(Note: The mathematical field known as chaos theory studies, among other things, global system change. The theory is now being applied to the physical sciences and also to human behavior, both individual and social.)

There are two different types of change. The first is continuous, and this is change within a system, to a part or parts of a system. Such change is equivalent to development. The second type of change is discontinuous, and this involves the transformation of a system as a whole. Such global system change is distinct from development. It constitutes evolution.

The change of a social system from dictatorship to democracy can never be accomplished continuously. The reason for this is that dictatorship is too strong. Through the inheritance of political and economic power it perpetuates itself. It is a system in equilibrium. For change of such a system to occur, a break is required. The equilibrium must be disrupted. Such a break is termed a phase transition, and it is characterized by chaos.

One example of discontinuous social change was East Timor. The shift there to democracy required chaos in the form of armed rebellion. However, even this was not enough. Change in East Timor only occurred through the disruption that developed in Indonesia as a whole. In effect, East Timor was a part of a larger system, and its freedom, its break from this larger system, was dependent on events in it.

A system is in equilibrium if it has established a measure of stability. The system either is at rest, or it is following a periodic cycle. However, if energy is applied to it, it is forced to adapt. If possible, it absorbs the additional energy without altering its fundamental structure. Or, if it is unable to do this, it creates a more complex form of order to accommodate it. In the science of chaos, it has been shown that such developments in order often occur via bifurcations.

If the energy addition is sufficiently great, the system can no longer absorb it in an orderly fashion. A threshold is passed, and turbulence – chaos – ensues. But it has also been shown that such chaos itself is not truly chaotic, not truly random. Patterns are embedded in the turbulence, and these may eventually surface, giving rise to a completely new type of organization, a new evolutionary form. (Order leads to disorder, and then back to order. Also, these patterns are referred to as strange attractors, and they are so-named because it is considered odd that there would be any underlying order in a state of chaos.)

System stability is a continuum. Some system equilibriums are stronger than others. For a weak equilibrium, a small amount of energy – a slight trigger – can lead to turbulence and disruption. For a strong one, great energy, in the form of one major trigger, or many distinct minor ones, is required to initiate a change. (Smaller disturbances may push such a system out of alignment, but not all the way into chaos. Without additional disruption one would expect it to return to its equilibrium.)

Developments in system complexity occur sporadically and unpredictably. For an increase in energy sufficient to lead to a complete system change, one action must follow another, action after action, faster and faster, until a threshold is reached, turbulence ensues, and the phase transition is accomplished.

There are many unknowns associated with chaos, the first of which is the amount of energy required to initiate the phase transition, the beginning of turbulence. Secondly, chaos itself is – of course – unpredictable. Once turbulence starts you cannot know where it will go next, or how long it will last. Because of this, it cannot be controlled. (It can only be experienced.) Indeed, chaos is the opposite of control, hence it involves risk. You cannot predict what the consequences of it will be. Further, while the theory has shown that new forms of order are embedded in the turbulence (such non-randomness would seem to imply a measure of control), there are many possible outcomes once the energy addition is dissipated (the underlying order serves only as a guide). As with water which ceases to boil when you stop heating it, the outcome could be a reversion to the prior state of affairs. The onset of chaos does not ensure evolution. Or, the chaos could be so great that the system which is subject to it fails to adapt, and dies, so again there is no evolution; instead, there is extermination and extinction. (This is evident with the many different species which are now going extinct in response to the environmental chaos created by humans.) And lastly, a real new order, a new form, might evolve.

Chaos and violence

Chaos in a social context is considered to be synonymous with violence, but this does not have to be the case. Widespread non-violent civil disobedience, the voluntary rejection and “opting-out” of a social system, is a form of chaos.

In this scenario the chaos occurs in individual brains, as they undergo a phase transition and rewire themselves to think in a new way. It is possible; it only requires education, that violence is not the solution, that peace is preferable to war, and cooperation to competition.

Having said that, though, the likelihood that such education can become widespread, rapidly, even in a generation or two, is slim. The general state of human development that prevails around the world precludes this. In culture after culture, violence is viewed as the solution, and competition is the norm.

The phase transition to defeat each specific form of dictatorship will require its own specific form of chaos. And, unfortunately, but we cannot avoid this fact, in the struggle against certain types of dictatorship, the chaos will involve violence. Global social systems of which violence is truly an integral part will require violent chaos to overthrow them.

Consider the system of extreme Islam, which is based on the call of Islamic Jihad. The Prophet Mohammed himself declared the first Islamic Holy War, against all those who persecuted him in his birthplace, the city of Mecca. This call survived the defeat of the Meccans, by Mohammed and the people of what came to be known as Medina, and it has been taken up by today’s extreme wing of Islam, which infers the act of persecution to all non-Muslims. Extreme Islam incorporates a call to violence, which cannot be renounced by its followers, since the call came directly from God – from Allah – via the Prophet.

The chaos necessary to defeat extreme Islam will involve violence, but, and this chance is minute, perhaps only the violence on the part of the extremists themselves. For this to happen, the rest of the Muslims of the world will have to renounce the extremists, and cut their funding, and pressure them out of the faith, at the same time redefining the faith, by ending the call for Jihad.

As another example, consider the chaos required to defeat a military dictatorship, one which uses violence but which does not have such a religious underpinning. In this case it is theoretically possible that all, or a critical mass, of the dictator’s soldiers could be convinced to lay down their arms.

This is not very probable, though, as the specific example of Burma demonstrates. It is extremely doubtful, for a variety of reasons, that the army of Burma would lay down its weapons and end its repression of the Burmese people. Far more likely is the possibility that some soldiers would turn their guns on the dictators – the generals – to lead the way to democracy. Barring that, the generals and the army will have to be defeated in combat.

However, to give one example where the chaos of the transition away from dictatorship will be non-violent, there is the prospective defeat of media and advertising brainwashing. There is no need to attack program executives and advertising copywriters, just to turn off the TV.

In summary, chaos is not equivalent to violence, but there is a substantial overlap, particularly involving the change of global systems which are based on violence. Such a system will not yield unless confronted by a greater force, and the current situation, given our state of development as a species, is that such a force must itself be violent.

Chaos analysis questionnaire

(Note: The following analysis can be applied to any form and specific example of dictatorship.)

1. System

- What are the boundaries and general characteristics of the system that is subject to the dictatorship? What system requires global system change?
- Is there a larger system of which the dictatorial system forms a part, for which the defeat of the dictatorship is dependent on change in it?
- Are there any other global systems that influence the dictatorship, which through their actions increase or reduce its stability?

2. Equilibrium

- How strong is the dictatorship; what is the stability of its system equilibrium?
- What specific forces – power structures – maintain the equilibrium and give it its strength, both within the dictatorial system itself and within such other global systems? What attributes, policies, practices and conditions contribute to its stability?

3. Change

- If change requires a period of chaos and a phase transition, what are the different types of energy additions through which such chaos can be generated, and how much energy (how much chaos) is needed?
- What are the sources of such energy: the different groups, both internal and external, which are in opposition to the system’s own power structures?
- What specific steps or triggers could exert pressure on the system’s supporting power structures such that they break, and the overall system fails and chaos ensues?
- If chaos is created, what is required to ensure that a phase transition to democracy occurs, rather that a reversion to another form of dictatorship?

4. Prognosis

- What is the likelihood that such steps will be taken?
- What is the likelihood that the dictatorship will be defeated?
- What are the other possible outcomes, including a probability assessment for each?

© Roland O. Watson 2005