Global Microstructures

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Global Complex Microstructures = new framework replacing older institutional forms of coordinating human activities


Brian Holmes, citing sociologist Karin Knorr Cetina, at

""Modern, industrial society created ’complex’ forms of organizations that managed uncertainty and task fulfillment through interiorized systems of control and expertise. But complexity was institutional complexity ; it meant sophisticated multi-level mechanisms of coordination, authority and compensation that assured orderly functioning and performance. A global society leans towards a different form of complexity ; one emanating from more microstructural arrangements and the rise of mechanisms of coordination akin to those found in interaction systems.... The basic intuition that motivates the concept of a global microstructure is that genuinely global forms, by which I mean fields of practice that link up and stretch across all time zones (or have the potential to do so), need not imply further expansions of social institutional complexity. In fact, they may become feasible only if they avoid complex institutional structures. Global financial markets for example, where microstructures have been found, simply outrun the capacity of such structures. These markets are too fast, and change too quickly to be ’contained’ by institutional orders. Global systems based on microstructural principles do not exhibit institutional complexity but rather the asymmetries, unpredictabilities and playfulness of complex (and dispersed) interaction patterns ; a complexity that results, in John Urry ?s terms, from a situation where order is not the outcome of purified social processes and is always intertwined with chaos. More concretely, these systems manifest an observational and temporal dynamics that is fundamental to their connectivity, auto-affective principles of self-motivation, forms of ’outsourcing’, and principles of content that substitute for the principles and mechanisms of the modern, complex organization." (


How we can/should use global microstructures for political change

Brian Holmes:

"The question that complexity theory allows us to ask is this : How do we organize ourselves for a viable response to the double violence of capitalist deterritorialization and the nationalist or identitarian reterritorialization to which it inevitably gives rise ? It must be understood that this dilemna does not take the form of Christianity versus Islam, America versus the Middle East, Bush versus Bin Laden. Rather it arises at the « very heart » of the modern project, where human potential is « expropriated. » Since September 11. the USA - and tendentially, the entire so-called « Western world » - has at once exacerbated the abstract, hyperindividualizing dynamics of capitalist globalization, and at the same time, has reinvented the most archaic figures of identitarian power (Guantanamo, fortress Europe, the dichotomy of sovereign majesty and bare life). Guattari speaks of a capitalist « drive » to deterritorialization, and of a « compulsion » to reterritorialization. What this means is that neither polarity is inherently positive or negative ; rather, both are twisted into the violent and oppressive forms that we now see developing at such a terrifying and depressing pace. The ultimate effect is to render the promise of a world without borders strange, cold and even murderous, while at the same time precipitating a crisis, decay and regression of national institutions, which appear increasingly incapable of contributing to equality or the respect for difference.

So the question that arises is whether one can consciously participate in the improvisational, assymetrical and partially chaotic force of global microstructures, making use of their relative autonomy from institutional norms as a way to influence a more positive reterritorialization, a more healthy and dynamic equilibrium, a better coexistence with the movement of technological development and global unification ? The question is not farfetched, it is not a mere intellectual abstraction. Knorr Cetina’s strong point is that global unification cannot occur through institutional process, because it is too complex to be managed in that way ; instead, the leading edge is taken by lighter, faster, less predictable microstructures. Clearly, nothing guarantees that these are going to be beneficent. The forms that they will take remain open, they depend on the people who invent them.

In his recent book, Lazzarato writes :

"The activist is not someone who becomes the brains of the movement, who sums up its force, anticipates its choices, draws his or her legitimacy from a capacity to read and interepret the evolution of power, but instead, the activist is simply someone who introduces a discontinuity in what exists. She creates a bifurcation in the flow of words, of desires, of images, to put them at the service of the multiplicity’s power of articulation ; she links the singular situations together, without placing herself at a superior and totalizing point of view. She is an experimenter."

The close of the book makes clear, however, that what should be sought is not just a joyous escape into the unpredictable. The point of this experimentation is to find articulations [agencements, which might also be translated as microstructures] that can oppose the literally death-dealing powers of the present society, and offer alternatives in their place. My guess is that in most cases, this can happen not at the local level of withdrawal (though that may be fertile), nor at the level of national institutions and debates (though these will be essential for holding off the worst), but most likely at the regional or continental level, particularly where the core economies overflow into their peripheries and vice-versa. This is the level where the most important policy is now being made, the level at which the major economic circuits are functioning and at which massive social injustice and ecological damage is happening all the time. What’s really lacking are all kinds of border-crossing experiments, ways to subvert the macrostructures of inclusion/exclusion and to redraw the maps of coexistence. Ultimately, new kinds of institutions and new ways of relating to institutions will be needed, if there is to be any hope of stabilizing things and surviving the vast transition now underway. But we’re not there yet, and it doesn’t seem likely that any upcoming election will start the process. Instead it seems that much of the danger and the promise of the present moment can be found in the complex relations between network, swarm and microstructure." (