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Elites at Cross Purposes

Monday, July 15th, 2013

[recycled by Lynn C. Rees]

Vertical conflict, where non-elite rises against elite, is a strong, ancient, and obsessive current of fear that flows through political thought. Only elite had surplus time to craft political thought. Hence their antagonism toward vertical conflict saturated political thought for most of written history. The opposing vein of political thought, while less well-represented in history, had an equally ancient past: non-elite fear of elite oppression.

Both variations have good and bad.

Those above and those below have good reasons to fear each other. Elite were outnumbered ~95 to 1. They controlled the vast majority of a political community’s wealth. They were often scattered throughout the population, isolated in a sea of non-elite.

Moreover, elite was somewhat aware that non-elite had concrete reasons to eat them raw. Elite wealth was extracted from the sweat of non-elite brows. The means used to extract this wealth leaned toward the unpleasant or unfair. This rude leaning bred resentment among its non-elite targets. Fortunate elite: the power that let them live off non-elite also guaranteed they normally had little to fear from non-elite: elite become elite through their effective predominance over violence and threat.

Elite should fear another form of conflict, one far more deadly than vertical conflict to them: horizontal conflict. The real threat is conflict within elites between elites. Few vertical conflicts succeed without having their way paved by horizontal conflicts breaking out first.

Unified elite? Non-elite have little chance.

Divided elite? Non-elite opportunity beckons.

Escalation of internecine horizontal conflict frequently tempts one elite faction to appeal directly to non-elite for backing against competing factions. Elite factions often race to outbid each other as they attempt to win non-elite allies against their elite rivals. This has been known to open the way for successful non-elite vertical conflict. Even if vertical conflict is averted, intra-elite horizontal conflict may decimate elite ranks, leaving a vacuum at the top.

Horizontal conflict is a major theme of the cliodynamics of Peter Turchin, an attempt to shape the study of history into “analytical, predictive science”. The mere thought is enough to make neo-Seleucid Nassim Nicholas Taleb foam, wildly gesticulate in dangerously pointy ways, and rant about ice cubes, naive models, charlatans, and infidels. Turchin, in Taleb’s construction, is pushing the “narrative fallacy” to dangerous extremes.

Imagine the dangerous Taleb gesticulations Hari Seldon would produce.

Turchin faces an uphill battle in creating his psychohistory. That said, some of his initial thoughts have interest.

Focusing on pre-industrial agricultural societies, Turchin argues that the primary reason for the rise of empires is a notion of Ibn Khaldun‘s called asabiyah. Asabiyah is the “strong force” that gives a human group its ability to cooperate. Turchin extends Ibn Khaldun’s notion by arguing that it’s specifically along “metaethnic frontiers” that empires rise. Along metaethnic frontiers, not only are societies diametrically opposed in means of production (e.g. pastoralist vs. agriculturalist) but diametrically opposed in cultural norms as well. They are true borders with the Other.

Some examples of metaethnic frontiers that Turchin offers are those between his native Russia and the Crimean Tatars, European Americans and American Indians, Han Chinese and Huns/Turks/Mongols/Manchus, Christian Spain and Muslim al-Andalus, Republican Rome and the Gauls, and Imperial Rome and the German tribes. The vast cultural differences between cultures bestride a frontier produce asabiyah by their clashes more effectively than frontiers between peoples with similar cultures (e.g. the Franco-German frontier). Such asabiyah is often strong enough to drive a political community along a metaethnic frontier to aspire and even ascend to empire.

For the forces that maintain asabiyah, Turchin points to studies based on the ultimatum game:

The ultimatum game is a game  often played in economic experiments in which two players interact to decide how to divide a sum of money that is given to them. The first player proposes how to divide the sum between the two players, and the second player can either accept or reject this proposal. If the second player rejects, neither player receives anything. If the second player accepts, the money is split according to the proposal. The game is played only once so that reciprocation is not an issue.

Results of some of these experiments seem to reveal the presence of three classes of people within any human group: knaves, saints, and moralists. Turchin writes in War and Peace and War:

During the 1990s, several economists, most notably Ernst Fehr at the University of Zurich and his colleagues, decided to test the assumptions of rational choice theory experimentally…[and] what these experiments, and many others like them, reveal is that society consists of several types of people. Some of them – perhaps a quarter in experiments with American college students – are self-interested, rational agents – ‘the knaves’. These will never contribute to the common good, and will choose free-riding unless forced to [contribute] by fines imposed upon them. The opposite type, also about a quarter, are the unconditional cooperators, or ‘the saints’. The saints continue to contribute to the common pool and lose money, even when it is obvious to everybody that cooperation has failed (although most of them reduce the amount of their contribution). The largest group (40 to 60 percent in most experiments) are the conditional cooperators, or ‘the moralists’. The preference of the moralists is to contribute to the pot, so that everyone would be better off. However, in the absence of the mechanism to punish noncontributors, free-riding proliferates, the moralists become disgusted by this opportunistic behavior, and withdraw their cooperation. On the other hand, when the punishment option is available, they use it to fine the knaves [even though imposing a fine comes at a cost to them…and] the group [eventually] achieves the cooperative equilibrium at which, paradoxically, the moralists do almost as well as the knaves, because they now rarely (if ever) need to spend money on fining the free-riders.

Moralists maintain asabiyah:

The  experiments also point to the key role of the moralists…. Self-righteous moralists are not necessarily nice people, and their motivation for the ‘moralistic punishment’ is not necessarily prosocial in intent. They might not be trying to get everyone to cooperate. Instead, they get mad at people who violate social norms. They retaliate against the norm breakers, and feel a kind of grim satisfaction from depriving them of their ill-gotten gains. It’s emotional, and it’s not pretty, but it does ensure group cooperation…. [Moreover,] that capacity for trust and moralistic punishment are wired into our brains. At some level, they are as basic as our abilities for finding food, or finding mates. It does not mean all humans will always behave in a cooperative manner. People are different…[and] societies differ in their ability to sustain collective action. But the capacity for cooperation (even if it is never exercised by many people) is part of what makes us human….[In addition,] as a result of our ability to use symbols, the idea of a social group (‘us’) has a peculiar grip on human imagination. Because of our psychological makeup, we tend to think of social groups, such as nations, as more ‘real’ than they are ‘in reality.’ And, because people treat nations as real, they behave accordingly and, paradoxically, make them real…Two key adaptations enabled the evolution of [human] ultrasociality. The first one was the moralist strategy: cooperate when enough members in the group are also cooperating, and punish those who do not cooperate. A band that had enough moralists to tip its collective behavior to the cooperative equilibrium outcompeted, or even exterminated, bands that failed to cooperate. The second adaptation, the human ability to use symbolic markers to define cooperating groups, allowed the evolution of sociality to break through the limits of face-to-face interaction, [and] the scale of human societies increased in a series of leaps.

Turchin argues that empires decline when asabiyah-driven imperial conquest brings wealth, security, and power. High asabiyah societies have strong vertical and horizontal cohesion and cooperation between elite and non-elite and within elite and non-elite, reenforced by moralists among elite and non-elite. Much of this asabiyah formation is driven by pressure from external attack. Imperial conquest removes the immediate threat of external attacks. This lack of immediate external threat saps asabiyah as elite and non-elite pursue increasingly divergent agendas. This further saps the influence of moralists. This leads to elites divide that opens opportunities for internal non-elite and external actors. This frequently pushes elite over the edge into atomized oblivion.

But losing your elite doesn’t have to be a net loss. Rotating elites is usually required to reinvigorate a society. However, getting there is frequently unpleasant for elite and non-elite alike and unpleasantness is a powerful source of asabiyah cultivation.

Robb on the Networked Age

Saturday, February 16th, 2013

John is en fuego today:

Life in a Networked Age

.….In the last thirty years, we’ve seen a shift in the technological substrate.  This new susbstrate is increasingly a family of technologies related to information networks.

As this new substrate begins to take control, we’re going to need new management forms.  Both bureaucratic and market systems are proving insuffient solutions to the challenges of a networked age.  

In both cases, the emergence of a global network is eroding the efficacy of bureaucracy and markets as solutions.  How?  One reason is scale.  

A global network is too large and complex for a bureaucracy to manage.  It would be too slow, expensive, and inefficient to be of value.  Further, even if one could be built, it would be impossible to apply market dyanmics (via democratic elections) to selecting the leaders of that bureaucracy.  The diversity in the views of the 7 billion of us on this planet are too vast.  

In terms of markets, a global marketplace is too unstable.   Interlinked, and tightly coupled markets are prone to frequent and disasterous failures.  Additionally, a global marketplace is easy for insiders to corrupt and rig, as we saw with the 2008 financial melt-down.   Given instability and unmitigated corruption, markets will fail as a decision making mechanism.  

So, what’s going to replace bureaucracy and markets?

Read the rest here.

In very strong agreement with John. I like markets and think they produce efficient and optimized results for many things ( not all things) but free markets currently face massive (and sadly bipartisan) efforts to rig them by the oligarchy here at home, much less in autocratic states where the  practice of state socialism, kleptocracy and government by mafia or tribal/sectarian minority is the norm.  People will seek work-around structures to adapt, thrive and evade extortionate schemes by elites that have hijacked the state.

Hat tip to Lexington Green

The Controversial CTC Report

Friday, January 25th, 2013

The Center for Combating Terrorism at West Point released a report on domestic terrorism that raised hackles for a number of reasons. Despite the dismissals of liberal political pundits, the reasons for objections to the CTC report are legitimate but they did not need to arise in the first place and might have been avoided with a slightly different editorial approach or appropriate caveats (I just finished reading the report, which is primarily focused on the usual suspects). Here’s why I think the normally well-regarded CTC stumbled into a hornet’s nest:

First, in this foray into domestic terrorism analysis, the center chose to concentrate only on the threat of violence of the Far Right while ignoring other threats coming from the Far Left, infiltration by criminal insurgent networks from Mexico, notably the ultraviolent Zetas whose reach has stirred gang violence in Chicago and Islamist terrorism, either homegrown “lone wolves” or from foreign infiltration or subversion. In itself, this is understandable if the CTC plans a series of reports with a separate focus on different domestic threats; but without that context, it is a myopic analytic perspective, particularly given the demonstrated capabilities of various AQ affiliates or just south of the border, the criminalinsurgency of  the narco-cartels. Had all of these been addressed in one omnibus report, any complaints from conservatives were likely to have been muted or nonexistent. This is not to say that the radical American Far Right does not have a violent threat potential of it’s own worth studying; it does and it is real. But available evidence indicates it to be the least organized, least operationally active and least professionally competent in terms of terrorist “tradecraft” of the three.

The second and most problematic aspect of the report is an intellectually sloppy definition of a dangerous “antifederalist movement”  where noxious concepts like “white supremacy” and wacko conspiracy theories are casually associated with very mainstream conservative (or even traditionally bipartisan !) political ideas – coincidentally, some of the same ideas that contemporary “big government” liberal elites tend to find irritating, objectionable or critical of their preferred policies. Part of the equation here is that American politics are evolvng into a very bitterly partisan, “low trust” environment, but even on the merits of critical analysis,  these two passages are ill-considered and are largely responsible for most of the recent public criticism of the CTC:

….The antifederalist rationale is multifaceted, and includes the beliefs that the American political system and its proxies were hijacked by external forces interested in promoting a “New World Order” (NWO) in which the United States will be absorbed into the United Nations or another version of global government.  They also espouse strong convictions regarding the federal government, believing it to be corrupt and tyrannical, with a natural tendency to intrude on individuals’ civil and constitutional rights.  Finally, they support civil activism, individual freedoms, and self government

….In contrast to the relatively long tradition of the white supremacy racist movement, the anti-federalist movement appeared in full force only in the early to mid-1990s, with the emergence of groups such as the  Militia of Montana and the Michigan Militia. Antifederalism is normally identified in the literature as the “Militia” or “Patriot” movement. Anti-federalist and anti-government sentiments were present in American society before the 1990s in diverse movements and ideological associations promoting anti-taxation, gun rights, survivalist  practices,and libertarian ideas 

This is taxonomic incoherence, or at least could have used some bright-line specifics ( like “Posse Commitatus” qualifying what was meant by “anti-taxation” activists) though in some cases, such as “libertarian ideas” and “civil activism”, I’m at a loss to know who or what violent actors they were implying, despite being fairly well informed on such matters.

By the standard used in the first paragraph, Glenn Greenwald, Ralph Nader and the ACLU would also be considered “far right antifederalists”. By the standards of the second, we might be in physical danger from Grover Norquist,  Congressman John Dingell and Penn Jillette. No one who opposed the recent increases in income tax rates, dislikes gun-control or thought the DOJ may have abused it’s power in the prosecution of Aaron Swartz or in their stubborn refusal to prosecute Bankster racketeering is likely to welcome a report under the auspices of West Point that juxtaposes such normal and perfectly valid American political beliefs with neo-Nazism. A move that is simply going to – and quite frankly, did – gratuitously irritate a large number of people, including many in the defense and national security communities who are a natural “customer base” for CTC reports.

As I said previously, this could easily have been completely avoided with more careful use of language, given that 99% the report has nothing to do with mainstream politics and is concerned with actors and orgs with often extensive track records of violence. As the CTC, despite it’s independence, is associated so strongly with an official U.S. Army institution, it needs to go the extra mile in explaining it’s analysis when examining domestic terrorism subjects that are or, appear to be, connected to perfectly legitimate participation in the political process. This is the case whether the subject is on the Left or Right – few activists on the Left, for example, have forgotten the days of COINTELPRO and are currently aggrieved by the activities of Project Vigilant.

I might make a few other criticisms of the report, such as the need for a better informed historical perspective, but that is hardly what the recent uproar was about.

New Book: The Violent Image by Neville Bolt

Friday, December 14th, 2012

The Violent Image by Neville Bolt 

Columbia University Press just sent me a review copy of The Violent Image, by Dr. Neville Bolt of King’s College vaunted War Studies Department.  Initially, I was amused by the colorful book jacket, but flipping through, it belies a very weighty, heavily footnoted, academic exploration of the iterative relationship between propagandistic imagery and insurgency. Even a casual perusal indicates that The Violent Image is a book many readers of ZP will  like to  get their hands on.

From the jacket:

….Neville Bolt investigates how today’s revolutionaries have rejuvenated the nineteenth century “ptopaganda of the deed” so that terrorism no longer simply goads states into overreacting, thereby losing legitimacy. Instead the deed has become a tool to highlight the underlying grievances of communities

A small sampling of some of the section titles:

Strategic Communications:the State
Strategic Communications: the Insurgent
Networks in Real and Virtual Worlds
Images as Weapons
POTD as Insurgent Concept of Operations
Anonymity and Leaderless Revolutions
The Arab Uprisings and Liberation Technology
POTD as Metaphor

Endnotes run slightly over 90 pages and the bibliography tips the scales at 50, for those interested in such things.

Looking forward to reading this and seeing how Bolt presents his case.

Two Cheers for the State?

Wednesday, December 12th, 2012

An excellent post from Adam Elkus – strongly recommended!

The State Problem In National Security Policy

….The report makes a lot of comments about the rise of individual autonomy, the empowering of regional network-cities, and technology’s acceleration of the power of non-state actors. Wired interpreted part of this as signaling a decline of the statewhich has been a popular theme since Martin van Creveld’s work on theTransformation of War. I think that is an accurate characterization of the parts of the 2030 report that talk about the empowerment of non-state actors and the rise of international networks. I’m less interested in the report, though, than in the general narrative of state decline in national security policy discourse.

We’ve heard that states are in decline, and both benign and malign networks and private actors are on the rise. This isn’t a new theme—if you look back a few decades the rise of multinational corporations and the multilaterals prompted a similar debate about sovereignty and power in the modern world. The state-centric defense practitioner is enjoined to move beyond caring about states and embrace a new reality.

…. What we have been dealing with, however, is an unfortunate tendency to write the non-state actor and transnational network out of the last few centuries of history. But he (or she) stubbornly refuses to go away. We can talk about some of the reasons why this might be the case in the international environment but it is also worth talking about why we often assume much more coherence and cohesion in our domestic environment than reality may justify.

….In Charles Tilly’s book Democracy, he argues that four processes are necessary to create and sustain a democratic state: the growth of state capacity by suppressing alternative sources of power, the reduction of categorical inequalities, and the integration of strong tie-based trust networks into public life. Warlords and kingpins that predate make it difficult for rights to be guaranteed. Categorical inequality lessens the ability of the people to meaningfully control their own destiny. And strong trust networks that cannot express themselves in political and social life also have the potential for predation and the erosion of state authority. Tilly casts these processes as never-ending in scope, and states are capable of backsliding on any one of them.

Very rich food for thought.

Trust networks are an interesting way to look at broader social networks and discern, at times, the presence of modularity (and therefore specialized skills, capacities, knowledge etc.) within a looser network structure (weak ties and links vs. highly interconnected sets of hubs with strong ties). We tend to graph these things in simple diagrams, like concentric circles with “al Qaida hard core” in the center, but really, they are more akin to clumping or clotting or uneven aggregation within a less dense field of connections.

Adam is also right that the irregular, the illegal, the tribal, the secret society, the rebellious peasant was largely ignored by nationalistic  historians in the late 19th and early to mid 20th century – and when they came back in vogue in the 1960’s with revisionist, labor, social, cultural etc. schools of historians, they tended to groan under the heavy yoke of dogmatic Marxist class analysis and then later the radical academic obsessions with race, gender and sexual orientation “oppression”. Too seldom, were these people and their doings found to be interesting in themselves so much as puppets for a very tortured, abstract passion play to exorcise demons and pursue petty grudges against other scholars.

In any event, Adam is worth reading in full.


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