This paper poses some issues in order to help clarify what social scientists mean by ‘(dis)order’. I seek both to normalize disorder—to suggest that it may be the norm rather than the aberration—and to specify various different kinds of disorder.
First, I try to identify different facets, dimensions or qualities to disorder in the socio-political realm. Disorder can mean a number of different things. There is a fundamental distinction between intrinsic turmoil, structured chaos, and what appears to be disorder but is actually a different ordering of society that renders it illegible to the governing authority, perhaps deliberately so.
Second, I focus on the challenges and forms of governing disorder: governing amidst disorder, despite disorder, or through disorder, or combinations thereof. There is transformative or revolutionary disorder, and sustained disorder. Modes of governing typically involve producing both order and disorder.
Third, I explore disorder in the economic realm, and specifically, what it means to have disorder in markets. While classical economics deals with disorder by assuming it away, economic history and the study of monopoly power instead allows us to frame different kinds of (dis)order, in ways that parallel disorder in governance.
Fourth, I locate the governance of (dis)order in relation to transactional politics, and thence to three logics of power, namely: the allocation of power according to the ‘political marketplace’; the reinvention of custom through ‘moral populist’ agendas; and the negotiation of the sovereign privilege of killing.
Fifth, I try to historicize contemporary forms of governing (dis)order, locating them in specific historical and political-economic circumstances, in both historic centres of governance and the global peripheries.
I conclude with a brief observation on the scholarly epistemology of (dis)order and a cautionary note about seeking to explain a (dis)orderly world.
One: What Do We Mean by (Dis)order?
It is useful to explore the vocabulary of disorder. For the purposes of this paper, we don’t want to assume that order is the norm and disorder is the aberration: hence the bracketing of (dis)order. Most of the words that are close cognates of disorder possess the same attribute of assuming a norm from which there is a deviance, for example ‘disarray’ and ‘instability’ respectively assume norms of array and stability. Words such as ‘chaos’ and ‘turbulence’ indicate a patterning or structuring of disorder, combining elements of predictability and unpredictability. This should be distinguished from what I will call ‘intrinsic turmoil’, which is unpredictable at every level and in every dimension. Other close cognates of ‘disordered’ are ‘confused’ or ‘illegible’. These refer to our inability to comprehend, and may in reality to refer to a system that is simply ordered in a different that we cannot read.
Among the close cognates of disorder we can include chaos, turbulence, volatility and turmoil. These have distinct etymologies and (for the first three) precise meanings in the physical sciences: these cannot map precisely onto our social scientific endeavor, they are useful nonetheless in helping us make distinctions.
As well as its vernacular, everyday sense, chaos has a particular meaning in the physical sciences. It refers to behavior that is unpredictable and apparently random, owing to great sensitivity to small changes in conditions. Nonetheless it remains rule-governed. A chaotic system can be understood, but is very hard to predict.
Turbulence refers to the chaotic movement of a liquid or gas, in which it retains a recognizable structure over time, while being unpredictable over short periods. Turbulent flow is contrasted with smooth, laminar flow. Turbulence can be episodic or situational: it can be produced through the operation of larger systems that are not intrinsically turbulent. There is a rough equivalency in social and political systems that are structurally unpredictable: markets are a good example.
Volatility refers to the propensity of a liquid to change state to gas (evaporate). It therefore introduces an additional dimension to chaos or turbulence. (‘Market volatility’ is a misleading metaphor). There is no close equivalency in social and political systems, but there are more distant parallels. One is the possibility of an order dissolving suddenly, or emerging suddenly. Another is when an extreme event in one field (e.g. economics) can have a transformative impact in another (politics).
Several other concepts from physical sciences and mathematics are also relevant. One is the fractal nature of some systems, that is the way in which the same patterns or structures are reproduced at different levels. The fractal pattern of a socio-political system could occur either in continuum, in which the levels merge into one another, or a scalar manner, in which there are distinct levels at which the same patterns recur. This can also be true, mutatis mutandis, for economic and political systems. Thus a fractal scalar socio-political system might be one in which transactional patronage-based relations occur at every level from the international to the local. A non-fractal scalar system would be one in which certain attributes and patterns are found at the level of the state, while distinctively different attributes and patterns are found at others (the international system, the local level). It follows that the nature of disorder will be different in the two kinds of system: in the fractal one, turbulence will occur at different levels and will be seamlessly transmitted from one level to another. In a non-fractal scalar system, disorder at one level would have a different character to disorder at another and would not necessarily be transmitted from one level to another.
A related issue is the character of the scaling, specifically whether it is arithmetic, geometric or exponential. It would be plausible to suppose that the different levels are related on a logarithmic scale, and accordingly that disorder and disruption follow a power law, whereby extreme events are both more improbable and more impactful.
Turmoil is a term that is used in the human sphere, to refer to political, economic, social or psychological behavior. It has the advantage over the other terms in that there is no implicit reference to predictability or systematicity at a different level: turmoil can be multidimensional and encompass chaos, turbulence and volatility. I use ‘intrinsic turmoil’ to refer to a condition that is unpredictable in all aspects.
Anarchy is used solely in the socio-political realm to refer to the lack of a governing order. Anarchy is in fact a rarely-realized ideal type: most instances of purported anarchy in fact possess a level of order that is simply not apparent to the observer.
Most of the language for describing disorder does not distinguish between a condition that is inherently or structurally disordered, and one that is simply ordered differently, in a way that we cannot understand. Let me use the term illegibility to refer to the social condition of being obscure to others. Typically this will be a social system that has developed so as to be impenetrable to powerful outsiders. Such a system is not intrinsically turbulent, volatile, or unpredictable—it just maintains that appearance. A system can have several parallel mutually illegible logics.
A system or a condition can be indeterminate: it can possess the capability of realizing two or more different states. This is famously the case for fundamental units according to the principles of quantum physics, popularized in Shrödinger’s ‘cat paradox’ according to which a cat is alive and dead at the same time, its state indeterminate until it is investigated. Something similar can apply to a social or political system, which has the potential to be manifest in different ways, according to different and incommensurate political logics, depending on circumstance.
Other relevant concepts are the positive attributes that make disorder not only tolerable, but potentially a healthy attribute of a socio-political system. These include survival, resilience and adaptation. Survival is the basic one, and it has two distinct meanings. It can imply the continuing existence of a specific governing project (an individual, party, cabal or set of institutions), or the Darwinian notion of the fitness for survival of a kind of governance system in comparison with others, with the implication that its rivals or competitors do not survive. Resilience has several overlapping meanings, in this context the most important of which is the capacity to withstand shocks (or turbulence) while retaining its basic structure. Adaptation is survival and resilience with structural change. A disorderly system may have characteristics that make it more resilient and adaptive than a regularly ordered one: it may contain more creativity, diversity, and redundancy that allow it to resist shocks.
Mainstream social, political and economic science in the current era has been anchored by an assumption of systematicity and slow progressive change. Hence the term ‘disorder’ and its various cognates are used chiefly with a negative connotation. This reflects an epistemological center-periphery disparity. The metropolitan academy tends to treat the peripheries as external to itself, and to apply frameworks derived from the center to those peripheries. When those frameworks don’t apply, or rather, the attempt to apply them generates contradictions that cannot be resolved, we tend to espy disorder or confusion. In reality, the socio-political conditions of these peripheries is part of an overall order, powered from the center, but perhaps only perceived clearly from the periphery. Social and political scientists have an intellectual ‘homing instinct’ towards order, stable systems, and progressive change, rather than an embrace of uncertainty.
However there is an alternative scholarly tradition. Subaltern studies and critical history and anthropology seek to understand the world from the margins, perhaps with a premise of a disordered cosmos. Marxist critique identifies disorder as the locomotive of history, including both the disruptive transformations engendered by capitalism, and the (presumptively necessary) chaos of revolution. Creative destruction in the economic sphere has also become a powerful strand in the ideology of capitalism, with its exponents advocating growth through technological change that involves disruptive transformation. These approaches are concerned with transient or revolutionary disorder (perhaps in a recurrent or cyclical manner), rather than permanent or sustained disorder.
Jane Guyer is particularly astute at unpicking the cognitive frameworks at play in studying social life and political behavior at the global periphery. She writes:
The stable, cumulative, and systemic concept of institutions … becomes, however, blunt and illogical when applied to a reality that seems, to those who live it, altogether less settled. Like pragmatists, they have to apply reason and judgment to horizons of contingency rather than applying a narrow calculative rationality to given variables.
I would elaborate on this: the skill may include applying different logics of reason or grammars of judgment to several different parallel contingencies, keeping open the possibility that any one may transpire.
Two: Politics, Governance and Disorder
Our particular concern in this seminar is governing (dis)order. Governance is normally considered an exercise in imposing order: of conjuring legitimacy out of contingency, creating authority out of contestation, in short ‘seeing like a state’ and ensuring that the people who are subject to that state, accept the legibility and primacy of the state’s mode of seeing. However, a number of scholars—notably Africanists—have also explored how states and other governing authorities tolerate or even generate disorder. The sub-title of Patrick Chabal and Jean-Pascal Daloz’s book ‘disorder as political instrument’ pithily summarizes this view. Perhaps because African studies has been out of the mainstream of political science and comparative politics, it has been the locus of some important scholarly innovations, which are relevant beyond the African continent, and the work on this topic is one of them.
Governance and disorder are linked in several ways: there is governing amidst disorder, despite disorder (i.e. managing disorder), and through disorder (instrumentalizing disorder); and disorder can exist differently in economic, political, and social realms.
The first and minimum task of government in a disordered system is regime survival, in the limited sense that the ruler remains in power. For a weak government in a marginal and vulnerable position, this may be the only task that it can viably do. In their seminal study of personal rule in Africa, Robert Jackson and Carl Rosberg described this as the challenge of seamanship (staying afloat) rather than navigation (reaching a destination). This conjures up the image of a sailor who has the skills to keep his ship intact but has (of course) no control over the storm.
The survival of a governing authority implies the capacity of managing disorder. Governance of a disordered realm over some period of time requires that the governing authority possesses some degree of intelligence about that disorder (especially the threats that may emerge from it), and an ability to intervene in and influence events. The disorder in question is not therefore intrinsic turmoil, but an alternative political ordering. (This is in fact the meaning explored by Patrick Chabal and Jean-Pascal Daloz when they write about the ‘instrumentalization of disorder’, as a component of what makes Africa ‘work’.) The alternative logic may be based on patrimonialism, spiritual values, an alternative vernacular, organized crime, or something else. The task of governing includes managing multiple, rival systems of providing meaning to society, notably in the material and spiritual realms. Governing can also entail negotiating with parallel or rival power centers so that ‘orderly’ and ‘disorderly’ governance can coexist. Thus we see widely observed phenomena such as the coexistence of bureaucratic and patrimonial authorities, or armies and insurgents, or police forces and criminal gangs, jointly managing the governance and business of a contested realm, including reaching a negotiated consensus over who can be killed and by whom. One of the notable skills of accomplished political operators in disordered systems is maintaining parallel political agendas and transferring from one to the other at will. Think of a sportsperson who goes onto the field prepared to play tennis, basketball, and golf, switching from one to the other at a moment’s notice.
In his two complementary books, James Scott develops the notion of ‘seeing like a state’ and the ‘art of not being governed’. While the first book is global, reflecting the fact that states have similar tendencies towards ordering the social world in certain ways, the second is particular to upland south-east Asia, reflecting the methodological constraint that studying resistance requires ethnographic-historical method, which is weighted against generalization. A comparable account could be written for how the peoples of African peripheries resist states, including by adopting strategies of invisibility or illegibility to authority.
As well as the negotiated spaces between ‘states’ and the societal forces that seek to resist or escape, there’s also the hybrid or intermediate task of ‘seeing like struggling states’ and ‘seeing like those who have to live with (or under) struggling states.’ Africanist literature is replete with studies of how states can be weak while ruling regimes can be strong; how ‘fragile’ states can have strong societal governance. States may also choose not to govern certain locations or populations, or people may demand to be governed. Entities that carry the label ‘states’ may not in fact see like them, but hybridize different forms of authority. Neo-patrimonialism is one formulation of this fusion. States may also be astigmatic, seeing like a state through one eye and like something else through the other. Jean-François Bayart describes and captures this with his description of the African state as ‘Janus-faced’—presenting one face to the outside world and another to the domestic populace.
Those best at surviving amidst disorder must also have the skills of manipulating elements of that disorder, at least tactically. Drawing on my experience in north-east Africa, I describe them as political business managers.
People who are relatively powerless in these societies, who make claims on public authorities and governing powers, are also compelled to manage disorder. This includes both surviving amid intrinsic unpredictability, and utilizing different codes for governance. Thus, Kristin Phillips’ work on ‘subsistence citizenship’ in Tanzania shows how people may oscillate between market-based, patronage-based and rights-based forms of claim-making, depending on season and circumstance (such as the electoral cycle). These different logics of governing or claim-making may not just be parallel and different, but mutually untranslatable. Perhaps the best metaphor for this is indeterminacy.
Those in positions of authority may also pursue political or governance strategies premised on indeterminacy. For example, I have described how political entrepreneurs in Sudan typically hedge by investing in parallel and mutually incompatible strategies. For example, John Garang of the SPLM simultaneously pursued a ‘New Sudan’ strategy of a united country (in different formulations) while also keeping open the option of separation; and he simultaneously backed a negotiated peace settlement, a non-violent popular uprising, and armed rebellion. Khalil Ibrahim of JEM similarly followed different political tracks at the same time.
The further step is manufacturing disorder or governing through disorder rather than despite it. Real disorder (as opposed to simple illegibility of an alternative order) can be a political instrument. It can be an instrument for achieving change, by rebels or revolutionaries of both left and right. The kinds of turmoil that each seeks to engender and exploit are very different, but what they share is that they seek disorder as a temporary phase (albeit perhaps repeated several times over) utilized in order to generate a new order. A different form of instrumentalizing disorder is its utilization as a strategy for permanent governance. This is explored by Rebecca Tapscott’s framework of ‘institutionalized arbitrariness’. In this kind of disorder, the system of governance is confusing and even illegible to the ordinary people who live under it, and indeed also to the functionaries who implement it. The ruler may not perceive, or care about, its granularities, but he will be the master of its overall shape.
For a political system to be recognizably a form of public authority, governance or statehood, it cannot be entirely disordered or wholly illegible to bureaucratic and rule-bound order. There must at least be a plausible pretense of order and lawfulness for it to survive in the contemporary world and earn the recognition of ordered entities such as recognized sovereign states, multilateral organizations or transnational corporations. It is the intersection between ‘order’ and ‘disorder’ that is of interest. This can be explored in the processes whereby ordered entities systematically reproduce disorder at their political or geographical margins. The industrial revolution dismantled the moral economic order of agrarian England; imperial-capitalist conquest generated massive peripheral disorder to manufacture metropolitan order; and the operation of the global security-commercial-development complex in the current era is reproducing this pattern. We see this also in the two faces of security: the function of security institutions, which is often to create insecurity among citizens. Similarly the administration of justice produces injustices. And the state itself can be re-purposed for criminal ends.
Disorder can exist separately in the political, economic and social realms. Disorder can be transmitted from one realm to another: prolonged economic disorder may result in political turmoil. However, the process of creating order in one realm can generate disorder in another: state-making may create social disruption.
In this discussion, it is important to challenge our epistemological comfort of home with the idea of constancy. We should instead try to feel at home in a space of negotiated indeterminacy, or with the ebb and flow of central authority and local resistance. In the vocabulary developed above, these could be zones of turbulence, which could be survived and managed by skillful operators. But (to mix the metaphor) we must not take this train of argument more than a few stops: no such system is fundamentally stable. These kinds of chronic turmoil are quite compatible with other more destructive or transformative kinds of shocks. They can be (in part) an outcome of the history of such shocks, which have generated societal incoherence, and they can also render such societies highly exposed and susceptible to these kinds of shocks.
Three: Economics, Markets and (Dis)order
Paradoxically, the discipline of classical economics is the study of disorder in such a way that disorder becomes a theoretical impossibility. Adam Smith’s formulation of the theory of free market involves the ‘invisible hand’ that conjures order (equilibrium) from disorder. The multitude of individual decisions, without coordination, in response to fluctuations in supply and demand, as transmitted through the price mechanism, efficiently and rationally allocates resources. Market signals that are disorderly at the micro-level create an ordered market. Ever since Smith, economics as a discipline has tended to deal with disorder by eliminating it theoretically.
Economic history has been required to deal with disorder in its various manifestations. Economic history is, to a large extent, the story of how political change, technological innovation and the (uneven) development of financial and market institutions, has shaped economic growth and wellbeing. As classical economics matured, one of the main challenges facing economists was explaining the business cycle: the apparently illogical and disorderly process of boom and bust that characterized the maturing industrial economies. Karl Marx’s dialectical materialism and theory of class struggle, brought disruption and political contestation to the center of economic theory. Joseph Schumpeter’s term ‘creative destruction’ encapsulates the approach that disruption, through innovation and the business cycle, is a necessary force for economic change and growth. Schumpeter’s concept, born out of Marxist leanings, has been appropriated by champions of liberal capitalism. These are but two of the most influential economic theories which place disruption at the center of analysis.
Industrial economics and its attendant field of business management focus on real economics, namely how markets function through rivalrous competition among firms which, more often than not, are in a position to influence prices, investment and competition through quasi-monopolistic power. Rather than ‘perfect competition’, which is an abstraction never realized and approached rarely and only in some segments of the market, ‘real’ competition involves a mix of rivalry and collaboration among firms, which require some form of regulation. (Dis)order in its various forms in such real markets, is far more comparable to the kinds of (dis)order in politics and governance, discussed above, than the ideal type of perfect competition assumed in classic economic theory.
Four: (Dis)order and Transactional Politics
Transactional politics (or what Raymond Geuss calls ‘real politics’) is much neglected by political scientists, just as academic economists tend to neglect the real bargaining involved in commerce. In my own research, I have tried to bring together the study of politics and business, focusing on the transactions that take place in a ‘political market’. According to this framework, political power is a commodity, governance will be beset by systemic disorder (turbulence). Under such a system, the allocation of power is determined by the forces of demand, supply and oligopolistic competition in the political marketplace. (Note that ‘competition’ in such a market resembles the rivalry among powerful firms with sufficient dominance as to be able to manipulate the market, rather than the fictive ‘perfect competition’ beloved of abstract economic models.) The outcomes are determined by bargaining, sometimes contested and sometimes collusive, in which recognition as sovereign statehood is a negotiated outcome.
In the research conducted by the Justice and Security Research Programme in central Africa, we have identified ‘moral populism’ as a logic of authority that coexists with the political marketplace. In the context of a focus on disorder, we should emphasize that custom is reinvented in pursuit of ‘moral populist’ agendas. Typically, a moral populist political entrepreneur, makes an appeal to values and identities which are ostensibly fixed and unchanging. But in fact, these identities are negotiated and circumstantial. (There’s even a case to be made that the more they appeal to ostensibly primordial identity, or a fixed/immutable sentiment or force, the more they are instrumental and contingent.) Traditions are invented, customs are mutable and polyvalent. In fact it is precisely this process of reinvention that makes them effective political tools and societal scripts: if they were as unchanging as their exponents often claim, they would function with a predictability and ordered hierarchy that would render them less useful as tools for mobilizing political change.
The third logic of power—entangled with both of the first two—we may call ‘negotiated sovereign impunity’. The common definition of sovereign authority, across history and geography, is the power over life and death, also known as the sovereign entitlement to kill without moral or spiritual consequence. Max Weber famously identified the state as sole societal entity laying claim to the monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. Weber obviously intended ‘monopoly’ to refer to the single exclusive authority to dispense physical force. However, his use of the word is thought-provoking in the context of a political market. As mentioned, industrial economists also define monopoly as sufficient commercial domination so as to be able to influence price, output, investment and regulation. By implication, we need not have a single monopolist, but rather a cartel-like arrangement. In many countries there is indeed a negotiated compromise between government and insurgents, or between different components of government. In many cities there is precisely such an agreement between police and gangs. ‘Negotiated sovereign impunity’ is therefore where coercion meets the political market and moral populism.
Political markets are therefore orderings of power and authority that accommodate various forms of governance and market disorder. The different forms of governance and commerce amid disorder, despite disorder, or through disorder, are all readily appreciated using this framework.
Five: Historicizing (Dis)order
Samuel Huntington, in perhaps his most insightful work, discerned the key difference in societies as between those that are more governed, and those that are less governed. We might adapt this, however, to those societies that have the longest history of governance in the world, such as China, Persia, the Arab World, Ethiopia and Russia. Over the longue durée, most of these societies have alternated between periods of disorder and civil conflict, and periods of centralized and hierarchical political order.
The Arab saying, ‘better forty years of tyranny than one night of anarchy’ reflects a very long historical experience, inscribed in the cultural archive, of this pattern. It would, however, be a mistake to suppose that these are societies somehow culturally disposed towards order, and still more to diagnose a social trait of authoritarianism. Official histories and memories, transcribed into tradition and custom, reflect those who did the transcription—and so tend to valorize order. The late nineteenth century process of ‘inventing tradition’ in Europe, newly subject to nationalist politics, and in European imperial territories, is testament to that. What is overlooked is the local memory and cultural archive, which may value different time periods and experiences, including celebrating social bandits and episodes in which government rule was absent.
Russia warrants a special place in the history of (dis)order. Like many large imperial polities, Russian governance has alternated between short and intense periods of turmoil and disorder, and longer periods of a strong central government, in which power is valorized for its capacity to generate order. But Russia has an unusually explicit practice of exporting disorder. The Soviet Union was, in its early days, committed to Trotskyite world revolution, and even after the demise of Trotsky and the reversion to realpolitik, it continued to use military and political subversion along with disinformation to undermine its geostrategic rivals. Under President Vladimir Putin, various freelance and speculative exercises in fomenting disorder in Europe and America have been pursued, with perhaps more success than the Kremlin anticipated. The idea that disorder can be a tool of government, familiar to those who study Africa, is novel and surprising to many students of politics in Europe and the U.S.
Over this same extended time period, we can see that protracted marginalization and exposure to powerful external political-economic forces creates societies that do not possess stable and predictable governing institutions. An illuminating case is the West African Atlantic coastal societies, exposed to violent globalization over the centuries.
Over the last decades, the kinds of disorder we see in Africa can be traced to the repercussions of late twentieth century state failure, as described by Robert Bates, and the trajectory of recovery which has not reconstituted mid-twentieth century statehood but a different pattern of governance. The period of collapse saw governments seeking to stay in power without the resources necessary for basic administration including national security and regime security, and instead resort to alternative strategies of power. Will Reno describes how West Africa’s warlord wars of the 1990s followed seamlessly from the crisis of neopatrimonial government. The regional and global political economy of rentierism during the recovery phase was shaped by a scramble for mineral rents, criminal rents, and international security rents, with political entrepreneurs fashioning models of political business amid a rentier political marketplace. This process of meltdown and rebound selected for political leaders who have the skills for surviving disorder, who in turn feel most secure when there is a high element of disorder, and who will therefore be tempted to manufacture disorder when the prospect of stability raises the likelihood that they will be replaced. It seems plausible that comparable scenarios played out in the Greater Middle East, Latin America and parts of South East Asia.
A last point concerning the historicity of disorder is the remote but ever-present possibility of extreme events, such as genocide or calamitous famine. Disordered governance systems do not routinely produce such outcomes, but the unpredictable fluctuations of events mean that rare but disastrous combinations of unlikely events producing calamity are always a possibility. This is a point emphasized by Scott Straus in his study of genocide, and episodes of potential genocide that did not reach that threshold. I make the same point in my ongoing research into the history of calamitous famines: it requires exceptional political-administrative effort or exceptional multi-dimensional misfortune to generate mass starvation. Indeed, it is arguable that in a disordered governance system, it may be more difficult to organize extreme violence and mass deprivation, than in a well-ordered one. There are benefits to less well-ordered systems, or to systems that function according to different, perhaps mutually unintelligible, logics.
Concluding Thoughts: The Scholarly Epistemology of (Dis)order
The philosopher Eric Heller wrote, ‘Be careful how you interpret the world; it is like that.’ One of the challenges facing the social scientist is that a deep knowledge of a particular issue, or a particular place, allows the scholar to write about it with an authoritative subjectivity. In my own writings on Sudan, I have approached the same topic (e.g. political violence) from different perspectives, each time with some explanatory purchase. These different frameworks of explanation may be incompatible with one another, but that has not hindered me from using them.
My concluding point in this paper is therefore, that (dis)order may be in the eye of the beholder, or the pen of the writer, as much as in the world that is being observed or described. However, rather than lapsing into an irretrievable subjectivity and a resigned agnosticism, I prefer to be cautious about what can and cannot be explained, and to insist on always bearing in mind the limitations of any particular point of view.
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