A Punctuated Equilibrium Theory Of Sociopolitical Change

R. J. Rummel describes how sociopolitical change occurs in sudden fits and spurts separated by long equilibria.

How does one understand all this occurring in such a short span of time. This is the way the world works. It is a process of things being in equilibrium, an equilibrium that increasingly is out of balance with the underling reality, then a sudden breakdown in the equilibrium caused by some trigger, and a jump to new equilibrium better fitting reality. This also gets increasingly out of balance, breaks down, and another new equilibrium is created, and this over and over ad infinitum. It’s like earthquakes. Two tectonic plates are locked together along a fault line by friction and as the forces trying to shift them build up, to those living above the fault, there is a solid, unmoving ground. Then, when the friction can no longer hold the plates in place, they abruptly lurch along the fault until again the friction between them dominates. On the surface, the result may be a devastating earthquake.

Social and international affairs are much the same, where the social earthquake comprises conflict, violence, or war. History is not a slow evolution of gradual changes, but a series of equilibriums (structures of expectations) in human affairs, punctuated by sudden jerks and jumps of events to a new balance. During periods of apparent equilibrium and stability, forces for change build up, then something triggers sudden change that is manifested in conflict, and a new equilibrium within and between nations is established. Thus, the American and French Revolutions, the Russian Revolution, the Civil War, World Wars I and II, and the Vietnam War. And thus, the incredible downfall of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union in a few short years in the late 1980s, until in 1991, the Soviet Union disappeared (the trigger was the massive anticommunist demonstrations in Eastern Europe).

The same sudden rush of democratic change seen recently in Iraq, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Lebanon, and the Ukraine is reminscent of the acute transformation of European monarchies into democratic republics at the beginning of the 20th century.

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Calling the periods between

Calling the periods between wars "equilibria" seems to feed the characterization of history as a series of important dates and battles, with everything in between as uninteresting filler. But aren't the "forces for change," those numerous minor events and gradual processes that precipitate the "sudden jerks," often the more interesting part of history than the battles or revolutions?

To me, "equilibrium" seems like the wrong word to describe the situation. The circumstances aren't necessarily stable nor are the forces for change absent. What are the benefits of characterizing history this way?

Whether equilibrium is the

Whether equilibrium is the right word, or not, just a quick comment. The current change in the Middle East has been building for a lont time, the signs were there to see. The forces of conservativism (which include the so-called American Liberals/Left) have tried to stave it off for years now. The reality is that what is happening today was going to happen, whether we invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, or not. That is just the trigger. Without that action something else would have triggered it. I suspect it is time to realize we are on the back of the tiger and all we can do is hang on for the ride.

Eric, history is not an

Eric, history is not an inevitable process. What else could have "triggered" all of this so effectively? Saddam had a firm stranglehold on Iraq and was not about to go anywhere; even when he died, one of his sons would have taken his place and they were even more sadistic than their father. We have no compelling reason to believe that the Taliban or Assad would have budged either without some massive system perturbation to shake up the political landscape in the ME.

Matt, The same forces that


The same forces that have been brewing all over the world were at play in Iraq. Charles Paul Freund at Reason has been covering these for years. The globalization of culture is a powerful force that has been challenging the various repressive forces in the region. The US invasions might have added momentum, but let's not forget that all over the world there are people clamoring to see belly buttons, drink beer, and listen to pop music. I think it's only a matter of time before these become universal, invasions or not.

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Jesse Walker at Reason has

Jesse Walker at Reason has this to say about the matter:

If there weren't any demonstrations, organizing, etc. before the US invasion of Iraq, we wouldn't be seeing these people-power movements now. The hawkish argument (or, rather, the hawkish argument that makes some sense) holds that the war opened the space that has allowed those movements to surge, and that it also provides an implicit threat to the governments being protested. I don't really buy this argument -- and I certainly don't think the only way to open such a space was with a war -- but if we're going to debate the issue, let's start by all recognizing that there already were a lot of Middle Easterners fighting (or itching to fight) for substantial reforms.



Matt, Well, maybe he's a


Well, maybe he's a Hegelian or a Marxist or a Fukayamist? :juggle: