John Robb: Power to the People?

John Robb's piece over at Fast Company also deserves a read (hat tip: Matt Savinar):
The next decade holds mind-bending promise for American business. Globalization is prying open vast new markets. Technology is plowing ahead, fueling--and transforming--entire industries, creating services we never thought possible. Clever people worldwide are capitalizing every which way. But because globalization and technology are morally neutral forces, they can also drive change of a different sort. We saw this very clearly on September 11 and are seeing it now in Iraq and in conflicts around the world. In short, despite the aura of limitless possibility, our lives are evolving in ways we can control only if we recognize the new landscape. It's time to take an unblinking look.
Also see John's latest at his blog here.
Wow, I've read John Robb off and on for years (working at UserLand he became one of the earliest bloggers, pushed into it IIRC by Dave Winer), but I've never seen him this dystopian. Asymmetrical warfare yes, armed communities, no, not that I remember.
This has been my introduction to Robb's writings and I must say, I'm impressed. From the blog
Iraq's state is hollow -- it exists but without any meaningful functionality.... A hollow state doesn't provide the first two layers, which by extension makes the layers above it inconsequential (contrast this to the US strategy for Iraq). These services, to the extent that they do exist, are being supplied by black markets (from gasoline to the 2 MW ad-hoc electricity network in Baghdad) and neighborhood militias. In order to get these services, the population has replaced any residual loyalty to the state with primary loyalties (to tribe, family, mosque, religion, gang, etc.).

Now that this transition to primary loyalties is complete, the feedback loops of ongoing decentralized conflict ... and large scale systems disruption ... will ensure that it stays that way. Also, the alternative transnational market structures of black globalization, driven primarily by the smuggling of hundreds of millions of dollars in bunkered fuel every month, will provide much of the fuel to keep this situation going.

Robb provides a different view of the dissolution in Iraq. The conventional wisdom is a Shia'/Sunni civil war. But Robb both here and in the essay, sees a highly fragmented but efficient set of groups [the open source war cemented by a primary loyalties in a decentralized conflict] operating independently but making marriages of convenience to cooperate when it's in everyone's self-interest. And, from the essay...
Indeed, because the insurgents in Iraq lack a recognizable center of gravity--a leadership structure or an ideology--they are nearly immune to the application of conventional military force.
I respect Robb's arguments but still think the primary loyalty is religious sectarianism. Recent events following the destruction of the sacred mosque
The nature of the Iraq war has been changing since at least the late autumn, when political friction between Sunni and Shiite Arabs rose even as U.S. troops began carrying out a long-term plan to decrease their street presence. But the killings accelerated after the bombing on Feb. 22 of a revered Shiite shrine.... ... that Sunni-Shiite tension sharpened when insurgents destroyed the golden dome of the Askariya shrine in Samarra in February and vengeful Shiite militiamen rampaged through Baghdad and other cities.
There's no doubt that a free-for-all is still in place with little intra-sect discipline. There are a number of Shiite political parties who must agree to unify their political block in any new government. One is led by Moqtada al-Sadr

who seems to be operating independently of the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani or incumbent prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari. From the NY Times Iraq's Premier Is Asked to Quit as Shiites Split

Any dispute between the Shiite bloc's two biggest factions -- Mr. [Abdul-Aziz] al-Hakim's party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, and the party led by Mr. Sadr -- carries with it the possibility of armed violence. The factions are longtime rivals, have backing from Iran and operate militias with members in the Iraqi security forces. Their militias fought street battles last August throughout Baghdad and the south, even hijacking double-decker buses to storm office buildings.
Robb's view is true as far as it goes but I don't think its the end of the story. The greater conflict with the Sunnis could escalate, which would unite all now disparate groups along sectarian lines.
"open source war" or "open source insurgency" is something that the early blog/rss crowd gets.  Parallel innovation without a center has been the tech recent theme, and now Robb (and others) are positioned to identify it in war.

I think we've said in the past that the game changes when insurgents can surf the web (including Robb's site) for the best ideas.

And the insurgents in Iraq have net connections.

There are the different factions in Iraq, Shia/Suni/Kurdish, trying to fill in vacuums in power.

As is probably not widely know, there are also different types of "insurgents", or "terrorists", whatever. On one hand we have the real terrorists, sometimes foreign, who fight on idealistic grounds, or with the sole purpose to destabilize Iraq, aka Al Qeada. A substantial part of the resistance on the other hand, are certainly ordinairy Iraqi's who want the foreign occupants out. These people can best be described as freedom fighters.

These two groups don't cooperate, they despise eachother.

You are talking past what I said.  It is not necessary for people to "cooperate" in order to create distributed centers of innovation in a network connected world.  All the players need is info - reports of the techniques and sucess/faliure of those techniques in other venues.  That is sufficient, without cooperation, for continued innovation.
This with open source warfare brings new meaning to the "cathedral and bazaar" anology of OSes. Time will tell if open source governance can work or not. Asymetrical warfare is by definition open source and centralised opponents in a war. Our own Revolutionary War was open source v. centralised. (colonial insurgency v. Brits)

The open source side has the advantage of cells and groups sharing techniques analogous to Linux coders sharing code to make the next kernel. The Internet facilitates an insurgency just as it facilitates Linux development. Plus, the open source side always have people join and "retire" at will, making intelligence by the centralised side impossible.

The drug war is just as unwinnable as the police have an open source opponent in the form of dealers who come and go as well as manufacturers and importers who come and go. Neutralise any one, and like Whack-A-Mole, a new one emerges to fill the vacuum and supply the market with the not-so-goods.

History is loaded with cases of insurgencies fending off superpowers. Gangs v. cops, the drug war, our Revolution, the French Revolution, etc. And it's found in fiction like Star Wars with an insurgency in personal planes (their flying cars?) v. a Deathstar.

Another advantage of an insurgency is that they can innovate to seemingly no end. The IEDs are a prime example, along with smuggling methods now surely being adopted from drug smugglers. And the biggese advantage is that centralised opponents NEVER learn. Irony of ironies: Now we Americans are the "redcoats"!

This with insurgencies brings up a nightmare scenario for the UN. In America there are 200 million guns in the hands of citizens, along with people who can make IEDs. America collapses, and an Iraq-like situation ensues. (only way bigger) When the peacekeepers come, well you can imagine now with Iraq being the precedent.

Let's see. A sidebar to John Robb's original article says "A new, more resilient approach to national security, one built not around the state but around private citizens and companies, will change how we live and work." Now would 'private citizens and companies' be a lot like vigilantes and mercenaries? Would 'national security...built not around the state' be a lot like a Hobbesian free-for-all?

The original article here is just an ex-Seal looking for employment. Try to be a little more critical, a little more analytical people.

oldhippie -

I tend to agree with  you.

Robb's concept of "a new more resilient approach to natiaonal security, one built not around the state but around private citizens and companies will change how we live and work" isn't so innovative at all.

All you need to do is just go back to the Dark Ages for a similar model: a ragtag array of warlords and minor despots ruling over their small turfs, exploiting their impoverished subjects, and continually making war upon each other. Or if you want a more current model, look no further than urban street gangs. Same basic idea. Robb's little private entities are not much more than slightly  better developed versions of the Cripps and the Bloods.

It doesn't take too feverish of an imagination to picture two neighboring self-contained armed gated communities making war on each other over such things as access to water, roads, waste disposal, etc. Or in resolution of incidents in which a member of one community claims to have been wronged by a member of another one. How does that get resolved and by whom?

So this is supposed to be the 'new way'?  

So this is supposed to be the 'new way'?  

See?  This is the kind of thing I was talking about.

Mr. Robb has covered the new twists to 'cripps and bloods' idea - that the violance and the tools to commit the violence are bartered in an electronic and physical bazzar.  

So it is a bit different than the old 'warlord/despot' model.  And the info is 'put out there' such that anyone with a grudge and a willingness can become a participant.

I don't believe the 'cripps/bloods' are busy sharing their toolsets of violence, nor did warlords of old share the siege weapons/technology of its day.

Mr. Robb has many, many articles on his site.   Go spend hte weekend reading through them all.   The black swan and systemplunket stuff if you only want to spend an hour.

The original article here is just an ex-Seal looking for employment.

Ok.  So, how does that make what he's said and BEEN saying for some time wrong?

Try to be a little more critical, a little more analytical people.

Go ahead, show us all your analytical chops.

Mr. Robb likes to run things through an 'open source' model, just like most TOD readers run the news and evens through a 'oil is limited' filter.

So tell us all how Mr. Robb is wrong.   Like most pundants, he's not 100% right, but his observations are FAR more accessible than what the US Military and think-tankery is doing.  Because, well, he has a web page and all.

I'll be kind and just call myself an "ex-spook looking for answers to his own dumb questions," but here are a few of my thoughts on the topic:

The New Map

Rhizome Military

The Logic of Collapse

One Time Shot

Swarming & Open Source Warfare



It would seem that what Mr. Robb is proposing is nothing new or original. Caligula hiring Germanic warriors to be his bodyguard, the French hiring Swiss mercenary crossbowmen for the battle of Agincourt, the British East India Company creating their own army and navy, the enlistment of Pinkerton gunmen by the robber barons of the late 19th century. Whenever I hear anyone start to tout 'market forces' (as I believe he did so) to control security in a changing world, I get really nervous, kind of like watching a snake oil salesmen hustling his product while I keep a firm hand on my wallet. In short, what he is advocating is protection for the rich and powerful while the rest of us have to manage to get by however we can. There is something not only very frightening about this worldview, but also very anti-American. Private armies and hired goons are not what are country is supposed to be about.
    I would of course be interested in hearing any other views on this matter. What do you think?

                     Subkommander Dred

Various science fiction writers (perhaps most notably, Mack Reynolds) developed the theme that multinational coporations with their own armed forces would displace the nation state as having a "legal monopoly" on the use and threat of violence to impose ordere. The stories were interesting, but to me, unconvincing.

The nation-state has only been the biggest player on the political field for about 500 years; earlier we find alternative arrangements, whether empires, feudal estates or city states.

For what it is worth, my guess is that something along the lines of a city-state may displace the nation-state as a focus of power--combined with some sort of (am not clear in my mind on this at all) world order to suppress pirates and terrorists.

Rarely do I venture on predictions, but here is one: The twenty-first century is going to be as different from the twentieth as the twentieth century was from the seventeenth century. In other words, I think we live in a time of major discontinuity. I suspect that different regions of the world will have extremely different outcomes over the next hundred years. Or to put it differently, I think the "prophets of globalization" who predicted a convergence of living standards and lifestyles throughout the world were and are 100% wrong.

... some sort of (am not clear in my mind on this at all) world order to suppress pirates and terrorists.

They'll need hand-cranked light sabers.  

I suspect that different regions of the world will have extremely different outcomes over the next hundred years.  


I must say: what drivel!

"We have entered the age of the faceless, agile enemy. From London to Madrid and Nigeria to Russia, stateless terrorist groups have emerged to score blow after blow against us."

Nigeria? What did they do to us except lay claim to their oil? Russia? What has Russia done to us -- except resist opening up their gas and oil to us on our terms?

London and Madrid? I'd rather start with 9-11. What did they do to us? Well, it wasn't necessarily they as has been recognized by, most recently, Charlie Sheen; for some time, Ed Asner; several officials from Bush and Reagan administrations (Paul Craig Roberts, Morgan Reynolds, Katherine Austin Fitts); several retired AF Lt Colonels (George Nelson, Robert Bowman, Karen Kwiatkowski); and many others. And once again, the case has been made by theologian David Ray Griffin in his two books: New Pearl Harbor and 9-11 Commission Report: Omissions and Distortions. And of course, Colin Campbell, in a chapter of his Oil Crisis, adds his voice. But Griffin is the Colin Campbell of 9-11, maybe even the Campbell, Deffeyes and Simmons.

The ones doing the dirty work around the globe right now are all too often major corporations and agencies of the US gov't. That's a reality that cannot be talked away.

There rest of the picture painted by Robb is totally bizarre. The idea that cities (and /or corporations) will somehow become self-reliant in face of societal collapse is -- well, I have no words. He somehow imagines that collapse means we'll transit to some kind of high-tech feudalism. He has no idea of the pre-requisites for our current social structure and way of life, nor any idea of the consequences of collapse. His is sort of a high-end type of  survivalism. He's not all that different from Mike Ruppert in some respects, except that Mike is more realistic about some of the things our gov't is up to -- but totally unrealistic in thinking they won't come and pull up our vegetables.

Thank you davebygolly for putting some reality into the discussion.  As for London and Bali - both of those incidents were false flag acts by western states to demonize Muslims.
Madrid was an odd one.  Madrid was a false flag operation by Spanish fascists to demonize Basques.  When the frame quickly failed, they went to plan B, murdered some Muslims and framed them posthumously.  This was similar to the notorious Bologna bombing,done by Italian fascists to frame the largely mythical red brigade.
The reality is that there has been very little terrorism that was not false flag and state sponsored.
Well, the only one I've really looked into besides 9-11 is The Oklhahoma City Bombing. David Hoffman's book of that name shows very clearly that the official story is completely wrong. First of all, the were lots of local media reports of more than one bomb. Second, Brig. Gen Benton Partin, an explosives expert, explained how the ammonia nitrates in the rental truck in front of the building could not possibly have brought down the building -- explosive force drops off with the inverse cube of distance. Explosives, powerful ones at that, must be place right next to the columns. Partin got back into line around 9-11. He's a right-winger, and may have been upset they were trying to hang this on McVeigh and Nichols.

There has been a subsequent attempt by Jayna Davis to retroactively implicate Muslims. They may have been intending to implicate Muslims from the get go -- there were Middle Easterners in the picture -- but things went awry and they had to hang it on somebody. But that's speculation on my part.

In both WTC and Oklahoma there were huge real estate components. Large-scale demolitions took place at public expense. Some 17 buildings came down in the wake of the Oklahoma bombing. Now I believe it's all rebuilt and very nice. Same thing in process at WTC.

It drives me crazy to see all the anti-Muslim stuff swallowed like lemonade. Yeah, like that's all they have to do is go around and give the US gov't pretexts to do what they were already planning to do: blow up Muslims, at least those sitting on oil. Do people not remember the German propaganda against the Jews? It ought to be played on TV every night in translation so that people could see exactly what's going on, see the parallels. And what are the chances of that happening?

I have seen one popularized analysis of the Oklahoma bombing that argued that the overpreassure from the truck bomb affected a very large facade and structure are and thus toppled the load bearing structure. Looked belivable at the time I saw it but it was only TV.

It still sounds much more reasonable then complex conspiracies. Ambitious rebuilding can be explained by a healthy societies ambition to not let criminals make permanent damage.

This reminds me about how fairly small explosions have brought down large parts of high rise buildings made out of concrete elements. A gas oven in a bottom flat leaks and the gas explodes. The roof and all the flats above it are lifted slightly by the overpreassure and the outer wall is unloaded. The wall then easily blows outwards when it no longer is held in place by the full weight of the overlying flats, then they come down...

Well, the Murrah building had a steel-frame structure that had to be disposed of. And Partin's testimony has to be disposed of. And the local reports of two or more explosions have to disposed of. And lastly, 9-11 has to be disposed of. Before 9-11, I accepted ALL these stories at face value. But 9-11 cannot be disposed of. Read Griffin.
This looks like "proof by contradiction", i.e. if one side can find something wrong with the opposing side, the arguing side must be true.

But with virtually everything touted as a government cover-up, there are multiple alternative explanations.  And most or all of them can point to evidence invalidating most or all of the others.

Therefore since all of the explanations of what happened on 9/11 can be shown to be wrong, can we conclude that nothing happened?

OK eric blair I'll take the bait just a little.

All the memes, hooks, buzzwords, rhetorical flourishes and bogeymen that John Robb uses to scare you are borrowed straight from Minitrue. If you don't get that reference start rereading the other eric blair. After allowing state propaganda to prepare the psychic ground he moves in and puts the actual physical means of coercion (and yes he is very interested in that) into private hands, his own.

As repellent a dystopia as I've ever hears of. And if someone believes that's the dystopia that's gonna come please don't enthuse over the "business opportunities".

"Terrorism" and "international crime" in Iraq. LOL. LOL. How about just the locals with rusty 1947 model carbines trying to defend their homes?

Jeez, hasn't this guy read Sun Tzu's The Art of War from something like 512BC  or know anything about 4th gen warfare?

I feel really constrained given TOD's now wide readership but a well devloped plan could probably shut down the US without WMD or any fancy stuff with 1,000 people.

I was really unimpressed by the article.

"But because globalization and technology are morally neutral forces..."

Sorry John, but anyone who has ever done a cultural studies course knows that there is nothing neutral, morally or ethically about technology, let alone globalization.

As someone who has not taken a cultural studies course, could you enlighten me on the non-neutrality of technology?
Theory of Power, Chapter 7: Neutral Technology and the Demands of Power

That's my take on the question: technology is neutral in the sense that it does not consciously want a "good" or "bad" outcome, but every technology brings with it certain systemic demands that often have severe and unintended consequences.

Science is neutral, that is the understanding how the universe is put together, are subsequent use of that knowledge to reorder things is never neutral, the easist example, would you call an atomic bomb, morally neutral?

Our misunderstanding of technology and its impact on our lives still overwhelms our understanding of it, it's why this blog exists.

Of course, millions of readers should have had all of this information decades ago...IF they had actually bothered to read the books they bought...

Go get an old dusty copy of the great trilogy by Alvin Toffler:

"Future Shock"
"The Third Wave"

If you can only read one of the above, go with the "Third Wave" and be astounded at the accuracy and inclusiveness of foresight DECADES in advance.