Vapors of a Infernal Machine: Towards a General Theory of Strategy


This is the threefold path of strategy:

  1. power: the possibility of friendly conditions
  2. control: conditions friendly to aspiration
  3. purpose: an aspiration for how things should be

Power is converted into control to achieve purpose. This is 97% of any general theory of strategy. The rest is details.

But woe unto the world for details, for it must needs be that details come, but woe unto the general theory of strategy by which the details come. The first detail that strategy must bear is the varying and divergent intensity of power, control, and purpose.

A powerful step falls on a spectrum of intensity between influence and violence.

Spectrum of Power

A controlling step falls on a spectrum of intensity between diversity and conformity.

Spectrum of Control

A purposeful step falls on a spectrum of intensity between the limited and the total.

Spectrum of Purpose

More exactly…

Power is a smear of intensity between influence and violence.

Smear of Power

Control is a smear of intensity between diversity and conformity.

Purpose is a smear of intensity between the limited and the total.
Smear of Purpose

The second detail that strategy must bear is a remarkable trinity that erratically swings between three dueling forces:

  • tacit: the knowable and foreseeable
  • contingent: the unknown and unforeseen
  • explicit: the known and foreseen

The tacit may be known or unknown. It may be foreseen and unforeseen. Its major characteristic is that the tacit possesses the possibility of being known and foreseen, even if it remains unknown and foreseen.

The contingent will never be known or foreseen. It will always remain unknown and unforeseen.

The explicit is already known and foreseen. Because what can be known and foreseen at any given stage is intrinsically limited, the explicit remains more fragile than the tacit and the contingent. The explicit is often only a gloss on that which is really tacit or contingent.

Left to its own devices, each force would push towards its logical extreme:

  • the tacit would push towards total ambiguity
  • the contingent would push towards total randomness
  • the explicit would push towards total awareness

Each force, however, keeps the other two in check as they clash.

The fact that such combinations proliferate is the third detail strategy must bear.

Consider the many possible combinations of power, control, and purpose. How much more frightening is the combination of these combinations with the possible combinations of the tacit, contingent, and explicit? The outcome of such combinations is largely contingent. Their outcomes are almost entirely unknowable and unforeseeable. The only thing you can know and foresee is that such combinations will generate friction, which conspires to frustrate purpose.

The possibilities for friction are infinite, worlds without end.

Power can be:

  • tacit: knowable possibilities that are not necessarily known and foreseeable possibilities that are not necessarily foreseen
  • contingent: unknown and unforeseeable possibilities
  • explicit: known and foreseen possibilities

Control can be:

  • tacit: knowable friendly conditions that are not necessarily known and foreseeable friendly conditions that are not necessarily foreseen
  • contingent: unknown and unforeseeable friendly conditions
  • explicit: known and foreseen friendly conditions

Purpose can be:

  • tacit: knowable aspirations that are not necessarily known and foreseeable aspirations that are not necessarily foreseen
  • contingent: unknown and unforeseeable aspirations
  • explicit: known and foreseen aspirations

These combinations fall between two polar opposites:

  • sequential: effort proceeds smoothly from power to control to purpose in a discernibly linear sequence
  • cumulative: effort eventually builds from power to control to purpose as a side effect of possibly disconnected events

The most sequential combination is explicit violence, explicit conformity, and explicit total purpose. The most cumulative combination is tacit influence, tacit diversity, and tacit limited purpose. All combinations are victims or beneficiaries of the contingent as they listen for its footfalls through history, hoping against hope to catch its coattails as it lumbers past.

This dependence on the whims of contingency to empower the tacit and explicit makes strategy the accumulation of expedients. The struggle of strategy is to tacitly or explicitly impress enough control on this accumulation so that it moves it in the direction of purpose.

All life is tactical. A tactic is an interaction with things as they are, an expedient in response to a problem. Under the most dire conditions, there is no let up in the number of problems. This makes many actions little more than a disconnected series of expedients driven by pressing necessity. Shifting tactics from interactions with things as they are to keep things as they are to interactions with things as they are with an eye towards things as they should be is a luxury and an extremely unnatural one at that. Purpose beyond physical survival is a cross only a higher order of mortal, a little lower than the angels, must bear. Mortals can aspire to purposes beyond securing existence, including striving for increasing relatedness and even growth.

The initial effort at moving past the tactical threshold is arranging an accumulation of tactics in concrete space and time so that they build towards purpose. Such arrangements rely on a reconciliation of purpose with power, the central exercise of strategy. For power to be converted into control and control to build towards achieving purpose, the quantity and quality of power must reasonably align with the nature and scope of purpose. Such alignment is tricky, relying as it does on the fortuitous confluence of tacit, contingent, and explicit.

Another complication in strategic reconciliation is the conflicting demands of higher purpose and power. Politics, the immediate master of strategy, is the division of power. Its purpose is getting more power than the other guy. Culture, the master of strategy one step removed, is the prioritization of purposes. There is no guarantee that the purposes prioritized by culture will match the central purpose of politics. Growth may trump relatedness. Relatedness may trump existence. Strategy must straddle both power and purpose as it attempts to reconcile them into one overall effort. If power is short-changed, purpose cannot be achieved because control cannot be established. If purpose is short-changed, existence is little more than a random string of meaningless tactical encounters, one darn thing after another.

Achieving purpose is inevitably frustrated by friction. Some emanates from the inanimate. Some comes from the all too animate. Animated friction is more challenging than inanimate friction because animate friction reacts. Moreover, it reacts in ways that deliberately seek to thwart purpose. The struggle against animate friction can be tactical or strategic. It can even rise to the level of politics or even culture.

However, there are outer limits on such endeavors. The struggle against friction in the pursuit of purpose reaches a culminating point beyond which effort only yields diminishing control. At the beginning of an effort, power is undiminished and higher purposes are clearly prioritized. As an effort persists, control over low hanging fruit is acquired, after which returns on power expended decline. Power diminishes, control fades, and purpose becomes confused. An effort’s participants focus more and more on immediate tactical purposes than the overall original priorities. Purpose ceases to be explicit and becomes more tacit, though it remains at the mercy of the contingent. Strategy disintegrates into a cloud of random and disconnected tactical encounters.

3 thoughts on “Vapors of a Infernal Machine: Towards a General Theory of Strategy”

  1. This is a wonderful post but I’m still a bit confused (it’s me, not you!).

    I always thought power was “me”, control was “you” and purpose was “my will.”

    I’m making a common error, aren’t I?

    – Madhu

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