Monday, November 16, 2009

The Blurry (Non-Cartesian) Threat: Maj. Hasan and the Sensory System of the State

One of my favorite books is "Seeing like a State" by James C. Scott.  It chronicles the capabilities, limitations, and propensities of the sensory apparatus of the state.  This, alone, is a fascinating concept, but now it provides a fascinating window into the failure of the Nation-State system to understand what is really happening with a situation like the recent Fort Hood shootings by (allegedly) U.S. Army Major Nidal Hasan.

Our societal sensory system likes to categorize things--probably because it's an aggregation of human sensory systems that function similarly, and because it's an evolutionarily successful strategy (from a media capture standpoint, not human biological survival).  At present, US media is grappling with this question:  was Maj. Hasan a "terrorist," or just "psychotic"?  Of course, this is a false dichotomy, but the reasons why it is false, in my opinion, illuminate a fundamental failing of the Nation-State system that is growing increasingly problematic for its survival.

The media's categories of terrorist vs. psychotic is an attempt to divide an expansive continuum of actors into two neatly distinct sets that resonate with the over-simplified american understanding of global events post-9/11.  Not only is it inaccurate and misleading, but it also highlights fundamental structural weaknesses of our current system as outlined below.

While still a false dichotomy, I think a more useful categorization is to view individual actors' motivations as a mix of influence/control of an outside hierarchy and individual feats of self-organization based on freely dispersed influences (memes, though that term has met with mixed reception).  While the media seems intent on categorizing Hasan either as someone that was acting at the behest of a "radical yemeni cleric" or as someone who "snapped," my categories better capture that all actors represent some mix of self-motivated emergence and strict hierarchical control.

Understanding the continuum of individual actors as emergence of memetic influences:  philosophy, religion, economic circumstances, individual neurochemical feedback-loops.

The false dichotomy resistance--it's just action, and the Nation-State's insistence of framing the issue in terms of enemies and opposition fundamentally fails to understand the problem.

Rose-colored glasses: the security-state's understanding of the challenge posed by the "lone-wolf" threat, and the desire to categorize perceived threats to facilitate the illusion of control (e.g. that they aren't "lone-wolfs").  Because this emergence is not intentionally crafted as an opposition to the state, the state's efforts to fight an "enemy" fail to exert any leverage on the center of gravity of the problem.

Ultimately, the Nation-State lacks understanding and ability at what I've called "Guided Emergence."   Some may suggest that the Nation-State is, in fact, highly competent in this area but is simply hiding its ability to control the masses (i.e. UN black helicopters or Bilderbergers).  I reject this--the Nation-State is neither this monolithic nor this competent.  Instead, evidence suggests that the Nation-State's efforts to fight the symptoms of an emerging global threat are fundamentally misguided.  Of course, as I set forth in my thesis on the future of the Nation-State, the process of guided emergence is antithetical to the constitutional nature of the Nation-State itself, one reason why I see little future for that institution.  Quite the Catch-22.

This phenomenon can be see not only in the current media fixation on salafi jihadism, aka "Islamic Terrorism," but also environmental movements, nationalist movements, etc.  I've even toyed with facilitating the Nation-State's use of the concept of guided emergence in my former job as a counter-terrorism analyst focused on dams and water/electrical infrastructure.  There, I suggested that rather than follow the traditional "interdict/prosecute" model of domestic counter-terrorism, we would be better served by guiding followers of, say, Derrick Jensen, away from the idea that they can achieve their goals by destroying dams and toward the idea that they can best address the fundamental causes they seek to rectify by, for example, pursuing something akin to the Diagonal Economy.  Needless to say, this idea wasn't well received by the Nation-State apparatus.

Can the Nation-State guide emergence of the global threat away from its own centers of gravity?  Can improved public diplomacy solve the problem, or are the demands of the Western Nation-States (e.g. the maintenance of standard of living and relative temporal and geopolitical position via exploitation of the global commons and a global South) simply too antithetical to the concept of guided emergence?  Alternatively (and perhaps diabolically), will the western Nation-States exploit the gene/meme interface via political story-telling (e.g. Ayn Rand), nationalist religions (e.g. an updated take on National Socialism)?  Or will our consciousness itself bifurcate or metastasize in a fundamentally game-changing way as Julian Jaynes suggests happened several thousand years ago?

I'm only beginning to grapple with these issues, but I do feel confident that fluency with the politics/psychology, meme/gene interface will be the core competency in the future struggle between competing political structures (e.g. hierarchy vs. Rhizome, the Diagonal Economy vs. the Market-State).


Rice Farmer said...

Fascinating, and I would like to see you expand on this in future posts. Specifically, does your scenario include "chaos"?

In my view, holding together a nation-state or an empire requires a great deal of energy to maintain the required cohesive/unifying force. However, now at the beginning of the end of the oil age, nation-states are finding that energy is more expensive (and in some countries simply not available in the required quantities). Maintaining cohesion becomes more difficult, and small power vacuums come into being. This breeds chaos, especially when non-state actors take advantage of the vacuums. In the case of the US, the government is obliged to expend colossal amounts of energy on maintaining its far-flung empire (which is why the Pentagon is the world's biggest oil user), and that leaves less energy to use for maintaining cohesion of the "homeland" (their term, not mine!). So, the alleged shooter is, as you say, not a person who can be explained away simply as an "Islamo-fascist terrorist" or whatever, but rather a product of the various "memes" (to use your term) that are arising from the incipient chaos in the slowly disintegrating global supersystem.

So, I would like to see how chaos fits into this picture you're painting.

David Ronfeldt said...

hello -- i've enjoyed and appreciated your blog for some time now. apropos aspects of this post, it may interest you to take a look at two blogs where an analysis of hasan's 2007 briefing (by charles cameron) has been posted and is being discussed:

onward. -- david

ryan said...

really insightful and thought provoking take on the event and greater situation.

what makes a terrorist (or freedom fighter depending on the historical perspective) after all? some set of environmental conditions manipulate a persons emotional and cognitive faculties until they are forced to divert from the behavior of the group… sometimes they do so in reckless, suicidal outburst of violent angst… sometimes they stew and stew… until perhaps they figure a more subversive and effective means of revolt.

in both basic primate biology and complex human societal models there seems to be some recalcitrant trends in the process of revolution/revolt/”terrorism”: strong ape takes power, kills neighboring males and children, takes women (or other "resources") for his own... produces baby apes and attempts to maintain his power by dominating a stratified social group with all others below. This is the stable primate hierarchy – it continues relatively smoothly until some environmental conditions force a change.

Example: the group of apes satisfies their need water (oil) when the leader is thirsty (greedy to make a profit), not when the young upstart cries out for water (decentralized resources distributed within the group freely) from the back of the pack. the hierarchical system itself is retained by cultural selection as long as environmental circumstances do not push for change. evolution likes what works, not what's "best." but then sometimes the head ape leads the group in wrong direction - to a dry pond (or sometimes a limited resource – oh, let’s say like fossil fuels, runs low). the young rebellious ape protests again - see we should have gotten water (see, we shoulda switched to another distribution system!) when I was thirsty, then we would ALL be HAPPY and in PEACE. as the group grows more thirsty the head ape loses influence to the rebel. the formerly angst ridden rebel is now filled with a sense of power and purpose... he was RIGHT when everyone else followed the leader...

... the rebel now feels he deserves to be in power... to be the leader of the group... all that is left is to remove the leader and take control... the rebel appeals to the needs of the group just beyond earshot of the head ape (you're thirsty, right? i wanted the group to get water before? the head ape will lead you into suffering and death... into HELL..." the group grows scared and angry... the head ape frets for his power... what if the group gets angry and rises up? why that would be treason! that would be terrorism! only a lunatic/terrorist would fight back against the leader or his henchmen!

the conditions worsen and the group murmurs: the rebel is right - they can't possibly tolerate another dry pond...they're thirsty! none of the group have those bizarre instincts to lead or command, but this new upstart... he seems to be on to something... can't be worse than the crusty old moronic ape that can't even take his own kin to water!
revolution it is! apes take arms and smash away until the leader is ousted and the rebel takes command.

so what are the forces which drive someone to become a radical... a terrorist and how do we overcome them - that, after all would be the real and final solution, right-
to understand what forces are responsible for the patterns of hierarchy, rebellion, and revolution in the crazed apes? How does one radically alter the process of revolution to ensure that it does not result in a return to the same system?

i mean we can’t infinitely crank out tacky uniforms, fill them with automatons and give em little clubs, badges and acronyms, can we?

ryan said...

“There, I suggested that rather than follow the traditional "interdict/prosecute" model of domestic counter-terrorism, we would be better served by guiding followers of, say, Derrick Jensen, away from the idea that they can achieve their goals by destroying dams and toward the idea that they can best address the fundamental causes they seek to rectify by, for example, pursuing something akin to the Diagonal Economy. Needless to say, this idea wasn't well received by the Nation-State apparatus.”
There do seem to be more and more of those darned Jensen fans nowadays - have you seen his new movie clips from END:CIV – the first full length feature on bringing down industrial civilization? - interesting stuff. But are Jensen followers really the radicals at this point? Latest science suggests a 4 - 6 C degree warming is locked into the climate system if emissions continue at projected rates. That means loss of enough ice in Greenland, Antarctica, and thermal expansion of the sea to ensure destruction of every coastal population around the world. That’s something like 650 million people. And these aren’t all poor, voiceless people like the 300,000 to 500,000 who already die each year by climate change.

The anti-civ movement would be much more effective working on cultural change than running around blowing crap up. The forces of global change will be much more destructive to industry and infrastructure than just about anything that could be done with low order explosives… well, at least by the feeble hipster emo vegans which seem to make up most of the Jensen crowd now days.

i once spoke with a former US counter terrorism specialist who made the observation that the actions of radical environmentalists were generally "really stupid"... funny... i always thought the same about the actions of US military intel... perhaps that's why we're both in our respective positions, eh? ;)

“Or will our consciousness itself bifurcate or metastasize in a fundamentally game-changing way as Julian Jaynes suggests happened several thousand years ago?”

Regardless of whether or not this actually happens I find the prospect alone compelling and weird enough to pursue. History/evolution likes a good story, not necessarily one with just facts.

What if we assume the process which Jaynes suggests for the transition from bicameral to subjective consciousness has not changed – the drivers and process are fundamentally the same… the first of the group to shift in awareness are the most emotionally receptive – the poets and aoidoi – Sappho sings of “love” for the first time in history – I think it was 630 BC or so… a biological imperative manifests into culture – its catchy – the whole “love” thing between couples sticks and what was once a metaphrand has the potential to become a metaphier (see Jaynes – Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind – for definition/explanation). In other words, a concept formerly unknown/ambiguous in reflective consciousness becomes retained in culture long enough that it can be used as a “known” to future generations – EO Wilson hijacks Sappho’s “love” idea for nature with the term “biophilia.” People become aware of an innate love of nature and particular scenes (the lone tree in the open field, for example)… we know what love is of course, since that was made clear in the story much earlier… the metaphors extend and become both more analytically and emotively acute until perhaps the split between human minds caused by the shift into subjective consciousness is bridged and the humans know each others minds so closely that a new and profoundly different level of social order is possible… like non-hierarchical, sustainable communities…

look at the words of today's aoidoi
there seems to be some overlapping and interesting themes...

Makes for a pretty good story, eh?

Jeff Vail said...

Rice Farmer-

I think Chaos is certainly a force that Nation-States are working to contain and channel, and that they will be increasingly unable to do so as:

1. They are increasingly unable to maintain the Nation - State bargain with their constituent nation, and that nation will increasingly seek basic services, ideology, and a sense of awareness and identity in other, highly fragmented movements (this continuum of individuals).

2. Additionally, at the same time as Nation-States are increasingly unable to support themselves in the current environment, that environment will fundamentally change against them. The binary existence of Nation-States viewed in light of each other will increasingly become irrelevant. The emergence of what may well be an entirely new form of individual and mass psychology supported by massively parallel, P2P economic systems, ideologies, and affiliations will, I think, be something that the State simply can't adapt to without abandoning its own identity.

I think that process will take a long time (decades), with the Nation-State sill exerting an omnipresent though increasingly less relevant facade moving forward...