2020 Conflict Analysis and Complexity-Informed Strategy

The following post is going to be long and will contain three sections: 

  1. A conflict analysis of the United States during this time (which is precedented when you look at similar events all over the world) 
  2. A personal reflection and my change on these issues over time and moving from an activist orientation to a complexity-informed conflict practitioner. In this section will discuss some major differences between in strategy and tactics in a strategic nonviolent resistance/social movement setting and when you have the privilege of changing the conditions of a system directly through a position of power in a government or organization. To me, both of these avenues are important paths for large-scale change and co-exist coherently together. 
  3. An introduction to theory development of how to ethically create change if you are operating within a complex system. 

This is very long: so before you get into it, I want to say that I am so heartened by all of the people in the street struggling for justice right now. I hope that at the end of this fight, we end up with a United States that we all want to live in rather than a United States where we are trying to not die. Solidarity to all of the black and brown brothers and sisters that I have struggled alongside in the past and that have taught me what it means to sacrifice for a cause that you truly believe is right. Solidarity forever. 

Conflict Analysis: 

Diagnosis: To begin, I am not surprised by the massive civil unrest and uprising that is currently enveloping the United States. For a long time now, especially since the beginning of the pandemic the conditions have been ripe for a sudden and intense change. Those of you familiar with my past work will remember the essay I wrote about the fall of the US empire in 2016. I won’t get too deeply into this right now, but as expected, the contradictions around health inequity, racism, wealth inequality, and more have continued to deepen unresolved since the election of Donald Trump. There are several dimensions that I believe are playing out in the current protests: 

Politically, all though it’s not important to most people right now, we need to talk about Bernie. Many of the people in the streets right now were before directing their frustrations, hopes, and dreams into the political campaign that promised political revolution. The warnings were always there for the establishment about what would happen if the policy demands of the ‘left’ (putting in quotes because what is it really?) were not enacted. What’s important here is not bitching about the Democratic party, which I do frequently, but the fact that the lack of a political alternative is now forcing oppressed and suffering people into a desperate position. Right now, we need an opposition party to aggressively challenge the increasingly fascist policies of the Trump Administration or risk a real constitutional crisis (as opposed to impeachment which wasn’t about the real crimes Trump has committed because they would also implicate Democrats who are guilty of the same thing). 

Joe Biden, like Hillary Clinton, is possibly the worst person you could choose to effectively challenge Donald Trump. He was responsible for the Crime Bill that built the New Jim Crow system of mass incarceration we have today. His recent gaff on the Breakfast Club (You Ain’t Black!) was a giant middle finger to the people that really need some action in the halls of power. He has also been unwilling to really concede to any basic demands for universal social programs that are needed to address the massive inequalities in this country. He’s got a bad record, no policy ideas, and can barely track what’s going on. Bottom line- people who want change have no viable option through electoral politics or through the traditional political structures in the United States. As a result, they are in the streets. 

The pandemic is also an important precipitating factor here. The pandemic has exposed the government’s willingness to let people die to preserve economic interests. The two main areas are 1. The healthcare industry that reaps massive profits while a vast number of people are uninsured or bankrupted by treatment and 2. the bailouts of industry while people are left to suffer. Companies make billions of dollars off of government bailouts of their non-resilient and thieving business models and billionaires increase their wealth while “essential workers” are sacrificed to earn 8 bucks an hour with no protective equipment. The essential vs. non-essential distinction has driven a hard wedge into the racial and class faultlines in this country. The poor working class and BIPOC are expected to continue to serve the privileged white collar and white skinned class that can comfortably conduct business from their own living rooms. (The guilt was something I struggled with during the first months of quarantine) The disproportionate effect of the virus on communities of color is another traumatic episode that certainly contributes to the anger we are seeing now. 

Unemployment also plays a big role in the current expression of the protest movement. Due to the pandemic, the US unemployment rate is currently around 18%. That means millions of Americans lost their work and were told to survive on a measly $1200 check and some unemployment relief that was difficult to apply for and that would be delivered at an unknown time. This has three impacts: 1. Financially, many are barely surviving 2. People are becoming increasingly uncertain. The basic systems we rely on are falling apart and could not withstand the shock of the pandemic. 3. People are sitting at home thinking to themselves- “why the fuck are they letting this happen to us?” One benefit of employment is that you aren’t filled with existential dread- you have some purpose or at least something to pass the time. Instead daily routines have completely broken down, contributing to number two. Instead- people are at home, thumbing through social media where they are immersed in the daily barbarism of this country that happens with such frequency that you can’t remember the week before. Anyone else having this amnesia? 

There is plenty more- 2020 has been a whopper. But to summarize: there is no political alternative or oppositional party to confront a fascist turn by the Trump regime, the pandemic has crippled the social safety nets that were already weak and nothing has been done to remedy this, and the economic and psychological pressure of unemployment is leading people to the breaking point. To complete this analysis: the US racist af and the absolute brutality of the violence against black people in this country is a good reason for people to want to tear everything down. 


I have been heartened by the protests in every state across the country and around the world against the racist police murder of George Floyd. Could this be the event that triggers the fall of the US empire? Some pathways: 

The most important factor in how things will develop is whether or not the political system can rapidly implement the reforms demanded by the protestors. Many people have paid lip service or done their performative duty to take their side (including corporations, which is beyond other action we’ve seen from them in the past). However, Trump might also use this conflict to distract from his disastrous management of the pandemic by using the riots and looting to focus voters on restoring law and order rather than any other demands (a solid insight from Dave Snowden). A military escalation is looming, especially as the protests continue in spite of brutal police repression and the implementation of curfews. If Trump issues the order to send in the military I believe the following things will occur: 

  1. People will die. The question is how many and who. 
  2. Protestors will need to quickly re-orient strategically to include more non-violent tactics such as strikes, withholding rent, e-sabotage, or more (Gene Sharp created a comprehensive list of over 200 of these tactics) to avoid direct confrontation with the military and paramilitary police. Unlike in other contexts, the leftist organizations in this country are unarmed or extremely weak compared to the right wing which has many militia groups, military veterans, and private military contractors (these groups are tapped as death squads in coup situations). Violent conflict is not a winning strategy to get the sustainable change needed. Of course, there is always a peaceful vs. violent wing of a social movement that can propel things forward, but a battle against the US military will be lost unless there are massive defections. Military leaders in power (Mattis quit and then had something to say) have not made any statements about whether or not they would execute such an order. Some undoubtably would, but I believe many others would also begin to splinter off and begin to support the protestors. We’ve seen some signals of that with the National guardsmen and police joining marches. It’s not popular in our current ACAB moment, but for a successful revolution, the final stage is winning over the military and police so that the unjust laws of the regime are not enforced. If the situation continues to escalate, serious protestors must give cops and military people a way out- join us and you will be forgiven for your participation in this rotten system. 
  3. Political opposition to the federal government will emerge from the regional blocks that formed to act in light of the federal government’s failed pandemic response. Governors and mayors generally do not want their cities to be the cite of massacres. Additionally, even if states do want to find a way to reduce the riots and looting from civil unrest, many of them don’t like Trump and want him to stay as far away from their affairs as possible. So- I think that even in states where the police departments have been violent (pretty much everywhere), local politicians do not have the same attitude toward federal intervention. States and regions will divide along party lines and we might see some brave action to prevent catastrophe. 
  4. If the previous point is true, then many of the rationale behind supporting the federal government at all begin to disintegrate. People will begin to think- “wow, we sure pay a lot of money to a government that willingly lets us die, gives payout to their corrupt friends, and is now actively trying to kill us in our own cities. Why do we even bother?” There is no political remedy at the federal level (a choice between senile, racist, white men with only negative visions), and the passive structural conflicts become direct confrontations polarizing people against the federal government. There will be an impulse to think about scrapping the whole thing if justice (and some serious $$$) is not delivered. 
  5. Internationally, protestors have already been in the streets demanding justice for George Floyd. US embassies have been attacked (in Greece and protested elsewhere) for police violence. The international community will start to be under pressure to cease economic and political cooperation with the United States. Politically, Trump has already thrown away whatever legitimacy was left, most recently with the withdrawal from WHO. Regional blocks have been consolidating (the multipolar world I’ve written about before regionalism rather than United States or Chinese primacy). Depending on the amount of violence, economic sanctions, or at least abandoning agreements, wouldn’t be out of the question. This would be unprecedented, but possible considering that any of the hard line liberal strategy to maintain world order (a colonialist and rather evil idea) is shunned by the current administration. So, serious pressure could come externally in addition to the domestic unrest. 

There are many ways this could go down, but the choice is always the same- embrace the American values of equality, community, ingenuity, perseverance in a positive way and seriously re-direct course, or cling to the power politics and systems that have delivered vast wealth to a small number of people at the expense of everyone else. Both constitute the fall of the empire- but only one leads to a civil war. 

I’ve brought up some of the following threads with friends and the response is always that- this situation couldn’t develop this quickly, it will take a lot of time for any real change to occur, etc. I don’t believe that’s true. Change can occur really quickly in a complex system and we can never really know how it happens. Just like the Arab Spring, one small event can trigger a cascade of events where contradictions that have existed for hundreds of years are pushed past their turning points in an instant. When conditions change, people suddenly realize they can behave differently and the future opens up. But the main learning I’ve had from my work with complexity theory is that none of it makes sense until it has already happened. We are trapped in the present and can only guess based on what has happened in the past. As an American, change of the federal system is not in our experience. We have had the same constitution (with some amendments) for over 300 years. The government has been largely stable. Our experience to date has been exceptional, but we are not. It can happen here too. So be prepared. 

Part 2: Personal Reflection

Now time for the personal reflective piece of this essay- which is largely why I have delayed doing any posting or public commentary so far. We are at a point in time where there is so much performance of allyship on social media. I’m all for listening and amplifying, but I also believe that it’s too easy sometimes to just re-post with no self-reflection on what using your privilege actually means.  

There are two threads in social justice culture that have really resonated with me recently: 1. There is no way to fully understand another person’s experience, which is why people need room to speak. 2. People need to work in their own communities and contexts, and when working outside of one’s own area, it needs to be in partnership and under the direction of people from that community. Number 2 has always been a thread in the racial history of the United States. In high school, two of the books that influenced me the most were Black Power by Stokely Carmichael (now Kwame Toure) and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. This more radical wing of the civil rights movement (which I’m considering together as the one, two punch of MLK’s movement- part of the argument I’m developing is that the complexity-informed approach to conflict transformation and activist social justice approaches exist in the same eco-system and work to the same ends through different means) clearly divided the lanes of work. Racism is the white man’s problem and the white man’s responsibility is to work with other whites to stop doing racist shit (using the language of the 60s intentionally here). In this chicken and the egg paradox, there is actually a clear answer to which came first. 

I’m laying this context because I think that the resurgence of identity politics around 2012-2013 has sent a mixed message that sticks in my craw every time I’ve sat in an equity workshop or been part of a ‘difficult conversation’ about race. Before I state them- I believe the position we are in is justified, I believe that the activists saying these things are coming from the right place, and I don’t think any of the general thrust is wrong or should happen any differently. It’s not my place to say what other people do- but it is my place to critically reflect on what I’m seeing and hearing so that my own theory of change is consistent. Also, what follows is not to say that the information being communicated is not valuable- Afterall I’m coming with lots of experience in organization and activism and study this stuff.

Some common guidance I hear for white people to ‘be better allies’ includes: 1. Shut up and listen to what POC have to say (often followed by it’s not our job to educate you) 2. Work with your communities and have the tough conversations with your people. 3. Don’t act unless you have consulted POC and get directions first. 

This is a bit of a caricature, but also things I’ve heard people say directly. As a result, I’ve seen many white people begin to just re-post stuff or be scared to say how they feel about an issue for fear that they will say the wrong thing. Even worse, people don’t know what to do because you get the mixed message of working in your community, but also waiting for direction, but also speaking out and raising voices, but also taking up too much space etc etc. Maybe this is just a projection, but what worries me about it is that I’ve seen the dilemma truly paralyze people from acting in situations where small changes could really move things forward. Taking a stance becomes even more dangerous when you can get dragged for doing it the wrong way. I’m saying all of this because I know I have the power to break some people out of this contradiction if they are experiencing it. I believe this is both an ethical and moral imperative if I am truly ‘doing the work’ in my community.

The terrible feeling in my gut was derived from this question of “which means are the best way to achieve the ends of justice and what can I actually change?” As these protests are going on, I’m laying awake last Saturday night trying to figure out what my role is in this and what I’m going to do. “Should I risk going out to protest during the pandemic?” “Is fighting the police the best use of my energy?” “How am I using my platform and my position to make change?” 

In the past I have been fairly sure of myself and it was easier. I helped found and organize Students Against Israeli Apartheid at GMU, which remains one of the highlights of my university career. I fought vigorously for oppressed people as a comrade and partner for a better world. Fighting for justice in the classroom, organizing boycotts, raising awareness through the apartheid wall at graduation, helping craft messaging and strategy made the path to justice clear. We crafted the line, and stuck to it. Discipline to the cause erased any doubt. 

But now, I find myself in a much different position. I am developing a highly specialized methodology for distributed sensemaking and complexity-informed action. The program I’ve helped develop has the power to deliver stories and reports to the Governor. I have the power to change the program and directly affect policy. My activist experience does not give me the tools to apply in this situation- when someone in power is sitting at the table with you, the job is to make action for them easy by illuminating a reasonable path forward and demonstrating that it’s in their interest to get ahead of a problem rather than let it fester and erupt. If you are sitting behind closed doors with a chief of police that can immediately change the regulations of his department it’s probably not wise to tell him ‘fuck you pig’ even if you did it in the street the night before. 

All this to say- walking the tightrope between these two very distinct positions has birthed the theoretical development that I will be explaining in part three. I realized last night that this is my contribution and where I need to put my energy to ensure sustainable change and when I finish this life’s work I will be at peace. I’m explaining all of this because it is integral to who I am and the impact that I want to have on the field of conflict transformation. Thank you for bearing with me so far as yet another white guy grapples with his privilege. The rest should incapsulate my work. I’ve been doing this work over the past three years and completed a thesis on the subject at the University for Peace. I’m about to enter my PhD as a Peace Engineering Fellow at George Mason University. I’m working on Our Tomorrows. A wide range of personal and professional experiences contributes to what follows- I saved the best for last. 

Part 3: Social Justice in Complex-Adapative Systems

My goal is to build peace- positive relationships for mutual and equal benefit. Those of you that know my academic side know that I am also especially interested in structural conflicts- where structures systematically deny people of their basic needs (all of your somatic Maslow stuff and freedom, identity, security). Structural conflicts always stick in the craw of conflict practitioners because they are slippery. At its core, “structural conflict” is an abstract and academic way to try and bring some coherence to the unseen forces that replicate direct harm to people in similar ways over time. Structural conflicts are just as much about the patterns of the outcomes of complex systems as they are about the narratives people tell to describe them. When conflict becomes abstract and moves from “pay us more money at our jobs” to “abolish the global system of capitalism” the traditional methods of dialogue, facilitation, mediation, etc become useless. The source of conflict itself becomes subject to disagreement. At a basic level, conflict transformation practitioners need tools to map these structural conflicts so that people don’t disagree with what’s happening. 

In Part 2- I explained two potential approaches to addressing structural conflict- strategic nonviolent resistance and conflict transformation. 

The purpose of strategic nonviolence is to build power. The goal is to either build enough power so that the people who currently have it do something different with their power or abdicate it all together. Strategic nonviolence unites the oppressed, the have nots, the working class, the marginalized against the oppressors, the haves, the elites, and the powerful. I think the consent theory of power is useful here- elites have power because people give it to them. When enough people withdraw their consent stop contributing to the systems that uphold that power, elites lose control and either have to concede to demands, appease people somehow, or maintain power through violence. 

In the setting of a strategic nonviolent movement, activists seek to: 

  1. Build consensus around a counternarrative developed by the group
  2. Strategically escalate a conflict through nonviolent action to force a set of demands
  3. Sometimes take power themselves (rather than just pushing reforms)

The theory of change is to confront the conflict head on by raise awareness or consciousness through education to win people over, doing nonviolent actions, and ultimately ‘resolve’ the contradiction by overwhelming the other side. This escalation is crucial.

I’ve deliberately ordered these actions to one of my favorite triangles (all over my life these days) from Galtung- the three elements being attitude, behavior, contradiction. If we put these in sequence- we get a liberal approach to solving social problems. Let’s change peoples’ minds by educating them on the right way, then once they know better they will behave differently (or participate in our actions or whatever), and if enough people do this as individuals, then wow, the system has changed! Has this worked for people? Yes. Does it serve a crucial function in society? Yes. Is it the best way to create change in a complex system based on what we know about how things emerge and how humans make sense of the world? Maybe not. 

This has been the fundamental question I’ve been trying to resolve over the past few days. Bear with me as I give an introduction to complexity theory and what I see as a new alternative for conflict transformation practice. Maybe just a small number of people can and should be doing this work, but I happen to be one of them. Again- the idea is that there are several approaches to achieving social justice that should be applied to truly drive change in complexity-diversity in the thinking and action around it creates the resilience and sustainable change that is needed to make sure that a victory for a social movement doesn’t devolve back into something worse (as we’ve seen play out in the states again and again over the past few years). 

 Here is the graphic that kicked everything off for me: 

Image from Cognitive Edge and Dave Snowden Cynefin Masterclass

The chart is from Dave Snowden, who has been theorizing anthro-complexity. In non-academic language: natural sciences tell us that there are fundamental limitations that we have as humans. We can’t hold more than seven things in our mind at once. We are pattern-based animals and draw on past experience to make quick judgements (without even knowing it) based on whichever pattern comes to mind first. We make meaning through short anecdotes and conversations with others rather than scanning all available data. We are trapped in patterns created by our jobs and relationships and won’t notice things that don’t fit what’s supposed to happen in a given context. We aren’t really rational and make decisions with our emotions and our guts. This is some crucial self-awareness. 

If we try to act outside of what we can actually do, then we are always bound to fail. We must fit the methods that we use both to gain new knowledge to how our brains work. Snowden’s Cynefin framework also helps us to identify what kind of system we are operating in- whether its ordered, unordered, or chaotic, and gives us the tools to act appropriately. 

I think the fundamentals boil down to: 

  1. Ask people questions they can answer
  2. Ask people to do things that they can actually do
  3. Know the context and determine which set of tools work best for the task at hand.

So what does this have to do with the complexity-informed approach and why was I blathering on about the state of social activism? 

The contradictions occur in the second and third columns. 

  1. A complex approach is around getting people to self-organize in small groups that can come together at different levels.  
  2. Sensor networks are about using self-interpreted experiences (like the one we are developing with Our Tomorrows) to get as full of a map of the system as possible. 
  3. The goal is to give more decision-making power to people at lower levels in the system. 
  4. Don’t get people to all agree on the same point too early on, because you will miss things and it could blow up on you later. 
  5. Avoid doing something just because it worked or didn’t work in the past. Each context is unique and although conditions might seem the same, they never are in a complex system. 

You’ll notice the differences. Successful nonviolent movements that have created sustainable change meet some of the criteria above. Below would be opposite approach (differences heightened to draw out the contradiction): 

  1. The bigger the better- masses make change. 
  2. Take control of the narrative. Movements try and build a single, cohesive counternarrative that everyone agrees to and repeats. Even people voicing opposition but on the same terms- i.e. #alllivesmatter in response to #blacklivesmatter makes the narrative even stronger. A successful movement controls the space and makes sure that on the key issues there is no diversity- the line is the line and the demands are the demands. 
  3. Leaders of the movement dictate tactics and strategy and everyone falls in line, achieving victory through nonviolent discipline. 
  4. Organize for convergence- convince people your way is right, get them to stick to it, build consensus, punish dissent or exile heretics. 
  5. Follow the example of those that built the movement before you. Learn from the examples of the Russian revolution, or the civil rights movement, or black power and copy what worked for them, while trying to avoid their failures. 

Writing this feels icky in some ways- DO NOT TAKE THIS AS ME DISCOURAGING PEOPLE FROM ORGANIZING STRATEGIC NONVIOLENCE. I’m able to write about it because I believe in it. But I’ve also asked myself the simple question- why does most activism fail? All activists I know ask themselves this question and the answer is something along the lines of “well we are fighting a powerful system, and we just couldn’t do it this time” or “there was a tactical mistake” or “this is an eternal struggle that we will always have to keep fighting.” I’ve noticed recently, especially after the collapse of the Bernie campaign how much fatalism there has been. So for activists- if we can’t control the system, what can we control? Our theory of change and how we organize. I have begun to question the efficacy of some of the basic tenants of the theory of change of my previous activism. Is it wrong? No. Oppressed people need to voice themselves- there is some real truth to need for expressed people to actively fight to reclaim their dignity, make demands, and receive reparations.

But for someone who isn’t oppressed or actually in an elite that holds power, what is to be done? This, to my understanding is really a confrontation with privilege and how to use it. 

What I am proposing is the following: 

A complexity -informed approach to conflict transformation that utilizes complexity principles to achieve the same ends as a social movement. The assumption is that to do this, you need to have capacity to manage some aspects of the system. The goal is to flip the theory of change on its head and create both epistemic justice and a system that works on principles that empower people to act. By baking in bottom-up approaches in the system, you are allowing more people to have access to power in the system and also ensuring that there are better outcomes by increasing diversity (across all identity faultlines) in the system. This is a radical approach. It is also very hard. 

Back to the ABC triangle. I mentioned the liberal approach before. What if we started from the opposite end and went CBA? This means- changing the context (or constraint or contradictions, the C is really about the relationship between things rather than an individual. You see inside, outside, inbetween which is a fundamental understanding what the possibilities are as conscious beings), seeing how behavior changes and enforcing the contextual factors that result in good behavior and reducing the ones that result in bad behavior (the good and bad ethics is all up to your moral judgement buddy), and then once you get something workable, make sure that people understand what happened. Changing minds and attitudes is the last step. Not the first. 

For this to work, you must attack the problem from the side, never head on. This is really counter-intuitive which is why it’s not a common practice. (Some reflections on how all of this relates to white supremacy- both in the theory of change and understandings of individual vs. collective and dynamics will be something for me to do later). In the present example, this would mean that an organization wanting to address police violence would maybe address the problem by convening the parties to conflict outside of the context of that conflict by problem solving on an issue on the early childhood system for example, and then build on the new networks that form to create new possibilities. Pull out of context and then put back in context. This has been one of the hardest points for me as I’ve been working through this- afterall, “if you won’t even say there is a problem, then you are part of it!” 

So working through this little snag I came up with the following matrix to organize some of the labor from the perspective of a complexity-informed conflict transformation practitioner. There is work that you do by yourself and work that you do with others and there is work you do on the problem and work you do around the problem. You’ll notice that there is not space for what work other people should be doing that’s often counterproductive for a variety of reasons that could be another chapter. 

There are a lot of things that need to be filled in and cross-walked and explained, but this is only the beginning. It’s where I’m at right now.

 Practitioner’s Work (private)Collaborative Work (public) 
Direct work -map the conflict through conflict analysis techniques-map the conflict through analysis of self-signified narratives collected through your human sensor network  Story CollectionCommunity SensemakingFacilitated conflict mapping Dialogue
Indirect work Social network stimulation (building informal networks through identifying intractable problems, team-based rewards, and heuristics for people to come together in new ways that reinforce diversity)SenseMaker instrument design with broad prompt Fractal EngagementDistributed Cognition

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