Thursday, August 04, 2005

Mechanisms of Empire

My paper "All Roads Lead to Rome" is currently in the refereeing process for publication in the Mediterranean History Review (University of Tel Aviv). But as Dan of tdaxp points out, "The blogosphere is abuzz with empires...".

Dan and I recently discussed Chirol's concept of empire. The title of Chirol's essay -- "Why Empires are Inevitable and Positive" -- should make it pretty clear that I don't agree with his formulation. I suggest that "Why Empires Tend to Intensify and Alienate" is a more accurate title, but I've already written about that. Basically, Chirol states that there are two options, empire or anarchy, and that any intermediary stage is just the chaotic transition back and forth. If you accept his premise that you must pick either A or B, then his argument holds more water. My fundamental objection is that I think there is a valid third choice: rhizome.

Theorists of empire seem to enjoy making models for how the thing works--I'm certainly guilty of this. Chirol's model of empire is perhaps best described as a neo-con formulation of empire. He says that: "As a second generation empire, the United States has a responsibility to itself and the world to maintain peace by maintaining unparalleled military and economic might and not allowing these to wane." I prefer to look on empire--and anarchy and rhizome--as mere patterns, the self-organization of flows of energy involving humanity (or the absence thereof, as in anarchy). From this perspective, the critical features that differentiate patterns of human organization are the differing mechanisms of self-organization and intensification. A variety of mechanisms have been proposed--Wittfogel's "Hydraulic Empires", my suggestions of a "Connectivity Empire" based on the Roman Road system, etc. In my discussion with Dan, we entertained the notion that the currently emerging empire may also be a connectivity-based empire due to things like the Internet and the exponential increase in global information flows. My problem with this concept is that conventional wisdom states that the Internet is decentralized, almost rhizomatic. ARPANET was designed to withstand a nuclear attack, so therefore it was based on a rhizome model, not a hierarchal model. Or at least so goes conventional wisdom? In my suggested paradigm of "mechanisms of self-organization", the critical point in the modern empire of global information is the point at which the self-organizing patterns that serve as the foundation of this global information system "tip" from rhizome to hierarchy. Was "The Net" ever really based on rhizome? When and how will it change to a hierarchal model, and has it already? There is no doubt that a wide array of players are already attempting to make it more hierarchal--to create self-intensifying hierarchal institutions within this information system that they will then be able to harness for their own selfish purposes--whether this is corporations like Google attempting to harness surpluses of hierarchy towards the end of corporate profit, or entities like the US government using institutions like Echelon to harness the surpluses of hierarchy towards the end of information control. If we accept the premise (shaky at best) that the Internet really was once rhizome, and that other hierarchal structures are seeking to co-opt this framework, then what will be the face of this change?

This may be the principle battleground of the next Epochal Conflict (more on that soon...). I wrote recently about the unification of many global movements and ideologies around the concept of rhizome in "Rhizome Politics" (which will be included in the soon-to-be-published
"Politics To Go: A Handbook on Using Mobile Tech to Empower Just-in-Time Politics", from ). Rhizome will increasingly attempt to utilize a networked global information system towards its own propagation--and no doubt Hierarchy will contest this high ground.

After-the fact critique is easy for the armchair general. But in the fog of war, as events are moving in real time, it is often far more difficult to pick out this conceptual high ground, this "schwerpunkt", this "center of gravity". Is it possible that for the coming epochal conflict between hierarchy and rhizome the ability to draw the global information system towards one pattern or the other will be the elusive key to victory?


Dan tdaxp said...

Forgive me to being new to the theory -- what is a "surplus of hierarchy."

Also, interesting hierarchy / rhyzome distinction. Very similar to the ditinction between vertical and horizontal controls.

How do you view instances of when hierarchy tries to reinforce the rhyzome?

-Dan tdaxp

Jeff Vail said...


One of the featuers that I see in hierarchy is its ability to produce surpluses for use by those at the "top of the pyramid"--that is, hierarchy as an institution can skim excess available work from its participants to create huge public works projects or wage total war. The !Kung bushmen certainly have a lot of available work--they only work 3 or 4 hours a day to meet their needs--but their society has no structure to harness that potential surplus and direct it towards a single end. Specifically, they lack the necessary hierarchy. Native Hawaiians, on the other hand, certainly lived in a far more hospitable environment. If they were socially organized like the !Kung, they might get away with one hour of work a day, or less. But because of their hierarchal structure, the excess labor could be harnessed to build fish ponds or clear taro fields. And even if they didn't want to grow in population, their structure was essentially predestined to grow. If individual chief's power was based on how much surplus they could harness, then they would work to harness as much as possible, both promulgating strategies of growing their population, and inadvertantly growing their population as their surplus-driven projects (fish ponds, etc.) increased the carrying capacity of their terrirtory. So even if one chief said "hey, this is pretty nice just like this, let's take a break...", pretty soon they'd be conquered by some neighboring chief who didn't say that. Hence the fundamental need for hierarchal structures to continually grow, expand and intensify.

I like your vertical/horizontal control distinction. If I may, I think that the weakness of the distinction (at least in my initial reading of it) is in the narrow conceptualization of "nonconsentual violence". For example, you list "your employer" as falling in the horizontal--or "without nonconsentual violence"--category. The Hierarchy/Rhizome distinction (at least my formulation of it--it was originally conceived by Gilles Deleuze) broadens the concept of "nonconsentual violence" to directional "power-relationships". For example, while your employer may not beat you with a club, he has what you need (and for all but the most skilled and experienced the reverse is not true). I contend that this is hierarcy, not rhizome. Rhizome, on the other hand, is an organizational node that is self-sufficient and independent. Rhizome may enter into a wide variety of relationships with other such nodes, but these will always be "win-win" situations, as if they weren't then one or both party would simply back out.

In industrial society, individuals are largely not independent. We rely on the state for security--and therefore enter into a hierarchal relationship with it where the state holds a directional power-relationship over us because we need it and it doesn't necessarily need us (at least not as an individual). Same thing with the corporate economy--the vast majority of us don't produce enough food to be self-sufficient, even in partnership with friends and neighbors. So, we are forced into wage slavery to get what we need. We may have the power to quit our current job, but most of us do not have the power to quit the system--so in a broader sense this is very much a vertical relationship: we are controlled by a society that is defined by hierarchy.

Dan tdaxp said...


Thanks for the information.

Do you believe that rhyzomes also create surpluses and have the same need to expand? For instance, I recently wrote a series of articles on early Christianity

Love Your Enemy
Caiaphas and Diocletian Did Know Better
Every Man a Panzer, Every Woman a Soldat

which argued that the religion was similar to a 4GW Army (such as the forces led by Mao and Ho). It also argued that men such as Diocletian and Caiaphas were acting rationally. To put it another way, the early Roman-Christian conflict was a rhyzome attempting to co-opt a hierarchy to use the surplus for its own benefit.

I have been calling power-without-violence relationships flat / steep, borrowing the terms for Tom Friedman.

Are hierarchies and rhyzomes two seperate forms, or two regions of a continuum? For instance, the Marines have the concept of the "Strategic Corporal" -- low-level NCOs being given wide lattitude in how they achieve their objectives. (Germany and Japan somewhat similarly viewed orders as "contracts," that subordinates should not agree too until they are convinced it will help the larger objective; it is similar to the tribal "sheik" system, where every fifth man was a commander with broad discretion.) I've been calling such relationships "vertical but flat" -- while the very hierarchical but very voluntary Catholic Church is organized "horizontal but steep." How does this translate over to hierarchy/rhyzome terminology?

Sorry for all the questions!

-Dan tdaxp

Anonymous said...

One minor point. ARPANET was not designed with nuclear war in mind. According to wikipedia: The ARPANET was designed to survive network losses, but the main reason was actually that the switching nodes and network links were not highly reliable, even without any nuclear attacks.

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