Friday, August 19, 2005

Tribalism & Rhizome

From John Robb's latest post at Global Guerrillas, it seems that the concept of tribalism and rhizome is spreading rapidly within the international conflict theory community. Take a look at David Ronfeld's article on the topic.

I recently gave a presntation about this at a conference. I was trying to explain the difference in operational command and control between hierarchy and rhizome, and to explain how groups like al-Qa'ida, Hugo Chavez and MS-13 are working together, even if they are not consciously coordinating their activity as a hierarchy would. In fact, their cooperation is emergent cooperation--and it was this that finally gave me the analogy that I needed:

The brain is an example of rhizomatic, emergent command and control. Many neurons, firing back and forth, with no central "command neuron" telling the others what to do. And yet, with remarkable efficiency, this seemingly unrelated activity produces directed, conscious and coordinated action. It produces consciousness, intelligence, memory, analytical processing and physical action. This is how rhizome works--and this is how "organizations" like al-Qa'ida, ELF and the FARC are gradually working together more and more, even though they may have zero direct contacts with each other...

It takes a new paradigm--the paradigm of rhizome--to understand and worth with or against this new mode of world events...

7 comments:

Jason Godesky said...

This frightens me a bit, actually. Yes, al-Qa'ida is exactly as you say, and the differences between "tribalism" in this regard and rhizome are ... well, rather slight, really. But with the unthinking, unilateral belligerence against our "enemy," would the spread of such understanding mean the leverage of hierarchical institutions against all tribal and rhizomatic institutions?

Which brings me to my lurking fear ... if it becomes accepted that al-Qa'ida is rhizomatic, is that going to land me and you in jail?

Jeff Vail said...

I do think that the next several years will see this conflict increasingly viewed in light of "hierarcy vs. rhizome", as opposed to "American Baseball and Apple Pie vs. Islamic Extremism". And I think that the real tipping point here will be oil: when peak oil begins to hit home, I think that there will be a forced realization that the conflict is between "US" (which I'll keep phrasing "hierarchy", but which I think the american people will just meld into their understanding of "us") and "THEM" (which I'll keep phrasing as "rhizome", but I think that the american people will not adopt that term, rather simply taking a more inclusive view of who "they" are.

But it is very scary to see people in the "think tank" community, like John Robb and David Ronfeld, adopting this paradigm so completely and quickly. I think it may take quite some time for this to "tip" in the public's mind, but I think that the Carlyle Group and Project For A New American Century will be "early adopters", and that, to me, is the scary part...

The hint of optimism that I have--and they are pretty few and far between--is that when the public finally views this conflict in terms of "hierachy vs. rhizome", I think that it will only then become feasible for the rhizome "core cadre" to make a valid argument to the average person in America that it is actually rhizome that is the "party of the commoner", and that hierarcy serves to direct power and riches towards the few at the top--e.g. not them...

So I guess that makes the explanation of this new paradigm in an OPEN SOURCE form that much more important, because if it is kept at the "tree-top" level with think tanks, then that favors hierarchy. But if it becomes a commonly understood concept--much the way that marxist thought was in Europe and Latin America in the first two thirds of the 20th century--then I think that favors rhizome...

Of course, as soon as the "tree-top" groups catch on to this paradigm (as they are right now), we can look forward to active, if clandestine, activity to begin to quash this message, to further control rhizome communication forms--like blogs.

In fact, I think that a move by hierarchy to control the internet will be the first major battle in this conflict... the current "global struggle against extremism" is really just laying the foundation for what will become a much more consuming conflict--much like WWI laid the foundation for the WWII/Cold-War epochal conflict. Or maybe, like all the conflicts in the 20th century they will run together seamlessly in one big orgy. Who knows?

As for going to prison--I think that the trump card in our pockets is that hierarcy, especially hierarchy of the size of the US government--has to deal with such an information processing burden that they are essentially inept at confronting rhizome. I think that I'm a living example of that. Or maybe that's wishful thinking? Either way, they keep renewing my security clearance (which is technically understandable--I don't advocate 'the violent overthrow of the US government', just a very serious reform. Don't like violence). Sometimes I almost feel like I'm intentionally testing the limits, just to see if I can map out how inept hierarchy really is...

Christopher said...

I wonder if a stark dichotomy of rhizome/hierarchy is ontologically feasible. For instance, just as rhizome and hierarchy often operate interpedently in natural systems so should they in the context of human socioeconomic interaction. Although neurons do allow consciousness by a sort of rhizomatic gestalt, within the brain there are definite hierarchies composed of various areas therein. Furthermore, the brain has a definite hierarchical relationship with other systems of the human organism. I wonder if al-Qaida (in the broadest sense) isn't analogous to the brain while large portions of certain national hierarchies serve as interested systems; hierarchies within hierarchies serving rhizomes who in turn provide nutrient rich soil within which those hierarchies might thrive. If you address this concept as well as you do rhizome theory I think it will make the discussion of rhizome more relevant and the necessary paradigm shift more readily accessible.

Jeff Vail said...

Christopher-

I think you raise an important point, and I know that often I am guilty of extolling an extreme of rhizome... In reality, I think that the key--as with most things in nature--is a balance, a balance between hierarchy and rhizome, where negative feedback loops keep the two in check. So, just to clarify terms, normally when I say "hierarchy" I am refering to a cancerous, positive-feedback hierarchy...

Christopher said...

Jeff -

What would such a balance look like?

You know where you're from, where you are and where you don't want to end up, but where do you really want to go?

Jeff Vail said...

Cop out answer, but I have about 2 minutes:

It should look like Pala, from Aldous Huxley's "Island"

dzed said...

another person using the same meme, though with a different nomenclature has written an interesting article here

http://www.bopnews.com/archives/004595.html#4595

that i think you'll find interesting