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For whom the bell Dengs, it Dengs for Lee

Monday, March 23rd, 2015

[rang by Lynn C. Rees]

Elite mouthpiece Charlie Rose once asked former Singapore Prime Minister Lee “Harry” Kuan Yew which of the many, many, many, many world leaders he’d met in his long, long, long, long career he most admired. Lee chose Chairman of the Central Advisory Commission of the Chinese Communist Party Deng Syauping. Lee especially admired Deng for his world-historic “adaptability”.

Flashback: 1978. Deng makes Deng’s first state visit to Singapore. Deng is flummoxed by Singapore’s prosperity (Deng’s briefings were inadequate). Deng asks Lee how Lee made Singapore prosperous. Lee tells Deng how Singapore climbed the food chain: First, attract foreign direct investment with cheap labor. Second, become subcontractors. Second, became contractors. Third, become competitors. Fourth, learn as you go. Veteran Marxist Deng muses aloud: Singapore’s created an egalitarian society using capitalism. Lee happily seconds Deng’s thought. Deng flies back to China. Deng applies the Lee model to China. Everyone lives happily ever after.

Appian records:

10. It is said that at one of their meetings in the gymnasium Scipio and Hannibal had a conversation on the subject of generalship, in the presence of a number of bystanders, and that Scipio asked Hannibal whom he considered the greatest general, to which the latter replied, “Alexander of Macedonia.”
To this Scipio assented since he also yielded the first place to Alexander. Then he asked Hannibal whom he placed next, and he replied, “Pyrrhus of Epirus,” because he considered boldness the first qualification of a general; “for it would not be possible,” he said, “to find two kings more enterprising than these.”

Scipio was rather nettled by this, but nevertheless he asked Hannibal to whom he would give the third place, expecting that at least the third would be assigned to him; but Hannibal replied, “To myself; for when I was a young man I conquered Spain and crossed the Alps with an army, the first after Hercules. I invaded Italy and struck terror into all of you, laid waste 400 of your towns, and often put your city in extreme peril, all this time receiving neither money nor reinforcements from Carthage.”

As Scipio saw that he was likely to prolong his self-laudation he said, laughing, “Where would you place yourself, Hannibal, if you had not been defeated by me?” Hannibal, now perceiving his jealousy, replied, “In that case I should have put myself before Alexander.” Thus Hannibal continued his self-laudation, but flattered Scipio in a delicate manner by suggesting that he had conquered one who was the superior of Alexander.

Like the great Carthaginian (as framed in Appian’s fable) but with greater circumspection, Lee gives Lee a hearty backslap for the ages here by promoting Deng to virtual Leeness, making Deng almost a Lee Kuan Yew, Jr. Deng is great for”adaptibility”. Translation: Deng is great for “adaptibility” because he adapted by following Lee, who’s also great for “adaptibility”. Deng is great because Lee is great. While Deng did great things, Lee claims, also circumspectly, a greater priority: Lee’s been there, done that, got the T-shirt.

There is merit here. If Lee’s memory was as accurate as it was convenient, Lee was one of the most significant figures of the twentieth century. Deng Syauping stepped out of the way of one fifth of humanity’s rise from absolute poverty to genteel poverty. For that, Deng is one of the most adequate leaders of the twentieth century. If Lee helped Deng rise to adequacy, he deserves his adequate share of significance.

Lee is a frequent candidate for great authoritarian of the late twentieth century, the sort of man that, if they could be produced on demand, would euthanize democracy. That great authoritarians are not produced on demand continues to be a problem. Lee proved resiliently traditional in his attempts to solve the problem: Placeholder minion. Check. Dynastic succession. Check.

Whether history gives Lee as hearty a backslap as Lee (through Deng) gave Lee will depend upon whether Lee’s great authoritarianism continues to be great authoritarianism without its great authoritarian. Cárdenas’perfect dictatorshipendured 54 years. Stalin’s dead cat bounce reached 1991. Mau’s dead cat bounce carried a Deng, a Jyang, a Hu, and now a Syi. And those cabals had some component of rotation of elites built in. Lee’s die is cast with old school hereditary monarchy. His dynastic successor has an heir and two spares (three spares if Singapore doesn’t follow Salic Law). Time will tell if Lee Kuan Yew wins the genetic lottery now that he’s no longer around to play retired emperor.

Robb Throws Down the Gauntlet

Sunday, January 17th, 2010

To the legacy society of the nation-state and the hierarchical transnational corporation:


….It’s time to up the ante and move onto the next phase:  the birth and rapid growth of new societal networks.*  This is going to be a fun ride!

* As in, new societal networks that can outcompete (trounce evolutionarily) all existing status quo organizational forms  (this should not be confused with the diminutive form of ‘social networking,’ as in Facebook and Twitter).

Long term, I think this is correct and that Robb is, as usual,  ahead of the curve on what will become the zeitgeist in the next few decades ( I will add that this evolutionary path appears to be happening much faster than I had considered, by at least 15-20 years). The movement in the 21st century will be toward networked civilizations on one end of the spectrum that will be pretty nice places to be and on the other, a kind of emergent, hypermobile, barbarism where life is hell on Earth. 

The proper response for existing institutions is to swing their resources, their mass and their remaining legitimacy behind the triumph of the former and gracefully adapt and acclimate rather than be disintegrated by the latter. I considered this in the essay ” A Grand Strategy for a Networked Civilization” that I wrote for Threats in the Age of Obama (p.208):

….Nation-states in the 21st century will face a complex international ecosystem of players rather than just the society of states envisioned by traditional Realpolitik. If the predictions offered by serious thinkers such as Ray Kurzweill, Fred Ikle or John Robb prove true, then  technological breakthroughs will ensure the emergence of “Superempowered Individuals”[1] on a sizable scale in the near future.  At that moment, the reliance of the State on its’ punitive powers as a weapon of first resort comes to an end.  Superemepowered individuals, separatist groups, insurgents and an “opting-out” citizenry will nibble recalcitrant and unpopular states to death, hollowing them out and transferring their allegiance elsewhere.

While successful states will retain punitive powers, their primary focus will become attracting followers and clients in whom they can generate intense or at least dependable, loyalty and leverage as a networked system to pursue national interests.  This represents a  shift from worldview of enforcement  to one of empowerment, coordination and collaboration. States will be forced to narrow their scope of activity from trying to supervise everything  to  flexibly providing or facilitating core services, platforms, rule-sets and opportunities – critical public goods – that the private sector or social groups cannot easily replicate or replace.  Outside of a vital core of activity, the state becomes an arbiter among the lesser, interdependent, quasi-autonomous, powers to which it is connected.”

In other words, America and our “leaders” need a Boydian strategy and a ruthless commitment to honest clarity and sacrifice in order to weather the transition and retain some relevance. This is what makes the current cultural trend toward a political economy of oligarchy among the elite so worrisome. Their careerist self-interest and class values will push them to make all the wrong choices at critical junctures.

Robb on Radical Privatization

Saturday, December 29th, 2007

John Robb puts on his futurist hat and engages in some imaginative scenario thinking (PDF) over at Global Guerillas. Note John’s comment:

“The goal of this brief is to get people thinking about the future in a way that helps them make decisions today.”

John has the methodology right. Most experts, habituated to the over-use of analytical thinking, will try to nit-pick scenarios like these to death from the inception , either reflexively or intentionally in order to avoid having to reexamine cherished ideological assumptions, instead of engaging in the thought experiment. This is the major cultural-cognitive reason bueaucracies and academic institutions are notoriously poor at thinking outside the box or anticipating anything other than directly linear outcomes of policies. 

Analytical-reductionism was a reasonable enough epsitemological approach for the 19th and 20th centuries of the “Second Wave”, “Mass Man”  industrial-bureaucratic nation-states. It’s not enough for the more heterogeneous, alinear, high-velocity, “complex networks as evolving ecologies” of the 21st century. We need other cognitive tools in our kit alongside analysis.

Monday, April 30th, 2007


Brave New War by John Robb is a book that was really written for two audiences.

The first is the relatively small number of specialists in military affairs, serious students of geopolitics and bloggers who are already avid readers of Robb’s Global Guerillas site. For them, Brave New War is a systematic and footnoted exposition of the theories of conflict and “dangerous ideas” that Robb discusses daily on his blog. They will be entertained and challenged by the same analysis that makes them return again and again to Global Guerillas to debate John Robb and one another.

The second audience is composed of everyone else. Brave New War is simply going to blow them away.

Brave New War is a tightly written, fast-paced work on the emergent nature of warfare, conflict global society with a decidedly dystopian take. In a mixture of original ideas and synthesis of the works of other cutting edge “thought leaders”, Robb, a platform designer and former mission commander for USAF Counterterrorism operations, draws analogies from the tech world to explain changes in warfare in the age of globalization. Calling the Iraq War “ the modern equivalent of the Spanish Civil War” Robb highlights a robust number of critical concepts in Brave New War that are, in his view, altering international and subnational conflict, including:

Bazaar of Violence
Black Swans
Brittle Security
Dynamc Decentralized Resilience
Emergent Intelligence
Fourth Generation Warfare
Guerilla Entrepreneurs
Global Guerillas
Minimalist Platforms
Open-Source Warfare
Plausible Promises
Primary Loyalties
Stigmergic Systems
Superempowered Groups
The Long Tail of Warfare

Urban Takedowns

Some of these concepts are Robb’s, some belong to others and in Brave New War you will find citations for figures as diverse as William Lind, Chris Anderson, Nicholas Nassim Taleb, Valdis Krebs, Eric S. Raymond, Thomas P.M. Barnett, Albert-Laszlo Barabasi, Philip Bobbitt, Moises Naim and David A. Deptula. One of the great strengths of Brave New War is Robb’s capacity as an analyst and theorist to apply the revelations of research into network theory to warfare, and to conceptualize armed political conflict within the framework of platforms and ecosystems. This gives Robb’s arguments a degree of horizontal “interconnectedness” seldom seen in works on military affairs ( except, as Robb himself points out, in the work of his frequent online sparring partner, Thomas Barnett).

Robb is betting heavily on increasing levels of global instability and systemic breakdown as “feedback” from global guerillas overloads “the system” and disrupts globalization. It is this orientation toward discerning the worst-case scenarios and descent into entropy that will raise hackles amongst some readers, though Robb ultimately predicts a strengthening of systemic resilience and a burst of innovation as a result of these tribulations.

Brave New War is the must read book of 2007.


Haft of The Spear

Simulated Laughter


Wednesday, April 18th, 2007


A hectic day. There will not be much blogging tonight as I am preparing the third installment of my Military Theory series at Chicago Boyz, hopefully will put it up tomorrow. The rest of the evening was devoted to gathering some of my material for Sean and Tom and, most importantly, helping my daughter with her dinosaur diorama. An effort that involved large amounts of colored clay, toothpicks, a shoebox and crayon drawings of Megalosaurus in action.

Two unrelated recommendations to read:

shloky is in fine form today: “Private Militaries and Market States” and “Super Empowered Individuals + Elections

Hiss Was Guilty” By John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr

Haynes and Klehr, two historians who know the documentary evidence of Communist espionage and subversion in America like few others in the field, deserve thanks for their tireless vigilance in countering attempts by Leftist activists to engage in denial and obfuscation of the historical record regarding Soviet spy Alger Hiss.

Once, defending Hiss was a cottage industry among American intellectuals; today it is a sign of kool-aid consumption.

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