Thursday, March 30, 2006

Restoring Balance (Now Subsidy Free!)

From time to time I have been told that I ramble on about the two opposing modes of organization: hierarchy and rhizome. One of the most common critiques I hear is that hierarchy isn't really so bad--after all, it exists in nature. Quite true, both hierarchy an rhizome DO exist in nature, an will continue to be important parts of life on Earth. The trouble with hierarchy is that it is presently grossly overrepresented. The organizational balance is far out of whack--more than eliminate hierarchy just for its own sake, we need to work to restore a dynamic balance between hierarchy and rhizome, between centralized and distributed organization. The problem with doing that is the institutionalized subsidy that civilization uses to underwrite its hierarchal foundations.

Rob Hopkins at Transition Culture has an outstanding post today entitled "Making Power-Down Electable: Who Will Vote for the Promise of Less?" This cuts right to the heart of the matter: there is no realistic alternative to perpetual growth, increase, and intensification of our hierarchal structures unless the subsidies that favor such a mode of organization are removed (as discussed in A Theory of Power, Chapter 7). If politicians are elected on the basis of promising the most to the voter, then who will vote for someone who campaigns for "less growth, but balance!"?? If corporations are legally required to maximize shareholder return, then when will they ever say "sure, we could do less environmental damage and undertake sustainable operations, but we will have to reduce our growth targets"?? If central bank monetary policy has an "inflation target" of about 3-4%, then who can possibly afford to invest in a static, sustainable solution?? If your money and assets aren't appreciating by MORE than 3-4%, then you're falling behind. Can't have that. If the Generally Accepted Accounting Principles don't require that all future costs of present actions are accounted for, then when will either government or corporations ever be concerned with the future impact of massive fossil fuel use or pollution? If the defense-budget subsidy artificially lowers the cost of producing and transporting oil and gas around the world, when will unsubsidized, renewable energy sources ever be competitive??

Decentralized, rhizomatic solutions ARE competitive if we would just stop subsidizing hierarchy. This would allow a return to the natural balance between hierarchy and rhizome that exists in nature. This doesn't get around the more basic problem of "who will vote for the promise of less." Unfortunately, the solution to this problem is more complicated, and requires that we frame the problem within the bounds of the human time-horizon (as discussed in A Theory of Power, Chapter 4). If the people can be convinced of the unsustainability of our current system, and that the impact of this unsustainability will lead to crisis within a time frame that matters to humans, then people will take action. There is a long record of humanity electing to sacrifice now for a better future, whether it is for the protection of our children, for a promised eternity in heaven, or just for the feeling of winning a grueling race. But in order for people to elect a present sacrifice, the problem must be suitably framed within our ontogeny.

Some recommendations for removing subsidies to hierarchy, implementable once the problem has been framed within the necessary time-horizon:

1. Central banks should have 0% inflation targets. Better yet, we should do away with central banks and have only commodity-backed currencies, because central banks, almost by definition, create inflation and debt. Otherwise we are institutionalizing a demand for perpetual growth. This alone will ripple powerfully through the financial markets, affecting everything from government borrowing to interest rates.

2. Take a suggestion from Austrian Economics and impose cost at the point of creation. This is the single most flagrant point of subsidy to hierarchy in modern economies. Want to buy some gas? Well, it now costs $5/gallon because we included the $300 billion a year the DoD spend to protect supply lines. Still want to buy gas? Now it costs $10/gallon because we also assess all future pollution-related costs at the pump (and put the money in a trust to improve and repair that damage). If you're really still in line at the pump, then the price is now up to $15/gallon because the costs of road construction, maintenance, and policing are now included (rather than being subsidized by payments out of income taxes). At $15/gallon--i.e. without a subsidy to driving--suddenly localization, condensed zoning, mass transportation, etc. would all be viable in the marketplace. That's a key point, because it's an uphill battle to convince people to spend more "because it's the right thing to do." But without the pervasive subsidies to wasteful, hierarchal systems, it would make the most market sense to adopt localized, sustainable solutions--and that is exactly the point that we must reach if we are to turn this ship around.

Is any of this actually realistic, or is it just pie-in-the-sky dreaming? Well, it certainly threatens many (most?) vested interests in our society. However, if the public is actually armed with this information, with an understanding of how our system works and why it will soon fail, then people may actually demand change. That part--awakening the masses--is certainly a challenge, but history has shown over and over that it can be done. As V so aptly pointed out, people shouldn't be afraid of their governments, governments should be afraid of their people...


RyanLuke said...

I just finished reading your book - awesome. I'll be following you blog for sure. I have some differing but complementary ideas I'll try to outline in some future comments.

For now, in regards to your economic ideas, I've written a paper called "The Organic Economy" that may help in envisioning and empowering a rhizome-type economy. Here's the link.
I'de love to hear what you think.

Berkeley said...

Hierarchy can be accomodated with balance when there are lots of little hierarchies rising and falling all the time. That's how a forest stays stable yet continually "grows". I think the ancient, pre-oil world was hierarchical in this way - lots of empires always rising but also falling. Babylon replaces Assyria and so forth. Capitalism understood for many years that growth in one locality/market was always balanced by collapse somewhere else. The real political illogicality has been since the end of the Cold War when hierarchy became global and somehow believes and teaches the electorate that we can grow everywhere all the time. Obviously this is only possible by the temporary consumption of resources that are running out.

Peter said...


All this talk of what the hierarchies and powers-that-be should do on behalf of promoting rhizome is rather unrealistic. As the old saying goes, "power is never given; it's taken."

I would therefore like to see more discussion on how rhizome networks can take power rather than merely coming up with wishlists of the things we want from hierarchy for XMAS.

P.S. I've been waiting impatiently for you to write more on rhizome networks. I read your book late last summer and want to ask of you have expanded it since then? Is it time to download a fresh copy?

Jeff Vail said...


I think that if people demand such modifications to hierarchy as a condition of their further participation, then that is in effect people taking power, not waiting for it to be given to them. But, to keep it at a "G" rating, that first requires the people to stop being afraid of the government and to make the government start being afraid of them--and we're a long ways from that point. Apathy reigns, and I don't see that changing any time soon, probalby not until it's well too late.

On the rhizome-theory note, I would certainly like to be writing more on the theoretical side, perhaps even a full-scale update or sequel to "A Theory of Power." Unfortunately, I've been so busy and absorbed by more current-event focused issues (off to D.C. this week to brief FERC, for example), that I've simply run out of time. I do plan to re-focus as possible--and I will certainly be able to this summer--but for now I'm sorry, as I really do wish that I could be providing content of a different focus. That said, I don't want to spew out content just for its own sake--my goal is that when I post something, it is original, innovative, and worth people's time to read. I don't always reach that, but I hope to.

Just for fun, though, along the lines of "taking power" and "making your own rhizome," here's a bit of scary development as noted by John Robb:

"Security will become a function of where you live and whom you work for, much as health care is allocated already. Wealthy individuals and multinational corporations will be the first to bail out of our collective system, opting instead to hire private military companies, such as Blackwater and Triple Canopy, to protect their homes and facilities and establish a protective perimeter around daily life. Parallel transportation networks--evolving out of the time-share aircraft companies such as Warren Buffett's NetJets--will cater to this group, leapfrogging its members from one secure, well-appointed lily pad to the next."

That certainly scares me, especially because I agree with the analysis. Perhaps also worth the mention as it seems like an example of rhizome--admittedly predicated on a hierarchal support base--that is by no means a desireable outcome for those of use excluded...

Joshua said...

"that is by no means a desirable outcome for those of use excluded... "

Maybe I'm naive, but I'm not convinced of the undesirability of that outcome. Having the wealthy barricade themselves into their gated communities might open up a lot of autonomous space in which rhizome structures could flourish.

People living outside the areas protected by hired security would obviously have to come up with a different "solution" to the security problem. Perhaps it would provide a chance to demonstrate that there is an alternative to hierarchy that isn't Hobbesian savagery.

sventastic said...

Hi gang.
I'll throw in my 2 cents in on the ole hierarchy/rhizome bit.
First off, let's clarify what we mean by hierarchy. If we mean "natural order" or "systemic structure," as is ecosystems or the order of the planets in the solar system for example, then that is different from the social institutions we humans impose on ourselves and our planet.
I would venture to say that such human-devised and implemented systems are not actually real per se; they are more like behavioral conditioning and reinforced conceptual frameworks than substantial entities (mass, agreed-upon delusion, perhaps?).

Rhizome, from my understanding of it, is a bit different. Although it is also an interchange of ideas and imagination, I would say that it is closer to how things actually are, rather than the square pegs we generally spend our lives trying to drive into round holes (IRS tax form 1040 being a timely and juicy piece of evidence).
To me, the differences between (human conceptually imposed) hierarchy and (organic) rhizome are both ontological and epistemological; they are different modes of being, and they entail different ways of viewing the world.
Hierarchy is based on exploitation and dominance (relative and conceptual fabrications attemptedly projected on a beautifully impermanent and interdependent world), while rhizome is mere manifestation of how things are, in tune (at least moreso) with how things actually abide.
Just some thoughts for ye.
All the best.

RyanLuke said...


Are all human conceived and organized hierarchies not real, not part of the natural order? Or is it possible that we could create hierarchies that are actually aligned with the natural order of things? Natural hierarchy, if you will.

MUST all hierarchy be based on exploitation and dominance? Can hierarchy not exist harmoniously within a beautifully impermanent and interdependent world? Could not hierarchy conceivable be as much a mere manifestation of how things are, in tune... with how things actually abide as is rhizome? Could hierarchy actually be used to empower and uplift people rather than dominate them?

I've worked in many situations in which hierarchy is an absolutely essential organizational structure. For example, when fighting a wildfire, one needs to know who is in charge, one needs a chain of commmand. When lives are in danger and decisions need to be made quickly and implimented by the entire group, rhizome is simply not as strong as hierarchy. I would argue that hierarchy is the natural order of things in situations such as these.

Yet, perhaps this is only the case in an operational sense? I think that the idea of rising and falling hierarchies is a good one to keep in mind. Could a rhizome environment provide the mechanisms for empowering and disempowering hierarchies as they are needed?

sventastic said...

It's a pleasure to see a fellow Shamhbalian in the blogosphere.
Natural Hierarchy:
Yes, yes!
Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche


definitely had it right, as you point out in your post.
The qualifier "natural" is the deal-breaker in this case.
I would posit that hierarchy, as it stands alone, is a social convention that is ultimately not viable. I mean this in terms of investment, either emotionally or otherwise. It may be considered, in Shambhalian terms, the paradigm of the Setting Sun.
I would also posit that it is within the sphere of rhizome that natural hierarchy abides. One must first be one year old, and then two, before becomming three years old. Or when climbing a staircase one must traverse the first step, and then the second, and so forth.
In fire-fighting, the one with the most experience and ability is naturally the one who should organize the others, who might not have the same skills or perspective. The technical details of how this plays itself out is the difficult part. The human ego is a tricky beastie, and will take any opportunity to assert itself (dominance/exploitation) over others...hence hierarchy.
Thus, I would say hierarchy is the domain of ego, whereas rhizome seems more in tune with at least the attempt to manifest enlightened society.
Ki ki so so

RyanLuke said...

This is a pleasant suprise!
I agree that the devil is in the details. How is hierarchy empowered? And just as crucially, disempowered if and when it is necessary?

I think that perhaps there is no theoretical answer to those questions. Or maybe that searching for the ansers is the wrong strategy. Maybe we just have to DO IT, and then figure out the theory from what we experience, what works and what doesn't.

Jeff Vail said...

Sventastic & Ryanluke-

Good to hear you perspective on these things--I've been too busy for words lately, but this discussion reminds me of a book I have to read, and a copy of "Island" that needs to be placed in the mail...

As far as hierarchy existing in the natural order of things--absolutely! I think that the key again is balance, especially lasting institutions that ensure balance. For example, we need societal mechanisms that provide negative feedback when hierarchy grows out of balance, unlike the positive feedback provided by the American version of capitalism in general. So when a forest fire requires strong command and leadership, it materializes, but then vanishes as soon as its true need disappears. Impermanence, here, seems like a slipery slope, however, because the culture of the crisis is a favorite means of calcifying power around yourself. Take the cultivation of fear of "terrorism" for example.

My thinking on how this balance can be institutionalized is through the creation of a rhizome foundation from which hierarchy can dynamically appear as necessary only to fade away as quickly as it came. When we existin in rhizome--that is, when we are really all independent and self-sufficient--there is nothing preventing us from temporarily accepting a hierarchal structure toward a temporal goal. However, as soon as that need dissolves, our well-rooted independence and self-sufficiency prevents us from being trapped in the calcification of hierarchy. The danger lurks when, in the process of accepting hierarchy to achieve an end, we also sacrifice our self-sufficiency. When we need our leaders we are lost. When we accept the leadership of another whom would just as well accept us as their leader because of a shared goal, then we are safe.

fdg said...

fdg said...

I like your blog. Thank you. They are really great . Ermunterung ++ .
Some new style Puma Speed is in fashion this year.
chaussure puma is Puma shoes in french . Many Franzose like seach “chaussure sport” by the internet when they need buy the Puma Shoes Or nike max shoes. The information age is really convenient .

By the way ,the nike max ltd is really good NIKE air shoes ,don’t forget buy the puma mens shoes and nike air max ltd by the internet when you need them . Do you know Nike Air Shoes is a best Air Shoes . another kinds of Nike shoes is better . For example , Nike Air Rift is good and Cheap Nike Shoes .the nike shox shoes is fitting to running.

Spring is coming, Do you think this season is not for Ugg Boots? maybe yes .but this season is best time that can buy the cheap ugg boots. Many sellers are selling discounted. Do not miss . Please view my fc2 blog and hair straighteners blog.
.thank you .

I like orange converse shoes ,I like to buy the cheap converse shoes by the internet shop . the puma shoes and the adidas shoes (or addidas shoes) are more on internet shop .i can buy the cheap nike shoes and cheap puma shoes online. It’s really convenient.
Many persons more like Puma basket shoes than nike air rift shoes . the Puma Cat shoes is a kind of Cheap Puma Shoes .
If you want to buy the Cheap Nike Air shoes ,you can buy them online. They are same as the Nike Air shoes authorized shop. Very high-caliber Air shoes and puma cat shoes . the cheap puma shoes as same as other.

polo shirts

ralph lauren polo shirts
chaussure puma

chaussure sport

chaussures puma

puma CAT

ed hardy clothing

ed hardy clothes

ed hardy womens

ed hardy sunglasses