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Superempowered Individuals and 5GW

Interestingly, William Lind, who previously has dismissed 5GW as a premature concept, has returned to the subject to dismiss it once again in the context of superempowered individuals. In regard to the spree of crazed gunmen shooting up schools, Lind wrote:

Is this war? I don’t think so. Some proponents of “Fifth Generation war,” which they define as actions by “superempowered individuals,” may disagree. But these incidents lack an ingredient I think necessary to war’s definition, namely purpose. In Fourth Generation War, the purpose of warlike acts reaches beyond the state and politics, but actions, including massacres of civilians, are still purposeful. They serve an agenda that reaches beyond individual emotions, an agenda others can and do share and fight for. In contrast, the mental and emotional states that motivate lone gunmen are knowable to them alone.

The whole “Fifth Generation” thesis is faulty, in any case. However small the units that fight wars may become, down to the “superempowered individual,” that shrinkage alone is not enough to mark a new generation.

Generational changes are dialectically qualitative changes, and those are rare. Normally, a dialectically qualitative change only occurs after time has brought many dialectically quantitative changes, such as a downward progression in the size of units that can fight. In effect, quantitative changes have to pool behind a generational dam until they form so vast a reservoir that their combined pressure breaks through in a torrent. I expect it will take at least a century for the Fourth Generation to play itself out. A Fifth Generation will not be in sight, except as a mirage, in our lifetimes.

In my view, Lind is partially correct in the sense that actions of superempowered individuals – of whom the school shooters in question, mundanely “empowered” by small arms, are definitely not examples – might not be representative of 5GW or even warfare of any kind. Several commenters have previously raised the possibility of nonviolent, constructive rather than destructive, SEI’s. I can also see SEI’s acting in concert with the objectives (peaceful or otherwise) of national authorities to whom they are loyal; or the advent of technologically upjumped “superempowered soldiers” fighting as part of a larger 3GW action by a state military.

On the other hand, while there is no consensus regarding the nature of 5GW, which would have to be an emergent phenomenon, I can’t buy Lind’s a priori dismissal and assertion of a century of 4GW needing to play out first. Frankly, that’s a figure pulled out of thin air. Why not fifty years? Or five ? Or five centuries? Why would the length between generations suddenly get longer between 4GW and 5GW than between 2GW and 3GW when conventional militaries, states and societies would be trying to adapt to 4GW right now ? Why wouldn’t 4GW and 5GW simply overlap for an extended period of time the way 2GW, 3GW and 4GW military forces have and continue to do so ?
If so, SEI’s, successfully attacking national, regional or global systems ought to at least make the cut for consideration as a form of 5GW.

Lind is on target though, in his discussion of alienation as a psychological factor motivating both 4GW forces and hostile SEI’s.  Characteristically, Lind favors a sociopolitical-moral explanation:

This is not to say that the lone gunman phenomenon, and its increasing frequency, are wholly unrelated to Fourth Generation war. They have some common origins, I think.

At the core of 4GW lies a crisis of legitimacy of the state. A development that contributes to the state’s crisis of legitimacy is the disintegration of community (Gemeinschaft). Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the powerful, highly intrusive state, community has increasingly been displaced by society (Gesellschaft), where most relationships between people are merely functional.

That progression has now gone so far that never before in human history have so many people lived isolated lives. I sometimes visualize a conversation between a Modern man and a Medieval man, where the proud Modern says, “You poor man! It must have been terrible living without air conditioning, automobiles, washing machines and hot showers.” The Medieval man replies, “You poor man! It must have been terrible living so alone.”

Isolation and the alienation, anomie and rage that proceed from it fuel both lone gunmen and a broad sense of detachment from the state. Why give loyalty to the state if the society if governs offers nothing but alienation? In turn, alternatives to the state, such as gangs, offer alternatives to isolation as well.

Lind’s analysis here is rooted in a philosophical tradition for which Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind provides a concise overview and one that probably does not resonate with everyone reading here. One alternative would involve a clinical psychological perspective but in the end, I agree that profound isolation, alienation and disconnection from a larger social network would likely be a common denominator in destructive SEI’s, much like school shooters and lone wolf terrorists like Ted Kacyznski.

John Robb offered a rebuttal of to Lind at Global Guerillas:

 however I do disagree strongly with Bill’s definition of a superempowered individual. Superempowerment is a much richer and more complex phenomenon than a mere reduction in scale (down to a single attacker). Instead, superempowerment describes the process by which individuals and small groups are using;

  • rapidly improving tools (the doubling rate of Moore’s law applied to technologies accessible to the average individual),
  • connectivity to a global community and its resources (how to use those tools from MIT courseware to Jihadi “how to” sites),
  • and newly accessible forms of economic activity that transcend state control,

to radically improve their productivity in warfare. This is definitely a qualitative change in the conduct of warfare, although it is still early. It will become transformational as the technologies of self-replication begin to reach their full potential.

Insofar as SEI’s could be 5GW warriors, I’m pretty comfortable with John’s exposition on the characteristics of superempowerment ( a separate issue from motivation).  You can’t be “superempowered” without some kind of a platform(s) to leverage, adaptively and creatively, against the very complex system of advanced Western society that is providing you with your tools of destruction and decent grasp of what targets could best maximize your leverage. My comment would be that the scalar effect is greater than it seems – as the actor scale is reducing down toward a single individual even as the potential effect of the actor is scaling upward in orders of magnitude to initiate national, regional or even global system perturbations. This too represents a qualitative change.




Empowered individuals – and super-empowered ones! 

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Super-Empowered Individuals and 5GW: Heads or Tails

One Response to “Superempowered Individuals and 5GW”

  1. judasnoose Says:

    Several commenters have previously raised the possibility of nonviolent, constructive rather than destructive, SEI’s.Yes.  For example, Will Wright is a paradigm-shifting genius, but he doesn’t kill people.

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