Hysteresis and the European Institutions

November 14, 2015

Readig this interview with Yanis Varoufakis I was pleased to see him mention the phenomenon of hysteresis. Later on, he states

I wish we had never entered the eurozone, which is not the same thing as my saying I think we should get out.

This is exactly the type of comment that it is hard to get across, but it all becomes much clearer when one has an understanding of what hysteresis is. In Varoufakis’ own words:

The path that you take to somewhere, once you get to that somewhere, doesn’t exist anymore. We just can’t turn around upon the original path and find ourselves outside where we used to be.

This observation has important implications in many areas of political discourse. But where does the word “hysteresis” come from?

If you have played with magnets, perhaps as a child, you will have noticed that some metals, when in contact with a magnet, will themselves magnetise. For example, an iron nail stuck to a magnet will itself attract other iron objects. Sometimes this effect remains even after the material is removed: the iron nail keeps attracting other iron objects, so it has effectively become a magnet itself. This is one of the classic examples of hysteresis: the nail has been subjected to an external influence (the magnet) and has changed its properties (become magnetic) with the change remaining even when the original external influence has been taken away.

How does this come about? It turns out that a piece of iron is made up of many “magnetic domains” that is, regions of the sample where the magnetisations of different atoms are all pointing in the same way, leading to a net magnetisation of the domain. The magnetisations of different domains, however, point in random directions, which is why a piece of iron is usually not, by itself magnetic. However, application of an external magnetic field will orient the domain magnetisations, so that they all now point in the same direction. This makes the iron have a net magnetic field of its own. The thing is, the domains actually have lower energy when they are aligned, so when we then remove the applied field they stay in the aligned configuration.
An “energy barrier” was overcome by the external field. Once the system has gone over the barrier, you cannot take things back to the way they were simply by removing the field that took the syste to the state it is in now.

The same happens with the European Union and other international institutions. Their creation overcomes barriers and makes the participating countries change in ways that are irreversible. Going back to the situation where those institutions no longer exist does not take us back to the original state – it leaves us in a different state altogether. I think that is what Varpufakis means when he says that it is one thing to wish that bis cou try nad never entered the Euro, a d a different thing altogether to wa t it to get out. Reforming the Euro zone is tbe only way forward – dismantling it is not an available option anymore.