Our Long-Entangled Insurgency: Part Three

We all have a learned bias that the purpose of an insurgency is to overthrow an existing political process or governance entity. Certainly, that is the focus of real-world, leadership-driven insurgent action. But it is not their purpose.

Their purpose, as examples of CAS, is what they do, not what they say they do.

And what do they do?

They sabotage the particular system that is their focus (SOF). Because of the entanglement, they also sabotage the other systems which they ignore.

While some insurgencies try to do much more, it is the purpose of sabotage, in all its many dimensions, that maintains an insurgency over long periods of time, and allows it to recover from defeats. Sabotage is the core of insurgent resilience.

How does this sabotage-based resilience express itself?

  • Insurgencies are fractal
  • Insurgencies are micro-diverse
  • Insurgencies are entangled
  • Insurgencies are possibility-spaces

Fractal

A fractal system, such as an insurgency, has roughly the same amount of agency and complexity at every level of the system, even though it seems that the lower the level, the less the scope of sabotage. This principle violates the ordinary assumptions we use in understanding the nature of social reality. With the advent of global social media, we have discovered this principle in the reality that our local social communication has no boundaries, reaching far beyond what we intended or what we believe is safe.

Our notions of scope are also subject to this fractal principle. Think of looking out over, or listening to, a vast field in the distant parts of a visual or auditory scene. They will be lacking in detail. If you use binoculars, you will be able to see greater detail. If you use a hearing device, you will be able to identify the nature of the sounds you are hearing. If you move closer, more understanding is apparent.

An insurgency is like this idea of scope, distance, and detail. As you get closer to the “lower” levels of the insurgent system, you will see greater detail and a more nuanced impact from the insurgent activity than you could see at the so-called “higher” level.

As an example of how fractal models operate, think of the current pandemic, often described as a single event or process (with identifiable surges, for example), but actually consisting of an extremely large number of local epidemics that start, rise and fall off with a lot of foggy independence and boundaries, and an only apparent overall coherence.

It is an illusion to think that an insurgency can be defeated by focusing effort on the highest levels of leadership, their orchestrated violent acts, their methods for funding themselves, their ideologies. As the repeated elite success in accomplishing the defeat of these highest levels shows, any insurgency continues to boil below, and will break out again with a new set of leaders, ideologies, and violent acts when enough energy to do so has built up. This energy can simmer through very local, very granular sabotage by individuals and small groups that are not immediately controlled by any hierarchy.

The centrist elite CAS (whose job it is to preserve the elite CAS by defeating the large-scale insurgent action) believes, as it does in so many other areas, that defeating the management of the insurgency (their leadership, ideology, and large-scale acts) is the same as defeating the insurgency. Elites must believe this, or face very difficult questions about their ability to gain and hold wealth, power, and reputation. See “How tech’s richest plan to save themselves after the apocalypse”.

But any action (like the ones described above) that doesn’t directly undermine the resilience of an insurgency will only solve some immediate short term political problem. It won’t affect the continuing small incremental changes in the elite CAS and other insurgencies that result from the relentless sabotage arising at every level and across the insurgent universe.

There is simply no way to eliminate sabotage, which is the unstated impossible goal of the relentless search for more control that has been the implicit mission of social elites (along with the explicit missions of ever-increasing wealth, fame, and power). This is the deep weakness of the goal of “managing” insurgencies.

Micro-Diverse

All CAS that function in the real world are micro-diverse. For our purposes, this means that they create many small variations as part of their CAS dynamic, and they auto-create more variation over time without explicit plan or external control.

Variation and micro-diversity are not only unavoidable, but are an important part of any CAS’s resilience. This clearly apparent in the resilience of insurgencies.

For example, “Lone-wolf terrorism” is one weak, appallingly limited, recognition by the elite CAS that micro-diversity in insurgencies is a real and difficult problem. For the elite CAS, micro-variations must always be cognitively and politically washed out by one another, so that only the problems important to elites remain and, thus, can be “managed”.

The trend of incrementally increasing CAS disruption through this uncontrolled variation has no place in such an elite strategy. Supposedly, important variation can’t happen at low level, or at least not very often, only ignorable or controllable variation.

Entangled

Micro-diversity means that neither the insurgencies nor the elite CAS can be pure, in any meaning of that word. For example, each member of an insurgency has a partially overlapping but different set of beliefs and a different background-basically, a huge and ever-growing micro-diversity that includes various beliefs from the centrist elites’ and the other insurgencies’ lexicons. Management of this unavoidable and continuing variation is part of the leadership challenge in the elite CAS and in the right and left insurgencies. But the variation will continue to spread, no matter how leadership tries (say, for example, through annual webinars, codes of conduct, office posters, and marketing the importance of alignment, or cultish, downward control over belief) to eliminate it.

If you follow social media accounts of actual people (not bots), you will find posts that do not track their current matrix of troll-triggering tropes, but that contain actions and values from the centrist and the various insurgencies. If we could follow these individuals more carefully, we would find that the variation is a lot more than appears on the surface, and that it is constantly shifting in small ways. Variation doesn’t need explanation; rather, the effort and energy unavoidably necessary to assure ideological, financial, and consistency of control is what needs to be explained.

So, for example, an election result, requiring as it does a forced choice, is not an indicator of the actual variation in the system of focus. Everyone knows this, but the temptation to “eliminate” the real variation by projecting a category on all those who pick one of the forced choices seems unavoidable. I blame elites for this illusion, and the illusion is becoming less and less usable as a tool of control.

Evolving in a Possibility-Space

Every intention by individuals, groups, or collectives, like insurgencies, creates a possibility space for its realization. This space does not contain simple causal link paths from intention to realization (like a logic model), but rather is a kind of disposition possibility space in which many choices are “superimposed” as it were. We feel for some direction from initial intention to realization through a unique path (See Dynamics in Action: Intentional Behavior as a Complex System by Alicia Juarrero for a wonderful and deep dive into this).

In any apparently collective intention, the possibility-space will also include flows that go against the apparent intention. For example, insurgencies create their own antitheses through their current members. But they also create a large variety of other active enabling and disruptive paths from the original intention. The thing to understand about this evolution is that it can’t be predicted in any detail, and not being able to grasp this results in surprising and unintended consequences.

All four of these dimensions interact with one another as well, producing together an evolving Macro-CAS whose path is very uncertain. However, this CAS can be embraced as a disposition of its evolution in an entangled Web of Meaning.

Part One
Part Two

Part Four: The Macro-CAS as a Turbulent Web of Meaning

Our Long-Entangled Insurgency: Part Two

People often believe that models can be made more useful by increasing their complexity, so that the model better imitates the “real” thing.

Untrue. Making a model more complex will lead to it being increasingly useless as a tool for understanding, or a guide to changing the real thing.

So, here is a deliberately simple model:

Imagine a core of social, political, and financial communities that populate our elites, their entourages, and the centrist organizations and subcommunities of our society. (The Macro-CAS or Complex Adaptive System).

Now imagine two insurgencies, one on the right and one on the left, that struggle with the centrist core and each other.

Taken together, these various communities are The Macro-CAS or Complex Adaptive System.

This is the base model. It is different from other models of political/social insurgency in that it points to a variety of interacting insurgencies, rather than the simpler version of a centrist social state and various specific politically motivated insurgencies.

But it is still pretty simple. Here are a few deeper notions:

  1. There are financial, social, and political insurgents in the core elites. Sometimes they tie themselves to the right and left insurgencies, and sometimes they just sabotage their elite competitors. And sometimes they switch back and forth as their operational plans for supremacy confront the uncertainty of the future.
  2. Obviously, there are diverse sub-insurgencies within both the right and left insurgencies, and they too evolve.
  3. This variety of insurgencies and elites most resembles the endlessly diverse evolution of single-celled organisms, and the ecosystem of viruses, chunks of DNA and RNA, proteins, hormones, and other various forms of biological detritus that was the energetic and volatile soup of ocean life 3 billion years ago.
  4. So, as was the case in the primordial soup, all of us have within us bits and pieces from many of the regions/possibilities of the basic model. Because our environment elevates, in a more or less chaotic way, different trends which resonate with these different bits and pieces, we might seem to see that “members” of one insurgency have suddenly moved to or from another. This is one of the meanings of the word “entanglement” in this post series title.
  5. We try to make it easier to understand the dynamics of the simple model through the use of traditional simplifications of reality, such as “you are only a member of one part of the model”. Doing this only means we will be constantly surprised by the actual dynamic evolution of the entangled reality.
  6. “Surprised” doesn’t just mean that we are wowed or scared (the social media definition). It also means that, as much as we relentlessly try, we are ineffective in meaningfully altering the dynamic, and we may make the dynamic even more surprising by our efforts to control it.
  7. Our attempts to alter the CAS produce unintended consequences reliably, some of which make what we are trying to change worse than it is now.
  8. While I’m focusing on the last half-century, the basic model has been operating at least since the first states, with growing complexity. (Maybe 7,000 years ago?)

In the past, we treated the unintended consequences of our efforts to improve the common challenges of our Macro-CAS as “new” problems popping up out of “nowhere”, and we would then come up with ways to solve the “new” problems. That approach is no longer tenable because of the acceleration and expansion of both novelty and disruption in The Macro-CAS. We no longer have the time to delude ourselves with our solutions. They become failures much faster than they used to. They become myths to believe rather than guides to effective change.

Well, if we can’t use past problem-solving techniques, and we can’t even count on the consistency of the struggling parties in our model, what do we do?

Part Three: First, We Have to Understand why Insurgencies are so Effective in Disruption…

Read Part One in the Series

Our Long-Entangled Insurgency: Part One

First in a multi-part series about the complex flow deep in our entangled society…


“There is no such thing as security for any nation — or any individual — in a world ruled by the principles of gangsterism.” – President Franklin Roosevelt, in a “fireside chat” to the nation after the Pearl Harbor attacks, and a first take on insurgency.

In my senior year in high school (1964–65), I got my first glimpse of our common entangled insurgencies, though I didn’t know it at the time. Our local John Birch Society gave a copy of “None Dare Call It Treason” to every member of my senior class. This amounted to somewhere around 650 copies.

I suspect I was one of the few Social Justice Catholics in our class to read it. Most copies of it had been tossed everywhere around the school campus and in various places on the many routes to our family homes.

I asked a classmate who was more familiar with right politics than me what this distribution was about. He told me that local JBS members had decided that they needed to begin advancing their beliefs in a more organized way after the much earlier collapse of McCarthy, and the impending defeat of Barry Goldwater in the presidential campaign, through what were viewed as the lies and manipulations of political advertising (isn’t all political advertising manipulative?). This book was published so that it could be distributed widely during the 1964 presidential campaign.

All I thought at the time: “All our parents are weird”, with the typical adolescent roll-of-the-eyes.

Looking back, if you changed the core villain from the communists to the various yellow, brown, and black enemies that are now the targets of right hate, and updated the names of the villains to the current ones in roughly similar jobs and social classes, you could republish it today with a few other changes. To me, that means the framework of NDCIT is mythic in its meaning, and can and will be applied to whatever is going on currently by those who are entangled in the myth.

But back then, I used the balm of young obliviousness to the outside world to dismiss the idea, and it faded from my consciousness.

Something must have stuck though. I began to notice stuff from the right that I had never paid attention to before.  My deepest ignorance was my lack of understanding of insurgencies, and how they operate as flows of meaning.

My ignorance had two dimensions:

  • I didn’t see my catholic social justice value system, socially just action, and our larger social justice community as an insurgency. I thought it was a nice way to be a human being.
  • I couldn’t see the birth of a much larger right-wing insurgency in the  expanding number of similar local organizing initiatives going on across roughly all rural areas and college campuses of the US, because I was simply unaware of them, or I consigned them to some dustbin of irrelevance.

Over the decades since then, I’ve tried to resolve my ignorance as best I could, and I have deepened my understanding of insurgencies.

I experienced insurgency first hand as a combat soldier in Vietnam, known people who participated in our American cultural entangled insurgencies and those who fought insurgencies in our overseas wars and our home-spun revolutionary movements, learned the history of insurgency through reading, board games, and video games, and, most critically, learned about systems theory, especially the theory of, and change in, complex adaptive systems (CAS).

These experiences and learnings helped me see the dynamic of our entangled insurgencies as a flowing shifting evolution with a broad disposition, if not a game plan. I want to pass on something of that observed flow in the stories in this series.

Part Two: So, How are We to Understand what Our Long- Entangled Insurgencies are?

An Example of Dark Triad Corruption of the Authenticity of An Important Support Mission

Introduction

Below, I will give an extended overview of some aspects in the evolution of the SSI (Supplemental Security Income) program since 1974 (when it was first implemented) as an example of how the purpose of a support system becomes corrupted over time.

I was working for Michigan Protection and Advocacy Service as the SSI program rolled out in its first years, and saw first-hand just how deep the corruption of the eligibility determination process became. It has only worsened since.

SSI eligibility determination has embraced a purpose of denying eligibility unless there is a political downside. Given the vulnerability of recipients of SSI, this is tantamount to condemning a large number of people with severe disabilities to additional medical problems, debility, and death.

The Supplemental Security Income System

History:

Wikipedia has a decent review of the history and thinking that went into the SSI program, but the article is bloodless. It doesn’t reflect the efforts of the SSI system and advocates in their mutual struggle to (on the one hand) reduce the number of claimants or make it so difficult to get or be on SSI that the claimant despairs and leaves the program, and (on the other) to correct failings of the system, expand eligibility, and due process protections.

  • During the early part of the Reagan administration, large numbers of people who were currently eligible for SSI were tossed off the program. In Michigan this amounted to 50-60 thousand individuals.  Marsha Katz (the most knowledgeable expert in Michigan at the time) and other advocates created a curriculum which several hundred advocates embraced to more effectively respond to this wholesale attack on the lives of people with severe disabilities. With capable representation in the fair hearing, many people were able to become eligible for benefits again. The cases I had were all individuals with developmental disabilities, whose disability was clear. I think we all became convinced by our experience in these hearings that there was no due process review that resulted in the huge number of denials, but a simple arrogant process of tossing as many people under the bus as the administration could.
  • The Statute that defines the purpose and goals of the SSI program is more or less clear about eligibility for the benefit. I may not agree with the definition of eligibility, but it is clear. The procedural framework that is used in initial disability determination and first-reconsideration for disability determination is not the statutory standard. It is a hodge-podge of procedural barriers designed to produce automatic triggers for denial. The result is that roughly twice as many people are denied eligibility as would be the case if the statutory standard was used. This is not simply bureaucratic obfuscation. It has real world consequences. The number of denials begins to result in appeals that create waiting lists as long as 2 years for a hearing that might actually look at eligibility under the statute. There is also an empty and deliberately useless process called an in-office reconsideration step that uses up time but seldom results in a change in the initial eligibility determination result. SSA whines that it needs more money to solve this waiting list “resources” problem when it could easily free up an enormous number of resources by making its initial eligibility standard reflect the statute. It won’t do this. The administrative structure is deliberately framed to deny the maximum politically safe number of people with severe disabilities it can.
  • There are a huge number of procedures that are “gotchas” (they seemed to have multiplied during the pandemic) in the decades of the program’s development. It is impossible to mention them all. They are designed to require a level and sophistication of response from people on SSI (who have very severe disabilities, and whose income is WELL below the poverty level) that makes it certain a large number of appeals will simply not be made, and another recipient will “bite the dust”. The one that has been used with the most venomous intent is the overpayment reimbursement requirement. While repayment of overpayments is abstractly reasonable, I would ask you if the following scenario is reasonable (this response is especially spiteful and shows the contempt that SSI has for its recipients)? A person on SSI has a small, part time job whose income is paid out every two weeks. The person dutifully reports the income to SSA each time it is received. Because it is possible for more than two paychecks to be given in a single month, the person may go over a threshold in one month while not actually ever being over the threshold for the year. In SSA ‘s reality this is an overpayment, and SSA must terrorize the recipient with threats to recoup their lost riches. Now, I still wouldn’t think it was fair to cost the person a month of their Medicaid or a month of financial eligibility, but at least that would be transparent. Instead, SSA doesn’t take any responsibility for notifying the person that this situation exists in anything you or I would see as a realistic time frame. There was an extreme example recently, in which SSA demanded the repayment of 2 cents from 15 years ago. SSA never has any responsibility to be transparent, and they exist in a timeless universe where 15 years is the same as no time at all. Advocates have struggled against such procedural evil across decades, but the fight is a loser. The reality is that the SSI bureaucracy pays their employees an enormous amount of money specifically to come up with gotchas. These employees don’t have to struggle because of poverty or lack of health insurance. In the truest sense of the concept, such policies live off the backs of people with severe disabilities, and can’t even claim they are doing this for the “good” of the person with the disability. Instead, their purpose is to implement more and more complex ways of forcing people off benefits without causing political pain to their superiors.

I hope I’ve given the flavor of this ongoing effort to reduce or slow the growth of the number of SSI recipients without creating political problems. In my view, this is corruption in every sense of that word.

Other examples of programs that started out with good intentions and ended up with bad:

  • The Spend Down Program under Medicaid
  • SSDI waiting periods for financial support and health insurance
  • Mental Health Severity Thresholds and the way they are gamed
  • And many, many more examples.

Ask an advocate you know for examples from their own experience. They are endless. Corruption is part and parcel of every support system in government as it evolves over time. This corruption is a form of sabotage, the ongoing, step-by-step, corroding of the purpose of the system.

Sabotage exists as a ubiquitous form of corruption in every aspect of the American experience. While I think most people are well aware of financial corruption as a basis of policy in governmental systems, there are less obvious and more common forms. I’m going to do a series of posts on this invisible sabotage of life possibilities next.

Some Resources

Supplemental Security Income Advocacy
Stuck in Time: SSI Desperately Needs Updating
Social Security: Know Your Rights

Next: The Long-Entangled Insurgency: Part One

 

Evolving Toward the Abyss: How We Blunder into Inauthentic Purpose

I’ve discussed why well-intentioned systems begin to embrace a financially/politically driven purpose rather than the value-driven purpose of The Mission. I think it is helpful to understand how such an embrace creeps up on a system and changes every aspect of its evolution.

In an earlier post, I gave a short overview of the kinds of changes that take place in the first few years after support and advocacy systems are formed. Below is a more nuanced and much expanded version of the long term:

Phase One:

  • Initially, Board, managers and staff are recruited from a community that already has a purpose related to The Mission.
  • Keeping the door open seems tedious and unrewarding, and is often thought to be unconnected to The Mission, or even destructive of it (irony abounds in this evolutionary process).
  • Financial disaster, Board and Staff turnover, small time embezzlement, and other results of not having adequate financial controls produce relentless anxiety in managers and board, who are, after all, legally/politically responsible.
  • They shift their priorities to financial or political incentives that seem to offer more stability.
  • The system settles into a pattern where most time and resources at the managerial and board level is focused on money and marketing.

Phase Two:

  • The focus on money and marketing often produces real growth in available resources of all kinds. Salaries increase, reputation in the larger community (whatever that community might be) becomes noticeably improved, the ability to recruit Board members with enough standing that they can help with keeping the doors open, and operational improvements in managing funding, become part of the ongoing evolution  of the system.
  • New staff join the organization because of a combination of commitment to the Mission and the perks of effective financial/political sophistication. These twin motivations shift to favor perks over time.
  • Managers shift their priorities to accommodate the stability and comfort  of effective financial/political sophistication, and The Mission gradually becomes more abstract in managerial/governance work (losing its depth, becoming a meme).
  • Managerial initiatives become targeted to “efficiency” using the ridiculous assumption that you can do the same thing for less money if you just punish people enough. This results in everyone gaming the constraints (eventually including those who came up with the indicators that are now being gamed). In effect, the constraints no longer focus on the Mission, but on various indicators of control (control/power is not Mission-Critical except for managers who no longer think much about The Mission), wealth, and reputation (again, not Mission-critical).
  • People who are part of the system begin to appropriate its resources for themselves because there are more resources and the efforts to produce efficiency result in the actual Mission-Critical Tasks having less and less meaning or connection with the indicators. They become viewed as part of the exploitable system.
  • This cannibalization of The Mission begins to produce more and more behavior that is either clearly exploitation or of such poor quality that the people whose lives depend on The Mission increasingly call out the system.
  • The system responds, not with changes in  its operations, but more sophisticated marketing.
  • The overall result of Phase Two is to make the system more and more brittle (i.e., unable to robustly change in response to crisis). The system response to crisis instead becomes various methods of avoidance, like public relations and lawyers.

Phase Three:

  • At some point, as the twin forces of increasing resources and dwindling connection between resource use and The Mission become generally obvious, the system will begin to attract Board Members, Managers, and Staff who are willing to use the functional versions of the Dark Triad model to enhance their control and rewards without having to pay any attention to The Mission, if they think they can get away with it. This includes the possibilities of direct exploitation of those who are supposed to benefit from The Mission, as in sexual or financial predation.
  • It is at this point that I view the system as a zombie. The system has become a gangster syndicate even if no violence is involved, and the vast majority of people in the system aren’t participants in Dark Triad behavior. The zombie system is much harder to break down than the Mission-Critical one ever was. For example, look at city corruption and ask yourself if the kickback amounts go down when the city has a financial decline.
  • Any stress that effectively threatens the rewards or power that benefit system members will cause its collapse. After all, if you remove money, reputation, and power, there will be nothing left of the system, its Mission having faded into oblivion a long time ago.

These phases are not some script or program. Rather, they are a scaffold to help you grasp why good missions eventually disappear. The reality is that any human organized system (start-up, corporation, public agency, non-profit, soviet style bureaucracy, western public bureaucracy) that values money, reputation, and/or power will follow the contours of this evolution, though the details will change, and the kind of functional Dark Triad tactics that are successful will differ. This does not mean that we can’t do anything to preserve The Mission. It means that we can’t count on system evolution to protect that Mission. (Later, I’ll post on mission-supportive actions.)

See the Wikipedia article on Zugzwang for more insight into the drivers of this kind of malignant evolution.

Next: An Example about Dark Triad Corruption of the Authenticity of The Mission

 

How the Dark Triad Corrupts Support and Advocacy Systems

The dark triad of Machiavellianism, Psychopathy, and Narcissism arise in complex adaptive systems (and our specimen support and advocacy organizations) as threads of meaning in the evolution of the system. They are not separate paths, but can express themselves varyingly, and perhaps are best seen as a coherent interactive bundle of meaning that shifts in impact with change in the context.

They can be consciously fostered by leadership and governance ideologies, or can operate as system attractors without seeming to have any coherent conscious awareness.

I will use a meme as a placeholder for the meaning of each thread:

  • Machiavellianism: The meme is “gaslighting”. This thread is the use of strategic deceit to secure advantage for the system.
  • Psychopathy: The meme is “hyperrational self-interest”. This thread is the ignoring (to the point of obliviousness) of the consequences for people, animals, plants, and artifacts of actions to achieve system advantage.
  • Narcissism: The meme is “arrogant self-interest”. This thread sees the meaning of the contextual incentives narrowly in terms of the system’s advantage.

As you can see, these threads are deeply connected to one another. While there may be value in parsing the distinctions between them for the diagnosis of personality disorders, it makes more sense here to view them as available interactive heuristics that the support and advocacy organizations (or any complex adaptive system) may use to privilege system advantage over The Mission. This use of these tools is a dramatic step in the corruption of any organization and often entirely unnoticed until its impact is deeply embedded in the dynamic of the system. In effect, the system being considered no longer has a meaningful Mission.

I tend to imagine systems drifting (purposely or otherwise) into the realm of dark triad decision-making as zombies. In fact, the mythos of zombies in the arts and media is vivified (if that is the word) by corruption as its core characteristic. Instead of brains, the single-minded driver of such organizations is system advantage.

This overview needs to be fleshed out (those zombie tropes just keep surfacing) through a specimen example of the path followed in the Dark Triad evolution of the system, and system examples of how the Dark Triad corrodes the ability of a system to authentically pursue its Mission.

Next: Evolving toward the Abyss: How We Blunder into Inauthentic Purpose

 

The Dark Triad of Evolving Bureaucratic Systems

In addition to what I described as the typical bureaucratization of support and advocacy systems in my last post, there is a darker path that any system development can take in a facilitating context. We can understand this path by using a metaphor borrowed from a social media trope about personality characteristics called the Dark Triad:

  • Machiavellianism
  • Psychopathy
  • Narcissism

We aren’t going to view these as part of some continuum of personality disorders. Instead, we will look at them as corrupting forces driven by larger socio-political environments that aren’t necessarily connected to the personalities of people in the system. Rather, the forces are incentive-driven contexts for decision-making by actors in the system, actors who wouldn’t qualify under the criteria of the DSM as persons with these disorders.

In a word, the forces create “functional” versions of the disorders, guiding and enforcing decisions that mimic the kinds of decisions persons with these disorders might make. Because these are not medical concepts, but enabling and governing constraints in systems, we will use simple abstractions to define them. We don’t need to meet the DSM criteria to understand how such decision-making affects the evolution of support and advocacy organizations.

Next: How the Dark Triad Corrupts Support and Advocacy Systems

The Corruption of System Purpose

As many people have noted, the purpose of a complex adaptive system is what it does (its dynamic process of evolution), not what it says it does (its marketing). Over time, what a system does changes in many ways.

All support and rights systems have two missions:

  • Why the system was created (usually called The Mission).
  • Survival (keeping the “doors open”, if that metaphor still means something during a pandemic).

The evolution of the system over the near-term tracks the evolving relationship between these two forces:

  • In the early part of that evolution, especially in small nonprofits, there is a hard learning curve about why you have to pay attention to money when you become part of the organization because of that attractive advocacy mission. The “shock of funding realities” causes the system to be shy of making financial mistakes and gradually erodes the place of The Mission as the foremost force in system evolution.
  • Ways of buffering the system begin to be developed, largely driven by this anxiety about resources. Resources, that might have been used for mission-critical activities, are used (or invested) in protection of the system from dissolution. For a benign example, the creation of a reserve, to deal with the reality of slow funders and grant based support, is a common way to buffer the system.
  • Because it is the managers of the system who are anxious about being blamed for financial failures, keeping the doors open gradually replaces The Mission as the field within which managers create their plans and cognitive/emotional priorities.
  • Along with this dominance of focus on resources, there is inevitably some external cycle of funding gain and loss which creates pressure to have ongoing administrative controls to preserve funds by reducing the cost of The Mission. The usual rubric for this is “efficiency”. Thus, the expansion of administrative/managerial control over the priorities of The Mission gradually leads to expanding the scope and detail of administrative actions as a proportion of the total activities of the system. In other words, bureaucracy expands over time, and is justified by the highest priority of being “efficient”.  This is interesting moral choice since bureaucracy keeps expanding and costing more as this process evolves. In and of itself, bureaucracy contributes nothing to the direct fulfillment of The Mission. The justification for this expansion is always the protection of The Mission as the outward marketing face of the system’s self- protection.
  • It is important to note that the resources used to preserve the system are taken directly from funds that could have been used for The Mission. This process of removing resources from direct support of The Mission to preservation of the system is an example of the  classic “moral hazard” found as part of economic activity. In this case, the risk taken by the managers is to The Mission. As time goes on, all governance aspects of the system face this moral hazard. Though not universal, it is common for the management and governance processes of the system to stop thinking about the Mission and assume that their decisions are automatically supportive of The Mission.
  • I call this process corrupting. This is not simple criminal or moral corruption, like bribery or embezzlement. The corrupting force is in the head of every person who makes decisions about the use of resources, which is everyone, including employees. How far the corruption evolves is unique to the system dynamic over time, and is fractal.
  • Fractal simply means that all decisions regardless of level in the system support or impede the corruption. Notably, this includes decisions made for political gain.
  • There need not be a high level of corruption for this evolution to profoundly affect the system. My observation of small nonprofits over the last half-century, suggests to me that a level of 5% in corrupt transactions means that all transactions in the system are tainted, even though the 95% are not corrupt, or not done by people who are behaving corruptly. Typically, if both explicit and implicit bureaucracy are included, the minimum of such corruption can be estimated at 15%.
  • Note that there is no simple, easy solution to this corruption process. Instead, reflection on the impact of financial bureaucratization on The Mission must be embraced as the highest priority for governance and management. It almost never is. Even when it is embraced, bureaucracy is tuned to prevent meaningful impact by such reform.

The reality of corruption of Purpose has powerful lessons for the practice of advocacy, as I suspect most readers already know. But there is another layer to this corruption that evolves in large systems of support for people with disabilities and we need to understand how it evolves to truly understand the implications for our advocacy in the face of such corruption.

Next Time: The Dark Triad of System Evolution

Long Term Advocacy Engagement and SOF Affordances

The power of advocacy arises from engaging the anomalies in the SOF’s evolution. These anomalies are affordances for effective change. Anomalies means weak signals from the SOF that are not in alignment with its stated purpose or mission. Anomalies are not just hypocrisy about mission values.  They are programs, funding sources, political connections-anything in the SOF ecosystem that doesn’t support its mission. There are always a large number of anomalies in any complex adaptive system, including our advocacy organizations. If we wish to make use of them, we have to be able to perceive them.

The nature of weak signals makes them easy to ignore if they make us uncomfortable, or if recognizing them requires us to make unpleasant or difficult changes.  Also, we are taught almost from birth, to believe that strong signals, and only strong signals, are worth our time or effort. (Note that common signals are viewed as strong whether they are or not.) Strong signals are viewed the way they are because there is an assumption that the power of a signal to, say, punish or force change, is related to its strength.

There is just enough truth to this assumption that we believe we can safely ignore weak signals. We can’t-at least if we want to have an impact on our common future.

The other problem with focusing on the processes associated with strong signals in an SOF is that they are the ones best defended. If we try to use strong signals and those internal processes that support the reproduction and expansion of the SOF that those signals represent, the system will have no trouble mobilizing resources to oppose our change efforts.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t confront the underlying processes of an oppressive or discriminatory SOF. I’m saying that changing those core processes will require a long term effort and a lot of resources.

We can also think of going after weak processes by identifying them in weak signals as a way to force the SOF to use resources to counter our change work that the SOF would prefer to use in support of its core strong processes. The tendency for the SOF will be to try to minimize the use of these core resources which will, in turn, slow an effective response to our advocacy. In fact, there are advocacy techniques which disguise the real potential impact of our advocacy to exploit this SOF tendency.

In the context of our engagement with an SOF over the long term is the potential for corruption of the SOF purpose and, frankly, for the corruption of our advocacy purpose.  We need to understand how this corruption works in order to not lose the thread of our advocacy purpose.

Next: Corruption of System Purpose

Complex Adaptive Engagement and Advocacy

If our change vehicles are to be complex adaptive systems engaged over the long term with those complex adaptive systems we call “Wicked Problems”, we need to understand how the evolution of this engagement is driven.

The deepest driver for advocacy in our community is the web of meaning we share that sees an individual as unique, and the purpose of advocacy as support for the realization of life’s possibilities through personal autonomy and membership in a supportive community. The old school label for such an intuition is “personalism”, which has a long secular, religious, and philosophical history, and has been recreated in every generation by some community for its members. Our disability community is the latest, and, I believe, has gone the deepest in making the personalist vision practical.

Person-centered planning is an expression of this, as are support concepts like intervenors and personal assistance. Even a technologically focused conceptual framework like assistive technology is only meaningful in the context of a personalist perspective.

On the other hand, the deepest driver in the evolution of wicked problems and the vast majority of support organizations that are the Systems of Focus (SOF) for our advocacy, is the authority and responsibility they have for the resources within them.  This way of thinking about resources leads SOF to prioritize preservation and expansion of resources as their purpose, not the publicly stated mission.

Remember that the purpose of a system is what it does, not what it says it does. When we are advocating for the use of these resources on behalf of ourselves, others, or a community, we understand that use to be in service of personalist outcomes. When a system is engaged with us during our advocacy, it views the engagement as a negotiation about the distribution of the SOFs rightfully held resources (all types). Our advocacy is viewed as an unwarranted disruption of their  control and disposition of those resources.

Thus the conflicts that arise from advocacy.

If we activate an advocacy community through organizing, we build the possibility of long term-engagement, and at least some possibility of a renegotiation of our advocacy as part of normal reality, instead of a one-off intrusion by advocates into areas where we have no role. This change in how we and the SOF engage is less an epiphany than a change in ritual or a habit or a state of mind that makes the engagement easier to carry out, but does not change the fundamental purposes in our mutual engagement.

When such engagement becomes typical, we can invest our advocacy with more sophistication, understanding our SOF more deeply in its complexity and drive for the control of its resources.

Next: Long Term Advocacy Engagement and SOF Affordances