act. This is valid for any actor, from you and me as individuals, to companies or any economic agent, and even more so to governments, present and future.
To make sense of events and anticipate what might happen, we, as human beings, always rely upon a cognitive model, most of the time unconsciously (Epstein, 2008).
The cognitive model that is used here (Lavoix, 2005) considers that as political systems function (more or less efficiently, at least efficiently enough to endure), they allow their corresponding societies to evolve and become more complex. Meanwhile, the political structures and forms of socio-political organisation would also need to adapt accordingly. However, who says human societies and systems, says interests, habits, norms, fears, etc., which are all changing at different pace and according to different dynamics. Hence, adaptation is most often made neither easily nor willingly.
As political systems become increasingly ill-adapted, various movements of protests against the existing system emerge with an increasing frequency, while the whole system moves towards a higher level of tension. Those various movements of protests are the new opposition nexus. Those protests are at once symptoms of the need for change and actor of this change. Indeed, it is out of the interactions between the new opposition nexus and the existing political authorities nexus (that includes all political actors that contributed to create the existing system, the system that needs to be changed) that the new needed socio-political organisation will be progressively created. Meanwhile, both the new opposition and the actors composing the existing political authorities will evolve. Hence, for example, the apparent lack of clear, simple stated goal of the #OccupyWallStreet movement that is often thrown in their face in news articles is not a flaw, but evidence of their belonging to this process. Goals and ideas will evolve, while the apparent confusion may well come from the fact that they are read through old lenses, through the prism of a world that is already fading.
It is in this framework that the various protest movements happening throughout the world are read and understood as part of a new opposition nexus. Observing them, trying to understand them, attempting to decipher if they are part of the new or of the old, or how both old and new can mix and interact, paying attention to their evolution, to their interactions with existing political authorities should give us keys to understand better what is lying ahead, from levels of tension and potential escalations, to the type of socio-political organisation our societies with their specificities, challenges and complexities need to create.
There is no fatality towards success or failure, towards peaceful or violent change. However, if history is to be a guide, then, in the past, most often violence, wars and collapse of systems have also been needed, at one stage, to allow for the emergence of the new. Shall we be wiser?
Epstein, Joshua M. “Why Model?” Santa Fe Institute Working Papers, 2008.
Lavoix, Helene, ‘Nationalism’ and ‘genocide’: the construction of nation-ness, authority, and opposition – the case of Cambodia (1861-1979) – PhD Thesis – School of Oriental and African Studies (University of London), 2005.
Waltz, Kenneth Neal, Man, the state, and war: a theoretical analysis, New York: Columbia Press University, 1954, 2001.
More than a structured post, here are a few thoughts regarding the #OccupyWallStreet movement, including the arrests in NYC on Saturday 24 September 2011, related effects on the treatment by media, and the articles and blogs I have read lately not only on this specific operation but also on linked previous movements and protests. Indeed, for this episode of the age-old struggle against those who hold the key to liquidity (cash), the origin of the idea to fight bankers and the power of markets can be traced back to the Spanish Manifesto of the Indignados (published at the latest by May 17 2011), and to the recent events in Iceland.
Media, attention and … “martyrs”
It is good that mainstream media start paying attention to what is happening, but, as previously underlined, where were they in May, June, etc. for Spain, Greece, and the various movements that started then, not only Europe but also throughout America?When the #occupywallstreet demonstration started on #sept17, only CNNmoney and Al Jazeera were there and reported. Again, where were they for Europe? Obviously arrests in a symbolic place were needed to see wider coverage. As any student of political mobilization and revolution knows, getting “martyrs” – everything being equal – is a crucial time for movements to develop, getting support, coverage, attention, etc.
Thomas Jefferson against Leftist labels?
It seems that an interesting – still – low key struggle is emerging, at the level of ideas and legitimacy.
Some – the majority? – absolutely want to categorize the operation with what could be qualified of usual categories: anti-capitalist, left, leftist, etc. Yet, shouldn’t we wonder if those categories are not also or rather old, corresponding to the word of the end of the 19th and 20th century and to the Cold War, and thus most probably outdated? Note that this categorization, very interestingly, is done both inside and outside the movement – the most vocal being maybe Tea Party supporters and established Marxist/leftist elements.
Meanwhile, within the “movement,” other participants either do not pay attention or start looking for legitimating references, e.g. Jefferson on private banks (legitimacy is seen here in the American framework, but Jefferson, as a child of the Enlightenment, could very easily be adopted elsewhere, notably in Europe). The stream of tweets on Jefferson started on September 17 with some favored quotes and also sometimes with mention of blog posts, e.g. “A Den of Vipers and Thieves” by Scott Johnson, Sept 15, with no direct affiliation between posts and “movement.”
Towards an emerging new normative setting?
My take is that we are seeing here many things unfolding and coalescing: recuperation and hope for a renewal, thinking habit, fear to see part of one’s rhetoric and thus partisans stolen away, plain fear of what is happening, and, first and foremost, something new being created. We are most likely witnessing the first weak signals of the making of a new normative system. Hence, this ideological evolution must be followed. Even if this specific protest recedes, it does not mean it will completely die. It is most likely to come back again, transformed, stronger, better and differently defined, elsewhere. This is exactly what has already happened with the European movements of the Spring and Summer (although hardly documented), which, after the Arab (Winter-)Spring, and in conjunction with the markets’ evolution create the right conditions for transmission and mutation of ideas and their corollary, actions.
Very interestingly, right now, it would seem that all actors (from movements to institutions, including governments and international organizations) are unable to think clearly anything else than “less state” – in American parlance “less government,” although to think in these terms is fraught with complication. If this hypothesis is correct, then it would mean that all, probably unconsciously, abide, on the one hand, by the ultra-liberal ideology according to which less state is needed and that has dominated the world since the end of the Cold War and, on the other, have an ultimate faith in a Democracy that would not need a state (despite all the research done depicting a much more complex picture).
Shall we see with real life and concrete threats, with practical needs for mobilization and organization, with interactions within the “new opposition nexus” and between the latter and political authorities, ideas change, evolve and being re-imagined?
As Cynthia Grabo underlines, a warning does not exist if it is not delivered. Similarly, a foresight product – or risk assessment or horizon scan - has to be delivered. Furthermore, if foresight and warning are to be actionable, then clients or customers – those to whom the product has been delivered – must pay heed to the foresight, or warning. What they decide to do with those is another story. Yet, from the point of view of SF&W, they must receive them, know they have received them and, as much as possible, consider them.
Strategic foresight and futures’ efforts, as well as related literature, with a few exceptions, have rarely focused explicitly on this specific part of the overall process. Yet, it is crucial. As a first step, it has much to learn from the warning part of the activity. Then, both strategic foresight and warning may also have much to learn from the mobile and social networking approach, as it is being ...
The Weekly will be published on Thursdays (see comments on settings in last section below). This is an experiment (more below) with paper.li as a way to collect ideas, notably through Twitter but also Facebook mainly for horizon scanning.
(Paper.li only stores the first page of past editions).
Why a weekly edition?
As I am only too aware of information overload, the choice of a weekly rather than daily paper made sense.
With each edition, I have attempted to improve results by changing various settings. The Op-ed part of each edition includes brief comments on the results, the problems met, the changes endeavored and the ideas ahead.
Adding gaming to horizon scanning (Sept 15, 2011)?
Right now, no one tried the gaming experiment, but we shall give it more time. Each article of the weekly (below) should be a weak signal for something: future potential event, emerging issue, new stage of an unfolding dynamics, evolving beliefs, changing worldview, trends, improving methodology and tool, etc.
While the experiment progresses, it also appears that it is not so much or not always one single article that is a signal but also some of the articles taken together. Adding this to the growing interest in “gamification,” it could be interesting to add a game dimension to the experiment: Can YOU guess why a specific article was kept while editing, or which signals are emerging out of some articles read together and seen as a system?
This type of reverse horizon scanning, if we can call it this way, should also be an excellent exercise to become aware of biases, and thus help mitigating them. As Paper.li does not offer space for comments, the reverse guessing will need to take place here, on this page of the blog. Please use the comment space at the bottom of the post announcing a new edition for this novel experiment.
#SFaW Section (starting August 7th, 2011)
Participate in the Weekly by adding #SFaW (Twitter #hashtag for Strategic Foresight and Warning) to your tweets – thanks to @thufirtan for the idea – when you spot a weak signal related to the future of conventional or unconventional – national, regional, global – security. They should appear, hopefully, as one of the last two categories, instead of #debt.
We’ll see what happens, considering that it might take time to cumulate enough tweets to be selected by the algorithm. It took approximately 4 numbers before really succeeding in getting the section. The word is slowly (very slowly) spreading to use #SFaW, but we nevertheless manage to obtain something interesting.
Identified desirable improvements (Paper.Li system)
For optimal use for horizon scanning, the types of categories preset in Paper.Li (headlines, politics, business, art etc.) would need to be customizable to truly fit our needs.
It is impossible (August 25th 2011) to choose a specific day for publication… It would seem that Paper.li decides, on its own, to either publish a section with the # entered in the key search section or to promote another paper.li daily…
It is impossible to choose an order for the articles within each section.