Monday, January 3, 2011

Transformation II

Transformation I (see below)  noted that all rulers tend to go as far as their people will let them in the abuse of power, a notion admirably tagged with the word ‘kleptocracy’ by jared Diamond  in Guns, Germs and Steel.

The follow-up illustrates Chris Hedges’ contention in Death of the Liberal Class that when the needs of the majority are not met by the kleptocracy, and the middle class that stands between it and the majority fails to take its responsibilities, violent change tends to occur. Hedges’ diagnosis is not only illustrated by history, it is born out by the second law of thermo-dynamics, which I have found to be a precious matrix for political analysis.

Energy organizes molecules to do work, creating what physicists call ‘order’. The lack of energy to do work is called entropy, which physi-cists call ‘disorder’. The state of entropy, when nothing can happen, is associated with the notion of equilibrium, and occurs in systems such as automobiles, that do not communicate with their environment, and therefore are ‘closed’ systems, when their supply of energy runs out. By this definition, oligarchical political systems - or kleptocracies - are also closed systems, since they do not respond to inputs from society.

Very differently, open systems are those which communicate with their environment and hence receive a constant flow of energy/information that keeps them in a state ‘far-from-equiibrium’ that avoids entropy. People tend to visualize a stable state as immobile, when in fact to maintain itself, it must oscillate, however slightly. However, any number of factors can cause the flow of energy to increase to the point where oscillations become totally unstable. When an accelerated flow of energy takes the system too far from equilibrium, it eventually reaches a threshold known as a bifurcation point, or tipping point, from which it dissipates and reforms at a new level of organization. (Open systems are also known as ‘dissipative systems’, and it is the process of dissipation that creates life.)

The irreversible, multiple feedback process that leads to the tipping point makes an open system unpredictable: partly depending on the its previous history, if it does not break down, the new level of organization it creates may or may not represent a higher level of order and complexity, and that is why physics is relevant to politics:

According to the biologist Stuart Kauffman in At Home in the Universe there are three possible states that societies - seen as systems - can be in: one of equilibrium, one of near equilibrium - both of these being closed systems - or a far-from-equilibrium, open state that takes energy from outside and will eventually evolve toward a new dynamic regime.

Think of a system in equilibrium as one that corresponds to a totalitarian state: it does not communicate with its environment. An ‘open’ system takes energy from its people, and by constantly counter-balancing these energy flows, maintains itself for a time in the ideal far-from-equilibrium state. In this state, which we call democracy, it can achieve relatively good compromises. Democracy oscillates between oligarchy - rule by a few - and the inefficiency of a multi-party regime. Constant counter-balancing between order and disorder - or what the Russian physicist Prigogyne calls order floating in a sea of disorder -  is what makes it so unsatisfying. Eventually, democracy reaches a tipping point from which something new emerges, possibly a closed system embodied in a totalitarian regime. According to Kauffman, in this kind of system, poor compromises are found quickly (lots of people go to jail). On the other hand, democracy can dissipate into a chaotic regime (anarchy), where no compromises are found (everyone does his/her thing). Warnings of anarchy are brandished by power to discourage change, but in fact, the opposite of democracy is neither anarchy, nor totalitarianism. Embodying the state of constant balancing between two extremes, democracy stands alone as a yin/yang system.

One of the reasons why even at its best democracy doesn’t solve all our problems, is that we can’t accept the idea of life being sustained at the edge of chaos, to be eventually followed by dissipation. Oblivious to the fact that there’s no definitive, final state, in our linear determination to achieve ‘it’, we overrun everything in our path, opting out of the processes of gradual trans-formation followed by other life forms.

To be sure, we continue to take in ordered structures (food), using them as resources for our metabolism. But instead of allowing  waste - a dissipative structure of low order, hence close to entropy - to be recycled into the environment where it will eventually recreate food/energy, we accumulate it in the form of things. The environmental crisis we’re in results from a lack of open system exchange, partly caused by the human tendency to cling to things.

If we wish to save ourselves when the present chaotic climate becomes an accelerated feedback loop rushing us toward disaster, we will have no choice but to abandon most of our things. Only a world tota-litarian regime would be able to enforce such discipline, and stop the world from falling off a cliff. Such a regime is taking shape before our very eyes, but its purpose is to save the planet for the few. Suffice it to evoke the fundamental difference between a tribal circle and an elected government, to realize how decisively we’ve lost our voice in the decision-making process.

Next - Totalitarianism vs Anarchy

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