Complexity, Absurdity, and the Problem of Political Control

“Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.”[1]

Similar to this recommendation from Hannah Arendt, the first basic tenet of the Existential Citizenship Project is that as much as is possible our political systems must be confronted as they are.[2] The second basic tenet of the Existential Citizenship Project is that not only are our political systems irreducibly complex, they are also Absurd. In other words, according to the Existential Citizenship Project, the first steps for meaningful and enduring political engagement are to acknowledge and accept the irreducible complexity and absurdity of our real world political systems.

At first glance, the acknowledgement of this inherent absurdity probably appears an admission of defeat, and an invitation to apathy. This is because, as discussed in much more detail in other installments, one enduring legacy of the Enlightenment has been the exaltation of hope—but hope conceived in a particularly pernicious way. This conception of hope is actually the root cause of much of the apathy, cynicism, and nihilism which characterize so much about our contemporary political systems.

Recognition of this inherent absurdity and complexity is a fundamental principle of the Existential Citizenship Project because this Absurdity and complexity are the source—at least in part—of the frustration of the hopes that people invest into their political systems. Therefore, what is needed are explanations which a) accept these inherent though (seemingly) unsettling features of our political systems, AND b) are still able to motivate meaningful and enduring political engagement. This is what the Existential Citizenship Project provides.

Absurdity and complexity

That said, there is an important distinction to be made between complexity and Absurdity, especially in the context of political control—or the ultimate lack thereof. Absurdity in this existential sense describes the conflict between our innate human need to find meaning and the ultimate lack of inherent meaning in things. As such, Absurdity does not pertain so directly to control (or not), in that we could be able to effectively trace how causes are manipulated to realize specific effects through the system, and yet our political systems could still be fundamentally Absurd (i.e., lacking objective meaning). Thus, Absurdity is more of a philosophical or metaphysical question than a mechanical or logistical question.

A good technical definition of complexity is the increasing abstraction of effects from their causes (i.e., the more complex a system, the more steps between the initiation of a cause and its eventual effects). In terms of assessing political control, the accurate identification of effects from their actual causes, and the definitive assignation of responsibility for outcomes, are assumed to be fundamental functions of political systems. Thus, the increasing abstraction of causes from their effects would fundamentally impede both of these basic functions of political systems in the real world.

Compared to Absurdity, complexity is much more of an empirical than a philosophical question. The degree to which this complexity can be demonstrated empirically (i.e., that presumed causes are not related to their assumed effects) is also the degree to which our political systems do not function as we assume they do. Again, a fundamental assertion of the Existential Citizenship Project is that contemporary political systems are in fact irreducibly complex in this more mechanical and logistical sense, which is a major factor in the apathy and nihilism that are the bane of contemporary politics. As such, one of the primary thrusts of the Existential Citizenship Project is to still provide effective motivations for meaningful and enduring political engagement even in the face of this fundamental separation of political causes from their political effects.

Complexity and political control

So, are our political systems irreducibly complex? This can be a difficult question to definitively answer. One way to begin to answer this question, though, is through the identification of what is meant by control in and by political systems, and how this control is evident (or not).

A substantial issue in political and social theorizing is that most people—including most theorists, who should really know better—tend to take political control as a given, and to assume that control in and by political systems is more or less obvious. These are both fundamental errors in reasoning which are responsible for so many of the longstanding blindspots and contradictions which have bedeviled political theory and practice for centuries.

Assuming control as a given or accepting it as proven anecdotally is not a solid foundation for either theory or practice—especially if, as asserted by the Existential Citizenship Project, political systems are irreducibly complex and therefore defy the reliable identification of causes and their effects.[3] That said, this assertion could be wrong—which is the prevailing view—in that political systems are not irreducibly complex, and that significant causes can be reliably paired with their effects. However, this identification of political causes and their political effects cannot be simply assumed by fiat, but rather must be hypothesized, demonstrated, and verified. Until the assumption of political control is tested in this way and satisfactorily verified, it is little more than a useful fiction.[4]

Therefore, to begin to answer these questions about the nature of political control what is needed is a concise way to define, describe, and identify control in and by political systems. Although this might seem to have been the purpose of the bulk of political science and theory from the very beginning, precious little attention through the centuries has actually been given to identifying, and verifying control in and by political systems. Much ink has been spilled in describing political control, but considerably much less ink has been spilled in actually verifying these descriptions of control.

Control theory

This is where formal control theory from engineering has such an important role to play. Control theory provides the basic model of the exclusive principles by which control is realized. In essence, a control system is any system whose components act together in such a way as to stabilize against disturbances some quantity or property in the ambit of the system. In particular, this control is achieved via feedback, through the system reconciling the effects of its own prior actions on the controlled quantity with the influence of the environment, resulting in the purposive, self-regulating behavior characteristic of control systems.

This likely sounds similar to cybernetics, which has a long history in the social sciences, as summarized here. This previous post discusses in more detail the differences between this control theory approach and cybernetics. Specifically, control theory names the basic components and describes the relations between components within a system that are required for control. Thus, a control theory approach is distinct from cybernetics in that it is not just about postulating control or identifying isomorphisms, but rather specifying the chain of relations which which result in control.

To the degree the components of a system perform the functions described by control theory, and relate to each other in the order described by control theory, that system—regardless of its physical composition or complexity—will be exerting control over the quantity or property in its focus. Likewise, to the extent that the components of a system do not function or relate in the ways described by control theory is also the extent to which that system is not exerting control over its ostensible focus.

To demonstrate, as illustrated in the rudimentary diagram below, for a system to stabilize or control a specific quantity, there must be a few necessary components which perform some basic functions:

Basic Control System

First, there must be a mechanism or process that performs a feedback function by sensing as input what is to be controlled and transforming this sensory input into a sensible signal for the system. The next step for control requires a comparator to compare this feedback signal with a reference signal, generating an error signal as the difference between these two signals. This error signal must then be received by an output function which converts this error signal into an appropriate output signal by initiating the proper response in the repertoire of the system.

This output quantity is then often subject to other influences from the environment outside the control system which can also change this quantity. The combination of system output and environmental influences results in a new input quantity, which then feeds back into the system via the feedback function, is translated into a new error signal, and so on. The result is the constant regulation of the controlled quantity, even in the face of external perturbations, that is characteristic of true control systems.

Politics and control

Given this basic account of what is needed for control, the next obvious step is to apply this model to policy and politics. This is the relatively straightforward process of identifying the functions and relations of real-life political systems with the corresponding components of the control model. To the degree that all the necessary components can be identified, and these real world isomorphisms perform the requisite functions in the requisite order, then these political systems can be said to exercise control.

Again, while the general assumption is that political systems obviously exercise control over their particular domains, to my knowledge these assumptions of control have not been tested in any direct or systematic way. The preliminary work I have done in this regard—which will be described in subsequent installations (with more diagrams)—has yielded a couple of unexpected results: First, that most conceptions of political systems are, on their face, not capable of exerting control in the necessary way, and, second, that most political systems therefore do not perform the functions ascribed to them. The implications of this disconnect between assumption and reality will be discussed in more detail in subsequent installments.

In particular, the extent to which the application of control theory to politics reveals this ultimate lack of control is also the same extent to which this widespread assumption of control—which informs not only theory but practice—has been for the most part a useful myth. The implications of such a conclusion for the actual practice of politics, and for the practice of the ostensibly scientific study of politics, cannot be underestimated. This ostensible lack of control is one reason why the recognition of this ultimate lack of control, and the frank acceptance of this ultimate lack of control, are such fundamental and necessary principles of the Existential Citizenship Project: So that hopes are not misplaced, resulting in apathy or nihilism, so that effective action can still be undertaken, but with eyes wide open, and so that the world can be loved as it is.

[1] From Amor Mundi: Civility and Politics (weekly newsletter of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College), at

[2] …to the extent we are able to comprehend this reality, that is.

[3] To be understood in the non-trivial and non-tautological sense. The effects of many political events, such as elections, can be identified with their causes in a tautological sense (the effect of winning the election was caused by garnering more votes than the other candidates). Cause-and-effect in this sense of control is meant more in the Humean sense as the identification of those conditions which will necessarily result in the anticipated effects, such that changes in the ‘treatment’ of these causes can be reliably associated with subsequent changes in outcomes as the desired effects.

[4] Per methodological fictionalism, as described first and perhaps best by Hans Vaihinger in his The Philosophy of ‘As if’ (1925), the unverified assumption of political control may still be not only a useful but a necessary fiction. However, given the methodological role of fictions, as compared with hypotheses and verified ‘facts’, this also means that political control as such cannot be asserted or maintained as a factual description of political systems, but rather is a convenient tool or bridge to testable hypotheses.

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