Sunday, February 3, 2013

Why Revolutions Might Be Inevitable

"Ubiquity – Why Catastrophes Happen,” by Mark Buchanan, 2001

Buchanan is a theoretical physicist who, in this book, writes easily about scientific disciplines that concentrate on evolution, earthquakes and avalanches, forest fires, animal extinctions, nuclear reactions - and human history.   He, like many, is seeking a logic beneath the myriad faces of complexity in science and human behavior, and thinks he has come up with an outlook that seems to explain change – especially quick change.  The first thing Buchanan posits is that sometimes complexity blinds us to the simplicity behind events.  The second thing he suggests is that change cannot be studied without a concept of time, so history is the basic characteristic of almost anything out of ‘equilibrium.’  Equilibrium is essentially the disappearance of change and time…though even things in equilibrium might have subtle changes that we don’t notice.

Buchanan's book starts with a computer simulating the dropping of sand (and later rice) grains to mimic avalanches – a rather simple ‘game.’  The sand pile game indicated that a tiny event can precipitate many kinds of events – mostly miniscule changes in the pile, but sometimes large avalanches of sand from the pile.  Each drop changes the interaction of the grains to each other.  The question is why?  The game discovered a geometric rule – ‘the power law” – which is a certain inverse mathematical relationship between the size of an avalanche of sand grains and its likelihood of happening.  (For instance, doubling the size of an event results in it becoming 4 times as rare.)  Buchanan then travels through other fields studying earthquakes, forest fires, freezing substances, magnets and species extinctions to figure out when and why they happened.  He concludes that this ‘power law’ is true across every one of these events, and others like solar flares, disease transmission and traffic jams.  In essence it explains the ‘critical state’ of any system out of equilibrium – he calls it ‘self-organized criticality’ – which inhabits the system itself, and the influence of its internal component parts on each other.  So, in essence, 'catastrophe' - or sudden change - is built into everything.

He furthermore maintains, against those that argue these game models are ridiculously simple, that knowing every detail of a system is not essential, that, if you have the physical dimensions or size of something in your model, and also its shape or frequency, you have everything you need to create a model that conforms to actual data already gathered by scientific means.  In the study of ‘phase transitions’ (like between cold and boiling water) the phrase describing this state of simplicity is a ‘universality class.’ 

Now, what Buchanan seems to be getting at in these scientific thoughts is an approach that parallels aspects of dialectics – time, matter, quantity into quality, and also, negation of the negation – the internal contradictions within systems affecting how much and how quickly they change.

So what about the 1987 stock market crash or World War I, some so-called ‘Black Swans’ of reality?  Can the ‘power law’ and critical state universality be found in human affairs?  Buchanan starts his book with description of the random 1914 assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand by a Serbian anarchist, and a description of the supposedly unpredictable October 19, 1987 U.S. market crash, where the stock market lost a 1/5th of its value, over $500 billion dollars in one day on a wave of panic selling.  Why did these events happen in such a way? 

Buchanan cites many surveys of economic predictions by bourgeois economists.  He quotes John Kay of the London Business School in 1995:  “Economic forecasters …all say more or less the same thing at the same time; the degree of agreement is astonishing.”  “…what they say is almost always wrong… the consensus forecast failed to predict any of the most important developments in the economy over the last 7 years…”  In 1999, Robert Schiller called the ‘efficient market hypothesis’ ‘the most remarkable error in the history of economic theory.’   And these guys aren’t even Marxists! The ‘efficient market’ is a market full of perfect and equal information, where everyone acts absolutely rationally, the government has no role, and no one influences anyone else – an idea which is still taken seriously to this day by the business press.  

According to Buchanan, studies of daily price movements on the Standard & Poors 500 and other markets over many years shows that the ‘power law’ continues to apply even there.  Price spikes are inversely proportional to their occurrence, but they happen frequently enough because every market is not a stable system of equilibrium, as capitalist political theory hopes.  Short and even long-term investors influence other investors, and so trigger panics.  Information is imperfect.  People trade for emotional reasons or even financial desperation, thinking this will lead to profit maximization.  It is not primarily outside events that impact the markets, according to Buchanan, but the existence of flaws in the market itself. 

Buchanan cites a famous 1961 book by Thomas Kuhn called, “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” which traces in what way Newton, Darwin, Einstein and Heisenberg upset the traditional conservative paradigms of prior ‘normal’ science.  Kuhn carefully delineated how scientists, being human and tied to the secure structure of academe, did not automatically accept these new paradigms – and resisted until it was obvious that the new ideas were right.  Of course, the occurrence of these theoretical revolutions and new ideas are inversely proportional to their frequency again.  Yet they occur inevitably. Kuhn also points out that ‘revolutions’ in an idea might occur to as small a group as 25 – which totally changes they way that small group does something. 

Buchanan finally addresses the issue of social change.  The power law is even found in the frequency and scope of wars, calculated by the number of dead.  However, social revolution is not quite so mathematically trackable – or perhaps no one has done it.  The trick would be to define lower stages of revolution - strikes, general strikes, demonstrations, occupations, street fighting, guerrilla war - then to various larger upheavals like political revolutions and social revolutions - by their number and timing, and see if that corresponds to the automatic power law.  I suspect it might.

According to him, social revolutions are caused by extreme ‘maladjustments’ that lead to the overthrow of the prior order – sort of like the geologic stress exerted by passing tectonic plates that cause earthquakes.  In the process he eviscerates the ‘great man’ theory of history using this approach – as no ‘one’ stress actually causes movement, unless conditions are right.  He quotes E.H. Carr, “History is to a considerable extent a matter of numbers.”  “Great men,” according to Buchanan, are those who can give voice to great mass movements.  He also takes apart the method of history that concerns itself with the accretion of random facts.  Carr pointed out that there is a ‘natural hierarchy of facts.’  Historians and students of history who get bogged down in minutiae, who cannot choose the more important facts to analyze and hence have no ability to generalize, will be lost in the thickets of time.   Perhaps a re-creation of a nostalgic lost world, but not an understanding of this one. 

My thumbnail of Dialectics:

  1. Time is a constant.
  2. Quantity turns into quality. 
  3. Negation of the negation - there are contradictions within everything.
  4. Contradiction takes the form of thesis, anti-thesis, synthesis, and repeat.
  5. Internal contradictions are the motor of economics, history, science, social relations, even thought.  Class struggle is the motor of society, as class is the main internal contradiction. 
  6. Materialistic dialectics is based on matter – hence materialism - and its internal motion, not pure ideas.  Material things are not static, and ultimately lead to change in the realm of ideas.  

And I did not buy it at Mayday Books, but Craig might order it.
Red Frog,
February 3, 2013
Loser-Bowl Sunday

P.S. - The 'Global Database of Events' and John Bieler's "Protest map" could possibly be analyzed to see if social protest is following the power law.  This is a listing of protests/strikes/revolutions etc. since 1979 based on news reports.  From a casual tour, it seems the pace of protest is picking up across the world.  However, something more long term - going back to the American Revolution, for instance - might shed even more light.

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