Entropy is a measure of randomness or chaos, with thermodynamic systems inevitably tending to states of increased entropy over time, eventually lending themselves to complete disorder. Watching the events of the past year unfold, it has been hard to escape the feeling that our systems and societies were gripped by a state of entropy. First, we were plagued by a pandemic caused by an (initially) unknown agent. We gradually taught ourselves to greet each day with the knowledge of mass death, and lumbering through the economic upheaval that followed. We then saw, through the lens of a teenager’s smartphone camera, the death of George Floyd and the unflinching realities of racism and systemic inequality. We now arrive at the end , some of us having more questions than the beginning, with a plan to open the new year with candles to remember those who left us in the previous one.
Yet what remains most striking is the degree to which we could have known.
As a species, we have endured shocks of a similar kind, being afflicted by numerous coronavirus outbreaks. This includes the SARS outbreak of 2002–2004, and the MERS outbreak of 2012. Despite this, we still found ourselves caught in webs of denialism and a growing set of conspiracies alledging that the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and the measures used to curb the spread, were measures inflicted by governments as last-ditch attempts to control the populus.
But we have still suffered other severe pandemics in recent history, such as the Spanish Flu outbreak of 1918 which infected 500 million people, and killed an estimated 20 to 50 million of them. Despite this, Major Greenwood, a medical statistician who co-wrote Britain’s official report on the pandemic, remarked, ‘There is some psychological interest in the fact that actually the emotional impression created by the influenza pandemic was fainter than that experienced by much less grave epidemiological happenings.’
While there are numerous reasons why the Spanish Flu is called the ‘forgotten pandemic’ a question still remains: is it the human tendency to forget that leads to repeated events of social, political or economic uncertainty?
Working memory and pandemics
In comparing the differing national responses to the current pandemic, commentators have been quick to find answers to the question of why some Asian countries seemed to be efficient at handling the COVID-19 outbreak. Vietnam, for instance, only has 1451 total cases at the time of writing, with some opining that their well-coordinated public health response is the result of having experienced a SARS outbreak in 2003, and human cases of avian influenza between 2004 and 2010. These viral outbreaks remain in the working memory of the citizens and various public health institutions, making it easier to mobilise the critical infrastructure needed to fight the latest threat.
The same is true for countries that were the worst hit by the Ebola outbreak of 2014. Writing in Nature News, Amy Maxen details the manner in which countries such as Liberia have rested their Coronavirus responses on the same pillars of action, and the same scientists, as those used in the Ebola outbreak. Building on this, Tolbert Nyenswah (former director of Liberia’s public health institute) states that the US centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) helped teach their health officials various methods during the Ebola outbreak. Now based at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, Maryland, Nyenswah says he was stunned that the CDC downplayed these procedures in their own country during the COVID-19 pandemic.
This then complicates the premise of our argument. Is it then that a lapse in our collective memory brings us to these points of entropy, or is it individual human choice that fails the collective? Are we now at a fork in the road where the knowledge we’ve amassed leaves us in a position where a failure to act on it means we are dictating sociological evolution by meting out the various selection pressures?
Society is the sum of parts
The greater the molecular motion of a system, the greater the number of possible microstates and the higher the entropy. — Chapter 19.3, Chemistry LibreTexts
The idea of socially engineered entropy isn’t new. Discussing the occurence of manufactured inequality in the Journal of Labour Economics, Sharwin Rosen argues that beneficial, socially engineered inequality is not exactly new to economists. She cites Adam Smith, who argued that wilful investments in education and skill aquisition, not inherited differences in natural abilities, are the principle causes of wage inequality, with many differences in social class and status themselves being produced by the need for people to undertake human capital investments, not the other way around.
But perhaps the reason why we still find ourselves in repeated states of entropy is because we are still the sum of parts, or better phrased, the sum of interests. Positions of leadership in society requiring service to others simultaneously function as enterprises of power in the eyes of the corruptible. While this is not a revelation, it is worth noting that out modern societies have yet to find and answer of how to put the greater good at the centre of government without descending into totalitarian states.
The Shock Doctrine
In her 2017 book, No is Not Enough, Naomi Klein describes the Shock Doctrine: a pattern she observed being carried out in areas razed to the ground either by wars, natural disasters, or both. Countries that came in to rebuild those areas often insisted on a neoliberal approach, arguing that deregulation of the markets after helping them rebuild was the only way to craft a more sustainable future from the ruins of disaster. Deconstructing the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, she provides compelling evidence that in executing this approach, the result can be corruption on multiple tiers of projects that were supposed to be completed with the aim of rebuilding that society.
Elsewere in the book, she argues that our ineffective reactions and campaigns against the rise of populist politicians is similarly characterised by the multitude of shocks that happened all at once, or that these populist politicians employ all at once, simultaneously repealing decades of progress on various fronts including gender equality, racism, and climate change. These multiple shocks (Shock politics) make it harder for society to craft a coherent response.
Perhaps, then, the missing puzzle peice in trying to understand why we keep tipping into periods of social entropy is a misunderstanding of a universal shock doctrine. Reverting back to the forgotten pandemic (1918 Spanish Flu), many contend that the reason why it is forgotten is because it was eclipsed by both the first world war and later, the Great Depression, making it a microcosm in an era of uncertainty. What I’m trying to tap into here is that some periods of social entropy, such as the ones we’re living in, are characterised or caused by multiple shocks, making it hard for us to truly appreciate the scale of the various issues, depriving us of a working memory that we can use to attack future events of a similar kind. This leaves us at a disadvantage when it comes to responding coherently as a society.
Using this pandemic as a case study, it’s easy to see the multiple shocks apparent in our society: the threat of infection or death due to a biological agent, economic uncertainty as a result, rising levels of inequality in various spheres, and the peddling of personal interests in the political sphere by power-hungry or corruptible politicians. We could thus suggest that the reason why periods of social entropy recur is because like any other natural system governed by it’s own shock doctrine, periods of multiple shocks that make it hard to craft a response are inevitable.
Yet the reason why I refuse to believe this is the case is because we live not in a natural system, but in a society of choices.
The Moral Equivalent of War
In March of this year, President Trump told reporters during a press briefing of the white house that he viewed himself as a wartime president because of the efforts needed to fight a pandemic, stating:
“I look at it, I view it as, in a sense, a wartime president. I mean, that’s what we’re fighting.” — President Trump
While some have decried the comparison of the pandemic to a war, with anthropologists contending that linking medicine and militarinism does moral and political work that inadvertently convinces people that war is necessary and positive, William James may argue that the pandemic functions as a moral equivalent of war. He claimed that wars enable us to satisfy our need to work with others in a common effort, and to stare down death, thus calling forward the highest capabilities within us.
Sharing Huxley’s disdain for pleasure without pain, he wrote that:
Mankind was nursed in pain and fear and that the transition to a pleasure economy may be fatal to a being wielding no powers of defense against it’s degenerate influences. — William James
With all of this in mind, it’s evident that socio-political entropy might just be the force through which humans, and the communities they live in, strive to envision better versions of themselves. When William James argues that something, some act or some reason is needed to mobilise society to sustain it’s values, he is essentially telling us that humanity, like all other forces of nature, sustains itself by descending into chaos. This is not to convince anybody to be blind to the various injustices in society that the pandemic has shed a light on, such as inequality and racism, but rather, it is to convince us to return to the fundamental act of being human, that is, to use chaos (and if we were in the jungle, a new selection pressure) as the foundation on which we build a more sustainable society of the future.
To wrap it up
I like to think of social entropy, or social crisis, as having nothing to lose, but at scale. What pops to mind is a young Vladimir Lennin asking members of a bourgeoise suburb to accompany his mother on a journey that would allow her to say her last respects to her oldest sun who was about to be hung for conspiring to assasinate the Tsar. Nobody in the suburb came to his aid. That story would drive Lennin to set up the scene for Stalin to then take over as dictator of the Soviet Union. During our current state of social entropy, I fear that there are many such stories brewing, with the sobering question of whether we had to let things get this far still lurking at the back of my head.
With the realities of social entropy becoming more and more complex because of the degree to which humans can control their own selection pressures, I worry that, given our track record, we aren’t using chaos as a constructive basis on which to build our futures. Still, as Naomi Klein writes, while we have to say NO to all the factors that led us to this current state of social entropy, we must define what we want to say YES to.