The crazy before the new

Complexity, critical instability and the end of capitalism

Kay Summer and Harry Halpin

“Even in a cosmic or geological time perspective there’s something unique about our century”?Martin Rees 2006 Presidential Address, UK National Academy of Sciences

Capitalism: a complex system

The staunchest believers in capitalism are frequently anti-capitalists. This is not as paradoxical as it seems. Many believe that capitalism is capable of recuperating any form of resistance or crisis. This makes it invincible, and therefore the best one can do is write hand-wringing critiques of capitalism, which is what many anti-capitalists seem to do. Here we highlight an entirely unexpected source of optimism for life beyond capitalism: insights from the most radical shift in science in the late 20th century, the emergence of complexity theory. Complexity theory and, more broadly, a non-linear view of the world, may offer some potentially profound insights, particularly for those of us wondering where to put our energies to create a different social system.

Complexity theory is relevant to any system that links many different parts in a dynamic network, that is, a network which itself changes over time. One of the features of these systems is that they are governed by non-linearities. This means that sometimes a small event causes a small reaction in the system, but at other times a similar event can have a massive effect. It is easy to argue that capitalism is a complex dynamic system governed by non-linear dynamics, and so complexity theory may be a good way to understand the social world we live in.

Capitalism is complex, the result of the interaction of over six billion people. Capitalism is dynamic, as the rapid changes in working practices and the bewildering expansion of commodities attest. Capitalism is a ‘system’, that is, a network with nobody ‘in charge’ (just witness the failed historical attempts to direct capitalism). Lastly, capitalism is highly non-linear. Take the unexpected financial crises, which changed life for millions in Argentina in 2001. These were sparked by a few financial investors removing their money from the country. Yet investors remove money from countries every day with usually negligible effects.

Complexity Made Simple

Complex regenerating dynamical systems maintain their own structure above all else, even while there is a great deal of change to the structure’s component parts. A human body is a good example of a regenerating system. We change our component parts – our cells – over time, but we retain our major features – our internal organs, skin colour, and so on. Thus change – and simultaneously continuity – is the norm. Such complex regenerating systems require two major components. First, there must be many different interacting elements that compose the system. Second, the law of entropy, also known as the second law of thermodynamics, must be overcome. The law of entropy states that systems degrade over time, losing their organisation to become simpler. To counteract that tendency there must be regular incoming supplies of materials or energy into the system. This is everyday experience: human bodies need food, water and oxygen, otherwise our bodies become rapidly less and less complex, dying and eventually decomposing to simple molecules.

Regenerating complex systems are therefore open, materially and energetically – whether they are self-organised or human created (like the internet) – and this always requires regular new inputs of materials or energy. Hence, these systems are maintained away from equilibrium. Or rather, they are maintained away from a static equilibrium. Take a simple example: a child on a swing. This dynamical system does have a static equilibrium point, but it’s not very interesting and it’s certainly not much fun! Once the child is swinging this introduces dynamism to the system. With a fairly regular supply of energy, a new state of dynamic equilibrium can be maintained. Biological organisms, ecosystems, capitalism, the internet are all much more complex dynamical systems: given inputs of energy or materials they too never stabilise to a static equilibrium with their environment. They are constantly being pushed away from such equilibrium by the flows of energy and materials. For the internet to be maintained, for example, broken computers must be replaced – materials and energy need to flow – otherwise it decomposes and stops being a complex system.

Complex systems possess emergent properties: they are more than the sum of their parts. A person is more than a pile of water, carbon, nitrogen, and other molecules; a person is more than a collection of macromolecules or cells or organs. The internet is more than a collection of computers. This is because the configuration of the connections is important. Complex systems involve many connections between components that form loops of interaction. This contrasts with many hierarchical systems where the interactions between the various components are deliberately minimised. It is the feedback loops involving these connections that can change the system as a whole. So-called negative feedback loops tend to keep the system in its current state, while positive feedback loops may push a system to a new state, or new type of system.

This brings us to another important point: regenerating complex systems often have multiple stable states. We can explain this by imagining a topographical map with valleys and hills. Now imagine a ball rolling around, in constant motion. This is our complex system. Most of the time, the ball will stay in the same valley; various forces may push it away from the valley bottom, but it will tend to roll back towards this same valley bottom. The whole valley, which surrounds the stable state that is the valley bottom, is known as a basin of attraction. It would take a massive disturbance, or a tiny disturbance of just the right kind, to set off a positive feedback loop, to get the ball to roll right out of that valley and into another, another basin of attraction. Such major changes, from one valley to another, do occur, but they are usually rare, often requiring several simultaneous changes. Moreover these major changes, from one valley to another – known as phase transitions – are often preceded by periods of ‘critical instability’, during which the system is under great strain. It can lurch widely, exhibiting seemly chaotic behaviour, before settling into a new, more stable, state. These periods are known as bifurcation points, because it appears that the system could go one way or another. The ball is balanced precariously on a ridge and there are potentially several valleys it could descend into.

One example of a phase transition is the switching of the entire Earth between cooler glacial periods and warmer inter-glacial periods (as we live in now). Others are the socio-economic transitions from hunter-gatherer society to agriculture and animal husbandry, and from feudal or peasant societies to the capitalist mode of production. Often what revolutionaries are looking for is such a phase transition.

For highly complex systems there are an unknown and unknowable number of these basins of attraction, or attractors. They are ‘attractors’ precisely because, regardless of where the system is at a given moment in time, it will tend towards one of these states. Some systems eventually converge on one state, but many complex systems, called chaotic or periodic systems, cycle through a set of these attractors, and their trajectory among them seems to be impossible to predict as an apparently insignificant change can move a system from one attractor towards another. These attractors are often called strange attractors. Needless to say, a system whose trajectories can hardly be predicted cannot be directed or managed. But some events can be predicted as being much more likely to cause the system to move towards a new attractor, although the exact nature of that attractor is unknown. These events usually involve radically changing the energy or material going into a system, or radically changing the connections of the constituent parts within the system, including adding or removing many connections altogether.

Is this theory useful? Think of the radical and global-scale changes we humans have experienced; the rapid increase in energy use and material production; the explosion of communications, via mobile phones, the internet and easier and easier long-distance transport. These massive increases in both energy and materials and connectivity, alongside the looming ecological crisis, suggest potentially optimal conditions for a phase transition which would, by definition, be the end of capitalism.

Social Organisation: Always a Complex Thing

Human social organisation has always been, and always will be, complex and dynamic. This is because it involves a large number of people interacting in a network. Historically there have been two – possibly three – stable states of social organisation, that have attained and maintained near global dominance: hunter-gatherer societies, subsistence agricultural societies and, if it lasts, capitalism. We don’t include the many highly hierarchical large-scale civilisations – the feudal system of medieval Japan, Mayan civilisation or classical imperial systems like ancient Rome – because although such societies have appeared and disappeared regularly across the globe, none has achieved global dominance. This suggests that these civilisations were not stable states. It suggests authoritarianism is not a functional survival strategy, because the attempt is always to control people based around rigid social organisation, rather than allow for the continuous regeneration and development of the system as its constituent parts – human beings – and its environment change.

What is interesting about the phase transitions from hunter-gathering to agriculture and from agriculture to capitalism is that both transitions were associated with a major increase in the energy and material input into the system, and with an increase in the number and density of connections within human society. Take the switch from hunter-gather societies – humanity’s first stable-state, which spread to every continent and lasted for at least two million years – to subsistence agriculture. Occurring eight or nine times, seemingly independently, some 8,000 – 12,000 years ago, this transition contained the double dynamo (positive feedback loop) of the cultivation of crops and population growth: crop-cultivation increased the seed available to produce more crops that could be saved during lean times, which in turn allowed a larger human population to live, which itself enabled more people to plant more crops. This feedback cycle continued, increasing global human population rapidly, from a mere quarter of a million people 8,000 years ago to around 600 million before the European conquest of much of the world in the 16th century AD. And not only did population increase. Relative to population, farming societies had many more connections than the relatively small bands of hunter-gatherers in loose networks. In turn, the switch to capitalism included the dynamo of the generation of profit for reinvestment, also increasing material and energetic inputs over time. And the invention of the commodity – which heralded the birth of capital – led to a framework involving the circulation of goods and services on a scale hitherto unimaginable, and again, a consequent increase in the number of connections between individual humans and different environments.

Now consider two recent phenomena affecting human society: the massive increase in connections, as a result of the internet and other communications technology, and the rapidly escalating global ecological crisis. These are the kinds of changes on a scale that seem to us possible major contributors to a third phase transition in the organisation of life in human history. We finish this article by turning to these.

The Global Ecological Crisis

The production of goods and services for sale in a competitive market, where the profits are reinvested in further production to be repeated ad infinitum, contains a central flaw. Ever-expanding production requires ever-expanding resources, leading to a chronic crisis with no exit: the global ecological crisis. In short, capitalism has always relied on infinite expansion, and there can be no infinite expansion on a finite planet. After 500 years capitalism is ceasing to be a good survival strategy.

Capitalism is attractive because as a survival strategy it works (though people have also been utterly repelled by it as well). You remain quiet, work hard, play the game and you will be rewarded with enough food to eat, shelter and, most likely, a marriage resulting in children. However, as the material substrate of the system collapses, capitalism as a survival strategy is becoming less and less attractive. In more and more people’s minds, the ‘cost-benefit’ will shift. In order to survive, people must, and will, develop alternatives to capitalism. Their (our) very survival will depend upon it.

There are two criticisms of this argument. The first comes from capitalists, particularly those who promote ‘green capitalism’, a brilliantly creative misnomer. At best, green capitalism could slow capitalism’s decline, extending its lifetime for maybe a few decades. But green capitalism is still capitalism: the requirement of accumulation – of work, material and energy – without end remains. The second objection comes from radicals who argue that threats such as climate change are in fact nothing but the usual rhetoric of imaginary crises – scare-stories to further justify the exploitation of workers and violent oppression of revolt. It’s true that some crises are illusionary crises; but others are real. This goes back to our opening line, that anti-capitalists are often the staunchest believers in capitalism. Capitalism is not some latter-day god that can change physical laws. We do live on a finite planet.

Global Connectivity

Connections between people are radically changing. Communication technologies and mass-transport reshape our connections – literally, as in the physical ability of one part of the system to connect to another. As the number of connections increase, the system becomes ever more complex, and it’s thus more likely that small changes are magnified. The combination of digital computing with communication lines produced the archetypal network of networks: the internet. This more than any other technological infrastructure has led to radically increased connectivity, rapidly increasing further due to its convergence with mobile technologies and their rapid spread through even the rural Third World. In periods of stability people use such technologies to do the things they normally do in stable situations: flirting, say, but via text messaging. But when our very survival is at stake, or when we catch a glimpse of a much better future, people can use these technologies for extraordinary goals, to mobilise globally in a sophisticated manner never before seen in history.

The original round of the anti-globalisation movement was in effect the result of new connections between movements in the global South and those in the global North, brought together by the internet. As these technologies fall into more and more hands, as is rapidly happening, people who have little at stake in the current social system will use their newfound ability to connect for their own purposes. Collectively, people will be able to react to events much faster than in previous times; and new social order can emerge spontaneously, via the connections people choose to make, rather than order imposed by leaders.

What next?

We’ve mentioned the massive increase in connectivity. We’ve mentioned the awesome increase in material and energy inputs that are now forcing capitalism up against external environmental limits. Beyond these factors, the sheer schizophrenia of our world leads us to believe we are living through a period of critical instability. This term is used to describe a complex system that is behaving wildly, and seeming chaotically. Critical instability usually signals the first detectable stage of a bifurcation point, that point at which massive systematic changes start. We are lurching towards a new-yet-unknown system or systems. Only one generation in 40 or 50 may have the chance to live through a phase transition in human society, and more importantly, have the chance to actually create the new society. This spectre of collapse is both terrifying and exciting!

When uncertainty about the future is in the air, dreams of past stable social systems often re-emerge. Think of the swathes of people in the Middle East who desire to return to a feudal theocracy or of the desire of so-called ‘primitivists’ for humans to become hunter-gatherers again. So we should remember that although other worlds are possible (and also likely), some are worse than this one. Fortunately, both feudal theocracy (because it’s highly authoritarian) and hunter-gather society (because it means the death of 90% of humanity) are extremely unlikely. There are just too many connections and too much material (including 6.6 billion human brains) and energy (again all those people), for such scenarios to be plausible. The phase transition we’re approaching will be to something new and never seen before.

One potential basin of attraction is eco-fascism. An elite will use modern tools of control and command to instate some socially authoritarian global economy that is materially steady-state for those outside the elite. In times of limited resources, people live in fear of not having enough resources, and some dividing lines for the haves and have-nots would be used. This would be more brutal than the have/have-not divides of today. We can glimpse this attractor in contemporary struggles around migration, which will only become more intense as global ecological crisis cause massive population movements. Eco-fascism would be an especially duplicitous enemy, as many of its advocates use anti-capitalist rhetoric. Eco-fascism is unlikely to become a stable attractor – it is bound to fail eventually – due to its closed nature that destroys connections. But in the meantime the cost to humanity and the planet would be immense.

A second possible attractor would be decentralised and cooperative communities whose relations are based on affinity – that we all ultimately share the same biosphere – that maintain a high-level of connectivity with each other. Unlike fascism and strangely like capitalism, this attractor bases its power and resilience on the strength of its connections. This form of social organisation is perpetually open, always seeking new connections; and in the spirit of complexity theory, and unlike previous revolutionary movements, it embraces no determinism. The logic of autonomy allows the components of the system to optimise their own connections, and so connect to people, materials, passions, and places in manners that takes optimal advantage of material and energy flows. Production is linked to a logic, not of growth, but of satisfying collective needs through ‘commons’ – as outlined by Nick Dyer-Witheford elsewhere in this issue. Production and decisions about production are made via direct democracy – which maximises connectivity. Moreover, this highly flexible system of autonomy, collectivity and commons may well allow us to confront the ecological crisis.

We have reasons to be optimistic. The question of whether capitalism will still be the dominant mode of production at the end of this century is almost always answered in the negative. Capital’s current trajectory cannot continue. Complex systems can change within the blink of an eye. The global ecological crisis usually invokes pessimism. But, perhaps paradoxically, it also provides hope. There are currently more optimal conditions for rapid shifts in human social organisation than there have been for probably two if not five hundred years. Of course, we cannot know what form this new social system will take. But we should remember that free will and human innovation and creativity are the hidden variables. What may appear to be minor actions can, in these hyper-connected times of critical instability, have consequences magnified beyond imagination.

Kay Summer and Harry Halpin have both had longtime involvement in the movement of movements and some of its precursors. They earn their wages by doing scientific research, some of this involving trying to better understand non-linear systems and ideas. This is their second collaborative piece on non-linearity and social movements; the first was published in Shut them Down!: The G8, Gleneagles 2005 and the Movement of Movements (2005, You can get in touch with the authors at kaysmmr[at] and harry[at]

Finnish translation here.

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