Sunday, July 29, 2012

Examining Capitalism Through Quantum Mechanics

Op-Ed By Michael Ortiz, Truthout
Saturday, 28 July 2012 08:42 

As human beings, we don't just construct social realities and social systems, but we literally help construct the physical universe of which we are a part. Therefore, understanding the relationship between human beings and the quantum reality of the universe becomes paramount if we seek to truly understand and transform the social and structural systems of inequality that we have created for ourselves.

According to quantum mechanics, the subatomic level of reality exists in an undifferentiated state of dynamic flux until a conscious observer measures it (or looks at it), thus, giving that matter a particular form. In other words, an atom is spread out all over the place as a wave of potential until a conscious observer localizes it as an actual particle through that very act of observation.

The famous double-slit experiment actually captured this protean nature of the quantum world. The double-slit experiment essentially launched particles through a single slit, whereby each particle left a residual mark on the back wall where it landed (creating a single band pattern). However, when particles were launched through two slits, they left a residual interference pattern on the back wall (which can only be created by waves that interfere with each other). Even when particles were launched through the two slits one at a time, they still created an interference pattern. (This occurrence is impossible according to classical quantum physics.) So, in order to figure out how this interference pattern was occurring, physicists placed a measuring device by the slits to observe the particles after they were launched. Astonishingly, when the particles were launched with the measuring device in place, they actually created a residual mark of a double band pattern (which was expected in the first place). What physicists determined was that, prior to being observed, each single particle actually existed as a wave of potentials that simultaneously went through both slits at the same time; thus interfering with itself and leaving a residual interference pattern. So in essence, conscious observation then collapses the quantum wave function of particles and thus localizes them at a fixed point.

Moreover, quantum superposition "holds that a physical system - such as an electron - exists partly in all its particular, theoretically possible states (or, configuration of its properties) simultaneously; but, when measured, it gives a result corresponding to only one of the possible configurations (as described in interpretation of quantum mechanics)." The more we look at elementary particles, the more we realize that there is actually no such thing as one electron or one photon on its own. A particle exists only in relationship to the state that it finds itself in, with no generic or concrete form. So, the more we examine "solid matter" in great detail, the less solid it actually becomes.
Earth with cogs and wheels(Photo: Earth with cogs and wheels via Shutterstock)Now, contradictory to contemporary quantum mechanics is the traditional conception of solid matter as the "substance" of the universe. Why is this important? Because "belief that the substance of the universe is matter (or physical material) sets the precedent for people to accumulate as many material possessions and riches as possible [especially under the system of capitalism]," says UK author David Icke. Most of us in contemporary Western culture have been socialized to view the world through a consumerist lens (among a plethora of other social lenses) which implies that a solid, material realm objectively exists. Furthermore, the system of capitalism creates the conditions necessary for more and more people to actively participate in practices that perpetuate the misconception that a solid, material world inexorably dictates our perceptions and belief systems. Maximized material conquest and material gain becomes the modus operandi of a capitalistic system.

Further illuminating the nature of capitalism, Chris Hedges states:
"The quest by a bankrupt elite in the final days of empire to accumulate greater and greater wealth is modern society's version of primitive fetishism ... When the most basic elements that sustain life are reduced to a cash product, life has no intrinsic value. The extinguishing of 'primitive' societies, those that were defined by animism and mysticism, those that celebrated ambiguity and mystery, those that respected the centrality of the human imagination, removed the only ideological counterweight to a self-devouring capitalist ideology." 
Here we see some of the characteristics of neoliberal capitalism which subscribe to the notion that the world be defined in "material" terms. The ruling ideology of capitalism has sought out to extinguish any alternative thought or knowledge that understands the world in immaterial terms and replace it with the narrow ideology of materialism, consumerism, commodification. The more people who are complicit in capitalist ideology (among other forms of dominant ideologies), the stronger the possibilities become to fetishize and develop the concept of "the material." all while the expropriation of vast forms of land, wealth, resources and capital become normalized and accepted. Furthermore, once all "material" resources have become accessed (or more importantly not accessed by the majority of people), exploited and exhausted, then the majority of people become even more subjected to the harsh and misleading conditions that capitalism inflicts upon them.

So, as far as quantum mechanics is concerned, capitalism is based on the (false) assumption that an absolute "material" world actually exists "out there." Traditional criticisms of capitalism typically focus on the exploitation of labor and human bodies, as well as massive class inequalities and social injustice; however, they leave out one crucial aspect in it all: that capitalist ideology and capitalist operation mislead us about the nature of the universe (which includes the nature of ourselves since we are part of the universe, as well). With that said, we can actually use our knowledge of quantum mechanics to transform our perceptions about the world around us, thus alleviating some of the conditions that capitalism creates for us. Even Einstein alluded to the idea that we can utilize science to "potentially change the world itself" by using "rational thinking and technology to improve the conditions in which we live."(1) As Peter Dreier states:
"Einstein criticized capitalism's 'economic anarchy' and the 'oligarchy of private capital, the enormous power of which cannot be effectively checked even by democratically organized political society.'"
If Einstein could apply his knowledge of science and the quantum reality to social injustice and systemic inequality, then there is no reason that we cannot do the same here and now.

Given the fact that the underlying premise of capitalism acts in opposition to the principles of quantum mechanics and, therefore, the nature of the universe itself (as understood through quantum mechanics), then we should not be confounded in the least when we experience the destructive consequences of a system that is based on prodigious wealth and material accumulation. This systemic discord or imbalance is bound to perpetuate the likes of environmental devastation and vast human suffering. Furthermore, one of the unspoken consequences of capitalistic operation is the alienation from one's humanity and from nature. Not only are we inundated by a social and economic matrix of domination every single day, but that very matrix detaches us from the universe (or nature) in a sense. So, we should not just look to eradicate the deleterious conditions of capitalism, but rather, we should look to understand and work in accordance with the universe, so that destructive systemic conditions do not even come into existence in the first place.

Consequently, when we look at the world through the lens of quantum mechanics, we see that the economic systems of capitalism, socialism and communism actually have more in common with each other since they all are based on material acquisition and distribution and on the assumption that our world is a fundamentally material realm. However, we can use quantum mechanics to create an entirely new way of viewing and operating inside of the world, which would require a drastic philosophical and ideological change of epic proportion. Epic change, perhaps, is a concept that we may need to start entertaining.

Lastly, as if world hunger, poverty, class inequality, sickness and disease, permanent war and ecological ruination weren't enough to present a critical case against capitalism, then consider the following. In relative terms to the rest of the entire universe, quantum mechanics shows us just how narrow, constrictive and destructive the system of capitalism actually is.

(1) Dreier, Peter. 2012. "Albert Einstein: Radical Citizen and Scientist." Truthout, June 25.
This article is a Truthout original.

Michael Ortiz

Michael Ortiz holds an advanced degree in sociology. He works on equitable diversity initiatives for college institutions and writes about issues that focus on consciousness raising and empowerment.