Pomo Capture


There’s an interesting gloss on postmodernism in the opening chapter of Hardt and Negri’s Labor of Dionysus:

Postmodern capitalism should be understood first, or as a first approximation, in terms of what Marx called the phase of the real subsumption of society under capital. In the previous phase (that of the formal subsumption), capital operated a hegemony over social production, but there still remained numerous production processes that originated outside of capital as leftovers from the precapitalist era. Capital subsumes these foreign processes formally, bringing them under the reign of capitalist relations. In the phase of the real subsumption, capital no longer has an outside in the sense that these foreign processes of production have disappeared. All productive processes arise within capital itself and thus the production and reproduction of the entire social world take place within capital. The specifically capitalist rules of productive relations and capitalist exploitation that were developed in the factory have now seeped outside the factory walls to permeate and define all social relations—this is the sense in which we insist that contemporary society should now be recognized as a factory-society. (Labor of Dionysus, 30)

This is the common post/neo-Autonomia read of postmodernism, and what is sketched out somewhat briefly in this quote reaches its full elucidation in the pages of Empire. I see nothing to quibble about in this periodization at all, and it dovetails nicely Fredric Jameson’s own Marxist analysis of the postmodern condition, which in turn relies upon Ernest Mandel’s proposed historical model of capitalist development.

This model is triadic, basing itself upon three stages or “long waves” of technological evolution. Within each long wave, the entirety of capitalism is transformed by these technological shifts : beginning in the 1840s, production was governed by steam-power, which was superseded in the 1890s by electrification. The third stage emerged in the postwar era, and was characterized by the proliferation of electronics, and most importantly the rise of computational technology. (Mandel’s model is close to the interpretation of the Kondratiev wave posed by Perez and Freeman, but ultimately deviates from it. In my opinion Perez and Freeman have the superior understanding of these trends, but that’s a post for a different time).

This third stage is what Mandel dubs “late capitalism”, which derives from the character unique to the conditions that prompted its development. The first wave was “market capitalism”, the capitalism that Marx analyzed in his own day; the second was “monopoly capitalism”, the era of gigantic trusts and imperialism. Third-wave or ‘late capitalism’ is characterized by both the transnationalization of the capitalist system (the post-war mode of globalization) and the rise of consumer capitalism. Here’s how Jameson sums it up:

…late or multinational or consumer capitalism, far from being inconsistent with Marx’s great nineteenth-century analysis, constitutes, on the contrary, the purest form of capital yet to have emerged, a prodigious expansion of capital into hitherto uncommodified areas . This purer capitalism of our own time thus eliminates the enclaves of precapitalist organization it had hitherto tolerated and exploited in a tributary way. One is tempted to speak in this connection of a new and historically original penetration and colonization of Nature and the Unconscious : that is , the destruction of precapitalist Third World agriculture by the Green Revolution, and the rise of the media and the advertising industry. At any rate, it will also have been clear that my own cultural periodization of the stages of realism, modernism, and postmodernism is both inspired and confirmed by Mandel’s tripartite scheme . (Postmodernism, 36)

Meanwhile, Negri:

Capitalist relations of production appear in the postmodern era to be a sort of social transcendental. Capital seems to have no other. Social capital is no longer merely the orchestrator but actually appears as the producer on the terrain of social production… In postmodernism, in the phase of the real subsumption of labor under capital, capital seems to have realized its dream and achieved its independence. With the expansion of its productive bases in the Third World, the shift of certain types of production from North to South, the greater compatibility and permeability of markets, and the facilitated networks of monetary flows, capital has achieved a truly global position. (Labor of Dionysus, 30-31)

Following these twin tracks, we can thus understand postmodernism as the first historical point in which Marx’s strange reflections in the fifteenth chapter of Capital Volume III can be properly understood. “Capital comes more and more to the fore as a social power, whose agent is the capitalist. This social power no longer stands in any possible relation to that which the labour of a single individual can create. It becomes an alienated, independent, social power, which stands opposed to society as an object, and as an object that is the capitalist’s source of power.” This also brings us back to the terrain of U/Acc, as this chapter was the subject of some of Garton’s earliest excavations, as well as to the dark concerns of Land: capital autonomization is not to be understood as being akin to some faraway Kurzweilian singularity, it is already underway… (and thus the distinction between modernity and postmodernism becomes, once again, mired in ambiguity)

A similar trajectory is sketched by Primož Krašovec in “Alien Capital”, which pushes back gently on particular strands of autonomist thinking:

A crucial factor in understanding how capital operates in our time is its ‘real autonomy’. This is a point where even the best attempts, for instance that of Marx, are ambivalent, for instance the concept of real subsumption as an appropriation and subjugation of something human (and not an autonomous development of something non-human, alien that initially harnesses human practices and institutions and human material) or the concept of general intellect (GI) that is particularly important for exploring the intellect of capital. Marx and post-operaist authors, who used the concept of GI to the largest extent, mostly act as if what is embodied in the modern industrial technology as GI were only some kind of an embodied, materialised human intellect and not something alien. The scheme human intellect → materialisation in the system of machinery is still only a humanist theory of alienation that takes place on the relation the subject’s predicate → materialisation in the object. However, real subsumption is not a process of appropriating something human through capital; it is a competitively determined real autonomy of capital’s functioning.

Running the social-factory thesis and the capitalist autonomization thesis together presents a picture of postmodernism as the moment of intense polarization in terms of potentially emancipatory politics, in the sense that it seems to hold open the possibility of escape, while on the other it seems to close it down. In the case of capitalist autonomization, it is essential to consider the processes of capitalist automation – and this is indeed part and parcel of Marx’s own long-range thinking about capitalist development, which holds that constant capital (machines, tools, materials, etc.) will rise in prominence and soak up a greater and greater lionshare of available investable capital in contrast to variable capital, that is, capital allotted to human labor. In this process the human is leveled, integrated into the gears of a production system that seems to have a life of its own (as described in the “Fragment on Machines” in the Grundrisse), and perhaps ultimately eliminated outright. As the laboring class dissipates, “value” – that force that governs capitalist production – bottoms out. At the horizon of this we have an understanding of the postcapitalist situation in a way that is encapsulated in the Jehuist slogan: “communism is free time and nothing else”.


The emergence of the social-factory, however, problematizes this, at least in short-term thinking. The Autonomist argument, which is developed in parallel by Deleuze and Guattari in the closing chapters of A Thousand Plateaus (D&G had developed personal ties to the Autonomia by this point, and cite thinkers like Mario Tronti over the course of ATP, so it’s likely that mutual influence was flowing both ways where this topic is concerned), takes the scenario described in the Grundrisse’s machinic fragment and applies it to the whole of society.  No longer is it just the industrial zone that operates as an “automaton consisting of numerous mechanical and intellectual organs” – everything is integrated into the circuits of this unplanned, market-coordinated self-moving machine. A cybernetic capitalism, proper to this age of machines and information. Having just developed the opposition between work and free-time as the distinction between striated and smooth space-time, Deleuze and Guattari write

Surplus labor, capitalist organization in its entirety, operates less and less by the striation of space-time corresponding to the physicosocial concept of work. Rather, it is as though human alienation through surplus labor were replaced by a generalized “machinic enslavement”, such that one might furnish surplus-value without doing any work (children, the retired, the unemployed, television viewers, etc.) Not only does the user as such tend to become an employee, but capitalism operates less on a quantity of labor than by a complex qualitative process bringing into play modes of transportation, urban models, the media, the entertainment industries, ways of perceiving and feeling – every semiotic system. It is as though, at the outcome of striation that capitalism was able to carry out to an unequal point of perfection, circulating capital necessarily recreated, reconstituted, a sort of smooth space in which the destiny of human beings is recast. (A Thousand Plateaus, 492)

Postmodern capture is, then, the process through which the cultivation of cutting-edge technologies proliferate, on the one hand, non-traditional means of labor and even the elimination of labor in full, while on the other hand it makes the possible the self-perpetuation of the system itself via the activities made possible by this reconfiguration: a fiery circuit, plugged directly into the mutagenic discharges of libidinal energy swirling about underneath the social. “Purest form of capitalism yet” indeed!

Here’s the obligatory Xenogothic link (he’s been hitting it out the park recently with his blog posts, as always). He writes in his most recent installment on his ongoing series on communism:

I believe there is an opportunity here for us, one which I think Fisher was aware of too: the triumph of “communicative capitalism” is perhaps not something to entirely deride. Communication and communism share the “com-” prefix for good reason and the malleability of this corner of technological society is, I think, particularly promising when considering efforts towards other goals. The internet promised this radical social fragmentation and upheaval but ultimately it failed to deliver, monopolised by the likes of Google and Facebook, consolidated like the rest of our realities. As distrust in these monopolies proliferates, however, we’re reentering a moment of great potential in which the fragmentation of tech monopolies — mirroring the current instability of our nation-states — will open up new doors to new ways of being on- and offline.

I would suggest that this is connected to the industrial disentermediation that I’ve touched on in two short poasts thus far (here and here), and hopefully develop further in a Vast Abrupt essay on Marx, Proudhon, and Sorel that I hope to have done by the end of next week. In the meantime, it’s interesting to note how XG’s descriptions here mirror quite well the “high connection, low integration” diagonalization that Land deploys his in reflections on patchwork. This is also how we might consider industrial disintermediation to unfold as well: high connectivity (cybernetic circuits, economic circuits, etc) and low integration (the progressive decentralization of the means of production). The real question is how such an emergent possibility space will intermesh with the postmodern condition: will it reinforce it, or will it break from it – and will this break constitute the opening of divergent pathways, or only serve to reinforce deeper mechanisms of capture?


Post-Autonomist Questions


Whilst thumbing through Hardt and Negri’s tome Empire this morning, I came across this interesting footnote (#26 for the chapter titled “Postmodernization”):

A number of Italian scholars read the decentralization of network production
in the small and medium-sized enterprises of northern Italy as an
opportunity to create new circuits of autonomous labor. See Sergio Bologna
and Andrea Fumagalli, eds., Il lavoro autonomo di seconda generazione: scenari
del postfordismo in Italia (Milan: Feltrinelli, 1997).

Sergio Bologna, like Negri, is a veteran of the nebulous Autonomia movement of Italy in the 60s and 70s. His best known work – outside of Italy, at least – was his 1977 text “The Tribe of Moles“, an examination of class composition in late-Fordist Italy and of how the ‘autonomous class’ developed within it. While personally quite close with Negri (a biography at the end of an interesting interview notes that the two were among the primary founders of Potere Operaio in 1969, had both worked in the same history department of Padua University in the early 1970s, and together edited a series on Marxist theory in 1972), the two underwent a theoretical divergence in the dawn of the New Economy of the 1990s. Negri would develop his theory of the immaterial laborer as the key social subject of the post-Fordist epoch, while Bologna would look to the “autonomous worker”.

There are deep similarities between these two approaches. On the one hand, Negri’s immaterial labor encompasses the capture and commoditization of affective, cognitive, and creative activities, and emphasizes the role of the internet and industrial autonomation in engendering this transformation. On the other, Bologna’s autonomous labor is akin to what we today might refer to as ‘precarious labor’ or the ‘gig economy’ – the great mass of would-be proletarians, shut-out from yesteryear’s world of Fordist industrial production, forced into part-time, temporary, situation-based work. For Bologna, however, such things compose what he calls the second generation of autonomous labor, in contrast to the first generation of independent artisans, merchants, and assorted professionals (doctors, lawyers, so on and so forth).

Sadly, I’ve yet find a translation of Il lavoro autonomo di seconda generazione: scenari del postfordismo in Italia, much less a pdf in Italian (plz drop a link in the comments if you have one!), but the description given by Hardt and Negri here – that the work offers the decentralized production in Northern Italy as a means of transforming the conditions of the autonomous laborer – is intriguing, especially in light of this recent post of just the other day. The area they are describing is Emilia-Romagna, an administrative region known for its robust industrial economy based on small-to-medium sized enterprises, flexible specialization, craft production, pull-based commercial dynamics, and worker co-operatives. Manuel Delanda has juxtaposed this region the top-heavy Fordism of American-style automobile production, while distributists have found in it as evidence for the durability of their socio-economic proposals. An interesting report cited by Kevin Carson (who elsewhere has referred to Emilia-Romagna, alongside Shenzhen’s Shanzai manufacturing, as a “model for the economic future”) has this to say about the organizational tendencies governing the region:

There are 90,000 manufacturing enterprises in the region, surely one of the highest densities per capita in the world! Small, medium, enterprises (SME’s) predominate. One person in twelve is self-employed or owns a small business. In recent years the region has produced the highest GDP per capita in the country, and it now ranks with the ten best in Europe…2/3 of the citizens of Bologna belong to a co-op…45% of the GDP is produced by co-ops…(and) 85% of the social services in Bologna are delivered by co-ops… Some of Emilia Romagna’s manufacturing companies that are world class high performance companies are cooperatives. Other private companies and cooperatives work together in flexible networks that combine a number of smaller firms into joint projects. And government has played a powerfully positive role in creating sector-based service centers that assist smaller companies in being competitive in the global economy… “Social Cooperatives” provide various services to the mentally and physically disabled—“privatizing” what historically were state services but to cooperatives that are frequently preferred by professionals because they permit creativity and the delivery of high quality services and work experience for the disabled….

Not everybody is as jazzed on Emilia-Romagna as the above, but nonetheless the convergence of so many different radical perspectives on a particular organization of production and exchange – that is, small-to-medium sized enterprises based on the miniaturization and localization of production technologies and rapid-response to demand – is noteworthy in itself.

Cunning War Machines


A speculative proposition: Deleuze and Guattari’s admonitions of caution in relation to absolute deterritorialization and destratification, as detailed in A Thousand Plateaus, is isomorphic to their historical analysis of the war machine’s capture and subordination of the State and the global geopolitical fallout from this movement.

In the plateau titled “How Do You Make Yourself a Body without Organs?”, D&G offer their well-known stern warning against improper approaches to deterritorialization and destratification. Even if these movements are necessary for the production of the New and act as the dynamism of destructive, creative evolution itself, one must avoid “wildly destratifying”. If the strata is “blown apart” too quickly or too violently, one “will be killed, plunged into a black hole” (ATP 161).

This warning is tied directly to their analysis of fascism given in ATP. Whereas fascism in Anti-Oedipus was associated with the powers of reterritorialization that choked off the movement into absolute deterritorialization, the fascism of Capitalism and Schizophrenia’s second volume is profoundly different: it is itself operating in a vector of deterritorialization, as a line of flight tending towards an absolute speed and infested with the “passion of abolition” (ATP 299). This line of flight is profoundly suicidal, and is rushing towards not a negentropic individuation, but into the entropic vortex of a “black hole”. Too wild of a destratification, that is, a destratification that has not been approached with caution, wisdom, and cunning, is a destratification that engenders the fascistic line of flight that can only culminate in some form of spectacular suicide.

Following Virilio, D&G pose the fascist state not as a totalitarian machine – which here takes the place of what had been defined in terms of fascism in AO – but a state reaching for suicidal speed. Death is given from the outset, and the desire for its immediacy becomes the fuel for its monstrous engine.

Unlike the totalitarian State, which does its utmost to seal all possible lines of flight, fascism is construed on an intense line of flight, which it transforms into a line of pure abolition and destruction. It is curious that from the very beginning the Nazis announced to Germany what they were bringing: at once wedding bells and death, including their own death, and the death of the Germans. They thought they would perish but that their undertaking would be resumed, all across Europe, all over the world, throughout the solar system. And the people cheered, not because they did not understand, but because they wanted that death through the death of others. Like a will to wager everything you have every hand, to stake out your own death against the death of others, and measure everything in “deleometers”. (ATP 230)

Across the book’s last three plateaus – “The Treatise on the Nomadology”, “The Apparatus of Capture”, and “The Smooth and the Striated” – a fragmented depiction of an immense historical passage rises to the surface that is plugged directly into this argument. What is unveiled is nothing less than a Shoggothic insurgency, a complex and emergent rebellion of tools against their masters. It follows the intertwined paths of the war machine and capital as they unbinding themselves from previously firm restraints, ultimately to culminate in the instantiation of a globalized smooth space. For D&G, this situation indexes the superseding of fascist “total war” – that is, war swept up in the suicidal thrust into pure abolition – by a “terrifying” post-fascist peace. This peace does not in any way undermine the existence of war as such. Instead, it makes war a part of itself, and suspends the suicidal horizon. Hence the speculative proposition at the outset: is the passage from fascist abolition to terrifying peace an affair of moving from wild, destructive destratification to something more akin to cunning?

To get at this question, it’s worth unpacking the architecture of this process. Broadly speaking, the trajectory of the war machine that D&G present unfolds as such:

1) The capture or appropriation of the war machine by the State.

2) The subordination of the war machine to the State’s political aims and subsequent deployment.

3) The evolution of the form of war from limited to total war, triggering a growth in the war machine.

4) The eclipsing of the State by the war machine and its reduction to the position as internal component.

5) The reversal of war machine-State relations sets off the emergence of a global smooth space.

Clausewitz’s famed aphorism that “war is the continuation of politics by other means” is an appraisal of the capture, subordination, and deployment of the war machine by the State. The war machine, overcoded, regimented, and numbered, loses its operational autonomy. Stripped clean and made into an internal component-arm of the State, its goals are the political aims of that State. An evolutionary slippage into higher and higher stages begins here, passing from the granting by the State of war as the direct object to the war machine, to limited war (that is, war characterized by restraint in both conflict itself and the degree of mobilization that upholds this conflict), and on to total war (war in which restrains in conflict and mobilization are repealed, Jünger’s Total Mobilization fueling intense, seemingly unending conflict). Fascism blossoms in the leap from limited to total war, from ‘gentleman’s war’ to suicidal conflict. As such fascism remains locked into the Clausewitzian doctrine, and appears perhaps the war-politic’s relationship taken to its most extreme heights.

At this point everything changes:

…when total war becomes the object of the appropriated war machine, then at this level in the set of all possible conditions, the object and the aim enter into new relations that can reach the point of contradiction… We could say that the appropriation has changed direction, or rather that States tend to unleash, reconstitute, an immense war machine of which they are no longer anything more than opposable or apposed parts. This worldwide war machine, which in a way “reissues” from the States, displays two successive figures: first, that of fascism, which makes war an unlimited movement with no aim other than itself; but fascism is only a rough sketch, and the second, postfascist, figure is that of a war machine that takes peace as its object directly, as the peace of Terror or Survival. Total war itself is surpassed, toward a form of peace more terrifying still. The war machine has taken charge of the aim, worldwide order, and the States are now no more than objects or means adapted to that machine. (ATP 421)

Clausewitz reversed: the understanding war as the continuation of politics is junked by politics becoming the continuation of war. If total war is overcome at this point, it is not because it has become impossible. It is the threat of total war itself, at its most apocalyptic extreme, that makes possible the terrifying ‘peace of survival’. The global smooth space is haunted by total war, and for this reason we could say that total mobilization still persists, as the fundamental prerequisite for this haunting. Indeed, as Jünger stresses the state of total mobilization, which channels “the extensively branched and densely veined power supply of modern life towards the great current of martial energy”, is a mode of subjection that occurs “in war and peace” (Jünger, “Total Mobilization”). In the terrible peacetime of the ascendant war machine, total mobilization and the specter of total war revolve around the game of deterrence. Against fascist war, “the war machine finds its new object in the absolute peace of terror or deterrence”. (ATP, 467)

None of this can be regarded, however, as a purely autonomous process, and is entangled with large-scale tendencies in techno-economic development. The gradual autonomization of war, which stands at the horizon of the war machine’s ascendancy, is inseparable from the gradual autonomization of capital itself. The shoggothic insurrection staged by the war machine is the same insurrection staged by capital: “constant capital (resources and equipment) and human variable capital” are the “very conditions that make the State or World war machine possible.” (ATP 422)

D&G trace this entanglement back to long before the unleashing of the capitalist mode of production, right to the initial capture of the war machine by the State apparatus. The freely-moving war machine effects a smoothing of the territory, but once captured it became “perhaps the first thing to be striated” (ATP 490). Initially oriented towards self-organization and free activity, the ‘work model’ is imposed upon the war machine, a prototype for the diffuse organization of labor necessary to carry out the great public works of antiquity (an evolution that is drawn up in detail by Lewis Mumford in his two volumes of The Myth of the Machine).

The war machine’s power is greatly accelerated in the age of capitalism. The era of limited war (roughly 1640 – 1740) was a period of great economic “concentration, accumulation, and investment”, laying the groundwork not only for the explosive take-off of the Industrial Revolution, but provided the infrastructure would that would push limited war towards total war. “The factors that make State war total war are closely connected to capitalism: it has to do with the investment of constant capital in equipment, industry, and the war economy, and the investment of variable capital in the population… The fact that this double investment can be made only under prior conditions of limited war illustrates the irresistible character of the capitalist tendency to develop total war” (APT 421). This is an exact description of why the war machine will ultimately emergent above and beyond the State: as Marx’s formulas concerning the organic composition of capital show, the long-term tendency of capitalist development is one in which constant capital grows against variable, thus illustrating the radical elimination of the human from the processes of production. Insofar as the laboring body remains, undergoes a leveling process, losing more and more of its character as a tool-wielding agent and becoming a mere ‘conscious linkage’ between machinic components. Thus, in the movement from limited war to total war to the superseding of total war by postfascist peace, D&G have effectively applied Marx’s economics directly to the evolutionary trajectory of the war economy that sustains and fuels the war machine.

Capital that is restrained by the State and attached to the highly regimented work model is striated capital. Capital that is becoming autonomous, which can only occur when automation has inevitability and sufficiently transformed the nature of the work model and cybernetic apparatuses have transformed the whole of society into a source of value extraction, is by contrast smooth capital. Smooth capital is aligned with World war machine, and plays the fundamental role in realizing the global smooth space:

It is as though, at the outcome of the striation that capitalism was able to carry out to an unequal point of perfection, circulating capital necessarily recreated, reconstituted, a sort of smooth space in which the destiny of human beings is recast… [A]t the… dominant level of integrated (or rather integrating) world capitalism, a new smooth space is produced in which capital reaches its “absolute” speed, based on machinic components rather than the human component of labor. (ATP, 492)

This passage in particular highlights one of the fundamental distinctions between the fascist total war and the terrifying peace that supercedes it. Fascism, as is argued in ATP, is based on a State that locks-into a speed-driven suicidal vortex, a collision course with violent abolition. In the postfascist world, however, the absolute speed by the State is trampled by capital achieving absolute speed. It cannot be, either, that capital is here entering into a fascistic mode, as fascism is an intrinsically political phenomenon. Insofar that the political is, as Schmitt defined it, based on the antithesis of the friend and the enemy (Schmitt, The Concept of the Political, 26), its operations are totally distinct from those of capital, which circulates underneath these distinctions and their affairs, slipping between the two and driving them in strange, unpredictable directions.

Such a distinction can be marshaled to elucidate a few points concerning the relationship between unconditional acceleration (U/ACC) and the political. From these grounds, “accelerating the process” – or retarding the process – cannot be carried out from the vantage point of the State, because the State has been wholly subsumed by the process itself. This does not mean, however, that the political has been completely hollowed out. As long as the friend/enemy distinction and the management of activities surrounding it persists, the political hangs on – but from the U/ACC perspective, as well as the perspective taken by D&G as outlined above, these activities can only be contextualized and carried out from their irreversibly subordinated position. Deeper into the throes of the process – the deepening of world capitalist integration – and political activity becomes a question of how to relate to this process. Measured against this, the politico-physical suicide of fascism becomes even more apparent, as well as the necessity of cunning. A political body that learns how to properly interface with the process, to “experience [it], produce flows and conjunctions here and there” (ATP 161) is going to have a far better time than fascistic abandon or short-sighted autarky.

Any cunning political activity that produces temporal metastability within the whirlwind of integrating capitalism is, of course, a reflection of the war machine that will be setting the parameters of that metastable state. We return to the speculation at the outset: isomorphy between the development of an ethics proper to destratification and the historical supersedure of total war by the peace of the smooth space. Capital, as D&G write, might develop itself towards total war, but the means to it are cut short in a double sense. First, by the surpassing of the State itself by the war machine, and second, by the arrival of deterrence as the ghost of total war that holds its actualization at bay. Total war is thus suspended right at the borderland against it even as conflict is shuffled off into other, less obvious modes and into the peripheries. A rapid “demented or suicidal collapse” is avoided, and, out here at the edge, the process is able to prolong itself and reach ever-higher heights. For D&G this is precisely caution and wisdom – the cunning entry into negentropic individuation.

This is not, of course, an end-of-history moment. For D&G, the elements that have made possible the global smooth space – first and foremost, smooth capital – “continually recreate unexpected possibilities for counterattack, unforeseen initiatives determining revolutionary, popular, minority, mutant machines”. These are insurgent war machines, a factor that, especially when coupled with the (un)ground prior of smooth capital, makes it all-too-apparent that such counterattacks will be tangled up in the same subordinated dynamisms and framing of political decisions that their targets will have already been enmeshed within. It does mean, however, that transformation in geopolitical orders, the unleashing of the repressed, and the escape of the caged can be factored in at this late stage. This is, as Vince Garton described in Leviathan Rots, the “recursive dissolution that leaves not a network of states, but an endless flux in which the state itself disintegrates into the very war that sustains it.”

Also relevant, especially to Garton’s dangling provocation, is the following on the coming era of unrestricted warfare:

Colonels Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui argued that war was no longer about “using armed forces to compel the enemy to submit to one’s will” in the classic Clausewitzian sense. Rather, they asserted that war had evolved to “using all means, including armed force or non-armed force, military and non-military, and lethal and non-lethal means to compel the enemy to accept one’s interests.” The barrier between soldiers and civilians would fundamentally be erased, because the battle would be everywhere. The number of new battlefields would be “virtually infinite,” and could include environmental warfare, financial warfare, trade warfare, cultural warfare, and legal warfare, to name just a few. They wrote of assassinating financial speculators to safeguard a nation’s financial security, setting up slush funds to influence opponents’ legislatures and governments, and buying controlling shares of stocks to convert an adversary’s major television and newspapers outlets into tools of media warfare. According to the editor’s note, Qiao argued in a subsequent interview that “the first rule of unrestricted warfare is that there are no rules, with nothing forbidden.” That vision clearly transcends any traditional notions of war.”

(h/t to Thomas Murphy for insightful convos that helped inform this post)



In the March 2nd edition of the Wall Street Journal, Julian Barnes and Josh Chin announced the dawn of a new arms race breaking over the increasingly chaotic geopolitical arena: the competitive pursuit of artificial intelligence and related technologies. At the present moment, the United States leads the world in AI research, but with the emergence of a “Darpa with Chinese Characteristics” the mad dash is on. And behind the US and China is Russia, hoping that within the next ten years to have “30% of its military robotized” – a path that neatly compliments the country’s burgeoning efficiency in non-standard netwar.

At the horizon, Barnes and Chin suggest, is a new speed-driven, technocentric mode of conflict that has been granted the qabbalistically-suggestive name of “hyperwar”:

AI could speed up warfare to a point where unassisted humans can’t keep up—a scenario that retired U.S. Marine Gen. John Allen calls “hyperwar.” In a report released last year, he urged the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to step up its investments in AI, including creating a center to study hyperwar and a European Darpa, particularly to counter the Russian effort.

The report in question unpacks hyperwar further:

Hyper war… will place unique requirements on defence architectures and the high-tech industrial base if the Alliance is to preserve an adequate deterrence and defence posture, let alone maintain a comparative advantage over peer competitors. Artificial Intelligence, deep learning, machine learning, computer vision, neuro-linguistic programming, virtual reality and augmented reality are all part of the future battlespace. They are all underpinned by potential advances in quantum computing that will create a conflict environment in which the decision-action loop will compress dramatically from days and hours to minutes and seconds…or even less. This development will perhaps witness the most revolutionary changes in conflict since the advent of atomic weaponry and in military technology since the 1906 launch of HMS Dreadnought. The United States is moving sharply in this direction in order to compete with similar investments being made by Russia and China, which has itself committed to a spending plan on artificial intelligence that far outstrips all the other players in this arena, including the United States. However, with the Canadian and European Allies lagging someway behind, there is now the potential for yet another dangerous technological gap within the Alliance to open up, in turn undermining NATO’s political cohesion and military interoperability.

“[A] conflict environment in which the decision-action loop will compress dramatically from days and hours to minutes and seconds… or even less.” Let those words sink in for a moment, and consider this hastily-assembled principle: attempts to manage the speed-effects of technological development through technological means result in more and greater speed-effects. James Beniger’s The Control Revolution: Technological and Economic Origins of the Information Society is the great compendium of historical case studies of this phenomenon in operation, tracing out a series of snaking, non-linear pathways in which technological innovation delivers a chaos that demands some of form quelling, often in the form of standards, increased visibility of operations, better methods of coordination, etc. These chaos-combating protocols become, in turn, the infrastructure of further expansion, more technological development, greater economic growth – and in this entanglement, things get faster.

Beniger’s argument is that this dynamic laid the groundwork for the information revolution, with information theory, communication theory, cybernetics, and the like all emerging from managerial discourses as ways to navigate unpredictability of modernity. We need no great summary of the effects of this particular revolution, with its space-time compression, unending cycles of events, the breakdown of discernibility between the true and the false, the rise tide of raw information that threatens to swamp us and eclipse our cognition.

Where this path of inquiry leads is to the recognition that modernity is being dragged, kicking and screaming, into the maw of the accelerationist trolley problem: catastrophe is barreling forward, and the possibly space for decision-making is evaporating just as quickly. There simply isn’t enough time.

Even in the basic, preliminary foreshadows of the problem, command-and-control systems tend to find themselves submerged and incapacitated. Diagramming decision-making and adjusting the role of the human in that diagram is the foremost response (and one completely flush with the assessment drawn from Beniger sketched out briefly above). First-order cybernetics accomplished this by drawing out the position of the human agent within the feedback loops of the system in question and better integrating the decision-making capacity of the agent in line with these processes. From Norbert Wiener’s AA predictor to the SAGE computer system to Operation Igloo White in Vietnam, this not only blurred the human-machine boundary but laid the groundwork for the impending removal outright of the human agent from the loop.


Consider the TOTE model of human behavior, which imported perfectly the fundamental loop of first order cybernetics into the nascent field of cognitive psychology. TOTE: test-operate-test-exit. Goal-seeking behavior in this model follows a basic process of testing the alignment of an operation’s effect with the goal, and adjusting in kind. But consider two systems whose goals are to win out over the other one, each following the TOTE model in relation to the respective actions of each. The decisions made in one system impact the decisions made in the other, veering the entanglement of the two away from anything resembling homeostasis. Add in the variables of speed, the impossibility of achieving total information awareness in the environment, and the hard cognitive limits of the human agent gets us to the position where the role of the human in the loop becomes a liability. But it’s not just the human, as the US military learned in Vietnam: the entire infrastructure, even with the aid of the cybernetic toolkit, falls victim to the information bottlenecks, decision-making paralysis, and the fog of war. The crushing necessity of better, more efficient tools is revealed in the aftermath – but this, of course, will deepen the problem as it unfolds along the line of time.

Enter the John Boyd’s OODA loop. As with the trajectory of Wiener’s thought, Boyd’s theory was first drawn from the study of aviation combat and radiated outwards from there. OODA stands for observation-orientation-decision-action, and like the TOTE model it emphasized cognitive behavior in decision-making as a series of loops. Observation entails the absorption of environmental information by the agent or system, which is processed in the orientation phase to provide context and a range of operational possibilities to choose from. Decision is the choice of an operational possibility, which is then executed as an action. This returns the agent or system to the observation phase, and the process repeats.


Screenshot from 2018-03-06 14-57-17

This might look at first blush like the linear loop of first order cybernetics and the TOTE model, but as Antoine Bousquet argues this is not so:

A closer look at the diagram of the OODA “loop” reveals that orientation actually exerts “implicit guidance and control” over the observation and action phases as well as shaping the decision phase. Furthermore, “the entire ‘loop’ (not just orientation) is an ongoing many-sided implicit cross referencing process of projection, empathy, correlation, and rejection” in which all elements of the “loop” are simultaneous active. In this sense, the OODA “loop” is not truly a cycle and is presented sequentially only for convenience of exposition (hence the scare quotes around “loop”).

Early cybernetic approaches to conflict battlespace insisted achieving a full-scale view of all the variables in play – a complete worldview through which the loops would proceed linearly. It was, in other words, a flattened notion of learning. Boyd, by contrast, insists on the impossibility of achieving such a vantage point. Cognitive behavior, both inside and outside the battlespace, is forever being pummeled by an intrinsically incomplete understanding of the world. In first-order cybernetics, the need for total information awareness raised the specter of a Manichean conflict between signal and noise, with noise being the factor that impinges on the smooth transmission of the information (and thus breaks down the durability of the feedback loop executing and testing the operation). For Boyd this is reversed: passage through the world partially blind, besieged by noise, makes the ‘loop’ a process of continual adaptation through encounter with novelty – a dynamism that he describes, echoing Schumpeter’s famous description of capitalism’s constant drive to technoeconomic development, as cycles of destruction and creation:

When we begin to turn inward and use the new concept—within its own pattern of ideas and interactions—to produce a finer grain match with observed reality we note that the new concept and its match-up with observed reality begins to self-destruct just as before. Accordingly, the dialectic cycle of destruction and creation begins to repeat itself once again. In other words, as suggested by Godel’s Proof of Incompleteness, we imply that the process of Structure, Unstructure, Restructure, Unstructure, Restructure is repeated endlessly in moving to higher and broader levels of elaboration. In this unfolding drama, the alternating cycle of entropy increase toward more and more dis-order and the entropy decrease toward more and more order appears to be one part of a control mechanism that literally seems to drive and regulate this alternating cycle of destruction and creation toward higher and broader levels of elaboration.

What Boyd is describing, then, isn’t simply learning, but the process of learning to learn. For the individual agent and complex system alike, this is the continual re-assessment of reality following the (vital) trauma of ontological crisis – or, in other words, a continual optimization for intelligence, a competitive pursuit of more effective, more efficient means of expanding itself. It is for this reason that Grant Hammond, a professor at the Air War College, finds in Boyd’s OODA ‘loop’ a model of life itself, “that process of seeking harmony with one’s environment, growing, interacting with others, adapting, isolating oneself when necessary, winning, siring offspring, losing, contributing what one can, learning, and ultimately dying.” Tug on that thread a bit and the operations of a complex, emergent system begin to look rather uncanny – or is it the learning-to-learn carried out by the human agent that begins to look like the uncanny thing?

Back to hyperwar.

For Boyd, the dynamics of a given OODA ‘loop’ are the same as the scenario detailed above about the two competing TOTE systems that lock-in to speed-driven (and driving) escalation. Whichever loop evolves better and faster wins – and in the context of highly non-linear, borderless, technologically-integrated warfare, the unreliability of the human agent remains central as the key element to be overcome. Hence hyperwar, as General John Allen makes clear by trying to get a grip on the accelerationist trolley problem:

In military terms, hyperwar may be redefined as a type of conflict where human decision making is almost entirely absent from the observe-orient-decide-act (OODA) loop. As a consequence, the time associated with an OODA cycle will be reduced to near-instantaneous responses. The implications of these developments are many and game changing.

Allen suggests here that there is still some capacity for human decision-making in the hyperwar version of the ‘loop’ – but as he points out in the elsewhere, the US’s military competitors (namely: China) are not likely to feel “particularly constrained” about the usage of totally autonomous AI. A China that doesn’t feel constrained will entail, inevitably, a US that will re-evaluate this position, and it is at this point that things get truly weird. If escalating decision-making and behavior through OODA ‘loop’ competition is an evolutionary model of learning-to-learn, then the intelligence optimization that is, by extension, unfolding through hyperwar will be carried out at a continuous, near-instant rate. At that level the whole notion of combat is eclipsed into a singularity that is completely alien to the human observer that, even in the pre-hyperwar phase of history, has become lost in the labyrinth. War, like the forces of capital, automates and autonomizes and becomes like a life unto itself.