This third essay in a five-part series, The Problem of Growth, looks at the theoretical requirements for a sustainable alternative to hierarchy. In the first two installments (1 2), I argued that competition between hierarchal entities selects for those entities that most efficiently grow and intensify, resulting in a requirement for perpetual growth, and that ongoing human dependency on participation in this system is the lifeblood of this process. At the most basic level, then, an alternative to hierarchy and a solution to the problem of growth must address this issue of dependency. My proposed alternative—what I call “rhizome”—begins at exactly this point.
Achieving Minimal Self-Sufficiency
The first principle of rhizome is that individual nodes—whether that is family units or communities of varying sizes—must be minimally self-sufficient. “Minimally self-sufficient” means the ability to consistently and reliably provide for anything so important that you would be willing to subject yourself to the terms of the hierarchal system in order to get it: food, shelter, heat, medical care, entertainment, etc. It doesn’t mean zero trade, asceticism, or “isolationism,” but rather the ability to engage in trade and interaction with the broader system when, and only when, it is advantageous to do so. The corollary here is that a minimally self-sufficient system should also produce some surplus that can be exchanged—but only to the extent that is found to be advantageous. A minimally self sufficient family may produce enough of its own food to get by if need be, its own heat and shelter, and enough of some surplus—let’s say olive oil—to exchange for additional, quality-of-life-enhancing consumables as it finds advantageous. This principle of minimal self-sufficiency empowers the individual family or community, while allowing the continuation of trade, value-added exchange, and full interaction with the outside world.
It should be immediately apparent that "dependency" is the result of one's definition of "need." Total self-sufficiency in the eyes of a Zimbabwean peasant, even outright luxury, may fall far short of what the average American perceives as "needing" to survive. As a result, an "objectively" self-sufficient American may sell himself into hierarchy to acquire what is perceived as a "need." To this end, what I have called "elegant simplicity" is a critical component of the creation of "minimal self-sufficiency." This is the notion that through conscious design we can meet and exceed our "objective" needs (I define these as largely experiential, not material, and set by our genetic ontogeny, not the global consumer-marketing system) at a level of material consumption that can realistically be provided for on a self-sufficient basis. I've written about this topic on several previous occasions (1 2 3 4 5).
Leveraging “Small-Worlds” Networks
How should rhizome nodes interact? Most modern information processing is handled by large, hierarchal systems that, while capable of digesting and processing huge amounts of information, incur great inefficiencies in the process. The basic theoretical model for rhizome communication is the fair or festival. This model can be repeated locally and frequently—in the form of dinner parties, barbecues, and reading groups—and can also affect the establishment and continuation of critical weak, dynamic connections in the form of seasonal fairs, holiday festivals, etc. This is known as the “small-worlds” theory of network. It tells us that, while many very close connections may be powerful, the key to flat-topography (i.e. non-hierarchal) communications is a broad and diverse network of distant but weak connections. For example, if you know all of your neighbors well, you will be relatively isolated in the context of information awareness. However, if you also have weak contact with a student in
In high-tech terms, the blogosphere is exactly such a network. While many blogs may focus primarily on cat pictures, there is tremendous potential to use this network as a distributed and non-hierarchal problem solving, information collection, and processing system. In a low-tech, or vastly lower energy world, the periodic fair or festival performs the same function.
Building Rhizome Institutions
The final aspect of the theory of rhizome is the need to create rhizome-creating and rhizome-strengthening institutions. One of these is the ability of rhizome to defend itself. Developments in fourth generation warfare suggest that, now more than ever, it is realistic for a small group or network to effectively challenge the military forces of hierarchy. However, it is not my intent here to delve into the a plan for rhizome military defense—I have explored that topic elsewhere, and strongly recommend John Robb’s blog and book “Brave New War” for more on this topic.
One institution that I do wish to explore here is the notion of anthropological self-awareness. It is important that the every participant node in rhizome has an understanding of the theoretical foundation of rhizome, and of the general workings of anthropological systems in general. Without this knowledge, it is very likely that participants will fail to realize the pitfalls of dependency, resulting in a quick slide back to hierarchy. I like to analogize anthropological self-awareness to the characters in the movie “Scream,” who were aware of the cliché rules that govern horror movies while actually being in a horror movie. When individual participants understand the rationale behind concepts like minimal self-sufficiency and “small-worlds” network theory, they are far more likely to succeed in consistently turning theory into practice.
Additionally, it is important to recognize the cultural programming that hierarchal systems provide, and to consciously reject and replace parts of this with a myth, taboo, and morality that supports rhizome and discourages hierarchy. Rules are inherently hierarchal—they must be enforced by a superior power, and are not appropriate for governing rhizome. However, normative standards—social norms, taboos, and values—are effective means of coordinating rhizome without resorting to hierarchy. For example, within the context of anthropological self-awareness, it would be considered “wrong” or “taboo” to have slaves, to be a lord of the manor, or to “own” more property than you can reasonably put to sustainable use. This wouldn’t be encoded in a set of laws and enforced by a ruling police power, but rather exist as the normative standard, compliance with which is the prerequisite for full participation in the network.
Finally, institutions should be devolutionary rather than accrete hierarchy. One example of this is the Jubilee system—rather than allow debt or excess property beyond what an individual can use, accumulate, and pass on to following generations--a system that inevitably leads to class divisions and a de facto aristocracy--some ancient cultures would periodically absolve all debt and start fresh, or redistribute land in a one-family-one-farm manner. These specific examples may not apply well to varying circumstances, but the general principles applies: cultural institutions should reinforce decentralization, independence, and rhizome, rather than centralization, dependency, and hierarchy.
Is This Setting the Bar Too High for All?
I’ll be the first to admit that this is a tall order. While the current system—massive, interconnected, and nested hierarchies and exchange systems—is anything but simple, its success is not dependent on every participant comprehending how the system works. While rhizome doesn’t require completely omniscient knowledge by all participants, the danger of hierarchy lurks in excessive specialization in the knowledge and rationale supporting rhizome—dependency on a select few to comprehend and operate the system is just that: dependency. Is it realistic to expect people to, en masse, understand, adopt, and consistently implement these principles? Yes.
I have no delusions that this is some perfect system that can be spread by airdropped pamphlet and then, one night, a switch is flipped and “rhizome” is the order of the day. Rather, I see this as the conceptual framework for the gradual, incremental, and distributed integration of these ideas into the customized plans of individuals and communities preparing for the future. I have suggested in the past that rhizome should operate on what Antonio Negri has called the “diagonal”-- that is, in parallel but out of phase with the existing, hierarchal system. There may also be lessons to be incorporated from Hakim Bey’s notions of the Temporary Autonomous Zone and the Permanent Autonomous Zone—that flying under the radar of hierarchy may be a necessary expedient. Ultimately, this will likely never be a system that is fully adopted by society as a whole—I tend to envision this as analogous, in some ways, to the network of monasteries that retained classical knowledge through the dark in Western Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire. In a low-energy future, it may be enough to have a small rhizome network operating in parallel to, but separated from, the remnants of modern civilization. Whether we experience a fast crash, a slow collapse, the rise of a neo-feudal/neo-fascist system, or something else, an extant rhizome network may act as a check on the ability of that system to exploit and marginalize the individual. If rhizome is too successful, too threatening to that system it may be imperiled, but if it is a “competitor” in the sense that it sets a floor and for how much hierarchal systems can abuse humanity, if it provides a viable alternative model, that may be enough to check hierarchy and achieve sustainability and human fulfillment. And, if this is all no more than wishful thinking, it may provide a refuge while
The final two installments in this series will address concrete and practicable steps that individuals and communities can take to erase dependencies and adapt a rhizome structure.
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