Requisite Variety, or why the right can’t win without losing
In systems theory, there is a concept called Requisite Variety: that the system must have sufficient diversity to respond to the diverse demands of the environment. For example, a computer store that sold just one computer is less viable than a store that sells a range of models to meet different needs. It applies to organisms too: species must be to cope with the range of conditions in their environmental niche or… well, dinosaurs. Or humans if we carry on without dealing with climate change. Systems without requisite variety are non-viable; they die.
When I think of conservative (and indeed, fascist) responses to diversity, I am reminded of Requisite Variety. If a system can’t cope with the diversity of its environment, it isn’t viable. In practice, there are two possible responses by the system: to alter the environment to reduce external variety, or to alter the system to handle greater demand diversity.
Humans evolved with a very generalist set of skills, and we can survive in a wide range of environments. We do that not by increasing our internal capabilities, but by altering our environment. Cold environment? Build a warm shelter and make a fire. Warm sunny environment? Build a shady but open shelter, invent fans and aircon.
Organisations do something similar. A hundred or so years ago, automobile manufacturers needed to create an environment to support their crazy new cars. They created networks of fuelling stations, published books detailing excursions and trips, and sold people on the romance of the open road. Pharmaceutical companies invent and promote new diseases for which they have just the right product!
Systems alter their environment.
But if that doesn’t work, then the system alters itself, or dies.
Oil companies tried (and continue to try) altering the environment by seeking to systematically ignore the harm that oil products do to the environment. You can tell they’re losing because the big companies are (awkwardly) embracing renewable energy sources, and building new internal capabilities to sell solar or wind power. And the car manufacturers that created an environment 100 years ago are now adapting their organisations to produce electric vehicles, abandoning the internal combustion engine and the petrol/gas supply infrastructure for which they lobbied and in which they invested. (And yes there’s rightly arguments about corporations constantly exploiting diversity for profit, but that’s really the system changing to account for diversity, often in clunky ways at first.)
Species evolve into new environmental niches with different demands, if the change happens slowly enough. We’ve observed bacteria adapt to environments which contain chemicals that were previously toxic.
In face of diversity, the environment changes, or the system changes, or the system dies.
Throughout history, we’ve seen people with power seek to oppress diversity. Whether that’s religious diversity (the Crusades), gender diversity (preventing women from owning property unless they’re widows), ethnic and racial diversity (“no blacks, no Irish, no dogs”), sexual diversity (prosecuting gay men such as Oscar Wilde and Alan Turing), neurodiversity (tying left hands behind pupils backs, creating rigid highly disciplined learning environments) or ability diversity (preventing people in wheelchairs from being able to enter buildings), systems of power have preferred to shape environments to avoid having to change themselves. I barely need to mention the horrors of 1930s/40s Germany, where a single system tried to alter the environment to exclude Jews, queer people, Roma, the physically and intellectually disabled, and political opponents.
But because of Requisite Variety, we know that such systems are doomed to die: they cannot survive because the system cannot cope with the diversity with which they are faced. Regardless of whether they use religious belief, law or violence (passive or active) to deny diversity a place in their system, they are divorcing themselves from their environment and without Requisite Variety, the system is doomed. And the right-wing are invariably the people who seek to change the environment instead of the system.
Capitalism is the ultimate in adaptive organisms; if it detects a toxin, it starts working out how to metabolise it into its energy source: profits. Diversity, slowly, becomes part of its system, and former hazards become resources of its system.
So, whether it’s the Tories in Britain rejecting the diversity of being part of the EU and denying trans people bodily autonomy, or Republicans in Texas, Florida and Idaho persecuting trans and other queer youth, extremist religious groups oppressing women, or the global systems of oppression targeting ethnic minorities, all they can do is prolong their inevitable and painful deaths. Even Russia takes on some clarity given this lens: an old guard desperately holding on to power by fighting against democratic ideas, and internal diversity.
Because although they try, they can’t remove diversity from their environment, they don’t have Requisite Variety, and so whatever they’re fighting against becomes like a toxin that kills that organism unless it evolves.
And they’re dying. They’re fighting against it, they’re trying to reduce diversity, and they’re killing is, but they’re always dying. This is their eternal screeching at an oncoming meteor. We will survive because of our diversity and our ability to adapt to a changing environment.
So, help those in Ukraine, help the LGBTQ+ kids and adults that are being oppressed, work with black communities, support women, build ramps, consider the neurodiversity because in so doing, you ensure our collective survival, and let the oppressors rot.