Monday, February 25, 2008

Building an Alternative to Hierarchy: Rhizome Theory

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 India, a farmer across the country, and your cousin in London, you will have access to the very different set of information immediately available to those people. These weak connections greatly expands information awareness, and leverages a much more powerful information processing network—while none of your neighbors may have experienced a specific event or solved a particular problem before, there is a much greater chance that someone in your diverse and distant “weak network” has.

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 Rome burns.

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.

Suggested Further Reading: I've written several other essays on a rhizome structure for humanity: Envisioning a Hamlet Economy, Rhizome & Central Place Theory, Rhizome Communications, and Creating Resiliency & Stability in Horticulture.

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Dan Bartlett said...

Thanks for my first introduction to the "small-worlds" theory of network. It rings a bell, but I haven't looked into it before--any further reading on this? I've been writing similar things in my book draft but I hadn't come across that term before. I find that humans and our systems can be measured by similar standards of intelligence, all based in feedback.

A person with a dogmatic reality-tunnel lacks the feedback with important information, because he cannot absorb, let alone process and communicate new information. This creates rigidity in the individual, the inability to adapt. The same applies to our systems of living; if our structures cannot process enough feedback (ecological, and maybe even spiritual) then they become disconnected from the world, eventually leading to collapse. As R.A.W. pointed out, and cybernetics in general agrees, hierarchy has a fatal flaw in this area. Source:

"A civilization based on authority-and-submission is a civilization without the means of self-correction. Effective communication flows only one way: from master-group to servile-group. Any cyberneticist knows that such a one-way communication channel lacks feedback and cannot behave "intelligently.""

Everytime I update my reality-tunnel, the SNAFU principle seems more and more important!

I love the model of festivals as an example of rhizomatic organisation, and I definately think it's vital NOW and in the future to build as many connections as we can with people who will support us in times of need.

You said: "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."

How do you suggest this begins? I see it beginning as family norms, expanding into stories that we can pass on to growing children. All this reminds of Huxley's Island, and Pala's beautiful stories and education that each child was taught. It frustrates me that most authors aren't paying much attention to the stories we'll be passing on to our children, nor drawing attention to the problems inherent in "conventional" treatment of children.

John said...

Hi Jeff,

I found very interesting your toughts about power-driven relationships and hierarchies in general.

Nevertheless, even when I have read in your "Theory of power" your comments about the ego, the idea of a "self", as a meme, or even as the imposition of the memes on us, you do not seem to stress this internal poser-driven relationship (ours with our egos) as the root ad principle of all hierarchy. The moment we think there is an ego 'controlling', 'thinking', 'experiencing' and so on, a hierarchy has been born. probably, once we are so ucostumed to thinking in egotic terms, the born of a external hierarchy as an extension of the internal one, is just a question of time.

If you look at our society, it is not more than a structure to satisfy the growth necessities of the ego.

Thanks again for your posts,

Jeff Vail said...


For more on the "Small-Worlds" theory, see "Nexus: Small Worlds and the Groundbreaking Theory of Networks" by Mark Buchanan.

I think that this is still very much a developing area of theory. I don't have enough of an understanding of IT and the theory behind the internet, IP protocols, etc., I have a hunch that there would be some good extensions of this theory there.

I agree that RAW seems to afford endless inspiration--each time I read Prometheus Rising or Quantum Psychology it starts me on new and interesting thought chains. I don't agree with everything he said (I've voiced my concerns with his veneration of technology as a solution before), but I think his ability at critical thinking is amazing, and I love how he is willing to look to the "unconventional" (to put it mildly) for inspiration in his thinking.

I think that Huxley's Pala was his attempt to answer a question that he posed to himself--how would a world that embodied the "Perennial Philosophy" in its structure, not just its religion, actually operate and perpetuate? I think his ideas on story, myth, and society are brilliant--and are a key to how we should begin this transition--but (based on the ending of the book), he seems to concede defeat to the problem of physical power. I don't know if this is a result of popular perception at the time--I wasn't around, but it's my impression that, despite the existence of some very real guerrilla warfare successes, and the use of techniques that would today be called 4th Generation Warfare, this notion of individualized superempowerment wasn't popularized until the US began to face it in Vietnam. I think that the notion of minimal self-sufficiency is the key to resolving the tension between the pacifism Huxley saw as critical to the success of Pala and the need to use violence if it decided to defend itself--that is, the capacity to use violence to defend a community doesn't seem to me to be contradictory to the peaceful and egalitarian internal operation of that community provided that it is composed of minimally self-sufficient nodes. Still, this seems like a key problem to me.

Jeff Vail said...


I agree with your thoughts on ego, though I'm not sure this is an all-or-nothing proposition. Internally, ego represents hierarchy, and does seem to beget hierarchy externally to some degree. I'd love for everyone to address their own ego issues, perhaps through true internalization of some form of the perennial philosophy (Sufism would probably be my choice), but I don't think that's realistic. I'd be happy if I could even address my own ego issues (but then, isn't that desire itself the result of my ego?). I do think, however, that through recognition of our own ego problems (as opposed to what I see as the much less practicable goal of their complete resolution), we can consciously act to balance the impetus for those to result in hierarchy in our external actions.

I think that a focus on elegant simplicity is a start. Rather than try to do more, be better, etc., we could instead substitute the goal (for our egos to pursue) of being more elegantly simply, achieving better "quality" of life with less and less material consumption, seeing how little hierarchy we can support external to ourselves, etc.

I think that the notion of minimal self-sufficiency and peer-based (as opposed to power-based) interactions in our material worlds is very much the mirror of a practicable resolution of the demands of our own egos--learning to be content with simplicity, learning to accept our ego without prostrating before its demands, etc. I don't know if this represents a fundamentally inconsistency in this philosophy, but I'm proceeding as though it doesn't, because if our ability to become sustainable and non-hierarchal requires that all of humanity first resolve their own ego issues, we will surely fail...

chperret said...

I Jeff, long time reader but my poor foreign language English prevents me a to write. Let me try today, because I found an interesting article,1518,534811,00.html which made me write that comment:
> Because there is no communication sector (4th economic circle) without a service sector, because there is no service sector (3rd economic circle) without a manufacturing sector, because there is no manufacturing sector (2nd economic circle) without the first, primary and prior sector: raw material exploitation ; because of that evidence, economists are proud to discover that local industry is a strong guarantee for German economics development. Pray they will understand that the strongest one is self-sufficiency on prior goods: raw material, food, energy and housing. Subprime crisis is the proof that the 4th and 3rd economical circles surdevelopments occulted the absolute necessity of the codevelopment of the 2nd and 1st economical circles. More: growth begins with a seed (1st) and extends to 2nd, 3rd, 4th level ; there is a logical impossibility to grow the 3rd and 4th level without the 2nd and 1st - that was called postindustrial society - may I laugh ? I call that bullshit theory. Logics is first local self-sufficiency, then when reached, expend the economical layers and/or export, not the reversal ! As they are not saying it: 'act local, think global' (the reversal of the 'think global, act local' dogma)

Jeff Vail said...


Ich verstehe ihre probleme mit andere sprache--meistens Amerikaners kann keine andere sprache verstanden (inklusive mich, e je comprend ce le Suisse parle plus de Deutch, ma il mil Italiano non e buona!! I don't even know where to start in Romansch).

Enough with my futile attempts to demonstrate that I'm not part of the mono-lingual American crowd...

Honestly, I continually find it impressive that so many non-UK Europeans manage to comment on these topics, when I find it difficult enough to discuss them in my own native tongue. But on to your point:

I agree that we must focus on local self-sufficiency first, then on export. However, I think that there is still a depth of resiliency to the global economy that is often discounted. There is so much talk on the news of "recession," and in some collapse circles of "apocalypse," but I think we still have a long ways to go to get to that point, and that this may end up being the most dangerous thing of all. I don't want to downplay the issue--I think that the "export first" notion is fundamentally flawed, especially in light of energy issues, but I think that export-driven economies such as Germany could still have a good decade or so left to prosper under that model. This is one of my greatest concerns at the moment--that we will continue to be deluded by our ability to prosper under the current economic models until it really is too late to make the transition to an honest (e.g., "self-sufficiency first") model. I'm encouraged by some of what I've seen in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, such as a shift toward solar hot-water, photovoltaics, and wind, but I worry that this will only create a false sense that these economies can continue under the existing business models as long as they divert some of their profits into "green" industries. In my opinion, the longer we delude ourselves that we can succeed with business as usual with a green-tint, as opposed to changing our fundamental model of organization, the more difficult (or impossible) that eventual change will be.

Ultimately, a fundamental change in our mode of economic organization will be necessary (at least this is my theory). I can't locate a good example in history of a society that undertook such a change in a truly voluntary manner. That's why I think that this change must be undertaken on an individual level. I don't like to discount the potential for society to change dramatically and voluntary--it certainly seems theoretically possible--but I worry that it just isn't practicable to put our effort into getting whole societies to change. I like to think that if we change individually, society may eventually follow, but I equally don't know if that is realistic? Perhaps we just have to abandon "society" to pursue it's futile dreams of continued export riches in order to build a new society--composed of individuals--that are focused instead on the more honest notion of self-sufficiency?

Anonymous said...

you said.....Ultimately, a fundamental change in our mode of economic organization will be necessary (at least this is my theory).

read hermann scheers 'the solar economy'.

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