What is the main difference between the winners and losers of history?
Answer: Getting the attractors right.[i]
Whereas the amateur studies how the present has been shaped by the past to foresee the future, the pro studies how the future is already shaping the present. Many of the great change-makers in history, whether we’re talking about political figures such as Mahatma Gandhi or entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs, seem to have had an intuitive understanding of the way the future exerts a kind of gravitational effect upon the present; that developments in the present in certain ways are pulled towards the unrealized potentials of the future. What happens in the present is namely just as much a result of what has been as what can become.
The following is a slightly edited extract from Hanzi Freinacht’s book ‘Nordic Ideology: A Metamodern Guide to Politics, Book Two’. This is the second book in a series on metamodern thought, a work of popular philosophy that investigates the nature of psychological development and its political implications. What you will read below is from the opening chapter of the first part of the book; a chapter that introduces the idea of societal attractors and stresses the importance of letting them guide us if we are to change the world.
“With a well-developed sense of the attractors you get a much clearer picture of what is possible in the near future and what remains a more distant prospect.”
Gandhi saw the world was headed towards universal principles like democracy, human rights, racial equality and rule of law, which inevitably would render colonial rule ethically indefensible, even to the colonizers themselves. This enabled him to understand how India could be freed in a peaceful and democratic manner; he knew that history—the long-term attractors—was on his side. Similarly, because Jobs saw that digitization was the future, he realized before most others that everyone would want a personal computer.
To those who couldn’t see these attractors, home computers or the end of colonial rule appeared as distant dreams or science fiction. Moreover, blindness to attractors makes it exceedingly difficult to know what exactly to do if you actually do indulge in such dreams. With a well-developed sense of the attractors you get a much clearer picture of what is possible in the near future and what remains a more distant prospect.
If you are able to discern different attractors from one another, understanding their gravitational pull and intricate dynamics, you will be much more capable of successfully navigating the tides of historical change. The most astonishing and admirable achievements have rarely been made by those who set about to wrestle history and singlehandedly initiate a great change, and more often by those who knew the direction of the winds and adjusted their sails accordingly.
If you still don’t get it: Attractors make you smarter. Gandhi’s understanding of the attractor of a democratic society and national sovereignty enabled him to “push the right buttons” at the right time so that colonial rule could be ended without firing a shot. He knew he did not have to force change to happen, but that it was more effective to gently steer the forces already in motion in a more preferable direction. By getting the attractor right, Gandhi grasped the golden opportunity that had dawned in his time: that freedom could be obtained, not by threat of physical force, but simply by holding his colonial overlords to the same principles they themselves had sworn allegiance to. Brilliant. One person getting the attractor right may just have saved a million lives.
Jobs’ understanding of the attractor of a digitized society enabled him to see the computer as more than just a fast calculator to aid governments and businesses, as most of his contemporaries did, but instead as a universal tool to enable common people be more creative and empowered. He knew he didn’t have to know all the things people would use them for, just that he should make them more user-friendly—and a revolution would follow. Getting it right made him filthy rich and turned him into one of the most beloved public figures of our time.[ii] Quite extraordinary really.
“if you sense an attractor and seek to act upon it, but people around you demand proof whether it’s going to work, don’t mind these people, carry on; they won’t be the winners of history”
The Spirit of the Laws Evolving
A good example of someone who identified an attractor is Montesquieu’s “separation of powers”, presented in his 1748 treatise The Spirit of Laws. Of course, earlier versions of this idea can be traced back to Athenian democracy, but Montesquieu gave it a more philosophically and logically coherent theory: that the legislative, executive and judiciary powers (parliament, government and courts) must be separated from each other if we are to avoid tyranny and corruption. This tripartite separation of powers still informs all democratic constitutions in the world today. Well done, my good Baron. You hit upon an attractor.
But today we are dealing with a more abstract form of governance that concerns wider as well as more intimate spheres of human life. So the issue naturally becomes more complex: Instead of a three-part division of powers, we need six dimensions; each new power being balanced by no less than five others.
Fiction—written words, sheets of paper—was all that Montesquieu’s idea of the separation of powers was to begin with; nothing really “real”. But his words came alive because, in some abstract sense, the Baron was right. His prevailing intuition was that power, whenever unchecked and unbalanced by other powers, is detrimental to freedom. He had no studies to show it, no empirical evidence by today’s standards. No “proof” he was correct. And yet many of us now live in societies governed, at least partly, by Montesquieu’s principles. To this day his ideas draw the fine line between democracy and dictatorship—but we would probably have never known the former if we had demanded proof he was right before making his fiction reality.[iii]
Consequently, if you sense an attractor and seek to act upon it, but people around you demand proof whether it’s going to work, don’t mind these people, carry on; they won’t be the winners of history, whereas you might end up as the new Gandhi or Steve Jobs.
An Attractor Is…
So what is an attractor precisely? And how is it their knowabouts can make you so smart? Let’s get more precise.
an “attractor” is a pattern or equilibrium that under certain conditions is very likely to emerge and stabilize within a dynamical system, such as a society.
We went from hunter-gatherer societies to agriculture—in Eurasia and the pre-Columbian Americas separately—because agriculture was an attractor. We electrified the world, because electricity was an attractor. We all started using interconnected computers, because digitization was an attractor. These things did not happen randomly.
The world is a chaotic place and the future is never predetermined; but on the general level, some things are just more likely to happen than others, and some are very likely to happen. How likely one development or another is to occur is determined by the “gravitational strength” of the attractors. Yes, they even talk about “great attractors” also in cosmology, hence the analogy of gravity or pull.[iv]
The advantages of a digitized society, for instance, are simply so great that the gravitational pull of this attractor makes it very, very likely that we would all own a computer one day once it was invented. Today we see that solar and wind power, self-driving electric cars, crypto currencies and nano-technologies act as strong attractors in a similar vein as digitization. These are all (potential) attractor points. Getting it right can make you a bitcoin billionaire or turn you into a star entrepreneur like Elon Musk.
It’s hard to reject the idea of how technological attractors play a role in shaping historical developments. Few would claim the personal computer was a fluke or that it is just as likely we today would still light candles rather than light bulbs.
However, when it comes to how we think and how we organize society, people tend to be more dismissive of the notion that such delicate matters are under the influence of attractors. We like to think it’s all a big coincidence that things turned out the way they did, that the future has never been set in stone; that we can decide in which direction history should unfold. “We do have a choice, don’t we?”
Yes we do. But some choices are just much more likely to be made than others. We all make choices, and we take great pains to ensure we make the right ones in order to avoid our actions being completely haphazard. As such (given that certain choices have proven so abundantly preferable to others), wouldn’t it be fair to claim that our choices, on a collective level, tend to form certain patterns that are more likely to emerge than others; that we are destined to decide between a limited range of societal models whenever they become possible?
After all, there are a million ways to organize society. Yet human societies tend to be remarkably similar at any stage of historical development. We could organize society in accordance with the teachings of the Jonestown suicide cult, or Robert Nozick’s minimal state, or set out to make reality of Orwell’s big brother society, or make children the only electable candidates for government, or have all decisions made by rolling dice—the possibilities are endless. But for some reason most of today’s countries have chosen and tried to organize themselves along the lines of a modern state or polity[v] with a tripartite structure of governance.
Even if the courts in some cases aren’t really free and independent from those who govern, and the actions of those who govern aren’t always held accountable by the governed, most such despotic regimes still pretend to abide to the principles of the rule of law and the notion that the “people” is the sovereign. Coincidence? Or just a way to avoid pissing off the democratic West? Probably not. Even the communist regimes of the past claimed to uphold the principle of rule of law and to represent the “people”—hence the frequent use of “the people’s republic” in the name of many of the most brutal dictatorships. Even Nazi Germany claimed the German people to be the highest sovereign. And the brutal dictator Gaddafi also put great efforts into explaining how he had made a special deal with the Libyan people. So even if the de facto circumstances remain a far cry from the modern template of governance, rulers still try to make it appear as though the system works in accordance with democratic ideals.
The fact that Montesquieu’s system, in one form or another, spread to most of the world can hardly be coincidental. And the fact that the evolution of democracy, at least in terms of its constitutional structure, more or less makes a full stop at this point—can hardly be a coincidence either. You reach a plateau; everyone reaches some version of the same system, and then we all stay there for decades, even centuries.
Beyond all the thousands of unique historical events, personalities, tenfold increases of GDP output, and conflicts and cultures and markets and random plot twists (like tsunamis and whatnot), the same system emerges with a regularity revealing itself with crushing clarity.
Coincidence? No. The correct answer is: attractor. The modern democratic state is not the only attractor, but it is certainly one of the most competitive ones.
So what is the next attractor?
Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian and sociologist, author of ‘The Listening Society’, ‘Nordic Ideology’ and the upcoming books ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of History’ and ‘Outcompeting Capitalism’. Much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps. You can follow Hanzi on his facebook profile here.
[i]. The word “attractor” is taken from the mathematical study of dynamical systems where it’s used to designate a set of numerical values towards which a system tends to evolve. We are here avoiding a more cumbersome discussion about what kinds of attractors there are. Since societies are very complex phenomena, we are talking of complex forms of attractors, called “strange attractors”, i.e. attractors that have a fractal structure. This term was coined by Ruelle and Takens. The most famous strange attractor is the Lorenz attractor, described already in 1963 by Edward Lorenz. These early models were made to describe meteorological phenomena.
See: Ruelle, D., Takens, F., 1971. On the nature of turbulence. Communications in Mathematical Physics. 20 (3): 167–192.
[ii]. Yes, we all know there was a dark side to Jobs, too. The point here is simply to point out the power of attractors.
[iii]. The point is not, of course, that our suggested “Montesquieu 2.0” should cancel the democratic principles of Montesquieu’s tripartite division, but to build another layer on top of them. The new insights regulate the old ones, but they don’t cancel them. Montesquieu’s division of powers still holds.
[iv]. “What Is The Great Attractor?” Universe Today. 2014-07-14.
[v]. I sometimes use the word “polity” instead of “state”.