World History for the Twenty-first Century

By Haines Brown <>

Decay is evident in all compound things.
Strive on with diligence.

Buddha's last words

For practical reasons, most of the documents included in the Archives of World History represent contemporary world history. People might well suspect that “contemporary” and “history” are contradictory terms, but I do not believe this to be the case.

By “contemporary history” I mean three things:

It is this time dimension that distinguishes contemporary history it from “current events” or “news.” These refer to empirical diversity that is short range in terms of individual experience of time and place. In contrast, historiography addresses long range change that presumes a situation that differs fundamentally from its past and creates the seeds for a fundamentally different future. “News” originally served the need of the bourgeoisie for informed action in the marketplace, not to change the existing order. The engine of history is not our appropriation of resources inherited from the past (such as an awareness of our “roots”), but being able to represent the present as part a long-range process in which meaningful action in the present is possible.

While these are my starting assumptions, there lurk a multitude of difficult questions. What follows merely points to some of them and the kind of historiography appropriate to the 21st century.

For example, most historians have little idea how to present history as a process and instead merely describe a sequence of static situations. Like a movie film, an ordering of events in this way only gives the illusion of motion, and in fact process itself is ignored. In the natural sciences, to some extent general rules can be inferred from constant conjunctures, but this does not apply to emergent processes, such as human history, in which consistency in time and space is the exception. To infer a causal relation from unique instances requires that the instance have a very limited scope in time and place. Consequently, the persuasiveness of short-range explanations are a function of their triviality, and by nature are ill-suited for the broad sweep of historiography.

Because short range explanations infer causal relations from the presence of local empirical change, a historiography based on these assumptions and at the same time exceeds the scope of short range explanation must explain causation by an appeal to common sense. Inevitably, this means that the plausibility of explanation emerges from the historian's personal bias, class, gender and nationality. Explanations will be persuasive to a very small coterie: fellow historians rather than the public at large (hence the widening gap between popular and academic history), petite bourgeois professionals rather than the broad working class, or heirs of modern western sensibilities rather than find appeal in Asia or Africa, where most people live, or in the coming millennium. It is sad to admit that while historiography by definition is a science of social change, historians generally have little idea of how to approach their topic in non-ideological and naturalistic terms.

As the pace of change accelerates and we enter a world of universal interaction, it is crucial that historiography not further bifurcate into little more than self-serving ideology and mass entertainment. Instead, it must reflect the conditions associated with constructive social change, and so the historiography of the 3rd millennium must be socially universal and founded upon a clear notion of a process that is part of the struggle for progress.

How, then, can an historical situation be represented as a long range process, as essentially in motion? To achieve this, it is necessary to represent situations, not just in terms of their distinguishing qualities, but also as causally linked to their social or natural environments. An essential causal relation implies not just that things are subject to change, but that in fact they must always be changing.

In short range historiography, change is accidental, not essential. One explains change as a potential in a situation that exists and is described prior to the observed change. In a row of dominoes, the dominoes must first be set up before they will fall. I intend to suggest that in broad scientific terms things are really quite the opposite, for it is change that gives rise to the empirical particulars; it is a dissipation that gives rise to the dominoes! As counter-intuitive as this might at first seem, I will suggest that to represent something as a process, it must be essentially in motion, so that change is essential, not accidental. Because natural change implies causal relations, This means things have to be represented as having two essential dimensions: an empirical dimension (the qualities that distinguish it from all other processes) and an abstract dimension (a causal relation that joins it to other processes). The unity of these two opposite dimensions defines things as processes and therefore as subject to the long-range historical understanding appropriate to modern world history. I can only hint here how one might arrive at these conclusions.

At one time, much philosophical ink was spilled over this point. For to represent things as essentially in motion smacked of “vitalism.” However, we now know that change is in fact universal because the cosmos as a whole and everything in it (taken as a whole) necessarily dissipates toward a more probable state. Because of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, there is no longer any question that everything is essentially a process, that all things are in motion, and that things are causally related in terms of their essential nature.

Put simply, the Second Law of Thermodynamics means that everything, taken in itself, necessarily increases in entropy; is necessarily “dissipative,”; moves toward a state that is more probable than some initial state. In scientific terms, every material thing ultimately turns to dust, and all energy dissipates to heat. So motion is in fact essential to all things in our cosmos. The old critique of vitalism presumed, for ideological reasons, that any presumption of essential change was equivalent to a mystical belief in a hidden life-force (élan vitale) within all things. This, of course, was misleading, and we now know that dissipation, which is more akin to death than life, is implied in all being taken in hypothetical isolation (since not everything is isolated, not everything is dying). The conclusion is that being is also a becoming when we talk about real things, not hypothetical constructs.

There is no question, however, that not all processes are dissipative, for sub-processes can represent quite the opposite, and can be emergent (negentropic). In fact, what interests the historian is not dissipation, the winding down of things toward dull uniformity and predictability, but the opposite: processes that move toward outcomes that are less probable than some initial state. It is conventional to speak of such processes that give rise to novelty as negentropic, but here I will speak of them as “emergent” processes.

An emergent process does not contradict natural law so long as it is represented as a process that is a sub-system within a larger process that on the whole dissipates. That is, an emergent process exists because of an essential causal relation with a dissipative process, and it feeds upon that dissipation. Natural law is satisfied if the combination of an emergent and a dissipative process adds up to a net dissipation (entropy increase). Here we will define “environment” to be a process, the dissipation of which is the thermodynamic engine for the emergence of a process that is causally connected to it.

Why should a process that is linked to an environment emerge? It is because if a process has a causal relation with a dissipative process which is constrained by a mediating structure, the secondary process will necessarily have lower entropy than the primary process because it has fewer degrees of freedom. For example, mixed gravel passing through a sieve, thanks to the dissipation of gravity, results in a heap of gravel that is ordered by the size of its constituents and by its overall conical shape. Order has arisen out of chaos thanks to the dissipation of energy, but also because of an intervening structure of the sieve that constrains that dissipation. In fact, all structures in the universe ultimately arose because of some constraint upon the dissipation of the original Big Bang.

That is, improbable structures arise simply because universal dissipation is constrained by structures inherited from the past, which in turn themselves become mediating structures. In this dialectical process, an interdependent environment and emergent process arise. One does not exist without the other (in fact, the word “environment” implies a relation to something else). The intervening structure finds various names in the sciences, such as barrier, membrane, wall, or the generic term, “mediation.” In historiography, it has been argued that the primary mediations are the means of production for the economic contradiction and superstructure for the social contradiction.

When things are represented as processes, one consequence is that causality is probabilistic. Indeed, historians always use the vocabulary of a probabilistic determinism, but usually attribute it to their ignorance rather than their object of study. So, in terms of a probabilistic determinism, what the mediation does is to constrain the probability distribution of the possible outcomes of change, so that the actual outcomes will be improbable in relation to the odds of their occurring had there been no mediation.

What I've tried to hint at here is a mental model to represent things as processes and to indicate why this will be so fundamental to a historiography of the coming millennium. The name I use for this model, which involves a mediated unity and interdependence of two processes that are opposite with respect to whether they are emergent or dissipative, is “contradiction.” While I use that word in what might appear to be a novel way, actually I am very dependent on its articulation by Friedrich Engels.

Crystal formation is a good example of how the dissipation of energy through molecular bonding acts as an engine to support the emergence of the crystal's improbable structure, thanks to the mediation of a lattice structure. Without that mediating structure, the molecules would have joined together in a number of ways that would add up to an amorphous mass. Note that the lattice structure (the heritage of the past) does not cause the crystal to form, but only reduces the range of likely outcomes, so that the order of a crystal emerges from chaos. Of course a civilization is not a crystal, although often compared to one. There are two principle difference between a crystal and a civilization: a) like a tropical storm, the emergence of human society gives rise to an improbable concentration of energy so that work can be done, and b) consciousness is a contradictory mental state that makes it possible to constrain dissipation so that circumstances can be changed. Obviously, much can and has been said about this.

In reply to Friedrich Nietzsche, while the burden of history does constrain action in the present, it is also the condition of our freedom. Like a child taking piano lessons, the harsh discipline of practice is the condition for eventual creative performance. Lord Acton, on the contrary, saw historic consciousness as the cornerstone of liberty. Unfortunately, he was referring only to a consciousness that is free of the prison of an eternal present because of its awareness of change and diversity. Therefore Action's “answer” to Nietzsche begs the question, for how can a mere idea compete against power of inherited structures? However, we know today that freedom is not just ideational, but founded on a quite natural struggle against probable outcomes. I believe it is therefore possible after all to posit the liberating function of historical consciousness because it directs a real power to batter down the walls of Nietzsche's prison.

In human affairs, such improbable outcomes, which historians like to think of as the result of creativity, are often attributed to a metaphysical deus ex machina. Historians often sweep this embarrassment under a carpet by defining human nature as Promethean, as essentially creative, as if that did not beg the question. In fact, human creativity is simply the constraint of our intentions upon the exercise of our natural powers. And, as is the case of the myriad of other natural emergent processes about us, our creative capacities depend ultimately upon the dissipation of our environment. To achieve improbable outcomes requires not just a dream of what might be, but a real struggle to bring that improbable outcome to pass.

The movement of history toward ever less probable outcomes implies social progress at least in the sense that our future lies increasingly in our own hands. History is indeed the story of human liberation. There is progress, perhaps not in terms of moral improvement or the wellbeing of the majority, but certainly in the sense that we have ever greater power over circumstances for better or for ill. In this sense there is moral progress in that our increase in social power makes us ever more responsible for the future. To turn Malthus on his head, we are better, not absolutely, but because our growing power to do ill has not led us to be worse.

Under modern conditions, the continued movement toward improbable outcomes is possible only through a concerted effort in a present. Our capacity to build the future cannot be understood as an inheritance from the past, but as constructed in the present, for if we inherited our capacities for change, then history would necessarily wind down, not up. If history is really an emergent or creative process, then its secret must lie in the present, not the past. This simple logic is often ignored by historians for ideological reasons.

It is ideological because the class position of most historians encourages them to think of human capacities in terms of individual a possession of resources or talents. But a historiography of the next millennium must be universal, and therefore address the needs of people who do not possess resources, and who are unencumbered by the weight of the past. The strength of most people can only arise from their solidarity and their discontent with the existing order. It is they, the working class of the world, who alone can built a better future and develop the historic consciousness appropriate to that task.

The struggle is necessarily informed by an historical consciousness, that is not merely an awareness of the past based on a discovery of one's particular historical roots, but in addition by placing who we are in these terms into relation with our present social and natural environments as the basis for a struggle for progress. If we fail to grasp our present situation as a process, our heritage ends a fetter upon action. Any historical situation is simultaneously the cumulative product of the past and a concerted effort in the present to transform that heritage. These are the two dimensions of the historical present: its empirical dimension which is the product of the historical past, and its abstract dimension, which is the causal relation of the present to its environments, both social and natural.

It is the combination of these two dimensions that enables us to transform the structures inherited from the past to create a future in accord with our wishes, and particularly the needs arising from the deepening contradiction of the present. Therefore, struggle in the present reconciles the objective and subjective aspects of history, the being and becoming of our condition.

In the past, “great men” enjoyed sufficient private power based on possession to shape the course of affairs. Today an ever greater part of the world's people no longer inherit means of production as a private possession. As a result, only through international working-class solidarity and democratic struggle is there a sufficient concentration of power to bring about progress. The past bears down on the present, not as the engine of its progress, but only the condition for the struggle to create a better future. The past only determines the relative probability of possible futures, and it is we who realize the potentials in the present to create those futures.

Where united struggle gives rise to progress, the diversity of the world's various traditions multiplies our strength. Through a united struggle for progress we enjoy an enriched social environment that enhances our potential for constructive change. Merely a passive awareness of the world's diversity offers nothing but amusement, and in the absence of a united struggle for progress, it can only separate us and become the source of division and misunderstanding. So, without the unified struggle for progress by all the world's working peoples, there will be no history; without historic consciousness that represents the present as a process, there can be no struggle for progress.

If “world” history is to be more than a shapeless conglomerate of local histories, which until modern times were only accidentally connected if at all; if world history is to be more than abstract metahistory divorced from the constraint of life's concrete particulars, it is only because in scientific terms the real engine of history is the causal relation of society with the natural environment mediated by labor. Herein lies the real universality of history and what makes realistic a “world” history before people were directly connected. For this reason, the only possible world history today is a history belonging to those who mediate the relation of human society and nature, the international working class. This is the world history of the twenty-first century.