The Complexity of Reciprocity

EveningAnother very warm day. The snow we had Tuesday night is rapidly melting. Here at the mid-latitudes climate change proceeds at a fast pace.

I’ve been thinking about the negative tilt that can occur with reciprocity. Reciprocity refers to the tendency for systems to co-evolve, and is usually used to describe  small-scale human interactions that build mutual trust and interdependence. It is a strong attractor resulting in social cohesion.

Reciprocity can take on a sort of negative tilt, resulting in a “tit for tat” regime of social interaction; an extreme version of this is ethnic conflict that extends over generations, the “Hatfields and McCoys effect”. When reciprocity takes on a negative orientation,warfare replaces generosity as the basis for social cohesion.

As I was going to sleep last night I found myself puzzling over the present political and social landscape here in the U.S.. Many social scientists have predicted that the next twenty to thirty years will be a time of intense social conflict, marked by extreme swings in ideology and policy. This comes at a time when cohesion, thoughtful analysis, and shared vision are needed if we are to address a wide array of crucial national and world-wide challenges.

It also comes at a time when the major parties seem to have developed a general disregard for the common good, and appear bent on mutual inhalation. After the election of President Obama, the Democrats acted as though they would be in power for decades, an idea supported by the media. Now the Republicans speak and act from a belief they could hold power for the next thirty years. Such hubris fits the times, but suggests a faulty reading of history and a fatal refusal to acknowledge the contemporary world as extremely volatile.

This volatility has increased as both parties have, during the past forty years, participated in the active destruction of social discourse, and the erasure of concepts of shared responsibility for the social and environmental commons. The incoming administration seems determined to completely dismantle what remains of the social and environmental safety net, actions which must surely further alienate the large, and apparently growing, portion of the populace expressing antipathy for both parties. Given that most people rely on some form of governmental aid to meet their needs for health, education, accessibility, environmental quality, jobs, and cultural/race relations, it is difficult to imagine the people being more satisfied with the government in the years ahead.

As the new administration prepares to take office, the seeds of their undoing are already planted. We live in a world that is increasingly out of balance, and we are likely to witness wild swings in the political, moral, and social pendulum. Thirty years of “rule” (as opposed to “governance”) by either party is as likely as was the thousand years of the Third Reich.

Social systems are, like all complex, evolving systems, subject to extreme events in which they move far from equilibrium. The path back to balance is seldom easy or straight forward, but it is imperative if a system is to survive.




5 thoughts on “The Complexity of Reciprocity

  1. A nicely written piece. I have a couple of ideas in incubation but haven’t had the energy to write. I seem to be engaging in a lot of escapism. I think of our shared journey almost daily so I will write – but not just yet.

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