In past installments of this ongoing series, I have examined existing actors’ response to an unspecified breakdown of civil order (due to political conflict, economic malaise, natural disaster, war, etc). With the caveat that predictions are hard when they’re about the future, but even harder when they’re about things that don’t exist yet, it’s important to look at how people that do not currently constitute a power center would react.
In general, when people are put under attack, they do one of three things – fight, flight, or freeze. Freezing is overwhelmingly the most common, both in the moment and as an ongoing response. “It’s OK, they can’t just leave the power off, people won’t stand for it” – bearing in mind the speaker has no idea, in concrete terms, who “they” are, and is in fact standing for it. “Surely they can’t be stopping in front of my house, we’ll get this straightened out”. (If you want to see an excruciating account of this dynamic in action, for the money the best description is Solzhenitsyn, but there is no shortage of examples to choose from).
Flight is the next most common, because it does require a level of initiative – it is not easy to cut one’s losses (the psychological effect is closer to “locking them in”), disrupt one’s employment and social networks, find somewhere safe one can flee to, and put huge amounts of one’s resources into the ticket out (and not only for oneself, but for as much of one’s family as possible). Overwhelmingly though, this is who survives long, ongoing, severe crises (Germany in the 30s-40s, Syria in the 2010s, Detroit post civil rights era, etc). Part of what exacerbates these crises is that at a certain point, the only people left are those without the resources to flee, who are ill-equipped to correct the situation.
Finally, there is fight. As everyone with a functioning military has discovered, an effective fight response is not natural and must be cultivated. If you happen to be in charge of a state, this is easy, as far as it goes – your main challenge is usually making sure your military is effective enough to win wars, but not effective enough to dominate the state itself. However, given the resources and the priority, you can make even illiterate peasant conscripts put on a good show. Even organizations completely incompetent in the aggregate like the late Sadaam Iraqi Army were quite capable of selecting and amalgamating elite corps that were effective at their assigned tasks.
People in charge of states are not, however, the target market for this article. In fact, we’re concerned with the opposite – how are effective organizations (not even in terms of a literal “fight”, but in the sense of people who can coordinate and work towards a goal – economic, social, political, etc) brought into being in a context of a breakdown of centralized order?
The temptation is to get together a bunch of people with loosely aligned worldviews and goals (essentially, an ideology), try to hash out an organizational structure to allow the delegation of responsibilities and development of capabilities, and set to achieving those goals.
Surprisingly, this does not work! I use the one exclamation mark I am allotted per article here, because it is extremely important. Purely ideologically affiliated organizations generally do not work in terms of advancing their putative goals – instead, you have a core with some alternate affiliation that turns that coordinating mechanism to political ends, and wears whatever token ideological organization it’s taken over or founded as a skin suit. The various flavors of fascists in the interwar years were largely army buddies. The US Founding Fathers were mostly freemasons and/or commercial partners. The communists had certain, uh, ethnic affiliations. Hezbollah has neighborhood and clan connections (as well as most urban US gangs, any mafia worth mentioning, important components of the IRA like the South Armagh Brigade, etc). The Democratic Party appears to share sexual inclinations. Colombian “right wing” death squads were usually sponsored by the local ranchers’ association. There were Balkan militias that were previously theater troupes. I could go on.
Aside from the empirical evidence, there are theoretical reasons to expect that ideologically affiliated organizations would be worse at politics than people affiliated for some other reason who turn to politics. People for whom ideology is of primary importance almost definitionally have a very metaphysical idea of what winning looks like, with lots of fragile rhetorical linkages between real-world conditions and their correspondence with the preferred outcome of “communism”, “ethnostate”, “social justice”, etc. People affiliated because they are, eg, the local ranchers, for whom communist paramilitaries are bad for business, are more flexible in terms of accepting pragmatic solutions. In other words, they have skin in the game, and the fact that their victory condition is more understandable and widely shared makes it easier for them to coordinate with less explicit communication about what is “crypto-bourgeois” or what have you. It’s also much more difficult to fake being part of an existing apolitical social network for the decade prior than it is to fake being Committed To The Cause.
This does not diminish the role of ideology in helping people coordinate at a higher level – if you have no worldview that lets you understand what is happening beyond where the blows are landing this week, your “practical commonsense solutions” are going to be as ineffective as, eg, the Republican Party opposing gay marriage. Organizations based purely on local affiliations also obviously do not scale. But the smaller the unit of analysis, the more these local affiliations dominate.
This is background, though – the motivating question was, how are effective organizations created in a context of a breakdown of centralized order? The answer is that they rely on preexisting local order, scaled up and out by necessity. Family connections, neighbors, hobbyist group members, business partners, fellow churchgoers, former comrades in the armed forces, coworkers, etc., recognizing there is something practically wrong and acting to correct or mitigate it. This is not a general “waking up” moment where suddenly everyone realizes <person> was right all along – it’s latent organizations behaving in a more structured or aggressive manner as they are provoked to protect their interests.
My grandfather lives in a fairly isolated small town in the inland South that is essentially one big retirement community, centered around the local medical complex. The cost of living is very low, and it is extremely safe – no “sketchy areas” exist in the town, despite it being not wealthy by any stretch of the imagination, and I have never heard of one of the residents being robbed. This doesn’t just happen by chance – there are a relatively small number of good-ole-boy business elites that run the local government and know exactly where their money comes from (social security, pensions, and medicare after it flows through the medical complex). My guess is that any physical crime against the elderly results in some very well-fed catfish rather than any negative publicity – the ironic side effect of their demography is that they’re always looking for new blood.
What happens in this town if the central power gets even worse at, eg, suppressing opioid trafficking, and a cartel franchise decides to set up shop in a serious way? I have every reason to believe that, to the maximum extent they can get away with it, that group of local elites engages in a reciprocal response and escalation – not quite boomerwaffen, but not quite not. This doesn’t require them to realize, eg, why their community is being targeted for destruction, but it might help.
The ray of hope here is that there are currently an incredible amount of resources being devoted to suppressing the natural inclination of people to meet and work together to advance their interests. As the central power weakens, their ability to prevent local order from filling in the gaps and taking over will diminish. Along with finding like-minded people, those concerned with becoming maximally effective in Exciting Future Circumstance should be working to establish themselves as members of robust local communities, so they can help each other when the time comes.