The Age of Complexity: A new world (dis)order has dawned

The new society needs to be characterised by a reimagining and reshaping of every sector — and our voices need to be part of that reshaping, says the writer. (Photos: ER Lombard/ Gallo Images via Getty Images) / EPA-EFE / Kim Ludbrook / EPA-EFE / Nic Bothma)

Covid-19 is giving us all a crash course in complexity. Societies everywhere have undergone a step change, a shift from one reality to another, completely different one. But it’s just an indicator: The climate crisis, for example, threatens equally significant changes that can have reality-altering impacts.

What we are living through is not a “new normal”. It is new, but it isn’t normal.

In reality; what we’re experiencing is a massive disruption to daily life as we know it, a disruption that has been as abrupt as it has been overwhelming. This is what non-linear change is, and we are getting a crash course in complexity. While the spread of Covid-19 has been exponential, societies everywhere have undergone a step change; a shift from one reality to another, completely different reality. 

We are being asked to make it our “new normal” to weather the crisis we have all been thrust into, but we should never lose sight of what we regard as normal and what we don’t. It is indeed staggering how much can change so soon, and therein lies the rub; as quickly as new norms establish themselves they can become entrenched, even irreversible.

What we have witnessed is likely to be, however, just an indicator of the kinds of extreme events we can expect to undergo/endure in the 21st century. The climate crisis alone, for example, threatens both extreme events as well as more gradual but equally significant changes that can have reality-altering impacts.

However, if we consider the other key change effects of the 21st century – the rapid degradation of life-supporting ecosystems and the loss of critical ecosystem services, ecocide, resource and materials scarcity, and spatial changes such as urbanisation and increasing population densities – then the future may well be driven by a combinatorial soup of changes that throw up unpredictable local, national, regional and global crises with a frequency hitherto not experienced in human history.

Hence the question of what precedents are set in this extraordinary moment matters a great deal. While we should be concerned with adapting to this new reality, we need to be careful about what is emerging as the way and means of dealing with these events. In simple terms, we should not be thinking about what new “normal” is unfolding; but what new order is being established as the viral paralysis we have endured continues to confound states around the world.

That is: what is the bureaucratic response that is emerging as the convention in navigating this crisis? How is that bureaucratic response motivated, structured and put into practice? What is the identity that is produced and reproduced (ie, both that of the bureaucracy and that of the citizenry) through the bureaucratic response? What kind of power does the bureaucracy exercise in their response? And how does that manifest in real terms for the wealthy, middle and marginal classes and social groups in society?

Answering these questions will bring us closer to an understanding of what new kind of order is embryonic today, yet can seed and consolidate over time. If freedom (and the long road to it) is something we intrinsically value as existentially fundamental – it being more than just a right but essential to our identity as individuals and a society – we must examine the new order that is emerging. If our future is one characterised by increasingly frequent, severe crises then we need to understand how our reality may change equally frequently, and what new “schizophrenia” (ie, over and above the schizophrenia of capitalism) may emerge in the reality of this generation and of those to come.


There is a danger in this new order – however temporary it may be touted as being, and whatever reasons may be tendered for the severity of it – that must be brought out and appraised in democratic discussion and consultation with the citizenries of the world.


Currently, and unsurprisingly, the effectiveness of democracy versus autocracy is being debated in the midst of the Covid-19 crisis. Yet, the real question underlying this is: is it possible to retain the sense of democratic free life we value in an era characterised by frequent and abrupt bifurcation? That is, frequently switching between liberal freedoms on the one hand, and authoritarian control on the other? Imagine a society that has to adapt to these different plateaux with high frequency. Can the societal “psyche” survive oscillating between two metaphysically opposite and drastically divergent realities – that is, maintain a severe case of cognitive dissonance – without becoming schizophrenic itself? 

Lockdown, while necessary under current circumstances, is totalitarian in the sense that it disrupts both private and public life. It exerts near-absolute control over the entire continuum of human existence, from the inside to the outside, that is, from the body outwards to the whole of society itself. Near absolute, because it constitutes the exertion of power over all that is important, as well as that which is trivial. Citizenries are at the mercy of the state in most countries around the world right now. Hence, lockdown must be scrutinised, implemented with deliberation and caution. Lest we forget, a significant turn towards authoritarian populism had already taken root in democracies across the world. From the USA to Brazil, to Hungary, India, the Philippines; populist and authoritarian “big man” politics have taken root. The foundation upon which these lockdowns are occurring is cause for concern.

South Africa itself has already experienced an unprecedented attack, dubbed “State Capture” on the independence of the state. Now, under Covid-19 lockdown regulations, whether one eats or starves, works, trades, takes a walk outside or exercises, socialises, recreates, buys alcohol or cigarettes, buys goods from a shop, accesses services… all these activities, which lie at the heart of daily life as we know it, have been quickly brought under the watchful eye of state security forces.

And while the wealthy and middle classes have experienced relatively minor discomforts in their everyday lives, the poor and marginal in South African society have found themselves unemployed, running out of food, and unable to survive. Living in cramped quarters in dense informal settlements, their daily realities are compounded by living under the jackboot of – worryingly, frequently abusive – security forces, with both the army and police deployed in significant numbers. It is a tale of two countries, stark inequalities manifesting in divergent lockdown realities for rich and poor.

In South Korea, we’ve witnessed surveillance being used to conduct contact tracing of those who had tested positive for Covid-19. While it appears that the majority of the populace approved of the use of surveillance technology to conduct contact tracing, the question still remains whether this technology will in future be deployed for other purposes. Who gets to decide is the key question here. If we all do, then great, but if it is an office-bearer of the state who decides, then that power may well be abused or misused. Vigilant regulation of such powers is necessary if we are to move into a future where freedom is maintained as a central tenet of democratic society.

There is a danger in this new order – however temporary it may be touted as being, and whatever reasons may be tendered for the severity of it – that must be brought out and appraised in democratic discussion and consultation with the citizenries of the world. It is the citizens who are dying, unemployed, and destitute; they are the ones who need – and deserve – to have their voices heard. It is their freedom, livelihoods and health that is at stake. Hence, we need to navigate this crisis and those that may follow by embracing open governance, by drawing on the aptitude, resilience and creative potential of the citizenries of our societies to navigate change. Instead of a purely top-down, command-and-control system of governance, it is the state that should be listening to its fearful and troubled citizenries and not the other way around.

In Shoshana Zuboff’s “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism” she reveals how quickly individual rights that were broadly unanimously regarded as inalienable just 10 years ago were quickly eroded as this new phenomenon took root under the auspices of the Facebooks and Googles of the world. Hence, we cannot simply stand by as governmentality shapes our new reality; we need to be part of shaping that reality. The new society needs to be characterised by a reimagining and reshaping of every sector. And our voices need to be part of that reshaping. History shows that leaving it to the powers of officialdom and the forces of capital ultimately reproduces more of the same. However, more of the same isn’t going to cut it in this new abnormal. We must be part of creating the new order, we must be the agents of its production and reproduction. Freedom is not given, neither is it a given, it is won or lost as circumstances dictate. DM

Camaren Peter (PhD) is an associate professor at the Allan Gray Centre for Values-Based Leadership, Graduate School of Business, University of Cape Town. He is director and executive head at the Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change (CABC), and is the author of Lazarus in the Multiple: Awakening to the Era of Complexity (Zero Books, UK, 2016). 


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