Monday, November 29, 2004

Paper Proposal for "All Roads Lead to Rome"

If you haven't read my paper "All Roads Lead to Rome: Processes of Hierarchy, Subsidy and Control in the Evolution of Empire", then take a look at the revised version here:

I've just submitted proposals to present this paper at three conferences:

"Empire and It's Discontents" at York University, Toronto (
"Sicily, Europe and the Mediterranean" at Messina, Italy (
"People, History and Literature" at Cambridge University (

Friday, November 26, 2004

LOAC: The "Laws" of Armed Conflict

I just finished looking through the latest, official DoD propaganda PowerPoint (what? DoD using PowerPoint!?) on insurgent LOAC violations in al-Falluja.

"Law" of Armed Conflict (LOAC) seems like a rather funny animal. In my world view, there are no "true" laws or rights, only the POWER of certain groups to enforce patterns of behavior that they call "laws" or "rights". War, of course, is how opposing groups resolve disagreements when neither side recognizes that the other has enough power to enforce their idea of "law" and "right". So war, then, is predicated on the breakdown or absence of "law". Which makes it rather funny that some nations insist on applying "law" to warfare. Let's take a closer look at this:

The US Military has formed their own "law" of war (which, coincidentally is taught to all military members as "the" law of war, not "our" or "a" law of war). It is based on precedent from international agreements (that is, those that we choose to honor, unlike the Geneva Convention, UN Charter, etc.) formed in a world system in which they dominated the agenda. Now they are using it as a propaganda tool (primarily to enforce the dominant domestic opinion that the US action in Iraq is somehow noble). Imagine: the world's dominant power, using a set of "laws" that they made up, claiming moral superiority because they adhere to there own law (in their view, of course), while the insurgents do not, and are therefore "bad".

This "law" is, of course, carefully structured to "outlaw" those forms of asymetric warfare that are effective against the US military.

There is no "right" or "law", only power. Social contract is possible: if a group of soverign individuals submits to a collective power governed by laws, in order to gain benefit of membership in that group, then they must submit to rule by those laws, or to leave the group (along with its benefits) if they refuse. Any "law" made one group and applied to individuals who did not voluntarily submit to that "law" is just what the quotation marks imply: a cover for the coercive use of power, for the imposition of one set of values involuntarily upon another. That's what LOAC is. If the US military uses LOAC as a guideline for its own action--based on what it thinks is "right" or "ethical", then more power to them. In fact, I would recommend it. However, when they try to impose their set of morality on an outside group, let us recognize this for what it is: a military and public-relations tactic.

Thursday, November 25, 2004

Win the War on Terror: Stop Making Enemies

How to win the war on terror? Stop making enemies. It sounds trite and simplistic, but bear with me for a moment. Can you think of any base of terrorism that we didn't first seriously alienate? If you can, go find a better history book (or Any history book).

This nation was founded (and even though I'm writing on Thanksgiving, I don't mean the "pilgrims") by a group of people who were tired of living in an exploited colony. The manifestation of revolution to overthrow hegemony and tyranny were ideas who's time had come--France experienced a similar set of events just a few years later. Hegel would have said that this was an idea with a life of its own, and that it was now manifesting through the life of men (in fact, he did say that). He would likely have something similar to say about terrorism.

How is it, then, that this nation founded on the ideal of freedom from tyranny and colonial control has become the greatest transgressor of that ideal? Can we not see the parallels between our forefathers' relationship with England and the "developing" world's relationship with the US today? Until Iraq, it was easy to deffend our actions as those of the free market--we didn't practice overt imperialism. But this ignores that we (with some of Europe) consciously shifted to financial imperialism at the Bretton-Woods accord. Now add "intellectual property", GMO grain and global media and the US is in fact far more of a colonial power (and more oppressive) than Britain was to the American Colonies. Is it any surprise that our colonies are rising up in revolt?

My suggestion, then, is that as a nation we again embody this principle of anti-colonialism in our foreign policy. Treat the world as equals, enter into agreements that are mutually beneficial, not exploitative (see my commentary on The World System). As a hegemonic power, we are perhaps the only nation in the world capable of affecting that change, and the only way to start is with personal example:

1. Unilaterally dispose of all nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, as well as the facilities for making them. Don't wait for others to disarm: we know now that a one sided strike by Russia or China against a disarmed US would still kill the entire world. Nuclear and biological war are not viable options for any party. It's pretty difficult to tell other nations to disarm when we're sitting on the world's largest arsenal.

2. Stop the subsidized loan programs to foreign nations. If a nation has the economic footing to get a development loan from a commercial bank, then they must have good prospects of paying it off. Why then do they need the IMF or World Bank? The answer: to fund projects that, while not good investments, benefit the nations that decide who gets what loan (read "The West"). A slower, grass-roots brand of development will produce a more stable economy, and won't crush indigenous people, cultures, environment, etc. While we'r at it, forgive all foreign debt incurred as a part of these programs.

3. Stop the subsidized sale of military equiment to select national "partners". This ends up being primarily a giveaway (Keynsian stimulus) to US defense contractors, but it also is one of America's primary means of influence in foreign affairs--particularly in maintaining regimes (like Saddam and Sukarno) who did not and could not have risen to power via democratic means.

4. Unilaterally permit free-trade, provided that any producer nation (and all derivative production nations) meets all domestic US standards for environment, human rights, labor laws, etc. This will stop oursourcing our dirty laundry and provide positive pressures on foreign regimes.

5. Restructure the United Nations from an elite club with balcony seating for "lesser" nations (with permanent security council members holding veto power). If the UN is to be a vehicle for cooperation and mutually beneficial action, then it must be a tool of all members. Eliminate the security council entirely (to include the veto power of permanent members), and give each member 1 vote, with a 2/3 majority needed to pass any action. Few truly mutually beneficial actions would have difficulty meeting that threshold, while it would prevent most tyranny of the majority.

6. Stop subsidizing the defense of the oil supply system, and strive seriously for energy independence. The quest for cheap energy at all corners of the globe is the prime mover of current foreign policy (and of making new enemies, as well as keeping old ones). Take the long-term view, remove temptation, end the catalyst of colonialism.

That's just a start, but there's no better way to diffuse the terrorists (without directly giving in to them and validating their methods) than to demonstrate that we are serious about shifting to a mutally beneficial paradigm. We'll stop making new enemies, and take the wind out of the sails of our current enemies.

Demonstrated that we intend to shift from world-hierarchy to world-rhizome. It is not just the most sustainable, independent pattern for humanity in small locales--it is the best pattern for global civilization as well.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Blog Theory and the Pattern of Rhizome

It's quite apropos that the discussions of rhizome and network theory found here take place on a blog--a quintessential example of rhizome merging with modern technology. In fact, I'm consciously trying to use this blog as a model for the viability of rhizome in the modern world.

Are there any blog theorists out there who care to offer advice?

How can I consciously mold this blog into a stronger rhizome node? I plan to add a search engine to it, and to consider categorizing my posts. I am actively looking for complementary blogs for link-exchanges and content exchange. I plan to improve the graphic header to the blog shortly. I am working to joing a number of web rings, as network is the real strength of the pattern of Rhizome. I am also attempting to make the blog experience more interactive, possibly by adding a sideblog for personal journaling that is open to public posting. I plan to work on my book lists (expand them and categorize them), and other outside links (also expand and categorize).

Monday, November 22, 2004

What to do?

It's one of the fundamental questions of philosophy: What should I do, and why?

As I work through the development of my own philosophy, the problem of answering this question appears to be fundamentally tied to a definition of "Self". Let me try to bring you right to the edge of my current thinking, starting with a summary of my philosophy of Self:

1. We exist as living, dynamic patterns of information, not as static, monolithic entities. We are nothing more than a complex disturbance in a continuous, unitary field that is the universe.
2. What we at first think of as "Self" emerges from the interaction of a variety of patterns called genes and memes. Our ontogeny--the evolution of these interacting patterns over time that has led to its present manifestation--defines our current form.
3. Self awareness, and critically the self-aware awareness of this composition of "Self" frees the "Self" from the controlling influence of ontogeny: this is the emergence of true self, the moment of enlightenment taught in so many traditions.
4. This independent, enlightened Self exists as a momentary realization of freedom from ego (the point of attachment of gene and meme).
5. This enlightenment, independence from ego does not, however, answer the question: "What to do", as answering this question requires first defining a goal to work towards, and the setting of any goal is governed by the desires of the Ego.
6. Is it possible to develop a goal or goals for human action independent of the influence of ego? Can we, as a community of "Self"s come up with a vision for human action that we can move towards, or will our best efforts result in us continuing to serve the masters of gene and meme?

I think that I have experienced my "Self" free from any influence or control. It has been a momentary and fleeting sensation. It can be greatly insightful--I now have a better understanding of what "I" am, separate from the ontogeny of my body and mind. However, I have been unable to translate this knowledge into an informed set of goals or actions. I have not yet been able to answer the question "What do I (my "true self", not my ontogenetic self) want?"

Do "I" want pure hedonism, the pursuit of the optimization of certain neurochemicals? No, I my awareness illuminates that such a goal is a goal of my ontogenetic self. All forms of utilitarianism, idealism, etc. promulgated by every philosophy that I have uncovered falls, in one form or another, into the category of hedonism. Even selfless devotion to others is ultimately a pursuit of hedonism, because it maximizes the release of certain neruochemicals that are controlled by the meme of selfless sacrifice (i.e. benefit to society above self, very valuable to a meme hosted by that society, not by a single "Self"). Schadenfreude, Mother Theresa... all hedonism.

While I don't have an answer to the question that began this post, I have uncovered two goals that do not fall into the category of general hedonism (as defined above):

1. Fulfilled Ontogeny. Paul Shepard's concept that certain economic, physical, political and social environments are optimal for the functioning of our ontogenetic Self. Our genes are frozen (more or less) in the late-Pleistocene hunter-gatherer state. Since then we have evolved as societies, but not as individuals. Therefore the individual will function best in those environments most similar to late-Pleistocene mode of life. While this is not, in itself, a "goal" of the true Self, it does seem that it is a prerequisite, or at least a catalyst to free the node of the individual from the control of complex societal memes. If our a priori goal can be accepted as the desire to identify and realize the goals of the true Self, then creating an environment in which the individual is most free from outside control seems important.

2. Beauty. I have so far been unable to identify how the awareness and expression of beauty is a manifestation of ontogenetic Self. I do not see how it serves a meme, or how it serves a gene. Art, in the form of symbolic expression, certain serves memes--in fact is a meme. But beauty does not provide symbolic storage or communication, and does not seem to serve any purpose to the meme. Beauty appears, to me, to be independent of ontogeny. Therefore, I must ask what it is? Many mystical traditions have viewed it as a connection to the divine, or a point of intersection between the divided self and the unitary whole. Modern science seems to confirm the possibility that this view is correct: non-local effects, unified fields, even the puzzles of developmental microbiology point towards this interpretation. If you will remember, earlier I defined Self as a "complex disturbance in a continuous, unitary field that is the universe." Beauty may be a brief realization of this continuity. I don't know. I do think, however, that beauty holds a clue to the conceptualization of goals of the true Self.

So where does that leave us? Am I really going to leave the question of "What to do" entirely unanswered? No: I will provide the guidance under which I currently attempt to operate. But I will not claim that these are goals of the true Self:

A. Attempt to act with conscious awareness of the role of the ontogenetic Self in all things.
B. Continue to attempt to understand the goals of the true Self, and of beauty.
C. Attempt to formulate and pursue goals, to act in a manner that fulfills three criteria simultaneously to the greatest degree possible (and when not possible, discriminate in the order listed): 1) Will this action manifest fulfilled ontogeny, creating an environment which is more like the late-Pleistocene world to which my genes are optimized? 2) Does this action pursue conscious hedonism (which, in an individual aware of the broadest effects of their actions, should not lead to selfishness, but to a balanced selflessness in light of others and the world)? 3) Is this action an example of elegant simplicity, in the manner that it pursues all of the goals listed here?

Unsatisfying, I'll admit, but these are the best that I have to offer. For now.

Saturday, November 20, 2004

Developmental Microbiology and Caste

Here's one of the fundamental puzzles in science:

When an egg is fertilized and begins to divide, the divided cells share the exact same DNA. In fact, they're identical as far as we know. These cells, however, begin to arrange themselves into differentiated groupings: some become bone, some brain, some liver, etc. The fact that they begin to diverge from each other is no shock, but the fact that they always end up in the very exact, complex form of a human is. They each hold identical instructions (DNA), so how do they know to take on different roles, and especially, how do they create such a similar complex structure without any outside guidance and instruction? This is the fundamental puzzle of developmental microbiology, and we do not have an answer to this day.

There are various theories--usually labeled "New Age" and rarely acknowledged by the microbiology community--that suggest that the "field" or "vibration" or something similar in the mother guides the development of these cells. John Holland, in his book "Hidden Order" (see book list on side bar) attempts to solve this problem in his computer simulations of life, but cannot. It's a mystery.

Now take a step back and look at human society. When it comes to raw resources, all societies are composed of very similar building blocks--humans, just like humans are composed of very similar building blocks--cells. Why is it that isolated societies tend to develop remarkably similar systems of symbolism, religion, even political mechanics? Is the similarity between Ceres/Bacchus/Demeter, Horus/Isis/Osiris, Jesus/Mary/God due to cultural diffusion, or is it due to some larger pattern that invisibly guides societal development? Do so many cultures share a mythology of a flood (Vikings, Mayan, Incan, Persian, Christian, Aboriginal, etc.) because it actually happened, or because of the guidance of this unidentified pattern? Could this same concept of organizing pattern answer the questions of society and microbiology?

Perhaps of greater concern, is escape from this pattern possible? Science can't explain why cells dividing from a fertilized egg ever divide themselves into bone vs. muscle, brain vs. liver, etc. Why don't they just keep dividing to form a big blob? Similarly, there have been many (continuous?) attempts to influence the stratification of humans in society: Marxist and communists and democratic idealists all push for a society in which there is no stratification of priviledge or power. Similarly, autocracies have attempted to create societies completely subservient to a small ruling group. Why have all of these attempts always failed? Why are there always outcasts and rebels, followers and leaders, plodders and innovators? Is this pattern of stratification due to some larger pattern that dictates caste to humanity much like some unknown force tells some cells to become bone and others muscle despite the fact that they both began as identical (or in the case of humanity, nearly identical) organisms?

It may be a stretch to compare microbiology to human society. In fact, the only value may be metaphorical. However, it is critical to any theory of political philosophy to explain IF all people can possibly exist free and independent, or IF some people need to follow obsequiously. WHAT causes some to be restless and look for new answers, and others to happily accept a life of repetition and order? Is there some form of caste built in to the governing pattern of human organization? I explore this topic briefly in the framework of H. G. Well's Eloi and Morlock in my book, "A Theory of Power", but it remains an unanswered question. Is this stratification of human functioning increasing as hierarchy increases? Will it divide us into multiple species, some literally serving others? Is it dependent on the size of a hierarchy, as this phenomenon exhibits less in smaller, more isolated societies than it does in large, integrated hierarchies?

This is a critical question to anyone who would change politics, society or spirituality. It also seems to touch on questions of identity, self and soul. Is there a fundamental organizing pattern in our world that relegates some to slavery and elevates others to some kind of pattern nobility? What is the cause of this pattern-influence: does it create hierarchy, or is it the result of it? Can it be altered, and how? Like other patterns of control, can we free ourselves by means of awareness of the mechanics of its influence???

Monday, November 15, 2004

Economic Theory and Reality

Many people, lay economists and “credentialed” professors alike, believe that without government interference a free-market would create an libertarian utopia. They state that “the only way a monopoly could exist would be for the entity in question to exert force or violence upon others to prevent such competition. If force is used on a free market, it would be quashed, no matter how big the entity because no matter what size, it is ALWAYS much smaller than the market itself and the super-majority (actually I would go farther and call it 'human nature') is not too happy to have force used against it.” They explain away the fact that this has never been the case in the entire run of human history by stating that “change is ALWAYS occurring and something that was 'true' for a given set of circumstances in the past does not make it true today”.

I understand the general hesitance to accept history as applicable to the present or future situation. It is certainly problematic... I also agree that, in a game theory world, monopoly will be, at most, a temporary phenomenon. However, I look to history to explain why, at least in the past, force and violence have successfully controlled the functioning of the free market. In a game-theory world, with a nice even playing field and an even distribution of resources, then the market would--I think--be able to overcome the tendency toward concentration of power (both to distort the market, and otherwise). But outside the world of theory, there are fundamentally uneven distributions of everything, from intelligence to resources to geography to weather, etc. These cause power to pool, just like water pools in the landscape. Power is the basic ingredient in all human interaction, whether we're dealing with force, with a market, etc. (in fact, one could describe a market as a means of optimizing exchange in an environment of fairly evenly distributed power). So while I'll agree that localized power will ALWAYS be smaller than the totality of "the market", due to this pooling effect, it will often be (and history demonstrates that it always has been) powerful enough to distort or control the market locally. Locally, of course, could be just within the limits of Smallsville, nowhere, or it could be within the confines of the entire Roman Empire (or American Empire...).

As quoted, change in history is ALWAYS occurring. I like to look at it along the lines of a "strange attractor": As change is always occurring, that in itself becomes a constant. Similarly, we seem to keep changing in the same patterns and methods again and again.

My distaste for hierarchy is relatively straight forward: I think that it's pretty inefficient when it grows beyond a certain size. Stratification, division of effort/labor, centralized planning... these phenomena have clear cut benefits. However, as hierarchy grows, it begins to experience an exponential increase in the demand for information processing, as well as an increase in information distortion (Wilson's SNAFU principle). The exact point at which hierarchal organization crosses the threshold of inefficiency will vary, but I contend that it is far lower than most people think. Add to that our genetic optimization to interact in SMALL group environments (most management "scientists" will tell you 8-15 person groups) in combination with infrequent, weak/distant interactions with wider networks (Buchanan's "Small Worlds" theory), and it seems to me that rhizome acts as a more efficient organizing principle.

Economists also contend that their models of hierarchy, monopoly and free market work because all humanity always acts in their own selfish interest: a free market of selfish participants, they say, will maximize utility for all. Unfortunately, it isn’t quite that simple because human psychology and motivation is actually quite complex (I discuss this at length in my book, “A Theory of Power”). Basically, there are two competing influences: the demands of our genes, and the demands of our memes, both interacting with our conscious brain through the harness of what, for sake of simplicity, I will just call our ego. While most economic theorists like to think of human motivation as monolithic and self-interested, I think that the realization that we are controlled by two competing and often opposed mechanisms is critical. For example, memes may influence us to endure pain in for the betterment of society, or to advance socially, while genes may provide a conflicting input to minimize that pain. For a few people, aware of the ontogeny of their own controlling mechanisms, there can be an independent action not controlled by either meme or gene.

So that said, most humans act to maximize the release and level of certain neurochemicals. Past economists have often characterized this as "selfish-interest", but it is important to point out that societal memes (which have evolved to empower society at the expense of the individual's genetic impulses) have co-opted genetic control mechanisms for the benefit of societal structures (increasingly hierarchy). So do humans all act in individual self-interests? NO. Many do, most of the time. Many also act against their 'genetic' self-interest some of the time. Ultimately this comes down to the need to adequately define "self", which is no simple task by itself: Am I my genes? Am I the memes that infest my brain? Am I something else entirely? It is difficult to calculate the economic effect of selfish-action without answering those questions, but the complexity of the answer (again, see “A Theory of Power”) does not fit easily with the two-axis graphs of classical economics.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Letter to Ed Dodson

Below is a letter to Edward Dodson of the School of Cooperative Individualism ( commenting on the Georgist school of political philosophy, and specifically critiquing his essay “The Democratic Imperative” (

Dear Ed,

I’ve enjoyed reading “The Democratic Imperative”, and other samplings of Georgist thought. Both of our philosophies appear dedicated to maximizing liberty within the realities of human political organization. While we differ in our areas of focus, I think that both our means and our ends are quite complementary. I find that I agree with nearly all of the arguments made in “The Democratic Imperative”, as well as the “Principles of Cooperative Individualism” found on your website. What follows, then, focuses on explaining why I choose to place emphasis on different parts of what I see as a common cause:

Let me start with one of the principles of your philosophy: “That human behavior falls outside the realm of liberty, and within the realm of criminal license when such behavior violates the liberty of others.” I agree completely. I find that a principle of my philosophy is quite similar: hierarchal organization creates differential stratification of power (liberty) where the few accumulate power (liberty) taken from the many. Hierarchy, then, falls within the realm of criminal license.

In order to preserve liberty for all, you suggest that “[w]hat is needed to more fully realize the promise of democracy is take the debate over solutions to a sustained, higher level that focuses not simply or primarily on short-run, remedial measures, but looks at the fundamental construction of our socio-political arrangements and institutions.” Again, I only differ on what part of our “fundamental construction” to focus on. Your essay suggests that we revise the mechanisms of our democratic political-economy (significant changes to our representative form of government, corporate structure, government funding sources, etc.) in order to prevent abusive, uneven distribution of liberty. I prefer to focus on what I see as the root cause of the problem: the fundamental structure of hierarchy.

As an alternative to hierarchy, I propose the transition to a “rhizome”, or networked architecture in our political-economy. The abuses of liberty (which I consider interchangeable with my term: power) in our nation and in our world stem from the fundamental structure of hierarchy. From studying anthropology, history, economics and physics, I have come to the conclusion that hierarchy as a pattern tends towards continual centralization and intensification. Its very structure is predicated upon taking liberty away from people to concentrate it at ever-more-distant points. Hierarchy creates rigid, inflexible structures that are incredibly strong until they shatter in the cycles of history. But through grass-roots efforts towards localized economic interaction and decentralization we can transition from hierarchy to rhizome. The phrase “cooperative individualism” puts this vision very eloquently, indeed. In my view, the fundamental failure of any government—and certainly of our present government—is systemic. It is due to the problems of information processing within hierarchies of significant size, and will not be resolved solely by the restructuring within the framework of hierarchy. At best, I think that a restructuring of our government—without a removal of its centralized, stratified, hierarchal nature—would result in a system of benevolent, but equally ineffective bureaucracy.

Of course, stepping outside the narrow confines of political theory, it seems most effective to address our real-world problems with a forked strategy: simultaneous modification of our government (top-down) as recommended in “The Democratic Imperative”, along with a grass-roots economic and political decentralization and transition to rhizome as I advocate in my book, “A Theory of Power”. Rhizome defeats hierarchy by making it irrelevant: it is not a step into the past, but as the most recent discoveries about network architecture and group psychology suggest, it is a step forward.

I think that the true strength of both of our approaches is that they don’t rely on revolution or violence to be realized. We clearly share similar goals. I am confident that my theories can be improved by incorporating Georgist thinking, working for complementary actions and common ground… hopefully the effect can be reciprocal.

~Jeff Vail

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Thoughts on Iran and the Iraqi elections

Iran has a vested interest in the outcome of January's elections. Perhaps I should say "elections", but that is yet to be decided. Anyway, they will most likely hold off any overtly provocative actions until then. It is nearly inconceivable (nearly) that in a free and fair Iraqi election, a pro-shiite, pro-Iran party doesn't come to power. Iran is working hard under the table, via their military (BADR) and political (SCIRI) arms in Iraq to ensure that this does happen. If a pro-Iran, shiite party comes to power, then they have shored up their flank and take a step towards becoming the regional hegemon that they aspire to be. However, in the event that a pro-Iran Shiite party doesn't come to power, the assumption will be that the election was unfair (both in Iran and among the Shiite majority in Iraq), and then I would expect Iran to begin more overt actions to 1) arm and instigate Shiite resistance, which will flare up after an election loss, 2) proceed with their nuclear program, and 3) possibly make some overtures towards al-Qai'da to exact a reaction from the US. It's unrealistic (in my opinion) for Iran to expect the US to "change" the results of the election in order to get concessions from Iran. It's equally unrealistic for the US to invade Iran while still bogged down in Iraq (though I wouldn't be surprised by airstrikes). Ultimately, US failure in Iraq benefits Iran only if the Shiites lose the election, so I would expect Iran to be very quiet, even make some concessions on reprocessing to the Europeans until the elections have passed. If the Shiites win, and do so convincingly (i.e. they actually get 60% of the power commensurate with their population, something that the US is working hard to prevent), then Iran will congratulate them and attempt to "rejoin the world community" and drop their a-bomb program in exchange for lifted sanctions. The Bush administration will have a difficult time declining this offer (peace dividend?...), but this election result will ultimately end with the fall of the House of Saud as Saudi and Iraqi sunnis become even more polarized against secular authorities. If the Shiites don't win, then Iran will incite a renewed insurgency in the South, Iraq will fall into chaos, the US will be overwhelmed (because the Sunni regions will likely reject the outcome as well), and when the US withdraws and Iraq falls into chaos, the House of Saud will follow shortly there after. Which, of course, has been bin Laden's goal all along. That, in turn, is why there won't be any major terrorist attacks in the US for the next few years, because bin Laden's effort is better spent manipulating the efforts in Iraq and Saudi Arabia, and the US public won't support prolongued casulaties in Iraq if there is no longer a perceived threat in the "homeland".

[foot stomping]

Any theory that bin Laden/al-Qai'da will conduct another attack on America must explain how that action will bring about the fall of the House of Saud, as that is their ultimate goal. Everything else (9/11 included) is intended to realize that.

I give King Fahd & Co. 3 years.

Who knows, could happen...

Cooperative Individualism

My intent is to make this a "content blog", and I'm resisting the temptation to link to every web site or news event that I find interesting. That said, I've recently stumbled upon Very well presented writing and instructional materials on a theory of human organization roughly based on the works of philosophers such as Thomas Paine and Henry George. I found it especially interesting that the author (Edward Dobson) was able to effectively criticize the tendency of the modern concept of ownership (especially of land) to lead to heirarchy and stratification without simultaneously supporting statist socialism.

Dobson presents some excellent ideas that address the fundamental flaw of anarcho-capitalism and minarchy: that an unfettered free market will inevitably lead to intensification of centralization and stratification of power, returning ultimately to an oppressive state structure.

Monday, November 01, 2004

What's at Stake: The Election and the World-System

Today I read "What's at Stake" on It sounded like the typical argument that I keep hearing: we need to stand strong as a beacon of freedom and justice against this onslaught on our freedom by terrorists. I think that this misses the point. Either through hubris, ignorance, isolationism or all of the above, we keep thinking that this is all about us--that 9/11 was an attack on the American way of life or on freedom or something like that. It's my opinion that it was nothing of the sort.

Bin Laden wants to establish an Islamic Caliphate throughout the Arabic Middle East. To do that, he needs to remove the secular regimes that are currently in power. Most are supported by the US (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Iraq, Pakistan, Jordan, etc.). Most are autocracies of one form or another (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Iraq, Pakistan, Jordan, etc.). He probably thinks (in my opinion correctly) that removing US support to these regimes is a key part of any plan to make them fall. He also needs to polarize the average person in these countries against their leadership and the US. He does this in part by linking the US with Israel. This is also achieved by making the US out as an occupying, corrupt force in the Middle East, using the era of British imperialism as a model.

In my opinion, this is what 9/11 was about. It wasn't a strike on freedom: if we were sponsoring freedom, then we wouldn't be supporting all those regimes that I mentioned above that stifle it. We would just let people follow the course that they want to follow. Even in Iraq, for example, we aren't really fostering freedom. We're working on ways to better shape their elections, because if they are held today the country would elect a Shiite, pro-Iran party by a large margin (60%), and we can't accept that kind of free outcome. The Kurds would vote overwhelmingly for autonomy, and we can't allow that either (that would be freedom, but it would also annoy our allies the Turks).

People in the Middle East are, understandably, cynical about our motives. If a truly freely elected Iraqi government elected to nationalize their oil infrastructure, would we just stand by? No one can claim to KNOW the answer to that, but they can point to history. We didn't choose to support the side of freedom when Iran nationalized their oil infrastructure, nor with Cuba (who didn't request Soviet assistance until after we had passed an embargo after their nationalization). Normally people argue that nationalization is illegal due to "property rights", but conveniently overlook that in most of the world these property rights were established during an age of overt imperialism (Iran and Cuba both apply).

The problem here, in my opinion, isn't that we support freedom, or that we don't support freedom. It's that we act in our own selfish interest, and when applicable we use "freedom" as a cover. When not applicable, we find another cover, like "defeating the spread of communism" (Central America), "stability" (supporting 50 years of Indonesian dictators), etc. This is why we have no credibility in the international arena: everyone outside the blanket of US news coverage can see and hear what's actually happening, and then they can hear us calling these actions "upholding democracy" and "supporting freedom". At least overt imperialism is honest.

Now some will respond to this that "Hey, we're American... I don't live in Beirut or someplace like that, and, after all, you've got to look out for #1".

There are two basic economic theories:
1. Increase wealth through exchange. I trade something that I have a lot of, and you have little of, for something that you have a lot of and I have little of. We both benefit, and wealth is increased. Tends to produce stable, long-lasting historical patterns.
2. Increase wealth through exploitation. I use my (usually temporary) power advantage over you to take what you have lots of and I have little of. I benefit, you hate me, and my wealth is increased. Tends to produce a system of reciprocity and volatility in history.

The "got to look out for #1" theory is clearly economic theory #2. Use the cover of "freedom" to ensure that our own selfish interest is protected. Recognize that it will result in acts of reciprocity (terrorism, etc.), but that as long as we have the power advantage (dominating military), the benefit gained will outweigh the reciprocity. History tells us that, inevitable, tides will turn, and we'll end up getting exploited in a world dominated by this system. I see this as the world-view of George Bush, the neocons, etc. Is it a perfectly valid strategy? Yes. Do I think that it is the wisest course of action for our country? No.

The alternative, illustrated by economic theory #1, is to pursue mutually beneficial action. Following our selfish interest (even in the "name" of freedom) may be more profitable in the short term, but increasing our mutual wealth through following the most mutually beneficial action is the most profitable in the long term. The prisoner's dilemma in economic game theory illustrates this clearly. So does the Nash Equilibrium (have you seen "A Beautiful Mind"?). It is difficult, in an age of immediate-horizon politics and an emotionally reactionary American populace to follow such a policy, but it is possible, and in my opinion, it is clearly the wisest choice. While by no means perfect, I think that John Kerry will follow a set of policies much more in line with this principle of mutually beneficial action. He has demonstrated (and more importantly, Bush has demonstrated the opposite) that it is often necessary to make short term sacrifices to build relationships that will foster the kind of world system that provides benefit to all, not just to the powerful. Power only makes you safe as long as you have most of it. Setting aside our national hubris for a moment, we should realize that history tells us that we will inevitably, eventually be in a position where we don't have most of it anymore. When that happens, our safety, our prosperity will be determined by what kind of world-system we foster today. Memories of our temporary wealth will make us (or more likely, posterity) wonder what kind of short-sighted people our ancestors were. Just my opinion, but I think that is the true answer to "What's at Stake".