The Failure Cycle

23 April 2012

Monday


Can a pattern be discerned in the failure of major institutions? This is question I ask myself today, and in asking the question in a systematic way — i.e., by proposing such a pattern and examining its potential explanatory power as well as its weaknesses — I find that it raises more questions than it answers. This is promising, in so far as questions suggest further inquiries.

I have written about system failure in several posts, especially in Complex Systems and Complex Failure and Induced Failure in Complex Adaptive Systems. However, these posts came at the problem of failure from a systems perspective, and what I have in mind now is something more in line with my conception of agency (as I have detailed his in several posts, e.g., Agent-Centered Metaphysics).

For the purposes of the failure cycle below, I ask that the reader at this point only think of the institution in question as a nation-state (for simplicity’s sake), and I will refer to this institution as “a state”:

1. A state with weak institutions begins to fail.

2. Institutional weaknesses are exploited by criminal enterprises, exacerbating state failure.

3. Failure becomes so acute that outside powers intervene.

4. Intervention ameliorates the immediate and acute failure, but leaves a state with weak institutions vulnerable to failure.

I will call these four stages of state failure incipient failure, criminal exaptation, outside intervention, and partial amelioration (if I wanted to be tendentious I could call these last two steps nation building).

As I wrote above, even to suggest a pattern of failure poses more questions than it answers. Here are, respectively, some of the immediate questions that occur to me in this context:

Incipient failure — Why are state institutions weak? Can this systemic weakness be traced back to an anterior cause? Why do institutions fail? It would be helpful here to make a distinction between chronic institutional failure and traumatic institutional failure. Some institutions are in a state of near-chronic failure, while other institutions are able to function until presented with a traumatic break with routine to which the institution cannot respond. These are different forms of institutional failure, with different causes. However, they are all linked together in subtle ways in history. A traumatic failure may initiate a failure cycle in which institutional failure becomes chronic and the self-fulfilling source of its own failure.

Criminal exaptation — What kind of criminals exploit institutional failures? To what end? Power? Money? Mischief? What kind of criminal enterprises flourish in the interstices of failing state institutions, and which criminal enterprises hasten state failure? There is a profound difference between the criminality of ideologically motivated terrorists and financially motivated drug traffickers. Is either more likely to hasten state failure? Must we distinguish here between internal and external criminal elements? Transnational criminal elements are like corporations with capital and expertise that can be brought in from the outside in order to exploit the conditions of a failing state. Almost every state has its internal mafiosi, who profit from partial failure but who would be adversely affected by catastrophic state failure that brings about outside intervention.

Outside intervention — What triggers acute institutional failure? What triggers intervention? Who intervenes? Why? What is the desired outcome of intervention? What is the actual outcome of intervention? How long does intervention last? Is there a clear distinction between intervention and occupation?

Partial amelioration — Why does intervention on the pretext of amelioration of failed institutions almost never result in strengthened institutions? Why does partial amelioration of institutional failure so rarely result in an improving base on which further progress can be made toward robust institutions? Why does it seem to be impossible to create strong institutions de novo? Burke and Joseph de Maistre have an obvious answer to the latter question, which I discussed in Fairness and the Social Contract. Why does a newly founded or radically reformed state have such difficulty in crafting robust institutions that can develop and grow and strengthen? After all, existent states today with strong institutions had to start at some time in the past. Have historical changes made it more difficult to found a state than was the case in the past?

As I observed above, a nation-state is only one kind of institution that can fail. For our present purposes, the nation-state is interesting because it is an institution of institutions. However, any sufficiently large institution will be an institution built up from subordinate institutions. An ideal theory of institutional failure would address any and all possible institutions. But set that aside for a moment, and I will make a few more remarks about state institutions more generally, which can include any large political institution of our time, from nation-states to city-states like Singapore to non-state entities like NGOs.

To speak in term of the strength of institutions invites a certain facile misunderstanding. One of the most persistently seductive models of robust institutions is that of the law and order state. Many politicians make a fetish of policing, and equate the strength of a state with the strength of its legal institutions, especially the strength of the enforcement arm of legal institutions. This idea coincides with state power being the ability of the state to impose its will by force. This is an all-too-familiar image, and it is rooted in the geographically defined nation-state’s need to enforce the territorial principle in law in order to provide proof of its own legitimacy.

The need for heavy policing is a sign of lack of social consensus. Where there is a strong social consensus, very little policing is needed. People can largely go about their business unmolested because they are largely doing what comes naturally to them. Thus it is easy to see that the most robust institutions are those that emerge from social consensus. In so far as policing emerges from a lack of social consensus, policing is the sign of a weak state, not a strong state.

The strongest states with the strongest institutions will be those states that are able to honestly discern the social consensus of the peoples of the state, and to formalize this social consensus in their constitution and legal institutions. In this way, the laws of the land would reinforce a social consensus already extant, and the social consensus would reinforce the laws. This virtuous cycle of strong state institutions invites us to speculate on its mirror image, which would be the vicious cycle of failing state institutions: a lack of social consensus undermines the law, while the law’s inability to codify a social consensus undermines the possibility of social consensus.

With these reflections it would now be possible to restate my initial failure cycle in terms of state structures that fail to reflect social consensus, for example:

1. A state lacking social consensus in its legal structure begins to show evidence of institutional failure.

2. Institutional weaknesses are exploited by separatist elements violently pursuing a state structure that will institutionalize their preferred social consensus, exacerbating state failure.

3. Failure becomes so acute that outside powers intervene in the attempt to stop the break up of the state.

4. Intervention ameliorates the immediate and acute failure, but leaves a state with institutions still weak because still lacking social consensus and therefore vulnerable to failure.

This is indeed one form that state failure can take. If outside powers intervene in the attempt to force Azawad to rejoin with Mali, this would be a simplified, schematic summary of Mali’s state failure. However, this is an overly specific account, and I would prefer a more general analysis that is more universally applicable to political failure. This more specific account answers some of the questions that I posed in my exploration of the more general account, but it answers them only by narrowing the focus to a particular failure due to a particular form of criminality (which, but the way, is one of the SCO’s “three evil forces,” and thus not the best example).

Further reflection on the questions that I have posed here will be necessary to arriving at the requisite analytical clarity that might make possible a definite formulation of the failure cycle.

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Thursday


In several posts I have suggested a generalization of Karl Jaspers idea of an “Axial Age.” For Jaspers (and Lewis Mumford, and others who have followed them), the “Axial Age” was a unique period of human history in which peoples all over the world generated the religious and philosophical ideas that were to inform all subsequent civilization, and chronologically corresponded to the period from about the 8th to 3rd centuries BC. I call the generalization of the idea of a “Axial Age” “axialization,” which seeks to understand the processes of Jasper’s Axial Age as a general historical process that is not confined to the single instance Jaspers had in mind.

The posts I have written on this include (inter alia):

The Aftermath of War

The Axialization of the Nomadic Paradigm

Abortive Paradigmata

Axial Crisis or Axial Fulfillment?

Addendum on Axialization: Organicism and Ecology

I have just realized that axialization as an historical process is closely tied to institutionalization as an historical process. In so far as axialization involves a period of unusual intellectual innovation, creativity, and originality in which new ideas and new traditions emerge, it is to be expected that later less creative ages will seek to formulate, elaborate, and establish these intellectual innovations of an Axial Age, and this latter process is institutionalization.

The great religious traditions of the world’s great divisions of civilizations that were the focus of Jaspers’ conception of an Axial Age, I have previously observed, were all emergent from agricultural civilization, and, at least to a certain extent, reflect the concerns of agricultural civilization. In this spirit, I suggested that the the great cave paintings of the late Paleolithic in ice age Europe constituted an axialization of the nomadic paradigm of macro-history.

It now strikes me that not only were the great religious traditions of the world emergent from agricultural civilization, but all of these religions and all of their associated civilizations experienced both axialization and institutionalization under the agricultural paradigm. The institutions of organized religion that have largely served as the organizing principles of the associated civilizations were developed and formalized throughout the duration of agricultural civilization.

I suspect that, since the axialization of the nomadic period came so late in the human development of that period that this axialization never achieved institutionalization, both because the structures of nomadic life did not readily lend themselves to the establishment of institutions, and — just as importantly — because the macro-historical shift from nomadism to agriculturalism meant that the interest and focus of the greater bulk of the human population had shifted to other concerns with the emergence of settled agriculturalism. It is interesting to speculate what an institutionalization of nomadic axial ideas might have been, had settled civilization never emerged.

Agricultural civilization persisted for a period of time sufficient both for the axialization and institutionalization of the ideas implicit in this particular form of human life. Because the ideas implicit in agriculturalism received both axialization (an initial statement) and institutionalization (a definitive formulation), these ideas were not swept aside by the Industrial Revolution in the same way that the ideas implicit in the axialization of the Nomadic paradigm were swept away by agricultural civilization. The nomadic paradigm was swept away so completely by agricultural civilization that this entire epoch of human history was lost to us until it was recovered by the methods of scientific historiography. Throughout the agricultural paradigm, human beings knew nothing except the ideas of the agricultural paradigm. This gave agricultural civilization both a certain narrowness and a certain strength.

I speculated earlier that macro-history may exhibit a “speeding up” such that, while the axialization of the nomadic paradigm came very late in that very long-lasting paradigm, the axialization of the agricultural paradigm did not come nearly so late in the development of agriculturalism. Perhaps, I suggested, the axialization of the industrial paradigm will come even sooner in the relative history of that macro-historical division. But when I wrote that I was not counting on the fact that the institutionalization of the agricultural paradigm had given the axial ideas of agriculturalism a staying power beyond that macro-historical division itself.

Throughout most of the world today, agricultural civilization has been utterly swept away by the industrial revolution and ways of life have been radically change. Yet the ideas of agricultural civilization persist, and they persist partly because of their institutionalization and partly because nothing of commensurate scope and power has emerged to displace them.

Beyond the historical processes of axialization and institutionalization we may have to posit another stage — ossification — in which axial ideas are preserved beyond the macro-historical division that produced them. These ossified ideas serve a retrograde function in keeping human thought tied to a now-lapsed paradigm of human social interaction.

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