Emergent Political Processes

Emergent sociopolitical processes can be seen to play an increasingly important role in politics as online social platforms connect peers into large networks enabling them to interact and self-organize

Emergent political processes refer to the rise of political structures and behaviors without central planning and by the action of many individual participants in a distributed fashion.1 The phrase draws upon emergence theory for the idea that the simple actions of individuals can collectively create complex and unpredictable results.2 The most manifest example of emergent political processes can be seen in the formation and development of political movements and protests. Such processes of change emerge out of the distributed interests, opinions and discontent of civil society; they often have limited centralized organization, are typically spontaneous and self-organizing; they are dynamic and temporal in nature. Emergent political processes create some form of synchronization amongst the people which enables them to operate as a combined organization towards affecting the desired change.3


The term emergence describes a very general and universal process whereby new patterns of organization are created as we put elementary parts together, these emergent patterns come to have their own internal processes, organization, and features. Typically this emergent organization is the product of only local interactions in a process of self-organization with only simple rules. The classical example being ant and termite colonies where the organization does not come from some centralized authority such as the queen but instead emerges out of the local chemical exchange between the ants in a distributed fashion.4

Such local communications inform the ants as to what is happening within the colony and they then perform certain tasks depending on that information. For example, when an ant finds a food source it secretes a pheromone on its way back to the colony communicating where the food source is, the more ants that then follow this and find food, the stronger the pheromone trail that will be left for more to go and find the food. In such a way the colony has managed to deploy members to retrieving the food without anyone coordinating the whole process. This method of distributed coordination is called stigmergy and is often present in self-organizing emergent processes. Stigmergy refers to an indirect, mediated mechanism of coordination between actions, in which the trace of an action left on a medium stimulates the performance of a subsequent action. The concept of stigmergy has been used to analyze self-organizing activities in an ever-widening range of domains, from social insects to chemical reactions, to robotics, bodily coordination, web communities and human society. Such stigmergy enables complex, coordinated activity without any need for planning, control, communication, simultaneous presence, or even mutual awareness. 5

These emergent patterns that result from self-organization can typically not be seen in any of the parts that compose them but instead, the pattern exists in some way independently from the parts in that the components can be replaced without an accompanying change in the overall structure. With emergent processes, the new global patterns or properties are often radically novel with respect to the pre-existing components. The emergent patterns seem to be unpredictable and non-deducible from the components as well as irreducible to those components.6

The development of the human fetus follows a similar emergent self-organizing process. Every cell in a person’s body contains a nearly identical copy of the genome and there is no master cell in the body telling all others what form to take as they develop, the cells take on their differentiated roles according to their interaction with their local biochemical environment. In essence, for each gene in each cell there will be differing levels of expression according to the conditions around the cell, signals received at the cell surface membrane, and the specific cell type – determine what form and type that cell will take. These signals can give the cell a sense of spatial awareness, so it ‘knows’ where it is in relation to the rest of the cells in the body. Cells divide and specialize according to local interactions until in very short time the cells have created a complex human body. The liver cells know to turn into liver cells by sensing that their neighbors are also liver cells and reading the DNA code to understand exactly what it is supposed to do. There is no omniscient control, but just a huge number of independent cells following rules and communicating with and sensing the state of their neighbors, with the end result being the emergence of the complex differentiated system of the body.7

This same emergent process is pervasive in our world from the formation of snow crystals to the development of galaxies. The emergence of social systems can be seen, for example, in the economic market system. Friedrich Hayek coined the term catallaxy to refer to what he called the “self-organizing system of voluntary co-operation” or “the order brought about by the mutual adjustment of many individual economies in a market.” Catallaxy suggests that the emergent properties of a market such as prices, the division of labor, economic growth, etc. are the outgrowths of the diverse and disparate goals of the individuals in a community.8

In all these examples the intelligence of the organization is not contained within one specialized centralized component, it is in fact in the network. The organization and intelligence are in the simple rules of the members and the way they interact within a network; it is out of this that the overall order emerges. The brain is a canonical example of this, there is no master neuron, every single neuron is extremely simple in its information processing, it is just an on/off switch. The extraordinary capacity of the brain is in the way those simple elements are connected into complex networks and it is out of that, that we get organized patterns the give rise consciousness.9

Emergent Political Processes

The mass political movements that occurred in Spain after the financial crisis are good examples of emergent bottom-up processes of change expressing the discontent of many – particularly the youth – that ultimately resulted in major change in the two party political establishment that had dominated for decades

The political process is one of formulating collective decisions and implementing them. As such it can be understood as the process through which a group of people or whole society manages itself. Our traditional conception of management is very much focused on a particular approach of top-down hierarchical management within closed organizations. This is how we achieve order and functionality within most of our existing formal institutions today. However, this approach has its limitations it works up to a certain level of complexity and then becomes less effective. None of the complex systems that we see around us are organized in this fashion, the global economy, the internet, ecosystems, global financial markets, international politics, social networks; in all of these cases the system organizes itself without a centralized coordinator through a process of self-organization that gives rise to global patterns of organization in a dynamic process.9

Emergent democracy refers to the rise of political structures and behaviors without central planning and by the action of many individual participants. More recently, Clay Shirky has referred to this as “the power of organizing without organizations.” Emergent political processes refer to the rise of political structures and behaviors without central planning and by the action of many individual participants in civil society. Emergent political systems can be seen in the formation of protest movements. For example in the Occupy Wall Street movement or the M15 movement in Spain. On 15th May 2011, around 150,000 people took to the streets in 60 Spanish towns and cities to demand “Real Democracy Now”, marching under the slogan “We are not commodities in the hands of bankers and politicians”. The protest was organized through web-based social networks without the involvement of any major unions or political parties. At the end of the march, people decided to stay the night at the Plaza del Sol in Madrid and they ended up staying there for weeks as people set up food stalls, markets, and even legal services.10 None of this was planned but self-organized as members assumed different functional roles based upon their interaction with other peer members. The movement eventually developed into the more formal structure of a political party that has since reshaped the political landscape of democracy in Spain, providing a voice for the economically disenfranchised youth. This political movement can be compared with many others like the Arab Spring and May 1968 in France. As is the nature of emergent processes such movements are often spontaneous and unexpected.10

The process of emergence takes place in the absence of overall structures and within open systems where there is sufficient exchange of energy and information with the environment, in such a case local interactions and available energy can be used to create new macro-levels of organization that enable order within the system and the capacity for it to respond to changes within its environment; even access new energy sources that require this overall organization to be present before they can be accessed. An emergent political process is one through which the distributed activities, intelligence and opinions of the people at large form into a coherent movement and is eventually translated into change through formal political institutions. We might say that it is the way that the new ideas and interests prevalent within civil society at large come to form into and are translated into decisions within the more formal political institutions; or even comes to completely reshape and reconstruct those political institutions themselves, as happens during periods of revolution.11

Likewise, this emergent political process may not only reconstruct existing institutional patterns but also construct entirely new levels of organization. For example, this process can be seen in the formation of the early Chinese state out of the many tribes that lived along the Yellow River. The historian Yuval Noah Harari talks about this process as such: “Thousands of years ago the people who lived along the Yellow River in China, it was many many different tribes and they all depended on the river for survival and for prosperity. But they all, also suffered from periodical floods and periodical droughts and no tribe could really do anything about it because each of them controlled just a tiny section of the river, and then in a long and complicated process the tribes coalesced together to form the Chinese Nation which controls the entire Yellow River and has the ability to bring hundreds of thousands of people together to build dams and canals and regulate the river and prevent the worst floods and droughts and raise the level of prosperity for everybody and this worked in many places around the world. But in the 21st century technology is changing all that in a fundamental way, we are now living with all people in the world, all living alongside the same river and no single nation can regulate this river by itself we are all living together on a single planet which is threatened by our own actions and if you don’t have some kind of global cooperation nationalism just is not on the right level to tackle the problems. Whether it’s climate change or whether its technological disruption all the major problems of the world today are global in essence and they cannot be solved unless through some kind of global cooperation.”12

This illustrates the continuous ongoing process of political emergence, as new levels of organization are formed they then come to interact and once again begin to form another level of organization. Thus through thousands of years of such a process taking place, we get the emergence of multiple levels of political organization, from the small tribe to the ongoing development of global institutions.

Exclusive Institutions

Exclusivist institutions resist change by creating strong top-down structures and chains of command that hold members within a specific configuration thus reducing their capacity to self-organize

A central aspect in the question of how new emergent political movements are translated into the outcomes that the society desires is whether the political system is one that is inclusive or exclusive. Like the terms open and closed political system a discourse surrounding inclusive and exclusive political systems is also developing as a new vocabulary to understand political systems in an age of globalization. The influential political scientist Francis Fukuyama has like others identified that traditional distinctions between left and right are becoming less relevant or at least identified as proxies for more fundamental parameters. As he stated in a recent talk: “I’ve been arguing for some time that one of the big dividing lines in the world now is less between democracies and authoritarian regimes, than it is between modern impersonal countries and ones that are highly corrupt. In a certain sense, you know the problem with Putin’s Russia is not that it’s not democratic. I have no doubt that if there is an election, a free and fair election in Russia tomorrow that Putin would be reelected as president because he does seem to be extremely popular. What Russia represents is not a failure of democracy, it’s really a failure of a modern state because he’s running a kleptocracy meaning the regime is a group of insiders who exploit their political position for their own self-enrichment”13

According to the Economic Intelligence Unit, almost half of the world’s population lives in a democracy of some sort, but only around 5% live in a “full democracy.”14 Such terms a democracy and authoritarian tell us something about the institutional structures of the political system, but in many ways are just shorthand terms that often tell us little about the underlying workings of the system. If we want to get our arms around the true complexity of political systems we need to get to more fundamental and granular parameters and these.

In a recent book published Why Nations Fail15 its authors discuss the question of extractive and inclusive organizations as the defining metric of the socioeconomic success of a given society. The basic theme of the book is that what matters most in why some nations fail and others succeed is not as earlier authors have argued to do with the nature of their economic policies, geography, culture, or value system but rather it is to do with their institutions. Acemoglu and Robinson theorize that political institutions can be divided into two kinds – “extractive” institutions in which some subset of members organize to maintain political structures that work to their advantage, and “inclusive” institutions in which “many” people are included in the process of governance with the explorative process being diminished.16

Extractive institutions are understood as ones that permit the elite to rule over and exploit others while excluding them from political processes. They try to illustrate how political systems with a history of extractive institutions have not prospered because entrepreneurs and citizens have less incentive to invest and innovate. In such systems, the ruling elite work to maintain existing structures and are afraid of the creative destruction process of annihilating old and bad institutions while generating new ones that is required to evolve and adapt to changing circumstance. This creative destruction process would fabricate new groups which would compete for power against ruling elites, who would lose their exclusive access to a country’s economic and financial resources. The result of this type of extractive political system, the authors posit, would be possible short term success but long term failure as incumbent structures work against change.16

Inclusive institutions, in contrast, enable and promote this creative-destruction process to take place; enable innovative energies to emerge and lead to continuing growth as exemplified by the Industrial Revolution. Extractive institutions can also result in growth but only when the economy is distant from the technological frontier. The authors argue that extractive institutions will ultimately fail to deliver results when they reach the technology frontier and are required to deliver innovations through the harnessing of widespread intelligence and innovation within a creative-destructive process. Hence, they reason that while success may be possible for a while under extractive institutions continuing success is possible only under inclusive institutions.

Satellite image of the Korean peninsula at night. The absence of light from North Korea is often used to illustrate the high disparity between the economic development of North and South Korea

As an illustration of this distinction, the authors present the contrast between North and South Korea manifest in the photograph of the Korean peninsula at night, where North Korea is dark and South Korea light. Here two countries that started in the same place ended up very different due to the extractive North Korean institutions and inclusive South Korean institutions. Likewise, they cite the example of the distinction between the successful North of Italy and the economically struggling South of Italy where the national political institutions may be somewhat uniform but in the South, Mafia organizations stilted socioeconomic growth through widespread corruption, among other factors. They also argue that many small unpredictable incidents or small differences in initial circumstances can lead to either inclusive or exclusive institutions – or more broadly success or failure.16

Extractive political institutions can then be equated to those that are exclusive, as some subset of the organization uses the political system to gain access to the resources from the community; resisting change which creates inertia and the incapacity for the required, creative-destructive emergent process of change to take place. In contrast, a functioning political system involves political institutions that enable this self-organizing emergent process to take place; where the ideas, perspectives, and interests of the members of the broader society can be effectively translated into change through inclusive political organizations.

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8. Catallaxy | Wikiwand. (2017). Wikiwand. Retrieved 20 June 2017, from https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Catallaxy

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11. Extreme Democracy. (2017). Google Books. Retrieved 20 June 2017, from https://goo.gl/5oXdHx

12. Nationalism vs. globalism: the new political divide | Yuval Noah Harari. (2017). YouTube. Retrieved 20 June 2017, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=szt7f5NmE9E

13. The End of the International Liberal Order?. (2017). YouTube. Retrieved 20 June 2017, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=scAzukYHJjY&t=2385s

14. Nelson, E. (2017). The US has been downgraded to a “flawed democracy,” but not just because of Trump. Quartz. Retrieved 20 June 2017, from https://qz.com/894362/america-has-been-downgraded-to-a-flawed-democracy-but-not-because-of-trump-economist-intelligence-unit-says/

15. Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty: Daron Acemoglu, James Robinson: 9780307719225: Amazon.com: Books. (2017). Amazon.com. Retrieved 20 June 2017, from https://www.amazon.com/Why-Nations-Fail-Origins-Prosperity/dp/0307719227

16. (2017). Dklevine.com. Retrieved 20 June 2017, from http://www.dklevine.com/general/aandrreview.pdf