I reviewed Richard Levins’ Dialectics & Systems Theory which Redline published here. Amongst other stuff, I examined how ‘systems’ was a better and clearer terminology than the ‘things’ of Hegel’s old dialectics – from which we still have much to learn. All nesting things/systems come into being or emerge from other things/systems; they exist, decay and die, leading to new things/systems.
Marx’s Capital is by far the first and still the most scientific examination of any system and it puts all types of modern systems theorists to shame. Here Marx was clear: the changing relations between things are reality; things are merely frozen momentary glimpses of changing present phenomena which have a past and future.
As such, we are now ready to investigate a specific crucial phase of the dialectic method, showing how the workings of the qualitative transition from system to system, a leap or revolution, can be better grasped and much more clearly described dialectically when we transform then synthesise certain terminology of systems theory. This approach also opens the gate, allowing for creative and new thinking but only when put in the context of developing the dialectical method; it’s a process of de-fuddling the mind, which I attempt to begin here.
Dialectics is the general science of knowing all material change and development in all nature’s interdependent and interacting systems at all nesting levels – atoms, cells, organs, galaxies, stars, plants, forests, flocks, herds, eco-systems, earth, individuals, mobiles, football teams – including all nesting levels of the human mode of development: everything in fact. Aspects of chaos theory can be used to better explain dialectical transitions or leaps in development in a much simpler, clearer and practical manner.
Chaos theory, systems theory and complexity theory considerably overlap each other, yet all vie for leadership of what wants to replace the dialectical method, of course without mentioning our dynamic dialectic. In response – long overdue and desperately needed – we revolutionaries must develop a new dialectics that both preserves and transcends the old dialectics. The new dialectics would synthesise dialectics with aspects of systems theories and is based on the latest science and technology, including the development of human abilities and potential – which is vast. We are talking about grasping an ultra-modern, ever-developing concept of productive forces as central to renewing dialectics and of evolving an authentic conscious revolutionary practice.
Chaotic systems are much lauded by the systems academics’ church of confusionism. In fact, there is no such thing as a chaotic system. Chaos and complexity theories are not systems, but are inseparable aspects or features (essential ones at that) of systems’ development, of the dialectic method. This becomes clear when certain systems terminology is divorced from its semi-mechanical systems past, to which chaos is currently anchored and imprisoned.
Chaos is not itself a system but represents sequential, transitional and morphing dialectical phases, the transition between systems and so cannot stand alone as a whole theory or system: systems theorists are not aware of this at all.
Such systems terms used in this article in an original manner are: chaos; phase transition; edge of chaos; emergence; initial conditions; added to that are a few of my own creations such as zone of chaos; zone of emergence; spiral emergence; the two edges-of-chaos; the three zones of transition and sequential morphing phases.
Here, we look, in partial, at practical examples of transformation through the zone of chaos: the leap when learning to ride a bicycle, snow to water, element evolution and capitalism to socialism. Before we describe these examples I want to first explain in general and in abstract, this new understanding of the processes and phases of transition – the three zones of transition, from old to new.
The three zones of transition
This is about the sequential morphing phases of transitional leaps between all nature’s systems; it’s about all developmental, evolutionary and learning processes in the cosmos. These phases belong equally to atoms interpenetrating under the force of gravity to form new heavier elements; to cell evolution; or to skill and/or concept development in we humans.
These overlapping and interpenetrating three zones of transition in my diagram are; a) the zone of proximal development, b) the zone of chaos, and c) the zone of emergence. Some readers will have heard about the ‘zone of proximal development’ as the brilliant dialectician Lev Vygotsky’s term that he used to explain how children learn optimally – just wiki it. I’m hi-jacking the term, as I can’t think of anything better, to also include this pivotal phrase in all of nature’s developmental processes, and I’m deeply grateful to Vygotsky, from whom we also still have much to learn.
Another phrase I’ve coined, which embraces the three zones, is the ‘two edges-of-chaos’ (see diagram) this time leaning on systems theory which only describes in a fuddled manner the first ‘edge of chaos’ (just wiki), and which doesn’t even begin to grasp the crucial role of quantitative build-up towards qualitative transition itself. We humans today are living through that first edge of chaos, of quantitative build-up before global revolution – if we can get there.
From old to new
Grasping the spatial (organic) process of transition, the relative harmony – chaos – new harmony (order) underlying qualitative transformation from one system into another, from simple-to-complex (and vice-versa) is essential. Order is never pure harmony but a dynamic equilibrium. Whilst chaos is a structural/behavioural transformation – a leap from old to new (a phase containing both decaying old and growing new), a revolution and a spiral – it is also a process existing within and between the two-edges-of-chaos. This first edge of increasing quantitative build-up leads into (and overlaps with) the zone of proximal (maximum) quantitative development; which is itself a morphing phase into the transformation zone of chaos itself: then morphing into the zone of emergence and the second edge of chaos (also known in systems theory as initial conditions).
Emergence is the birth of the new whole (still stamped with weakening aspects of the old), with its own forming (often more complex) cluster of essential contradictions embedded in ‘the principal contradiction’ – and their possibilities becoming probabilities then certainties – also known as initial conditions or spiral emergence. During the zones of chaos and then emergence (usually much shorter than the first zone of proximal development, of preparation for transformation) small impacts may result in vast changes in the nature and character of the new system. At times in transitions or learning processes, the parts of a whole are likely to change in an uneven yet combined manner, as though elastically connected.
Grasping the internal dynamics of the old system – its most essential tendencies, rhythms, patterns and contradictions – means that living in the zone of proximal development is us creatively searching out, “possibilities and potentials, which become probabilities then certainties” (quantum physicist Fritjof Capra, Web of Life, 1996), for the new from within the old. We begin in the present richness of reality, from which we search backwards unfolding the past looking for all the conditions and processes that led to the present, which now has arrows pointing towards various future potentials or probabilities, which are yet other vantage-points from which to better grasp the present: this was Marx’s method (as Bertell Ollman in ‘Dance of the Dialectic’, 2003, from p115, explains).
All of this means that our activities in the three zones of transition (embraced by the two-edges-of-chaos) can be in deep awareness of reality – as best possible, with our very limited current human ranges of sense-perceptions, intuition, language and action. As such, ‘in midst-of-chaos’ we are not ‘losing our heads’, but are greatly empowered in creatively shaping or toning the new relations between the parts of the whole new system. Small impacts in these phases of emergence and initial conditions of a system can have enormous implications in the outcome or overall character of a system; something revolutionaries today should take serious note of.
Development in all systems is spiral-like, never circular; it is ‘imperceptible’ micro-spiral change (is order, partial, quantitative) in the old order, which suddenly becomes transformative macro-spiral change (is chaos, wholesome, qualitative) towards the new order. The dialectical relationship between chaos and order is for the future; however, chaos plays games inside the dominance of order, whilst order expectantly dances inside the ascendancy of chaos.
Examples of chaos
LEARNING TO RIDE A BIKE – Here we are dealing with the fundamental contradiction in human development and learning processes: between not having knowledge and/or a skill, and that through need leading to a social project, of gaining that ability and awareness. Meeting ever-richer needs through complex, socially agreed activities from which we permanently learn and accumulate culture is what made, and still makes us human – it’s spiral learning.
I learned to ride a bike and taught my five children to ride too, also some of their friends. The social need is obvious. In a joint project, often with our parents, we usually start with balancing mini-wheels at the back and become familiar with pedaling, steering, speed control, braking and some balancing. These skills and our concepts and confidence of them are growing. This is the edge of chaos and we’re in the zone of proximal learning.
Then the mini-wheels are taken off. Here we begin entering the zone of chaos proper, and fall off numerous times, gaining bruises, tears and all. Then comes a wonder, we feel excited yet fearful, in doubt and uncertainty, but in marvel at balancing, with the other skills, for a whole ten metres! Wow!! We have entered chaos properly and shortly the zone of emergence of becoming a shaky bike rider. We fall off less and less, ride longer distances, and we go through the second edge of chaos and the lessons we learn in this phase of initial conditions, regarding safety and consideration of others have big implications as to what sort of bike rider we will become.
SNOW TO WATER – This inorganic mode of change applies to all the chemical elements and is just as dialectical as the organic and human modes of development – indeed inorganic development and its dialectics are our origins, after all. All chemical elements can be in a state of solid, liquid or gas – and the leap between any is a phase transition depending on pressure and temperature relevant to that specific element, depending on how loose or tight the atoms and molecules organise themselves into one of these three states – and this transition process between states is entirely dialectical.
Snow for example is a loose solid. But when cold and people walk on it, it becomes condensed and forms as a compact solid or icy snow. When the temperature quantitatively increases it suddenly becomes various forms of sludge which then becomes water. It’s the same with boiling water or a puddle freezing over – each time going through the phases of transition. Marx commented that water is used to put out fires, the paradox being that its component chemical parts as H2O are the highly explosive gases of hydrogen and oxygen.
ELEMENT EVOLUTION – We are all made of nothing but stardust from the centre of stars or exploding supernova, where the heavier elements were formed as gravity or explosive might increased, forcing atoms to interpenetrate each other, exchange particles, in various chaotic ways, suddenly transforming into heavier types of elements. This process took some 10 billion years of chemical evolution in the cosmos before a mixture of heavier elements allowed life on earth to begin.
CAPITALISM TO SOCIALISM – Firstly, this is not an automatic leap or gradual as most Marxists and socialists of the past have mechanically assumed. The transition phases could move into various forms of barbarism, a bureaucratic meritocracy or even human extinction – and potentials of those processes are already visible in decaying late capitalism.
But let us assume socialism is next – we humans are far stronger than many think. Of the three transition zones, from a modern revolutionary’s viewpoint, the first edge of chaos and the zone of proximal development are the most crucial, as we now live in that longest phase of transition today, where the existing system is decaying in multi-crises. It’s where the forces of humanity and the working class can consciously prepare for revolution.
This is where quantitative build up is happening in the battle between the developing productive forces and weakening productive relations is coming to a head and has now entered the first edge of chaos. However, ask ‘Marxists’ today about the primary contradiction in the capitalist system, from which social revolution will be forced, and they will mostly say it is class struggle, labour versus capital. However, Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky are clear; it is between the developing productive forces (the new) and productive relations (the old); the latter of which represents labour versus capital.
Certainly the skills and unity of workers and labour can be the sharp hardened edge of this arrow that can kill off capital. But in this new world of globalization of labour costs, of impacting automated production, of heightened technological unemployment (especially 50% or 60% youth in more and more western countries), it is clear that defining the unemployed as simply a reserve army of labour is no longer valid.
Revolutionaries should focus much more in the productive force of human development; in rapid-deep learning processes (Vygotsky and Marx can help here), and optimal non-hierarchical grassroots organizational methods, developing easy-to-grasp practical tools and resources for our millions of progressive groups, communities and workplaces.
Anyone interested in a global study group with Steve on dialectics can contact him: firstname.lastname@example.org; he’s also keen to receive feedback – make a comment on the article or email him directly.