Maxwell’s Demon and the Golden Apple

Maxwell’s Demon and the Golden Apple, by Randall L. Schweller. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014, 216 pp. €20.15.

Change is the natural order of the world, but change is happening ever faster, and frequently turning into fragmentation and disorder, while the ability of man and institutions to react is daily more exposed. We see this in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Ukraine, much of Africa, and elsewhere, in what increasingly appears to be an inexplicable, chaotic, and disjointed world.

Randall Schweller’s book seeking an answer to this accelerating fragmentation has attracted high praise. It is “the most original and thought-provoking forecast of the future of world politics to be published in recent years” – according to G. John Ikenberry, professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University.

The praise is due for the way Schweller provides a possible answer to the vexed question of why world affairs are in such flux of late, challenging our fuzzy expectation of patchy but inevitable progress.

The author cites a contrary movement, defying our expectations of progress. He blames global entropy, an irreversible process of disorganisation that governs the direction of physical changes taking place in the universe. He enlists thermodynamics to support his contention that the growing diffusion of power in the world reduces the amount of energy in the international system and therefore its ability to cooperate to solve major global and local problems.

Schweller, a political scientist at Ohio State University, sees the global system changing dramatically from a US-dominated era of relative order to chaotic and pervasive disorder. An ever-increasing cast of individuals, states and groups will pursue their own narrow interests and agendas, with no one with the power to foster collective action or address the common good. In the absence of a hegemonic power, global politics will therefore become both decentralised and disorganised, with no global leaders, no followers, and no states capable of generating cooperation to address the major issues facing us. In summary, a world, where “the ordering principle of international politics is anarchy”, ungovernable, highly unpredictable, and extremely atomised. As W B Yeats put it in 1919, “the centre cannot hold”.

Schweller’s overworked title draws from Greek mythology where the Golden Apple of Discord led directly to the Trojan War, while the hoped for saviour, the Demon, represents an allegorical creature from a thought experiment by the physicist James Clerk Maxwell, where the Demon reverses the entropy-rising process inherent in all closed systems.

Entropy may be thought of as a measure of disorder in the universe (or, in a thermodynamic sense, of the availability of energy in a closed system to do work): the higher the entropy, the higher the disorder. The entropy of an isolated system never decreases because isolated systems spontaneously evolve towards a thermodynamic equilibrium – a state of maximum entropy and disorder. Maxwell’s Demon achieves the impossible – it intervenes in this highly negative state and restores the potential energy available for work, thereby, increasing order in the universe or isolated system.

Social systems and institutions originate with an outburst of energy that runs down over time. Thus, companies, churches, and empires arise from the energised activities of gifted entrepreneurs, prophets, and political leaders. They may flourish for a period, but “all will eventually decline and sometimes disintegrate altogether as the initial energy that created them dissipates.” The performance of work or the expenditure of energy diminishes the system’s ability for future activity.

As the system runs down, it eventually reach the point of maximum entropy, when no more work can be done. Schweller notes “entropy can also be thought of as a measure of chaos, which is… the most probable state of a system.” There are many ways that a system can become disordered, chaotic, and unpredictable. Unfortunately very few ways exist in which a system (particularly a complex one) can exhibit order, he says. As disorder increases and entropy rises people become more disoriented and disconnected from each other and the world around them.

“They become depressed, have problems concentrating, and tend to exhibit, among other things, something known as high “flow duration entropy” – meaning that they frequently switch among internet applications like email, chat rooms, music players, browsers, and games.”

This book brings together unexpected strands to provide an original explanation for why international politics is now transforming from a system anchored for centuries in relatively stable patterns, into something far more erratic, unsettled, and devoid of behavioural regularities. It goes into considerable detail showing that the positive assumptions many make about the benign future following on from US relative hegemonic decline and the increase in network power etc., are wishful thinking.

We are fast approaching a point where no actor or group of actors will be able or disposed to rule – or as Schweller puts it, not a time of heaven or hell, but something akin to a perpetual state of purgatory, a chaotic realm of unknowable complexity, with increasing global disorder, a form of global ennui mixed with a large dose of individual extremism and dogmatic posturing.

In concluding Schweller insists this does not necessarily have to mean that “we will inhabit a miserable world of endless gloom and doom or that we and future generations are fated to endure wretched lives of perpetual unhappiness”. Disorder does not suppress all that is good in the world, and there is still much to be positive and optimistic about. Schweller concludes, quoting Michael Stipe of REM, “It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.”

This must be one of the most frustrating books I have read in years. Out of date on China, the Iranian nuclear discussions, the BRICS, Egypt, the Arab Spring, and the US energy revolution and its impact on relative US power, it nonetheless contains highly original and thought-provoking ideas on the emerging world of the 21st century, which explains much of what we see in today’s news. But perhaps, on reflection, Schweller’s book is a perfect illustration in itself of the frustrating, energising, provocative and anarchical world we all face today.

This book is further discussed, along with two others, in the review essay entitled “Be careful of what you wish for” September 8, 2014.

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