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How to cause a catastrophe
The 4th article in the series "Political Catastrophes".



The founder of the Theory of Catastrophes, the French mathematician René Thom, has written that science has a two-sided purpose: You have to understand the world and you have to act on it. (il faut comprendre le monde et agir sur lui).
When we extrapolate this remark to politics, we can say that understanding the world can become barren when it is devoid of any action, and being active can become futile when it lacks sufficient sound judgement of our world.

When you want to change the world (and I only want to discuss with people who want to change the world) the Theory of Catastrophes can be a useful expedient.  It is not a precisely defined mathematical theory but more a language, a method that can help to classify and systematize empiric findings. It gives a beginning of the explanation of phenomena that makes them understandable (Thom).
The simple diagram in Chapter D of the Mathematical Chip, the appendix to my book "The Scarists", hich uses only two factors makes clear how a catastrophe (a fundamental change) can occur when both factors change (increase). Then a jumping point can be reached. A striking example is the Fall of the Wall, the sudden disappearance of the boundary between West and East Germany. In our complicated society more than two interconnected factors are needed to cause such a change.

In the time of Copernicus the situation in astronomy became untenable. A growing number of scientists started to look for another paradigm in which the earth was not the centre of the universe. They had a deep scientific knowledge and looked for other possibilities that were totally different from the existing practice. A discussion between old and new scientists was impossible because new scientists knew that a solution based on the old paradigm was unlikely. The two paradigms (either the earth or the sun as the centre of the universe) were incompatible and the conflict could not be solved by logic.

In politics a comparable situation is developing. Many problems cannot anymore be solved by the prevailing paradigm, the elitist democracy more or less connected with the rule of the majority. Many people still try to improve the present situation in the world by using the old paradigm. They remain within the boundaries set by the elite. By such actions elites continue to rule the world. Some new people take their distance from this paradigm and look for entirely new solutions. A fruitful discussion between old and new people is impossible because new people know that a solution based on the old paradigm is unlikely. A fundamentally different society can never be reached by trying to improve gradually the present objectionable situation.

Take as example the WTC attack and the Afghan War. The WTC attack did not appear out of the blue, a long history caused some people to express their grudge against the current political system by organising an atrocious action. The Afghan (and the Iraq) War does not solve anything. Maybe it buys the West some time but the next Bin Ladens walk already somewhere around on our world. A next attack – maybe even bigger – is already in the making. The Afghan War kills many masspeople who did not cause the WTC attack and only a few who played a role in the terrorist organisation. The training grounds of the perpetrators in the Western countries and the CIA leaders who founded the Bin Laden group remain untouched. The root causes are not taken into account.

Many people asked me what I should like to be done in response to the WTC attack. Within the present paradigm all solution are bound to fail. Our political system in which elitist democracies in rich countries are connected to feudal dictatorial regimes in other countries cannot provide a lasting solution. Something else has to happen, a catastrophe that will turn the tables upside down.

One of the conditions for a catastrophe is a new paradigm, a more or less vague political theory that is based on principles that differ fundamentally from the old paradigm. In a next article I give some ideas about a new paradigm based on the idea that alternating minorities get a decisive influence on decision-making.

A catastrophe can happen when several interconnected factors reach a bifurcation point, a point in which a jump occurs towards a completely new situation.

The first factor is the growing awareness that the way in which decisions in our society are taken is not adequate to guarantee a lasting happy life for the people. The diminishing participation in elections is one of the signs that this awareness is not negligible.

The second factor is the autonomous activity of masspeople. When the masses still accept without too much resistance most of decisions of leaders, change will not occur. But there are signs that people do not accept anymore all what is said. A direct attack on the powers that be is however still in its infancy.

The third factor is the weakening of the central power of the leading elite. In palace revolutions and during coups d’état the central power is weakened by a struggle between parts of the elite. This occurred with the fall of Sukarno, Allende and Marcos and in many other countries were generals usurped power. The Russian Revolution was also only possible because the central power of the feudal Russian regime was weakened. In this process that was leading to a catastrophe the weakening was partly caused by the growing autonomous activity of masspeople (the second factor) that is directed against the power structure of the state (the third factor), which in the end is controlled by a few powerful members of the elite.

The fourth factor is the growing mass consciousness that another society is possible. The powers that be say that democracy is the best method for the organisation of the state and that no other system is possible. When the hope rises that another kind of society is possible this will be an important factor to reach the jumping point. Already long before the occurrence of the French Revolution the despair in regard to the old situation started to change in a hope for a new future. Later it became evident that the changes were not so big and that part of the old elite formed together with new people a new leading class. Though past revolutions indeed did improve somewhat the situation of the masses, the lack of massive autonomous actions of masspeople (factor two) prevented that a real new situation came into being. But the situation is now somewhat better because the general level of knowledge has risen. This is the fifth factor that is needed to reach the jumping point. Educated people are less inclined to accept the propaganda of leaders than uneducated masses.

When we analyse the scientific Copernican Revolution we see that the simultaneous development of all these five factors caused the catastrophe that is now known as the Copernican Revolution.

The political Theory of Catastrophes can be used to determine which kind of political action is necessary. Demonstrations can contribute to the growth of the awareness that something is wrong with the present political system but they do not contribute anything to the other four points. Demonstrations alone can never cause a catastrophe. Political parties sometimes contribute to the awareness that something is fundamentally wrong and also to the hope that another society is possible. But because political parties have hardly any influence on the other three points, membership of a political party and political activity within the limits determined by political parties will never be sufficient to cause a catastrophe that will lead to a new kind of society.

Greenpeace-like actions that to some extent improve the situation in our world, often after discussions with the reigning power, belong to the existing system and will not help to get a new society. It does not contribute much to any of the five factors mentioned. Greenpeace and many other groups are embedded in our present world and pursue in the first place goals that can be realised within the limits laid down by the old society. This is also true for political organisations that participate in the election circus.

To sum up this theory I recapitulate the five elements.

For a revolution, a catastrophe, a new paradigm is needed, a new vague idea about the organisation of the new society, for example based on the activities of alternating minorities.
To arrive at the jumping point this basic condition is accompanied by five interconnecting factors.
1. The growing awareness that the present society is failing.
2. The growing autonomous activity of the masses.
3. The weakening of the present centralised power structure.
4. The growing hope that a new kind of society is possible in the foreseeable future.
5. The growing general level of knowledge of the masses.

Joost van Steenis (December 3 2001)


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5. The USA promotes a fundamentalist catastrophe
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