Thermodynamic Take on Universal History

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Peter Pogany:


"Let me start by briefly recapping the thermodynamic take on universal history.

In Gebser’s spirit of searching for transparency through the integral, my project -- “new historical materialism” --

uses “Global Population Plus Economy” as the central variable. GLOPPE (for short) 

is both a material entity and a flux or throughput of matter, which by the second law of thermodynamics increases the proportion of inaccessible energy in the terrestrial sphere. As all other self-organizing entities that complexify as they grow in size, GLOPPE must also go through alternating phases of relative steady states and chaotic transitions. World history is the human face of this thermodynamic phenomenon. Concentrating on the age of global systems (modernity in terms of macrohistory, the era since the breakthrough of time at Gebser) this necessary alteration may be summarized as follows:

- Chaotic transition from 1789 to the mid-1830s led to the world’s first global system -- GS1, laissez-faire/zero multilateralism/metal money.

- Chaotic transition from 1914 to 1945 ushered in the second and current global order -- GS2, mixed economy/weak multilateralism/minimum reserve banking.

The world now faces a new episode of chaotic transition because GLOPPE has reached stochastically manifest but nonetheless insuperable resource and environmental constraints and GS2 is unable to guide transition to ecological sustainability because the required resource reallocation would curtail economic growth. Yet this system will collapse unless it can accelerate. The crisis of GS2 is the crisis of mental consciousness.

Thus, we arrive at the intersection of the thermodynamic theory of history and Gebser. The structuration of consciousness as a unidirectional unfolding corresponds to the morphogenesis of socioeconomic self-organization. Each represents a way of looking at totality as a historical process. Magic consciousness is discernible as nomadic hunting and gathering; mythical consciousness corresponds to the predominance of agriculture, and the active presence of mental consciousness during the past two-and-a-half millennia encompasses the birth, slow development, and breathtaking push of industry in the age of global systems.

Whereas the chaotic transformation of GS1 into GS2 (which may be considered a submutation within mental consciousness) enabled GLOPPE to continue its expansion, the new chaotic transition to a yet-to-be determined form of global organization will have to emerge because, for the first time in history, planet-wide resource and environmental constraints are beginning to limit the size of global society and the scale of its activities. This view of the world differs sharply from practically everything that mainstream economics has to say about current events, the third avenue at our intersection. Traditional analysis attributes the Great Recession to the financial crisis of 2008, while economists with heterodox, ecologically informed opinions maintain that the mortgage market collapsed, triggering the financial fiasco because expensive gasoline hiked commuting costs to exurbia. Mainstream analysis has bifurcated into considering further increases in the U.S. national debt extremely dangerous, threatening default; and considering it harmless as long as further deficit spending is job-creating via New Deal style public projects. According to the heterodox opinion, one of the manifestations of GS2’s crisis is that the national debt should neither be allowed to increase, nor could it be reduced without creating havoc. Gradual transformation to ecological sustainability through existing institutions is patent of cornucopia-obsessed economic orthodoxy. The heterodox view is that such an outcome is an Aladdin’s lamp caliber fairytale from kindergarten.

But nowhere is the rampage of “ratio” more apparent than in GS2’s financial-monetary order. The acuteness of the situation in this domain brings Gebser’s prophetic warning to mind. He characterized the end result of escalating deficiency in mental consciousness as “the suicide of Western civilization.”


"To round up the argument, the wide scale, generalized mutation into the integral structure will not be the result of self-development, an individually willed inward journey to our quintessential core, the “itself.” Rather, it will be compelled along with the emergence of a third global system (GS3) that will take into account humanity’s thermodynamic reality -- the limits to GLOPPE’s growth. GS3’s main attributes could be two-level economy/strong multilateralism/maximum bank reserve money. At one level, production in specific sectors; e.g., mining, the manufacture of structural materials and certain heavily polluting industries, will have to be controlled and divvied up among nations or multinational producers; and some activities, such as space exploration, will have to be financed and organized jointly. At the second level, private enterprise and free markets would flourish under thoughtfully conceived quantitative constraints.

GS3’s multilateralism would represent the democratically valid consent of the world’s population to a moral and legal authority to overrule local preferences in favor of long-term global interests. Frightening as this prospect may sound, as it evokes the specter of “world government,” Gebser serves here as a source of optimistic reassurance. Since GS3 and integral consciousness are identical, the world is bound to discover that only the return of archaic pre-temporality, enriched with the unfolded powers of consciousness can assure both a more fulfilling, anxiety-free individual life and the world’s survival under dignified conditions, materially and socially. As far as the monetary subsystem is concerned, it would reflect the need to control both the scale and structure of economic activities."