Thursday, July 21, 2005

Rhizome: Guerrilla Media, Swarming and Asymmetric Politics in the 21st Century

Philosopher Philip Bobbitt, in his seminal work “The Shield of Achilles”, proposed that the 20th century was defined by the ideological conflicts between socialism, fascism and capitalism. These competing ideologies purported to offer the hierarchal control structure most suited to meeting the needs of the people. In the course of this conflict, asymmetric warfare—the use of non-hierarchal structures to successfully confront hierarchy—was refined. The conflicts of the 20th century forged current theories of rhizome—the name for non-hierarchal, asymmetrical and networked patterns of organization. Empowered by a revolution in communication technology and the spread of democratic freedoms, the conflicts of the 21st century will be defined not by past political ideologies, but by a much more fundamental, structural conflict: hierarchy vs. rhizome.

Rhizome structures, swarming media and asymmetric politics will not be a means to support or improve a centralized, hierarchal democracy—they will be an alternative to it.

Many groups that seek change have yet to identify hierarchy itself as the root cause of their problem or cause, but are already beginning to realize that rhizome is the solution. Movements as diverse as American Progressives, al-Qa’ida and the “New Bolivarians” are already consciously adopting some rhizome elements to their actions. As theoretical knowledge and systems understanding improves, this conflict will become more clearly defined along the lines of hierarchy vs. rhizome.

Rhizome has a long history of application within military theory, but its use as a non-violent political tool is still rapidly developing. Rhizome tactics such as swarming have been used successfully at the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle, and less successfully by protesters at the Republican National Convention in 2004 (link). A methodology of decentralized “leaderless resistance” first formalized by white supremacists is now being used with some success by the Earth Liberation Front and the Animal Liberation Front. Rhizome tactics have found notable success in economics as well, with rural communities using localization policies, increasing distributed power generation, the spread of farmers’ markets and an increased focus on “slow food” and regional cuisine.

But despite recent successes, the value of rhizome structure and strategies continues to be constrained by a failure to frame conflicts in clear “hierarchy vs. rhizome” terms. Political activists seeking to use rhizome concepts to improve a hierarchal structure such as America’s hierarchal democracy will ultimately fail. Similarly, the protestors at the Republican National Convention were effectively controlled by police because they failed to identify their purpose—and frame their tactics—in terms of rhizome pattern and structure. The OODA Loop suggests that the victorious party is the one that can more quickly Observe lessons learned from past conflict, Orient themselves to identify their shortcomings in light of these lessons, Decide on a course of action to address identified shortcomings and then put those decisions into Action. The failure of the protestors at the RNC was largely their failure to evolve their doctrine as quickly as the NYPD was able to evolve theirs. It appears that neither side explicitly framed their efforts in terms of hierarchy vs. rhizome, but had the protesters done so they would have been better able to access the existing body of knowledge provided by the rhizome “Doctrine Network”, consisting itself of rhizomatic nodes such as and .

The Rhizome Toolkit: Blogs, Open Source Warfare & the Doctrine Network

Hierarchies exert command and control via a centralized, top-down process. This creates numerous layers that information must relay between, and results in an information processing burden that significantly slows the ability of hierarchy to execute the OODA loop (link). The advantage of rhizome—aside from preventing the abuse of power endemic to hierarchy—is its superior information processing capability. One rhizome example, the network of political blogs, demonstrated its information processing ability during the 2004 election season, regularly trumping hierarchal media establishments on breaking stories.

As global conflict is increasingly framed within the context of hierarchy vs. rhizome, the doctrine and tactics of rhizome action is beginning to coalesce into an effective system. This system, founded upon the information processing capability of rhizome, consists of infrastructure, distributed decision making and general doctrine.

The general doctrine of rhizome action, whether peaceful or violent, is based on the model of Open Source Warfare (Global Guerrillas link). Without the centralized command structure of hierarchy, actions and tactics are proposed by the network and adopted by constituent nodes via a process similar in many ways to a clinical trial. Some node devises a tactic or selects a target and makes this theory publicly available—Open Source. One or several trials of this theory are conducted, and the tactic is then adopted and improved upon by the network as a whole based on its success. This may seem like a contrived and overly mechanistic system, but in fact it functions very much like biological evolution.

Rhizome uses distributed decision making—the Doctrine Network—to evaluate, improve and adopt Open Source Warfare concepts. This distributed decision making is facilitated by some type of non-hierarchal communications infrastructure. Two examples will help to illustrate this process:

Al Qa’ida and the Rhizome Toolkit

Osama bin Laden and other “central” al-Qa’ida figures are increasingly removed from everyday operations and instead function as a node in the al-Qa’ida Doctrine Network. Bin Laden & crew propose targeting strategies, praise selected actions and generally contribute to the clinical trial of new strategies and procedures. They communicate with their network via largely Open Source methods—tapes sent to Arabic language satellite TV channels, jihadist websites, etc. Other groups such as that of Abu Musab al Zarqawi—in no way under hierarchal control from bin Laden—then take the Open Source Warfare outcomes from these clinical trials and put them into action. The train bombings in Madrid and subway bombings in London are an example of this process in action, as are the steadily improving tactics of insurgents in Iraq.

Progressive political bloggers in America, while markedly different in ideology from al-Qa’ida, function in a remarkably similar manner. The network of blogs serves as a Doctrine Network, function as a Clinical Trial for political criticism, and constitute an Open Source communication infrastructure all at the same time. One blogger writes a persuasive argument against President Bush, another improves or expands upon it and posts it to a heavily visited site, feedback and critiques further develop the argument until it is a fully sharpened weapon in the progressive’s Open Source Warfare arsenal.

While these examples illustrate that rhizome concepts are influencing political processes around the world, they largely fail to consciously recognize their rhizome system. Their true power—and the course of conflict in the 21st century—will be defined not simply when they realize that they must frame their struggle in terms of rhizome action, but when they realize that rhizome structure IS THEIR STRUGGLE. Widely disparate groups, from al-Qa’ida to American Progressives to ELF and South American indigenous peoples are ultimately struggling against hierarchy. Their individual movements have been grossly distorted and perverted by remnant ideologies, local and historical circumstances, but at their core they are in fact quite similar. If they are able to recognize their unity of purpose, or if they spawn a broader movement with such a unity of purpose, then this coherent rhizome pattern will spread and effectively check and reduce hierarchy. If they remain fragmented and separate they will still be capable of harassing the dominance of hierarchy, but will effect little real change.
While it may seem improbable for Progressives and al-Qa’ida to decide to join forces for the common good, it is certainly within the realm of possibility to expect the various factions within the broad Progressive movement to realize that their pet causes are all derived from a basic conflict with hierarchy, and that the solution lies in consciously adopting a rhizome structure. A conscious focus on rhizome organization will lead to improved functioning of the Doctrine Network, Clinical Trials and communications infrastructure. Individual bloggers will realize that their minor improvement or addition to another’s idea is critical to the functioning of the system. The divide between talk and action will diminish as a better understanding of the rhizome process will lead protestors and economic localizers to realize that they must blog, and bloggers to realize that they must protest and purchase wisely. The interconnectivity between anti-globalization, economic localization, human rights, freedoms, environmental concerns, and equal opportunity policies will become clear, and the combined power of each of these factions will, working together, be far greater than the sum of their parts. Perhaps most importantly, the logic of a unified effort will finally be able to convince the average person that they, too, have a self-interested stake in this struggle, and that they must act on the side of rhizome. A conscious and unified rhizome movement would be powerful indeed.


Jeff Vail said...

I received the following feedback on this article from "Lotus5" via email (my response in next comment):


Great article.

Although, while I agree on a lot of points, I disagree on the idea that
there is a total lack of acknowledgement that hierarchy is the problem.
If you talk to anarchists and anti-authoritarians, most of them will
tell you that hierarchy is the problem. I'm sure that lots of indymedia
folks would as well. Also, the PGA network is set up in such a was as to
totally discourage hierarchy.

On the other hand, there is an intense hierarchy in inherent in
organized religion, like Islam, which Al Quaida most certainly think
should not be challenged.

Also, I'm not sure that the problem at the RNC was a failure to come up
with new tactics, but a failure to get masses of people to actually
engage in Direct Action. I watched huge crowds on A31 stand on the
sidewalks chanting and holding signs while small affinity groups did
sit-ins in the street, on the sidewalks and engaged the police. I think
the failure was really people's understanding of the urgency of the
situation and their decision not to risk arrest to stop the dictator
from staging another election. Hopefully with all the shit coming down
around our ears now, people realize how fucked we are with this guy in
office again. Anyone remember the election fraud?

But for that matter, lots of liberal bloggers and lots of other folks
don't realize that hierarchy is the problem and think we just need a
better president. That's why Anarchism is such a long term project.
We've got a couple hundreds of years of sruggle ahead of us before we
can get to a world without rulers, I think. If we last that long.

Jeff Vail said...

My reply:


Thanks for the thoughts... I think you're right that some elements do
acknowledge the centrality, or at least the importance of the conflict
with hierarchy. And I also agree that, unfortunately, the
"Progressive" community largely thinks that the problem would have
been solved if Kerry/Dean/Kucinich had been elected! I'm probably
misusing that label, but it was the best I could think of at the
time--just "anarchist" seems too narrow in this case.

On an optimistic note, I don't think that anarchy is a 100+ year
project. Take a look at , or one of these articles:

for arguments why this might become a very immediate concern...

Dan tdaxp said...

Manual vanity trackback ;)

Joe Corr said...

The notion that distributed decision making inevitably leads to a non-hierarchical system seems to ignore certain aspects of nature. I'm thinking here of any type of ecology. Hierarchies constantly evolve to match the change in resources, which are created and destroyed by a myriad forces. Nature maybe chaos, but it is most certainly not anarchy.

mark w said...

thank you for this article. i have some questions.

i'm thinking that hierarchy/rhizome dangerously posits a false binary--surely a solution lies in a negotiation between the two? hierarchy = all bad? rhizome = all good? i'm not so sure about that.

from what you've written, a rhizomatic structure too readily assumes the necessity of (eventual) consensus to progress/function. but isn't this necessary consensus overly totalising and universalising?

Joel said...

Joe and Mark both make some good points.

I think one way of resolving some of both of your concerns is to redefine the rhizome as any naturally occurring network of independents, as well as redefine some of the more traditional hierarchies as contrived, or unnatural.

This not only addresses Joe's point about hierarchy's presence in nature . If we differentiate between the natural and unnatural, that is, hierarchy that is forcibly orchestrated and that which is naturally occurring, we can include these natural structures within the realm of possibilities in a rhizome. This allows a rhizomal system like nature to develop ordered structures that we see in ecology. This also eliminates the false binary since only hierarchy that conflicts with natural patterns would be deemed "bad".

Jed Walls said...

NICE. Thanks for putting this informatics guy back on track.

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