Elements of Global Guerrilla Theory

In a comment to my post criticizing John Robb’s Global Global Theory as coherent gibberish, TDL break down Global Guerrillas Theory into three elements: systempunkts, open source warfare, and the bazaar of violence. Below are excerpts from TDL’s summary, as well as posts by John Robb, on these three comments. I then summarize each idea individually, and provide a final overview at the bottom of this post.

Concept: bazaar of violence

TDL’s view: “it has been around for a long time and is not a new manifestation”
Robb’s view: “This bazaar is where a combination of local and global “hot” money is funding a diverse set of groups, each with their own methods of operation and motivations. Groups engage in co-opetition to share resources, intelligence, and funds (see the attached simplified diagram)… Through this funding, terrorist violence, and infrastructure disruption; global guerrillas create conditions ripe for the establishment of a bazaar of violence. In essence, the bazaar is an emergent property of global guerrilla operations within a failed or collapsed state. Once established, it builds on itself and creates a dynamic that is almost impossible to disrupt.”
My View: A bazaar of violence refers to a distributed set of security providers, analogous to the software bazaar of Eric S. Raymond. Continuing the analogy, most states feature a “Cathedral of Violence” where security is provided by a relatively stable set of official authorities and organized crime. Bazaars of violence are highly unstable, as a large security providers typically exploits economies of scale to become a de facto government.

Concept: open source warfare

TDL’s view: “Open source warfare also seems a useful analytical framework to understand some of the threats we face today; there seems to be a lot more sharing and a lot less top down control among terror groups (networks, stand alone actors, etc.) occurring today than were ten years ago.”
Robb’s view: “Open source warfare, like what we see in Iraq and increasingly in other locations, relies on networks of peers rather than the hierarchies of command and control we see in conventional militaries. This structure provides an open source movement with levels of innovation and resilience that rigid hierarchies can’t match. Unfortunately, these attributes are likely not constrained to merely local tactical activity. Open source movements can exhibit emergent intelligence that guides the movement’s collective actions towards strategic goals.”
My View: Open source warfare exists when the tragedy of the commons with regards to violence-related marketable information does not. It requires security providers to value the destruction of the market leader more than their own existence. Open source warfare is thus more likely to be used by zealous organizations and less likely to be used by criminal enterprises. As this gives organized crime an unfair advantage in the security arena, open source warfare tends to kill-off organizations that practice it.

Concept: systempunkt

TDL’s view: “a systempunkt can erode the credibility of a government agency and eventually force that agency to give up its power and yield to it to private entities (although I think it would be extremely difficult to do so.)”
Robb’s view: “It is the point point in a system (either an infrastructure or a market), always identified by autonomous groups within the bazaar, where a swarm of small insults will cause a cascade of collapse in the targeted system. Within infrastructure, this collapse takes the form of disrupted flows that result in immediate financial loss or ongoing supply shortages. Within a market, an attack on the systempunkt destabilizes the psychology of the market to induce severe inefficiencies and uncertainties. The ultimate objective of this activity, in aggregate, is the collapse of the target state and globalization.”
My View: The systempunkt is the right bomb, in the right place, at the right time, that can collapse an otherwise stable and emergent complex adaptive system. As no such strike has ever been observed, the systempunkt is a theoretical construct of global guerrillas theory.

Final thoughts: The systempunkt does not exist, open source warfare is suicidal for groups that practice it, and bazaars of violence are regular but unstable features of social life in unstable countries. For this reason, Robb’s theory rely on super-altruistic global guerrillas, who practice open source warfare despite its high costs in order to extend the life of violence bazaars.

4 thoughts on “Elements of Global Guerrilla Theory”

  1. TDL,

    Excellent comment!

    “let's not forget about black swans.”

    Agreed, but what black swan counts as a systempunkt? 9/11? It's hard to imagine a higher-impact black swan that doesn't involve nuclear weapons, yet the City of New York, the State of New York, the State of Pennsylvania, the Commonwealth of Virginia, and the Untied States of America continued as before. If 9/11 doesn't count as a systempunkt — what does? And if it does — then what a useless concept! (Remember that Robb discounts the psychological impact of systempunkts, instead focusing on their supposed catastrophic economic impact.)

    “I would argue, however, that monopolistic, political systems are their own systempunkt waiting to happen”

    This helps answer the previous paragraph… the assassination of Kim Jong Il might well be the “right bomb, at the right place, at the right time” that collapses the North Korean system. Not that such would last long, though. With China and South Korea sharing land borders, a northern Korean state would quickly be rebuilt even in the worst possible case, and would doubtless be more functional than what preceded it.

    “The ROI analysis that Robb employs is faulty, because no new wealth is created and the funds needed to maintain pressure upon the systems under attack are quickly being depleted (since that capital is destroyed and not deployed in a productive manner.)”

    Excellent point! ROI compares like and like, such as money in / money out. Instead, Robb compares dislike things (money and systematic impact). It's as foolish as the late 90s fixation on “eyeballs,” when the measure of profitability is not eyeballs but money.

    Mark,

    “they ” rule vertical scenarios” not horizontal ones.”

    Yup. There's a blog literature in this area [1] that John's ignoring. That's too bad — we're missing out because his theory has not been strengthened by give-and-take.

    [1] http://zenpundit.blogspot.com/2004/10/reviewing-deleted-scene-on-system.html

  2. Dan,
    “Robb's theory rely on super-altruistic global guerrilla…” this quote crystallizes a long standing criticism I've had of Robb's work, but have been unable to articulate. I agree with you about systempunkts (although I can't make the same claim as you about them never having existed since they have never been observed, let's not forget about black swans…) I would argue, however, that monopolistic, political systems are their own systempunkt waiting to happen. I am moving more to your view on how stand-alone actors, small groups, networks, or classic organizations will not be able to sustain the type of pressure necessary to manifest a systempunkt. The ROI analysis that Robb employs is faulty, because no new wealth is created and the funds needed to maintain pressure upon the systems under attack are quickly being depleted (since that capital is destroyed and not deployed in a productive manner.) Can such a thing as a systempunkt occur? I believe so, but it is an inordinately rare event and would require a unique breed of actor to undertake. Just some quick thoughts.

    Regards,
    TDL

  3. Superempowered individuals who can enact a catastrophic systempunkt attack are by nature, one-hit wonders.

    Which is not to say they could not do tremendous, tremendous, damage – think Bhopal or a smallpox-carrying sucide bomber – just that they ” rule vertical scenarios” not horizontal ones.

  4. I'm pretty sure Robb says somewhere that 9/11 *wasn't* a systempunkt. Or at least implies that it was the remnant of an earlier, non systems-oriented kind of terrorism.

  5. Phil,

    I can't find the reference either, but I agree with your read. I think Robb would classify 9/11 as some more vanilla form of terrorism (perhaps “insurgency”? [1]) because

    a) its impact was designed to be largely psychological
    b) it was not aimed at destroying the United States government

    That said, I think it's pretty much as close as you'll come to finding an example of something that doesn't exist ;-)

  6. Although I don't buy the whole thing, I'm actually quite taken with this argument that 9/11 wasn't aimed at America at all : [1]

    Which perhaps makes it more of what Robb would call a “plausible premise”.

    As for “not existing” I think you're always looking to read Robb as being far more absolutist than he really is. There doesn't need to be one bomb that brings down the house. Every time a couple of guys blow up a pipeline and cause a drop in oil production for 3 months, you're looking at a little systempunkt. The fact that after 4 years of American occupation oil production is *still* so reduced, does tremendous harm to the capacity of the Iraqi government to fund itself, its capacity to impose its authority in Iraq and for the US to demonstrate its ability to rebuild Iraq and hence to the US's moral level.

    [1] http://web.archive.org/web/20020817215800/http://www.policyreview.org/AUG02/harris.html

  7. Let's not stray too far from Robb's title, Global Guerrillas; i.e., he hasn't titled it, “Iraqi Guerrillas.” I know that he takes a few examples from elsewhere, but they are relatively few and, with reference to 9/11, he asserts that these relatively isolated events or efforts (against already-failing or weak states) can be universalized to a theory describing what will happen globally (as if those failed and weak states are good avatars for succeeding and strong states.)

    It is true, I think, that a more interconnected global system may become quite dependent on what happens anywhere globally, ultimately; however, the dependence that would allow effective systempunkt attacks against strong states via attacks on fringe (Gap) states, will not obtain while those states are weak and failing.

  8. Phil,

    Does the fact that the systempunkt is “always identified by autonymous groups within the bazaar” mean that non-autonymous groups couldn't attack a systempunkt? That is, the a punkt may or may not be a systempunkt depending on whether it is being attacked by global guerrillas or insurgents? (I don't know — this is an honest question.)

    Curtis,

    “I think, that a more interconnected global system may become quite dependent on what happens anywhere globally, ultimately; however, the dependence that would allow effective systempunkt attacks against strong states via attacks on fringe (Gap) states, will not obtain while those states are weak and failing.”

    Isn't it the reverse, with less globalized states being less resilient?

  9. Dan,

    I don't see how that is the reverse of what I was saying, since I was referring to a 'globalized system' and not 'globalized states'.

    My general point is that the so-called systempunkt attacks which Robb highlights are those occurring in less globalized and weak states, and that such attacks will not have the kind of force for causing the cascading effects which he predicts will bring down the stronger states. (Disregarding for now the limited attacks, like 9/11, happening in more globalized states.)

    My second point is that a more globalized system, depending on how it is ultimately arranged, **may** become more susceptible to such systempunkt attacks happening anywhere globally — an attack pretty much anywhere on key targets will have global cascading power sufficient to affect the whole system very negatively. While true that globalization in the interim allows for much resiliency, the ultimate result of globalization may or may not be as resilient, depending on the sort of dependencies and interconnections which may ultimately form: Does it remain resilient, or does it grow ossified?

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