Chapter 9: Forward, to Rhizome
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The path to stability and sustainability in human society lies in the conscious manipulation of memetic control structures. Learning to weave cultural elements, technologies and political-economic structures to suit the individual requires a detailed understanding of our relationship with the meme. This, in turn, requires the consideration of two key factors: the degree to which we have the ability to use memes freely without creating a dependence on them, and the related power-relationships we must accept in order to utilize selected memes, such as certain technologies. A simple symbolic model suggested by French philosophers Giles Deleuze and Felix Guatari presents a means of harnessing memetic structures without depending on them: the concept of rhizome versus hierarchy. Rhizome provides us with another example of a proven, evolutionarily successful pattern. It acts as the counterpart to, and in many ways is the opposite of, the pattern of hierarchy.
Examples exist throughout history of oppressed peoples, fed up with the trespasses of hierarchy, revolting in order to establish a new order that will place their interests above those of the existing elite. Over time, hierarchal structures have evolved impressive defenses against such direct assault. Successful revolutions have created their own hierarchal structure to confront strength with strength, but in the process they have sacrificed the objectives—the desire to benefit those at the bottom of the pyramid—that led to revolt in the first place. History demonstrates, and common sense validates, that the assumption of hierarchal structure invalidates the actions of groups that would overthrow hierarchy. Despite this logical truism, revolution after revolution proceed along the same path: revolutionaries assume hierarchal form to confront the strengths of hierarchies. The solution to hierarchy lies not in the failure of proper implementation (the standard critique of Marxist failures by Marxists), but in the fundamental structure of hierarchy itself. In order to resolve the deficiencies fundamental to the structure of hierarchy, we must, by definition, abandon hierarchy as an organizing principle. We must confront hierarchy with its opposite: rhizome.
Rhizome acts as a web-like structure of connected but independent nodes, borrowing its name from the structures of plants such as bamboo and other grasses. By its very nature, rhizome exhibits incompatibility with such critical hierarchal structures as domestication, monoculture-agriculture, division of labor and centralized government. Unlike hierarchy, rhizome cannot suffer exploitation from within because its structure remains incompatible with centralization of power. It provides a structural framework for our conscious organization of memes. Each node in a rhizome stands autonomous from the larger structure, but the nodes work together in a larger network that extends benefits to the node without creating dependence. The critical element of a world that focuses power at the level of the individual, that can meet the demands of our genome while providing the flexibility and potential to achieve greater goals, remains the small, connected and relatively self-sufficient node of this rhizome structure. In human terms, such a node represents an economic and a cultural unit at the size preferred by our genome: the household and the tribe. Functionally self-sufficient but not isolated, cooperating but not controlled, the rhizome economy, combined with a self-awareness of control structures, provides the real-world foundation of stability and freedom.
Rhizome structure has no inherent instability, but it will quickly reorder into hierarchy if we do not address the institutions within our society that serve to perpetuate hierarchy. The abstract notion of ownership serves as the single, greatest perpetuator of hierarchy. When one steps back and examines the notion of “owning” something, the abstraction becomes readily apparent. Ownership represents nothing more than a power-relationship—the ability to control. The tribal institution of “Ownership by use” on the other hand, suggests simply that one can only “own” those things that they put to immediate, direct and personal use to meet basic needs—and not more. A society crosses the memetic Rubicon when it accepts the abstraction that ownership can extend beyond the exclusive needs of one individual for survival. (Read Jason Godesky on Ownership) Abstract ownership begins when society accepts a claim of symbolic control of something without the requirement of immediate, direct and personal use. Hierarchy, at any level, requires this excess, abstract ownership—it represents the symbolic capital that forms the foundation of all stratification. In the simplest terms, in order to destroy the engine of hierarchy, we must destroy the mechanism of ownership. Proposing to destroy ownership may seem impractical, but societies have achieved similar feats before—such as the !Kung tribe’s aversion to status. If a society accepts that hierarchy fails the needs of human ontogeny, then one can argue that ownership—the engine of hierarchy—acts detrimentally to human needs. Like the !Kung taboo on status, a taboo on ownership would represent a serious defeat for hierarchy and all that it represents.
In order to exploit the weakening of hierarchy, hierarchal structures should be replaced with institutionalized rhizome structures in our economic, political and social systems. Society must develop a way to shift from the pattern of self-intensifying hierarchy to the pattern of self-intensifying rhizome. The Roman Late Republic provides an illustrative example from history of one attempt to institutionalize a rhizome-creating process, and the violent backlash of hierarchy—a backlash made possible by the construct of ownership.
While in its earliest days Rome took the form of a kingdom, it quickly transitioned to a quasi-democratic republic. Much of the history of social and political struggle in the Late Republic revolves around the distribution—the de facto ownership—of land. The populares, or populist politicians such as Tiberius Grachi, attempted to affect a more even distribution of land through a variety of land reform acts. In opposition to Grachi and others, the optimates, rich aristocrats and landholders, attempted to destroy democratic institutions that encouraged reform. The retirement system of the Roman military represented one land-reform battleground. The populares instituted a retirement payment in the form of a small plot of agricultural land sufficient to set up a family farm. Over time the process created a populace consisting of largely small, independent landholders. It created rhizome institutionally, causing a steady demographic shift as it took poor, landless veterans and made them independent small-farmers. The land-at-retirement system created a stable, rhizome-like network of loyal but independent citizens across the countryside. The fabric of small landholders served as the backbone of the Republic; they understood that the glory of Rome represented their glory, the security of Rome represented their security, etc. Land ownership made them citizens, giving them the right to participate in democratic government. They did not see their civitus, or sense of civic duty and participation as a burden, but rather as a privilege.
The optimates saw the great threat to their privilege posed by the retirement system. They struck back (usually by murdering the reformers), eliminating the land-payment system and providing instead a cash payment insufficient to purchase farm land. Cash payments permitted the re-concentration of wealth in the hands of an elite few. The optimates continued to gather land-wealth into a few, huge latifundia plantations, reducing the once independent small-farmers to farmhands. The story of land reform and consolidation, rhizome versus hierarchy, defines the story of the fall of the Republic and the rise of Empire.
The student of history will quickly identify similarities between the recent history of the United States and the events that led to the rise of Empire in Rome. If we would like to avoid the fate of Rome—or more pessimistically if we would like to reverse it—then we must create institutionalized systems of self-intensifying rhizome. The institutionalization of systems that create rhizome represents a transition phase, but ultimately we must achieve rhizome without any of the trappings of hierarchy. By its fundamental nature, we must implement rhizome in a bottom-up mode. Institutional—in other words, centralized—means of creating rhizome exist primarily to replace or eliminate those structures that would create hierarchy. The real work of building rhizome must happen at the lowest level, the level of the individual.
Power remains distributed to the level of the individual rhizome node through local, functional self-sufficiency—a modern equivalent to the Domestic Mode of Production. In other words, functional self-sufficiency means the ability to produce at the household level at least the minimum necessities for day-to-day existence without relying on outside agents or resources. Self-sufficiency removes the individual rhizome node from dependence on the standard set of outside suppliers. It does not eliminate exchange, but creates a situation where any exchange exists as a voluntary activity. The commodities that each node must provide for itself include staple foodstuffs, energy for heating, basic habitat and small group interaction. With necessary items secured, the node has freedom to pursue a vision without being dependent on external, self-motivated entities.
Many will balk at the prospect of achieving functional self-sufficiency. Those of us who live in the global industrial economy have largely lost the knowledge of our ancestors—the knowledge required to support ourselves. Likewise, many will point out that so-called “green” initiatives, such as photovoltaic cells, hybrid cars, collective housing, etc. have failed to prove their economic viability without heavy subsidies. Such “green” initiatives serve as nothing more than symbolic, token efforts by an economic structure committed to centralization. Remove the demand of centralized production, and several simple, viable paths exist to reach self-sufficiency. These paths do not require a reduction in quality of life. In fact, if we use a measurement methodology based on our ontogeny, they provide dramatic quality of life increases.
We require energy, for example, for heating, cooling, cooking, communications, etc. Electricity, when honestly examined, provides an extremely inefficient solution to our energy needs. The ease with which the economy can centralize production and distribution of electricity, however, makes it the method of choice. Consider the inefficiencies: solar energy converts to one of a variety of fossil fuels (coal, oil, timber, etc.) over time. Energy corporations then expend enormous resources to gather that fuel from naturally dispersed positions to a centralized location. Then, using incredibly inefficient processes which create toxic wastes, they combust the fuel and convert the resulting heat into electricity. Using expensive transmission lines they distribute the electricity, with a great loss in the process. Finally, consumers convert the electricity back into heat (in most cases) using, again, incredibly inefficient processes. This represents a staggering combined inefficiency, but does permit centralized control of electricity, as well as the (non-electrical) power associated with it. If we reject the need to centralize this process, we can quite easily harness all the energy that we need on our own. Passive solar heating and cooling design converts sunlight directly into heat, without any of the compounded inefficiencies described above. Designers around the world have demonstrated the viability of passive solar to provide for all heating, cooling and cooking needs using nothing more than locally available materials. The vernacular architecture of “primitive” peoples around the world provides hard proof of this. While a complete how-to manual of passive solar design reaches beyond the scope of this text, ample resources are easily available to provide instruction. Why, then, do governments and corporations not tout passive solar as the solution to the world’s energy and environmental problems? Again, this results from the impossibility of centralizing control over passive solar. Only the photovoltaic cell has received any significant level of support from government or industry—because its manufacture requires centralization.
Similarly, food production appears daunting to most suburbanites at first glance. Several innovative methods exist, however, that can provide a family with superior nutrition from spaces often as small as a suburban lot. Not surprisingly, these methods look to the rhizome-structure of nature, and the techniques of our hunter-gatherer ancestors for inspiration. The most widespread of these, the Permaculture method created by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren provides techniques for perennial, ecology-based agricultural food production. Perhaps more exciting, the methods of Masanobu Fukuoka essentially advocate setting up a concentrated gathering ecology, eliminating the need for the labor of agriculture, while providing exceptionally high yields. As pioneers begin to demonstrate the viability, even the preferability of such decentralized methods of self-sufficiency, the strength of the rhizome network will grow.
With a foundation of self-sufficiency established, a node can take advantage of a second strength of the rhizome pattern: network. Loose network connections, such as those in rhizome structures, actually demonstrate far more efficiency at information transfer and processing than the close, authoritarian connections of hierarchies, according to complexity theorist Mark Buchanan. The more intense, closely held connections within hierarchy prevent information from quickly spreading among large or diverse groups. The weaker, more distributed connections of a network can more quickly disseminate information to a much broader audience:
If…ten students had started some rumor that moved only between the best friends, it would have infected their own social group, but not much more. In contrast, a rumor moving along weaker links would go much farther (to more diverse social groupings). As in the case of people seeking jobs, information spreading along weak ties has a better chance to reach a large number of people.
Wilson’s SNAFU principle serves as a Corollary to this theory of the power of weak connections: the integrity of information degrades every time it relays from one point to another—sociologically in the manner of the children’s game “telephone”, and physically through signal attenuation. Hierarchies become inefficient at information processing as they intensify because the number of close-proximity relays that information must cross to reach from the bottom to the top of the hierarchy quickly mushrooms. Furthermore, Wilson’s SNAFU principle states that the one-directional power-relationships of hierarchy introduce additional, intentional distortion at every relay: underlings skew information to tell their bosses what they want to hear. This process repeats again and again as information works its way up the ladder until eventually the top of the hierarchy has no clue what happens at the bottom. This results in forcing hierarchies to dedicate an ever-larger share of available resources to maintain internal communications, as anyone who has ever worked for a government or large corporation can readily attest. Networks of small, independent nodes introduce far less attenuation or distortion in information processing, compensating for their inability to stratify or exert command-and-control to the same degree as hierarchies.
In order to leverage the strength of network, we must undertake voluntary communication and information exchange, partnership-based exchange in locally specialized commodities and services, as well as broader cultural interactions between networks of rhizome nodes. Such interaction can provide many of the benefits of traditional hierarchal economies and political entities without relegating the participant nodes to a subservient relationship. They participate voluntarily, as equals—a status maintained due to the self-awareness of each node regarding the dangers of abandoning their rhizome structure in favor of stratification and hierarchy. Self-sufficient, local nodes, in combination with a few weaker, long-distance links to other nodes create information-processing and economic powerhouses—not recognizable in the contemporary, industrial sense, but instead as vibrant beacons of human potential and fulfillment. Modeled after the same architecture that makes the human brain so powerful, such a system does not represent a return to the Stone Age. Rather, this mirrors the exact architecture, the “small world” theory of networks that cutting edge economists and management gurus would love to implement—if only they could figure out a way to keep the benefits flowing into the hands of the favored few. Rhizome economies, in contrast, utilize this “small world” theory to maintain efficiency and information flow while keeping power concentrated in the hands of the many.
The field of ecology provides further insight into the comparison of hierarchy versus rhizome. Greater diversity and complexity in an ecosystem increases its resiliency. The rigid stratification of hierarchy, while efficient from the standpoint of centralized control and coordination, has proved less capable of supporting dense, stable networks of organic life (of which humanity remains a part). Centralization and stratification produce ever-greater losses in efficiency due to the increased cost of distribution, coordination and communication. Hierarchy has incredible strength, but the accompanying inflexibility and top-heaviness can make it brittle and unstable. The networked, rhizome structure not only facilitates greater individual freedom, it also creates a more flexible and resilient structure for human ecology. The resiliency of rhizome may prove the deciding factor in our long-term survival as humanity encounters a host of potential threats. In the face of super-viruses, climate-change and overpopulation, the richer, more complex, more rhizomatic ecosystem has historically demonstrated greater survivability.
Despite the potential to establish independence through alternative economic and cultural structures, we can only achieve true independence in a society that conquers the problem of physical power. A group free from economic or cultural control by an outside agent can still suffer control through force. Remnant hunter-gatherer tribes in the Amazon illustrate the limitations of self-sufficiency. They do not exhibit dependency on the outside world for anything, yet logging companies and ranchers with access to greater physical force (in the form of the State) have repeatedly forced them off their land.
The case of the Branch Davidians of Waco, Texas provides a more relevant example for most members of industrial society. Regardless of one’s interpretation of the event, the siege and destruction of the Branch Davidian complex occurred when the group attempted to achieve independence without realistically addressing the problem of physical power: how to prevent physical control by an outside group. They recognized the need to address the issue of physical power, but their failure embodied the mistakes of a long history of failed revolutions. Their static and defensive position, combined with the tactic of confronting firepower with firepower, played directly to the strengths of their hierarchal opponent. If the strength of hierarchy exists in confronting symmetrical, frontal assaults, then its weakness lies in Antonio Negri’s concept of “diagonal”. The current rise to prominence of one manifestation of such a “diagonal”, asymmetrical approach—normally mislabeled as “terrorism”—has barely scratched the surface of the multitude of possible tactics in confronting hierarchy, in addressing the problem of physical power.
We can address physical power in one of only three fundamental ways. One can prevent another power from dominating due to their 1) lack of relative physical strength, 2) lack of desire to dominate, or 3) failure to recognize the opportunity to dominate. The first solution, being stronger than all potential dominators, remains unrealistic for the immediate future. Semi-rhizome structures, such as the American militias of the 1770s can defeat a powerful hierarchy like the British army. This approach, however, requires a readiness for physical confrontation and mobilization of a large rhizome structure. Historically, the mobilization of rhizome polities (American militias, Gallic tribes, etc.) to defeat a state resulted in the amalgamation of this rhizome into the same kind of hierarchal state structure that they were fighting, defeating the purpose of their coalition. In the example of the American Revolution, it seems likely that the second solution, lack of desire to dominate, may have finally decided the conflict. Had the British Empire decided to mobilize all resources, at all costs, to defeat the colonists, a far different outcome may have resulted. This more “diagonal” tactic, addressing the desire of an outside power to dominate, exists as a highly effective solution to the problem of power. Many of today’s remnant hunter-gatherers have stumbled upon this solution. Their inhabitation of marginal territory, such as the tribes of the Kalahari Desert, creates a situation where no outside power wants what they have. Finally, it remains possible to prevent domination by making the rhizome invisible to an outside power. If the sensory apparatus of a state or other power fails to detect something, it seems far less likely to succeed in dominating it. Examples include the Romani gypsies of Europe and North America, 1960’s ‘Back to the Land’ communes, individuals who operate exclusively in a cash economy, etc. Hakim Bey, self-described “guerilla ontologist”, has proposed a variety of “Autonomous Zone” concepts, from temporary festivals to permanent settlements, which explore the invisibility of some structures to the eyes of the state. The approach of invisibility may represent the most realistic solution to the problem of power, at least until the size of a rhizome network provides enough political or physical power to make the other options realistic. In his last, and perhaps finest novel, Island, Aldous Huxley provides a powerful warning to those who would work to foster rhizome: physical power is the Achilles Heel of any society that wishes to work within the bounds of human ontogeny—we must not ignore this lesson.
I hope that with a new awareness of the structure of our world, along with a growing enlightenment regarding our sense of self, we will experience an increasing movement to live in harmony with our genetic requirements—an archaic revival. A new vision, with individual freedom to pursue arts and spirituality, above the pettiness of bickering for power, may prove possible if we learn to control the powers that have dominated us throughout history. In the spirit of this vision, the message will ultimately fail if forced upon others. Only through personal example, by showing that a realistic and preferable alternative exists, will these concepts succeed on a large scale. We will act as pioneers, who will begin to create diverse rhizome nodes, each one representing an individual’s struggle to solve the problems of hierarchy and human ontogeny. The more we learn and break free from the control of genes and memes, the more success these pioneers will have. Effective tools and practices will spread, and the rhizome network will grow and strengthen. As this network evolves, it will provide a realistic, implementable alternative to hierarchy—an alternative that fulfills our genetic ontogeny and empowers us as individuals. Nature has shown us that the structure of the rhizome can compete with hierarchy and stratification. When combined with an understanding of reality and humanity that makes us our own masters, we may finally learn from the events of the past…and gain control of our future.
Well, that's all of "A Theory of Power". I think that it's important to offer this book as open source. If you've read this far, then I hope that means that you found it valuable. IF you did, then please help support the further development of these concepts by purchasing a hardcopy of this book from the link below. It's only $10, and if you like, you can help spread these ideas by purchasing "A Theory of Power" as a gift. Thanks. ~Jeff Vail
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 The concept of Rhizome versus Hierarchy, first presented as a model relevant to human society by Giles Deleuze and Felix Guatari in their book “A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia”.
 Interestingly, a recent DARPA/RAND report proposed that the US security functions adopt a rhizome-form in order to fight the rhizomatic Al Qaeda: “Defeating networked terrorists probably requires sophisticated network in response.” (“Deterrence and Influence in Counterterrorism” by Paul Davis and Brian Jenkins, 2002) What effect will this have on America’s hierarchal government?
 The Late Republic is generally defined as 130 to 40 B.C.E.
 The struggles of the populares and the optimates are chronicled in Michael Parenti’s excellent book, The Assassination of Julius Caesar: A People’s History of Ancient Rome.
 See “Energy, Society and Hierarchy” by the author, at http://www.directactionjournal.org/energy.html
 Most book stores carry several volumes covering passive solar design, straw bale and other alternative building methods, greywater design, etc. Books on vernacular architecture, such as “A Shelter Sketchbook” by John S. taylor, “Architecture Without Architects” by Bernard Rudofsky and “Shelter” by Bob Easton and Lloyd Khan provide an especially underutilized resource.
 See “Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual” by Bill Mollison, “Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability” by David Holmgren, “The Natural Way of Farming” and “The One-Straw Revolution” by Masanobu Fukuoka, as well as the website http://www.seedballs.com/
 “Nexus: Small Worlds and the Groundbreaking Theory of Networks”, Mark Buchanan.
 “Nexus: Small Worlds and the Groundbreaking Theory of Networks”, Mark Buchanan., pg 46.
 R. A. Wilson’s SNAFU principle, proposing the existence of an “information jam in hierarchy”, is discussed in several of his books, including “The Illuminati Papers”.
 Telephone is a game where a message is passed, one person at a time, down a line of children. Normally the message reaching the end of the line bears very little resemblance to the original.
 “Nexus: Small Worlds and the Groundbreaking Theory of Networks”, Mark Buchanan, pg. 208.
 For a cautionary tale that points out both the potential of rhizome as well as the danger of ignoring the problem of power, see Island by Aldous Huxley.
 The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms destroyed the Branch Davidian complex on April 19th, 1993. Controversy continues over the exact sequence of events. Consider the film Rules of Engagement and the collection of essays Against Civilization by John Zerzan for alternative interpretations of the incident.
 See Empire by Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt
 “Seeing Like a State”, James C. Scott.
 Most of the works of Hakim Bey are freely available at http://www.hermetic.com/bey/ . Specifically, see Temporary Autonomous Zone, Periodic Autonomous Zone, and Permanent Autonomous Zone.