How to Act in Times of Chaos?

Five years ago we started Distilled as a response to what we called "The Global Crisis in Confidence". At the time countries the world over were running into severe institutional problems. These problems weren't limited to one specific field, but ran across the spectrum, from the political to the financial, from the social to the cultural. We thought these issues were serious, but probably not yet existential, as there was still time to fix them. That is why we followed up our first magazine with three more issues analysing these problems in a thoughtful, orderly manner.

Now half a decade further a lot has changed, but nothing has really been fixed. And in a lot of places time has run out. This was the case first of all in the Islamic world, where the open wounds caused by the Iraq war of 2003 quickly infected a whole region destabilised by the Arab Spring of 2011. This might also be the case in the United States and Great Britain, where two electoral Rubicons were crossed last year, undoubtedly leading to a more chaotic future. France and Germany may follow their lead in 2017.

On the geopolitical field nothing has been solved either, and new problems are created every month. North Korea is still North Korea. The Middle-East is suffering from even more foreign interventionism. Both Russia and China are reacting ever more assertively to continued Western containment — Russia more so than China under the Obama administration, under Trump possibly the other way around.

We're experiencing a phantom economic recovery at best, and none of the root causes of the 2008 financial crisis have been addressed. And then there's the small matter of climate change, where the modest progress made before Trump will not survive the next few months. Although we should never give up the hope to fix things, we no longer have the luxury to do so in an orderly, thoughtful manner. We have to figure out a way to do it in times of chaos.

People all over the world have already been trying many different approaches over the past few years. Yet all their efforts can be divided into two general responses. The first is the "business as usual" response. It could be seen for example in Paris after the November 2015 terror attacks, where people made a point of quickly returning to their cafés and concerts to prove that they weren't going to change their values and lifestyle. The other response is "extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures", which probably went through people's minds when they voted for Trump or Brexit.

There's a strong intrinsic logic to both of these approaches and on the surface it's hard to tell which one is better. We want to go slightly deeper though, and try to actually answer the question: should we keep acting as normal, or do we have to take extraordinary measures to defend the values of freedom, equality, and democracy? To a large extent the difference between these two responses boils down to the distinction between structure and agency.

Those who advocate that "business as usual" provides the best response to political and economic chaos believe in the strength of moral and societal structures that have been created in the past. In some cases those structures, such as local and federal governments, financial institutions and marketplaces, the institution of marriage, and the church extend back a few decades. In others they might reach back centuries or even millenia. The fact that these structures have survived for all of this time, regardless of the occasional bump in the road, means that society will always return to the moral and social institutions that now seem in disarray. Sooner or later the world will rectify itself, and in the mean time the best course of action is to maintain stability in one's personal actions. By doing so, the world is not further disrupted and the path to recovery remains open for those who are willing to walk it.

Conversely, those who profess that we should take extraordinary measures believe that the existing structures have already failed. In their view it is up to individual people to re-open the roads that the current chaos seems to have closed. Everyone has to use his or her own agency — for example through strikes, protests, or boycotts — to oppose negative developments and to restore order. This idea often ends in support for decisive action. As history has often demonstrated, organisations and systems do not necessarily have sufficient powers to rectify themselves, therefore relying on the above-mentioned structures can be an issue.

Both views pose problems when applied to the current situation. The reliance on structure is too passive and constrained given the extent to which earlier certainties are being eroded, whereas decisive action is difficult for anyone who has vested interests such as a job or family that demands most attention. As a consequence everyone is confronted with the same dilemma: how do we reconcile the need to act with the practical limitations of family, work, and public pressure?

Therefore, the course of action that is most desirable is both active and workable, a middle position between structure and agency. We suggest that the best strategy to deal with chaos is to do the same in most circumstances but pick a few areas where you try to act differently. Think of it as a "picking your battles" approach, instead of "business as usual" or "extraordinary measures". Although to some, such limited actions might seem too little, we believe that this is the most realistic way forward.

How do we, therefore, determine when and under which circumstances to act differently? That depends on your current place in society.

Shortly after the election of Donald Trump, historian Timothy Snyder offered a set of practical guidelines by which to live in an age of creeping authoritarianism. Among bits of advice such as practicing measured disobedience and maintaining calm in the face of crisis, Snyder recommends the nourishment of one's sense of professional ethics. If great institutions and professional bodies are subverted into instruments of oppression, professional ethics are a set of tools and heuristics that allow workers to determine how they may have the greatest impact.

Professional ethics may range from swearing an oath to do no harm to heuristics regarding transparency, accountability, and honesty. Ethical practice may even encompass the realm of privileged non-compliance, the art of knowing when not to perform a professional action as a means of resistance.

For example, the fields of medicine, technology, law, finance, etc. try to practice professional ethics by convening institutional review boards and other conscious study groups. While these groups may not be able to determine the ideal course of action under every conceivable situation, they may be able to recommend sets of ethical heuristics to their member practitioners. In rare cases they can even set punitively binding "red lines" that must never be crossed. Both the medical and legal professions, of course, have maintained these institutions for many years. Despite their occasional lapse into corruption, these institutions may serve as practical models for professionals in other fields with ever-increasing societal influence.

We recommend that people who are already part of "the system" take ownership of these ethical bodies and discussions within their profession. It might seem more heroic to quit your job in finance, lobbying, or security, and become a professional revolutionary instead, but the truth is that you're probably more likely to make a meaningful difference through a qualified form of resistance within your sector.

As another suggestion to those who are struggling in their professional life, we say stop feeling ashamed, stop apologising. Don't just take any job because you feel pressured to do so. Most jobs that are available to you are probably harmful anyway, either to society or to your own future. You can keep your head up high and be proud to refuse them. People might see your behaviour as lazy or immature, but there are many ways to prove them wrong.

These actions can put you into conflict with your peers and members of your community. By carefully questioning the areas in which we can exercise agency in our lives, we must inevitably resist external pressure. Yet, at the same time, we diminish our resistance to our inner sense of conscience. The late Czech dissident and playwright Vaclav Havel described this approach to action as "living in truth". To live in truth not only means seeking truth but living according to the sense of truth guided by one's conscience.

This individual choice will have a collective impact when exercised in concert with others who have made a similar vow to live in truth. With time and patience, these actions coalesce into movements and provide a sense of renewed energy and focus in reforming existing structures. Havel's Charter 77 movement emerged out of a desire to adhere to the standards and principles declared by the Communist regime of Czechoslovakia and culminated into a movement incorporating existing institutions as well as creating new ones such as the Civic Forum and the slate of post-communist parties.

In times of chaos the truth is rarely orderly and simple. In mathematics, chaos is simply high variability of outcomes given low variability in initial conditions over a finite period of time. A chaotic system would be one in which a single vote one way or the other leads to drastically different political climates. In systems that exhibit high levels of chaos, the elements of predictability and stability that underpin consensus are weakened. Hence the truth as a compass must lie within ourselves as individuals first and from there spread amongst our immediate community. We can never fully understand how our actions will roil global systems, but we can seek to understand the part of the world in which we live and the communities we are part of.

While we must seek to restore a balance between chaos and order, it is also important to remember that the uncertainty generated by chaos is fertile ground for creativity. We can cultivate within ourselves a resilient inner freedom by accepting and even embracing the chaos of the world we live in. We have created systems that have replaced the gods as highly potent forces for unpredictable change. Rather than fear these forces, we can better understand their power and harness their ability to help us.

Let's embrace the opportunity to make unexpected connections and to generate new rituals and ethical practices in the wake of what chaos leaves behind. While what we create will at first lack the refinement of the culture and institutions we had inherited and lost, our creations may nevertheless be a more genuine and appropriate response to the open-ended questions we currently face. A time of chaos can indeed be a time of opportunity, but only if you pick your battles.

Bram De Ridder
Brecht Savelkoul
Sarang Shah