Cross-posted from zenpundit.com
The following is a post by seydlitz89, a noted Clausewitzian commentator who has participated in three round tables here at Chicago Boyz, and who wanted to respond to a recent post of mine that discussed strategy and superempowered individuals, a discussion that also involved Joseph Fouche, Charles Cameron and others. For many readers in this corner of the blogosphere who are interested in strategy, Seydlitz should need no introduction, but for those that do:
seydlitz89 is a former US Marine and Army intelligence officer who served in a civilian capacity in Berlin during the last decade of the Cold War. He was involved as both an intelligence operations specialist and an operations officer in strategic overt humint collection and now blogs and posts on the internet and can be contacted at seydlitz89 at web.de. He lives with his family in northern Portugal and works in education. His writings have appeared at Clausewitz.com, Defense and the National Interest, Milpub and on three Chicagoboyz Roundtables.
Politics Requires People (a Response to “War, the Individual, Strategy and the State”)
By seydlitz89, 3 August 2011
I would like to first off thank Zen for this opportunity to guest post on his great blog.
I am essentially a small town Southern conservative who is dissatisfied with both US political parties. I search in vain for a conservative politics worth the name. So my politics are out of the way and any potential ideological influences indicated.
Strategic theory is a means to understand strategic reality (for lack of a better term). There are times when it’s just kind of interesting and times when it can help you literally survive, say if you and your Greek family lived in Smyrna in 1919 and knew that the Greek Army had just landed to fight the Turks, and that the Turks would probably win this war and treat the Greeks in Smyrna none too kindly. You would probably think it prudent to leave the city and go someplace safer, like Athens, Cyprus or Crete. Strategic theory is kind of like that, it provides understanding to events and possibly a general direction those events may take, although it is primarily a tool of military historical analysis. That is future prediction is not really part of the deal, but sometimes the relation between the stated political purpose and the military means available, not to mention the character of the enemy provide such a clear indicator of how events are going to turn out, that it becomes clear either figuratively or even literally that it is time to “get out of town”, so to speak.
Strategic theory uses a system of interlocking concepts which comprise for Clausewitzians Clausewitz’s General Theory of war. The General Theory postulates that there exists a system of common attributes to all wars as violent social interactions and that war belongs to a larger body ofhuman relations and actions known as “politics” (all wars belong within the realm of politics, but not all politics is war). While all wars share these characteristics, warfare, as in how to conduct wars, is very much based on the society and level of technology existing at a specific time. War doesn’t change whereas warfare goes through a process of constant change. Clausewitz’s General Theory need only be flexible enough to adequately understand war and act at the same time as a basis for war planning. It need not be perfect and is not expected to be so. Essentially , it need only be better than the next best theory, and so far we Clausewitzians are still waiting for this second-best theory to make its appearance.
Warfare is thus the specific “art of war” for a particular period ofhuman history, but would have to be compatible (following Wylie) with the General Theory. On War presents at the same time Clausewitz’s General Theory and his art of Napoleonic warfare, that is a theory of warfare for his time, which is one of the reasons readers find the book confusing. As new methods of warfare come into practice, new theoretical concepts emerge. It is one of these potential concepts that this particular paper and the discussion which initiated it is all about, that being the superempowered individual.
I do this by describing what is an ideal type of the superempowered individual.
To start I think it first necessary to provide the entire interaction that triggered Zen’s post and in turn this one. The discussion was on one of Charles Cameron’s threads concerning the recent act of the Norwegian terrorist Breivik (ABB) To save on space I won’t reproduce the entire interaction here but limit it first to four points that I made:
- Clausewitzian strategic theory pertains to collectives, all concepts – war, political purpose, military aim, victory, defeat, strategy, operations, the various trinities – pertain to collectives, and a very particular collective at that – political communities.
- The violent/destructive actions of an individual representing only himself (even a superempowered individual) operating against a state or other political community do not constitute war, they are rather by definition the actions of a criminal.
- The mindset of such individuals is a pathological condition of our times, the result in part of the age of TV, alienation, “reality” without context, and endless sensuous banalities.
- ABB and super empowered individuals do not constitute war or a political program, but could potentially be seen as a weapon of a foreign political program, one possibly at odds with the goals of the actual individual, making that individual into something along the lines of a false-flag suicide bomber.
Originally, I had included „tactics” in the mix of the first point regarding concepts. Tactics can be both individual (although in a different sense) and collective, as in the tactics of the individual soldier and the tactics of a rifle company, although the individual soldier always acts in relationship to the group. I have also added some addiitional concepts to indicate how universal this collective aspect in fact is.
The last point I have expanded just a bit by including the last concept mentioned “ffsb”.
Joseph Fouche in that same Cameron post commented in response to me:
From Clausewitzian perspective, Breivik’s actions are the conjunction of the three poles of the Trinity, two of which have nothing to with Breivik’s rationality. If CvC can’t be applied to madmen, criminals, mass murderers of children, or men trapped in their own little world, then Van Creveld’s contention that the actions of madmen can’t be considered political (in noted Clausewitzian Christopher Bassford’s use of the word) is correct. War would be “nontrinitarian”.
The words and ideas of murderous stooges have consequences as well as their actions. CvC can shine as much light on them as he can on any other field of human conflict.
Can Breivik’s actions can be considered war? Can an individual wage war? By his own sinister lights, Breivik considered himself at war, the Pied Piper of a host of other Breiviks born and unborn, even if that host only existed in his fevered imagination.
Can an individual have a strategy? Or can an individual only have a strategem? Breivik had a plan that had a tactical expression and a political effect (as here we comment on the doings of an otherwise obscure Norwegian). Does the jumbled mass of tissues that connect his evil ends with his evil means rise to the level of strategy?
These are all very good questions and fundamental as Zen points out, but from my Clausewitzian strategic theory perspective I would have to answer “no” to all -except the penultimate one – of them.
I also think these questions very tied to our particular time and place, the US in 2011 and our political context, or rather what I would refer to as our current “political dysfunction” which encompasses us, something along the lines of political determinism which is arguably Clausewitzian as well (see Echevarria’s third meaning of the term Politik). If modernity is seen as a series of crises involving renewed conflict between the individual and the collective, and how they relate to each other, going back thousands of years, to Thucydides who first described it, then this Is perhaps the final such crisis where the individual supersedes the collective as the ultimate focus, which means essentially in my mind the end of the collective as a social action orientation at least in the US.
This post is organized as a sequence of concepts and ideas which address the simple question as to whether the violent actions of an isolated individual acting alone can be described as “war”. To answer this fundamental question from a Clausewitzian perspective requires clear definitions of a whole series of related concepts and descriptions of how they are all interlocked with one another, forming a whole which is socio/political relations.
Let’s start off with a simple definition of politics. Politics is “the striving to share power or striving to influence the distribution of power, either among states or among groups within a state” (Max Weber). Hans Morgenthau’s definition is even more to the point: “interest de?ned as power”. Harold Lasswell’s functional definition fits within this general concept as well: “who gets what, when and how”. Essentially politics is the sphere of power/the sharing of power within and between groups. Notions that “the purpose of warlike acts reaches beyond the state and politics” are incoherent from this strategic theory perspective since politics would involve all power relations between social groups of whatever kind, and would not be limited to the state, which is simply an apparatus of political control. It is for this reason that Clausewitz includes war as part of the nature of political relations. Even a purpose which reaches beyond politics, such as a believer serving God, has a political aspect, since the believer is part of a larger community and acts due to a range of motivations.
A political community is a group who share the same political identity, defining themselves as opposed to those outside this community. Different elements can go into this identity such as a common language, ethnicity, religion, geography, shared historical (or even mythical) experiences, a common struggle, but there are a few basic requirements according to Weber. For instance social action oriented towards the group which goes beyond economic activity, the claim of loyalty and sacrifice (even of one’s life) which the member feels towards the group and vice versa, and a collection of “shared memories”. It is important to note that the concept of the political, is the only secular value sphere where one’s death has meaning, “having died for one’s country”. Political communities go back to the dawn of civilization and can be states, but not necessarily so.
So the state is simply an apparatus by which the rulers of a political community achieve material cohesion and exercise control. A classic definition of the state is Max Weber’s an entity which has a monopoly of the legitimate use of force within a given territory. This is very simple definition which covers a wide range of institutions going back to antiquity, that is far beyond 1648. Two things here to consider: monopoly of force and legitimacy. Force here is essentially violence or the threat of violence (coercion) and legitimacy is how the people of the political community perceive that potential or real violence. A policeman motioning a car to pull over is legitimate coercion, whereas a mugger stealing someone’s wallet is illegitimate force.
What is important to consider though, is that legitimacy, force and especially coercion play a much larger role in political relations than we realize. In Classical Realist thought which includes Clausewitz, Weber, Reinhold Niebuhr, Hans Morgenthau and many other thinkers/theorists, legitimacy and coercion are what hold political communities together As Niebuhr wrote in his famous Moral Man and Immoral Society of 1932:
Our contemporary culture fails to realize the power, extent and persistence of group egoism in human relations. It may be possible, though it is never easy, to establish just relations between individuals within a group purely by moral and rational suasion and accommodation. In inter-group relations this is practically an impossibility. The relations between groups must therefore always be predominantly political rather than ethical, that is, they will be determined by the proportion of power which each group possesses at least as much as by any rational and moral appraisal of the comparative needs and claims of each group. The coercive factors, in distinction to the more purely moral and rational factors, in political relations can never be sharply differentiated and defined. It is not possible to estimate exactly how much a party to a social conflict is influenced by a rational argument or by the threat of force. It is impossible for instance, to know what proportion of a privileged class accepts higher inheritance taxes because it believes that such taxes are good social policy and what proportion submits merely because the power of the state supports the taxation policy. Since political conflict, at least in times when controversies have not reached the point of crisis, is carried on by the threat, rather than the actual use, of force.
With this quote we can see how the concepts fit together, including the view that power relations between groups are politics by definition.
At this point we need to introduce two other important Weberian definitions, the first of which is power: “Power is the probability that one actor within a social relationship will be in a position to carry out his own will despite resistance, regardless of the basis on which this probability rests”. Notice that power for us here is a social relationship between members of the same political community, although the concept is flexible enough to apply to any social relationship Notice too the similarity between Weber’s definition of power and Clausewitz’s definition of war , “war is thus an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will”. (On War, Book I, Chapter 1, Section 2).
And the last concept, which I have mentioned repeatedly but not defined is legitimacy, which is the willingness of the ruled within a political community to accept this rule as personally binding. Illegitimate rule does not exist by definition, but would be simply force. What allows a political system, which need not necessarily be a state, to exist over time is the legitimate use of power. Still, as Niebuhr reminds us, the actual compliance can be a mixture of both acceptance (based on legitimacy) and coercion (the thread of force). It is useful to conceive of both power and legitimacy as being similar to sliding scales of very low to very high. The levels of both can vary over time.
Politics or simply who in a society gets what, when, and how is an art. The slow drilling through hard boards as Weber described it, hard work, talking, working out differences, long discussions into the night: in a democracy something that requires a vocation, a calling, to aspire to. Hard decisions over a long period of time and living with the consequences, that is what politics used to be like, even In our country . . . believe it or not.
How should politics be approached? Maybe like what the Norwegians were teaching their kids on that island, what the Norwegian terrorist wished to destroy?
If one takes just a moment to consider, what for instance the great questions were in 1917 (among people like Weber, Thomas Mann, Walter Lippmann, John Dewey and others) and approximately how far we are politically and intellectually from that standpoint, I think you start to get an idea of where I see us presently.
So, let’s consider that list of important questions from the year JFK was born. These, one would have to add (or put at the top of such a list):
- Given that democracy is the only permanent option for social stability, how do we set up a truly democratic system, that is where the various elite interests (traditional, economic) are not engulfed by the interests of the common folk?
- Can a modern mass state be democratic? Are bureaucratized political parties the answer? How should they be organized/structured? How should political leaders be trained? What experiences should they have?
- Is there an easier way?
So why bring this up? To give a feeling for where we are now and where we were. Also to point out the simple fact that the superempowered individual (SEI) does not act at the political level. This individual never really interacts with anyone politically at least in terms of social action. Since they are assumed to be isolated, alienated individualists with little traditional, affective or value-rational social contact, they will be almost by necessity radical egotists who preen constantly in their own assumed glory, emperors of their own little world. From their perspective, essentially every person is viewed as a tool, something to be manipulated in their search for gratification of whatever sort.
Nor does the SEI enjoy any sense of legitimacy. The government/state or even the people themselves are the victims of what they see as a criminal act. If the government were widely seen as corrupt and even dictatorial, such an act would probably provide them with legitimacy in how they dealt with the crisis as long as it appeared effective. The SEI gains notoriety through the act, any excuse provided will most likely come across as incoherent (due to the lack of any preceding dialogue).
The SEI’s situation is due to the demands of simple operational security. No one must know of what the SEI Is doing, let alone their motives. They must not call attention to themselves through any overt political behavior.
Only at a certain time will the act of mass violence occur. As it did in Norway recently.
So we have a (domestic) act of violence, in the Norwegian instance, terroristic violence used against the most innocent, trusting and precious of any society, lured in and massacred. One hits a society at all sorts of levels and in all sorts of ways with an act such as this. This act was horrible, I’ll leave it at this.
It is crucial to recall that the SEI is unknown up to the time of the act. Their act sweeps the society like a storm and leads to shock among the people. If the SEI is killed or arrested that ends their ability to interact independently of the state. Once the SEI has been unmasked the operation comes to an end. The ability of the SEI to communicate (the most important strategic capability following Svechin) strategically (and do everything else) ends.
The SEI is by definition an individual operating outside the political community they attack, but not part of another political group, so politics does not play a role, rather simply the ego of one person. Since the SEI’s act is by definition not political, how can it be the continuation of politics by other means, or simply war? From this perspective the SEI cannot be so described, but rather is the act of an individual acting alone against a political community/society, which makes the SEI simply an outlaw. The scale of destruction the SEI can cause does not change this situation.
Which means that the SEI is not only not operating in the political sphere of social action, but also has no capability of exercising coercion. The gunman on the street can force, but it takes the Mafia to coerce. It takes an organization, a bureaucracy, something that can last past the first operation, even for criminals to achieve this. Once it has passed into history the SEI’s act will only be seen as a tragedy caused by a sick idiot, which is the way it will be portrayed by the state. There is no social carrier present to “spread the word”, nor could there be given the requirement for absolute isolation. Who ever is the next SEI will follow exactly this same pattern, due to operational security, which all adds up to self-assured strategic dysfunction/failure from a Clausewitzian perspective.
Still in terms of politics and society, we are dealing with something much more basic here. Humans are social beings, it is our interactions with other humans which provide the foundation of civilization itself. Our identities as individuals are formed through a discourse with others. As Richard Ned Lebow, yet another Clausewitzian writes in his The Tragic Vision of Politics:,
Social reality begins as a conversation among individuals that ultimately leads to the creation of societies, and they in turn socialize individuals into their discourses. Individuals nevertheless retain a degree of autonomy. This is due in the first instance to the cognitive processes that mediate individual understandings of the values, rules, norms and practices of societies. Contrary to the Enlightenment assumption of universal cognition, people perceive, represent and reason about the world in different ways. These processes entail reflection, and this may lead individuals to some awareness of the extent to which they are products of their society. Such recognition is greatly facilitated by the existence of alternative discourses. In their absence, as Achilles discovered, it is difficult, if not impossible, to construct a different identity for oneself even when highly motivated to do so. For Thucydides, alternative discourses are initially the product of other societies (e.g., other Greek poleis and non-Greek states), which may become role models for disaffected individuals or the raw material from which new individual and social identities are constructed. Modern societies, as Shawn Rosenberg observes, are composed of many locales of social change, each with discourses that are to some degree distinct.
According to Thucydides, the starting points of transformation are behavioral and linguistic. Previously stable patterns of social interaction become uncertain and ill-defined, and this weakens the social norms that support them. Discourses also become unstable when identity and practice diverge. Language is subverted because people who reject old practices, or pioneer new ones, generally feel the need to justify them with reference to older values.
So even (radical) social change is a discourse among members of the social/political community in question. These discourses can be confused since those desiring change can add new and self-serving meanings to words. Self-interest is decided in relation to the community as a whole and justice results. This is how social change takes place.
For the SEI however, the only discourses are going on inside their own heads. No politics, no strategy, no political community, no war. Only their “operations”.
One last point needs to be made in terms of politics. Zen is right, the only examples we have of individuals achieving strategic effect in prior history are to a large extent, political assassinations. Considering that since say 1860, probably before, anyone with a rifle could have killed a king. A rifle provides that ability. Have an independent means of monetary support, have a rifle and simply wait for your opportunity. Kings were all notorious hunters, so how difficult would it have been? Exactly up to JFK, how many heads of state, or even important political figures, were assassinated at long range with a rifle? Were in fact many of these assassinations up to 1963, all very political acts, with the assailants willing to trade their lives for that of the political leader they had targeted at close quarters? Was it considered necessary for them to do so to give their lives for the political community they claimed to represent? Consider, for instance the attempt on President Truman in 1950.
In terms of strategy, I come from a Clausewitzian strategic theory perspective, and since there has been so much confusion in the past as to what exactly “strategy” is, I’ve developed my own definition which I think true to this school of strategic thought. I use a specific definition of strategy, that being:
Focused adaptation of divergent sources of power assisted by control over time in pursuit of a political purpose through methodological theoretical construct (strategic theory) with the aim of creating strategic effect/a strategic dynamic greater than the sum of the individual power sources. For the strong political community, strategy can be an option, for the weak it is a necessity.
For the reasons stated above, it is difficult for me to see the SEI engaging in “strategy”. The way I understand the SEI concept it uses force and little else, which is not really a strategy in terms of my definition above, but simply force and personality. Force alone can produce strategic effect, which does not actually require a strategy. This does not preclude using a different definition of strategy, but I feel that one that includes individuals needlessly confuses the issue. That is one point in this regard, another is that the act of an SEI is an operation by definition. To be strategic this operation would have to essentially end the conflict with one act, but at the same time war is started by the defender who resists, an act of aggression without resistance is not war. Only by being able to carry out successive and connected operations towards a strategic goal would this be strategy.
In his comment, Joseph speaks of political effect that the terrorist has achieved, but that is not what it is, We are simply discussing a news story which does not add up to political effect. Whatever strategic/political effect exists is first of all up to the victim, that is the society which has been attacked. If the society that has suffered such an attack refuses to change their policies and educates the public as to the reason behind their stand, there is no political/strategic effect at all. In fact the opposite effect theoretically. From the perspective of the perpetrator, the act becomes thus meaningless, that is aside from mass murder. There could be a reaction among outside political communities, but each case would have to be studied separately. Could not a natural disaster create the same sort of response?
Zen has been kind enough to give me his current definition of an SEI
“To qualify as a superempowered individual, the actor must be able to initiate a destructive event, fundamentally with their own resources, that cascades systemically on a national, regional or global scale. They must be able to credibly, “declare war on the world”.
From what I have provided so far, I think there are at least two problems with this definition. First, “cascades systemically”. Does this not require the sequence of reactions of the target political community or communities? Or is this system beyond their influence? If not, then the target community can simply decide not to change their policies, to simply absorb the attack and treat the SEI as a criminal. This is what most societies do in relation to crime, the criminal’s family are not taken hostage, their property seized, their lives destroyed, the act is that of an individual and the individual suffers the consequences.
Second, “credibly ‘declare war on the world'”. What type of war? Limited or unlimited? How would the SEI be able to sustain operations over time? How would such a war be resolved? Is this not simply the technologically-driven ego of the SEI grown to monstrous proportions? I am reminded of the diary entry by Maxim Gorky in the 1930s who noted that Stalin had become a “monstrous flea” that state propaganda and mass fear had enlarged him out of all proportion to the very crude person he actually was. It seems that this SEI could be much the same thing, but divorced from any political community, unlike Stalin.
The true potential of the SEI is thus not as a maker of war or as a form of warfare, but as a weapon. Since the SEI does not act politically, they lend themselves to manipulation by actual political interests. What better way to attack a hostile state than to have them come across to their own people as impotent in dealing with the havoc spread by SEIs acting according to their own whims? SEIs thus could be used as powerful weapons by states which desire to hide their actual involvement. The interested state could approach likely recruits covering their actual identity relatively easily, providing support and assistance. By linking SEIs and their actions a state sponsor could initiate and sustain very destructive campaigns at little to no cost to themselves. This is the logical next step to what Bill Joy was talking about with KMD back in 2000.
In 1991, Martin van Creveld published his The Transformation of War, which predicted the crisis and eventual collapse of the state, but without considering what exactly would replace this apparatus of rule. Instead of this collapse of the state we have experienced something quite different, the state waging war as before, but for unspecified goals. Instead, propagandistic “war aims” for public consumption are concocted (as in the war in Iraq/the US intervention in Libya) or an act of war is perpetrated and never actually acknowledged (Pakistan and the Mumbai attacks). Wars strategically lost are carried on operationally since the state lacks the political will (and necessity) to end them, the public having been conditioned through state propaganda to see war as the norm (US involvement in Iraq/Afghanistan/the Global War on Terror and Russia in her own Muslim areas). Mercenary armies are employed at a high price (and high investor profit) to sustain what are essentially lost wars strategically, but are still economically profitable for investors.
All of this would be familiar to Clausewitz, who would see this as a collapse of not only strategic thought, but the material cohesion of the state in question.
I don’t see this as a new era of warfare, but possibly the end if it ever comes about of society as we know it: The end of the Hobbesian commonwealth and the emergence of a new dark age where political communities are at the mercy of psychopathic and monstrous fleas. That the fleas enjoy no political purpose is small compensation for the destruction they could bring about.