(P3): Why you shouldn’t destabilize Strong Constraints

A collapsed bridged over a river in the summer

The effort to destabilize social groups and their relationships is currently everywhere, being used at every level of every human Complex Adaptive System (CAS) of any size. Mutual destabilization has become the way various parts of CAS politically relate to one another at a scale that was ordinarily reserved in the past for plagues, wars, and large-scale natural disasters.

Such destabilization is often justified on the grounds that once the destabilization is successful, a new era of prosperity and social value will automatically blossom. In psychology, this is referred to as magical thinking.

The only way a brittle CAS becomes simpler and more humanly useful (oriented to a valued human purpose) is through a collapse, though the collapse need not be total (apocalyptic). The real problem with using any method of destabilizing the governing constraints in a CAS is that there is no way to predict or control the actual outcome of successful destabilization since the whole point of WTA (winner-take-all) constraints is the way they allow creative exploitation to run wild. The social relationships that enabled successful outcomes will become competitive one person at a time, and there is no way to see how that breakdown will spread and change the CAS. Think of a novel infectious disease and how poorly we predict its spread (say, for example, tick-borne diseases).

There is no automatic rebooting. There is no way of assuring that the “better angels of our nature” will drive the dynamic of recovery, and many reasons to think it won’t be those “angels” that drive the resulting change. Instead, the recovery will reflect the second by second interactions of what remains, not what we think should replace the past system.

It took millennia for humanity to evolve enabling social/physical systems that reflected significant support for the system’s members. It took all this time to build individual social relationships that were oriented toward general social improvement (enabling). These relationships were hard to build and hard to maintain. Destabilizing them (which is the point of the methods described in the last slide and this one) will destroy those enabling weak constraints, and there is no telling what will result.

If you review the links above, you’ll find that all recovery from collapse always takes much, much longer than the collapse itself.

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(P3): Destabilizing Strong Constraints

a balloon being pricked by a person's hand and collapsing

I have touched on these ideas earlier, but it is important to reframe them in the context of strong constraints. What follows is a story about how constraints develop and how they are destroyed.

For large CAS (like a state-organized society), the general pattern of strong constraint development can be thought of as starting from an authoritarian control system over subjects (think Egyptian Pharaohs). Over time, social relationships develop that make the CAS more efficient but undermine to totalitarian control that originally unified the state. This process in states used to take centuries to occur. This aspect of system aging has been sped up dramatically in the last couple of centuries.

These social relationships gradually become the central driver of the state society, and they become ensconced in meta-ideas like democracy or community. These relationships are “enabling” constraints because they allow groups of people to network in order to accomplish more complex, sophisticated outcomes.

Once the day to day operations have become more entirely dependent on local social relationships, the CAS is about as stable as it will get, and aging of the CAS will continue. Elites come to see the CAS as not allowing them to exploit it as easily as they once could (this perception has nothing to do with the number of assets they control). Which is to say that the increasing brittleness of the CAS as it ages is viewed as a loss of freedom by the subjects and a loss of power by elites.

In twentieth-century modernism, the idea of macro-change of an entire societal CAS evolved from the modernist belief that social reality was a machine and the arrogance that powerful superior human beings could control anything, reconstructing it to their liking. The early approaches  to manipulating governing constraints (strong constraints) clustered around two approaches:

  • Elites could take control of government power and restructure society to their liking.
  • The society could be entirely dismantled and rebuilt from scratch.

The Soviet system under Stalin is an example of the first, and the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia is an example of the second. Mao tried to blend both methods in his effort to remake China.

None of these approaches worked. They annihilated, each in their own way, the underlying social network of enabling weak constraints in the CAS they attacked and replaced enabling constraints with winner-take-all constraints. The outcomes were appalling.

Today, elites in nation-states and insurgents are once again trying to increase their control. The method they are using might be described as modernist lite. Actors have developed a wide range of destabilizing techniques that can be used to undermine a target and replace enabling constraints with winner-take-all (WTA) constraints.

One technique is to delegitimize the current leader. Any group who can get lots of people out in the streets over a relatively short period of time to call for resignation can likely accomplish that. This technique doesn’t guarantee that the replacement will support the insurgents, or that someone who does support the insurgents and replaces a current leader can change the CAS for the better.

A second technique (with an astounding number of variations) is to disrupt and destroy existing social relationships to undermine the political structure that currently exists for personal or political gain. Examples include:

  • Eliminating tolerance by demonizing cultural, ethnic, religious, and political beliefs.
  • Exaggerating the impact of targeted “enemies” to social order regardless of their actual impact.
  • Making a social difference of any kind illegal in law, culture, or policy.

And so on……

The point of these disruptive actions is to replace enabling relationships with WTA ones. These techniques are political weapons that ignore the reality of the loss of enabling social relationships that took, in some cases, centuries to build, and will revert the target of destabilization to a kind of competitive anarchy in which it is much more difficult to build stabilizing social relationships. Chaotic low-level war results, leading to one or another form of authoritarian control, and a dramatic loss of social, political, economic, and environmental action effectiveness, and personal freedom and choice.

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(P3): Other Examples of Weak Constraints

Stylized figures of generic viruses, bacteria etc.

Because the CAS that we target for advocacy are very complex systems tied to a very complex larger environment, there are a very large number of weak constraints (WC) available for potential destabilization. Obviously, not all weak constraints might be similarly effective in producing a specific advocacy outcome. And, in fact, we tend to use multiple weak constraints to effect a positive advocacy outcome.

But because it seems easier or more efficient to use techniques that have proven successful in the past, we build habits of ignoring other possibilities (a kind of faux “efficiency” argument). I would argue that creativity is an essential part of successful advocacy, if only because the target system will adapt to your advocacy efforts, and you must have a ”habit” of introducing novelty into your advocacy efforts to not have them degraded significantly over time.

So I offer this list, not as anything like a complete one, but to allow meditating by review of the possibilities. Perhaps one of these might trigger a realization on your part that would point to a more sophisticated novel approach to a high-quality advocacy outcome.

Legal WC:

  • Complaints
  • Fair hearings
  • Lawsuits of various kinds

Political WC:

  • Publicity
  • Politician-targeted problem solving
  • Boards and Councils
  • Elections

Financial WC:

  • Public Funding
  • Resource Allocation
  • Financial Disparities

Systemic WC:

  • Threatening Governing Constraints
  • Introducing Novelty

Organizing WC:

  • Emerging an Insurgency
  • Building local or community resistance
  • Effective Advocacy Training
  • Building Community Advocacy Supports

Any single or combination of these WC’s could be targeted for destabilization in a specific advocacy strategy.

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(P3): How An Advocacy/Target System Evolves

The pattern problem: An example becomes a lesson; A lesson becomes a method; A method becomes a practice; A practice becomes a doctrine; A doctrine becomes death.

In 1981, I went to work for Michigan Protection and Advocacy Service as a field advocate in the counties around Michigan’s Thumb. About half of my work involved representing students and their families in special education disputes. Over the next four years, I got to observe first hand how my special education advocacy and the approach of the special education systems in my catchment area evolved. It was quite enlightening.

Initially, school districts viewed special education largely as a new program only partially paid for by the federal mandate (this remains true today). The important aspects of it to the district CAS were how to pay for it and what impact did it have on their previous model of education services. There was, early on, and continuing to this day, a constant source of tension between regular education and special education systems (SPED services receive roughly twice the funding per pupil than regular education receives). Demands by special education students for supports and services that were outside the ken of past education practice were either ignored or denied.

This framework was ripe for effective advocacy. In the first few years of special education advocacy, it was very easy to win programs, supports, and services because the district didn’t really think it had to do anything to win other than obstruct demands. Advocates had time to prepare, to deepen their understanding of the law at both Federal and State levels, and to become adept at using the state and federal rules in the negotiations.

This advantage, like all advantages in the competitive interaction between different CAS, didn’t last.

One set of changes that our effective advocacy triggered was a dramatic increase in the number of students and families that requested advocacy assistance. Since the MPAS budget didn’t increase based on demand, this resulted in less time and resources for pursuing advocacy outcomes. In turn, this made our interventions less effective, overall.

The other set of changes that our effective advocacy triggered was to be taken more seriously by the districts. They began to commit resources to fight our advocacy including, eventually, hiring attorneys on retainer to improve their obstruction.  This also meant that the cases would be more complex (basic failures of civil rights were avoided), requiring more time from advocates and less successful outcomes. The upshot of these various forces (including successful State efforts to eliminate large amounts of state funding for MPAS) was, over time, to dramatically reduce individual special education advocacy by our organization.

Similar shifts in response by the system took place at the State and Federal level. The current state of special education law is an extraordinarily rigid narrowing of the possibilities that seemed just over the horizon in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. There have been some separate increases in advocacy effectiveness in ways other than the single student advocacy model of the early years, which I will talk about later.

This pattern of initial success followed by a slow steady reduction in advocacy effectiveness and the reduction of civil rights to rigid requirements is so common across all areas of disability rights that I think of it as a standard development pattern in the exercise of advocacy.

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(P3): Destabilizing Weak Constraints in Advocacy

Image of the Night King from Game of Thrones Series

  • I came to a stark realization: chronic surpluses could be almost as destabilizing as chronic deficits. –Alan Greenspan
  • One of the points about distractions is that everything they do is destabilizing.
    -Bruce Sterling
  • Yet, history has shown that if material force can defeat some ideologies it can no longer obliterate a civilization without destabilizing the whole planet.
    Abdelaziz Bouteflika

In a Complex Adaptive System (CAS), any form of interaction between the system and the outside world can be usefully viewed as a weak constraint and a potential target for destabilization. Obviously, some constraints are closer to the heart of your advocacy outcome than others.  But there are always more ways to go after a valued change than whatever works the first time we use it.

The biggest problem we advocates have in interacting with the CAS is that we settle on a technique or procedure that has worked for us in the past. This approach, while understandable, dramatically reduces the palate of ways we might destabilize the CAS for a valued purpose.

When we use the same techniques with the same CAS over and over, the CAS will adapt to them, making our advocacy more complex and expensive for us to use. Additionally, when the larger environment in which our target faces the same set of destabilization techniques, that larger environment will also adapt, narrowing the impact of our efforts to destabilize and making the outcomes we achieve more predictable, and, thus, more manageable by targets. Both the target and our advocacy become more rigid.

An example (in the next post) will give you the idea of how local, state, and national CAS and our advocacy approaches adapt over time to successful advocacy.

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