Political Systems Through the Lens of Chaos Theory

A brief sketch

Society is a dynamical system, its constitution, the interrelationship between all of its members, is always changing, always evolving, which means that a political system of governance can never settle down to a static set of rules. Atop a fluid world of men an ideal state is impossible, for as long as men live old formations must become obsolete.

Almost Intransitive Systems and Strange Attractors

“History never repeats itself, but it rhymes.”

Mark Twain1

Edward Lorenz, a mathematician meteorologist and pioneer of chaos theory, describes almost intransitive systems as: “systems of equations possessing solutions which behave in one manner for an extended period of time, and then change more or less abruptly to another mode of behavior for an equally long time.” Such systems possess something called strange attractors, points towards which the system is drawn, but never meets. A picture makes this concept instantly graspable. Below is a diagram of the Lorenz attractor, a chaotic system that revolves around two poles, alternating at seemingly random intervals and never following any single path twice:

The Lorenz attractor

Image source: Wikipedia

If we think about society as a dynamical system, then political systems of governance must fluctuate between different attractors, just like the loops in the Lorenz diagram above. Furthermore, because the system is chaotic, because it is always changing, the political system will never fully suit its society—in time it will become obsolete, and the system will swing towards a different orientation. History shows this in the shifts between traditional and radical governments, between conservatives and liberals, between the individual and the collective, between atheism and religion. In a milder form, perhaps a sub-fluctuation of the above, Western governments continually shift between more socialist, more liberal parties and the more traditional, more conservative ones. No single orientation lasts because over time its form of governance grows unsatisfactory to a portion of the population. In more extreme cases, the form of governance decays and is thrown off via a revolution.

The Butterfly Effect and the Great Man Theory

Sensitive dependence on initial conditions—colloquially known as the butterfly effect—is a term used to describe systems that can have wildly different outcomes arising from minute changes in their variables. Here are two Lorenz attractors whose initial x-coordinate differs by a mere 10−5. While the trajectories at first are alike, they soon begin to diverge considerably:

Two slightly different Lorenz attractor orbits

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

The great man theory was a 19th century idea popularized by Thomas Carlyle, who wrote that “the history of the world is but the biography of great men.” The theory holds that through their wisdom and energy great men can shape the destinies of their countries and the world. This was contested by men like Herbert Spencer who considered great historical figures to be the products of their time. It is the problem of agency: do great men shape the world, or are they simply the products of historical movements?

If we consider society as a dynamical system with a sensitive dependence on initial conditions then the impact of great men can resonate and amplify through time, considerably affecting historical trends. While all individuals are undoubtedly shaped by the zeitgeist of the world into which they are born, their actions may have a profound effect on the political system—perhaps not changing its essence, but redirecting it towards another strange attractor, another political orientation—e.g. radical to traditional, conservative to liberal, and so on.

Antifragility and the Remaining Constant

What are the implications of the idea that there can never be a perfect government for the design of political systems? One suggestion can be found in Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s concept of antifragility. Taleb suggests that the antonym of fragile is not resilient, but antifragile. Something that is fragile is harmed or destroyed by change, something that is resilient is able to withstand it without itself changing, but something that is antifragile actually gains and grows stronger from change. An example of antifragility in the body can be demonstrated by weight lifting—straining your bones and muscles (up to a certain point) by lifting something very heavy damages them in the short term, but they respond by growing stronger. In the world of markets antifragility is demonstrated by options—reserving the right to buy or sell shares in the future at a set price. Without market fluctuation, you lose a little by paying for the cost of the options, but with large market jumps you stand to gain a lot.

The implications on political theory are as follows: large, centralized, bureaucratized governments are fragile because they put everyone in danger at times of change. For example, an interconnected global banking system affects most of the globe, so a collapse caused by garbage mortgage bonds in the United States cascades around the world, causing a major international financial crisis. In a decentralized system an individual problem does not drag everyone down. This is how evolution works across a species: those least adapted to their environment die, but the rest survive and pass on their genes to the next generation, in turn better adapting it to the changing environment. Planned economies, like that in the Soviet Union, grind everything to a halt, taking down the whole system when large shocks are introduced (e.g. a fall in the price of a national resource like crude oil).

Another thing to consider: if political systems keep changing, what remains constant? The answer is the indivisible unit from which they are composed: the citizen. Political work, if it is to have a lasting impact, must focus on that constant, must focus on developing, strengthening, and enlightening human minds and souls. Science, philosophy, literature, art—the tools for the expansion of one’s mind and the enlargement of one’s soul, and, furthermore, the tools for the projection of human soul through time—i.e. for the creation of a culture that will nourish those born into it with its ideas and its art, replicating itself in their minds and in turn letting them extend it forward into the future. If the development of man stagnates, or even decays, then the next shift in political orientation will leave the world without the talent to make the most of it, setting back its evolution—the difference between the American Enlightenment and the Dark Ages.

From Rules to Processes

“I teach you the overman. Man is something that shall be overcome. What have you done to overcome him?”

Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

Chaos theory analogies need not be taken further. The point here is to recognize the chaotic nature of political forms of government atop a dynamical system—i.e. the instability of political systems and the impossibility of ever achieving equilibrium. The implication of this idea is to rethink how we think about governments: from sets of rules and static constitutions that aim to create a perfect utopia, to processes: fluid constructions that shift and evolve over time—constructions that incorporate change into their design. One such construction is the free market, which divides risk across a myriad of businesses, each of which succeeds or fails individually, providing an optimal system of satisfying consumer demand. On the other hand, large, centralized, bureaucratized systems—systems that try to resist change—will inevitably collapse, and the damage caused by the collapse will be dictated by their size. By creating such monoliths we are fragilizing ourselves and setting ourselves up for costly recessions, depressions, and revolutions.

Lastly, in a world of constant change, lasting change can only be gained through the development of ourselves—our minds, through science and philosophy, and our soul, through literature and art. Today this task is relegated to the level of the individual, who does not and will not seize it in the world of perpetual consumerist distraction. If this is raised to the level of society2, considerable gains may be achieved, and must be achieved if we are not to expand our species into space while simultaneously contracting our minds into oblivion. As Nietzsche wrote, man must be overcome.

  1. The original source of the quote is uncertain, however, it is generally attributed to Mark Twain. 

  2. This was done in the Soviet Union, albeit within the constraints of ideological censorship, not to mention a futile economic model and a barbaric totalitarian regime. However, state sponsored sciences and humanities did yield their fruits. 

October 2017