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Chaos is come

Essay | 18 minute read
Are there benefits to radical disorder? A writer reflects on upset times past and present, and the potential for advancement, seizing opportunities and innovating

If there is one word that summarises the political climate of the Western world today, it is ‘chaos’. Whatever their varying causes, events in both Britain and the United States are routinely labelled ‘chaotic’ by journalists and commentators in all media. ‘Theresa May’s government lives on and so does the Brexit chaos’ announced The New Yorker after January’s opposition motion of no confidence failed. Washington DC, meanwhile, was in the grip of ‘shutdown chaos’ after President Trump’s suspension of the day-to-day functioning of federal government.

‘Budget chaos’ has overtaken financial planning in Brussels, where, at the time of writing, nobody has any idea whether to include the UK in the coming year’s financial provisions. A meltdown in the global order was an outcome dreaded by France’s President Macron last November, when he warned that Europe must unite to sustain a world ‘slipping into chaos’.

Chaos was once the smaller-scale preserve of extreme weather events, public service strikes and administrative blunders, the cheerfully predicted result of systems not being able to function as intended. As queues lengthen at the passport offices and airports, as snow on the tracks forces the rail operators to decant passengers on to replacement buses, and garbage piles up in the streets following the rephasing of the bin collections, our public affairs descend into chaos too.

Somebody ought to have foreseen and forestalled it, instead of presiding haplessly over the chaos. Queues are a prima facie indicator of chaos, even if everybody in them is behaving with exemplary forbearance. Things not happening are evidence of chaos, just as much as is everything happening at once. Shortages and gluts are equally chaotic. A lack of information provokes chaos, but so does a bewildering surfeit of it.

Nobody, naturally, wants to be on the receiving end of a situation that has either dissolved or erupted into chaos. Standing amid the static throngs on a railway platform listening to a repeating machine-generated apology on the loudspeakers… Staying in all day awaiting deliveries of three separate online orders, and receiving half of one of them and two that are addressed to somebody else… Being threatened yet again by third-party debt collectors for an unpaid bill bequeathed to you by a previous occupant of your address… These are dully familiar predicaments which victims are either powerless to influence, or else entirely responsible for resolving, even though the strategic odds are heavily stacked against them.

By contrast, the chaos that the newsreader tells us has broken out in the political party after two of its prominent members have had a public disagreement seems relatively small beer. And yet a time of disorder and confusion in public affairs has often, in history, proved to be an era of advancement, a time for seizing opportunities, innovating, making new things happen precisely while everything is in a state of productive fluidity.

This is not always so. Periods of malevolent chaos, such as the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the military coup in Chile in 1973, the takeover of Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge in 1975, are not hard to find, and it would be difficult indeed to draw anything of value from them, other than the solemn resolution that they should never be repeated.

At other times, however, when the old order has been overthrown, or at least suspended, and nobody knows what will happen next, extraordinary things can come about. This was the lesson of the Roman Saturnalia and the medieval carnival, when social rules were inverted for several days, the aristocracy waited on their servants, young women initiated marriage proposals, and adolescent boys became bishops for the duration. The carnival was always seen as a process of social catharsis, by which the tensions and resentments that build up in stratified societies could be safely released in a regular pantomime that, for all its apparent subversion, nobody needed to take seriously. With the demise of the carnival in the early modern era, these forces began to bubble to the surface in actual confrontations with the state, with ecclesiastical authority, with the apparatus of the law.

The period of the English Commonwealth, especially in its early phase after the disposal of Charles I, was a time of ominous uncertainty. In being the first European people since ancient times to throw off a hereditary monarchy, and defy the principle of the divine right of kings, the English were considered by many writers and commentators to have brought the wrath of God upon themselves. The Rump Parliament that became the de facto governing body of the nation was the residue of a ruthless purge of royalist elements from its predecessor, the Long Parliament.

A period of economic decline immediately took hold, and the threat of invasion, either from Scotland or from across the Irish Sea, loomed over the fledgling state. Internecine struggles between those MPs who wanted to protect the landed estates of the gentry, and those who thought high time had come to abolish the old feudal rights and demesnes, created a chronic state of instability. Against this, the Commonwealth Act of 1649 created a new national entity from the thin political air left by the execution of the monarch.

‘The Representatives of the People in Parliament’ now held sole authority, ‘and that without any King or House of Lords.’ Innovation in forms of Christian observance flourished, so that, although the Puritan bent of Cromwell’s faction enforced rigorous Sunday observance on the populace, and was famously hostile to uproarious public entertainments such as the theatre, independent churches multiplied unhindered. A bill in 1653 to preserve the establishment status of the Church of England was defeated by the Radical group in Parliament. The status of the army and its right to exercise authority among the people continued to be a matter of contestation up to the final parliamentary phase of the Commonwealth following the removal of Richard Cromwell as Lord Protector.

Similarly, the events leading up to the October Revolution in Russia in 1917 initially produced a political vacuum into which ideas and activities poured with the force of a torrent. When the Provisional Government took office following the abdication of the Tsar in March, the old statutes against freedom of speech, assembly and the press were summarily rescinded.

The result was a ferment of innovative energy, with workers’ councils (soviets) and ad hoc committees forming on street corners and in public halls to decide on everything from land reform to bread prices and Russia’s continuing embroilment in the Great War. An eight-hour working day was instituted, the death penalty and political exile abolished, and a universal right to trial by jury established, while official discrimination on racial and religious lines was outlawed. This stew of dissonant radical demands and enacted policies resulted in a political entity that Lenin, observing events from the distance of exile, described as ‘the freest country in the world’.

Whatever positive developments have emerged from within the pandemonium of disordered historical times are the product of working within given conditions, rather than attempting to combat and overcome them. This, at least, is the opening thesis of a new book by Franco Berardi, The Second Coming. ‘Those who wage war against chaos,’ he warns, ‘will be defeated because chaos feeds upon war.’ A state of chaos is not something that exists in objective reality, but is a matter of perception, both in present estimation and historical retrospect. The attempt to resolve disjointed empirical circumstances into order must always be futile because all that chaos represents is the gap between events and their mental assimilation into classes of facts and categories of experience.

At its historical zenith in the West, this process was known as the Enlightenment. Although enlightened thought was dominated by currents of rationalism and scepticism with regard to theology, it nonetheless inherited from religion the tendency by which knowledge was ordered into securely divided precincts, for all that the universe in its perfect structure was now the preserve of rigorously scrutable scientific processes rather than the mysterious handiwork of divine will. That model held, at best, for a century and a half before human history began to pound it to pulp in the twentieth century.

‘But today,’ Berardi writes, ‘all attempts to govern chaos seem doomed to fail, as info-nervous stimulation has intensified beyond the limits of conscious processing.’ Barely has any current event or political pronouncement been reported than its perception is fragmented through subjection to a bombardment of warring voices, some raised to apoplectic rage, others hysterical with despair, still others dripping with venomous irony. Truly, as the poet W. B. Yeats prophesied, the centre cannot hold. The anarchy of mere dissension is loosed upon the world.

Apologists for order are not difficult to find in most philosophical traditions. In the Confucian vision of social harmony, everything and everybody has its place, and is expected to fulfil its function. Only in times of havoc such as war and rebellion are the natural dispositions of society disturbed. A peasant army might well have thrown off the last remnants of feudal rule in 1949, and a clumsy attempt made in the 1960s to bring revolutionary fervour back to the monolith of the one-party state, but China’s rulers have since returned the country to a profoundly conservative vision of a society in which everybody performs his or her function within the expected parameters. In the west, Machiavelli delineated the apparatus of political control for a novice ruler in The Prince, a sixteenth-century manual for ruthless governance whose partly satirical tone conceals, in elegant double-bluff, the stark reality of dynastic repression in the Italian city-states.

A detail of a letter by Machiavelli, in an exhibition celebrating 500 years from the publication of The Prince (Photo by Laura Lezza/Getty Images)

The French jurist Jean Bodin, writing his Six Books of the Republic later in the same century, echoed the Machiavellian sentiment that ‘the sovereign Prince is accountable only to God’. Any civil polity was determinable by the influence of climatic conditions on the people, and in the temperate latitudes of France, a hereditary monarchy was the best possible constitution. The sovereignty of the people is a postulate to be vigorously resisted, because it would seem to subject a nation to the vicissitudes of passing fancy, whereas a tranquil polity relied on a structure of ‘absolute and perpetual power’ in the executive organ of state, a power accountable not to those whom it governed but only to the Creator.

For Thomas Hobbes, writing his masterwork Leviathan amid the upheaval of the English Civil War, chaotic dissension and murderous strife, the infamous ‘war of all against all’, are what result when society loses the strong central authority on which it relies in order to be a society at all, as opposed to a naked state of nature. Where an unregulated people do not resort to killing each other, they will repine into gormless apathy, hardly bothering to lift a finger in the directions of labour, agriculture, navigation and construction. There would be no structured learning, no geography or history, no art or literature, no social cordiality or advancement of civility, only the constant threat of violence in a life that was, legendarily, ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’.

Although some of this at least might resemble medieval visions of the Land of Cockaigne, which anticipated an age when drudgery will have been abolished and all receive their just deserts in an egalitarian utopia, its concern for a regulatory authority to protect people from themselves turns into something more sinister in the elaboration. If everybody gives his or her consent to such an authority – and consent can either be freely given, or else extorted from its clients without a blush for the excruciating paradox – it follows that whatever the authority does is no more than what those who consent to it have authorised. There is no point in complaining at the actions of a state that arraigns and tortures you for witchcraft, prior to convicting and sentencing you to death, because you have already agreed to let it to do so through the ‘social contract’.

A disordered system, whether it be a civil polity or a broom cupboard, cannot help but seem in desperate need of sorting out. The first instinct of the rational mind is to introduce order where there is disarray. Order suggests itself as a more efficient way of dealing with things, one that saves time and promotes the creation of streamlined systems and smooth functioning. A book or CD is more easily located on shelves that have been arranged alphabetically, for all that an alphabetic system is in itself an entirely arbitrary structure to impose on its constituent elements, forcing Joe Orton and George Orwell into contiguity with each other like victims of the world’s worst seating plan.

The Dewey decimal classification of books in libraries was an attempt at a compromise between the hermetic logic of the alphabet and the global division of learning into its departments and sub-departments. Its Achilles’ heel is that knowledge often overflows from one category into another that may well not be adjacent to it. It takes a structural rather than substantive approach to learning, one that mimics the hierarchical ladder of biological classification, from domains and kingdoms down to the individual species within each genus. Nonetheless, it more or less faithfully replicates the departmental structure of the university, where knowledge is confined within disciplinary boundaries that may only be straddled here and there by the minority of joint honours students.

The more widely the ordering and classifying urge is applied in human affairs, the more it exposes its coercive side. Once it becomes a principle in itself, to which everything must, by its own definition, be subjugated, it turns into an all but irresistible force for alienation. At its rock bottom, the mania for order produces fascism and Stalinism, systems of total social control that tolerate no non-conformity. In these murderous exaggerations of the principle of authority, order turns out to be not just a way of arranging matters but also of compelling them to be so. A suggestive duplicity in English makes an ‘order’ both a classification system and a command.

Photo by Alfons Morales/Unsplash

If the political state bares its fangs most menacingly when it is most consecrated to order at all costs, the same mechanism turns world economics, the commercial structures of the culture industry, and the daily conduct of individual lives into rigid systems that are unresponsive and impervious to adaptation. If a messy person is difficult enough to live with, somebody who cannot tolerate the slightest change to an arrangement they have entered in their diary, without succumbing to boiling fury, is altogether more disturbing.

Chaotic social and political conditions are represented in the most advanced art in all ages. When the modern novel left behind the Jamesian drawing-room with its genteel theatrical dialogue and its soft furnishings, it moved out into the city street, which was no longer the thoroughfare connecting one drawing-room with another but the clamorous milieu of contemporary living. The European novel borrowed montage techniques from the early cinema, and the interior monologue of the analytical couch, to animate the scenes that passed by. Dizzy acceleration of life’s pace and its sharp conflictual edges, both before and after the Great War, was reflected in the lubricated cross-currents of political chatter in Barney Kiernan’s pub in Joyce’s Dublin and in the social underworld into which Alfred Döblin’s Franz Biberkopf sinks in Berlin Alexanderplatz.

The artistic life of the Weimar Republic, one of modern history’s emblematic periods of radical disorder, when national governments and political structures themselves came and went with the passing seasons, while stratospheric inflation drained the currency of all economic meaning, produced paintings, theatre productions and literary works that staged direct confrontations with their viewers, while challenging the established formal language of their respective genres. Far from leading to the comfort of aesthetic retrenchment, chaotic times provoke the arts into equal and opposite reactions to the disintegration of society as a whole.

The artistic form that has been the traditional articulation of chaos since ancient times has been comedy. From the classical comic drama onwards, it subverted the consensual rules of human conduct, undermining the authority of elders, the governing morality and the social system itself. Its exaggerations spoke the truth about the duplicity and injustice of the present world, much as political cartoonists enlarge the cabinet minister’s nose for satirical effect.

In positing a hypothetical world in which the logic of a faulty reality is pushed to its absurd extremes, comedy exposes the hypocrisy implicit in the assurance we give each other that its faults are of no account, the wafer-thin illusion by which we live. In the Athenian theatre, a comic drama usually followed the terrors of high tragedy, cheerfully demolishing the edifice of piety that had had the audiences starting in tears and groans of horror only a short time before. In comedy, the victory is not to irresistible fate, a conservative force that keeps everybody in their places on pain of ruin, but to laughter, love, and irreverent defiance in the face of all indomitable forces. What cannot be resisted may as well at least be derided.

The Restoration farce, issuing from the exact moment in English history that society had been lit up with the hubbub of polemical dialogue in the coffee-houses, was a bubbling brew of social dissent and merciless irony. It anticipated – indeed more or less invented – the fearless tone of speaking insolence to power on which eighteenth-century satirists would pride themselves. This was the period in which professional women actors first appeared on the English stage, and in which a wildly popular playwright, Aphra Behn, would become one of the first women to earn a living from writing. In The Emperor of the Moon, the last of her plays to be staged in her lifetime, in 1687, a pious old misery, Doctor Baliardo, refuses to allow his daughter and niece to marry the men of their choice because he believes there is a superior civilisation on the Moon that will furnish more suitable partners for them.

The piece owes its slapstick tone to the Italian commedia dell’arte tradition, down to the insolent servants who happily connive with the women to facilitate their meetings, and eventual affiancing, with the men they really want. The play takes aim not just at the social hierarchy, which is as readily soluble in acid wit as it was in the social satires of Ben Jonson, but also at apocryphal beliefs and at the structures of male scholarship that earnestly sustain them.

Science itself, the cornerstone of the allegedly enlightened century to come, might turn out to be just as vulnerable to subversive critique, just as glass-jawed and soft-bellied in Behn’s worldview as religion would be to the philosophes of Voltaire’s generation. Where there is disorder in human affairs, comedy reflects it. Where there isn’t enough, it provokes it.

At the end of Through the Looking-Glass, the newly crowned Alice, possessor of one of the most penetrating critical intelligences in Victorian literature, presides over a banquet that quickly explodes in riotous disarray. Items of food object vociferously to being sliced, one of her fellow Queens shrinks to the size of a chess-piece and goes running about on the tabletop chasing her own cloak, while the festive table becomes a scene of obstreperous anarchy.

Instead of calling for order, as well she might, she accelerates the situation to its inevitable conclusion: ‘“I can’t stand this any longer!” she cried, as she jumped up and seized the tablecloth with both hands: one good pull, and plates, dishes, guests, and candles came crashing down together in a heap on the floor.’ In this, she proves herself a good Nietzschean avant la lettre. ‘That which is falling,’ Zarathustra tells his disciples, ‘deserves to be pushed.’

There is nothing to be gained by regretting a time of disorder such as the present, and wishing for a return to unruffled harmony. Instead, the chance of new political and creative thinking should be seized like Alice’s tablecloth while all is in flux. Since the terms of engagement are already objectively changed, we can change them again, not simply try to turn back the clock in an act of hopeless revisionism. The belief that everything will, of its own accord, revert to the status quo ante is the distilled essence of conservatism, the same impulse reflected in the complacency of Leonard Bernstein who, having lived long enough to see tonality return to favour in contemporary music, observed that ‘eventually time puts everything back in its place’.

Should we have the misfortune to live in uninteresting times, by contrast, the only chance of bringing about productive change may well be through the hope of provoking disorder in human affairs, as against patiently tinkering at the edges. This world after all is the realm of changing light and conflicting voices, of flourishing and fading and springing up again. As George Eliot put it, ‘the realm of silence is large enough beyond the grave’.

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