Talking about Disorder

Every day we read that we live in an age of disorder. But what does that mean? Are our intellectual tools for ordering the world just not sharp enough?

In my essay ‘No End State: Exploring Vocabularies of Political Disorder,’ I try to clarify what we might be talking about when we talk about disorder in society, politics and global affairs. I suggest that there are at least give different kinds of disorder, each of which deserves its own analysis.

First is lawlessness, exemplified by the barbarians outside the gate, such as the nomad, the pirate or the outlaw. Such groups represent the antithesis of the orderly state—yet in history they have often been fundamental to state-making, from the Mongols of central Asia to the frontiersmen celebrated in contemporary America. Second is chaos, the character of a system too complex to be modelled accurately. Within this category of chaos there is risk generated by the triumphs of modernity: our own institutions and technologies have become so complex that those who design them may not understand them. Next is incommensurability: the incomplete legibility of an unfamiliar system. Because translation always contains an element of indeterminacy, this isn’t just a question of seeking a deeper underlying order—there is at least a residual element of uncertainty. Fourth is disorder by design: the strategies adopted by rulers to prevent organized opposition from emerging. Last is revolutionary disruption, once a preserve of the radical left but recently appropriated by the political right.

I go on to identify four processes of disordering, namely calamity, violence, markets and democracy. Of these, the most intriguing is the last: possibly, disruption is a  fundamental character of democratic power, subverting of any entitlement to rule on the basis of social order.

Western nations have been relatively protected from disorder, and the western academy even more so. There is much to learn from societies on the margins of global power relations, where the workings of disorderings can be seen in their most raw forms.

The essay explores what it might mean to bring concepts of disorder in from the margins of political-economic theory, dethroning the ordered institution as the analytical center of the political science episteme. This is not a theorization of disorder, but the preliminary task of exploring a vocabulary which could allow us to talk sensibly about the varieties and logics of disorder.

Photo: Amazing Filament, Solar Dynamics Observatory, NASA, August 7, 2014 (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Alex de Waal is a Research Professor at The Fletcher School, Tufts University, and leads the WPF research programs on African Peacemaking and Mass Starvation.

Considered one of the foremost experts on the Horn of Africa, his scholarly work and practice has also probed humanitarian crisis and response, human rights, pandemic disease, and conflict and peace-building. His latest book is New Pandemics, Old Politics: Two Hundred Years of War on Disease and its Alternatives. He is also author of Mass Starvation: The History and Future of Famine and The Real Politics of the Horn of Africa (Polity Press, 2015) Following a fellowship with the Global Equity Initiative at Harvard (2004-06), he worked with the Social Science Research Council as Director of the program on HIV/AIDS and Social Transformation, and led projects on conflict and humanitarian crises in Africa (2006-09). During 2005-06, de Waal was seconded to the African Union mediation team for Darfur and from 2009-11 served as senior adviser to the African Union High-Level Implementation Panel for Sudan. He was on the list of Foreign Policy’s 100 most influential public intellectuals in 2008 and Atlantic Monthly’s 27 “brave thinkers” in 2009 and is the winner of the 2024 Huxley Award of the Royal Anthropological Institute. Professor de Waal regularly teaches a course on Conflict in Africa at the Fletcher School, Tufts University.  During this course, students should gain a deeper understanding of the nature of contemporary violent conflict in Africa. Students will be expected to master the key theoretical approaches to violence in Africa, and to become familiar with a number of important case studies. The focus is on the origins and nature of violence, rather than policy responses and solutions. The course is inter-disciplinary and involves readings in political science, international relations, and social anthropology, while also touching on economics, environmental studies, and history. 

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