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Robb Throws Down the Gauntlet

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.

9 Responses to “Robb Throws Down the Gauntlet”

  1. Fred Leland Says:

    Scary stuff! Lets hope more than just a few open their eyes.

  2. Dave Schuler Says:

    To be honest I don’t think so, Mark.  As long as the police can batter down your door conventional nation states will maintain a degree of relevance and, shall we say, impact that virtual states and networked but non-geographical structures simply can’t match.  I’m not saying that we’re going to see new sorts of organizational structures; merely that the new and old will coexist.

  3. zen Says:

    Hi Dave,
    I think in the case of "successful states", you are right. There will be coexistence and even preponderance of the state, but not every state will be successful.  Many will fail. Some will erode and muddle through. Mexico, a formerly stable MIC is now in more difficulties than most experts thought possible just a few years ago.
    There’s a difference between the ability to kick down a door and being able to govern effectively on the assumption that you will *not* need to kick down most people’s doors to gain compliance.  As with traffic laws, people comply generally because they are aware it is in their own self-interest to do so and not just because there’s a cop behind them. A great strength of our society is that for all its flaws, it operates on the premise that as far as the rules go, the playing field is level under the law. When the government shifts to writing rules where people are not equal or the game is rigged, that voluntary compliance evaporates when public perception catches up and the state loses its moral legitimacy from fronting for a kleptocracy. Our elite today, in my view, tend to discount this, consumed as they are with their own cleverness and sense of entitlement, in a way past generations of elite did not. It isn’t that past elites did not benefit from public service – they did – but generally they did so indirectly, with more discretion, less excess and a far greater concern for appearances and the public welfare.

  4. Richard B Says:

    Emerging technologies and SEIs truly will be game-changers. But when we consider the nation-state endangered, we overlook three truths. First, SEIs , and other belligerent NGOs, have no defensive capabilites except anonymity (usually in the form of ‘Where’s Osama’ or ‘whack-the-mole’).  Second, hiding is easy in our 2010 but what abut Orwell’s 1984? Third, emerging technologies, particularly data-mining, will drmatically increase the capabilities of, and therefore elite’s attractiveness of, omnisurveillance.

    If such a reaction has any (10%?) likelihood, what can we parents do to mitigate the risks for our children?

  5. JV Says:

    Kind of like the "networked" senators of Rome to Europe royals that sent Columbus to find money for them in asia?  Networks of power elite are as old as history.This extrapolation of history and telecommunications works if there is enough wealth to allow large numbers of "superempowered" to "have it all."  If not is is still "bread & circuses"  or as it is named today "Facebook & Twitter" to keep people content to let local governments continue to hold the barbarians out.  Isn’t this article about keeping citizens content with "goods & services" while the elite get on with things? The current collapse of wealth in America and the power of Chinese communists to control Google argues that Rome is still the model, not "can’t we all live together as superempowered citizens respecting diversity and promoting self esteem."

  6. Chaz P Says:

    Mark –

    For clarification, how is this different from Neo-Medievalism, and the general trend of polities’ leaders to become more careerist/self-interested over time?

    Secondly, (while I still assert that this is nothing new) how do we regain control? Barring an ultimate (and singular) victor reasserting the rule of (his own) law, that is.

  7. zen Says:

    Fantastic comments!
    Hi Richard B,
    Agree with you that SEI maximize their combat utility as a superempowered suicide bomber and decline in direct proportion to the value they place upon their lives, freedom or comfort. The problem is that narrow strand of humanity that is highly intelligent, fanatical and who have "lone wolf" psychology that creates a social isolation that prevents them from appearing on our radars. Of course, Nidal Hasan, the Underpants bomber and various school shooters indicate that our radar isn’t really very good even when a dangerous person is on it.
    The elite is already attracted to creating a panopticon state that exempts themselves but watches the herd. The British have gone pretty far down this path under Blair and Gordon. What slows things here is the bitterness of our partisan divisions, our continental geographic size and our decentralized system but the tendency is more than latent.
    Your third question is an excellent one. One area of concern I have just for starters is our lack of control over our genetic data and it’s potential uses. We really need to foreclose a priori before genetic reading becomes commonplace the ability of third parties to have such information, much less use it. "Personal genomics" needs to be seen as a negative liberty akin to free speech, religion, self-defense or the right to vote.
    Hi JV,
    Networks are as old as humanity, agreed. However, they have always been submerged within traditional social structures and cultural relationships. Embedded, if you will. Now, we can artificially construct them across, over or in spite of geography, social mores and other constructs. And make them scalable. That’s relatively new and potentially very subversive.
    If the elite had greater sense, they would use a "bread & circus" strategy but their greed and shortsightedness is such that they are reducing that to "circuses" and hollowing out the reality of bread while promising more. This is a recipe for disaster. You brought up the Romans, who had a fairly complex clientela system that worked relatively well until Diocletian, where you see elite and mass interests start to sharply diverge with "reforms" limiting the economic prospects of Roman citizens and freedmen. Where Augustus had rebuffed special interests, third to fifth century emperors in the West and East bargained for their support and looted the state more thoroughly than any barbarian invasion.
    Hi Chaz,
    Neo-medievalism, as I understand it, assumes a greater or more ideal human nature than I think is warranted by the example of history.  A functioning market that can cross relatively independent or self-sufficient localities – Robb’s hypothetical resilient communities – needs the support of law in a sense of being, if not perfect, rational, equitable and predictable in its administration. At a minimum internally and hopefully between communities. Watching Russia in the 1990’s was like a lab experiment as that nation abandoned totalitarianism for a state implosion that resembled anarchy. We never wish to get to that point.
    On the plus side, I don’t think we are too far gone. The rot has accrued primarily within just one generation and not over several centuries and is still reversible as the problem is cognitive, cultural and ethical.  A political movement that embraces simplification ( ruthlessly get rid of non-value adding complexity), transparency, re-structuring incentives for valuing the common good and promoting bottom-up economic dynamism would be a tremendous help. It would also cut across the traditional Left-Right lines the elites use to manipulate public debate.

  8. JV Says:

    Thanks Zen for the feedback.  "May you live in interesting times."I will add your blog to my blogroll if you don’t mind association with a "devil’s horsemen" view of these times."Jack Vermillion"

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