Sunday, January 11, 2009

"Eco-Nationalism," Identity Politics, and Sustainability

I recently had the interesting experience of discussing Rhizome with a self-professed "eco-fascist"--not someone, as you might at first think, who is interested in a strong central government to ensure that humans don't damage the environment, but rather someone trying to apply green wrapping paper to what is admittedly a "white nationalist" agenda.

As I explained as patiently as I could, combining white nationalism (or "majority rights" or "eurasianism," among other euphemisms these groups like to use) with "eco" or other trappings of an environmentally-friendly agenda is internally contradictory.  I decided not to embark on the futile task of convincing this man of the general error of his ways, but only to illustrate the fundamental incompatibility of ultra-nationalism and any claim to sustainability.

After more thought, however, I realized that this fundamental infirmity extends to more than just white nationalism, but to all identity politics are fundamentally unsustainable.  Look around--identity politics is deeply entrenched, indeed.

All identity politics presume hierarchy.  Without a hierarchal power structure, there is no ability to enforce the definition of "in-group" vs. "out-group" and the concomitant preferential treatment of the in-group.  It simply won't do, for example, for white nationalists to have the Italians, or heaven forbid the Jews, to presume that they qualify as "white"!  This same hierarchy that enforces the group definition, however, necessarily produces peer-polity competition between it and other such hierarchies (because the "out-groups" will form their own "in-groups" in response--creating competing hierarchies), and these groups must then grow and intensify to avoid being out-competed (or, in ultra-nationalist terms, "out-bred").  This is the Problem of Growth, and reveals as false any claim of sustainability by these identity groups.

So, if identity politics are necessarily unsustainable, does that relegate us all to a formless, tasteless, meaningless future?  Far from it!  The only incompatibility between those qualities and characteristics that make humanity vibrant and meaningful with sustainability is when people seek to use abstractions of of purportedly intrinsic characteristics and qualities to divide or exclude on the basis of differences.  Instead, networks are more efficient where they embrace these differences without seeking to impose uniformity (the multitude), leveraging the differences in perspective, understanding, and connections.  In some senses this may sound like standard multiculturalism, but it incorporates the important difference of the rejection of hierarchy either within this multitude or as a means to define this multitude.

Examples of the strength of such a multitude can already be seen today in the dominance in intellectual and cultural creativity of such diverse locations as London, New York, and San Francisco.  Of course, even these networks are hindered by their simultaneous integration of extreme hierarchy.  In fact, while the metropolis exhibits many of the strengths of the multitude (as highlighted by Hardt and Negri in their recent work Commonwealth), their fixedness to cartesian notions of space result in equally extreme dependencies (e.g. food, water, shelter, etc.) that create extremely hierarchal structures.  The information processing burden of these hierarchies significantly dampens the synergies of the multitude, and is precisely why I think that Rhizome, as a less geographically centralized alternative, can develop the scale-free self sufficiency to allow it to leverage the pure powers of such multiplicity through optimal network configurations without the burdens of hierarchy.

None of this will likely convince the white nationalists, whose heavily negative first (oral/survival) and second (anal/territorial) circuit imprints make them susceptible to ideas that let them think they are OK because others aren't (to put it in Robert Anton Wilson's terminology).  However, I think it is important for us to realize that this structural unsustainability extends well beyond such facially objectionable ideologies...

Readers may also find my litigation checklist of interest.

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13 comments:

Anonymous said...

This is a seriously elegant bit of insight. Well put!

Geoff said...

How does the in/out group concept and the issues it raises fit with conceptual differences as fundamental as, for example, the understanding of "sustainability" or lack thereof? Whilst not a difference of political ideology in the current scheme of things, it would seem to be the potential basis for a future rather drastic divide in the political and social landscape.

We don't see hierarchy there (yet) but there are certainly in and out groups that have the potential to form deeper divides than race or nationality has ever done if society continues on it's merry way.

Jeff Vail said...

Hi Geoff,

I think this is an important point to keep in mind--"Sustainable" could easily become an identity group (as many environmental causes already are). I think there is a fundamental difference because "sustainable" can (at least in theory) be empirically tested, though it remains fuzzy enough that there could be multiple competing groups on a "sustainability" platform. I think this kind of problem can be addressed through 1) awareness of this issue, and 2) willingness to accept a multitude of approaches to sustainability while maintaining a lively debate not over the one "best" solution but the set of criteria by which any solution's *degree* of sustainability can be evaluated (as, ultimately, everything is probably unsustainable, though not in relevant time frames).

I think this ethic of acceptance of a multitude of well-intentioned and reciprocally accepting approaches is key. A bit like the !Kung ethic of insulting the meat--it at least acts as a damper on the accretion of hierarchy...

Dan Treecraft said...

Jeff:

Perhaps I just haven't been keeping up - but how does the "Rhizome" model lend itself to handling the ongoing potential problem of over-population. Where is the control going to come from - in a world without racist in-groupings?

tim said...

Hmmm very interesting, lots to chew on, - however I think that you need to take into account differing scales of hierarchy. On one scale a hierarchy might control relations with the neighbouring tribe, who may be nearly indistinguishable to an outsider. In another, larger scale hierarchy, people might give in-group status to people of the same general phenotype who are only very distantly related. Still developing is the new corportate hierarchy, and you might say that the broad based corporate elites have their own non-racial identity politics. This hierarchy effect changes that are in their financial interest which cause drastic shocks for groups still accustomed to the older hierarchal systems. The corporate elite, who desire mass worldwide immigration are greatly distressing people with the older white hierarchy values. Of course the corporate hierarchy also similarly cause havoc on even older tribal hierarchies too. The Afghans resisted the white British hierarchy and are resisting the corporate hierarchy too, and they would doubtless resist any attempts to force a Rhizome on them too (tongue in cheek ;-) ) . In a corporate world everyone needs to keep their hand ready to reach for their identity politics!

The global white hierearchy has been supplanted by a corporate hierarchy. It's still largely white in complexion, but it doesn't really attach any particular importance to whiteness. There will likely never be a return of the old globe dominating white hierarchy. Demographics will never cooperate. Thus any such emergence would represent a splintering in the larger global hierarchy rather than some sort of klaxon call to other nations to make more babies, crank out guns and send conflicts into overdrive. If we're really all that crazy that we then there's really no hope for us anyways.



I certainly appreciated your description of the benefits of diversity, it was the strongest and clearest I've heard yet. I still believe multiculturalism is a very bad idea as it hinges on the spirit of "acceptance of a multitude of well-intentioned and reciprocally accepting approaches" which is a rather positive expectation for homo sapiens. Once the omelet is broken it's hard to put back together, so if some groups continue to stoke the identity politics on the downslope of Hubert's peak, then thoughts of the good old days in multicultural San Francisco/London/New Yort are going to be rather cold comfort.

I'm inclined to believe that enough diversity of perspective and thinking could be accomadated within a single nation without needing mass population movements that are so provokative. These policies threaten to change the ethnic balance of entire nations within a single living memory.
I know Josef Stalin was keen on
mass population transfers from here to there, one nation to another but somehow I don't think he was building a Rhizome.


I enjoyed your article greatly nonetheless, it really made me think and challenge some of my assumptions, which is always good for anybody. I think a serious question would be how much diversity does a Rhizome be optimal at and what are the dynamics of population movements within a stable rhizomatic system.

PS Also I question the whole oral/anal thing. Do people take Freud seriously anymore? I think psychology is an important part of politics, but I can just as easily
say you imprinted your first and second circuits too positively and so you see everyone as super awesome. ;-)

Scott Althoff said...

I don't see how lack of hierarchy is in consistent with in-group/out-group perceptions. Any group of associates, for instance a family, will develop in-group/out-group labels for people. It's an important part of building rapport among friends. I don't see eliminating hierarchy having an effect on this.

Stephen said...

He dose not think in group, out group concepts are compatible with sustainability but tribalism the only sustainable ideology so far has the strongest most exclusive in group, out group systems of all. Multiculturalism and other universalist ideologies are out growths out of the crowded mixed up metropolises of empires. By opposing nationalism Vail along with the misguided socialists is just driving people into the welcoming clutches of international finance and capitalism.

Jeff Vail said...

Dan,

Briefly, my theory is that growth is a structural feature of the peer-polity competition between hierarchal structures--get rid of that structure, and control growth. My proposed alternative (Rhizome or the Diagonal Economy) focuses on building scale-free self-sufficiency, and therefore there is no need for "control," but rather only communication between increasingly self-sufficient localities. Growth is an evolutionary adaptation to lack fo resiliency and self-reliance [ 1) grow to adapt to the inevitable crashes of non-resilient systems; 2) grow to better compete for resources over which you aren't self-sufficient with other growting entitites]. For a more in-depth analysis, see:

http://www.jeffvail.net/2007/02/problem-of-growth.html

One of the common criticisms is that Rhizome or the Diagonal Economy can't prevent plunder of its "self-sufficiency" by growting/hierarchal out-groups. I think this 1) focuses on current understanding of "wealth" (foscusing on portability) which is far less relevant in the community/self-sufficiency context, and 2) fails to keep pace with developments in open-sourc insurgency capabilities around the world (see http://www.jeffvail.net/2005/01/swarming-open-source-warfare-and-black.html and http://www.jeffvail.net/2006/04/rhizome-network-defense-strategies.html).

Jeff Vail said...

Tim,

I don't know if people take Freud as gospel anymore, but I think he's still influential (if incomplete). I like the synthesis of Robert Anton Wilson (whose circuit model, adapted from Leary, also incorporates Freud, Gurdjieff, and Jung) (see Prometheus Rising, one of my favorite books).

I ultimately agree with your "once the eggs are broken it's hard to put them back together again" thought. I don't think Rhizome can be implemented from above--I think it will emerge as a result of external features that make it more viable than it would have been, say, in the 20th Century. Specifically, environmental degredation (making food supplies more precarious) and energy descent (making any kind of geographically centralized structure less viable) will make those structures that tend toward Rhizome more competitive, and will make Rhizome an increasing evolutionary advantage...

Jeff Vail said...

Scott:

I think the key relationship between hierarchy and in/out-group dynamics is that hierarchy, by definition, does not develop scale-free self-sufficiency (because it works to specialize its base rather than make that base independent of the center). In/Out group dynamics are necessarily a feature of hierarchy, but when combined with a non-hierachal structure that fosters scale-free self-sufficiency they can create diversity (various "in" affilitations) without the need to expand control and marginalize out-groups. Ultimately, I realize that sometimes I sound like I'm saying "NO hierarchy," when what I intend to say is "improve balance of hierarchy/non-hierarchy in our civilizational structure." There will always be some level of hierarchl relationship (e.g. infant/parent), but if hierarchy is kept in balance with scale-free self-sufficiency, it can be dynamically stable and not demand the imposition of a will on out-groups...

Jeff Vail said...

Stephen:

I opposed nationalism, but I reject your suggestion that this drives people toward international finance/corporatism. Instead, it presents a menu of alternatives, only one of which is the international corporate/finance model. The alternative that I advise is Rhizome--quite antithetical to international corporatism--which relies on scale-free self-sufficiency. I think this is the fault in your logic--in assuming that "people" must be driven toward someone to take care of them. As you point out, for most of human history, we took care of ourselves. It's also worth pointing out that "tribalism" per se is not sustainable (as defined as a mode of political organization). Rather, tribailism plus hunter/gatherer self-sufficiency at the individual level is sustainable because there is no impetus toward growth--people can take care of themselves, and don't generate the conditions for peer-polity competition. In fact, in anthropology, it is precisely the point where a tribe transitions from individual self-sufficiency (generally due to hunter/gather mode of economic production) to one of reliance on a big-man (the next step in the anthropological pecking order) to coordinate non-self-sufficient production that we see the impetus for growth and the end to long-term sustainability...

Scott Althoff said...

I think your concept of Rhizome self defense requires a concept of in-group/out-group to function. Maybe my definition of in-group/out-group is too broad. I see it as a label that arises when people think about what groups they are members of and what groups another person is a member of and when there is a low amount of intersection or when one of the groups is believed to be a hostile group then the other person is labeled as being in the out-group.

The Watchman said...

Jeff,

Are you familiar with Eric Beinhocker's 2006 book "The Origin of Wealth" which covers similar ground on complexity, network theory, cognitive science, evolution, and emergence in the context of economics? I'm currently about halfway through it and have found it to be very enlightening and readable.

A good deal of the research presented in his book comes from the Santa Fe Institute.