Forwarded from Jurriaan (complexity theory)

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Thu Mar 8 10:35:00 MST 2001

I haven't read a lot in this area, but many things I have read come close
to it. Three broad strands of "complexity theory" in the Marxist sense are
the "long waves" theory associated with Ernest Mandel, the "regulation
approach" of Aglietta and Boyer, and the "social structure of accumulation"
school of Samuel Bowles etc. These schools try to theorise the way that the
political, social, economic, ideological and cultural spheres intersect and
interact, within a single framework, in other words the interaction of base
and superstructure.

You could also say that people like Andre Gunder Frank and Immanuel
Wallerstein are concerned with complexity theory in their attempts to
analyse the history of the "world system" (however, in my opinion, their
attempt to encapsulate enormous stretches of history and geography with a
few general abstractions, sometimes degenerates into waffle, which is

Marxist economists who know about complexity theory are Fransisco Louca and
Anwar Shaikh. Louca defines the complexity approach as "the formalisation
of the non-linear, structurally unstable and creative relations in
economies". Louca does a good introductory article called "Ernest Mandel
and the pulsation of history", in Gilbert Achcar (ed), The legacy of Ernest
Mandel (Verso 1999) which gives a feel for the subject. And Louca wrote a
big two-volume work on Kondratieff waves, and another on methodology called
"Turbulence in Economics" (which is a critique of empiricist econometrics).
For a diferent angle on the subject, try Trotsky's article "dialectical
materialism and science" (reprinted e.g. in Deutscher's The age of
permanent revolution, and in Trotsky's Problems of Everyday Life). In that
article, Trotsky tries to show inter alia how the different sciences and
disciplines are related. Really complexity theory is just another way of
portraying reality as a dialectically understood totality, but then without
mystique and Stalinist dogma.

Actually the name "complexity theory" is a bit of a misnomer. A "theory" is
a simplified picture of reality, it is supposed to make a complex reality
intelligible, by abstracting out certain salient aspects of reality and
organising them rationally. (For example Marx applies the method of
political economists by starting off with a few crucial simple
abstractions, and then gradually building up many layers of explanation,
integrating more and more factors into the analysis). At least in part,
though, "complexity theory" is suspect, i.e. it signifies the inability to
truly theorise something, i.e. theoretical posturing by people who want to
show off. Because if you had theorised it properly, then complexity would
have been reduced to something simpler, more coherent and intelligible.

In his book On materialism, Sebastian Timpenaro notes somewhere how many
Marxists have tried to incorporate the latest developments in bourgeois
academic thought into Marxism (freudianism, Lacan,
structural-functionalism, post-structuralism, post-modernism etc. etc.).
Often this exercise has the opposite effect from that which was intended,
namely instead of enriching Marxism, it leads to Marxism being assimilated
into some other discipline. Let's hope that doesn't happen with the
so-called "complexity theory".



Louis Proyect
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