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From Autonomy to Thermopolitics: Freedom As A Dissipative Structure


The following essay wishes to perform two tasks: 1) to provide a brief review of traditional, liberal and humanist notions of freedom in order to contrast this tradition with a contemporary, thermodynamic and informational, dissipative systems-theoretical concept of freedom. Freedom is traditionally conceived in the lights of thermodynamic entropy, positioned within a closed-system ontology. This article specifies what the concept of freedom looks like in a dynamic, open-system ontology, premised on information-theoretical insights and dissipative dynamics. Here, freedom is not subject to the same form of entropy as the classical thermodynamic principles which underwrite most humanist and liberal takes on freedom, oriented in closed system forms of autonomy; 2) With a mind to this insight, we position the concept of freedom, viewed as a dissipative structure, in new lights. On these terms, social movements that may actualize freedom do so with respect to thermopolitical constraints. We cite human communities engaged in struggle, but these communities do not actualize some pre-existing autonomy, but unfold their political projects in accordance with the conditions of a thermopolitics, outlined below.   


Keywords: freedom, system, thermodynamics, entropy, dissipative, liberal, humanist, information, thermopolitics

freedom1Traditional notions of freedom are rooted in autonomy. But the dynamics of autonomy are, ultimately, circumscribed under a closed-system ontology and thus, miss the dissipative dynamics of freedom. On the dissipative systems view, freedom, both the concept and its institutions, must confront the challenges of any dynamic system: it must take in inputs of matter, energy and information just in order to constitute and reproduce itself. In this process it must funnel or flush entropy into its surrounding environment so that it can fend off entropic decay. In other words, freedom, defined on these terms, is viewed like any other object or phenomena with physical requirements. By contrast, models of autonomy appear to violate the requirements of freedom, conceived in terms of these requirements. For, freedom is not the product of some self-causation engaged in a process of overcoming environmental hindrances, despite its being pictured this way in the Western, Enlightenment, humanist, and liberal traditions. Immanuel Kant provides a telling example of the misconception proper to the model of autonomy. In his What is Enlightenment? text of 1784, Kant wrote:

Enlightenment is man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage (selbvstverschuldeten Unmündigkeit). ((The German is my addition and italics are mine.))Tutelage is man’s inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another. Self-incurred is this tutelage when its cause lies not in lack of reason but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another. Sapere aude! “Have courage to use your own reason!”- that is the motto of enlightenment. ((Translator unidentified. ))

Here, the movement toward freedom is sketched from the interiority of the understanding, a faculty of mind, belonging to some putative individual who must shield herself from that which is in her environment before finding the resources, from within, to transcend initial, environmental constraints on freedom. Even Kant’s model of a free society is conceived similarly, as a movement from the interiority of the individual, on outward to society:

But only one who is himself enlightened, is not afraid of shadows, and has a numerous and well-disciplined army to assure public peace, can say: “Argue as much as you will, and about what you will , only obey!” A republic could not dare say such a thing. Here is shown a strange and unexpected trend in human affairs in which almost everything, looked at in the large , is paradoxical. A greater degree of civil freedom appears advantageous to the freedom of mind of the people, and yet it places inescapable limitations upon it. A lower degree of civil freedom, on the contrary, provides the mind with room for each man to extend himself to his full capacity. As nature has uncovered from under this hard shell the seed for which she most tenderly cares – the propensity and vocation to free thinking – this gradually works back upon the character of the people, who thereby gradually become capable of managing freedom; finally, it affects the principles of government, which finds it to its advantage to treat men, who are now more than machines, in accordance with their dignity. ((Ibid. )) 


At the level of both individual and society, Kant’s is a well-nigh anti-environmental conception of freedom. Because the crucial role of the environment in the construction of the individual is suppressed, this tradition of autonomy belongs under a closed system ontology. Closed systems are not subject to dissipative, entropic conditions in their environment, but rather presuppose and suppress them.


In the dissipative systems theoretical accounts of freedom we endorse, freedom is premised on a constant engagement and interaction with the external environment. On these terms, freedom is embedded in an environment in which dissipative conditions are drivers of its maintenance and constitution, thus undermining the notion that the subject constitutes itself by expelling its environmental surrounds. Freedom, rather, travels in a continuous circuit—so long as its order is maintained—between system and environment. This character of freedom indicates that freedom has the following features:


  1. Freedom is a movement or flow between system and environment and is poorly conceived in some top-down, downward, or circular model of (self-) causation.
  2. Freedom is thus based on iterative or recursive repetition or feedback between system and environment.
  3. Freedom thus evolves in step with its environment; it is not first or finally constituted before it is actualized. Rather, its actualization is a process that depends upon environmental conditions and leads to path-dependency (a thermopolitical condition structuring any attempt at actualizing freedom).
  4. That is, path-dependency means that the trajectories of freedom (freedom’s actualization) cannot be assessed in advance but are dynamically open to fields of information, matter, and energy from environmental surrounds.
  5. The environment in which freedom is embedded and path-dependent thus appears as but a perturbing device or trigger of systemic change, and not as a direct causal force upon freedom. This is what makes the liberal humanist and Enlightenment notions of internalizing what is first external so ill-conceived. We shall support this point with a gloss on G.W.F. Hegel, below.
  6. But the upshot of the point is that there is no direct exchange of information between system and environment. Information is produced by systems, but not from the point of view of their autonomy. Rather, information is produced by a system’s capacity to be transformed by its interaction with its environment. Information, then, derives from a context of what then becomes, from the point of view of the system, environmental noise. Again, systems are merely perturbed or triggered by that which is in their environments. ((William Rasch and Cary Wolfe, Observing Complexity: Systems Theory and Postmodernity (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press), 129-130. “They can be ‘perturbed’; they can react to these ‘perturbations’; but these ‘perturbations’ do not enter the system as ‘units of information’ that can dictate the way a system organizes its own reactions. Therefore, systems have no direct access to their environments, cannot ‘refer’ to their environments, and can make no representation of what is external to them. The problem systems are faced with, then, is not one of adaptation and adequacy but rather one of how the tautology of self-reference can be interrupted and unfolded in a productive manner.” ))

In the case of Hegel, doyen to the Kantian tradition, freedom is constructed from without and constantly revises itself in accordance with its environment, but it is finally gathered up in some super-subject (Spirit or Geist), again, conceived on the model of interiority proper to the larger, liberal humanist tradition. The Hegelian notion of freedom freely externalizes itself before it is gathered up in the internalizing movement of Spirit, thus committing the same, liberal humanist rejection of interactions with its environment:


On the contrary, the pure Idea in which the determinateness or reality of the Notion is itself raised into Notion, is an absolute liberation…; in this freedom, therefore, no transition takes place; the simple being to which the Idea determines itself remains perfectly transparent to it and is the Notion that, in its determination, abides with itself. …the Idea freely releases itself in its absolute self−assurance and inner poise. By reason of this freedom, the form of its determinateness is also utterly free −− the externality of space and time existing absolutely on its own account without the moment of subjectivity. In so far as this externality presents itself only in the abstract immediacy of being and is apprehended from the standpoint of consciousness, it exists as mere objectivity and external life; …But in this next resolve of the pure Idea to determine itself as external Idea, it thereby only posits for itself the mediation out of which the Notion ascends as a free Existence that has withdrawn into itself from externality, that completes its self−liberation in the science of spirit, and that finds the supreme Notion of itself in the science of logic as the self−comprehending pure Notion. (( Hegel’s Science of Logic. (§1817) ))

Thus, while admitting of an externality which is an essential condition for the actualization of freedom, Hegel nonetheless reduces the importance of externality (environment) and speaks of the closure or withdrawal of freedom from the external context.

But in post-Hegelian systems theories, systems never withdraw themselves from their environments. They interact with them openly and dynamically in constant iterations, within systems, reacting to perturbations or triggers from their environment. So, too, with freedom and its institutions: true freedom must dissipate entropy into its environmental surrounds, but this is only in order to maintain its relationship to the environments upon which it depends. Freedom is subject to the same conditions as that of any system: it fends off entropic decay as a condition of its very existence. Though as we shall see, freedom, conceived as a dissipative structure, also takes up entropy as part of its organization and actualization. This is the first principle of freedom’s thermopolitical actualization: freedom is not an overcoming or suppression of environmental surrounds, but is in constant interaction with its environment.

Still, the liberal humanist thinking we see in Kant and Hegel supports numerous, contemporary accounts of freedom; often, this tradition of thinking underlies even those accounts which are critical of the tradition’s principles. This is because criticisms of freedom tend not to apply to its central ideological core—freedom’s rootedness in a closed system ontology that uncritically accepts autonomy as a first principle or presupposition. In his A Brief History of Neoliberalism, David Harvey examines the notion of freedom through this same tradition of closed-system autonomy. He writes:

For a way of thought to become dominant, a conceptual apparatus has to be advanced that appeals to our intuitions and instincts, to our values and desires, as well as to the possibilities inherent in the social world we inhabit. ((David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 5.))

Note first that Harvey presupposes what he ought to be explaining. He assumes freedom already-made, anchored in what appeals to “our” constitution as individuals (which are then distinguished sharply from the social, environmental context). He continues:

The founding figures of neoliberal thought took political ideals of human dignity and individual freedom as fundamental, as the ‘central values of civilization.’ In so doing, they chose wisely, for they are compelling and seductive ideals. The values, they held, were threatened not only by fascism, dictatorships, and communism, but by all forms of state intervention that substituted collective judgments for those of individuals free to choose. ((Ibid.)) 

While Harvey warns against the dangers of the ideal of freedom degenerating into “a mere advocacy of free enterprise,” ((He here quotes Polanyi. (37). ))  he does not challenge the basic liberal humanist assumptions of freedom we have described above. He posits freedom as an ideal, thus securing its autonomy by removing it from its environmental field and confounding the question of freedom’s actualization.

Harvey actually embraces what he terms the ideals of freedom, for, “the founding fathers chose wisely.” Note, too, that Harvey envisions a notion of freedom as already-constituted and only threatened from without (by fascism, dictatorships, etc.). While Harvey is here detailing the claims of others and not his own, he nowhere later in the text revises these views. Indeed, they are common views. Such views accept that freedom is some already-constituted being or condition that possesses self-closure and is thus, in essence, separated from any environment (at least as concerns its essence or ends).

What these formulations uncritically assume is that freedom and its actualization is somehow divorced from the conditions of its own production. Freedom, whether conceived as concept, object, or activity, must respond to environmental triggers of matter, energy and information just in order to constitute and reproduce itself. In this process freedom must funnel or flush entropy into its surrounding environment in order to fend off entropic decay; but again, it does so as a condition of its constitution and not because entropy simply threatens its core structure from without.

Let us address the dissipative, entropic conditions in which any freedom—whether concept, object, or actualization—must emerge and maintain itself as a structure. As with all open and dynamic systems, freedom must confront and even internalize entropy, defined thermodynamically as the tendency toward decay. Entropy has been conceived in different forms, however (von Neumann, Wiener, Shannon). From the point of view of thermodynamics, entropy refers to the propensity of closed systems to lose available energy, in their environments, for work. When a tractor runs out of fuel, for instance, it ceases in its work. It has spent its energy through work, and this energy has dissipated into the environment. Levi Bryant profitably extends this point:

If the universe itself is treated as a closed system, it is often suggested that it will suffer heat death, such that all energy eventually dissipates and no new causal events will be possible. If this is true, life will disappear, stars will blink out, atoms and particles will fall apart, and forces like gravity will cease because all of these things require energy. The universe will become a cold, motionless, void.

By contrast, in open systems such as living organisms, informational entropy (as originally conceived by Claude Shannon and also Warren Weaver) plays a strong role. Here, entropy refers to a measure of the probability for elements within a system to organize themselves in active ways. “A system is highly entropic if an element of that system has an equal probability of [occurring] anywhere in that system.” ((Levi Bryant, Larval Subjects Blog, Accessed November 11, 2013. Modification mine.)) A system is lowly entropic, on the other hand, if there is a low probability of an element occurring in a specific place in the system. Systems with low entropy, then, are structured, ordered, or organized. “Finally, a system is negentropic if it engages in active operations to maintain a state of low entropy across time.” ((Ibid.)) A negentropic system is a system that engages in operations that prevent evolution from a low entropic system to a high entropic system.” ((Ibid.)) 

Levi Bryant provides extremely clear examples of these points.

The case is similar with people milling about in Times Square in New York. This system is highly entropic because there is a high likelihood of a person appearing anywhere in the system. By contrast, a society is a low entropy system because it is stratified into different classes, identities, functions, roles, and so on. Claiming that a society is stratified or differentiated is equivalent to claiming that there is a low probability that people will indiscriminately appear anywhere in the social system. …Cells in organic bodies are differentiated into different types and are localized in various regions of the body. This differentiation and distribution is improbable, unlike the distribution of particles in a gas cloud where molecules of a certain type are just as likely to appear anywhere in the system. …In other words, order, organization, is the opposite of ‘equa-probability.’

It is important to grasp the difference between a lowly entropic system and a negentropic system, however. While lowly entropic systems merely keep a certain order, negentropic systems actively organize their structure—this is not to say they do this through some autonomy—instead, the idea is that in taking up free forms of energy from their environments (matter, information, energy), these systems find ways of acquiring the energy they need to structure themselves in particular ways. “[A] negentropic system is a system that engages in operations that stave off—at least for a time –transition to a high[ly] entropic state. The cells of a body, for example, continuously die, yet that body continuously reproduces cells of various types, related in a particular way, so as to maintain the organization of that body,” Bryant writes; and he continues, “[t]he same is true of political collectives, institutions, and organizations. In all of these cases we encounter entities that engage in operations that strive to preserve their organization and stave off noise or high degrees of entropy.” ((Ibid.)) 

We find this reference to politics insightful when considering freedom. It is not the case that freedom is removed from the conditions of its production or extinction (as with external threats from alternate forms of governance); no—freedom precisely emerges from its interaction with its environment; freedom and its institutions are properly perturbed from without, but they react to these perturbations as part of their very dynamics. Freedom engages in negentropic operations that rebuff entropy, but in order to maintain a lower entropy state. Thus it is more appropriate to say that freedom does not actualize itself in some model of self-causation, but is involved in a continuous reproduction of its ownfutural tendencies toward decay. (( Here the work of Peter Ulric Tse is instrumental. Tse rejects illogical notions of self-causation and speaks of a rapid, but iterative futurally-oriented process among neuronal circuits. Ideas of freedom are generated from such dynamics, though not in some simple, direct causation, but through interactions with systems of representation. Concrete instances of freedom’s actualization occur on these same dynamics. We cannot presently expand on these points. See Tse, The Neural Basis of Free Will, (). )) Thus, freedom is a dissipative structure. Niklas Luhmann captures the temporality of freedom, defined as a dissipative structure in the following passage (though he himself was not describing freedom in particular):

reproduction is a continuous problem for systems with temporalized complexity. This theory is not concerned, like the classical theories of equilibrium, with returning to a stable state of rest after the absorption of disturbances, but with securing the constant renewal of system elements—or, more briefly, not with static but with dynamic stability. All elements pass away. They cannot endure as elements in time, and thus they must constantly be produced on the basis of whatever constellation of elements is actual at any given moment… …[W]e will call the reproduction of event-like elements operations. ((Luhmann 1995, 49))

Freedom’s own operations must be conceived on these temporal lines. Thusly, freedom must be conceived  

  1. As a dissipative, reproductive or iterative (that is, fundamentally temporal and futurally-oriented) structure whose existence is always at stake.
  2. As a lowly entropic structure that confronts a range of entropic environmental conditions, including highly entropic systems (for instance, the system of capital with its high-input system dynamics (explained below) in its environment. The fact that freedom confronts a range of entropic conditions signals its embededness in a thermopolitics. Henceforth, thermopolitics names the political conditions in which any system or structure must seek out paths of successful iterations or repetitions of the maintenance of its order over against a range of entropic states in its environment.
  3. As a structure that is then path dependent.
  4. As a lowly entropic system which must find the pathways it needs to in order to ensure the reproduction of its organization. Such a condition separates the dissipative systems view of freedom strongly from the tradition of autonomy.


In view of these items, freedom confronts a thermopolitics. Contemporary thermopolitical analysis requires an analysis of the system of capital, with its high-input dynamics. Here, the work of Robert Biel is helpful. (( Robert Biel, The Entropy of Capitalism. (Chicago Haymarket Books,) 2012. )) 

For Biel, the system of capital must also fend off its tendency to decay. Like freedom, it must take up energy, matter, and information, just in order to reproduce its structure. The difference between the two lies in their demands upon entropy uptake. While freedom, as I argue below, is best conceived as a lowly entropic system, capital is fast becoming a highly entropic system. Both are negentropic systems, yet capital is suffering a structural crisis which threatens its continued organization (it is in a structural and no longer cyclical crisis). As in the examples above, capital is following a path from a lowly to a highly entropic system. Further, we see no evidence to suggest that capital is somehow a necessary environment for the emergence and reproduction of freedom. On the contrary, the system of capital is forming a chaotic attractor (it is drawing low entropy systems toward its increasingly highly entropic state) that is threatening to draw freedom into its orbit. Of course, this also opens up the possibility that freedom may escape the orbit of capital and reconstitute itself on different lines of development. Further, even within capital’s increasingly highly-entropic environment, freedom is evolving in certain discrete ways, following certain pathways (one of which we shall outline below).

On Biel’s picture, the system of capital is a high-input system because it requires tons upon tons of inflows of matter, energy and information just in order to reproduce itself and this is becoming all the more difficult because, as a highly entropic system, it is reaching its environmental limits. It is confronting its ecological and social limits: capital can no longer export its entropic waste into its natural environments, as these are being depleted (as we see with climate change) and it can no longer export its waste into the Global South (where it became path-dependent upon cheap labor, which, coming at a cheap cost, offered capital the opportunity to remain lowly entropic for a long while; here, offshoring tendencies may be explained on the dissipative systems theoretical framework).

Thus, freedom is caught in the orbit of capital, with its increased tendency toward decay. This fact provides a basic insight into the thermopolitics of freedom. Freedom is in the environment of capital and, like all systems which actively organize themselves negentropically, it cannot communicate directly with capital. Again, this impossibility of direct communication is a precondition for freedom’s attaining to its own, structurally unique, lowly entropic system. Freedom must instead fend off, but also internalize, the waste products of capital’s high-input dynamics.


For Biel, capital contains mechanisms that cause it to ‘overdevelop’ and which require it to produce immense, high-input quantities of disorder in its environments, high-input quantities (e.g., from the production of food and hydrocarbons to the maintenance of its militarization tendency) that cannot be sustained within anything like a dissipative structure defined by freedom. By extension, capital produces massive quantities of entropy, energy which cannot be taken back up into its core, making the system wasteful and harmful to the environments it funnels its entropic disorder into (namely, freedom). Thus, the thermopolitics of freedom can be gauged, at least in the dimension of its confrontation with capital, according to the ways in which capital’s entropic dumping is conducted, governed, and reproduced.


Finally, we may begin to assay the future behavior of freedom and its institutions if we follow another insight of Biel’s. Freedom, inasmuch as it is not extinguished within the orbit of capital’s high input dynamics, must reproduce a lower-entropy state within which it may situate itself. Thusly, freedom may express counter-tendencies toward capital’s reproduction as it dumps its own entropy into its environment. To do this, freedom must follow a pathway of “low-input” reproduction, as Biel expresses it. Here, the low input reproduction of freedom realizes a thermopolitics of resistance in the sense that it specifically confronts capital’s high input reproductive process.

Where do we find instances of low-input practices today? Where are pockets or niches of freedom actively confronting the high-input dynamics of capital? We conclude this essay by briefly citing niches of freedom that are at the forefront of freedom’s thermopolitical confrontation today. From Detroit to London and on to rural Pakistan, communities of resistance (construed on the thermopolitical terms above), are finding ways to counter the high-input dynamics of capital, offering in situ models of low-input production at the forefront of freedom’s actualization in contemporary geopolitics and in the current global political economy.

In Detroit for instance, one finds an astounding inner-city community of people (located in the core of the capital system) who have grown their own food in what is known as the urban agricultural movement. In such agricultural practices, these communities have found ways of decoupling from the high-input industrial and factory farming operations in the system of capital. This makes them low-input actualizations of freedom. Likewise, in the periphery of the system we also see freedom’s actualization. In rural Pakistan the Sarhad Rural Support Program (SRSP) has initiated over 4050 small scale projects, conducted by the communities themselves, such as establishing micro-hydroelectric plants that allow communities to finance their own development with sanitation schemes, farm-to-market roads, and low-input, small scale agriculture. ((See Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed. “Pakistan’s Rural Poor on Path to Post-Carbon Prosperity.” )) These communities, engaged in struggle, do not actualize some pre-existing autonomy, but unfold their political projects in accordance with the conditions of a thermopolitics.




Robert Drury King is an assistant professor in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at Sierra Nevada College (NV, USA) and a research fellow with the Centre Leo Apostel at the Free University of Brussels.  







Citation Information:

Title: From Autonomy to Thermopolitics: Freedom As A Dissipative Structure

Author: Robert Drury King,

Volume 4-


January 2014, The Arachneed Journal- ISSN 2322-0201, Web.
















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