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Three Short Reviews

Wednesday, August 26th, 2009

     

Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software by Steven Johnson

This classic popular text from 2001 still holds up well as an introduction into the phenomena of emergence and the nature of self-organizing systems. Johnsaon uses a rich array of analogies and historical anecdotes to bring the reader to an understanding how bottom-up, “blind”, systems work and the principles behind them. Highly readable and next to no jargon. Probably due soon for an updated edition though, given the scientific advances in research in network and complexity studies.

How Rome Fell: Death of a Superpower by Adrian Goldsworthy

Superb overview of the decline and fall of Rome with a rejection of the traditional assertions of causations for the end of the Roman empire ( Barbarians, Christianity etc.). Goldsworthy also sharply criticizes the popular idea among postmodern classicists today that the Roman Empire was “really” as strong during the fourth and fifth centuries as it was during the golden age of philosopher-warrior-emperor Marcus Aurelius. Or that there was no fall of the empire at all, just a gentle “transformation” into something new. Goldsworthy discusses the likelihood of Late antquity  ”paper legions” of Roman armies which, in any event, scarcely resembled in elan, tactics or fighting strength the ones that Julius Caesar wielded in Gaul.  A tour de force marred only by a weird epilogue that ranges from pedestrian to ( in it’s last sentences) truly awful – was it it tacked on as an afterthought? Did the editor of the rest of the book die before it was completed? Regardless, How Rome Fell is a worthy addition to an collection of popular ancient histories.

The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles by Steven Pressfield

A rare, nonfiction book by novelist and blogger Steven Pressfield. The War of Art is a book that I strongly recommend to aspiring writers ( which includes most bloggers) and other people pursuing dreams, not because it is brilliant but because it is profound. Utilizing select personal vignettes and other anecdotes, Pressfield distills in everyday language the essence of what creative people need to understand if they are to succeed – concepts of “resistance”, which seductively undermine your efforts,  and being a “professional”, which is the mindset that will get you there.

Most of the readers of this blog are interested in military affairs to some extent so I will use this reference to explain why I read The War of Art from cover to cover. Pressfield captures the difference in what Col. John Boyd called the question of “To be or to do. Which way will you go?”.  By Boyd’s definition, Pressfield is a doer.

Steven Pressfield blogs on The War of Art of writing every Wednesday.

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Saturday, January 27th, 2007

STATE FAILURE 2.0

(Cross-posted at Chicago Boyz)

One of the sharpest points of contention between Thoms P.M. Barnett and John Robb is over the feasibility of Tom’s System Administration concept. This issue has been the topic of numerous posts and the occasional rhetorical jab between the two strategic theorists. This pattern repeats itself, in my view, for a number of reasons. First, even friendly professional rivalry causes a natural bumping of heads; secondly, Robb looks at a system and thinks how it can be made to fall apart while Barnett looks at the same system and imagines how the pieces can be reintegrated. Third, no one really has all the answers yet on why some states fail relatively easily while others prove resilient in the face of horrific stress.

Robb contends that Global Guerillas can potentially keep a state in permanent failure, despite the best efforts of System Administration intervention to the contrary. A new level of systemic collapse, call it State Failure 2.0, where failure constitutes a self-sustaining dynamic. Broadly defined, you would chalk up ” wins” for Robb’s point of view in Somalia, Iraq and the Congo. In Dr. Barnett’s column you would find Germany, Japan, Cambodia, East Timor and Sierra Leone in evidence for the efficacy of Sys Admin work. Lebanon and Afghanistan perhaps could be described as a nation-building draw at this point in time.

Why permanent failure in some cases but not others ? This is something that long puzzled me. Then today, I read an intriguing pair of posts at Paul Hartzog’s blog - ” Ernesto Laclau and the Persistence of Panarchy” and ” Complexity and Collapse“. An excerpt from the first post:

Ernesto Laclau was here @ UMich and gave a delightful talk that gave me some key insights into the long-term stability of panarchy.

…However, with the new heterogeneity of global social movements, Laclau makes the point that as the state-system declines, there is no possibility of the emergence of a new state-like form because the diverse multitude possesses no single criterion of difference around which a new state could crystallize.

Thus, there is no possibility of a state which could satisfy the heterogenous values of the diverse multitude. What is significant here is that according to this logic, once panarchy arrives, it can never coalesce into some new stable unified entity.

In other words, panarchy is autopoietic as is. As new criteria of difference emerge and vanish, the complex un-whole that is panarchy will never rigidify into something that can be opposed, i.e. it will never become a new hegemony. “

While I think Paul is incorrect on the ultimate conclusion – that panarchy is a steady-state system for society – I think he has accurately described why a state may remain ” stuck” in failure for a considerable period of time as we reckon it. Moreover, it was a familiar scenario to me, being reminiscient of the permanent failure experienced by the global economy during the Great Depression. Yet some states pulled themselves out of the Depression, locally and temporarily, with extreme state intervention while the system itself did not recover until after WWII with the opposite policy – steady liberalization of international trade and de-regulation of markets that became globalization.

The lesson from that economic analogy might be that reviving completely failed states might first require a ” clearing of the board” of local opposition – defeated Germany and Japan, Cambodia, Sierra Leone and East Timor were completely devastated countries that had to begin societal reconstruction at only slightly better than ground zero. Somalia, Afghanistan, Congo, Iraq, and Lebanon all contain robust subnational networks that create high levels of friction that work against System Administration. At times, international aid simply helps sustain the dysfunctional actors in their resistance.

System Administration as a cure for helping connect Gap states might be akin to government fiscal and monetary policy intervention in the economy; it may work best with the easiest and worst-off cases where there is either a functional and legitimate local government to act as a partner or where there is no government to get in the way and the warring factions are exhausted.

The dangerous middle ground of partially failed states is the real sticking point.

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