Analyzing events: Equilibrium and perturbation


In an earlier post, I touched on the problem of analyzing events.  Here I’d like to extend the analysis of analysis, considered in light of Terrence Deacon’s difficult book, Incomplete Nature.  Some of the positions taken below contradict the earlier post.  Whether this is because I understand the subject in greater depth or because I am greatly confused, I’m happy to leave for the reader to decide. . .

Human communities are complex systems composed of other complex systems.  All things being equal, these systems and subsystems – nations, localities, institutions, organizations, and it may be, individuals – tend toward entropy, or equilibrium.  They seek the path of least resistance.

In a system composed of human beings, “equilibrium” means some combination of satisfaction among decision-makers and gatekeepers for each subsystem, and of acceptance by everyone else.  In a totalitarian system such as Stalinist Russia, the decision-makers were few (gatekeepers, however, were legion), and acceptance was based on fear.  An egalitarian democracy such as Switzerland, on the other extreme, has a broader base of decision-makers, and requires a greater measure of active support.  Which of these antipodal conditions tends more toward equilibrium (all things equal) is an important question, but I won’t seek to answer it here.

Human systems are in any case dynamic:  they are in constant flux and evolution, and can’t attain anything like perfect equilibrium.  Entropy is a tendency, never an end state.  Communities and their component parts pursue specific directions, determined to some extent by subjective ideals:  by desire.  Stalin’s Soviet Union, for example, aimed at “pure communism” and organized many of its institutions and decisions around this distant goal.  The pursuit of personal happiness has been a powerful organizing force for Americans.  Yet ideals like communism and the pursuit of happiness are promises, glimpses into a desirable future, reconceived every generation to propel them beyond the reach of present achievement.

Analysts of events, whose job it is to study the effects of perturbation on human communities, typically fail to account for the complexity and directionality of their subject matter.  Most analysts model the political universe along Newtonian lines.  They see communities as bodies moving in a linear path, from which they can escape only when perturbed by an external cause:  for example, collision with another body.  This explains that seeming paradox, the political analyst’s love affair with economics.  For the analyst, economics is the handy-dandy, universal external cause.

Empirically, I think it can be demonstrated that the Newtonian model is a dead end.  Economic crises – say, those of 1929 and 2008 – have had very different effects on materially similar communities:  the difference must be accounted, at least in part, by factors intrinsic to the systems.  Different interactions, different ideals, different attractors pulled the outcomes far apart despite near starting positions.

But this is almost beside the point.  The Newtonian model collapses as an explanation once we accept the directionality of human communities.  That model requires the perturbing forces to be present, whether in the form of a vast impersonal cause like the class struggle, or of a material intrusion into the system like war or ecological failure.  Yet the great causal engines of human systems, like the pursuit of happiness and pure communism, are absent, and exist objectively only as attractors to subjective states – that is, as hope and desire, revelatory glimpses into a happy future.  Deacon called this effect teleodynamic.  It means that human beings act in accordance with conditions which aren’t there, and human systems, therefore, make a hash of Newtonian mechanics.

At a stroke, the analyst of events is liberated from his obsession with external forces.  Such forces are real, and represent the existential questions posed to the system by the environment.  Like the Sphinx’s riddle, the questions can be dangerous – sometimes a matter of life and death.  What I am suggesting here, however, is that it’s the answer provided by the community which carries the greatest causal weight.

Almost by definition, most sources of sociopolitical change are internal to the system.  Often change has only a distant connection to riddles posed by the environment, and has everything to do with the destructive logic of the system.  Subsystems seek equilibrium along paths which interfere with one another:  perturbation ensues, and the landscape is altered.  The Egyptian military, Hazem Kandil makes clear, had lost the battle for influence and wealth to the state security apparatus and the ruling clique around Mubarak.  The military leadership was less than satisfied with this state of affairs; the rank and file were less than accepting of the existing regime.  These perturbations of the system were invisible to an analyst working with the Newtonian model.  But they were decisive to the Egyptian revolution of 2011, when the military, once a pillar of the Mubarak regime, refused to intervene on its behalf after protesters had scattered the security forces.

It is a commonplace today among historians that the Roman Empire wasn’t overthrown by invading barbarians, but fell from self-inflicted wounds.  There is a sense in which this is true of every human system.

The question of equilibrium and perturbation in human communities is closely linked to the central theme of this blog:  the technologically-enabled revolt of the public against authority, what I have called the Fifth Wave of information.  The rise of the public is a sure indicator of perturbation in the system.  A public crystallizes when a critical mass of individuals who are keenly interested in some matter defect from existing subsystems, by which they feel ill served.  Such a public is united only in non-acceptance:  criticism of decision-makers and gatekeepers, rejection of standing arrangements, demands for change.  The effect is to pull the subsystems – governments, institutions, organizations – away from their spontaneous march toward entropy, generating a perturbing uncertainty about the direction of the community.

Continued at an intense enough pitch, uncertainty will engender turbulence, disequilibrium, and phase change:  revolution.  Explaining this process – the decline and fall of human systems – generally ends in a muddle, I suspect because in good Newtonian fashion we tend to overvalue the objective factors.  The question I would pose is to what extent is disequilibrium identical to the extinction of narratives.  The search for an answer must be postponed for a future post.

cowd scene

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2 Responses to Analyzing events: Equilibrium and perturbation

  1. Please look at and be aware that you are citing the work of an accused plagiarist who is under formal investigation by UC Berkeley

  2. thefifthwave says:

    Thanks for that – I was unaware of the problem with Deacon. I’ve read Juarrero’s book, which I think is brilliant and have cited in a couple of my posts. There were similarities, but I must say also differences in emphasis, or so I thought. Must say, Deacon’s English is so stylistically wretched, much of what he says is original if only because it’s also undecipherable…

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