It has often been pointed out that order and chaos are one of the more important dichotomies in the universe, with time inevitably breaking things apart into senseless fragments and living things often working to produce order and meaning in themselves and in the world around them.
While it may seem as though order is the supreme goal of politics (perhaps especially in Canada, where “peace, order, and good government” is the credo), people forget that unadulterated order produces rigid structures that shatter when struck or strained. When conditions remain constant, a society that has become rigidly ordered can contiue to function, though it usually starts getting sapped and weakened by the self-interested agents who run it.
When conditions change – however – the vital importance of chaos in politics is revealed. Faced with something new, we need to improvise. We need the organs within society that can handle improvisation – that can perceive the possibilities of a new world, try new strategies for dealing with them, evaluate how those strategies are doing, and carry on with this process of evaluation and experimentation. These organs of improvisation include art, and they include the everpresent contest between the different locuses of power that well-designed societies always include. The civil service spars with politicians; the courts assert their role in interpreting the law and applying constitutional principles; academics try to affect policy; companies try to buy politicians (and some politicians try to be bought!); voters punish incompetence or reward the ability to inspire; civil society groups wax and wane in influence, and change their programs of action.
Just as the 20th century involved change of a magnitude and complexity that defied anticipation, it seems fair to expect the 21st century to have a similar dynamic quality. We are going to need our improvisational abilility and the mechanisms of chaos that keep societies from becoming frozen and immobile. That’s not to say we can or should throw everything away. The reason why the balance of power works as a way of keeping government effective is because the different organs have comprehensible purposes and identities which they perpetuate through time. (Canada’s Supreme Court means something as an institution, as does Health Canada and the CBC and the University of British Columbia.) Similarly, reaching back into our own history is a way to identify strategies that could help us. Historians as well as artists can be organs of improvisation.
All told, I don’t much like where the world is heading. I think our leaders are mostly a mix of the seriously deluded and those who are primarily in it for themselves. I don’t think global society is effectively applying the knowledge it possesses about the world and, to a considerable degree, we are being carried in a dangerous direction by the momentum of selfish and short-sighted choices. If there is hope for the future, it is that creative forces of chaos can disrupt the most damaging patterns of behaviour humanity has developed. That process is necessarily messy and it isn’t clear while it is happening whether things are being made better, worse, or just less familiar. Still, if we are going to make it to 2100 and beyond, we can’t keep doing what we’re doing now.