Justified Optimism

There is much gloom and doom about. People might be better economically, and they are certainly healthier and longer-lived. On the other hand, unhappiness, loneliness, and alienation are rife.

Ever increasing complexity of life does have these unattractive by-products. Decision-making grows more remote, but worse still it becomes difficult to see who is taking the decisions, how, and for what purpose. Even more disconcerting, policies and actions (irrespective of who is ‘in charge’) seem less and less relevant or effective. The overall impression is inevitable: no one is in control of events. The elite (leaders, experts, call them what you want) appear to be interested almost exclusively in milking the systems for all it is worth to accumulate larger fortunes at the expense of the rest of society. ‘Society’ itself has lost much of its significance, and some (such as Thatcher) have been emboldened to challenge its the validity as a meaningful concept.

However, there is no natural law that decrees that life should be so brutally impersonal and alienating. Capitalism does not have to conform to Thomas Carlyle’s description of laissez-faire as “anarchy plus the constable”. Social and moral values and aspirations are just as important as economic imperatives. The two are not divisible, and they are certainly not alternatives. But they are increasingly treated as such by those able and willing to exploit the rest of society for their own profit. People at large are told there are no alternatives to brutalising neo-liberalism: you are either with us or you end up with nothing. This myth is propagated at local, national and international levels. Hence the feeling of utter futility and desperation.

Understanding how social systems operate, however, gives hope that change is not only possible but inevitable. Sooner or later the system will change, on that we could all depend. More often than not, the actions of elites help to bring change about. These actions are growing noticeably more extreme and this will increase the likelihood of change even further. The fear of change impels elites to adopt more extreme measures to safeguard their privileged position. In short, the process has a built in tendency to gather momentum, as shown by countless historic precedents.

The question is not whether change will take place (change is continuous), but when it will come about and what form it will take. This is one of the few (scientific) certainties in a field riddled with unpredictability. I will try to explain in the next paragraphs the basis for my assertion that optimism is justified at a time when conditions are at their gloomiest.

The Nature of Social Systems

The inherent nature of social systems, those involving human beings, is becoming progressively clearer. The conventional wisdom that viewed such systems as mechanistic phenomena amenable to exact prediction and detailed control is being replaced by a more realistic viewpoint that accepts a large measure of unpredictability and strict limits on the control that could be exercised over events.

Most phenomena within the physical sciences offer a high level of predictability and control, as clearly demonstrated by the efficiency of the industrial assembly line. It was only natural for people to leap to the conclusion that social systems also behave in the same ‘mechanistic’ manner. However, scholars concluded in recent decades that some phenomena within the physical sciences and most aspects of the social sciences do not present similar characteristics. Predictability is in short supply and control is not possible to the same extent seen elsewhere.

These discoveries have far-reaching consequences to our understanding of the way social systems behave. More important, they point to the need for a radical revision in the way these systems are managed; away from command-and-control exercised from the top by a small group of ‘experts’ and towards dispersed and localised styles of management that thrive on variety and participation.

Evolutionary Change in Social Systems

The most fundamental revelation brought about by the new discoveries concerns the way social systems change. Present practices are founded on the concept of predictable change, planned and directed from the top. A particular activity is studied, problems are identified, targets are set, and then actions are defined and implemented to achieve the desired changes in accordance with a predetermined timetable. Although this was achieved spectacularly in some fields; space travel being a notable example, performance in the social sciences has been far less convincing; the failure of many countries to ‘develop’ after over half a century of effort and expense is an equally notable example.

Social systems behave as complex adaptive systems. Change here is a more subtle affair than that seen in mechanistic situations, such as the movement of a train or a space vehicle. Social systems are affected by internal dynamics driven by interactions between numerous agents (including human beings of course) and by external forces generated by other systems that inhabit the same environment. Social systems are also open to the influence of positive feedback that could magnify the effects of local events beyond what would ‘normally’ be expected. Conventional wisdom assumes the existence of negative feedback that limits the impact of events and, therefore, seeks to bring the system back to a state of orderly equilibrium.

Fundamentally, therefore, social systems are in continuous evolution along paths that are not amenable to detailed prediction. As recognised by the average person, life is full of surprises. In technical terms, these systems exhibit ‘emergent properties’.

States and Attractors

Local ‘chaotic’ interactions change the ‘state’ of the system incessantly from moment to moment, but outwardly the system does not seem to be changing. This is the case because the ‘states’ differ but only within limits determined by the ‘attractor’ that is in control of the system at that juncture. The idea of the ‘attractor’ is simple to visualise. Just think of a domestic air-conditioning system: the system is set to provide a desired overall average temperature, but the precise ‘state’ (exact temperature) of the system at any point varies within a predetermined range. The range is the attractor of the air-conditioning system. The same is true of social systems. The ‘British way of life’ is an attractor. Britain scrolls through many millions of different ‘states’ but it is easy to describe the overall pattern that emerges from this feverish local activity.

Continuous evolutionary change occasionally reveals itself as a radical transformation that unfolds over a short period of time. The pattern of apparent sameness interspersed by ‘spikes’ of change is sometimes described as ‘punctuated equilibrium’. Due to the influence of positive feedback, it is not possible to predict which particular event would unleash radical change that sets the system on an altogether new path. Expressed in technical terms, the system is said to have reached a ‘bifurcation point’ that brought it into the sphere of influence of a new attractor.

The technical language should not obscure the intuitive aspect of this feature. When Ceausescu stood on a balcony to address the Romanians on 22 December 1989, it took only a few minutes for everyone to realise that things would never be the same again after decades during which his rule appeared solid as a rock. By Christmas Day he and his wife Elena were dead and Romania was in the domain of a new attractor. The abrupt fragmentation of the USSR after three quarters of a century of seeming stability is another illustration of punctuated equilibrium in action.

The first point to keep in mind is that change in social systems is ongoing despite the fact that there is often no discernible evidence that anything is happening. The second point is that radical transformations do happen, but it is not possible to predict how and when they would occur. Kuhn described these upheavals (in the way the sciences evolve) as ‘paradigm shifts’.

What is Happening Now?

There is much unhappiness with life in the ‘prosperous and democratic’ West at the local, national and international levels. Irrespective of political promises, public services are deteriorating, pensions are dwindling, and people are having to work harder and longer for less rewards and job security. Crime is on the increase, and no one seems able to bring drug and drink abuse under control. Trust in the elites (politicians, experts, etc.) has all but disappeared. No wonder, as ‘leadership’ is now in the hands of a few exceedingly wealthy and powerful people who play musical chairs in the political, corporate and media arenas. More disconcerting, faith in political, legal, and financial systems has evaporated. Most people do not bother to vote, and they certainly do not trust the stock market to look after their savings and pensions. These are fundamental developments that threaten the very fabric of the social, political, and economic systems on which Western democracies are built.

Conditions for the billions of people in the rest of the world is infinitely worse. This sea of teaming humanity is in many respects at the mercy of the mysterious cabal that controls the West. They determine not only how these nations should live, but what they should think. The cabal’s room for manoeuvre is proscribed to some extent in the West, but their activities elsewhere are largely unfettered. Iraq and Afghanistan are exceptional only because they have attracted unwelcome publicity. Well over a billion have to live on less than one dollar a day. The World Bank does not envisage dramatic improvement here: the World Bank’s best case scenario is for the number to be reduced to three-quarters of a billion by 2015. Sub-Saharan Africa (the world’s poorest region) gives more money to the West than it receives.

East or west, people feel powerless to rein in their wayward ‘elites’. They are told there are no alternatives: the present setup is the best of all possible scenarios. Respected authors such as Fukuyama, who wrote that with the success of capitalism over communism humanity has arrived at the end of history, give backing to this odd viewpoint. On a broader front the mass media sing from the same hymn sheet. The message is clear: if there were no alternatives then people should accept the inevitable in good grace. Those who rebel against the status quo are eccentric or misinformed if they live in the West. Otherwise, they are terrorists and troublemakers jealous of the West and its achievements.

What Will Happen Next?

I have used ‘will’ in the subtitle intentionally. No one or a group of people, no matter how mighty and determined, could stop change. Fukuyama’s declaration that history has come to an end is utter nonsense. Others, even more eminent than Fukuyama, have made similar shortsighted claims in the past. Samuelson and Nordhaus gave an example in their highly respected textbook on Economics. They reminded readers that John Stuart Mill, the leading economist and philosopher of his time, wrote in his 1848 classic, Principles of Political Economy: “Happily there is nothing in the laws of Value which remains for the present and any future writer to clear up.” This was said before the law of supply and demand (not to mention other revelations in the fields of economics) was discovered! One fundamental fact that history teaches us is that there is no end-state to life: the future is both different and unpredictable. Hitler’s Reich was to last a thousand years rather than a couple of decades!

There are far too many examples of unanticipated radical change, against all the odds, for anyone to expect the present status quo to continue. The setup has a great deal of resilience, and it will not vanish without a fight. However, vanish it will. On that we can count.