Thursday, October 14, 2004

A while back I posted on Dr. Barnett's concept of System Perturbation, coming up with a set of rules I thought such events were likely to follow. Dr. Barnett in turn suggested I review the part his editors left on the cutting room floor - one of his deleted scenes - that he developed from a workshop with a high-powered gathering of formidible intellectuals, strategists and social scientists. The material deserved to be in PNM so I'm hoping it gets fully developed in the upcoming sequel. I strongly suggest you click the link for yourself and, if nothing else, take a quick look at the Powerpoint slides that emerged from the workshop before reading the review.

In Part I. I critique the preparatory remarks that explain Vertical and Horizontal scenarios and in Part II. I will tackle the rules that came out of the System Perturbation workshop themselves. Dr. Barnett's text will be in bold, my commentary in regular type:

"What I got from the workshop was a ton of disparate ideas about how vertical and horizontal scenarios play out among vertical and horizontal political systems. That was the weird thing about this workshop: I introduced the concept of vertical and horizontal scenarios and pretty soon everyone in the room was talking about vertical and horizontal societies or political systems. I like those phrases better than "authoritarian" and "democratic," because those phrases come with so much baggage and are so all-inclusive, whereas my workshop participants seemed to use the phrases vertical system and horizontal system with far greater freedom. For example, both China and Russia could be described as having far more horizontal economic systems than political systems, meaning their economies are increasingly built more around ties among firms and among individuals than between the political leadership and firms, or the more vertically arranged patterns of authority and activity under past communist rule. Their political systems may still be quite vertically arrayed, from top to bottom, but their economic systems are far more horizontal.

Dr. Barnett excels at conceptual reorganization and identification of primary characteristics or premises. To an extent this is a process of simplication - something required to communicate concepts used by specialists to a wider audience and a prerequisite for analogical thinking - but it is also a process of clarification. To get complicated ideas down to their irreducible premises makes their logical implications visible.

Vertical and Horozontal are excellent terms for describing the connectivity relationships - basically Hierarchy versus a Lattice - a lattice that contains within it a variety of hierarchies, linear cross-connections and randomly evolving strands. Power, information, resources flow along the lines but in a Vertical scenario the guiding hand of the system is visible and the lines are rigid.

You might ask, Why not just call them authoritarian market economies? Clearly I could do just that, but I prefer referring to vertical and horizontal systems because, that way, I can talk about how different aspects (i.e., economic versus political, or social versus security) of China might respond to a System Perturbation differently. I think China's economy and society are more horizontal in form than vertical, but I believe the Communist Party and People's Liberation Army remain extremely vertical in form, so a System Perturbation hitting China hits different sectors differently. Why is that important? Well, here I go back to the dinosaurs and mammals notion: a System Perturbation may disrupt or destroy different aspects of different systems across China. For example, SARS was more challenging for the political leadership than for the economy, which in the end proved awfully resilient whereas the Party looked awfully stiff. The mass media displayed a surprising amount of horizontal form, whereas the military assumed its usual stonewall stance. You get the idea. I just want more flexible concepts because I am still fumbling my way around this new strategic concept

Whenever I read these broad systemic comparisons and evaluations my mind usually runs back to two classic political theorists - Polybius and his Cycle of Constitutions and Baron de Montesquieu's description of forms of government and their signs of corruption in The Spirit of the Laws. Stiff, incidently is a good indication of a closed society - it is stiff because organizations like the CCP resist information that contradicts their raison d'etre - which is organization for control.

Before I give you the rules, let me spin out this description of vertical and horizontal systems a bit more by offering a series of examples. I will say horizontal systems tend to be replete with elites, meaning they possess multiple types of powerful people: political, business, military, technology, mass media, cultural icons and heroes, and so on. Vertical systems, on the other hand, really only have one elite -- the political leadership. You can tell you are in a vertical system when the political leader is also the military leader, is also the richer landowner, is also guiding hand of the economy, and so on. In vertical systems, you have to join the government to have power and wealth, but in horizontal systems, you typically have to leave the government to get wealth.

Vertical systems are by nature despotic or oligarchic which makes them both strong and fragile. Strong because the capabilities of a Vertical system can be marshalled easily in one direction and in that direction have immense strength, like the top of a pillar or the point of a spear. Vertical systems are fragile because they are not designed to receive or respond to blows from unexpected directions. Nor does the Vertical system have as much adaptive flexibility if the guiding hand proves incompetent. The paralysis of the Red Army in the initial days of the Nazi invasion in 1941 come to mind where both Stalin's dolorous shock and the effects of his maniacal terror on the officer corps resulted in the destruction of whole Soviet armies.

A second difference I have touched upon before: horizontal systems rotate leaderships with routine regularity, while vertical systems tend to have permanent leaderships. As such, horizontal systems tend to feature market-dominated economies, while vertical systems tend to feature state-dominated economies.

Horizontal systems evolve. Vertical systems ossify.

Deng Xiaoping seemed to grasp that Mao's fanatically vertical state was ill-suited to survive the challenges of the modern world and attempted to resolve the " succession crisis " that plagued Communist systems whenever the supreme leader died and left no legitmate, certain or timely way to transfer power. Deng had seen the effects of Mao's dotage firsthand and navigated power struggles against the Gang of Four and then Hua Guofeng to become Paramount Leader of a liberalizing, modernizing, China. Deng forced mandatory retirement on the cadres to regularly bring up new blood from the ranks ( a policy also employed by the U.S. military to avoid the ancient colonels and venerable majors of the pre-WWII era) while allowing seniors like himself and Chen Yun a graceful exit as elder statesmen and mentors to fifty-something Politburo members who run China day to day. Jiang Zemin recently tried to buck the system and retain his powerful post as military leader and CCP powerbroker but other CCP heavyweights refused to allow Jiang to break Deng's rule-set and backed Hu Jintao.

Vertical systems were the "natural" structure of the premodern, agricultural world where the emphasis was on subsistence and stability; vertical systems like Pharaonic Egypt could last thousands of years with relatively little cultural evolution. Today they are only well suited to small-scale operations, being too ponderously slow and stupid to react efficiently to all the variables inherent in the modern world on the large-scale of states.

A third package of differences concerns the nature of communications and dialogue. In the horizontal system, you tend to see universal networks, where everyone can connect up to everyone else. This facilitates a question-based dialogue, where basically all subjects are on the table. The government in a horizontal system tends not to make any effort to steer that discourse, but only to deal with downstream behavior that may result. You want to yell "fire" in a crowded theater and people get hurt in the resulting stampede? Well then, you are going to be in trouble.

The critical element here is liberty. The Horizontal system works best by keeping track of relatively few variables and letting the rest interact autonomously so long as the results do not threaten the integrity of the system - in which case the Horizontal system can muster a smothering, comprehensive, response because it's energies are not being frittered away on trivialities. "Anything not specifically forbidden is permitted" is a far more economical rule set for political power than the reverse.

Vertical systems are just the opposite on communication. Their networks tend to be drill-down networks, or connectivity that runs from the leader to the led. Instead of letting any and all conversations occur, vertical systems typically feature upstream content control, because the dialogues that are permissible are severely restricted in terms of taboos. In short, it is a world of "don't go there, girlfriend!" I use the feminine here with purpose, since far more of the taboos involve women and restrict their behavior. What do young Iranian women do overwhelmingly when they get on the Internet? They race to Yahoo chat rooms to discuss sex, dating and marriage? Why do they have to go to such effort? These subjects are not discussable in public Iranian society under the mullahs. So what do you talk about in a country like Iran? You mostly talk about what you cannot talk about. That is what I did in the Soviet Union when I lived there briefly: I had lots of conversations with Russians where we talked about all the subjects you could not talk about. We did not actually discuss those subjects, we just talking about Russians' inability to talk about them. Vertical systems are a sort of strange, Seinfeldian universe in that way: all of your conversations really are about nothing "

This predisposition to create taboos is probably a basic psychological characteristic of all people, Denial, being manifested as a social phenomenon but becomes ruinous when enforced systemically. It short-circuits problem solving and as multiple threats to the well-being of society build, leads to a sense of despair or malaise. The USSR died spiritually long before the bureaucracy gave up the ghost - with true belief among the elite confined to a small number of fanatics around Mikhail Suslov and an elderly generation of pensioners unwilling to believe that the horrifying sacrifices of their lives had been for naught.

Next, in Part II, a look at Dr. Barnett's Rules of System Perturbations in Vertical and Horizontal scenarios.

ON A RELATED NOTE: TM Lutas is also posting on PNM theory tonight, Gap-Core and the implications of capital flows. Go read him !

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