Complexity and Political Action

—> Reflections on my master thesis.

When I was 19 years old, I decided to study sociology not by virtue of cost-benefit considerations but out of the naive desire to change the world. Since then my idealism has been put to test many times. Surprisingly, I was not so much discouraged by the doubts of finding a job with such a ‘useless’ field of study, but much more by sociology itself. As a teenager the world was simple. Every problem could be explained by Marx’s concept of societal superstructure, may this be poverty in Africa or the commercialization of post-nineties rap music. Because every problem was systemic, the answer lied in changing the system. But once I had taken my seat in the university classroom, I was taught that reality is more complex. Complexity, it seems, became the unchallenged slogan of my studies.

For academics, the issues around complexity are not political but epistemological – they are only of concern in regard to the valid construction of knowledge. While this political reluctance appeared bewildering to me in the beginning, I became gradually more comfortable with this notion of research. Because the world is not exhausted in pre-defined patterns, the solution to general injustices lies in studying their particular manifestations. This way of thinking is still very present in my thesis. The fundamental assumption that connects every single thought is that serious research should comprehend its object of knowledge as a complex state of affairs. Not reducing and categorizing the reality but embracing its complexity – this is supposed to be the overarching aim of ethnographic research. Yet, during my fieldwork, I had gradually developed an uneasy feeling about my engagement. Although I was confident that my empirical data complies well with the academic discourse on rural-urban migration of indigenous peoples, I noticed that my respondents were puzzled by my work. My doubts were reinforced after sending some of my writings to well-educated friends without a social science background. Most of them were having troubles to grasp the practical relevance of my results. This feedback made me rethink my involvement in regard to the relationship between knowledge and action. Or in other words: what are the political consequences of embracing complexity?

The constructivist critique on Marxism has definitely strengthen my analytical ability to deal with complex issues of development. But as a side-effect, it diverted attention away from imagining a world beyond the given modalities of development. For Marx, capitalism is merely a historically specific mode of production. Economic exploitation and structural inequality can be overcome by means of rational engagement with the material conditions. Because ideas are not developed in abstraction and isolation but derived from the underlying social conditions of people, knowledge is tied to political action. This explains Marx’s unrestrained confidence that modern societies are able to overcome inequality. However, in the 20th century, the determinist thinking of Marxism was criticized from politicians and intellectuals likewise. The political reality of the Soviet Union was reason enough to reject Marxism. It was no longer seen as a powerful theory of emancipation but as a simplified recipe of order-building that disciplines people into a pre-conceived design (Scott, 1998). Academics found shelter in the constructivist paradigm where the social is no longer a measurable variable but something that is subjectively perceived and permanently reconstructed on the basis of interpretation and meaning. Although this escape solved many epistemological concerns, it widely bypassed their political implications.

With a constructivist lens, we look different at social grievances. The cruelty that people need to sustain is no longer evidence for our incomplete emancipation but it seems to confirm our authentic humaneness. Because we cannot see through the complex reality, we lack of the ability to control society or to change even the most terrible injustices. We are aware of this deficiency but not always emotionally okay with it. We still protest against the war in Syria, we care about the raw materials in our phones, and we sleep badly after watching Hotel Rwanda in television. But at the end of the day, we conclude that all these grievances are unavoidable – there is nothing we can do against it. Here, complexity is the general escape way whenever our basic sense of morality refuses to accept the brutality of particular circumstances. For instance, even though the global agriculture is numerically able to feed the double of the current world population, 14 million people die every year of hunger and its immediate consequences (Ziegler, 2014, p. 52). This grievance becomes only digestible by putting the uneven distribution of food into a more complex perspective where the responsibilities blur. I am not saying that the global allocation of goods is a simple operation or that the complexity equals a mere instrument of power. But what I do argue for is that complexity tends to cripple our basic senses of morality.

Marx lived in the belief that society can and must be organized on the basis of scientific knowledge and universal values. Today, the idea of universality is only present in the abstract syntax of human rights but not as operational principle of political action. Why? Because, following the constructivist line of thinking, acting in a complex world is deprived of a fair chance to succeed. The problem is not so much that complexity comes up to the inability to act but that it exempts powerful people from exercising their responsibility. By embracing complexity, academics play into the hands of people who benefit from current politics. Because we are not able to steer the course of events, so the argument runs, nobody can be made responsible for unfortunate outcomes. Complexity becomes a free ticket of excuse. It decouples power from responsibility and renders every prospect of change into an empty promise. If one thinks this further, it can be argued that the constructivist tradition objectifies the assumption that deliberately guided planning of societal processes inevitably fails. This argument, in turn, can easily be used by any elite to promote their self-interest despite its harmful effects for the majority of people. This relationship between power and responsibility as well as change and knowledge is crucial. Starting from the Enlightenment until the cultural turn in the 20th century, it was assumed that objectively valid knowledge can be used for interventions which put the agents of change in charge. Today, the relationship between knowledge and change is teared off. The world is presumably too complex to be understood. Hence, we cannot change it and nobody can be made accountable for social grievances.

Until now, I have demonstrated that the constructivist critique on positivism, despite its accuracy, has created a void between knowledge and action. The empty space was mapped as unbridgeable because the complexity of the world denies political action. However, this conclusion has not been drawn by everybody. While sociology and anthropology are dominated by post-structuralist thinking, other disciplines, such as economics, are still cheerfully engineering the world. It is not surprising that “economics has been the undisputedly most powerful discipline when it comes to shaping public policy” (Laitos, 2017, p. 117). It provides powerful actors, like the United Nations or governmental agencies, with a number of universally valid laws. By consolidating liquid complexity into hard facts, economic science is able to justify policy interventions despite scarce proof of success. Interestingly, although its methodologies can hardly stand up to the epistemological knowledge of today, it remains the most influential discipline. If one has a closer look to the strategic papers of current development policies, he/she will easily detect how aid practice is governed by neoliberal thinking. The neoliberal paradigm is deceptive because it conceals its positivist assumption behind a curtain of incapacitation. The chief argument of Neoliberalism is that economic processes cannot be engineered because they are too complex to be rationally understood. This argument reflects the post-war transformation from Keynesian policies that favored state interventions towards a way of thinking that privileges the purity of the free market. Interestingly, by accusing Keynesians of pre-conceived order building and planned simplification, neoliberal thinkers can present themselves as non-positivist thinkers that embrace the complexity of economic processes (Hayek, 1944; Friedman, 1962). At the same time, however, the core principles of neoliberalism, such as deregulation or marginal tax rates, are abstract concepts that hardly correspond with the realities in developing countries. In short: neoliberalism is both an academic paradigm that claims to be non-idealistic and a political movement that can implement its agenda based on hard facts. As a consequence, it is instrumentalized by political stakeholders to expand on the uneven distribution of power. “This vision of neo-liberal globalization, then, is not so much a description of how the world is, as an image in which the world is being made” (Massey, 1999, p. 36).

Although constructivist ideas were convincing enough to debunk Marxism, they were not able to do away with neo-liberal thinking. Because neoliberalism chiefly validates the privileges of the powerful, its corpus of knowledge has demonstrated an astonishing immunity from epistemological critique. The constructivist focus on complexity has benefited the powerful in two ways: firstly, by sidelining Marxist knowledge and secondly by not stepping inside the economic faculties and the governmental buildings. Hence, it can be concluded that political initiative will not be triggered by further refinement of constructivist knowledge since it will merely widen the gap between knowledge and action. Instead, I argue for developing an underlying theory that allows us to fill the void of understanding and acting without relying on the positivist assumptions of Marxism. Such an approach would provide the means to confront neoliberalism not only on an epistemological level but also in regard to the application of knowledge. How would such an inquiry look like?

Because humans are not created under any higher concept, there are no characteristics or values that exist by default (a priori). Humanity cannot be defined, as Kant still assumed, on the basis of rational values but rather the global society of today is forced to bring its own quality into being without the luxury of an ethical reassurance. This argument is, indeed, existentialist as it discards the idea that any essence can preexist the human existence. It ties the act of creating society to the perception of the historically given situation. Here, every project of change is inextricably tied to a comprehension of the world that uncovers reality from the unobjective viewpoint of the aspired transformation. This argument may sound abstract but it is practically relevant because it demonstrates that complexity is nothing more than an empty shell, a shield to push back political action, an instrument to preserve the status quo. At this point, I argue for an overarching framework that allows us to bring action and knowledge together. Or as Sartre (1955, p. 213) puts it:

"What is needed is, in a word, a philosophical theory which shows that human reality is action and that action upon the universe is identical with the understanding of that universe as it is, or in other words, that action is the unmasking of reality, and at the same time, a modification of that reality."

The act of changing does not necessarily have to follow after the act of understanding. Instead, understanding can be a result of the attempt to change reality. This is an important reversal because it makes the identification of problems, as they are perceived by socially disadvantaged people, to the starting point of any scientific investigation. Furthermore, it ties the abstract idea of understanding to its implementation on the ground without relying on a positivist notion of change, such as Marx’s historical materialism. In this perspective, exploitive structures will not be overcome by an inevitable historical progress but through the creative engagement with the way we interpret and act upon these oppressive realities. Constructivist approaches, such as the theory of symbolic interactionism, have proven that rulers of the world, whether this may be the Hindu elite in Nepal or deterritorialized economic elite, do not need the viewpoints of academics. They are powerful enough to influence the meanings circulating in interactions, not only on the global stage but also in the everyday life. It is the disadvantaged people that are in need to be promoted. Here, the mission of the academics becomes clear: we need to change the meanings that constitute the basis for all our interpretations and actions accordingly to the perspective of the people that do not benefit from current politics. If we do this, we can overcome exploitation and exorbitant inequality without relying on the positivist assumptions of Marx. 



Friedman, M., 1962. Capitalism and Freedom. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Hayek, F., 1944. The Road to Serfdom. London: Routledge Press.

Laitos, J., 2017. Why Environmental Policies Fail. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Massey, D., 1999. Imagining Globalization: Power-Geometries of Time-Space. In: A. e. a. Brah, ed. Global Futures: Migration, Environment and Globalization. London: Palgrave.

Sartre, J. P., 1955. Materialism and Revolution. In: Literary and Philsophical Essays. New York: Criterion Books, pp. 198-256.

Scott, J. C., 1998. Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. Yale: Yale University Press.

Ziegler, J., 2014. Ändere die Welt. Warum wir die Kannibalische Weltordnung ändern müssen.. München: Penguin.