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Patterns of alternation: Toward an enantiomorphic policy

Global Strategies Project


1. Interaction between opposites

William Irwin Thompson, a cultural historian, has sharpened considerably the ecology-sensitive intuition concerning the psycho-social lessons to be learned from cooperation between co-evolving systems (1982). He stresses the importance of an appropriate understanding of the interaction between opposites by citing E F Schumacher:

"The pairs of opposites, of which freedom and order and growth and decay are the most basic, put tension into the world, a tension that sharpens man's sensitivity and increases his self-awareness. No real understanding is possible without awareness of these pairs of opposites which permeate everything man does...Justice is a denial of mercy, and mercy is a denial of justice. Only a higher force can reconcile these opposites: wisdom. The problem cannot be solved but wisdom can transcend it. Similarly, societies need stability and change, tradition and innovation, public interest and private interest, planning and laissez-faire, order and freedom, growth and decay. Everywhere society's health depends on the simultaneous pursuit of mutually opposed activities or aims. The adoption of a final solution means a kind of death sentence for man's humanity and spells either cruelty or dissolution, generally both". (1978, p. 127)

2. Process as synthesis

For Thompson any ecosystem is a form of life in which opposites interact: "It isn't the case that the ocean is right and the continent wrong..As it is with an ecosystem, so it is with a political system. It isn't the case that one party is right and the other party is wrong. Truth cannot be expressed in an ideology, for Truth is that which over-lights the conflict of opposed ideologies". (1982, p. 32)

As with Attali, Thompson refers to Atlan's synthesis of information theory and biology. Atlan moves beyond the prevalent superficial enthusiasm for cooperation by recognizing the role of discontinuity in health development: "So then, it would suffice to consider organization as an uninterrupted process of disorganization-reorganization, and not as a state, so that order and disorder, the organized and the contingent, construction and destruction, life and death are no longer so distinct. And moreover that is not all. These processes where the unity of opposites manifests (such a unity is not realized as a new state, a synthesis of the thesis and the antithesis, it is the movement of the process itself which constitutes the "synthesis"), these processes cannot exist unless the errors are a priori true errors, that order at any given moment is truly disturbed by disorder, that destruction (though not total) is still real, that the irruption of the event is a veritable irruption (a catastrophe or a miracle or both). In other words, these processes which appear to us as one of the fundamental organizing features of living beings, the result of a sort of collaboration between what one customarily calls life and death, can only exist precisely when it is not a question of co-operation but always radical opposition and negation". (emphasis added)

3. Nature of a global polity

In this context Thompson argues that: "A global polity cannot be simply capitalist or communist, Christian or Muslim; it has to be a planetary ecology of each and all...As ecology begins to inform our perceptions of the body politic, we will begin to understand that any polity must be an interaction of opposites. In a policy that has the shape of opposites, the wisdom of William Blake's 'In opposition is true friendship' will be understood". (1982, p. 32)

Thompson does not elaborate on his understanding of the dynamic nature of the relations between opposites in the polity, except through the overused term "interaction" and the notion of "symbiosis". Despite his quotation of Atlan, he interprets such interaction as cooperation, without giving much more than the usual "public relations" content to the term. And yet it is the nature or pattern of healthy interaction which is the goal of the collective quest at this time.

4. Enantiomorphism

By introducing the powerful concept of enantiomorphism he stresses the static aspect of the mirror image nature of the relationship between opposites, at an archetypal level. Elsewhere he introduced the "inexorable" process of enantiodromia. This is the dialectical movement in which a force, in its fullest development, turns into its opposite. The concept derives from ancient alchemy but was reintroduced into philosophy by C G Jung. It may be seen at work in the frequently remarked "convergence" between the supposedly opposed policies of the USA and the USSR. The process is often portrayed in drama.

This process is strongly related to that of alternation as explored in earlier notes. And Thompson does affirm (1982, p. 175) both the cyclic and innovative learning nature of this process by quoting the well-known verse of T S Eliot: "The end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time". Thompson develops his argument by exploring in some detail "one model for a field of interacting opposites". He uses the traditional psycho-cultural image of the quaternity, a geometrical version of William Blake's "Fourfold Vision". This permits an enantiomorphic juxtaposition of the four basic political orientations he distinguishes: conservative, liberal, radical, reactionary.

The four political parties "attempt to play out certain values in time...". He suggests that the structure can also be used to interrelate the four basic political and economic worlds he distinguishes: the capitalistic first world, the communist second world, the resource rich third world, and the fourth world of least developed countries:

"In the present transitional world-system, the interactions of the Four Worlds are unconscious, full of projections, and laden with conflict and of structural violence...The purpose of invoking the archaic Quaternity in a modern context of international relations is to make the unconscious conscious...The Quaternity enables us to see and model relationships of a more complex, polycentric variety". (p. 50)

5. Beyond the centre-periphery model

Thompson suggests that the fashionable centre-periphery model increases the potential for conflict by reinforcing simplistic perceptions of possible relationships. But he believes that in such a "planetary ecology...the health of the whole requires that one does not dominate the others". (1982, p. 50) This is an over-simplified (or possibly atemporal) understanding of "dominance" in ecological systems. It does not reflect Atlan's view (1979), nor does it accord with the process of alternation as argued here.

6. Shifting locus of dominance

Alternation, through enantiodromia, may indeed be understood to follow patterns such as Thompson's quaternity, but in them it is the dominance, or focus of power, which switches its locus in order to maintain the health of the whole. Dominance can only be absent in a system of maximum entropy associated with "energy death". Or it may appear to be absent, when in effect it has been displaced into a less obvious form whose consequences may be much more pernicious, as in the case violence.

7. In quest of the aesthetics of dominance displacement

Both Thompson and Klapp (1978) use the metaphor of a ball-game (with four zones or teams), whilst stressing that "the rules and the court are not the game; they are merely conditions that enable the game to be played". (1982, p. 44). But initiative and dominance lie where the ball is located, even though it must be expressed by movement of the ball for the game to continue, with the real risk of its loss to another team whenever their strategy is more appropriate. But there is a vast difference between a good game and a bad one (whatever the quantitative indicators), and none of the above clarifies the art of playing a qualitatively superior game. It does however suggest that such a game is possible.

From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential

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