Epochal trajectories

Howie Chodos howie at magi.com
Mon Mar 6 21:45:57 MST 1995

WPC (is it Paul?) wrote:

>What they get right is related to the idea that society is fundamentally an
>open process (in their terms unsutured). I think that anyone truly committed
>to purging detrerminism from Marxism has to agree with this. It means, of
>course, that any notion of "determination in the last instance" has to be
>abandoned. This is the only possible conclusion from a rejection of
>determinism, in the sense of not postulating an epochal trajectory of social
>systems (primitive communism, slavery, feudalism, capitalism, socialism,
>communism, or some such list).
>In what sense do you reject this trajectory?
>Do you reckon that the earlier transitions never happened, or that
>the last one is unlikely or that arbitrary reverse transistions
>may occur - socialism -> feudalism for example.

The main thing I wanted to stress was that there is no *necessary*
progression, either in terms of the evolutionary paths of individual
societies, or in terms of human socio-economic evolution as a whole.
Obviously, the earlier transitions have occurred, and the later ones are
made possible by the earlier ones. What I am trying to avoid is any sense
that they are somehow the inevitable result of some initial dynamic,
anchored in the very nature of our species, that is propelling us towards a
classless future.

Alan Carling's attempt to combine the insights of G. A. Cohen and Robert
Brenner (in his "Social Division") yields the assertion that the transition
from feudalism to capitalism was probabilistically necessary. As I
understand him, he means that given enough time and enough variations of
models of feudalism, some society somewhere was going to come up with
capitalism. As it happened it was England. After the birth of capitalism,
its economic superiority allowed it to impose itself. This is not a totally
implausible thesis, but I have a lot of difficulty seeing how it could ever
be applied, or what comfort we could ever derive from it. If capitalism is
bad it is because of what it does, not because it is destined to be superseded.

Socialism is one possible solution to the problems of capitalism, but it is
neither a necessary one (at least in any time frame that has meaning for
people alive at any given time, even when several generations of descendents
are taken into account) nor the only one. Other possibilities include
everything from the complete destruction of life on earth to a capitalism
that manages to sustain itself through a combination of repression,
continued economic dynamism, and the lack of a viable alternative.

It seems to me that we cannot base our activity or our convictions on the
hope that capitalism will someday reach the end of its tether. Human needs
are remarkably malleable and capitalism has found ways both to shape them
and to deny them. I see no reason to believe that there has to be some
crisis that will prove insurmountable. This does not mean that capitalism
can ever be crisis free, that it will ever do away with inequality,
injustice, exploitation and oppression. It simply means that these things of
themselves have not produced, and will not produce, a viable socialist
transition. We have to do that, which means sustaining and developing the
critique of the existing order of things, and finding a way to articulate a
vision of an alternative that demonstrates an understanding of where
previous revolutions went wrong.

A brief tengent. I think that the idea that we should not try to work out a
relatively developed blueprint for socialism on the grounds that this would
be trying to predict the direction of future movements is no longer valid
(if it ever was). The difference between Marx's day and now is that we are
the heirs to the failed experiments in socialist construction, and we
therefore have a responsibility to analyse them, and it is only on this
basis that we will ever be able to convince people that future attempts can
do better. (Of course, if one believes that capitalism will collapse of its
own accord, this doesn't really matter.)

Several other people have pointed to the various social regressions that
have occurred, so I won't pursue that any further. However, Ron Press raised
some interesting issues regarding complex systems. I have no understanding
of the math involved, but I think that it is interesting to note that
complexity theory would also seem amenable to forms of determinism. I am
basing this on a rather cursory reading of the non-technical parts (i.e.
very little) of Stuart Kauffman's "The Origins of Order". Kauffman is one of
the whiz kids of complexity/chaos theory, and the technical parts of the
book are beyond me. But I thought that the way he formulates things in the
epilogue indicated that the transition from considering simple processes to
more complex ones does not map directly on to a shift from deterministic to
non-deterministic notions of the evolution of living systems.

I'll end with a couple of brief citations from Kauffman (any help in coming
to terms with their implications would be most welcome):

"It has been said that a weakness of some biologists is persistent
physics-envy: the seeking of a deep structure to biology. Rest content, is
the sensible refrain, with middle-level theories capturing parts of how
organisms work. Understand how a genetic cascade works, how sodium transport
across a membrane is mediated. Surely we should, have, and will. Yet there
is a new physics aborning, and it is time to again fall open victim to
physics-envy. For want of a better name, the area which is emerging is
something like a theory of complex systems. The trend grew out of
statistical mechanics initially and now is clearest in solid-state physics.
Study of strongly disordered systems, such as spin-glasses, where many
elementary units interact with one another in randomly chosen but specified
ways, has already revealed strikingly ordered properties in apparently
chaotic systems. Indeed, even the passage of a fluid from laminar flow to
turbulence is beginning to reveal hidden order. In short, physics is
beginning to discover ways in which very complex systems nevertheless
exhibit remarkable order. No reflective biologist can view these
developments without wondering whether the origins of order in nonliving
sytems augurs new insights for the origins of order in the lining ones as well.

"...It follows that we must seek to understand the construction laws that
allow complex systems to adapt on properly correlated landscapes and to
understand how the couplings between landscapes evolve. In short, the
capacity to evolve is itself subject to evolution and may have its own
lawful properties. The construction principles permitting adaptation, too,
may emerge as universals. Adaptation to the edge of chaos is just such a
candidate construction principle.
        "Thus for all the known organisms on this branching river we call
life, biology should aim ultimately to account for those essential features
which we would expect to find in any recurrence of such a river. To suppose,
as I do, that such an intellectual task may one day be achieved is, among
other things, to suspect with quiet passion that below the particular
teeming molecular traffic in each cell lie fundamental principles of order
any life would reexpress." (pp.643-645)

Howie Chodos

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