24 July 2011
It now appears that the responsible party for the bombing and shootings in Norway was an individual, an ideologically motivated “Lone Wolf” who practiced meticulous care not only in planning his attacks, but also in documenting his planning and preparation that extended over a period of many years. While the sheer scale of the carnage makes it difficult to believe that a single individual could have perpetrated these attacks, this is now a lesson in how “successful” a lone wolf attack can be when everything “goes right” according to the perspective of the attacker.
After the Oklahoma City bombing it was reported that the truck bomb assembled by Timothy McVeigh had only incompletely exploded, so that despite the massive destruction it caused, this destruction would have been even worse had the bomb performed as planned. With this in mind, I would guess that the bomb assembled by Anders Behring Breivik was of a similar design, and also reportedly assembled from fertilizer, like the Oklahoma City bomb, and that the extraordinary destructive power of the blast was due to the bomb functioning as intended.
Breivik, however, killed far more people in his shooting rampage than he did with his bomb. I can’t recall an incident outside a war zone in which a single individual killed so many in a single shooting rampage. As with this bomb, Breivik’s meticulous planning and preparation, coupled with the vulnerability of individuals living in a highly open society, seems to have yielded the intended result. If we compare Breivik’s shooting rampage with that of the Columbine killers, for example, who had hoped to kill hundreds, Breivik’s massacre approached the scale of efficacy to which the Columbine killers has aspired, without themselves achieving that scale.
However, Breivik’s “success” on a tactical and operational level — if we define success as the identification of an explicit objective and taking offensive action in order to attain that objective, both of which were embodied in Breivik’s plans — is coupled with a complete and utter failure on a strategic level. In this Breivik is to be compared not with Timothy McVeigh, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold — other isolated, ideologically motivated killers — but to Al Qaeda.
Al Qaeda was highly successful on an operational level, repeatedly carrying out simultaneous attacks on an international scale, but its strategic agenda never even got off the ground. Because of the tactical and operational efficacy of Al Qaeda, they posed a genuine threat, and so major military operations were taken to counter their power and influence. From this, many drew the conclusion that Al Qaeda had achieved its ends through its spectacular acts of terrorism. It had not. The terrorism was not an end in itself, but had an objective.
The strategic agenda of Al Qaeda was, narrowly conceived, to topple the Saudi government and to put in its place a militant Salafist regime in some respects modeled on the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, but ultimately modeled on the first community established by the Prophet himself in Medina (to which example the Taliban also looked). The grand strategic ambition of Al Qaeda, on the widest scale, was to trigger cascading revolutions throughout the Islamic world that would topple governments throughout the region, installing traditionalist regimes and ultimately the re-establishment of the Caliphate and the re-invigoration of the Islamic world.
Thus while Al Qaeda’s spectacular acts of terrorism were effective on a tactical and operational level, they were strategic failures, and, I would argue, utterly misconceived as the operations that would bring about the desired revolutionary contagion and the regime change desired. In fact, a very different revolutionary contagion did come to the region, though it was not based upon the ideological model of Al Qaeda, and the regime changes that have occurred as a result of this revolutionary contagion have not installed retrograde traditionalist regimes seeking to turn back the clock, but rather progressive regimes seeking to join the modern world.
What Al Qaeda and Anders Behring Breivik have in common is that they are ideologically-inspired violent revolutionaries. They are believers in revolutionary violence, and moreover believers that they can serve as the trigger for a wave of cascading revolutionary violence that will transform the political and social landscape. This mode of thought embodies what I have called a cataclysmic conception of revolution.
Another obvious point of reference here is Theodore Kaczynski, the unabomber, who also viewed himself as a one-man cadre whose actions would trigger a revolution, and indeed it was widely reported today that Anders Behring Breivik’s manifesto included extensive extracts from Kaczynski’s manifesto, Industrial Society and its Future.
Since Anders Behring Breivik is alive and in custody, he may well provide the most thorough and complete picture of the violent revolutionary yet. Mostly the violent revolutionary accepts his death as the price of triggering a world-historical event. The death of violent revolutionaries itself serves an integral function in revolutionary violence, since a surviving revolutionary lives to see the failure of his cause and his careful plans and preparations come to nothing. A violent revolutionary whose death is written in to the histrionic scheme of his plot to trigger cascading revolutionary contagion can go to his death believing that, with his triggering action, the revolution has already begun, and it is merely a matter of the remaining events unfolding according to the ideological script.
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4 July 2011
It is time again to celebrate the revolutionary armed struggle of the American people. The Fourth of July marks the formal beginning of this revolutionary struggle, as it was on this date that the American revolutionaries made their intentions explicit in a Declaration of Independence, which reads, in part:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
Thus our revolutionary forebears sought “to alter or to abolish” the only political rule they had ever known, preferring the uncertainly of regime change to government “long established.”
How does a revolutionary cadre go about fomenting revolutionary change? The cadre in the vanguard of radical political change may turn to revolutionary violence. A revolutionary war is the formalization of revolutionary violence, and it was to this expedient that the signatories of the Declaration of Independence turned.
A revolutionary war is a distinct kind of struggle. Reflecting on this today I realized that a revolutionary struggle typically takes the course of completely inverting the gradients of warfare as they are now (loosely) defined, so that the revolutionary gradient begins with contextual warfare (5GW), moves on to moral warfare (4GW), which eventually breaks out into open hostilities in maneuver warfare (3GW). After the initial hostilities of open warfare the struggle settles into attrition warfare (2GW), and as the position of one side or the other is consolidated the struggle becomes cooperative warfare (1GW) based on formal political alliances.
That a revolutionary war is an inversion of the temporal order of the generational conception of warfare, which latter was later refined into the gradient conception of warfare, minus the explicit temporal ordering, tells us much about the modern world, which has been largely forged by revolutionary struggles. In Revolution, Genocide, Terror I argued that these three species of violence are the hallmarks of political modernity.
In short, the modern world, shaped as it is by revolution, is what Nietzsche called a transvaluation of all values, and it is moreover a transvaluation that takes the form of inverting the all preceding values, transforming even the values of armed conflict. Another word for transvaluation is revolution. As Marx and Engels — everyone’s favorite revolutionaries — put it: “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.” (I will, however, point out that these “real conditions” change over time and space, and that is why revolutions at different times and places compel men to face distinct conditions of life.)
While later revolutions would be highly ambiguous in their outcomes, and these outcomes are still debated today, the American revolutionary struggle is the proof of concept of revolution. The American Revolution proved that an established political order could be violently overthrown, its representatives permanently removed from power, and representatives of the people put in power in place of the entrenched interests that had ruled heretofore.
In Sir Edward Creasy’s The Fifteen Decisive Battles of The World From Marathon to Waterloo, which I recently quoted in A Short Note on Decisive Battles, Creasy identifies the victory of Americans over Burgoyne at Saratoga as one of these fifteen decisive battles of history (this constitutes the matter of Chapter XIII). As an epigraph to this chapter Sir Creasy quotes Lord Mahon:
“Even of those great conflicts, in which hundreds of thousands have been engaged and tens of thousands have fallen, none has been more fruitful of results than this surrender of thirty-five hundred fighting-men at Saratoga. It not merely changed the relations of England and the feelings of Europe towards these insurgent colonies, but it has modified, for all times to come, the connexion between every colony and every parent state.”
Philip Henry Stanhope Stanhope (Earl), History of England: from the Peace of Utrecht to the Peace of Versailles. 1713-1783, in seven volumes: Volume VI, 1774-1780, Boston, 1853, Chapter LVI, page 190
In other words, the outcome of the Battle of Saratoga (actually, there were two battles, and these two battles were part of the overall Saratoga Campaign, so all of this should be understood at the operational level of revolutionary warfare) had revolutionary consequences. Lord Mahon thus neatly positions the Battle of Saratoga as the proof of concept of revolutionary warfare.
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8 March 2011
At the present moment the most strategically interesting place on the planet is Libya. Both diplomats and the popular press seem hesitant to call this a civil war (yesterday’s Financial Times’ headline nearly acknowledged this fact, saying, “Libya closer to full-blown civil war”), but if we are going to call a spade a spade, then we need to call the conflict in Libya a civil war. Government forces hold several cities (Tripoli, Sirte, Bin Jawad, and others that Gadhafi’s forces sought to re-take yesterday and again today), rebel forces hold several cities (Tobruk, Benghazi, Grega, possibly Ras Lanuf, Misrata, and Zawiya), and there are ongoing clashes between government and rebel forces. Each side, government and rebel, has its strengths and weaknesses, and there is no indication that one side or the other will suddenly collapse, though this remains a possibility for either party to the conflict.
So civil war it is, and civil war in a land made for war, according to the great documentary series about the Second World War, The World at War:
“This land was made for war. As glass resists the bite of vitriol, so this hard and calcined earth rejects the battle’s hot, corrosive impact. Here is no nubile, girlish land; no green and virginal countryside for war to violate. This land is hard. Inviolable.” (The World at War, opening words of the narrator to “Episode Eight: The Desert: War in North Africa” )
The same stretch of desert now divided east and west between Libyan government and rebel forces is the same stretch of desert the Deutsches Afrikakorps (DAK) and the British Western Desert Force during the Western Desert Campaign 1940-1943. Richard Holmes in his BBC documentary Battlefields said of North Africa that, ” desert fighting was a tactician’s dream” with its perpetually open flank and tanks moving in the desert like ships at sea.
Now seventy years later, this battleground is to be fought over again. At first it seemed that Gadhafi was so unhinged that he would be incapable to taking the kind of action that would be necessary to preserving his regime, with his statements that all his people loved him and his attempted scare tactics to the West that the instability in Libya was due to Al Qaeda. Gadhafi’s befuddlement, however, did not last long, and he has been consolidating his control over the coastal cities still within his grasp as well as striking back at cities under rebel control.
A great deal is being said and written about the situation Libya, but there is little in the way of hard information that one can count on from either a tactical or strategic perspective. We know that some Libyan airforce pilots have defected, but we also know that government planes are engaging in attacks on rebel cities (probably striking Ras Lanuf as I write this). We know that Libya has a history of stationing its armed forces close to the Egyptian border, thus positioning materiel in an area now controlled by rebel forces, but it has been widely reported that Gadhafi has been allowing the armed forces to deteriorate fearing a coup. Like many dictators, Gadhafi chose to place his trust and his money in a hand-picked private army whose loyalty he can count on.
There has been discussion of enforcing a “no fly” zone over Libya, which would neutralize the government’s air superiority, but this would involve the reduction of Libya’s air defenses, which many Western nation-states are entirely capable of doing, but which they would hesitate to undertaking for appearances sake. Far more likely is the supply of intelligence, expertise, and precision weaponry to the rebels. Recall that during the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan that the US and Pakistan facilitated the introduction of Stinger missiles, carried by donkeys over traditional smuggling routes, which had the effect of partly neutralizing Soviet air superiority.
High technology precision weaponry of the kind that can be carried by one or a few soldiers is one of the great levelers of contemporary combat, neutralizing advanced and expensive air and armored assets. If such resources are made available to the rebels in Libya, they will not need a no fly zone to succeed. The rebels have only to endure. Each day they survive adds to their credibility and makes Gadhafi look weak for being unable to enforce a security regime within the borders of his own nation-state. Strategic Forecasting has argued that the rebels would have great difficulty marching on Tripoli to take the city, and this is no doubt true, but they need not take Tripoli if they can convince the outside world that they represent the future and Gadhafi represents the past.
If Gadhafi confines himself to fortress Tripoli with a few thousand well-armed loyalists, events will squeeze him as be becomes more marginal over time. It is true that Gadhafi has an enormous amount of oil money flowing in to pay mercenaries and to buy weapons, and there will always be mercenaries willing to fight and industries willing to sell arms, but there will also be those who look to the rebel forces as the future of Libya, and they may cut deals with the Rebels. There is a pipeline to Tobruk, and in the coming months the revenues from the oil flowing through the pipeline (if it is not cut) may ultimately accrue to the rebels. Tobruk will likely be able to hold out for and extended period of time. We know from the experience of the Second World War that Tobruk is eminently fortifiable, and can outlast an extended siege.
If the rebels fail to convince the rest of the world to deal with them, or if the rebels cannot get high-tech high-precision handheld weaponry, or if the rebels get weak in the knees, then their resistance will collapse. That is a lot of ifs. One can formulate a similar list of “ifs” for Gadhafi and his loyalists. Both are vulnerable, and since it would be so difficult for either party to the conflict to dislodge, much less annihilate, the other, both are most vulnerable to political and diplomatic developments. While there are many industries and nation-states around the world that will continue to be happy to take Gadhafi’s money, he has few friends in the world. There are autocrats and dictators that share interests with Gadhafi, even they will withdraw and keep their silence as Gadhafi becomes marginalized and ineffective.
If we view recent social unrest in the Arab world as a regional movement in an area of the world in which the nation-state system has never put down deep roots (it has been called a region of stateless nations and nationless states), we can see the early non-violent revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt as the idealistic youth of the movement. But the idealism of youth cannot long endure when confronted by the realities of entrenched power, especially when that power is jealously held and not willingly surrendered. In Libya, aspirants to non-violent regime change will be forced either to give up hopes of ousting Gadhafi, or it must win a civil war in order to remove him. Gadhafi will not be toppled from power by protests in Tripoli.
That being said, the aspiration to the ideals of non-violent regime change is the most powerful force that the rebels have on their side. As I observed above, it is the political and diplomatic maneuvering rather than the maneuvering of soldiers that is likely to be decisive in Libya. Nevertheless, the rebels must show that they can fight when necessary, and this they have shown. Now they must show that they can take losses and still sustain the fight.
We should not view the outbreak of violence in Libya as the failure of a non-violent movement, but rather as a revolutionary movement coming to maturity. The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt are far from consolidated, and there remain protests. The future of the governments in these nation-states is not yet determined. The shape of regional politics and the fate of the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt will be determined, in part, by what takes place in Libya. It is still entirely possible for no substantive changes to occur in Tunisia and Egypt; if the rebels in Libya are successful, it will make it possible for non-traditionalist regimes to come into power in Tunisia and Egypt, thus consolidating the gains of the early non-violent revolutions. We must see the whole movement in regional context, and judge its success or failure on a regional level.
This is as much as to say that the rebels fighting in Libya are the armed prophets of a social revolution, and, as we know from Machiavelli, unarmed prophets fail whereas armed prophets sometimes succeed:
It is necessary, therefore, if we desire to discuss this matter thoroughly, to inquire whether these innovators can rely on themselves or have to depend on others: that is to say, whether, to consummate their enterprise, have they to use prayers or can they use force? In the first instance they always succeed badly, and never compass anything; but when they can rely on themselves and use force, then they are rarely endangered. Hence it is that all armed prophets have conquered, and the unarmed ones have been destroyed. Besides the reasons mentioned, the nature of the people is variable, and whilst it is easy to persuade them, it is difficult to fix them in that persuasion. And thus it is necessary to take such measures that, when they believe no longer, it may be possible to make them believe by force.
Machiavelli, The Prince, Chapter VI
The non-violent social revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt were the work of unarmed prophets, and the arms remained in the same hands who possessed them prior to the revolutions. Such revolutions would be easy to undo. Circumstances have forced the prophets of revolution in Libya to take up arms and become armed prophets.
Immediately before his classic reference to armed and unarmed prophets, Machiavelli wrote about the difficulty of establishing a new political order:
“…it ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new. This coolness arises partly from fear of the opponents, who have the laws on their side, and partly from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them. Thus it happens that whenever those who are hostile have the opportunity to attack they do it like partisans, whilst the others defend lukewarmly, in such wise that the prince is endangered along with them.”
This is precisely the difficult thing that the revolutionaries in the Arab world are attempting to do: to introduce a new order of things. They are visionaries and prophets, and they face all the problems that Machiavelli elaborated. The difficulty of being a prophet requires for success that one become an armed prophet, and this is what we see occurring in Libya. If the Libyan armed prophets of revolution are successful, they will provide yet further proof of concept and facilitate revolutionary regional change.
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3 March 2011
Some time ago I was reading a list of potential strategic shocks to the world geopolitical system. One of the items on the list was the democratization of China. The democratization of the Arab World was not on the list. This, however, is the strategic shock that the world has witnessed. We call them “strategic shocks” because they are unpredicted, and recent events in North Africa were definitely unpredicted. A year ago no one would have guessed that there would be a civil war in Libya, which is what is essentially happening as I write this. As I wrote in The Geography of Revolution, I do not think that Gaddafi can long endure, but he is putting up a fight.
The definitive work on strategic shocks is Known Unknowns: Unconventional “Strategic Shocks” in Defense Strategy Development by Nathan P. Freier. There is also Blindside: How to Anticipate Forcing Events and Wild Cards in Global Politics, edited by Francis Fukuyama. I have used both terms — “strategic shock” and “blindside” — in several posts.
It is difficult to define strategic shocks in anything other than phenomenalistic terms, since strategic shocks are by their very nature unpredicted and unpredictable. Since they are unpredictable, strategic shocks cannot be confined to a single definition; if we could precisely define the parameters of strategic shock, we would be that much closer to predicting them, and if we could predict them, they would not longer be shocks. However, even if we can’t define strategic shocks in any detailed manner, we can observe that strategic shocks sometimes manifest themselves in patterns, and one pattern of strategic shock is a revolutionary wave.
It could be argued that the “color revolutions” that successively swept through the ‘stans of Central Asia were simply a delayed response to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, which latter was a true strategic shock of grand proportions (or, if you’re Vladimir Putin, it was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century). Whether or not the “color revolutions” represented a revolutionary wave, recent events in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya suggest a revolutionary wave that may yet encompass more of the Arab world before it is spent.
Freier makes a rough distinction between strategic surprise and strategic shock:
“Shock” and “surprise” are not necessarily synonymous. Surprise is only half of the equation with respect to defense-relevant shocks. They are distinct from other unexpected strategic contingency events in that they are unanticipated and inadequately accounted for to such an extent that their occurrence triggers fundamental strategic and institutional disruption across the defense enterprise. There is no scientific break point between strategic shock and strategic surprise. The boundary separating the two is a function of an event’s strategic impact, the extent of disruption it causes, and the degree to which the defense enterprise anticipated its occurrence in strategy development and planning. High impact contingency events that promise fundamental disruption and occur without the benefit of adequate policy-level anticipation are more likely than not to be strategic shocks.
Tunisia alone might have constituted a strategic surprise, but Tunisia followed by Egypt and Libya together constitute a strategic shock, regardless of what the outcome is in Libya.
Each stage of the North African strategic shock has constituted a new proof of concept for popular revolt in the Arab world. Tunisia demonstrated the mere possibility of successful popular and non-violent revolt in the context of the institutions of North African society. Egypt demonstrated that what happened in Tunisia can happen in a nation-state of much larger size and population, and indeed in a bastion of traditional Arab culture. Libya has demonstrated so far that a popular revolt in the same civilizational milieu can be sustained in the face of armed resistance by an entrenched autocrat, and if the revolution against Gaddafi succeeds, it will prove that popular revolt can be successful against a resisting autocrat willing to hire mercenaries to spill blood to retain his rule.
One of the signs that the events in North Africa constitutes a strategic shock is the demonstrable worldwide response to these events. There have been several stories of Chinese harassing of dissidents and a preemptive security crackdown to put any potential protesters on notice. In Saudi Arabia, the royal family has decided to shower even more money on a population already laboring under a nearly crippling sense of entitlement. In Zimbabwe there was a show of force, Zimbabwe police, military put on show of force, again to preempt protesters. And in Venezuela, Chavez says he won’t condemn Libya’s Gadhafi. Entrenched autocrats who have systematically insulated themselves from their immiserated populations are alarmed and taking action. In same cases, perhaps in most cases, these actions will forestall revolutionary protests; in some cases, these reactionary measures will be too little, too late. And every potential venue of revolution is seething. There was an interesting story on the BBC, Syria: Why is there no Egypt-style revolution?, in which Lina Sinjab wrote:
“The government has taken several measures in the wake of Tunisia and Egypt to reduce the cost of basic goods, especially food. There have been grants for the poor, and reports that civil servants have been instructed to treat citizens with respect. But Syria suffers from corruption that goes all the way up the system.”
Thus far in Syria, this combination of half-measures has kept the populace mostly quiet.
A strategic shock sets up shockwaves, and as these shockwaves break against fragile and brittle regimes, these regimes suffer, react, and — at times — collapse. We are seeing the strategic shock from Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya ripple outward, and while we cannot say what will happen next, we can say that the consequences have not yet played out, and more regimes will be shaken by the shockwave.
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22 February 2011
Being alive in the winter of 2011 is a bit like being alive when the Berlin Wall came down, although at that time I remember watching events on television news, whereas now I learn everything from the internet, and if I watch anything, I watch it on Youtube not on television. I remember so well how the nation-states of the Warsaw Pact fell like dominoes. Today another dictator of many decades duration is tottering on the edge of political survival. I do not think that Gaddafi can last, although he does have seven sons and they ought to be both young enough and vigorous enough to beat back a challenge to their rule (something obviously not the case with Zine El Abidine Ben Ali or Hosni Mubarak) if only they are able to maintain the loyalty of police, military, and security services.
In the map above I have colored nation-states that have not yet experienced significant protests in orange, those that have experienced regime change through popular revolt in pink (Tunisia and Egypt), and those that have experienced significant protests in Red (Yemen, Jordan, Iran, and Libya; Bahrain is too small to appear on this map). It should come as no surprise that Libya, which now looks like it will be the next domino to fall to popular revolt in North Africa, is sandwiched between Tunisia and Egypt. While I have never been to North Africa, one can surmise that the trade links and population transfers between these neighbors will be fairly robust, even if they are confined to smuggling routes. Ideas move with populations, and it is to be expected that Libyans have been in and out of Egypt and Tunisia since the successful revolutions in these countries, and that Tunisians and Egyptians have crossed in and out of Libya. Even if the travelers are only local businessmen with no particular sympathy for youthful revolutionaries, they will have had stories that will not have been in the press, and one assumes that the Libyans would have been a rapt audience.
I suggested above that Gaddafi’s sons ought to be able to enforce their rule if they have the cooperation of the security services. Earlier when I was writing about Egypt, I suggested that the thing to watch for is whether security services switch sides or withdraw. In Egypt, the police withdrew, and the army enforced enough civil order to keep the transition relatively peaceful. While Egypt has not yet fully returned to normalcy, it was quite telling that once the central demand of the Egyptian protesters was met — the exit of Mubarak — the army “cleared” El Tahrir Square. It is pretty obvious that the army could have “cleared” El Tahrir square earlier, and if they had done so while Mubarak was still in power, he could have survived. I suspect that Mubarak is a little bitter about this, but somewhere along the way he lost the loyalty of the army. He retained some loyalty among the police, but the police were an unpopular institutions, and they made themselves scarce either due to the hostile crowds or the presence of the army or both.
Already in Libya there have been instances of security services making themselves scarce or switching sides and making common cause with the protesters. This tells me that the political rule of Gaddafi and his sons is doomed. There have even been reports that Libyan airforce pilots have defected rather than carry out orders against the protesters, and, most recently, a report that a Libyan warship has defected to Malta. I remarked elsewhere that when Romanians revolted against Nicolae Ceauşescu in 1989, even though Ceauşescu retained the loyalty of his private army, the Securitate, this was not enough to save him. Pitched battles were fought in the streets between regular army units and units of the Securitate. Ultimately, its a numbers game: numbers of guns, numbers of soliders, numbers of people, numbers of police, and numbers of sacrifices. The contemporary territorial nation-state is in most cases much too large for a population to be ruled against its will; if a people make a country ungovernable, often at considerable cost to themselves, the government has little choice but to leave. The only question is how many they will kill before they leave. And we have seen in Bahrain that even a small nation-state can be made ungovernable.
What more do we see when we look at a map of North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula? Sudan and Ethiopia have their own issues and their own conflicts. Now that the North of Sudan is consolidating itself as an independent nation-state, it is less likely to see protests rather than more likely. Iran has had significant protests. I predicted earlier that these will not go far. I stand by this prediction, although that does not mean that there will not be protests, and it doesn’t even mean that Ahmadi-nejad will remain in power. But I continue to predict that Iran will remain an Islamic Republic with its constitution more or less intact: faces may change, but interests and strategic trends will remain consistent. Algeria is the next obvious venue for revolution, especially if Libya falls. The sooner Libya goes, the more momentum there will be for action in Algeria.
Saudi Arabia is the 500 pound gorilla as well as being the elephant in the room that we pretend not to notice. So far, things are quiet and the House of Saud seems as complacent and implacable as ever. But Saudi Arabia has a youthful, restive population, although also a youthful population with a staggering sense of entitlement. This sense of entitlement may be enough to retain Saudi exceptionalism in the region. I don’t know. Winston Churchill famously said of Russia, “I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.” I will say the same for Saudi Arabia: I cannot forecast to you the action of Saudi Arabia. It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. But I will not go on to paraphrase Churchill for the second part of his claim: Saudi national interest is as murky as its actions. There is the interest of the royal family, there is the interest of the oil wealth of the families in charge of the oil, there is the interest of the Islamists who understand the Kingdom only in terms of its stewardship of the holy places of Islam, and there are the interests of a youthful and restive population. These interests do not necessarily converge, and in some ways they radically diverge. Therefore there is no one Saudi national interest, and therefore no key to the mystery.
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11 February 2011
The central demand of the protesters in Cairo’s El Tahrir Square has been met: President Hosni Mubarak has resigned his office. Thus according to this limited definition of success, we can call the Lotus Revolution a “success.” But we all know that this is not really the end — that it is, in fact, only the beginning of a process that will eventually define the future of Egypt’s political identity.
Just as we can distinguish long term causes, short term causes, and triggers in the lead up to an event (an historical etiology, if you will), so too we can distinguish long term consequences, short term consequences, and triggers in the aftermath of an event. Mubarak’s departure from office is a trigger for the end of the Lotus Revolution, but the occurrence of a triggering event is not the same as short term consequences or long term consequences.
While the short term consequences will be revealed to us over the coming weeks and months, and the long term consequences will be revealed over the coming years and centuries, there are certain observations that can be made. The more knowledge one has of a given society, the more accurate one’s observations will be. Since I know almost nothing about Egyptian society, I can only speculate in the most general way about the outcome of events triggered by the departure of Mubarak.
One thing that I know holds good across all societies, and which often makes revolutions disappointing, is that there is, in every country, a small group of elite and privileged people who are the ones prepositioned to assume prominent roles in any newly formed government. It is common for a government formed from privileged elites in the wake of a popular uprising to cherry pick a few of the ringleaders of the popular uprising to participate in the government. This gives the masses the impression that their voice has not only been heard, but that they now have a voice in the highest councils of state, and it gives “street cred” to the members of the government who did not earn their street cred on the street. Such appointments are usually symbolic, and they remain symbolic unless the arriviste is exceptionally brilliant and talented and is able to engineer his or her own Machtergreifung.
It is because of the stability of privileged elites across changed regimes that it was possible for a Bourbon monarch to sit on the throne of France and have it said that he had “learned nothing and forgotten nothing” since the revolution. The French Revolution was far more radical than the recent events in Egypt, and even the French didn’t decisively rid themselves of their aristocrats, despite their best effort during The Terror to cut off as many aristocratic heads as possible. Therefore I suspect that the Egyptians will not easily or readily rid themselves of the behind-the-scenes power-brokers who are much much responsible for the condition of the country as was Mubarak.
Institutional continuity almost always trumps discontinuity, and in so far as a revolution is an attempt to engineer historical discontinuity, these attempts at social engineering come to grief due to the friction of institutional stability. Institutions can be a social lubricant, and the primary ways of getting things done, but institutions, when opposed, are sources of social friction. That is to say, institutions on the whole possess macro-resiliency in contradistinction to the micro-fragility of particular individuals who people them and represent them. We could call this political symmetry by analogy with the use of the term “symmetry” in physical theory: regardless of political transformations (regime changes), certain things remain true, and among these things that remain true are the influence of the influential, the wealth of the wealthy, and the privilege of the privileged.
Already in Tunisia there has been grumbling on the street that the newly installed government is too close to the ousted Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Such things are to be expected, and they are to be expected because they are largely true. People want change, and when people agitate for revolutionary change they want revolutionary change. When a revolution is followed by the same-old-same-old, those who sacrificed for the revolution become frustrated and angry. And we already knew what they did when they were frustrated and angry with the previous regime.
The short term consequences of the Lotus Revolution will be worked out in the power struggles to create a new government. This power struggle will take place between privileged elites, the military, protest leaders like Mohamed ElBaradei, and powerful social institutions within Egyptian society like the Muslim Brotherhood. It is likely that several coalitions will be tried and tested, the fittest will survive, and go on through descent with modification to evolve into a government.
The long term consequences of the Lotus Revolution will be worked out regionally and internationally, as various nation-states and institutions vie to define the future of the region. As I attempted to put across in Popular Revolt in the Arab World, Egypt matters. Egypt has social capital. It has ancient universities with enormous intellectual appeal and authority.
What happens in Egypt resonates in the region. Thus even the narrow sense of the success of the Lotus Revolution is symbolically important. It will certainly lead to some consequences outside Egypt, putting great pressure on autocratic regimes. Here we are at great risk to listening too much to Western commentators who fail to make the correct distinctions between the players in the region. The popular discontent, for example, will not spread to Iran. Iran is an Islamic Republic. It may have repressive policies, but it is nothing like Egyptian society. Iran has a minimal degree of responsiveness to its people. And in Jordan, the Hashemite Dynasty has just enough social capital that the king’s dismissal of his government is not seen in the same light as Mubarak’s dismissal of his government. The events in Egypt will resonate most in the Arabian Peninsula itself, for it is there that we find repressive, unresponsive governments that have in the recent past been producing terrorist malcontents, as did Egypt. If the social malcontents should turn their attention from hatred of the West to hatred of their own oppressive governments (now that regime change in the Arab world has received its proof of concept), then dominoes may begin to fall.
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7 February 2011
The recent Popular Revolt in the Arab World, which in at least one case — Tunisia — has led to Regime Change through Popular Revolt, is a good reminder that the spirit of democratic aspiration is alive and well in the world today. The advanced industrialized democracies seem to be so trapped in a self-understanding based on a declension narrative that one might suppose that the spirit of the democratic ideal had ceded its place to more aggressive alternatives.
There is a very good reason for the outburst of democratic (or, if you prefer, popular) sentiment in those regions of the world that have been deprived of the institutions of popular sovereignty even while those regions of the world that have enjoyed the benefits of popular sovereignty seem to have lost faith in their own ideals. The reason may be explicated in the form of a distinction between nascent democracy and decadent democracy. (I could formulate the distinctions in terms of the relative maturity of democratic institutions, but I rather like expressing myself in terms of nascent democracy and decadent democracy.) Here I will be using the term “democracy” in the widest possible sense to indicate democratic institutions including but not limited to elections, a universal or nearly universal franchise, a written constitution, guarantees of individual liberties and the status of minority populations, the separation of executive, legislative, and judicial powers, observation of due process of law, civilian control of the military, freedoms of the press and assembly, and the like.
In decadent democracies, the process of institutional maturation has run its course and a full complement of socio-economic institutions has evolved under the political selection pressure of popular sovereignty. Under these conditions, democracy has come into its own, and democratic processes proceed through the channels of democratic institutions. Not surprisingly, this makes the political establish extremely sluggish and unresponsive — ironically, the very political mechanisms put into place to guarantee the responsiveness of a government to its people have a self-limiting threshold when these mechanisms become too unwieldy because they become too comprehensive, i.e., too democratic.
In nascent democracies, the process of the institutional formation has only started, or it may be only a twinkle in the eyes of those agitating for the establishment of democratic institutions. The idea of what is possible is more central to events in nascent democracies than the day-to-day grind of actual democratic processes, which may well prove to be an anticlimax. Nascent democracies inherit socio-economic institutions that have evolved under the political selection pressure of autocracy or oligarchy or aristocracy, therefore there is a tension between the practical institutions whereby ends are attained and the impractical desire to dissolve them or reform them.
In a comment on this forum, Thomas P. M. Barnett wrote, “…young democracies tend to be the most warlike — more than mature democracies and more than authoritarian states.” In the context of the distinction between nascent democracies and decadent democracies it is relatively easy to see why this is the case: the young, nascent democracies do not yet possess democratic institutions, and there is great internal tension within the society over the inadequacy of legacy institutions to the recently instituted ideal. One way to discharge these tensions is to pick a fight. Nation-states, like individuals, can suffer from hysteria and neurotic misery.
Furthermore, decadent democracies, in possession of fully democratic institutions, because of their comprehensivity come to tolerate even profoundly anti-democratic sentiments within the body politic. There is no mechanism for the removal of an opinion that is counter-productive to democracy, and so fully democratic institutions incubate the reactionary forces that will attack it from within. It is important to remember that anti-democratic sentiment is not likely to be initially expressed in a vulgar form intended to appeal to an mass audience. Anti-democratic feeling can be as privileged and erudite as, for example, Amy Chua’s attack on democratic institutions in her book World on Fire.
Even as decadent democracies are incubating the forces that will destroy it from within, nascent democracies — which, in their earliest stages are non-democracies — are incubating the forces that will destroy the old socio-economic order. Tottering decadent non-democratic regimes often resort to ham-handed attempts to oppress and repress the social demonstration of frustration and anger, but, tottering as they are, they lack the vitality to prosecute their persecution with sufficient fervor to stamp out the nascent democratic sentiment. This persecution short of the threshold of annihilation becomes a surmountable challenge that strengthens the democratic movement. This is a Toynbee-like challenge and response cycle in which just enough hardship is a spur to greater things. As Nietzsche wrote, that which does not destroy me, makes me stronger. This is precisely how the early Christians triumphed in Rome.
At this point it should be obvious that decadent democracies and nascent democracies are two separate points on the continuum of the democratic life cycle, and in some rare cases in history the cycle becomes a perfect closed political cycle in which a decadent democracy falls to reactionary elements, the reactionary elements take power and remain in power long enough to become the decadent establishment in turn, at which point they cannot suppress the democratic aspirations of the people, who overthrow their autocratic regime and install a democratic regime that, in the fullness of time, also becomes decadent and ripe for overthrow. We could call this perfect closed historical cycle the Cycle of Revolution (or, by analogy with the Cartesian Circle, we could call it the Revolutionary Circle).
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26 January 2011
In Revolutionary Violence I attempted to explain the difference between revolutionary violence in the strict sense and a mere riot, thus:
“…in the case of true revolutionary violence, not something engineered from above but a movement growing from below that spills over suddenly and unexpectedly into violent insurrection, a mass of people swarms over, around, and through any technology… designed to stop a riot. One could define the difference between a riot and a revolution such that a riot can be checked and stopped by riot police, whereas in a revolution the numbers of those involved overwhelm police and security services, and in fact the police and security services may join the revolution and turn on their leaders.”
We have seen, in just the past few days, an authentic instance of revolutionary change in Tunisia. Although the violence was not nearly as acute as might have been the case, the sequence of events was a textbook case of an incident — in this case, a young man who immolated himself in protest — that sparks an escalation that is beyond the ability of state and security officials to stop. In fact, during the course of recent events in Tunisia, the security services issued a statement in support of the rebellion, just as I wrote above.
In light of these events I realize that in my characterization of revolutionary violence that “violence” needs to be understood very broadly, or that I ought to employ some term in place of violence that is more general, including all manner of civil strife that might destabilize a regime to the point that a regime decides that it cannot maintain its power and must withdraw. (Perhaps “revolutionary action” would be the appropriate term, although “action” implies agency, and it is often precisely the lack of agency that defines cataclysmic political change.)
The revolution in Tunisia is now being called the “Jasmine Revolution,” in keeping with naming revolutions thematically over the past few years, as in the case of the Velvet Revolution, the Rose Revolution, the Tulip Revolution, the Orange Revolution, and the Cedar Revolution. I do not think that it is likely that a bloody and violent revolution would be named in this way. While the recent Jasmine revolution was not so bloodless as the Velvet Revolution, it was not so violent that it appeared to belong in another class of revolutions entirely. For example, the Romanian Revolution of 1989 (the same year as the Velvet Revolution) was much more violent, resulting in the summary execution of Nicolae and Elena Ceauşescu, and is consequently viewed in a different light and is not referred to by a thematic name.
At some point between Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution and Romania’s not-so-velvet revolution, there is a threshold of violence that is passed. It would be arbitrary to attempt to name a number of deaths at which this threshold is crossed, but among recent revolutions we can mostly place them on one side or the other of this threshold of violence. The Jasmine Revolution belongs on the relatively non-violent end of the spectrum defined by the threshold, while revolutions such as the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, successfully put down by Warsaw Pact forces, belongs at the violent end of the same spectrum.
A distinction can then be made in revolutions between civil instability that escalates in a manner precisely analogous to revolutionary violence, but which remains relatively non-violent, and civil instability that escalates into open revolutionary violence, and it is the violence itself, and the threat of further violence, that displaces the regime. It is to be expected that whether or not a revolution crosses this threshold of violence is a function of the degree to which the regime is embedded in power and cannot see any alternative to itself, as well as a function of the degree to which the civil populace has endured oppression.
Regime change through popular revolt is a difficult proposition. It turns out badly at least as often as it turns out well. One thing that can be said in favor of recent revolutions with themed names, from the Carnation Revolution to today, is that through some inscrutable process of social convention, the violence has been kept to a minimum and the death toll has been relatively low. Given how little has been accomplished by these revolutions, and how little the revolutionized societies have changed, the low level of violence and the low death toll is fortunate for the societies concerned. High levels of violence and bloodshed in a revolution followed by little actual change in circumstances means disproportionately high levels of disappointment and bitterness that the sacrifice was for nothing. Lower levels of sacrifice mean lower levels of disappointment and bitterness. High levels of disappointment and bitterness, on the other hand, often lead to further revolutions.
Given the appropriate conditions and the appropriate trigger, levels of violence no greater than a riot can issue in regime change, making such escalating civil instability decisively distinct from a riot, though the civil costs are not much more than a riot. This points to a crucial difference between revolutionary violence and non-revolutionary violence (where “violence” is understood in the broad sense mentioned above), though I cannot yet define what this difference is any better than I did earlier in my post on Revolutionary Violence. To put it in a phrase, revolutionary violence is the political analogue of what in a tactical context B.H. Lidell-Hart called the “expanding torrent.” Revolutionary violence is a popular expanding torrent; a riot is not an expanding torrent.
Being able to locate the difference between the two would be quite a feat. The opinion columns of newspapers around the world are now filled with those who see a coming domino effect throughout the region, with the Egyptian regime threatened by similar escalating protests, and those who equally stridently maintain that no such domino effect will be felt in the region. Looking at the Jasmine Revolution from this perspective, we can see that the expanding torrent of revolutionary change (or, if you prefer, revolutionary violence) can be understood as an event confined to one nation-state or as an event in a regional context. Thus we can further distinguish between revolutionary violence that is contained by a single political regime and one in which the expanding torrent engulfs other nation-states. One could argue that Communist revolutions in the early twentieth century and color revolutions in the late twentieth century represented trans-national revolutionary change, in which the expanding torrent of revolutionary action engulfed multiple regimes beyond the regime targeted by the revolutionary action that was the trigger.
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10 October 2010
In his Notes on the Dynamics of Human Civilization: The Growth Revolution, Part I, T. Greer of Scholar’s Stage proposed what he called a growth revolution in conscious contrast to earlier historigraphical attempts to identify periods of revolutionary change in history. For example, in reference to the Industrial Revolution, Mr. Greer says that it has been, “grossly mischaracterized,” and furthermore, “The industrialization of the world economy was the result, not the cause of modernization. The nature of this radical transformation is captured better by a different title: The Growth Revolution.”
I was thinking about this today and I realized that there are several periods of exponential growth in history of which our current world can be considered a consequence, that these occur at different orders of magnitude of history, and as such we can identify a self-similarity across different orders of magnitude of history that gives to this history a fractal structure.
At the level of history where geological time meets biological time — that is to say, the longest horizon of biological time — there is what is called the Cambrian Explosion. Most of the multi-billion year history of life on earth is little more than pond scum. For billions of years the earth was essentially covered in blue green algae, and the development of more complex forms of life was painfully slow. Then the Cambrian explosion occurred and suddenly there were seas teaming with an astonishing variety of life. Since that time, the earth has seen increasingly complex forms of life emerge, and, with the exception of periodic mass extinctions, growing numbers of species and biodiversity. It would seem that, once having passed a certain threshold of complexity, life’s capacity of grow exponentially was actualized.
Now we move in closer to history, thinking not in terms of millions of years of tens of millions of years, but thinking of terms tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of years. Here we find the first exponential growth spike in specifically human history, and this is the agricultural or neolithic revolution. Colin Renfrew in his Prehistory: The Making of the Human Mind, emphasizes that this cannot be connected to the evolution of the genotype of the emergence of anatomically modern human beings. It would seem that our speciation event occurred somewhere on the horizon of 150,000 years ago, more or less (give or take some tens of thousands of years), but for most of this time modern human beings lived as hunter-gatherers with no larger social structure than the tribe or the clan. Then the agricultural revolution occurs, cities emerge, social differentiation and hierarchy emerge, settled societies emerge, human beings live in much greater density and organized state societies emerge. This occurred between 10,000 and 15,000 years ago, i.e., about a tenth of the total history of our species. Once again, it looks like we idled along for a long time without much happening, and then — Bang! — suddenly things started happening with much greater rapidity. As the Cambrian explosion saw life passing a threshold of complexity, the agricultural revolution saw human societies pass a threshold of complexity.
Now we move in even closer to history, approaching to the point where we look not at hundreds of thousands or tens of thousands of years, but only at hundreds of years. We are now considering a far shorter portion of time than that between the Cambrian explosion and the agricultural revolution. History at this level of magnification reveals to us another period of exponential growth, this time the growth represented by the Industrial Revolution. Just over two hundred years ago, beginning in England, spreading to Europe, and eventually making its way even today to Asia and Africa in the twenty-first century, societies that had had a stable form for thousands of years began to change much more rapidly. The Industrial Revolution uprooted stable societies and replaced them with something radically different. But this process, rather than taking hundreds or thousands of years, tends to transform traditional, stable societies within a period of decades, turning an acculturation to absence of change into a way of thinking when individuals expect to see dramatic changes within their lifetime and we say that “change is the only constant.”
Move in closer to history once again and look only at the last few decades. The oldest societies of that had experienced the industrial revolution developed a pattern of stability. It is stable growth to be sure — the populations of industrialized nation-states have grown so accustomed to increasing standards of living that they rebel when the economy does not grow several percentage points per year — but it is a kind of stability within the chaotic growth and breakneck change that is the industrial revolution. Just in the past few decades even this stable growth has been given another jolt forward. The twin developments of high speed global transportation (the passenger jet) and high speed global communication (telecommunications and the internet) mean that human lives are changing at an accelerated rate of growth — yet another growth revolution in which a threshold has been crossed that allows growth across a number of other sectors.
What more could follow in this fractal structure of exponential growth? Will we need to consider the changes that will take place in human life — and, more generally, in life on earth — at a level of months, weeks, days, hours, or seconds? While I have written several posts that were highly skeptical of the so-called technological singularity (and I retract nothing that I have said in these posts), this is about the only thing that I can imagine that could once again spike the growth chart and produce yet another exponential growth curve, this time on an even shorter time scale corresponding to an extrapolation of the fractal structure of previous growth revolutions.
Human beings, however, live at a particular level of time consciousness and historical consciousness. We cannot perceive the vast periods of time studied by cosmology, though we can come to understand them through science, and we would not be able to perceive a fractal structure of exponential growth that disappeared into ever smaller periods of time. Thus one possibility is that something like the technological singularity could occur, but it would just as rapidly disappear from our view. We would go on devoting an hour to a leisurely lunch, even while at far higher magnifications of time further revolutions of exponential growth were going on unseen by us. We might come to understand these smaller periods of time through science, but they would mean as little to us in the present as the ultimate fate of the cosmos as contemplated by cosmology.
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