Ancient History

In the end, it all boils down to thermodynamics. That sentence should make you hit the quit button right now.

If it hasn’t, look on the bright side—you only have to read this, but I have to write it.

From a historical viewpoint, the second law is the one that matters. It states that our world tends toward disorganization. It manifests itself on a day to day basis as untidiness.

Or to put it another way, kitchens get messy all by themselves, but they never get tidy that way. The same applies to gardens, villages, and societies.

So although the physics was designed to deal with complex principles such as entropy, the very same rules that control the energy balance of large systems apply in general terms to world history.

More entropy means more mess, greater chaos.

The definition and application of a set of societal rules requires an investment, as does the building of communities. Man soon realized that the connectivity of such communities was a critical factor—it avoided warfare, which is the strongest force for disorganization, and promoted trade.

My brother and I against my cousin, my cousin and I against the world, as the Arab saying goes. World history is really about the dynamics of this network of alliances, the construction of community connections to avoid rampant entropy, and then their collapse.

And just like the physics of non-linear systems, or the ecology of a garden pond, developments occur rapidly, particularly when the23w system collapses—the reason 23w appears here is not because it’s the key to universal harmony, but because a puppy leaped on me in mid-sentence, and spiraled my keyboard into entropy deep-space.

So change is quick, particularly when it heads toward chaos. Malcolm Gladwell makes the case admirably, but with a focus on the warm fuzzy examples—the tipping point for the Beatles was Hamburg—after three sets a day for months in the mind-numbing setting of the Reeperbahn, the band was tight.

Every story of empire has this characteristic: gradual build-up of structure, swift disintegration. In the case of the British empire, which took three centuries to build, destruction was brought about by two short world wars (particularly the second).

I say short, with no disrespect to those who suffered and died, because in world history, nine years is trivial. The added irony for Britain is that it won the wars but lost the empire.

With the recent UK withdrawal from the European Union, the people who voted to leave made a significant contribution to entropy—this explains why there’s no exit strategy. In effect, it’s the same game as we’ll see in Washington come January 2017.

Just leave! 127,310 souls who love entropy.

Just leave! 127,310 souls who just love entropy.

Cameron famously suggested that if the leave campaign won, he would invoke Article 50 immediately. Instead, he resigned.

As I write, almost one hundred thirty thousand people want Article 50 invoked right now. These are the bravehearts who want to launch the country into the unknown—and perhaps they should, much like the voters who elected the new accidental president in the U.S.

The problem is that 4.1 million signed an opposing plea, demanding a second referendum. In other words, societies have built-in mechanisms to fight entropy.

When these mechanisms break down, we can ascribe that to extraordinary popular delusions and the madness of crowds.

In reading the history of nations, we find that, like individuals, they have their whims and their peculiarities; their seasons of excitement and recklessness, when they care not what they do. We find that whole communities suddenly fix their minds upon one object, and go mad in its pursuit; that millions of people become simultaneously impressed with one delusion, and run after it, till their attention is caught by some new folly more captivating than the first. We see one nation suddenly seized, from its highest to its lowest members, with a fierce desire of military glory; another as suddenly becoming crazed upon a religious scruple, and neither of them recovering its senses until it has shed rivers of blood and sowed a harvest of groans and tears, to be reaped by its posterity.

The words above come from the book of the same name. You should buy it, as a hardback volume, and impress it upon your fellow man. If you can’t persuade people of the wisdom of its words, and the relevance of its examples, beat them about the head with it—you can’t do that with a pdf!

Perhaps the most important point is that since that book was published we’ve had the American Civil War, the Franco-Prussian War, the Sino-Japanese War, two world wars, and what can only be seen as the Mid-East War, given it now spans territory from Afghanistan and Iraq to Syria and Libya.

Yes, my friends, Charles Mackay wrote those words in 1841, almost two centuries ago.

Quick, what was the name of your great great great great grandfather?

You don’t know? And on the distaff side? No?

You mean it’s not on Google? Facebook? Twitville? Pintassa? Oh shit!

To put it bluntly, in seven generations we’ve learned nothing. As societies, for all our sexy digital toys, the basic human reaction is to destroy everything on a whim, or as Mackay puts it, impressed with one delusion.

Just as adolescents repeat the errors of their parents, and increase the entropy in their lives, individuals force society to do likewise.

This ‘season of excitement and recklessness, when we care not what we do’, has just begun. It started with brexit and trexit, and will continue through 2017, with the populist movements in Italy, Holland, France, and Germany.

All this nicely condimented by the likes of Putin, who is working actively to help Europe split wide open, and to bring back the old hatreds that were the mainstay of Russian strength.

Vladimir is secure in the knowledge that Russia is not going down that road, and I believe he is looking forward to saying hi to his old neighbors again. It may not be too long before the bear drops in for tea at Tallinn.

In one of the classic Frank Zappa musical diatribes, he says: “questions, questions, questions, flooding into the mind of the concerned young person of today.”

Ever the great cynic, he was joking about problems such as “where can I get my poodle clipped in Burbank?”

But I have three questions, all looking ahead at 2030.

1. Who will succeed Putin (78 by then), and what will he (for it will be a he) do?

2. Will Europe once again be a viper’s nest of individual nations, busy plotting the next war?

3. Will the sacrosanct United States (three elections after Trump) be on the brink of breaking into two, possibly three nations, splitting along the lines we saw on election day?

By then the world population will be 8.5 billion, up 1.1 billion from today. Given the appalling state of inequality and debt, this will add a little of that hunger spice to our basic dish of bigotry, selfishness, and greed. Yum!

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

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