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Why Democracy vs Autocracy? Because of Open vs Closed Systems.

Systems Theory Survival Guide

Michael Filimowicz, PhD
Published in
4 min readMay 27, 2024

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The contemporary political competition between democratic and autocratic social systems can be illuminatingly framed through the lens of open and closed systems, a conceptual dichotomy borrowed from the realms of science and engineering. This approach allows us to transcend simplistic binaries and delve into the structural and functional dynamics that underpin these political systems. By examining these systems through the principles of thermodynamics and cybernetics, we can glean profound insights into their respective strengths, weaknesses, and the conditions under which they thrive or falter.

In the scientific context, an open system is one that exchanges both energy and matter with its surroundings. A quintessential example is a pot of boiling water without a lid. Heat escapes into the environment, and the water can evaporate, allowing continuous interaction with the surrounding air. Conversely, a closed system permits the exchange of energy but not matter with its surroundings. A closed system can be exemplified by a pot with a lid on; heat may still be transferred, but the mass remains constant. An even more restricted system is an isolated system, like hot water in a thermos, where neither energy nor matter is exchanged with the environment.

These thermodynamic principles provide a useful metaphor for understanding political systems. Democratic societies, analogous to open systems, engage in continuous exchange with their environment. They absorb diverse inputs from citizens, adapt through feedback mechanisms such as elections and free press, and evolve by integrating new ideas and innovations. This openness fosters resilience and adaptability, crucial for navigating the complexities of modern governance. However, it also introduces vulnerabilities, such as the potential for internal discord and external manipulation.

In contrast, autocratic or totalitarian systems resemble closed or isolated systems. They restrict the flow of information and control the inputs and outputs to maintain stability and order. By limiting feedback and suppressing dissent, these systems can maintain a facade of stability and uniformity. However, this rigidity often leads to stagnation, as the lack of external input and internal critique stifles innovation and adaptation. Over time, the inability to respond dynamically to changing circumstances can render such systems brittle and prone to collapse under pressure.

Switching to cybernetics, the study of systems regulation and control, further enriches our understanding. A self-driving car, for instance, represents a closed system in this context. It operates based on pre-programmed algorithms and sensor inputs, with limited capacity for human intervention. While efficient in controlled environments, its rigidity can become a liability in unpredictable situations. On the other hand, a car driven by a human operator exemplifies an open system. The human driver continuously processes a vast array of inputs, from road conditions to traffic signals, adjusting their behavior in real-time. This flexibility enhances the system’s overall responsiveness and adaptability.

Applying these concepts to political science and sociology, we observe that democratic systems, akin to open systems, rely on a continuous exchange of ideas, feedback, and participation from the populace. This openness enables self-correction, innovation, and a greater alignment with the public’s needs and aspirations. However, it also means that democratic systems must constantly manage the tensions and conflicts that arise from diverse perspectives and interests.

Autocratic systems, mirroring closed systems, often seek to maintain order and control by limiting participation and dissent. This can lead to greater short-term stability and efficiency, as decision-making is streamlined and dissent minimized. However, the lack of feedback and adaptability can result in long-term fragility, as the system becomes increasingly disconnected from the realities and needs of its populace.

It is important to recognize that the distinction between open and closed systems is not absolute but exists along a spectrum. Political systems can exhibit varying degrees of openness or closedness, adapting their structures and functions in response to internal and external pressures. For instance, hybrid regimes may incorporate elements of both democracy and autocracy, balancing openness with control to varying extents.

Ultimately, human societies, like any other phenomena in the universe, operate under the same fundamental principles of systems theory. The dynamics between open and closed systems reveal structural and functional analogies that transcend specific contexts. Understanding these dynamics allows us to appreciate the relative advantages and disadvantages of different political systems.

Open, democratic systems offer adaptability, resilience, and alignment with the public will but require robust mechanisms to manage diversity and conflict. Closed, autocratic systems provide order and control but risk stagnation and fragility due to their rigidity and suppression of dissent.

Framing the competition between democracy and autocracy in terms of open versus closed systems provides a nuanced perspective that transcends simplistic dichotomies such as typically expressed in ideological discourse. By drawing on the principles of thermodynamics and cybernetics, we can better understand the inherent dynamics and trade-offs of these political systems, guiding us toward more informed and effective governance in an increasingly complex world.

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