It takes a network to defeat a network
Complex and horizontal networks of people swarming together have some asymmetric advantages over centralized powers.
Note: This short essay is part of the Series entitled, “Adapting to Transcend Networked Conflict: How complexity is our biggest asset” which can be found in full here.
These advantages exist because of things like information proliferation, the agility of actors with local knowledge of a situation, and resiliency. There are risks and limitations to these strategies which can be studied using frameworks such as complexity theory. By analyzing conflict and struggle using these frameworks, we believe that the internationalist left can more accurately chart a way to sustainable futures with greater interconnected agency, while avoiding dystopian outcomes. Examples of all of this can be seen by analyzing the conflicts between fascist and anti-fascist networks.
An internet troll movement was able to instrumentalize pre-existing USian racism and build a movement that helped launch Trump into the highest position in the US (unfortunately not the sun). Parts of this movement then metastasized into a semi-decentralized digital cult that ultimately led to a conspiracy-driven meme-ified coup attempt on the US capitol with nazis and militias in tow.
While headline grabbing, the underlying dynamics that motivated these people and let them communicate go back decades. The monograph Networks and Netwars was published in 2001 and summarized the then-emerging examples of networked forms of organization. Terrorists, transnational gangs, and activists were already making use of networked computing technology to organize. The explosive protest movements of the last year are different in scale and capacity, but the underlying principles remain the same. John Arquilla and David Ronfeld’s summary of how they see these changes affecting conflict appears particularly far sighted in retrospect:
“Major transformations are thus coming in the nature of adversaries, in the type of threats they may pose, and in how conflicts can be waged. Information-age threats are likely to be more diffuse, dispersed, multi-dimensional nonlinear, and ambiguous than industrial-age threats.”
But despite networks and computers being at the core of many disruptive events that took society by surprise in the last two decades, the number of people who consciously grasp the changes wrought are a minority, even among people who consider themselves political. Most people have a direct understanding of networked conflict informed, not by theoretical understanding, but rather by their lived experience of using the technologies and seeing things happen for themselves.
The majority of the bottom-up forms of networked organizing operate according to a “folk” understanding, informed by lived experience and practice instead of comprehensive theory. While such networks may be influenced by sophisticated actors who understand the dynamics of networked conflict, the majority of those who participate do not.
Nevertheless, this tacit understanding of online conflict allows for swarms of individuals to punch above their weight. Two examples of folk approaches to online disruption would be the alt-right’s disruption of the US election in 2016 and kpop fans disrupting a Trump rally in 2020. But groups that rely on such tactics are vulnerable to shifts in the broader environment that invalidate the simple models held by the members of that group. A clear example of this is the sharp rise and fall of the alt-right. In 2015 and 2016 they were largely fighting the Republican and Democratic establishments and had a clear goal in electing Donald Trump. But after the victory of Donald Trump they found themselves floundering. This was due in part to how hollow Trump was as a person – his lack of interest in pursuing some of their reactionary goals took the wind out of their sails. But there was also the fact that antifascists, leftists and liberals came together in a bottom-up fashion to resist the movement. Unlike the decrepit top-down establishments of the major political parties, this grassroots approach was far more effective because it could be more fluid and dynamic, while also having clear goals and motivations.
The swarm that the alt-right found themselves facing could maneuver quickly – it was capable of rapidly changing direction and adjusting to changes in the environment. The exploits that had been so successful against the rigid Republican and Democratic institutions were rendered obsolete against new, more agile adversaries who could quickly identify, deploy and popularize effective countermeasures.
This speaks to an essential point when it comes to networked forms of conflict, namely that endurance and flexibility is far more important than any particular exploit or edge that you might have at any particular moment. Because decentralized swarms are difficult to defeat, ultimate victory will only come through a long-term process of slowly wearing the enemy down across constantly a changing battleground, rather than through triumph in any particular battle.
These lessons are dearly needed on the left. To see why, take the Bernie Sanders campaign. While it was in some ways genuinely novel for US presidential politics (he managed to raise millions off small donors through the internet and bypassed traditional media gatekeepers to generate youth vote), by 2020 the approach had become outmoded and was outmaneuvered by the Democratic Party. Instead of anticipating the uphill fight against Sanders and devoting resources to easier battles, many defaulted to the exact same approach and predictably lost.
Such a lack of imagination and theoretical rigor is also present when it comes to models of social change. They assume that capitalism and other structures of domination in the world operate according to internal logic and are capable of absorbing all changes save those that come with cataclysmic breaks. This perspective leads to the worst kind of collectivism that delegates all responsibility for change to mythical collective agents or world-historic events. As the anarchist William Gillis writes:
This leftist view of capitalism as a unified monolithic megamachine with its own clear plan and needs — rather than conflicting loci of power, orthogonalized mechanisms, and acidic currents of bottom-up market pressures — blinds people to possibilities today and ultimately encourages us to cast our dreams off beyond the veil of a magical revolution. If the abstraction is treated like a cohesive whole, if we treat institutions as the only relevant agents, and ignore everything below as constituent cogs, well then there’s no hope for anything substantively different save via some kind of total break.
For those well and truly spooked with this kind of leftist thinking, there’s ultimately little option besides despair, or a reification of the same old rituals of subcultural community. When the world is filled up with gods like “capitalism” or “civilization” and drained of actual living breathing human beings there’s no hope of salvation, save through some kind of divine intervention.
So something new gets mystified and worshipped, The Revolution, or The Collapse. The Party or The Natural Order.
Of course not every leftist is this far gone. But the sort of thinking that leads to such lines of thought has sufficiently penetrated the scene such that many inherit outdated assumptions about, say, what it will take to win (organize the working class into institutions like political parties or unions!) or the landscape of dangers (fascism is a movement driven by petite-bourgeoisie resentments to crush an emergent workers movement!). The result is a left that struggles to recognize novel dangers and opportunities and is effectively what Samo Burja calls a “dead player” (an actor within a system that largely works off pre-existing scripts and struggles to change how they operate).
Some of this is merely the result of just how quickly things have changed. The number of people who self-identify as leftists exploded with the drama that was the 2016 US presidential election and it’s admittedly difficult to catch everyone up to speed, especially since there are so many obvious problems that demand immediate attention. The left media ecosystem, while more intellectually honest than that of reactionaries and liberals, still has a long way to go in terms of being effective at evaluating information. Individually evaluating theories is difficult at the best of times and given the precarity the average person faces, it is understandable that many stop further inquiry as soon as they find models that explain the world better than whatever they had before – particularly if adopting these models is sufficient to give them standing in a community.
But to actually affect the world we need people who understand how it works, instead of litigating the works of long-dead men. This is especially pressing given that contemporary fascists like Steven Bannon and Alexander Dugin recognize that a great tectonic shift in power is happening. They may be trapped in old frameworks for interpreting the world that are largely based on assumptions inherited from the industrial era. But they, unlike the left, either have access to significant resources and/or have influence over people who do. They direct such energy towards cynical traditionalism rooted in an antiquated model of the world based on crude power. The left will not be able to beat such reactionaries in a straight-up conflict and will only be able to win by out-maneuvering / out-adapting them.
Thankfully we have reasons to believe that “leftists”, anti-authoritarians, and internationalists will have some structural advantages in the sort of conflict that appears to be emerging. Those who favor social justice, agency, consent, and collaboration will be able to punch above their weight when it comes to impacting the world. But a prerequisite for doing so is understanding the dynamics at play.
Just because networked leftism will have a structural edge going forward does not mean victory is inevitable. Environmental advantages are a nice thing to have, but the current state of the world means that we will be the underdogs for some time. To truly become a positively impactful network in the world, we need a complex, resilient ecosystem of actors, technologies, and institutions that give us the capacity to transcend existential risks and build better futures.
This means balancing both immediate concerns and long term navigation. While there are obviously immediate problems that must be addressed, it’s essential that we do not trap ourselves at a local optima by making decisions that limit our options in the future. One under emphasized reason the left failed in the 20th century was that both the social democracies of the West and the planned economies of the East couldn’t adapt to social and technological changes. When they originally emerged they appeared relatively successful (postwar social democracies saw significant growth rates and reduced class conflict, the Soviet Union saw tremendous growth rates and scientific advancement). But as the broader context changed, their centralization meant they were unable to adapt.
What’s especially frustrating about all of this is that capitalism is only slightly more adaptive than planned economies. As such it is just as vulnerable to being out-adapted as social democracy/state socialism was. As Kevin Carson notes:
“The “technostructure” can survive because it is enabled to be less responsive to consumer demand. An oligopoly firm in a cartelized industry, in which massive, inefficient bureaucratic corporations share the same bureaucratic culture, is protected from competition.
These “innovations” succeed because they are determined by the organization for its own purposes, and the organization has the power to impose top-down “change” on a cartelized market, with little regard to consumer preferences, instead of responding flexibly to them. “Innovative strategies” are based, not on finding out what people want and providing it, but on inventing ever-bigger hammers and then forcing us to be nails. The large corporate organization is not more efficient at accomplishing goals received from outside; it is more efficient at accomplishing goals it sets for itself for its own purposes, and then using its power to adapt the rest of so-ciety to those goals.”
That fascism, state-communism and capitalism are unable to deal with complexity and dynamism (and so instead rely on enforced simplicity through violence to maintain the divisions within society) means that innovations, connections, infrastructure and tactics derived to fight one can be repurposed to fight the other. Moreover, as society becomes more complex, it will become more and more structurally resistant to fascist and capitalist tendencies.
Transforming our risks and building a better world is possible and we want to help explore how.
- The Advent of Netwar (REVISITED), John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt
- Two examples of this “good enough” approach to online disruption would be the alt-right’s disruption of the US election in 2016 and kpop fans disrupting a Trump rally in 2020.
- Look, we know lots of these words like “leftism” or “socialism” have no real coherent modern shared understanding and vary wildly in their connotations and usage. We’re using very rough short-hands as general sign-posts.
- See Revolution, Reform and Resignation by Adam Prezworski for an overview of how social democracy was unable to adapt to the social and economic upheaval of the 70s.
- Organization Theory: A Libertarian Perspective, Kevin Carson, pg 16