Sociopolitical Dynamics

People’s individual actions and collective interactions form dynamic patterns adapted to the environment

Sociopolitical dynamics refers to the major components, relations, and patterns within a political system that defines its overall workings and process of development.1 A political system is the set of institutional structures through which members make collective decisions; political dynamics refers to the pattern of interrelationships between those elements that define how the system evolves over time. In the ongoing evolution of political institutions into larger systems, sub-political organizations come into contact and must define some overall system of coordination between them. How the different parts then interrelate – whether through conflict or consensus – becomes a critical factor in determining the future dynamics within the system and how it evolves.2

Institutional Development

A central question in the study of the evolution of political systems is, how to we go from small political systems based on personal ties to a modern political system built on a set of institutions that are impersonal? As the political scientist Francis Fukuyama states it, “one of the things that we have to figure out is how is it that you get from a form of social organization that is basically based on friends and family, to one that is impersonal, that treats people not because I know you and we have exchanged favours, or you are my cousin or my nephew or something, but get to a state where people are simply treated as citizens who have equal rights and equal access to the state.”3

A key factor here is that of scale, while political organizations remain small there is limited need for impersonal systems of organization; when they become large there becomes a greater need. The history of the evolution of our sociopolitical organizations has been one involving the development of ever larger and more complex systems of organizations as we have gone from small tribes to large empires and nations states to today’s global institutions.4 In this way, we go from the many thousands of small local cultures and political units to some form of single global sociopolitical organization. In that process, differences between groups are required to be combined into larger political organizations, such as the nation state or multinational institutions. The key question though is how does the combined organization work and represent its constituent member organizations.

For much of human history, people avoided developing into large organizations by splitting into new subgroups. The privilege of having a big world with few people on it was in our capacity to simply subdivide and separate into new fractions so as to avoid the complexities of large systems of political organization.5 In this regard Anthropologist, Napoleon Chagnon has observed that population growth among the Yanomamo Indians of the Amazon Basin led to villages splitting and spreading deeper into the tropical forest surrounding them. Due to such splitting, the average village size of around 100 members remained fairly stable through time. At any given time, though, the more centrally located villages were the largest. Chagnon suggested this was because, being surrounded by other villages – that were often hostile – central villages were less able than peripheral ones to resolve internal conflicts by splitting off. For much of history, formal political structures like the nation state were somewhat impractical, as people could simply walk away when they did not like the rules, or has some other objection, and start another community.5

In small communities, of less than a hundred people, kinship ties were sufficed for maintaining political organization. In such early communities, the political system is based on the specificities of the group or one subset of the group. For example, the males of a certain ancestry have traditionally been the sources of political authority within many small societies.6 However, kinship-based ties for political organization only work on a local level within relatively small groups, because they are subjective in nature; they are dependent upon the specificities of a certain group and thus do not generalize into objective rules that can be applied to large impersonal organizations.

Once one tribe encounters another the specificities that were used as the basis of order and organization within that society – whether it was their specific religion, there specific family ties or specific geographic context – become no longer a universal principle of organization in the face of another sociopolitical system, with another system of beliefs, social and political structures. Such subjective rule sets for political organization are only relevant within the specific context within which they were formulated; specificities can not be generalized without creating contradictions.7

When different groups with subjective specific rules of political organization come into contact and are required to form some combined organization, either they have to synthesize their specific rules into a more general rule set that applies to all, or each side can try to retain their subjective pattern of organization and impose it on the other, thus trying to make their specific rule set a general principle governing the combined organisation. Once a society contains many subcultures and groups either one section comes to rule above others, or it is required to develop more abstract rules and principles for its governance that incorporate the various subcultures.7

Conflict Theory

When two groups with subjective rules sets interact wishing to impose their pattern of organization on the other, then the result is conflict of various kind. Throughout history, the evolution of larger systems of political organization has been associated with conquest. The classical example being the development of large empires like that of the Incas, the Roman Empire or the Qin dynasty in China. In such a process of pattern formation, political organizations come into contact, exert a force against the other and that which exerts greater force comes to rule over the other.

This process is elaborated upon in Friedrich Hegel’s most influential book The Phenomenology of Spirit. When to agents encounter each other and believe themselves to be free and unconstrained there forms a struggle for recognition as both actors can not be unrestrained in this newly combined organization. This struggle develops into what Hegel calls the master-slave dialectic, both struggle for power over the other as they both try to maintain their status as free and unconstrained agents by projecting their subjective rules on to the objective rule set of the combined organization, thus limiting the participation of the other’s influence in the formation of those rules through some form of force or manipulation within a struggle.8 This struggle could go on forever but at some point, one side comes to fear its annihilation by the other and submits to their will. The political system enters into a more stable state with a master-slave dynamic forming between the two different subsystems.

However, this is not the end of the story of sociopolitical evolution for Hegel. Because this system has inherent contradictions, it is inherently unstable and will develop further. The dominant group within society becomes dependent upon the subordinate group to maintain their status. The macho group in society is dependent on maintaining a subordinate female group, the elite Western colonialists are dependent upon the indigenous people for their privileges, the economic elite are dependent upon the economically deprived etc. The ruling elite is free in their capacity to extract resources from the ruled but they are enslaved by being dependent upon them. While the slaves are prisoners by being ruled by the elite but in their work they are not dependent upon them in the same way as the rulers are.8 This original theory of Hegel’s got extended by Karl Marx and eventually evolved into the conflict theory of social systems; a theory that sociopolitical systems are inherently driven and even defined by this dynamic between the rulers and the ruled, whose contradictions eventually lead to revolutionary change.

Hierarchical centralized systems of organization have been the rule in political systems

Such systems of organization are always centralized and hierarchical as they are designed to control the transfer of some resource from the larger social system to some subset of the members. The development of ever larger political systems of organization can thus lead to greater centralization around a single group. Typically to maintain order the ruling elite are required to present an image to the people that they represent them and are acting purely in the interest of the society at large, when in fact they are acting to achieve certain ends pertaining to their subgroup.  In Hegel’s and Marx’s theory of conflict, the contradictions in the system eventually lead to its downfall through revolution.9 Marx’s theory of this process was utopian in that it posited that the slaves would then rule themselves. In reality, though, the opposite it more often the case. The previous elite is overthrown but the lure of the centralized political structures is too seductive for the revolutionary avant-garde. The leaders of the revolution over time become the new elite, defining their own set of rules as the new set of objective rules; a dynamic that George Orwell expounded upon in his book Animal Farm.10

This has been the dynamic surrounding the formation of many nations around the world, from Lenin’s revolution in Russia to general Gaddafi’s revolution in Libya, to the history of Robert Mugabe and Zimbabwe, to China’s State communism. Likewise, it is largely the dynamic defining the process of decolonization, from Myanmar to the Middle East to Africa and Latin America. As the colonial powers withdrew, the underlying traditional divides remained and without the social institutions to form consensus, specific groups came to constitute the new ruling elite. The conflict theory of political dynamics sees the evolution of political systems as one of polarization due to inherent contradictions; the ruling classes become more centralized and the oppressed parties become more excluded. Likewise, those of merit can not rise from the excluded party to the dominant party which works to reduce the ruling class’s merit over time while retaining such members within the subordinate group.

Such dynamics of conflict reduce the system’s development in that the ruling regime is typically extractive in some fashion; significant amounts of resources are consumed in maintaining the structures of control required for its maintenance, while the excluded party is prevented from forming political, and often social, organizations. The classical example of this dynamic being Western colonialism, such as the British in India or Africa. The political system was based on race, excluding those of a non-caucasian background; the regime was explicitly extractive and by 1803 at the height of its rule in India, the British East India company had to maintain a private army of about 260,000 people.12 Likewise the British left most of their colonies politically fragile and unstable when they eventually withdrew.

In this whole process of interaction between different subgroups even though the contradictions may remain a new level of organization has formed and often people see that it is no longer possible to go back to the old separate communities. Internal contradictions are what render all systems unsustainable over time. The contradictions of projecting subjective rules as patterns for an objective political organization are what render sociopolitical systems unsustainable; as long as they remain the system remains unstable with the potential for sudden regime shift. The system stays going round in a cyclical process until objective rules can be developed that are inclusive for the different members of the combined organization, thus rendering it more stable.

Political Evolution

Of course, the interaction between different systems of political organization in the evolution of new levels of coordination does not necessarily need to be conflictual in nature. When different sociocultural organizations encounter each other and are required to form overarching coordination structures this can also be based upon a deliberative process; the application of reason to understanding the different patterns, identifying the abstract rules and principles that are common to each independent of their specificities and the formation of governing rules based on those general principles that include the essential characteristics of the different members. Instead of forming political structures out of a hierarchy of domination with one subjective organization prevailing over another, the central principle of deliberative governance is that of searching for commonalities, through reason, in order to overcome the subjective perspectives of each group and thus find something that is objective to all as the basis for governance.13

This process involves the use of conceptual abstraction. Abstraction is the process of removing successive layers of detail from some set of entities to identify those factors that are common to all. In the way that an artist paints an abstract painting not to capture the details of the subject matter but to express something more fundamental and general. In a sociopolitical context, abstraction means searching for those factors that are common to all the people and cultures involved and basing the legal system on those. Of course, there will be disagreement in what these rules should be and that is why it requires some impersonal process to achieve it. Members use reason to search for what may be universal principles of social organization and from that have some objective basis for the presentation of their opinions. Objective reasons are given in a process of discovery to identify which factors are most relevant to all and which factors are subjective, and thus only relevant within specific personal contexts.14 Thus we can see how successfully evolving new levels of abstraction in political organization, in turn, requires new levels of depth in our understanding of social systems, in order to distinguish between what is objective and subjective and the development of institutions based on what is determined objective for all the members of the community.

People bringing down the Berlin Wall, symbol of divide between West and East during the Cold War

One of the foremost thinkers in political multiculturalism is Bhikhu Parekh who elaborates a theory of this kind in this book Rethinking Multiculturalism: Cultural Diversity and Political Theory. The core of the book addresses the important theoretical questions raised by contemporary multicultural society, positing that as societies come into contact in the process of political evolution the crucial factor is whether they are open to change.15 If a culture and society posit that it already has the correct answer, that things do not change, that there is nothing new for the culture to learn through cultural interaction then this is clearly a recipe for conflictual relations. Parekh identifies a number of standard approaches to this interaction but comes to the conclusion that they typically function to leave the dominant culture unaltered. He argues what is required to achieve a successful multicultural model is the openness of the majority culture to transformation. In such an eventuality he sees the state as becoming a community of communities with overlapping spheres that constitute the public and civic, where members have to adapt and find common ground.15

Citizenship is understood as “differentiated,” meaning that different groups can have different ties to the state. Parekh calls for continual intercultural dialogue and negotiation. A Parekh writes social integration is to be “grounded in a multiculturally constituted public realm which both sustains and is in turn sustained by a multiculturally constituted private realm.” The subjective realm of each community is required for them to continue to develop their specific cultural and historical narrative and formulate their identity within the broader community.15 As such subjective beliefs may prevail within private domains, but in order to implement a rule as being objective, it must derive from reasons given that in turn relate to something fundamental about the human condition. In such a way the formation of ever larger successful sociopolitical organizations requires an ever deeper understanding of the human condition to decipher what is truly objective about the condition, versus what may be specific to individual instances of it.


Many political systems around the world call themselves democracies and have all the formal political institutions of such an organization, but many of them remain deeply concentrated around specific subclasses based on, ethnicity, wealth or family. In this respect, the measurement of a political system is its degree of abstraction in its rules and the resulting capacity to integrate different members of society. In an age of globalization, the difference between an unstable and a stable political system is its capacity to integrate the different groups so that they all have representation and feel included in the system.  

This is of course not just a discourse on historical events or an academic debate but clearly of central importance in an age of globalization. Just as the technology of agriculture enabled us to build the first states and empires and industrial technology enabled us to form the modern nation state, today with information technology we are forming some kind of global sociopolitical organization and this same dynamic will play out again in the formation of that organization. The global sphere will not remain in the unregulated semi-chaotic state that it is today for long. As power moves to the global level and people increasingly recognize this, they will desire that it become regulated in some way – all though that regulation can take many different forms.16

Global interconnectivity and interdependence are clearly where our economic, social and political systems of organization are developing. Information technology is clearly the tool for the formation of these global institutions. This technology of information is exceedingly powerful, both in its capacity for mass control and for mass collaboration. Political conflict in the formation of this global organization is already shifting to information technology. Increasingly nations and people that wish to project their influence over others in this interconnected world do it through online propaganda, hacking, information wars and cyber wars. The question remains open will the Internet be an open platform for discourse in finding common ground and implementing that through a new set of institutions based on information technology, or will it be a system of mass surveillance and control? One thing is for sure – just as with the development of the institutional structures of the nation state during the Industrial Age – in building out this institution’s infrastructure of the network society there will be many surprises and lessons to be learned along the way.

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