In Praise of Disorder

Although we humans have an inherent need to reconcile the world we live in so that we might ameliorate any measure of maddening dissonance between our beliefs, our aspirations, and the brutal realities thrust upon us, the truth is our world is a messy and chaotic place that progresses through random events.  Many of those events are originated by the few among us who engage in what Yale’s James C. Scott recently described as thoughtful disobedience.  Anarchism, he argues, is alive and well throughout both the developed and developing world and can be credited with much of the progress we herald as great.  At times, Scott illustrates, anarchism is expressed as acts of insubordination—both large and small—that alter our world.  Small, like students tromping a new path through the well-groomed grass of a university quadrangle that is later made ‘official’ by being paved with concrete once grounds crews realize that reseeding the preferred route is a fool’s task, and large like Rosa Parks act of defiance on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955 that gave rise to the civil rights movement, which resulted in the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  Official order, largely conjured to protect those in power, is no match for what Scott describes as “vernacular order” that is claimed, expressed, and maintained by the “petty bourgeoisie.”[1]

Disorder, in Scott’s interpretation, is the necessary condition of progress; without it we would be staking our future on official committees that at birth lack the necessary chromosomal attributes to produce anything at all that might be considered new or better.  For example, as we reflect on great accomplishments in education (KIPP Academies), technology (iPhone), and medicine (stem cell research), each were advanced by one or a few people working against official order including well-funded adversaries with access to seemingly overwhelming political power.  And yet, working in the ether of disorder, they have prevailed and created new models of success for others to follow.  Scott’s message is worth serious consideration while our politicians, corporate titans, central bankers, Davos elite, and the jester-pundits that dance in their vaporous wake fight over the microphone in a gratuitous attempt to persuade us that our future flows through them.  Disorder, not the order inferred by institutions, norms, and opinion polls is the incubator of greatness.  Although many of us, myself included, appreciate President Obama’s recent clarion call for togetherness in his second inaugural address, the quest for the benefits of common interest and collective action—rooted (as he argued) in the words of the Declaration of Independence—must be preceded by the inspirations of the few among us who find no trepidation in ignoring official order that is guarded by the vapid sentries of banality.[2]  Indeed, those who penned the Declaration itself rejected the order of the day.  The togetherness that followed and gave birth to a new nation was also courageous, but absent the impetus born of inspiration and insubordination in the oft-maligned chaos of disorder, the United States would have never come into being.

The benefits of disorder are further substantiated in the work of Nicholas Nassim Taleb.  His thesis, which has been developed in his books Fooled by Randomness (2001), The Black Swan (2007), and Antifragile (2012) argues that the world advances largely by events that no one – especially those who live in the trappings of official order – see coming, but which have profound effects on financial markets and the societies we call our own.  The strategic implications are, he argues, quite obvious: seek an antifragile state of being in order to gain from volatility and disorder, which is predominant (and always has been) in the world in which we live.  The great model, which both Scott and Taleb use as a referent for their monikers of anarchism and antifragility, is nature itself, which is the most antifragile system in the world, constantly adapting to, and benefiting from, volatility and disorder.  How to become antifragile starts with accepting that the world does not function according to the theories and models taught in most academic institutions that seek to provide their students with tools to fit the world inside of a box constructed from magical (and tenured!) thinking.  Then, structure an autonomous life disconnected from systemic risk by, for example, eliminating debt.  Seek not just resilience—the capacity to recover from the inevitable shocks that occur—but aim to benefit from the volatility and disorder that crushes the fragile.  In effect, win the game before others even realize it has begun.

The great work-arounds that I wrote about here in December 2011, and regaining personal sovereignty, which I wrote about in June 2012, are emblematic of disorder-friendly modalities.  One must simply ignore the silliness of those who claim that by virtue of their position or birthright they are worthy of our attention … that we ought to follow them without questioning first the very source of their presumed power.  If it originates from beyond their own personal intellect and character, we should turn our faces away and treat them as a nuisance of distraction while we pursue our own ambitions and dreams under the counsel of our own hard-won sensibilities.  There exist innumerable stories throughout history of how individuals changed the course of history while there are very few (if any) that can be credited to those who claim the mantle of official order.  It is in our power—as antifragile anarchists—to change our world.

[1] James C. Scott, Two Cheers for Anarchism (Princeton: Princeton University Press), pp. 30, 84.
[2] A transcript of Obama’s second Inaugural Address can be found at