Political Self-Organization

Self-organization is a spontaneous process happening without a pre-designed plan and is thus unpredictable and largely uncontrollable by outside forces

Self-organization is defined as a process by which systems that are in general composed of many parts spontaneously acquire their structure or function without specific interference from an agent that is not part of the system.1 Political self-organization then refers to the formation of political patterns through the local interactions of the members only; this can be seen in the formation of public opinion, political movements, and political revolutions. In a cultural context, self-organizing processes can be seen in the formation of customs and the development of beliefs. In a socioeconomic context self-organization can be seen in the growth, competition, extinction of companies, national economies and the stock market.1

When we look at a map of the globe, we find a world divided out into sub-political units of regions, states, and provinces. The first thing we might ask in our reasoning about this political system is how was it created? Without prior experience of such a phenomenon the political organization of the world would look rather random – small countries, big countries, straight lines running through deserts, zig zag lines, one would be puzzled as to who make such a contraption or at least intrigued as to the underlying logic of such a creation. Of course, the political world looks somewhat bizarre through the lens of this question precisely because no one actually created the system. The socio-cultural and political patterns of organization taken as a whole are a product of a millennia-long evolutionary process of self-organization. Thus in understanding our existing sociopolitical systems of organization one needs to know something about the dynamics of this process of political self-organization.

Political systems represent a type of social institution that provides order or organization that enables a society to function. There are essentially just two major paradigms surrounding how order can be achieved within systems. It can be imposed by some external entity which works to formulate and implement a design pattern within the system, or it may be generated internally through the interaction between the members, as patterns emerge from the bottom-up. The former approach – that order must be in some way imposed on the system – is the foundational assumption behind hierarchical forms of political organization. Traditional sociocultural systems have typically been based around the idea of the order in the world around us as being exogenously given. That is to say, some supernatural entity created the universe and that the socio-political order within human society should reflect that order and is endorsed by it. The classical example of this, being the absolute monarchs of the late Middle Ages whose rule was endorsed by the Catholic church giving the leader some mandate from God to rule.2

A somewhat radical alternative idea gradually formulated over the course of modern political and social theory; that the order to a society could, in fact, emerge out of the distributed interaction between people in a spontaneous fashion as talked about by Adam Smith but later picked up by Friedrich Hayek, who both saw in the new market system the capacity for organization to form simply through the peer to peer interactions between members of a society.3 The basic theory behind these ideas was later in the 20th century developed by those working in the areas of cybernetics, systems theory. Today with the study of complex systems the theory of self-organizing systems has taken a coherent shape. This process of self-organization is now understood as the evolution of a system into an organized state from local interactions in the absence of external constraints. Such a process involves some initial degree of randomness in the system; dense nonlinear and distributed interactions; feedback dynamics that create what are called attractors which work to move the system from a large region of possible states to some subset of possible states. In so doing the degree of freedom to individual parts is reduced and some overall pattern emerges.4  


Emergent self-organized clustering patterns within a large sociopolitical network.

The essence of social systems and political life is the interdependence between members of a community; the fact that they share something in common. In a state of independence, there is no organization, no society, and no politics. Politics is always formed out of some underlying social interdependence. Interdependence means what one does effects another and vice versa. In such a case no person is an island, but all to some extent have to share some dimension of their self with others. This is the heart of what makes politics such a deeply personal phenomenon. The fact that part of our very being or extended identity are being defined and controlled by some other organization.

Like all forms of organization, this order is the result of the coordination between members of the social system. The greater the coordination, the greater the order within the system. Inversely the greater the independence between members the greater the potential for disorder. These correlations can be positive or negative. A positive correlation means that the variables associated with some aspect of each member involved in the organization move in the same direction. For example, if one becomes more popular than the other will likewise or if one become less popular than the other will likewise. A negative correlation means that the variables move in the opposite direction, if one person gets rich then the other will get poor, or if one gets promoted the other demoted.5

These types of correlation then help us to capture one of the most basic and important factors of social reality; that of sameness and difference, or ingroup-outgroup. It tells us where the boundaries of a specific organization lie, they lie wherever positive correlations start to become negative correlations – wherever people stop seeing the connection between their well-being and that of others. The stronger the positive correlation the more closely knit the community, the more they will identify themselves as one and are incentivised to work cooperatively. In forming relationships and organizations people are required to share part of their being with others and in that sharing our well-being becomes positively correlated with those others in the organization; whether this is a family organization, a sports team, a business or nation. The stronger the negative correlation, the stronger the divide and the stronger the potential for competition and conflict. As each side sees that they can increase their well-being at the expense of the other; a zero-sum game. The essence of sociopolitical organization is interdependence and the key parameter is that of positive or negative interdependence, which defines whether, and where, a set of people are united or divided.6


Entropy is a measure of the number of degrees of freedom elements within a system have. Ordered systems – such as the fractal ordering to this Romanesco broccoli – have a low degree of entropy

Self-organization is defined formally in terms of a decrease in statistical entropy within a system.7 Entropy is a measurement of the number of degrees of freedom a system has on the micro-level. Without correlation between the states of the elements within a system, the state of each element is determined independently thus the number of degrees of freedom goes up, the disorder goes up and the entropy goes up likewise. Social entropy can then be seen as the lack of constraints on individual elements allowing them to take a wide spectrum of states, where they are not bound within some overall pattern of organization. Thus it may be equated to the concept of political anarchy. Anarchy does not mean chaos, anarchy simply means the absence of overarching structures of political order and in such a context the unconstrained individuals may assume a diversity of states. High social entropy should not be equated to chaos, as chaos has negative or destructive connotations. When the entropy in a system goes up it requires more information to describe the state of the system and it would require work to be done in order to reconfigure it back into its original ordered state.8 As such entropy is a key measure in information theory where it quantifies the uncertainty involved in predicting the value of a random variable; as the variables become more independent and random the information goes up and the entropy goes up.

In closed systems energy tends to disperse over time as the system moves towards an equilibrium state of maximum dispersion of energy, at which point the entropy is maximum. Because work in a system is only realized as energy flows from a higher potential state to a lower potential state, as a system approaches equilibrium – maximum dispersion and thus minimum potential energy – the capacity to do work goes towards a minimum rendering the system nonfunctional.9 An entropic system is nonfunctional, there is no order to the arrangement of parts, thus no structure to perform order processes, no potential energy and work can not be realized. A nonfunctional social institution does not mean that it is destructive or conflictual it simply means that it can not perform a function.

Anarchy and nonfunctional institutions only equate to chaos when the system has become dependent upon the functioning of the social institutions. Today we equate anarchy with chaos only because we live in advance political systems that are highly dependent upon the functioning of their complex institutions. If the governments of advanced economies stopped working tomorrow the result would be chaos, but prior to the advent of advanced civilization, people lived in a state of virtual anarchy for millennia. Social entropy can refer to the decomposition of social structure or of the disappearance of social distinctions. Much of the energy consumed by a social organization is spent to maintain its structure, counteracting social entropy, through the maintenance of legal institutions, education, and other cultural activities.10

As an example of entropy, we could think about the term anomie. Anomie is a “condition in which society provides little moral guidance to individuals”. It is the breakdown of social bonds between an individual and the community, e.g., under unruly scenarios resulting in fragmentation of social identity and rejection of self-regulatory values. The sociologist Emile Durkheim used the term anomie to describe the “derangement” of traditional social cultural bonds with the rise of the industrial age, as traditional institutions were disintegrating in the presence of large modern sociocultural organizations.11 Equally, social entropy might be equated to what the social contract theories of politics would equate to the state of nature, a time before people lived with macro-level political institutions.

Pattern Formation

The process of self-organization takes the social system from an initially unordered state into an ordered condition by synchronizing the states of the members

Self-organization requires some degree of entropy to initiate the process. Self-organization takes a system from an initially unorganized or homogeneous state into an ordered state; this essentially means an increase in the number and strength of correlations in the system.12 Because order and organization are a product of correlations the process of self-organization is going to increase the number and strength of the correlations between the states of members. It does not matter if they are positive or negative, both will decrease the amount of information required to describe the system and thus bring it from disorder into order, but in different ways. Positive correlations will define a single organization, while negative correlations will define a divided system.

The process of self-organization is often understood with reference to the model of a state space. A state space is simply a two or three-dimensional graph that represents all the different states that any element within the system could take. An initial state of disorder within the system means that its parts are occupying many of the different possible states and are thus spread out across a large section of the state space. Because self-organization is about the creation of order it will work to reduce the number of possible states to a small subset. Thus in the state space model, we will see the members become condensed within some subset of the overall space.12 For example, if we take a plaza of people that are unassociated, they will likely be performing different activities such as talking, walking, purchasing products, sitting etc. but it there was instead a political protest in the plaza, they would all be synchronized in some way, all chanting the same script, all marching together or moving their arms in a synchronized fashion. Such a system is more ordered and structured as it is trying to perform a combine function. Likewise, members now occupy only a limited set of all the possible states that were previously present.

This transition from disorder to order through self-organization is driven by what we call positive feedback. Which is a type of interaction where the action of one induces others to perform more of that same action.12 So in our example of the political protest, if there was only one person performing the act of protesting then others would feel no great external incentive to join, however, the more people that join the more inclined others will also be to join in the protest. Or as another example, if only one person speaks some given language then others will not be induced to learn that language, but the more people who speak a given language the more people who will want to learn it – the most spoken languages in the world, such as English, Spanish or Chinese, are also the languages that the most amount of people want to learn. This is positive feedback where more begets more. Positive feedback is a powerful force driving change as it works to align elements within the same configuration. This synchronization of activities and states typically reduces transaction cost, improves cooperation and creates other efficiencies within the system that makes it more effective than others, thus amplifying its capabilities, attractiveness, and prominence. The same can be seen more generally in the formation of political regimes and cultures, the more traction that a culture or regime has, the larger its value will be for a member to form part of those cultural or political institutions.

In this respect, we can note how through increased interconnectivity during the modern era we have greatly consolidated the number of languages, cultures and political systems in the world. Of the thousands or tens of thousands of languages, cultures and political systems at the beginning of the modern era most people in the world today form part of just a handful of social groups speaking a handful of languages, like Chinese, Spanish and English, that form part of a hand full of large nation-state political units and cultures. Forming part of one of these large cultures or political systems offers one greatly more opportunities than forming part of the many smaller indigenous cultures – thus around the world, people continue to flock to cities and to learn English.


Emergence describes the universal process of creation as new patterns of organization come to be formed on different levels when we put component parts together

Positive feedback works to align members into a synchronized state and thus creates some subset of organization within the overall system, we call this subset of the whole system an attractor. Because of the positive feedback, anyone close to, or within the sphere of the pattern of organization will be attracted to it because of its efficiencies of scale and reduced interaction cost. However, because this process of self-organization takes place from the bottom-up without overall global coordination it often takes hold at various locations within the overall state space of the system.12 This is what we see in practice, many different cultures and socio-political organizations have emerged over the millennia at different locations around the planet, largely due to physical geographic constraints. For example, geographic barriers like the Alps in Europe or the Himalayas in Asia reduce the level of sociopolitical interaction across them. Interaction either side of these geographic divides would have been much greater than between them and thus the process of self-organization would have taken place independently either side resulting in two distinct patterns of organization – such as the sociocultural groups of India and those of Han China or those of the French and the Italian states.

Specific organizations form and endure because of the value that is created through synchronizing the states of the members, such synchronization makes it possible to rationalize the system and achieve economies of scale, which result in the organization having greater capacities and potentially greater payoffs to the members.  As the pattern develops and becomes rationalized, its internal structure becomes differentiated. As a distinct socio-political pattern develops a center comes to form, with a hierarchy between those at the periphery and those at the center forming. As it becomes more rationalized and achieves larger efficiencies of scale, more resources are generated and more resources can flow to the center. This allows for greater stratification within the organization that can be identified by the different levels of access that members have to the resources within the system.13 This may be economic resources, it may be social or cultural capital or it may be political capital. For example, as large nation-state political systems formed those at the center of the political hierarchy come to have more power as they now rule over more people than those in small political units. As the pattern stabilizes hierarchies form within the different sociopolitical organizations and those within the hierarchy who gain the most from them and are the most dependent upon their specific pattern work to promote it above that of others. It is inherent in the structure of the hierarchy that those higher up will work to promote the organization. Those who form a central part of the hierarchy, for example, the Catholic church, will have strong structural forces acting on them to promote that system even if it is at the expense of other systems of organization external to them.

Eventually, as the various local patterns that have formed gain more resources and expand the different patterns with their own internal rules and hierarchical structures will come into contact. As they come into contact they will invariably find they have different protocols, values, expectations, languages, religions etc. but will be required to create some form of consensus or common protocol for interaction. In doing this they will either have to compete as one tries to impose their design pattern on the other or they may cooperate to create common procedures. Either way, this new set of protocols will again create a new level of organization, a new pattern of interaction and rules will be weaved as a new level of organization emerges. If that combined pattern is successful people will come to see its advantages, they will adopt its practices and eventually identify with it above that of any of the individual parts.

This process of self-organization leading to the emergence of new levels of organization can be seen, for example, in the development of Europe over the past centuries, where local political organizations were brought into contact, often engaging in intense conflict before a new set of protocols, in the form of the European Union, were formed. Now that this transcontinental political organization is formed and people see its benefits, people come to identify themselves more as Europeans. But of course as is always the case with evolution the old structures do not just disappear, they become embedded within larger structures. With globalization we can see this same process taking place today at the global level, where individual nation states find themselves increasingly interdependent as they have to increasingly form networks of treaties and binding agreements to regulate the global sphere; which is one form of global organization that regulates and enables global political processes to take place and thus global systems of organization.


Thus we can see how connectivity is a very fundamental parameter, when we turn up the degree of connectivity above a certain level this will change the system in very fundamental and often irreversible ways. We can say that connectivity is the ultimate parameter that we are dealing with because although interdependence is the essence of organization connectivity comes before interdependence, it is only with connectivity that there is the potential for interdependence and self-organization. In the analysis of any socio-political system, connectivity is then the primary parameter to identify. Politics is ultimately a type of management, it is the management of the public. Thus because connectivity is such a fundamental parameter to sociopolitical organization, the type of political system that is viable will always be relative to the degree of interconnectivity within the system and environment. At a low level of complexity and interconnectivity, top-down systems will invariably prevail. However, as the complexity and connectivity increases, this can be harnessed to create self-organizing systems, such organizations are better able to deal with rapid fundamental change.14

Politics is a form of management, management has become closely associated with bureaucratic top-down forms of management, but here we are using the term in its basic sense, that is to say, the process through which we organize resources and people towards achieving desired ends. The self-organizing paradigm to politics then presents us with one approach to this process that is very much different from the traditional hierarchical model that we are used to. In all cases in management, we are searching for optimal outcomes to the system. We are developing political organizations that attempt to achieve certain desired results, such as avoiding conflict, achieving prosperity, justice, equality etc. But there are different ways of approaching this management process. In the hierarchical model, we focus on the outcomes, we try to directly intervene in the system so as to achieve the outcomes that society desires. In politics, we traditionally spend a lot of time discussing what is the best result and trying to adjust the outcome for it to conform to some value that the society holds. For example, many see some degree of economic equality as a desirable outcome, and to achieve this we monitor the system to identify imbalances and use direct interventions, such as taxes and regulation, to move money from the wealthy to those less wealthy and thus achieve our desired end.

The self-organizing approach would not focus on outcomes though, but instead on initial conditions and the process, asking how can we create equality in the process.15 This approach to governance would not search for the means to manipulate the ends through direct intervention but instead search for the best context within which actors could try to achieve their ends. In this example, we would search for input equality, that everyone has the means to succeed. As a political philosophy, the self-organization paradigm does not search for outcome equality but instead ask what resources people have available to them at inception and how people pursue their ends, thus focusing more on the context rather than defining specific outcomes. Instead of intervening to prevent people from doing things or making them do other things, it asks how can we create attractors towards the outcomes that are desired. Instead of talking about how we can prevent people in a disadvantaged community from taking drugs we would talk about how we might make more constructive activities attractors.16


Self-organization involves a dynamic interplay between order and chaos in a process of “creative destruction

Finally, it is important to note the dynamic nature to self-organization. Self-organization as a method for generating order within a system only occurs in the absence of an imposed design, in the absence of an externally given order. The theory of self-organization recognizes the importance of disorder; it ultimately involves a recognition that order is created out of disorder, in what we might call a process of creative destruction.17 Within this paradigm, the order is not seen to be some inalienable given that simply exists and should always exist in some static timeless sense. It is instead part of a process that involves entropy and disorder, the order is something that has to be perpetually created through a dynamic process, and disorder is an inherent part of that process, which can not be externalized without destroying the process itself. This is a very different way of looking at things.

Self-organization typically does not deliver optimal short-term results, rigid hierarchies can often achieve greater short-term efficiencies relative to self-organizing systems. However, as with all systems, the effectiveness of the structure of the system will be contingent on the environment that it is operating within. At low levels of connectivity and interdependence hierarchies will often greatly outperform self-organizing systems, at least in the short run. However, as the complexity of the environment increases; as the connectivity increases and the pace of change increases, self-organizing systems become greatly more capable at delivering results both short term and long term. And this is a key part of the dynamics of the fundamental political changes that are taking place in our world today.18

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