Monday, December 22, 2008

The scoundrel’s script: deny, diminish, displace

[UPDATE — June 4, 2010:  Stephen Walt offers a similar, more fun list of "21 handy talking-points" in a post about "Defending  the indefensible: a how-to guide" at his Foreign Policy blog.]

This does not have a lot to do with STA or TIMN, but aspects of both are buried in it. And examples abound in recent news. Of today’s front-page scoundrels, Mugabe in particular is well into the script, and Blagojevich appears to be on his way. In contrast, Madoff is apparently so caught he can’t resort to the script.

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A slippery old storyline is too common a sight these days. It’s about people who do something wrong, get away with it for a while, then are found out. As they feel the brunt of blame, they slide into a three-act script to deceive and defy their accusers.

  • Act one is to deny wrong-doing: “The accusations are false … nothing of the sort happened … my record is unblemished … I gave no such orders … show respect.” 
  • If denial fails and evidence mounts, act two is to diminish the taint: “It was just a one-time mistake … a lapse of judgment … a few bad apples … we thought we read the rules right … I didn’t know until later … our system works fine; it’s not to blame … we fixed the problem … the media exaggerate … that’s not the right word for what happened … I wasn’t my true self … I didn’t mean it.” 
  • And if that still fails to work and evidence and pressure keep growing, act three is to deflect and displace the blame: “Who are you to judge me … you’ve no right … you’re not so perfect … what’s your game … your hands are dirtier … they’ve done far worse … they provoked it … they gave us bad info … there’s a conspiracy … we were being threatened … everybody’s been doing it ... I’m the real victim here.”

Not all wrong-doers enact the entire script. Ones who still have a conscience and a positive sense of strategy -- who are not true scoundrels -- may own up during step one and accept responsibility. Others, if fully exposed while dissembling in step two, may fold quietly rather than move into step three.

But plunging through all three acts is all too human. It can tempt a sneaky child, a wayward teenager, a cheating adult. It is common among angry abusive alcoholics, petty thieves, and free-loaders. Most galling are evasive public- and private-sector leaders who make headlines while they push all three acts to an extreme: say a dictator on trial for crimes against humanity, a corporate executive denying fraud, an official accused of a cover-up, a church figure who hides illicit behavior, a celebrity associated with banned substances -- not to mention some of the political posturing that emanates from conflicts in the Middle East. Worse yet, cover-ups that follow genocides generally revolve around this script, a good historical example being Russian responses to revelations about the Katyn Forest massacre in Poland during WWII. [Many thanks to John Arquilla for pointing out this example.]

Intensities vary. Sometimes a prominent wrong-doer -- for example, a Milosevic, or a Mugabe -- moves to step three in a vociferous public rage that appeals to partisan audiences and confounds accusers. But often the process is subtle and subdued, such as when an organization’s leaders and lawyers maneuver to elude the spotlight and spin blame in other directions.

Motives vary too, but often reduce to cold-hearted self-protection. In some instances, the cause seems psychological -- the result of a narcissistic personality who feels above the law and doesn’t mind using deceit. Or the dynamics seem institutional -- a set of tactics for clinging to power and its prerogatives. Or the enactment may be strategic -- deception operations may depend on people falling for this kind of script. Or the pattern looks cultural -- as in tribalized conflicts where atrocities, once uncovered, lead not to admissions of guilt or shame but to claims of self-defense and honorable vengeance for misdeeds blamed on the other side. Indeed, the more tribal and clannish people turn, in any setting, the more likely this three-act script will crop up.

There is no easy way to deal with people who use this script. It seems ingrained in human nature. As psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson explain in their 2007 book Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me), people are normally adept at justifying “foolish beliefs, bad decisions, and hurtful acts.” Calculating scoundrels who don’t care are even more adept and less likely to relent and retract. Indeed, it is easier for a villain to enact these three stages of deceit than for their victims to cope afterwards with the five stages of grief that Elisabeth Kübler-Ross identified in her 1969 book On Death and Dying: first, denial a tragedy is at hand, then anger, bargaining, depression, and finally, acceptance). Note how both scripts start with denial.

Americans are rarely surprised to see the scoundrel’s script unfold in news from other countries. But it looks more prevalent here now too. A major episode at a time once seemed the norm (e.g., Nixon reacting to Watergate). But in recent years, multiple instances have filled the media, sometimes simultaneously involving figures from Wall Street, the White House, and other major institutions. Must I name names? I’d rather suppose that we each have our own lists of favorite examples.

This adds to signs that American society is corroding. American-style capitalism, politics, and culture already look increasingly dysfunctional, in need of adjustments. The rising incidence of the scoundrel’s script only makes matters look worse -- it’s becoming as American as apple pie.

But there may be an additional (even better?) explanation: the information revolution. It cannot account for all scoundrels, and I cannot tell for sure whether their number is in fact higher than ever. Yet, the information revolution has provided both scoundrels and their detectors with new opportunities and capabilities. In particular, the new technologies -- e.g, new record-keeping and information-sharing rules, huge computerized databanks for logging transactions, various types of surveillance and monitoring systems, plus email systems, blogs, website, and online chat rooms that may enable multiple isolated victims to find each other faster and more effectively -- all make it more difficult for scoundrels to hide forever. The growing vigilance of investigative media and watchdog NGOs also make it likelier that scoundrels will eventually be exposed. But this won’t stop new ones from coming along.

[Revised/updated from initial 2002 draft.]

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Fascism reloading

One deduction from the TIMN framework is that fascism will continue making a comeback as globalization and marketization spread. Fascism may be even more likely if globalization and marketization now shrink back as reactions set in around the world.

People like being liberated from dictatorship, but not necessarily from fascism. What’s the difference? Fascism is no mere dictatorship. Yes, it imposes a centralized and organic — if not totalitarian — structure, enforced by a single party, secret police and paramilitary thugs. But that is not what keeps fascism in power and explains its appeal.

Fascism is a total system of existence that willingly engages a broad spectrum, even a majority, of elites and masses. At its core, fascism has a deeply mythic allure; it proposes a quest to overcome dystopian times and achieve a utopian rebirth of a nation’s supposed greatness. Thus fascism rules the mind as well as the body — and both mind and body come to idolize it.

In this quest, fascism is fiercely anti-liberal because it values order far more than freedom and brooks no boundaries between public and private, or state and society. Yet fascism is also anti-conservative; it aims to transform the status quo on behalf of all, not preserve it for the sake of a few.

And although fascism is normally secular in its ends and means, it has a messianic quality, for it promises national redemption and progress to break through to an exquisite new millennium. Indeed, fascism vows to create not only a new order but also a new man — one who has a radiant sense of identity and purpose, the better to ensure that the rebirth endures.

All this shines in the iconic fascisms of the mid-20th century: Benito Mussolini’s in Italy (the standard for many scholars), Adolf Hitler’s in Germany (the racist and totalitarian extreme) and the Falangist movement in Spain (which flowed later into the semi-fascist regime of Francisco Franco). Significant, though eclectic, tendencies also emerged outside Europe, notably in South Africa, Argentina and Japan. (Good sources: Payne, 1995; Paxton, 2004)

Where and why does fascism take hold? It cannot happen anywhere; some tendencies, perhaps, but not fascism as a system. First, it requires a modernizing nation that has a serious state, a significant private business sector and a complex civil society. The ultranationalism so characteristic of fascism resembles an extreme tribalism, but societies that turn fascist are too advanced to be considered tribal. Moreover, though studies of totalitarianism typically view communism and fascism as quite similar, they have a key difference that often gets overlooked: the presence of a private sector and a market system, however weak. Communism must be rid of them, but fascism aims to strengthen them, albeit in a suborned way.

Second, fascism requires that this modernizing society be suffering from deep disturbances and grievances. There should be a widespread sense of disaster, alarm and disarray stemming, say, from a lost war, a severe economic depression, pervasive corruption scandals or humiliating foreign interference. It’s a point that applies to the making of terrorists as well as fascists: Whatever the political, economic or social details, people feel that they and their nation are facing an “absolute disaster,” not just “relative deprivation” (to adapt a point from Barkun, 1974).

Under these conditions, longing can arise for national rebirth, not to mention a great charismatic leader to show the way. People at large are so fed up, furious, divided and fearful about the condition of their nation that, if fascism’s exponents manage to seize office through election or force, it is not that difficult to make people succumb to fascism’s promises to reunite them, overcome obstacles, organize a strong system, and purge society of all that is weak, divisive, and anomalous. A leadership cult and grandiose assertions of national solidarity, sovereignty and independence spread fascism’s mythic appeal as its media, intelligence and coercive apparatuses expand to ensure compliance.

Why be reminded of these basics? Because Americans are not used to thinking about fascism as a system anymore. And because fascism — unlike communism — is far from dead or obsolete. The spread of the market system, pro-democracy pressures, and other aspects of globalization are having ambivalent effects around the world. There are signs of progress in many societies. But not in all.

Some modernizing nations are having wrenching difficulties adapting to globalization and other pressures to build ever more open, competitive, complex systems. Some also face external and internal threats that can be hyped to arouse ultranationalism and distract citizens from domestic problems. Thus the conditions for fascism, which were centered in Europe many decades ago, are likely to recur in new places, as a natural attraction for societies that get in trouble at a particular stage of social evolution.

Already in this century we have had to wage two wars against fascistic regimes: Slobodan Milosevic’s in Serbia, and Saadam Hussein’s in Iraq. We also keep having to tussle with fascism-inspired regimes that have taken hold elsewhere — notably Hugo Chavez’s in Venezuela. These instances are more harbingers than holdovers from past trends.

Today, Chavez in particular keeps revealing that the kind of “socialism” he has in mind has a lot more in common with the bygone “national socialism” of Europe (esp. Mussolini) than the communist socialism of the old Soviet system. This makes for something of a contrast to Cuba's Fidel Castro.

In retrospect, Castro never really faced a choice between liberal democracy and communism; his choice was mainly between pursuing fascism or communism. And he preferred the latter partly because, from a TIMN perspective, he knew how to promote a nationalistic tribalism and hierarchical institutions, but not how to promote a reformed market system and private sector. Before long, however, fascism might turn out to be Cuba's next preferred model. This is one reason for U.S. strategists to be wary of speculations that lifting the embargo may lead to a democratic opening in Cuba.

It is easier to sound a warning about a new round of fascism in far-off places than to specify where or in what variety and numbers. But some future possibilities — Russia? a new Islamic caliphate? — would prove much riskier for the West than others.

Meanwhile, here in the United States, surges in tribal partisanship, efforts to strengthen government surveillance and monitoring, and disarrray in relations between state and market actors suggest, from a TIMN perspective, that some fascism tendencies have been mounting within the United States itself for some years now. I think that’s partly in reaction to the rise of the information-age network form, and the stresses and strains that is placing on the roles of the tribal, institutional, and market forms in our society — but I’ll leave that notion for another day.

[Updated version of text from 2003 draft and op-ed.]

UPDATE -- March 15, 2009: An essay by Benito Mussolini, “The Political and Social Doctrine of Fascism” (1933), made available at Marc Schulman’s blog American Future, makes for very interesting reading that substantiates a lot of what is summarized above about the nature of Fascism.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Strategic multiplexity: another notion for our troubled times

Encounters a few months ago with colleagues who work on information-age strategies made me aware that a particular observation was starting to spread anew in strategy circles: The world is increasingly characterized by complex, ever-shifting mixes of cooperation, competition, and conflict -- often all with the same actor at the same time. Nation-states like Russia and China might be mentioned, but so might an array of sub-state and non-state actors. The point was that it might be advisable for this observation -- this theme -- to figure centrally in America’s next international security strategy.

This began to be an interesting theme for me when I spotted a sports analog years ago in the behavior of drivers in NASCAR races at Daytona that revolve around multi-car draft lines. In those unique lines, drivers get ahead only by organizing into opportunistic drafting partnerships -- the more cars in line, the faster they go, easily passing lone cars. In this game, out-competing depends on out-cooperating in episodic alliances.

And since writing this up in a paper about "Social Science at 190 mph" (2000), I've kept an eye out for expressions that relate broadly to strategy. In case a series of references can help others dig into the theme, here is most of what I have collected so far:
  • The earliest expression I’ve found is to "cooperative competition" (Golden, 1993).
  • Later came the similar notion of "co-opetition" as fielded by two business-oriented game theorists (Brandenburger & Nalebuff, 1996).
  • Network governance specialists have identified “competitor-partner networks” as a factor in “government by network” (Goldsmith and Eggers, 2004).
  • Economic sociologists using network analysis talk about finding “multiple forms of cooperation and competition” in new business sectors (Smith-Doerr & Powell, 2005).
  • Organizational theorists keep referring to commensalism, symbiosis, and mutualism as areas in the spectrum of relations that run from competition to cooperation (e.g., Aldrich, 2006; Monge et al., 2008).
I’m sure similar points are made in management literatures about teamwork in the new economy, but I’ve nothing else handy on that.

Meanwhile, lets notice a term that social network analysts use in discussing such matters: "multiplexity" -- meaning that relations between nodes involve multiple, not just "simplex" or "duplex,” ties or flows. Multiplex mostly means that a single line or channel can carry many messages simultaneously. Social network analysts suppose that multiplex relations are likely to foster reciprocity, trust, commitment, reputation, interdependence, and strength. But strategists may wonder otherwise as well, esp. if the multiplexity involves mixed messages and double-dealing.

What I get out of all this is that the theme -- getting a strategic handle on a world order (and disorder) increasingly defined by myriad mixes of cooperation, competition, and conflict -- is growing in significance, that it should be brought to the fore, and that it is attended by a lot of unattractive terminologies. Maybe English is not suited to finding the right kind of concept; maybe it’ll turn out that a foreign language is conceptually more suited (uh-oh). But we Americans better get cracking on it, in theory and practice.

For now, my proposed term for this phenomenon is “strategic multiplexity.” It kinda captures the above. And it could provide a parallel and complement to that usual observation: multipolarity. A plus may be that the former term could help with focusing on the nature of the ties, whereas the latter term is geared to focusing on the nature of the nodes. We need to be doing both, in agile, adaptable ways. We’re operating in a world that is both multiplex and multipolar, where out-competing increasingly depends on out-cooperating (and vice-versa).

While multiplexity isn’t a felicitous term, a check of the OED Online indicates it is an older term than multipolar. Both were used in the physical, biological, and engineering sciences before they spread into the social sciences, philosophy, or politics (and business). The term multipolar has been used to discuss strategy for four or five decades; I wonder how it sounded at first (probably better than multiplex).

Anyway, that’s my nascent offering on this theme. Here are two good back-up quotes:
“From this network perspective, national strategy will depend less on confrontation with opponents and more on the art of cooperation with competitors. . . . The new strategy of cooperative competition would be defined more in terms of networks of information flows among equals that provide for enhanced cooperation on technological developments and potential responses to international crises in a framework of shifting ad hoc coalitions and intense economic competition. . . . The strategy of the United States, then, would be to play the role of strategic broker, forming, sustaining, and adjusting international networks to meet a sophisticated array of challenges.” (Golden, 1993)

“In both circumstances, groups of collaborators become involved in multiple forms of cooperation and competition. We argue that these new patterns of affiliation, with shifting rival alliances competing and recombining on a project-by-project basis, lead to new interpretations of the nature of competition. First, recognize how profoundly a competitive relationship is altered when two parties compete on one project, but collaborate on another. The goal of competition cannot be to vanquish your opponent lest you harm your collaborator on a different project." (Smith-Doerr & Powell, 2005)
[UPDATE — May 12, 2009: Here’s a marvellous example of multiplexity in action: A new report by Hugh Griffiths and Mark Bromley, Air Transport and Destabilizing Commodity Flows, SIPRI, Policy Paper No. 24, May 2009, “reveals that 90 per cent of the air cargo companies identified in arms trafficking-related reports have also been used by major UN agencies, EU and NATO member states, defence contractors and some of the world’s leading NGOs to transport humanitarian aid, peacekeepers and peacekeeping equipment. In some cases, air cargo companies are delivering both aid and weapons to the same conflict zones.” The quote is from a SIPRI press release. Thanks to The Crime-Conflict Nexus and The Huguenot Corsair blogs for leading me to this.]

A space-time-action comment about terrorist mindsets

UPDATE — March 21, 2009: I'm dimming the text here, and may yet delete it. There's no point in offering it to possible readers. An improved version of the first three paragraphs has been incorporated into this subsequent post providing an overview of the STA framework. And an improved version of the final paragraph has been folded into another subsequent post about millenarian terrorism.

But do read the comment left by Spartacus — a reason to keep rather than delete the post.

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imagine all kinds of people with all kinds of belief systems. then strip away their ideologies, values, norms, etc., until you get down to the most fundamental notions they have that still amount to social cognition, before you end up with a quivering mess of emotions, impulses, and instincts.

what’s there is a layer or module in the mind that consists of people’s basic orientations to social space, time, and action. by space, i mean how people see their identity in relation to others, and how they perceive objects as being structured, distributed, and linked -- or not. by time, i mean how people discern past, present, and future, and relations among them -- or not. by action, i refer to people’s sense of whether and how they can affect things -- or not.

all three kinds of orientations are essential. this module takes shape in childhood, and it’s always there from then on. it is rarely analyzed on its own, yet no mind can work without it, and most everything that people think and do gets processed in it. it amounts to a set of cognitive knowledge, and i suppose it sits between rational reason and irrational emotion. some major ideas -- like the shift from believing in “fate” to believing in “progress” -- owe to shifts in the beliefs that end up in this module.

what might this have to do with terrorism? people who have made statements about becoming a terrorist often refer to having lacked identity, feeling small and humiliated, facing obstacles and barriers, feeling lost after moving abroad, feeling a new sense of worth from finding new connections and understandings, etc. curiously, these are mostly spatial referents. thus, the keys to understanding the attraction to the terrorist mindset may lie more in the recruits' spatial than in their time or action orientations. this may also apply more broadly to the nature of the tribal mindset, which is so emphatic about upholding solidarity, respect, pride, honor, and dignity.

Testing: one two three. . . .

i have just created this blog. now let's see whether i can post to it, and whether a friend or two can call it up. the purpose is to help me keep moving ahead at developing two theoretical frameworks:

one is about social evolution -- past, present, and future -- as a function of how societies use and combine four major forms of organization: tribes, hierarchical institutions, markets, and networks. the idea occurred to me in the early 1990s, and i already have a small body of writings about it, which i will eventually link here. but i also have quite a ways to go, and maybe this blog will help me to post occasional points now and then while i keep working at a long professional write-up. as an abbreviation, i call it the "timn" framework. for more in the meantime, see my 1994 paper on "Tribes, Institutions, Markets, Networks—A Framework about Societal Evolution" (1994).

the other idea is about how minds work in terms of people's perceptions about the nature of social space, social time, and social action. i think there is a module in the mind that consists of people's space-time-action orientations, and understanding this may provide keys to not only how people think but also how cultures work and historical eras differ. this idea occurred to me in the late 1960s, almost as an epiphany. but i've not managed to write it up thoroughly yet. again, i'm hoping this blog serves as a way to make some progress expressing pieces of the idea. as an abbreviation, i call it the "sta" framework. for more in the meantime, see the few pages on the idea inside my my paper on "The Hubris-Nemesis Complex: A Concept for Leadership Analysis" (1994).

so that's what this blog is about. along the way i may raise other matters, but only apropos some aspect of one or both theories.