Lever points: complex systems and potentialities for liberation

Lever points: complex systems and potentialities for liberation

Discussion of the concept of lever points from emergence theory as a tool for understanding and acting as revolutionaries in different moments.

“Give me a long enough lever and a place to stand, and I will move the earth.” Archimedes

The perspective which emergence and complex systems give us comes across as limits on our thinking and powers. The separation of the world of agents and that of emergent forces creates a casual gap which exposes the weakness of our thinking and actions to bend the world to conform to our wills. For most purposes simple cause and effect is enough. If I push a ball it will roll. If you shove me, I will move. When it comes to things like poverty, global warming, or racism such an understanding breaks down. Complex systems like society exhibit what’s called nonlinear causation or as I prefer it disproportionate causation. Nonlinear causation occurs in things like runs on stocks caused by tweets, revolts against governments caused by the death of an individual, or the famed example of butterfly flapping its wings in Australia causing a tsunami in Japan. A small cause has a disproportionate effect due to the state of the complex adaptive system in which it occurs through a number of mechanisms (like feedback for example).

The biological and social worlds are largely constituted by complex adaptive systems exhibiting emergence. Within these, disproportionate causation occurs throughout. The majority of this is simply part of the system. The response of the immune system to an allergen in a person with allergies is one example. The body reacts globally to exposure to an allergen that in some cases can cause death. Nothing intends for this to happen, quite the opposite. A smaller group of disproportionate causation occurs when someone or some group does intend for change to occur. These are called lever or leverage points in the complex adaptive systems community.

Lever points take a small cause than an agent or group can do to achieve their desired ends. These actions utilize the state and functioning of a complex adaptive system to have an impact far beyond their own capacities. John Holland has written about lever points throughout his work.

“All [complex adaptive systems] that we have examined closely exhibit a phenomenon that I’ll call lever points, “inexpensive” actions that yield desired outcomes. In a game, a lever point is, say, a pin in chess; for the immune system, a vaccine is a good example. We mostly discover lever points in [complex adaptive systems] by trial and error, but a good theory would give us a principled way to find them. Pieces of that theory exist, but a general theory of [complex adaptive systems] is a deep and difficult problem. Still, it is clear that this young discipline has much to contribute to our understanding of the world.” [1]

In his text, Hidden Order: How adaptation builds complexity, he lays out both a theory of lever points and discusses attempts by complex system theorists to create mathematical models and theories that could identify them in any such system, a general theory of complex adaptive systems. Today, these ideas are only speculative as we lack the mathematics and understanding of complexity necessary for generalizing. On the other hand, within specific systems lever points have been identified and utilized. In many cases, the theorists of complexity are working for the world’s banks, militaries, financial institutions, and technology firms to utilize such levers for the existing elites and powers. The Prediction Company was created by scientists working at the famed Santa Fe Institute which is attached to Los Alamos National Labs (a center of national and military security). [2] The Prediction Company became famous for using their techniques developed at the Santa Fe Institute to model stock trading and accumulated considerable wealth in doing so.

Stepping back it seems clear that throughout the history of humanity’s struggles for freedom have been lever points used against corrupt regimes and powers. Although an understanding of emergence limits many abilities people thought they had, lever points show another way in which organized collectivities can influence the course of history. Identifying, studying, and theorizing lever points for social transformation is part of the task of revolutionaries for our time. Bringing together lever points and a horizontal politics of self-organizing democratic society offers new ways of understanding revolutionary transformations. Collectivities acting in key moment upon lever points can contribute to the new forms of social organization, self-organized by emergent means, but also contributed to by collectivities strategically acting towards anti-systemic ends.

[1] Holland, J. (2007). Emergence: Expert Q&A. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/nature/holland-emergence.html

[2] The Prediction Company, now a subsidiary of Union Bank of Switzerland http://www.predict.com/introduction.html

Posted By

Feb 27 2014 13:39


Attached files


Mar 4 2014 19:55

Have you heard of Fred Turner's From Countercultrue to Cyberculture? It's a cultural history that traces cold-war era systems theory, cybernetics, and technology through the communalist movement out west and it's development into the classic "california ideology". It's ort of related, and pretty interesting.

Are there any particular examples that can be thought of as levers? I'm sure you're aware that this would make the theoretical vantage point of this a lot more satisfying and interesting. Interesting stuff!

Mar 11 2014 15:37

Haven't seen that book before. Definitely don't know of any levers, I think that would be the work of revolutionaries not just thinking this stuff through, but in practice. In some environments perhaps occupations have been levers like the Detroit sit-down strikes. In other contexts not though. Something like that, but that is merely tactical and not really a lever in the true sense.