June 21, 2005

Research Notes: Fascism within networks: China and the internet

I have just read and greatly enjoyed Manuel De Landa's A Thousand Years of Non-linear History. In fact, i'm so excited by its approach to creating dynamical models of the world, that i'm using it all the time with a wide range of applications. De Landa takes the ethological approach of Deleuze and Guattari, considering how stratified bodies (organic and inorganic) are built up and eroded by the emergent and self-organising expression of network effects (including geological, biological, social and economic netwoks). So here's a few conjectures based on this...

The Nazi's emerged through a meshwork of radical individuals on the periphery of a range of disciplines: mystical, military, medical, commercial, beaurocratic, artistic and the media. Their individual ideas were not particularly innovative, being mostly concerned with the intensification and purification of existing processes. However, it was their intense and fundamental will to application regardless of cost that marked them out in an otherwise consolidating and cautious climate. The meshwork of these diverse forces was consequently drawn together by the combination of their shared peripheral status along and a powerful belief in the necessity (ethical) and certainty (metaphysical, historical) of the foundation of a new world from the traits (in need of purification and authentication) that they could see all around.

Such peripheral forces exist within any large and relatively homogeneous body of individuals. They are the product of its genetic drift, deviations necessary for the existence of adaptive potential. In some cases, selection and replication mechanisms may form that act to single out, purify and intensify traits within the ceaseless drift. And it is not unusual for a small set of such deviations from sometimes very different bodies to become associated through their co-identification as 'outsiders', despite the fact that they may be concerned with quite different traits. An increase in the mobility of such diverse radical agents is often a catalyst for this co-identification. This was certainly a factor in the emergence of the Nazis, with the increase of mobility and resulting inter-connectivity during and following WWI.

But they don't often grow into the kind of wildly abberant monster that was the Nazis. What then might have been the extra condition that catalysed the transformation of the Nazis from fringe to global threat? One way of answering this would be to look at the 'network effects' internal to the Nazi meshwork. De Landa discusses several 'abstract machines' that exploit network effects in different ways. For example, the 'group and grid' model proposed by the anthropologist Mary Douglas. The 'grid' refers to organisations that maintain their identity through an intensity of centralized regulation (typically propogated through hierarchies). The 'group' on the other hand, operates through an intensity of group allegiance (typically propogted through memes, propaganda etc). Most organisations exist with a mix of both group and grid. However, at the extremes, there are some groups that are highly grid structured, having little opportunity to propogate memes (due to external controls). And there are other organisations that have no grid, and propogate via indirect means (memes). We can take this a step further by arguing that any organisation that is able to master all of the combinations, and switch between them as required, will be able to maintain its consistency regardless of external controls.

My conjecture is that the Nazis crystallized around the collapse of a state hierarchy. As the hierarchy collapsed and became less rigid and certain, access to key elements of its operative functions opened up. In response, the Nazis occupied positions of power within the fragmenting hierarchies, and thus formed their own internal grid based hierarchies from them. This resulted in 'immune responses' from the grided hieracrchies of the official organisations that they parasitised, which responded by attacking the emergent grid of the Nazis, who in turn were forced to return to their meme based 'group' roots, until they were again able to consolidate their control of (or just replace) the state hierarchies. This symbiotic relationship continued throughout the 1930's, with the Nazi party gaining increased mastery of the trick of switching modes of operation.

In a very real sense, the Nazis were subjected to a learning process as they were forced between each mode of operation. Perhaps the lesson that should be learnt from this is:

During a time of rapid change and collapsing hierarchies, the auto-immune response of the state to the evolution of networks may actually provide the ideal learning experience for extremist organisations.

It may well be that in response to the expansion of the internet, capitalism and the release of its sedentary populations, China is providing just such a learning experience for a new generation of extremists.


If you have something interesting to contribute to this, please contact me

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