Political Regime Shifts

Greek Parliament Session

Greek Parliament Session

A regime is a characteristic set of behaviors of a system which is maintained by mutually reinforcing processes of feedback.1 A regime shift is a qualitative, abrupt and major change in the topology and function of a system. These regimes shifts are nonlinear in that they usually occur suddenly when a smooth change in an internal stabilizing negative feedback process or a single external disturbance triggers a completely different system behavior.2 Such regime shifts have been studied most comprehensively within ecology – the classical example is the shift from a clear water lake to a eutrophic lake – but equally apply to all kind of systems.3 Political regime shifts involve periods of revolutionary change in the sociopolitical structures that govern a society. During such a period the major forces acting on and influencing the social system are reconfigured. Such change may be termed a social or political revolution which typically occurs rapidly and involves basic transformations of a society’s state and class structures.4 Because regime shifts involve a transformation in the whole structure of a system they are inherently nonlinear processes of change.5 The general theory of regimes shifts is based on the study of nonlinear dynamical systems that developed during the latter half of the 20th century. This framework is constructed out of a number of models from chaos theory, complexity, and systems theory; including ideas surrounding feedback loops, state space models, bifurcation theory, and attractors.6

Nonlinear Dynamics

The dynamics of nonlinear systems are understood mathematically with respect to a model called a state space. In mathematics and physics, a state space of a dynamical system is a space in which all possible states of a system are represented, with each possible state corresponding to one unique point in the phase space.7 A state space is a model that maps out the different parameters that define a system. For each primary parameter for the system, there is a corresponding axis, a one-dimensional system is called a phase line, while a two-dimensional system is called a phase plane, but the system may have many more dimensions each representing the most important free parameters that defined the system. A point in this state space then represents a specific state of the system at any given time as defined by the values of the corresponding parameters.7

As an example of this applied to interpreting social systems, we might think of the World Values Survey as a kind of phase space. The World Values Survey is a global research project that explores people’s values and beliefs, how they change over time and what social and political impact they have.8 The axis of the model represents two major dimensions of cross-cultural variation in the world: the first dimension is that of “traditional vs. secular-rational values” and the second dimension is that of “survival vs. self-expression values.” The global cultural map then tries to capture the relationship between different socio-cultural systems through their location within these two dimensions. Moving upward on this map reflects the shift from Traditional values to Secular-rational; where traditional values emphasize religiosity, national pride, respect for authority, obedience and marriage. Secular-rational values emphasize the opposite on each of these accounts.8 Moving rightward reflects the shift from Survival values to Self–expression values.9 survival values involve a priority of security over liberty, non-acceptance of homosexuality, abstinence from political action, distrust in outsiders and a weak sense of happiness. Self-expression values imply the opposite on all these accounts. This same graph could, of course, be used to define the state of a sociopolitical system with respect to any two or more free parameters.


group of people forming a human castel

An attractor is a set of states toward which a system tends to evolve irrespective of its initial state, such an attractor limits the possible states to the system and creates a closed space within the broader environment

As the system’s state changes over time it then traces a corresponding path through this high-dimensional space. As a whole, the phase diagram represents all that the system can be, and its shape can easily elucidate qualities of the system that might not be obvious otherwise. Typically what we see when looking at the phase space of a system is some form of a cycle of its behavior as it moves through a set of states, but generally stays within the same subsection of the overall phase space.10 In general, systems may initially explore their full states space but over time they settle into some subset of the entire phase space; like putting a ball into a bowl as it rolls around before settling into a stable state. Or for example, we might think of going to live in a new city, one may initially explore the whole city but then after settling down one’s movement becomes confined within some set of locations in the city. Due to certain constraints – such as having to work, visit friends, or do shopping – one finds that one’s movement starts to form a coherent pattern within a limited confinement of the overall city. This typically stable behavior to a system towards which it naturally gravitates over time we call an attractor.11

For example, when the person first arrives at the city they may go exploring in many different directions, but once their lives have become routinized, if we put them anywhere in the city they will invariably return back relatively quickly to their pre-existing pattern. Thus we can say an attractor or basin of attraction forms the typical set of states towards which a system will converge given any arbitrary value of its initial conditions. Such a basin of attraction may be cultural, as in the World Value Survey illustrated previously, where a certain subset of ideas dominate within a society working to shape opinions and perspectives; it may be social where certain political rules shape the actions; it may also be economic where the financial constraints maintain people within a certain pattern, such as going to work in a particular job every day. This basin of attraction is constructed out of a set of forces that are acting on the system to contain it within a certain pattern. A basin of attraction then forms a specific regime within the system, that is to say, a set of forces that are acting on the individuals to shape and organize their behavior. These forces that work to constrain behavior within a given pattern or to create change can be understood in terms of feedback loops.12

Feedback Dynamics

Feedback loops capture the essence of interdependence between elements over time. The model of a feedback loop describes how two variables affect each other over time through a cyclical interplay, where what happens to one now will affect another which will then feedback to affect the first. Feedback loops are a very basic model but also have an extraordinary descriptive capacity.13 As many dynamics can be understood in terms of feedback loops they are at the heart of all processes of nonlinear change, from population dynamics in an ecosystem, to financial crises, to the rise and fall of political regimes. Feedback loops come in two kinds, negative and positive. A negative feedback loop is where a change in one variable induces a change in another associated element in the opposite direction, thus working to counterbalance the movement in each and create stability. Positive feedback is where a change in one induces a similar change in another; where two things are moving in the same direction over time, up or down together as they both reinforce each other’s change through the feedback dynamic.13

Negative feedback is inherently stabilizing through the balancing mechanism that the loop creates. Punishment systems can be seen as a form of negative feedback loop that is designed to maintain the status quo within the system; the threat of punishment is designed to counterbalance the reward within the subject’s mind to prevent them from taking an action. The less obedient they are the more they will be punished, the more obedient they are the less punishment they will receive, thus the feedback mechanism works to correct their behavior and keep them on the desired course. Negative feedback is what we might call “normal” in that it works to maintain things in a steady state. Negative feedback is inherently conservative in that it is always working to maintain the existing state of the system or regulate gradual processes of linear change.13

Positive feedback is the opposite of this, inherently destabilizing because everything is going off in the same direction. An autocatalytic reaction in chemistry is a good example of a process driven by positive feedback. Autocatalysis is when a chemical reaction creates more reactions, which in turn create even more reactions; thus the rate of change is compounded as it speeds up over time. The author Jared Diamond, in his book Guns, Germs, and Steel14 uses this concept to explain how certain technologies cause civilizations to develop at an exponential rate, making it difficult for societies that develop technologies later to catch up. The reason this happens is that technology builds upon itself, in other words, one invention depends on many others. Gutenberg’s printing press, for example, depended on several other inventions, including a screw-press used primarily to make olive oil and wine, as well as innovations in paper-making. When we view the development of technology historically we can see how it provides its own momentum, compounding upon itself. The more technology a society has, the more it can develop. Due to this compounding effect, positive feedback processes can happen at an exponential rate of change, they are typically short lived but drive major change within the overall system. When positive feedback becomes dominant within a system it is a sign of a regime shift, the whole system is moving into a new regime at either a higher or lower state of operation.15


In times when a system is in a strong stable basin of attraction with much strong negative feedback acting on it, it is invariably resistant to outside influence and will not change easily. We may say that it is topologically closed as many processes are balanced and contained within that specific basin of attraction. A society in a normal state has a strong basin of attraction that represents the mainstream of people that are incentivised to stay within the existing pattern.16 Balancing negative feedback loops are linear in nature, they produce normal Gaussian distributions where everything is mainly in the middle of the distribution.17 The pattern has a sense of coherence in that it is closed and it has a sense of being balanced in the sense of fairness or justice; for example if you work hard you will get remunerated for it. Here we might think about the heyday of the American middle class in the 1950s and 60s when one wage-earner earned enough to buy all the goods of a middle-class lifestyle because everything was cheap relative to their wage; working a normal job was sufficed to maintain a normal level of economic well-being, with a corresponding large and dominant middle class.18

Change happens when the balancing feedback mechanisms that hold the system within a certain basin of attraction become broken and positive feedback becomes more prevalent and the system shifts from a linear to a nonlinear paradigm and a corresponding behavioral change. A move from normal distributions to power law distributions, from equilibrium to non-equilibrium, from incremental change to exponential change.19 For example, the global biosphere is regulated by many distributed balancing feedback loops that hold the overall ecosystem within a specific set of states. As human industrial activity breaks those feedback loops the basin of attraction becomes weaker and it starts to move away from the equilibrium within which it was held as we experience more extreme events out on the edges of the distribution.20 The same is true for sociopolitical systems, when basic negative feedback loops such as that of work and remuneration, crime and punishment, supply and demand, skills and employment become disintermediated or broken the system will become more nonlinear.

The negative feedback is what holds elements within the pattern, the weaker they are the farther from the equilibrium they can move; out to the fringes of the basin of attraction where they once again become influenced by external forces. As positive feedback becomes more prominent it becomes easier and easier to influence the system and it takes longer for the system to return to a normal state after an external alteration, what is called critical slowing down.21 During this process, the system does not just stay cycling within a given pattern but parts of the pattern may start to move into a new location within the overall state space and form a new regime. A process whereby an attractor splits into two or more attractors within the overall phase space is called a bifurcation. Bifurcation theory studies qualitative changes in the topology of a state space. A bifurcation occurs when a small smooth change made to the parameter values of a system causes a sudden ‘qualitative’ or topological change in its behaviour.22

This may be deemed a critical state in that small change can have major effects in determining the long-term trajectory of the system into a new basin of attraction.22 As the pattern becomes eroded, more elements move away and a new pattern forms thus creating a bifurcation. During the transition, the system exists in what is called a state of bistability. In a dynamical system, bistability means the system has two stable equilibrium states.23 Something that is bistable can be resting in either of two states; which is not the case during normal periods when there is only one dominant basin of attraction, one stable state, that corresponds to what we call the mainstream within a society or culture. As noted these periods of regime shift are transient, they often involve the consumption and expenditure of unsustainable amounts of energy; just like in an autocatalytic chemical process they will not last long and the system has to explore new possibilities. It has to rapidly iterate to find new solutions and a new basin of attraction or else it will run out of energy and collapse back into the old regime, just like in a major protest, the system can not stay in a high energy, non-equilibrium state for long  and new solutions have to be quickly found and developed.

As Professor Eve Mitleton-Kelly notes “What happens is when a system is pushed far-from-equilibrium the following characteristics come into play to create the new order. It will self-organize, it will explore possible solutions, it will co-evolve, new structures will emerge, there will be a sense of coherence, but also the precise behavior can neither be predicted more controlled.”24 Likewise, the social and political scientist Immanuel Wallerstein speaks of this process as such, “when a system, any kind of system enters a moment of bifurcation and is, therefore, coming to an end, two things happen. The structure becomes chaotic, and secondly, it becomes one in which small input gets great output, as opposed to a normally functioning system in which great input gets great output. This is very important to remember because that means we are in a chaotic, confused situation in which there is going to be real struggle about the new order, unlike fifty or a hundred years ago when we worked very hard and organizations worked very hard and didn’t get very far, the revolutions didn’t turn out to be so revolutionary. Now every little input will get very great output, every little touch by us in the next 20 to 50 years is going to have a big impact and it may not be the impact that we want if we touch it in the wrong way.”25

Political Revolutions

This final process of change, when the system has reached a critical state may be termed a social or political revolution. At such critical points, the system becomes highly nonlinear and chaotic as smaller and smaller events can determine larger and larger outcomes. This process of change is nonlinear in that each individual’s benefits and costs of changing to a new regime depends on the number of other people who do so concurrently or did so.27 A person who publicly opposes the incumbent regime pays an external cost that decreases with the size of the public opposition accumulating over time. The incentive of the individual at any iteration is contingent on the number of people that have already adopted, which creates a positive feedback dynamic. Thus we get tipping points, where a process can start slowly but once it has gained traction can happen at an exponential rate. Models to such processes of political regime shift are usually looked at in terms of the, cost benefit of the individual which is contingent upon; the level of operation and power of the regime; the level of discontent of the individuals; the capacity of the members to connect and organize; but also the triggering of the action depends in a great way on the distribution of members and their costs.

In her 1979 book “States and Social Revolutions” the sociologist Theda Skocpol conducted an in-depth analysis of the process of revolution by looking at the France, Russia and China revolutions. According to Skocpol, revolutions involve a transformation in embedded institutions; a social revolution involves total social and political structure change to a society. Skocpol asserts that Social Revolutions are rapid and basic transformations of a society’s state and class structures. Skocpol made an important distinction between a ‘revolution’ and a ‘rebellion’. For her, a rebellion is simply an uprising by the subordinate classes, which may not cause structural change. Revolutions, on the other hand, occur when embedded institutions are transformed. A social revolution involves total political and social structural change to a society. Nothing is left the same.28  Skocpol examined examples of social revolutions from the history of Russia, China, and France. She believed that all three displayed the same core features. Firstly, a social revolution required an old regime that based its power on maintaining traditional forms of economic organization. Secondly, a crisis, usually in the form of external pressure, was needed to weaken the grip of the ruling class. Third, a rebellion was led by the lower classes, and fourth, a new regime was developed and became excepted as legitimate. She argued that the state’s ability to respond to a crisis depends on its structure. If it is able to react, then a revolutionary situation will not come about; if it is not, then the social revolution will likely ensue.28

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