Monday, March 23, 2009

Neo-Chiefdoms or Big-Men Networks?

I recently discussed the potential for collapse of the Mexican Nation-State, and I’ve previously written about my view that the Nation-State system in general is fading. What will replace it? In general, I reject Philip Bobbitt’s hypothesis in “Shield of Achilles” that the Nation-State system will be replaced wholesale with a “Market-State” system. To be fair, however, he isn’t necessarily advocating that Nation-States will be replaced by Market-States in the way we flip a light switch. Rather, he is arguing that, for all the reasons the nation is no longer a viable constitutional basis for state power, the market may represent an alternative toward which states may--and some are already--transition toward. While I presented a more detailed critique of Bobbitt’s theory in my essay The New Map, recent turmoil in the markets, the rising violence in Mexico, and countless other events around the world suggest that the state--regardless of its constitutional basis--is slipping from its dominant role. I have little doubt that some vestige of the state will remain for the foreseeable future. However, in terms of geography, penetration, and time, the reach and control of the state will increasingly be limited. It will present voids in these various dimensions that will be filled by other power structures. And that’s the topic I plan to address in this post: what will fill the vacuum of state power?

In anthropology, the traditional progression of social order, from lower to higher complexity, is as follows: tribe, big-man group, chiefdom, proto-state, and state. While the lines between these designations are necessarily blurry, there is also a general increase in centralization and hierarchy as one moves from the less complex to the more complex. Do these anthropology terms provide any insight into the social organization of Nation-States post collapse, or of Nation-States that have transitioned to Market-States and abandoned the notion of a social contract? Perhaps--here are two contemporary examples:

In Mexico, the effective penetration of the state is rapidly retreating, and has been effectively replaced--at least in some areas, times, and roles--by the drug cartels. While consistently referred to as “drug-cartels” in the domestic and foreign press, that term doesn’t seem to do justice to their political platforms or business models any more than it suffices to call Goldman Sachs a “bank.” More accurately, these drug cartels could be described as diagonal chiefdoms. In the anthropological lexicon, “chiefdom” means an intermediately complex form of social organization that 1) exhibits ranked social order, but 2) does not control or extend institutionally into all aspects of social organization. The cartels are certainly ranked (making them more “complex” in the standard lexicon, than big-man groups), and they also exhibit a limited institutional reach (falling short of proto-state by largely ignoring any commitment to a social contract and delegating religion and spirituality to a non-integrated catholic church).

Conversely, I think the internet--specifically the “blogosphere” (a terrible term, but there you have it)--stands as an example of a “big-man group.” More precisely, it is a network of big-man groups that already occupy a diagonal beyond the exclusive control of the state. Big-man group is another anthropological term that requires defining: a non-hierarchal social structure structured by the influence of “big men” actors (of either sex, or even potentially corporate form) who gain their influence through success in a relevant endeavor--growing tubers in Melanesia, popularity in High School social systems, or visitor counts and links in the blogosphere, for example.

Why does it matter what organizational structure back-fills the retreating state? Consider these alternate structures in light of Hakim Bey’s concept of the “TAZ” (actually, his essays on periodic autonomous zone, permanent autonomous zone, or no-go zone may be more appropriate here) and Hardt & Negri’s “Diagonal”: these neo-chiefdoms and neo-big-men-groups are not exclusive in Cartesian space, but rather coexist--with the Market-State, and with each other. Within the Nation-State context this is often phrased “civil society,” but in a post-Nation-State world it will be much different. These Chiefdoms and Big-Men Groups will go beyond modern civil society and fill the vacuum of part of the role of the state--specifically, rather than a single state claiming a monopoly on the use of violence within a Cartesian space, multiple organizations, actors, and networks will claim some source of legitimacy in the use of violence.

Minimizing the oppressive use of violence is far more than a mere nicety--the difference between the minimally complex hierarchal structure (chiefdom) and the minimally complex non-hierarchal structure (big-men network) may be the difference between success or failure (especially from a median quality of life standpoint) in a post-Nation-State, post-Peak Oil civilization. Without the energy surpluses required to fuel a broad-based consumer society, and the related ability to impose a global “South” as a productive base, local feudal chiefdoms do not hold much promise for the median, especially after enough of the local surplus has been siphoned off to maintain the trappings befitting chiefly rank. Just ask the median Mexican in Sinaloa or Tijuana how well that system is working for them. Conversely, the overlapping big-men network represents the application of the blogosphere model to the primary economy. I’ve discussed the benefits of this type of model elsewhere--resiliency through decentralization, parallel innovation/information processing, the elimination of the information processing burden of a centralized hierarchy, the elimination of the need for political surplus that can no longer be sustained in a post-peak environment, etc.

Certainly any power vacuum left by a retreating state will be filled by some combination of both hierarchal and networked organizations. The lesson here--as undeveloped as my thinking out loud may be--seems to be that we must take the initiative to ensure that this vacuum is not filled by an inferior, hierarchal solution along the lines of a neo-chiefdom


Eadwacer said...

So, are we talking about a Snow Crash scenario here, with rump governments existing as one more player, amongst an array of business providers of government services (Fairlanes Highways, Inc) and quasi-gang franchises of business services (Cosa Nostra Pizza)?

bryant said...

Cosa Nostra that the one with Jimmy Hoffa italian sausage?

I am wondering what these networks will look like at the municipal level? Do you think cities of under 500,000 will be unitary or fragmented?

Jeff Vail said...

Haven't seen "Snow Crash," so I can't comment there...

I don't think that cities of 500,000 (or of any size, really) will be either unitary or fragmented. Rather, if you accept that there are already multiple, competing, and overlapping power groups at play within a city (the police, the businesses, the civic groups, the regligious congregation, the ethnic/cultural networks, etc.), then I think what we'll see is an extension of this phenomena. Rather than unitary or fragmented, we'll see an increasingly overlapping, many-layered, and blurry network of social, political, and police (in the sense of a claim to the legitimate use of violence) power. We'll see the "official" monopoly on the use of violence (police) withdraw into more periodic times, more restricted spaces, and less effective penetration. Similarly, we'll see a withdrawal amongst traditional businesses and communities from thinking that the legal system (the administrative arm of the state's unitary police poswer) is their sole recourse when it comes to property rights, contract rights, and tort. Each network--whether its the local church network, the local grocery supplier network, the local hispanic community, the local carpenters/contractors association, etc. will have to develop alternatives sets of norms, means of enforcement, etc. It's difficult to conceptualize since it's so foreign to our conventional concept of a single sovereign with everything else being "crimina," but when the state withdraws, existing alternative social structures will strengthen, new alternative social structure will emerge, and all will expand the scope of their operations...

Theo_musher said...

To me its easier to imagine the Market State. I'm sure you've driven through Colorado Springs. It appears to be a 100 square mile strip mall with cookie cutter urban sprawl. Super Walmart, Target, Best Buy, Panera bread Starbucks, Walmart, Best Buy, starbucks, Dick's, Barnes and Noble, Starbucks....and on and on. These few corporations dominate the area.

Literally, you feel their presence, they create the environment, everything seems to be organized around them. In California its the same way but there are more kids in urban gangs tagging all the bathrooms.

People apparently want all their needs met by a few large corporations and for these corporations to dominate the landscape. So for these corporations to band together and hire private security with more and more reach, and to maybe, say...get into the worker housing me it looks pretty close to being the market state, especially when many of these corporations have quasi democratic sounding aspects to their organization designed to keep workers happy. Like walmart associates.

Then there are places like Dubia, which is a monarchy, that seems to be a successful model, that cities might copy more and more which would make them more like a market state from the way they would come at copying Dubai. There not being American monarchies, the big corporations would play the role of it.

Theo_musher said...

Well it looks like Dubai is Having problems too

Their booming economy was all speculation based on being a hub for developing Africa.

But still though, I'm optimistic about it. Before the down turn they were really committed to being Green and all the leading green architecture is there being built. A lot of it on hold now, though.

You can say that the fact that the booming economy of Dubai is contracting is a sign of a "permanently contracting global economy"

but IMO, the future of economic growth is in the development of the third world, and I believe it will be green development. "world changing" type innovation and it will be a an arms race between China and the West.

Dubai is still well positioned for that. The economy is a collective intelligence not just an inventory of world resources that you can weigh on a scale such as oil reserves. Intelligence doesn't weigh anything and I don't see how it will permanently contract over time.

Mark said...

Something about the term "Big Man network" grates on my nerves. Either the implicit acceptance of disenfranchising half the world's population, or some personal hang-up of mine. Please ignore if you think it's the latter.

"Rather than unitary or fragmented, we'll see an increasingly overlapping, many-layered, and blurry network of social, political, and police (in the sense of a claim to the legitimate use of violence) power."I observe that this is the way some things are starting to get done in my suburb of Sheffield, a city in the north of England. Local government is unimaginitive and constrained. Large businesses help to address only a narrow set of local problems. But local community networks are "just doing stuff". Their strength is not economic, but rooted in their time, skills and friends. It's not a democracy you vote in particularly--instead you shape it by acting.

It requires a view of authority as something which has fluid properties--authority as an enabling resource. If you're in a group of people, and you demonstrate expertise in a particular area, authority flows to you so you can help get something done. When another situation arises, authority may flow somewhere else, so that different skills and attributes can be brought to bear.

Theo_musher said...

It's an anthropology term. Not necessarily an endorsement of patriarchy or male chauvinism. Jeff uses the term in his other essays

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