When, in the 1920s, a botanist and a field marshal dreamed up rival theories of nature and society, no one could have guessed their ideas would influence the worldview of 70s hippies and 21st-century protest movements. But their faith in self-regulating systems has a sinister history
The Observer, Sunday 29 May 2011
A small greenhouse at Biosphere 2 in Arizona in 1988. The attempt to create an enclosed ecological system ended in failure. Photograph: Roger Ressmeyer/Corbis
At the end of March this year there was a wonderful moment of television interviewing on Newsnight. It was just after student protesters had invaded Fortnums and other shops in Oxford Street during the TUC march against the cuts. Emily Maitlis asked Lucy Annson from UK Uncut whether, as a spokesperson for the direct-action group, she condemned the violence.
Annson swiftly opened the door that leads to the nightmare interview, saying: “We are a network of people who self-organise. We don’t have a position on things. It’s about empowering the individual to go out there and be creative.”
“But is it wrong for individuals to attack buildings?” asked Maitlis.
“You’d have to ask that particular individual,” replied Annson.
“But you are a spokesperson for UK Uncut,” insisted Maitlis. And Annson came out with a wonderful line: “No. I’m a spokesperson for myself.”
What you were seeing in that interchange was the expression of a very powerful ideology of our time. It is the idea of the “self-organising network”. It says that human beings can organise themselves into systems where they are linked, but where there is no hierarchy, no leaders and no control. It is not the old form of collective action that the left once believed in, where people subsumed themselves into the greater force of the movement. Instead all the individuals in the self-organising network can do whatever they want as creative, autonomous, self-expressive entities, yet somehow, through feedback between all the individuals in the system, a kind of order emerges.
At its heart it says that you can organise human beings without the exercise of power by leaders.
As a political position it is obviously very irritating for TV interviewers, which may or may not be a good thing. And it doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t a valid way for organising protests – and possibly even human society. But I thought I would tell the brief and rather peculiar history of the rise of the idea of the “self-organising network”.
Of course some of the ideas come out of anarchist thought. But the idea is also deeply rooted in a strange fantasy vision of nature that emerged in the 1920s and 30s as the British Empire began to decline. It was a vision of nature and – ultimately – the whole world as a giant system that could stabilise itself. And it rose up to grip the imagination of those in power – and is still central in our culture.
But we have long forgotten where it came from. To discover this you have to go back to a ferocious battle between two driven men in the 1920s. One was a botanist and Fabian socialist called Arthur Tansley. The other was one of the most powerful and ruthless rulers of the British Empire, Field Marshal Jan Smuts.
It all started with a dream. One night Tansley had an unsettling nightmare that involved him shooting his wife. So he did the natural thing and started reading the works of Sigmund Freud, and even went to be analysed by Freud himself. Then Tansley came up with an extraordinary theory. He took Freud’s idea that the human brain is like an electrical machine – a network around which energy flowed – and argued that the same thing was true in nature. That underneath the bewildering complexity of the natural world were interconnected systems around which energy also flowed. He coined a name for them. He called them ecosystems.
But Tansley went further. He said that the world was composed at every level of systems, and what’s more, all these systems had a natural desire to stabilise themselves. He grandly called it “the great universal law of equilibrium”. Everything, he wrote, from the human mind to nature to even human societies – all are tending towards a natural state of equilibrium.
Tansley admitted he had no real evidence for this. And what he was really doing was taking an engineering concept of systems and networks and projecting it on to the natural world, turning nature into a machine. But the idea, and the term “ecosystem”, stuck.
But then Field Marshal Smuts came up with an even grander idea of nature. And Tansley hated it.
Field Marshal Smuts was one of the most powerful men in the British empire. He ruled South Africa for the British empire and he exercised power ruthlessly. When the Hottentots refused to pay their dog licences Smuts sent in planes to bomb them. As a result the black people hated him. But Smuts also saw himself as a philosopher – and he had a habit of walking up to the tops of mountains, taking off all his clothes, and dreaming up new theories about how nature and the world worked.
This culminated in 1926 when Smuts created his own philosophy. He called it Holism. It said that the world was composed of lots of “wholes” – the small wholes all evolving and fitting together into larger wholes until they all came together into one big whole – a giant natural system that would find its own stability if all the wholes were in the right places. Einstein liked the theory, and it became one of the big ideas that lots of right-thinking intellectuals wrote about in the 1930s. Even the King became fascinated by it.
But Tansley attacked. He publicly accused Smuts of what he called “the abuse of vegetational concepts” – which at the time was considered very rude. He said that Smuts had created a mystical philosophy of nature and its self-organisation in order to oppress black people. Or what Tansley maliciously called the “less exalted wholes”.
And Tansley wasn’t alone. Others, including HG Wells, pointed out that really what Smuts was doing was using a scientific theory about order in nature to justify a particular order in society – in this case the British empire. Because it was clear that the global self-regulating system that Smuts described looked exactly like the empire. And at the same time Smuts made a notorious speech saying that blacks should be segregated from whites in South Africa. The implication was clear: that blacks should stay in their natural “whole” and not disturb the system. It clearly prefigured the arguments for apartheid.
And this was the central problem with the concept of the self-regulating system, one that was going to haunt it throughout the 20th century. It can be easily manipulated by those in power to enforce their view of the world, and then be used to justify holding that power stable.
Because, although Tansley and Smuts and their argument about power would be forgotten, hybrid combinations of their ideas were going to re-emerge later in the century – strange fusions of systems engineering and mystical visions of organic wholes.
Thirty years later, thousands of young Americans who were disenchanted with politics went off instead to set up their own experimental communities – the commune movement. And they turned to Arthur Tansley’s idea of the ecosystem as a model for how to create a human system of order within the communes.
But they also fused it with cybernetic ideas drawn from computer theory, and out of this came a vision of strong, independent humans linked, just like in nature, in a network that was held together through feedback. The commune dwellers mimicked the ecosystem idea in their house meetings where they all had to say exactly what was on their minds at that moment – so information flowed freely round the system. And through that the communes were supposed to stabilise themselves.
But they didn’t. In many communes across America in the late 1960s house meetings became vicious bullying sessions where the strong preyed mercilessly on the weak, and nobody was allowed to voice any objections. The rules of the self-organising system said that no coalitions or alliances were allowed because that was politics – and politics was bad. If you talk today to ex-commune members they tell horrific stories of coercion, violent intimidation and sexual oppression within these utopian communities, while the other commune members stood mutely watching, unable under the rules of the system to do anything to stop it.
Again, the central weakness of the self-organising system was dramatically demonstrated. Whether it was used for conservative or radical ends, it could not cope with power, which is one of the central dynamic forces in human society.
But at the very same time a new generation of ecologists began to question the very basis of Arthur Tansley’s idea of the self-regulating ecosystem. Out of this came a bloody battle within the science of ecology, with the new generation showing powerfully that wherever they looked in nature they found not stability, but constant, dynamic change; that Tansley’s idea of a underlying pattern of stability in nature was really a fantasy, not a scientific truth.
But in an age that was increasingly disillusioned with politics, the ghosts not just of Tansley but also of Smuts now began to re-emerge in epic form. In the late 70s an idea rose up that we – and everything else on the planet – are connected together in complex webs and networks. Out of it came epic visions of connectivity such as the Gaia theory and utopian ideas about the world wide web. And human beings believed that their duty was not to try to control the system, but to help it maintain its natural self-organising balance.
At the end of 1991 a giant experiment began in the Arizona desert. Its aim was to create from scratch a model for a whole self-organising world.
Biosphere 2 was a giant sealed world. Eight humans were locked in with a mass of flora and other fauna, and a balanced ecosystem was supposed to naturally emerge. But from the start it was completely unbalanced. The CO2 levels started soaring, so the experimenters desperately planted more green plants, but the CO2 continued to rise, then dissolved in the “ocean” and ate their precious coral reef. Millions of tiny mites attacked the vegetables and there was less and less food to eat. The men lost 18% of their body weight. Then millions of cockroaches took over. The moment the lights were turned out in the kitchen, hordes of roaches covered every surface. And it got worse – the oxygen in the world started to disappear and no one knew where it was going. The “bionauts” began to suffocate. And they began to hate one another – furious rows erupted that often ended with them spitting in one another’s faces. A psychiatrist was brought in to see if they had gone insane, but concluded simply that it was a struggle for power.
Then millions of ants appeared from nowhere and waged war on the cockroaches. In 1993 the experiment collapsed in chaos and hatred.
The idea of nature that underpinned all these visions of self-organisation was a fantasy. A fantasy that was born at a time when those who ran the British empire were desperately trying to cling on to power as the dynamic forces of history whirled around them. So they turned to science to create a vision of a static world where everything is stable and your moral duty is to make sure that nothing ever changes.
The other problem with the self-organising system is that it cannot deal with power. Although it sees human beings all linked together in a system, its fundamental rule is that they must remain separate individuals. Alliances and coalitions would compromise the precious autonomy of the individual, and destabilise the system.
And in a Newsnight studio on a March evening this year, this is what you could hear. Lucy Annson insisted again and again to Emily Maitlis that she was only a spokesperson for herself, and under the rules of the network no one could stand back and judge the system. Emily said: “You’re not a completely peaceful organisation.” Lucy came back with the killer line: “I don’t think anyone can make an assessment of that, other than the people involved in the actions themselves.”
What the anti-cuts movement has done without realising is adopt an idea of how to order the world without hierarchies, a machine theory that leads to a static managerialism. It may be very good for organising creative and self-expressive demonstrations, but it will never change the world.
At the end of Biosphere 2 the ants destroyed the cockroaches. They then proceeded to eat through the silicone seal that enclosed the world. Through collective action the ants worked together and effectively destroyed the existing system. They then marched off into the Arizona desert. Who knows what they got up to there.