A few years ago an American author with roots in the Middle East, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, published a book which became a bestseller and for a while, was the topic of intense commentary in both academic and popular circles. The book was called The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. The book focuses on the impact of certain kinds of unpredictable events and on the nature of reactions to such events.
The book was not about politics or history. It was part philosophical treatise and part financial analysis but its central premise really deals with a phenomenon known to all students of politics and history which is the significant impact on the course of events which can and does occur when these ' accidents of history ' take place.
The critical fact of a Black Swan event or an accident of history is that it is unexpected, unanticipated and directly and significantly impacts the course of events in ways which are unpredictable. It is this randomness of the consequences of Black Swan events which give to them such potent significance.
Black Swan events can come from anywhere. They are forces of nature. The tsunami of 2004 which brought a wide swath of destruction to countries in the Indian Ocean was one such event. Hurricane Katrina was another. In the case of Katrina although it was in a sense anticipated and its progress tracked from the time it was formed no one anticipated its impact and the devastation of its consequences.
But Black Swan events can also be manmade. Indeed Taleb focuses a great deal of discussion on the collapse of the world financial system which took place in 2008. That event, which, given its consequences, could certainly be described as an economic tsunami, changed, and is still changing, the course of events, the historical trajectory if you will, of countries all over the world.
Black Swan events however do not have to be huge or have worldwide impact. They may be as simple as the death of a particular leader, or the actions of a single individual which galvanises a country or the world. It is the randomness and improbability of the consequences of Black Swan events which are their defining characteristic.
Let us take leave of Mr Taleb and focus on the place and significance of Black Swan events in the political arena. We already know that such accidents of history play and have always played a critical role in influencing and shaping political developments.
Karl Marx famously wrote that, "Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past." And to this we might add that they also make it subject to the unplanned directions imposed by Black Swan events.
There is however perhaps one crucial difference which is to be discerned when we examine the Black Swan phenomenon which arises within the political sphere. While Black Swan events are for the most part unexpected and unanticipated, their real significance lies in the randomness and unpredictability of their impact particularly in terms of their consequences.
It is important to make this distinction because it is possible to argue that in the political sphere Black Swan events can be anticipated. Just as it was possible in general terms to anticipate Hurricane Katrina; (it was hurricane season, the atmospheric conditions were conducive for the development of a large hurricane) it is also possible, in the political sphere, to anticipate the advent of Black Swan events by examining the prevailing social, economic and political conditions.
Let me hasten to emphasise that I am referring here to Black Swan events which arise within the political arena. It is, of course, entirely possible that there could be Black swan events which arise outside of the political arena and which could significantly impact political developments. Such events remain entirely unpredictable.
But when we limit ourselves to the confines of the political arena, it is possible to identify by the analysis of the conditions within the arena, when such conditions are ripe for the advent of one or more Black Swan events. Remember the defining characteristic of a Black Swan event is the randomness and unpredictability of it consequences.
But such randomness and unpredictability is in great part a function of the limits of our frame of reference.
Our thinking is always limited in scope and we make assumptions based on what we see, know, and assume. And what we perceive as 'random and unpredictable' is only so in terms of the limited circumference of our frame of reference.
If this argument is valid, and I believe it is, then a logical development of that argument is that the more circumscribed or the less robust, (to use Taleb's term) our frame of reference, the more events can come to seem to be random and unpredictable, and, in this context, less amenable to influence and control.
Let me close the circle by stating that I have for a while now propounded the view that what we have been witnessing in our country and society is the progressive collapse of the institutions of state under the weight of their own irrelevance. But it should be noted that as that institutional system collapses in on itself, one consequence is that our frames of reference, those structures of assurances and assumptions with which we navigate the world, also become less and less robust.
In other words our frames of reference, constructed to allow us to deal with a political world of particular configurations, become more and more useless as that world collapses in around us. The consequence is that we have few cognitive tools for dealing with or making sense of new events, unexpected events, and unanticipated events.
In the event all such events become Black Swans and we are assailed by a flock of these strange and improbable birds. In such a scenario the biggest Black Swan of all is how we shall react to the terror of that situation.
Michael Harris's column returns in November.