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In guerrillas we trust

Not a book review, but more just my impressions. I just hate doing surveys of books.

Just finished Robb's book, "Brave New War," and I liked it for where it succeeds brilliantly (tactical and operational descriptions of the emerging threats, which Robb views as ascendant and which I view as just what's left over) and forgive it where it succeeds least (he doesn't sell me on the death of either nation-states nor globalization--the ultimate open-source network--in large part because he can't adequately define "win" and "defeat" in his rather expansive statements about global guerrillas declaring wars on states and even the world and "winning."

I mean, other than the nutty Salafi jihadists, who want to go feudal and pre-market, every other group John cites as successful tends to imitate your basic nation-state the first chance they get (or the first territory they can control), so how is that a "defeat" of nation-states? Even the "proto-states" and "states-within-states" suggest that the Gap suffers from too little statehood (as in, they need more, smaller states) than too much, so I guess I just see the need to remap the post-colonial Gap where John sees the end of the Westphalian Era.

When I read the book, it reminded me a lot of reading Karl Marx's stuff: stunningly concise and elegant on the dissection of current vulnerabilities created by technology's advance and its revolutionary impact on economics, plus good analysis of a growing gap between those developments and the political means we currently possess to manage that change. But, like Marx, John becomes too sweeping in his generalizations of why our current system is doomed to collapse and is basically incapable of reform, plus his prescriptions at the end trail off in a vague sort of way that's unsatisfying, like reading Marx's dream of a post-capitalist world that wistfully reconstructs much of the pre-capitalist world's charms (John's version of a resilient future utopia is a global society built around the same, bottom-up principles of the Internet, which makes it pleasantly communitarian in a way no one would resist--at least no one who grew up in a small town like I did).

John's book is deeply informed by the fact he's a serious technocrat who distrusts politics. Indeed, politics as any form of solution is basically missing in action in this book. When it's referred to glancingly here and there, it's always to catalogue dysfunction or corruption (e.g., America's entire political system is dismissed with a reference to Jack Abramoff's ability to purchase it at will--a blanketing statement which comes off as strangely naive in its cynicism, but that's not unusual for military guys who often describe Washington like it's some modern-day Sodom). Big entities of all sorts are dismissed in this way by Robb, whereas the heroes and change-agents are always outsiders, "guerrillas" (an all-purpose term to John, like "connectivity" is to me) and small entrepreneurs and start-up companies.

That bias shouldn't surprise: it's basically John's career talking. So his heroes come from his experience and ranks: they're the proles of this revolution who are going to inherit the earth the rest of "them" created but can no longer control.

So, like Marx, whom I consider to be one of the great conceptualizing geniuses of his age, I like John for his obvious and stunning strengths (the dissection of now), trust him less on his projections (he sees primarily the bad in all of this networking and tends to believe in only wholesale reshaping from below to achieve the better), and basically dismiss his dismissal that change cannot be made within existing structures: political, corporate and--yes--even hierarchical ones. I think that, like Marx, John vastly underestimates the role of political institutions in positive change and their capacity for adaptation.

My synthesis tends to be additive (politics and markets are all about adaptation and compromise, so every new thing helps), while John's is more destructively revolutionary, like Marx (the brittle old order must die and be replaced by a new, technocratically-tinged order that's vastly different in form and function).

I think John's dissection of guerrillas inside the Gap is very powerful, but that when he cites--by extrapolation--similar capacities for system disruptions and system perturbations in the advanced world, he doesn't prove his case very well. Again, to me, his argument there reminds me of Marx's description of capitalism getting to a certain stage and then just collapsing under the weight of its own contradictions. Keeping a failed state failed is not the same as crippling a functioning state with a growing economy. If it were, they'd be revolutions going on all over the Core regularly, when in reality change and adaptation is achieved more smoothly than John believes any nation-state capable of, even following huge expansions of technology like we've just endured again, but certainly not for the first time, in America's history.

Where John's criticism of states makes more sense to me is inside the Gap (I don't see states "hollowing out" inside the Core like John does--indeed, the most globalized states have the biggest and best and most powerful governments). There I do think his guerrillas can rule, under certain circumstances, by negation. But in the Core, by and large, I see these guerrillas as more nuisance than all-encompassing threat, so John's ROI arguments don't rock my boat, because the vast majority of such efforts by bad guys will never rise above the everyday noise level of routine failure and breakdowns, and when they do, they force change that's beneficial in far more ways than simply defeating terrorism, so the notion of being bled dry by guerrillas is--to me--unconvincing.

But again, I just ignore what I can't use in books and focus on what I can use from them, and here John's promise of a smorgasbord comes true, and he offers a panoply of cool conceptualizations that enhance our understanding of the future of warfare and the connected world's growing need for resilience. If I had been John's editor, I would have pushed him to make his entire book a more expansive treatment of these ideas, any one of which could have received far longer treatment, plus exploration and scenario description in venues less Iraq-centric.

John does give my books some treatment, but because he distrusts politics so, John views them as a diametrically opposed sort of utopianism (again, John trusts technologists, not politicians). Granted, the emergence of my more effective rule sets over time presupposes successful politics--both nationally in the synchronization of rule sets across the Core and globally in the Core's expansion and diplomatic integration (e.g., strategic alliance between America , China, and India), resulting in mutual aid efforts like my "A-to-Z rule set on processing political bankruptcy inside the Gap," which I believe is proven by our Balkans experience to be feasible and which John believes is disproven totally by Afghanistan and Iraq (the contrast to me being all about good political leadership versus incompetent political leadership, just like the difference between Barbor in Mississippi and Blanco in Louisiana WRT Katrina).

So, not surprisingly, being a top-down strategizer, I cast my communitarianism on a far grander scale than the tactically and operationally minded John, who likes his version more localized in form (i.e., bottom-up like the Web).

In sum. I really enjoyed this book and plan to consult it often in the future for deeper understanding of John's many brilliant conceptualizations of network vulnerabilities. I only include my criticisms here because I know a lot of readers consider John and I to be doppelgangers of each other on the question of connectivity, whereas I'm more the optimistic builder/white hat and John's more the pessimistic breaker/black hat, so some parsing of universal views seemed warranted.

To that end, I think John's predictions of great stressing of globalization will happen and that we'll collectively surmount them in many of the ways he advocates. I just don't see that process in the same disrupting revolutionary terms that John does, but rather in more relaxed (in terms of tempo) evolutionary adaptation where politics remains--in its many forms found throughout the Core--a useful tool of compromise (thus the importance of grand strategic vision).

But I am serious about comparing John's essence-capturing skills to that of Marx, which is not praise I give out lightly. That ability alone, as it did with Marx, makes John a formidable talent in helping us understand this world we live in.

Comments (9)

Tom, I'm bothered by your praise of Marx. Many philosopers are wrong, but few are as spectacularly wrong as him. His ideas are directly or indirectly responsible for more death (it's in the hundreds of millions) and lost economic opportunity and political freedom than anyone else I could think of. I see him as a lead father of the Gap, the one whose ideas helped justify most of the current failed political systems still plaguing their populations today. I imagine how much further along your vision of the future would be had this guy never existed. I'm afraid that statements like yours help preserve his unjustified mistique in the last major bastion of Marxism in the Core, college faculties.

reminder: i don't speak for Tom.

but, i don't think that concern's going to get much traction with him. many partially-right thinkers could be so-accused: Hegel, Nietzsche, Mohammed, [add your favorite here]. someone could pin millions of deaths on Jesus if they felt so inclined (some do).

some of Marx's ideas were spectacularly *right* and add power to Tom's synthesis. i, for one, find Tom's economic determinism *very* convincing.

I have recently been re-reading a lot of Joseph Schumpeter. I find his synthesis of Marx's strengths and weaknesses to have been way ahead of its time. I believe that the demonization of Marx has done huge damage by causing many social scientists to steer clear of economic analyses, for fear of being branded as "Marxists." It's time to look at Marx in a more balanced way. I was very excited to read Dr. Barnett's comments about Marx.


This isn't a case of praising Hitler's paintings. Marx was an amazing conceptualizer of this very complex and largely incomprehensible concept called capital and capitalism at a time when few people got it whatsoever.

His analysis was stunningly accurate. His predictions were off by about 150 years in terms of capitalism's spread, and his assumptions about its frailty were way off. His dreams of what would inevitably come next were fanciful, but they did inspire a lot of change that ultimately led to dictatorships and loads of death.

Marx himself accomplished nothing besides the analysis in his life. I respect a great deal of that analysis just like I respect D.W. Griffith for inventing much of modern motion picture technique even if he was a southern racist.

Marx may have been on the short end of the usual 70-30 Chinese split employed with Stalin and Mao (both of whom should have been shorted as well--and far worse), but Marx's good remains worth admiring. For his time, it was a great intellectual achievement.

Have you read any Marx?

Not to beat a dead horse, but I used to have a saying - There are 2 kinds of fools in the world: those who were never Marxists and those who never stopped being Marxists (this was back in the early '70s, when just about everybody I knew went through a Marxist phase). Marxism is like adolescence - you have to outgrow it, but you can't get to adulthood without it.

Tom really hit the nail on the head when he referenced Robb's vision of what Tom called his "post-capitalist world". When I read Robb's ideas about the wages of resilient local systems, networked together to create a larger community outside of the framework of the state, I just couldn't help but think of Marx's vision of the "whithering away of the state". Although, I don't think it's fair to lay all of the blame of the evils spawned by Marx on either Tom or John Robb. Anyone who reads this blog or has read PNM or BFA knows Tom is "the apostle of globalism", and while Robb advocates a "whithering away of the state", I think the future he paints is more along the lines a radical libertarian's future, rather than a communist utopia, what with independent, self-sufficient communities networking together out of enlightened self-interest and pooling resources to privately provide for security needs. I just don't think that core nations can ever become "hollowed-out states" in order to necessitate that kind of security reorganization.

I actually did get a dose of Marx (Das Kapital) in college in the late 60s and concluded that he had missed the boat with dire consequences. I also read Maslow's hierarchy of needs at about the same time and saw that basic concept as being at odds with Marx's determinisms and inevitabilities. It seemed to me that the Socialist and Communist movements spawned by Marx were aimed at getting everyone to Maslow's third level: take care of the physiologoical needs first, then the security needs followed by the social needs. Everyone would be happy because they would be fed, housed and secure through the state, and their social needs would be met because everyone would be about the same. The problem is that we don't stop at that third level -- we move on to the ego needs and then self-actualization of some kind depending on the individual. This may be way too simplistic, but I think that Marx and his followers set up systems that had the real inherant contradictions because they were at odds with human nature. The more brilliant strategists were folks like our Founding Fathers and Adam Smith who envisioned a much more desirable and realistic "system" that could accommodate the best natures of humankind.
Unfortunately, the assumed inevitability of the Communist Model justified way too many Dictatorships of the Proletariat which resulted in the many deaths I referred to -- Lenin and his successors never could create the ideal Soviet Man, and Mao's attempts were even more disastrous, because they were and are at odds with human nature. It continues in Cuba and Zimbabwe and other countries of The Gap. Isn't that what Deng figured out?

not too simplistic at all, Walt. further, Tom likes to use Maslow, too.

i like your analysis. i just think it skips over the stuff Marx was really good at. economics is a powerful tool, and Marx' insight there was keen. yes, his prescriptions and most of those who used them were abhorrent, but his strengths are not to be dismissed.

as to Smith and the FF, undoubtedly brilliant. and, yes, they allowed for our best natures. but they also had a good grasp of our worst natures. Smith, especially, did an amazing job of factoring in simple greed.

so, Tom combines Marx' determinism with Maslow's self actualization and Smith's harnessing of greed (along with many other ideas). Tom and i had an exchange about this the other day in comments. how do you separate out those three motivations in the complicated psyche of the average reader of this weblog? throw in, for good measure, Jesus' admonition to charity. voila: Protestant work ethic/Catholic guilt.

don't know enough about Deng to know if he figured out the fatal flaw of Marxism. maybe he was just a perspicacious realist...

Most of this discussion around Marx just conflates "Marxist" with "Marx". Say what you want about Engels, Lenin, Stalin, or Mao, but Marx himself said that he did not know what he was, but that he was "not a Marxist". He never joined a party apparently. Looking at his work:

If you review the Communist Manifesto of 1848, you'll discover quickly that all but one of its main demands were implemented in most "capitalist" countries a century later. The one remaining, abolishing private rents in land, was accomplished in China. Now you could look at China's record on feeding and housing and educating people and conclude that Marx was right that way. But even judging China's recent history by "capitalist" yardsticks like GDP (a mindless horror of a metric), one is forced to concede Marx could have well been completely correct in 1848. Perhaps a century early in law, a century and a half in measurable terms.

I'd explain exactly which elements of Marx's theory led to which tracks of today's credible global economic theories, but there's apparently a comment length limit, so as a protest I'll cut it off here. ;-) I'll say only this: Read what Marx wrote AFTER 1871, THEN troll.

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