A Battlefield of Disorder

In the first post of this year I start­ed out with a bit of video by Adam Cur­tis, which men­tions Rus­si­a’s use of “non­lin­ear war” to cre­ate con­fu­sion in its ene­mies. I said it remind­ed me of the ideas of John Boyd, because he talks about mis­match­es a lot: The impor­tance of min­imis­ing mis­match­es between your per­cep­tion of exter­nal real­i­ty and its actu­al nature, and max­imis­ing same for your enemies.

After writ­ing that post, Alper shared an arti­cle crit­i­cis­ing Adam Cur­tis. In it, Dan Han­cox says Cur­tis impos­es his (over­ly sim­plis­tic) world view on us, while dress­ing it up as reveal­ing jour­nal­ism. Along the way he men­tions this LRB arti­cle by James Meek on the British cam­paign in Afghanistan’s Hel­mand region. It makes for an intrigu­ing read. To men­tion two things: 

  1. Meek talks about how there was a mis­match (my words, not his) between the con­cepts that made up the British doc­trine, and the nature of the real­i­ty they encoun­tered. For exam­ple, they were unable to account for a large part of the pop­u­la­tion resist­ing them.
  2. Meek also talks about the British army’s inabil­i­ty to learn in peace­time. There seems to be a lack of inter­est for intel­lec­tu­al analy­sis and the devel­op­ment of new ideas.

The same day I fin­ished read­ing Meek I watched Restre­po, a doc­u­men­tary about a US pla­toon in Afghanistan’s Koren­gal Val­ley. One of the things that stood out for me was the appar­ent mis­match (again, my words) between how the US forces we fol­low in the doc con­cep­tu­alise their oppo­nent, and what we know about their true nature. They often talk about Al-Qae­da as if it is some well-organ­ised army mir­ror­ing their own, when as with British in the Hel­mand, we can see that more often than not they are being resist­ed (while some­times simul­ta­ne­ous­ly being exploit­ed) by a local pop­u­lace who does not con­sid­er them bringers of free­dom and prosperity.

The feel­ing crept up on me that part of what is going on with those US sol­diers may also be wil­ful igno­rance, because for them that almost seems the only way to be able to keep fight­ing. (They go home bro­ken men regard­less though, it is ter­ri­ble to see the change in them wrought by such violence.)

All the same, con­ceiv­ing of your oppo­nent as a well-ordered force which can at some point be deci­sive­ly defeat­ed, plays into the ene­my’s hands. It also mis­un­der­stands the nature of con­tem­po­rary war­fare, which isn’t a con­test of tech­nol­o­gy, but a war of ideas. This is also what is men­tioned in Cur­tis’s film, when he talks about Surkov’s non­lin­ear war.

I lat­er dug up a For­eign Pol­i­cy arti­cle which delves even deep­er into the nature of Rus­si­a’s approach to war­fare. Read­ing it, a pic­ture emerges that the Krem­lin may very well under­stand non­west­ern per­spec­tives on the cur­rent world order bet­ter than the west does, which they lever­age to their ben­e­fit. Or, if this under­stand­ing is present in the west, then the Rus­sians are sim­ply bet­ter able at act­ing in accor­dance with it.

Peter Pomer­ant­sev, the arti­cle’s author, says we can com­pare the Krem­lin’s view of glob­al­i­sa­tion as a sort of cor­po­rate raid­ing, “the ultra-vio­lent, post-Sovi­et ver­sion of cor­po­rate takeovers.” Even if Rus­sia is weak, tech­no­log­i­cal­ly speak­ing, through non­lin­ear war it can lever­age its rel­a­tive weak­ness. And if we think Rus­sia is iso­lat­ed, we might be too eager to stick to our own view of glob­al­i­sa­tion as (again) a lib­er­at­ing influ­ence which brings pros­per­i­ty to less devel­oped nations. Accord­ing to Pomer­ant­sev, BRIC coun­tries see the “glob­al vil­lage” as a rigged game (jus­ti­fi­ably so, I would add), thus they have no issues with Rus­sia not play­ing by the (that is to say the west­’s) rules.

In short, Rus­sia seems to have a more sophis­ti­cat­ed grasp of con­tem­po­rary war­fare as a war of ideas than the west does.

Cir­cling back to Boyd, in the final sec­tion of Osin­ga’s book on the Mad Major he refers to a 1989 arti­cle by Bill Lind, one of Boy­d’s asso­ciates, which talks about idea-dri­ven fourth-gen­er­a­tion war­fare. Its prac­ti­tion­ers wage pro­tract­ed asym­met­ric war. For these actors it is a polit­i­cal, not a mil­i­tary struggle.

Lind says the bat­tle­field has shift­ed from one of order, to a bat­tle­field of dis­or­der. But west­ern mil­i­tary organ­i­sa­tions are still organ­ised on first-gen­er­a­tion prin­ci­ples, oper­at­ing in an order­ly fash­ion, in stead of being struc­tured so that they can deal with and lever­age disorder.

Osin­ga also talks about Van Crev­eld, who makes the point that for these 4GW prac­ti­tion­ers, war is an end, not a means. West­ern rules do not apply to their con­cep­tion of the strug­gle. War does not serve a pol­i­cy, it is pol­i­cy. In addi­tion, war is not fought in the tech­no­log­i­cal dimen­sion but in the moral dimension.

All of this leaves me even more con­flict­ed about con­tem­po­rary war­fare than I already was. (And let me say here that my inter­est in the sub­ject comes not from blood­lust but an almost naive desire for world peace, or at least an ever-increas­ing dimin­ish­ment of suf­fer­ing. But I try to face real­i­ty regard­less.) Per­haps one of the most trou­bling impli­ca­tions is that for us to have a chance at “win­ning”, we need to aban­don our old rules of conduct. 

This is the type of essen­tial­ly ille­gal war being engaged in by the US, as doc­u­ment­ed in Dirty Wars. I was and still am appalled by the prac­tices of remote war­fare described there­in. But hav­ing read all of the above it now also makes a per­verse kind of sense. If you’re at war with non-state actors, you are at a severe dis­ad­van­tage if you must adhere to inter­na­tion­al laws and the sov­er­eign­ty of states. 

The alternative—if we accept that for us war is a means towards an end but for our adver­saries war is an end in itself—is to exer­cise a much larg­er amount of restraint as nations, even in the face of all man­ner of ter­ror­ism, than we ever have before. Some­times Oba­ma’s drone pro­gram is framed as this more restrained, con­trolled response to ter­ror, but I can’t help but think that any kind of vio­lent response plays into our ene­my’s hands, as today’s drone strikes clear­ly do.

And any­way, remote war­fare miss­es the point about the shift from tech­nol­o­gy to ideas: We’ll nev­er “win” if we don’t start to make con­vinc­ing argu­ments about the moral­i­ty (but not moral suprema­cy) of our way of life to those pop­u­la­tions effec­tive­ly being held hostage by those actors ben­e­fit­ing from per­pet­u­al war.

Because, if we hope to win by aban­don­ing things that made us who we are (the rule of law, democ­ra­cy, eco­nom­ic and social jus­tice) in many ways we are already defeated.

This game is rigged, man.”

I am going to try my hand at the occa­sion­al blog­ging again. And I have decid­ed to do this not at my tum­blr, but back here. It was fine to post things to Tum­blr occa­sion­al­ly, but I have start­ed to dis­like not hav­ing these notes on my own serv­er. And per­haps more impor­tant­ly, I start­ed to get real­ly annoyed by Tum­blr’s lack of a func­tion­ing search. So, I’ve import­ed all the things I post­ed to Tum­blr over the past few years into this blog, and we’ll con­tin­ue where we left off.

In this first post of the new year, some things relat­ed to inequal­i­ty under late cap­i­tal­ism. To begin with a bit of video from Adam Cur­tis for Char­lie Brook­er’s enjoy­able end-of-the-year review Wipe 2014.

I was point­ed to this by Hans de Zwart and on Twit­ter I respond­ed that the idea of non-lin­ear­i­ty reminds me of the ideas on war­fare devel­oped by John Boyd, which I am cur­rent­ly knee-deep in. And Boy­d’s ideas of win­ning by decreas­ing mis­match­es between your mod­el of exter­nal real­i­ty and real­i­ty itself while increas­ing those mis­match­es for your oppo­nent in turn con­nects with James C. Scot­t’s con­cept of leg­i­bil­i­ty.

Mean­hwile, James Bri­dle has been chart­ing tech­no­log­i­cal infra­struc­tures of con­trol for The Nor, a project com­mis­sioned by the Hay­ward Gallery. The essays James has writ­ten on his chart­ing of sur­veil­lance cam­eras, radar and high-fre­quen­cy trad­ing infra­struc­ture are huge­ly enjoy­able reads because James has gone out there and done the leg­work. This isn’t idle the­o­ris­ing, these are ideas ground­ed in lived expe­ri­ence of today’s real­i­ty on the ground. While recount­ing his expe­ri­ences trac­ing these tech­no­log­i­cal infra­struc­tures, James makes many inter­est­ing con­nec­tions to lit­er­a­ture, as well as non-obvi­ous obser­va­tions about how these tech­nolo­gies relate to today’s social injus­tices. Long sto­ry short: you should go and read the lot of them.

Inequal­i­ty is engi­neered, and delib­er­ate. It is an arbi­trag­ing of social con­di­tions, a per­pet­u­a­tion of the exist­ing sit­u­a­tion by those who seek to prof­it from its differences.

Low Laten­cy, James Bridle

The rea­son I am blog­ging these things is that I con­tin­ue to be inter­est­ed in new forms of resis­tance against the non-lin­ear war­fare described by Cur­tis and Bri­dle’s tech­nolo­gies of con­trol. The first step is to become aware of these strate­gies, but to return to Boyd, the ques­tion then is how to oper­ate in such a way that you can sur­vive on your own terms, by using tem­po and agili­ty and basi­cal­ly a bet­ter under­stand­ing of reality. 

To close things off, a few recent things I read which are all about cap­i­tal­ism, and its instru­men­tal­i­sa­tion of every­day life. First off, Andres O’He­hir on the per­ceived death of adult­hood, a phe­nom­e­non which I sort of recog­nise, and which he apt­ly describes not as some kind of con­scious lifestyle choice or mega­trend, but as a thing emerg­ing from the demands put on us by the mar­ket and the cul­tur­al industry. 

The suit-wear­ing, gin-drink­ing 35-year-old Orga­ni­za­tion Man of 1964 and the couch-bound, action-fig­ure-col­lect­ing 35-year-old fan­boy of 2014 are dialec­ti­cal mir­ror images of each oth­er, eco­nom­ic arche­types called forth by their respec­tive eras.

The “death of adult­hood” is real­ly just cap­i­tal­ism at work, Andrew O’Hehir

It’s curi­ous to think that “becom­ing an adult” is some­thing the mar­ket does not want you to do. 

And final­ly, two pieces on the shar­ing econ­o­my. One, by Avi Ash­er-Schapiro, clear­ly describ­ing how Uber’s blue­print makes the liveli­hood of work­ers even more pre­car­i­ous, while at the same time forc­ing them to tell their cus­tomers they love their jobs. The oth­er, by the infa­mous Evge­ny Moro­zov, right­ly points out the shar­ing econ­o­my alle­vi­ates some of the pains of liv­ing under late cap­i­tal­ism, while doing noth­ing to solve the root caus­es of those ails.

But under the guise of inno­va­tion and progress, com­pa­nies are strip­ping away work­er pro­tec­tions, push­ing down wages, and flout­ing gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tions. At its core, the shar­ing econ­o­my is a scheme to shift risk from com­pa­nies to work­ers, dis­cour­age labor orga­niz­ing, and ensure that cap­i­tal­ists can reap huge prof­its with low fixed costs.

There’s noth­ing inno­v­a­tive or new about this busi­ness mod­el. Uber is just cap­i­tal­ism, in its most naked form.

Against Shar­ing, Avi Asher-Schapiro

There’s no deny­ing that the shar­ing econ­o­my can – and prob­a­bly does – make the con­se­quences of the cur­rent finan­cial cri­sis more bear­able. How­ev­er, in tack­ling the con­se­quences, it does noth­ing to address the caus­es. It’s true that, thanks to advances in the infor­ma­tion tech­nol­o­gy, some of us can final­ly get by with less – chiefly, by rely­ing on more effec­tive dis­tri­b­u­tion of exist­ing resources. But there’s noth­ing to cel­e­brate here: it’s like hand­ing every­body earplugs to deal with intol­er­a­ble street noise instead of doing some­thing about the noise itself.

Don’t believe the hype, the ‘shar­ing econ­o­my’ masks a fail­ing econ­o­my, Evge­ny Morozov

I blog these things as a reminder to myself of some of the argu­ments against the cur­rent vogue of dig­i­tal­ly medi­at­ed ser­vice deliv­ery plat­forms. They can be so seduc­tive and many clients and peers seem blind­ed by their promis­es. I am inter­est­ed in sal­vaging the good bits of these ser­vices, they are after all poten­tial­ly empow­er­ing, while com­ing up with solu­tions to the injus­tices they per­pe­trate and enlarge.