Brexit and Complexity

May 10, 2017

Complexity is probably the chief problem of Brexit…

There’s a line in the song “Hotel California” by the Eagles that reminds me of the Brexit conundrum – “You can check out any time you want but you can never leave”…

Leaving aside key problems like the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic and the status of migrants, leaving aside the ideology, particularly the post imperial arrogance of the Little Englanders, and the fact that the EU cannot survive if leavers appear to prosper, the chief problem of leaving is the mind boggling complexity of the process. That was one of the things that Juncker appeared to be trying to say to Theresa May at the ill fated meal that created such a hoo ha. That is why Yanis Varoufakis is probably right with his suggestion to opt for the “Norwegian model” as an off the shelf interim arrangement for a period of a few years.

Neither the European Union nor the UK government have the time to negotiate in depth a huge number of details that gradually accumulated over decades. The comment from a eurocrat that the EU has perhaps half an hour a week to discuss Brexit was not just, or even mainly, a put down. It was a statement that there are only 24 hours in a day and there are many many other things the EU managers and policy makers and politicians in each nation state have to discuss and to decide. That’s true in Britain too.

Unfortunately Theresa May has a reputation as a micro manager. She wants to be on top of all the details when there is not the time to be – either for the EU, its individual states, nor for the UK. To control all the details is a non starter because there are too many of them. In other words she is an extraordinarily bad manager. That way leads to screaming stress, an impossible workload and massive rows because the only way it could work as a process is if one side says what is going to happen and the other side agrees. If multiple points are really negotiated with give and take it would take an eternity.

May’s petulant outbursts are just the beginning of what will be some massive conflicts – and a predictable break down in negotiations because they are impossible to oversee in the time available and with the multiplicity of actors. In cybernetic terms the variety is too great – unless she (or the successor government that ousts her at the election) gives the EU and herself the easy way out – an off the peg solution.

That’s what makes the Tory slogan ‘strong and stable leadership’ completely vacuous and utterly naive. A crisis in the negotiations is completely inevitable without the Varoufakis solution. I fear however that if elected May will be too arrogant and too small minded to be able to admit this and we will all suffer.

The historian and archeologist Joseph Tainter made a name for himself with his book The Collapse of Complex Societies. At a certain point civilisations collapse because they become more and more complex – in management, governance and administration, in the division of labour, in technologies. At first growing complexity makes things easier to manage but after a time the growing complexity has diminishing returns. It makes some apparently desirable changes unachievable like unscrambling an egg. The growing together of the EU’s economic, technological, financial, trade, legal and governmental systems over several decades has been like that – as has the growing together of personal arrangements, as millions of people have migrated both ways and built lives and relationship across the borders. Trying to unscramble them by a managed and negotiated process will be virtually impossible.

Complexity is about “variety”. That’s a technical term in cybernetics (the art of steering organisations/management). It’s another way of saying that one shoe size does not fit all – nor one glove size, waistline, inside trouser leg or size of head….Simplifying is annoyingly difficult because as every bureaucracy discovers – no matter how the regulations are written there will always be some case, some customer, claimant, company or product that the regulations don’t cover. That’s variety. Ideally management and governance regimes are able to cover this variety but to do that they keep on adding new exceptions, new rules whereas if you go the other way – simplify – then what happens is that someone is a victim. That’s what is happening now as Trump and the Republicans try to dismantle Obamacare in the USA. There will be hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of victims who would no longer be eligible if this passes into law. Interestingly, many House Representatives did not actually read the bill they voted in favour of. Nor was it checked over to ascertain its consequences. That is the sign of a governing system so complex decisions are made based merely on allegiances without any detailed thought.

Yet the other direction – adding variety to management and governance arrangements – means even more unwieldy bureaucracy and rising costs – increasing complexity. That is Tainter’s point. It’s a trap and eventually complex societies collapse because of it. Brexit is revealing this problem for us.

That does not make the EU a desirable arrangement in its current form – the eurocrat managers and leaders are arrogant and ruthless. They use this inflexibility for their own agenda, to assert that there is no alternative. They and their banker friends are able to use their power to crush whole societies like Greece. Breaking free however will prove politically and economically agonising and the best option is to try to go as close as possible to an off the peg interim solution.


Teaser photo credit: By Simon A. Eugster – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Brian Davey

I now live in Nottingham in semi-retirement. This means doing much the same as when I was 64 but with a state pension and tiny private pension as well. In 1970 I got a 1st in Economics at Nottingham University – and then in 1974 an M.Phil. for a thesis on a Marxist approach to the economic development of India. This led to a varied career working with mainly community projects both in the UK and abroad. In 2003 John Jopling of Feasta followed a suggestion of Richard Douthwaite's and invited me to a yearly group discussion by the sea – at Rossbeigh in Kerry. I have been going virtually every year since then and have spent much of my spare time involved in the ecological and economics discussions of Feasta, particularly in its climate work. After Richard's passing I stepped into part of a teaching role that he had had at Dublin City University teaching on a degree in Religion and Ecology. This teaching led, in turn, to this book.

Tags: Brexit, collapse of complex societies