7Pillars Partners

Musing on the Rebel's Edge

Michael Wilson [5514706@mcimail.com]
7Pillars Partners [http://www.7pillars.com/ and partners@7pillars.com]
Copyright 1997 by author. All rights reserved.

Conflict is good. Conflict is an essential element of progress, which is, after all, blind--there is no 'grand design' that we're planning for and working toward. In fact, the plans that we do make have a funny way of becoming rapidly out of date, as circumstances change--people are always creating new options, potential selections, that's what we mean by 'progress.' With so many choices, how do we know the 'good' ones? How do 'good' options get selected or distinguished from 'bad' options?

Using global political economies (where 'business is war' if you take certain Japanese sentiments at face value) as an example of the discrimination process, we have free societies, with free markets, where the market decides--a market being a rather circular concept of fitness: a potential selection is viable if enough people choose to exchange the price for it, purchasing the selection. If you don't have sufficient market, you can't maintain the offering of the selection, and it will likely soon become unavailable to the market, at least in that form or price. Success in a market defines fitness, just as certain genetic traits can afford parity or advantage in a biological model. The key is effectiveness--the selection provides parity of benefit when compared against other available selections, or confers an advantage over comparable selections.

This brings us back to conflict--how are parity or advantage tested? How is fitness compared? Which selection affords greater effectiveness? What filters 'good' (in a context) or desirable selections from 'bad'? Conflict. It occurs on a daily basis in the animal kingdom--survival in the face of the environment or predators. It occurs on a historical basis from the beginning of recorded history--we see hunting parties painted on cave walls, or the triumph of individualism over collectivism (free markets over directed markets, the fundamental challenge of the 20th Century).

History shows the evolutionary progress and advance of political economies: from variations on a theme (the exchange of one ruler for another), to shifts in elemental principles (divine right opposed to the equal potential of all men), this has phenomenologically manifest as rebellion. While the rebels must have had some advantage which allowed them to succeed, there are also inherent advantages to being the opposition force, and it is some of these notable elements that I shall discuss herein.


This paper is an ode and homage, because above all else, the principle of effectiveness is the key--given an intent or desired outcome, the rebel can be flexible enough to make selections for the effectiveness of their outcome, while the defending political economy is already constrained in selection, options precluded. Such is a meta-rule of the conflict, which will be borne out by more specific arguments.

Intentional Communities

Rebels, at least at the core of any rebellion, are voluntarists, united by a common will and purpose (this may be debated, but at some level of abstraction, there must be unity, otherwise movements will schism into factions that do possess such unity). Variations on the actual nature of degree of voluntary or intentional involvement are interesting.

Conscription forces are notoriously less effective when there is an underlying assumption and belief in free choice; the Viet Nam conflict is a good study in such a dichotomy. American forces, coming from a free society (as much as a democracy is), and in particular, conscripting from a demographic especially cherishing its freedom and lack of responsibility (young men only recently having achieved their legal majority, thus used to a position of having a guardian), struggled not only against their opponent, but against an inherent resistance to being put in such a situation (a notable exception was the performance of ethnic minorities, who had no such social expectations or preconceptions, and for whom an argument could be made were more prepared to be placed in a hostile environment because of long exposure to such already). Against the American forces were the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and the Viet Cong (VC), where brutal conscription methods were used, not in the least being the 'no alternative' position provided by the fatally flawed American strategy in the conflict (where the indigenous population was forced into a bipolar situation of remaining neutral but being actively victimized, or collaboration/enlistment and exacting their own pound of flesh). This led to a bizarre constitution of American forces (veterans of previous conflicts such as Korea, true believers who volunteered, the (rare) affluent or middle-class draftee who was a short-timer wanting to do his stint and go home to the 'good life,' and the lower economic class draftee for whom the military often presented an improved situation if it weren't for the actual combat) fighting a losing battle against the NVA and VC (who were fighting an invading power, exacting revenge for the loss of family, friends, property, and commonly with few options other than surviving in the bush).

After the Viet Nam debacle, the American forces converted to a slightly more palatable position--voluntary enlistment, with sharply defined rights and responsibilities after such enlistment. Regardless of the harshness of the military code of conduct in a free society, at least those required to abide by it had done so of their own volition. Desert Shield and Desert Storm provide a sharp contract in this respect to Viet Nam; American forces were willingly engaged in the conflict (and in many cases, downright eager), while Iraqi forces were in a rather rough double-bind--all the earth before them, half of hell behind. It should come as no surprise that Iraqi soldiers actively sought to be taken prisoner, and many expressed a deep disgust that it took so long in coming. Incidentally, the rebels of Desert Storm, the resistance inside occupied Kuwait, accounted for themselves well (fighting an invading power, exacting revenge) until being abandoned back to the tender mercies of the Kuwait royal family after the ground war resolved.

Voluntary membership in a rebellion, unity of common intent (however abstract or simplistic), clearly conveys advantage; does it hang together at a farthest extreme? Only now are we beginning to see the creation and operation of truly advanced structures of organizations, which maintain purely voluntarist, anarchical, anonymous, and local opposition forces; it is uncertain as to exactly how well such groups will fare in the conflicts they will be involved in, but they bear watching, for their potential is of the highest degree.


A biological model is interesting to consider, if only because the trends acting in nature are inspissate and more obvious to an observer. Punctuated equilibrium, in particular, is one of the models used by evolutionary biology; simply put, punctuated equilibrium asserts that a species will remain relatively stable with normal sorts of variation, until an environmental pressure selects some subset of the population as having greater fitness for survival. Such pressures could be of the environment, such as a climate change, or some variation of the Law of the Minimum, where the community size and growth are 'controlled' by the factor in least availability, such as food, water, sunlight. An environmental change such as an ice age, drought, or occluded atmosphere would force a die-back in a population unprepared to cope with the shift (dinosaurs, inefficient predators, plants requiring regular sunlight). The other pressure would be that of a predator--an increase in their number, efficiency, or acquiring some advantage (such as our genetic ancestors did with the creation and utilization of tools), also puts evolutionary pressures on the life inside the environment.

Relating this to rebels is not as much of a stretch as it may initially appear. Consider a terrorist as a predator, and consider law enforcement and intelligence as a predator with a particular taste for that sort of prey. Terrorists have evolved under environmental pressures; consider the introduction of the metal detector, or creation of hostage rescue tactics. The terrorist unable to cope with the new pressure (in both cases, moving from their mode of operation to 'no contact' operations involving explosive devices) suffered die-back of a rather unpleasant sort--arrest, death, or renunciation of their movement. Law and intel as a predatory force only 'cull the herd' of their prey--taking the weak, injured, or inept. Under the evolutionary pressure, the terrorist undergoes a punctuated equilibrium--few terrorists, fewer attacks, but far more effective, and in general, a better ability to cope with change, a higher plateau. After all, the best evolutionary trait is the ability to adapt; humans, as cognizant beings, are capable of learning, passing along what they have learned, and using it to their benefit (in a far faster cycle than genetic advance can, see the gene vs. meme argument elsewhere). Of particular interest should be the evolutionary pressures now being put into place--restrictions on civil liberties, introduction of bomb-sniffing thermal neutron analysis machines, increased surveillance, greater numbers of agents, etc.--all of which will be met with advance and escalation.

Ontological Judo

Rebels have regular opportunities to leverage (judo being the martial art relying on balance and leverage, the use of an opponent's movement/momentum against themselves) the operations of their opposition, often finding themselves in a position of having an opponent with many elements of a bureaucracy to exploit. Guerrilla forces have long held as a tenet of faith that their best supplier of armament, equipment, and other logistical supply is their opponent's store and logistical network. The laws, policies, and procedures of a social structure or political economy provide opportunity or shelter to the rebel--freedom of press, freedom of assembly, free markets can all be exploited in one context, while "hear no evil, see no evil" passivity conveys advantage in another.

An unusual example would also be the evolution of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) into the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). During World War II, the United States found itself in the position of the underdog, particularly in its own intelligence capability. The ethic of the original OSS was Machiavellian in a pure sense of the term--good men must, on occasion, do evil acts for noble purposes. The Jedburgh teams and Detachment 101 were unconventional warfare efforts in occupied Europe and Asia to act as the catalyst for rebel action. While this was mentored by the British, the U.S. effort rapidly declared its independence (to the dismay of the British, who felt an imperative in maintaining their prerogative in Europe and the espionage war effort), and surpassed the 'polite' efforts of the established school, favoring the 'scrapper' approach to partisan efforts. After the War, the charter of the CIA captured the spirit if not the personnel of the OSS, and grew into active, mature service during the Cold War. The scale of the Cold War effort, however, quickly burned the maverick ethic of the Agency out, and replaced it with a reptilian bureaucracy (which says much about the evolutionary pressures upon that organization); it is this bureaucracy that is now faced with a very different threat environment, one that defies quantitative analysis developed to count bombers and silos, and for which the Cold War capacity is ill-applied. Dinosaurs in the extreme.


It is a far, far easier thing to destroy than create. As a credo, such a statement is very hard to top. It is, for all its dogmatic simplicity, true across the ages. A principle of life itself is that all things die, come to an end, and become food to the more humble of the food chain--worms, bacteria, scavenger, predator. There are few edifices indeed that are not susceptible to artifice; modern conflict favors the attacker, and everything has weak points that can be attacked. The act of destruction--ambush, onslaught, assassination--appeals to Man's basest instinct; it is, after all, how we clawed and climbed our way to the top of the food chain.

That said, and as easy as it is to destroy some things, destruction has its limits. You can't destroy guns, drugs, a political philosophy, or a rebel leader--you would have to destroy the very idea of guns or drugs as well as the desire to use them; no political philosophy, however foolish or unworkable, seems to have been laid to rest; and dead rebels transform into mythic martyrs, more powerful in death than in life. The tools and desire for destruction are inherent in all things, and thus will always provide an opportunity to be exploited; the capacity to destroy is the easiest to come by, there is a low threshold, but the trick is knowing what to target, and which fights to pick. Even then, destruction only leaves a vacuum, which something will rush to fill.

Alternative Social Contract

New and novel things also have an inherent attraction--the winter of our discontent is always with us; the very trait that invests humans with the desire to learn and adapt also promotes dissatisfaction with what we already have. Again, don't knock it, it propelled us to the pinnacle of the animal kingdom.

While some rebels might be motivated purely by the desire to destroy (the "I don't know what I want, but I know what I don't want" intent), this does not make a rebellion. Marxism and Maoism both provide rather stellar examples of a more proper course of action--knock down the old system, but have a new one that you are actively recruiting for. Both Marxism and Maoism provide easy answers for a simple, idyllic world; they are, incidentally, utopian--totally unworkable, at least with the human race. What makes them so powerful, besides their seductive pitch to the proletariat, is that they are a linked conceptual set; pick up the popular Marxist or Maoist (particularly Mao's 'little red book') tract and you find a handbook for revolution that also contains the seeds of the weed known as the communist/socialist collective political systems. It's one handy little package that tells the rebel how to fight, along with a pre-packaged invitation to open another collectivist franchise; McDonald's never had it quite so good. Given the very real successes (albeit followed decades later by the resounding failures) of the mechanism, it almost becomes understandable the fear and horror that must have been felt in royalist and democratic circles--the folly of royalism, with a set of noble 'elites' who were becoming more obviously incompetent across the centuries; and the supporters of democratic rule, not an easy concept to sell, not a ready package of 'solutions,' a far heavier intellectual and civic burden to bear, and not (initially) redistributive of the assets from the Haves back to the Have Nots.

As a general rule, it appears to be a historical necessity for an alternative to be available before a political economy can collapse or be overthrown and replaced with something new (even if just another unknown incompetent to replace the known incompetent); this, in fact, is one of the few stabilizing pressures for democracy at the moment--collectivist systems are discredited for the nonce, democracy is viewed as the crowning achievement of political advance, and a reasonably attractive alternative is not yet available. Yet. This too shall pass. Eastern Europe's dissatisfaction with the democratic process (it didn't auto-magically create the necessary complex infrastructure that would supply televisions, VCRs, fancy cars, and nice clothes, it only provided the ability to make selections that led in that direction) is already creating popular trends that lead back into communism (which doesn't supply any of those products either, but at lease put food on the table--some of the time).

Moral Position

Only rarely do rebels, or any conflicting parties for that matter, share the moral position with their opponent (key exceptions: internal power struggles, or situations such as Bosnia-Herzegovinia); this variance of moral position has potential advantages.

As discussed earlier regarding ontological judo, having no moral position, willing to commit any action by any means, while your opponent is 'hamstrung' by their own rules of law, does provide a certain flexibility. The flip-side to this is a situation such as Tiananmen Square, where the students held the moral high-ground, but quickly found themselves plowed under. Regimes willing to perpetrate any horror in the name of preservation of power or stability (hear me o Prince!) have certainly managed to do so--witness the Middle East, Stalin, Mao, or to a certain extent the American Civil War.

The moral high ground, however, has successfully been held, and an extreme moral position it was as well. Gandhi's path was a long, twisty, and harsh one, but I personally have to say he achieved self determination for the largest number of individuals with the lowest cost in human life as any rebel in history, an admirable achievement. He managed this feat by holding a position of non-violent non-cooperation, while showing that the 'civilized' opponent of the United Kingdom could not live up to its own imposed standards of conduct or law. Governors rule with the consent of the governed, one way or another, and Gandhi played a game of existential 'chicken' (a game where the parties playing take increasingly dangerous risks until one party decides not to take its turn; Kahn once commented that the way to win a game of chicken played with automobiles, which would head at each other at high speed until someone swerved to avoid collision, was to show up blind drunk, rip off the steering wheel, and toss it out of the vehicle before you even started). For this to work, it needs to be the right time, the right place, and the right players--as the Tibetans and the Dalai Lama are finding, much to their dismay, with the Chinese (taking the moral high ground is ineffective when your opponent has no intimations of a moral position at all, and thus can't be shamed--a position in which they are oddly supported by many leading world governments, or at least they aren't doing anything about it, thus providing tacit complicity), or that Nelson Mandela was the positive inheritor of in South Africa.

Most conflicts don't take place with nearly these sorts of extremes, most moral positions between combatants are merely 'different.' Islam is a good example of this, having been alien to the West from the days of Mohammed through today. Political Islam, which has its roots in the rapid expansion of Islam in its first fifty years, provided an alternative social contract (law and religion are inseparable), elevated the oppressed (who suddenly received better treatment under Islam than they had under prior hierarchical systems), and conferred an elitist position (being the chosen of Allah). As internally self-limiting as a strict interpretation of Islam is, the power it has in the modern global political economy is similar to that experienced shortly after the expansion of Marxist-Leninism or Maoism. Just because rebels are rebellious, doesn't mean they haven't some very powerful tools on their side.

Rules, Restraint, Circumstance of Engagement

Picking the time, the place, and the method of rebellion are 'basics' of guerrilla warfare. Fighting formal forces in an informal way, besides annoying the hell out of those forces, means that the rebel can choose the venue with the best probability for success. Stable political economies are trapped inside their own self-imposed limitations; the limits are what lend stability, but also establish constraints which leave exposed weaknesses.

Assassination is a case in point; countries such as the United States have outlawed it as a tool, ostensibly because it doesn't befit a 'moral' society to use it, but more because they understand that anyone can be assassinated, and don't desire to begin that cycle of violence (for a good example of the assassination cycle, examine organized crime, where wars of assassination are highly educational). The issue is, however, that some problems are best handled by the selected removal of key personnel; this doesn't mean political targets, commonly, since politicians in the modern world are eminently replaceable. Dictators, terrorists, drug network technical personnel, any organization run with a dependency on a limited-availability skill, knowledge, or personality are all susceptible to assassination. Yet, this is a tool that powerful countries eschew, but 'rogue' states are fairly effective with, clearly a situation where being a 'rebel' in the larger context has advantages.

Another example, and a crisis waiting to happen, is the Weapon of Mass Destruction situation--nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, and their use. The hierarchy of the world community is defined by the WMD 'haves' and the 'have nots,' where the 'haves' attempt to maintain a tightly controlled monopoly on the force of WMDs, similar to a global manifestation of the old gunpowder empires. I think it safe to say that it can be considered a historical inevitability that WMDs are going to see use (see the sarin attack in Japan, as well as the evolutionary pressure making the selection of more conventional weapons less effective--regular bombs just don't get people's attention any more); rebel forces under no moral obligation of restraint will eventually expose the impossible position of the 'haves'--containment is ineffective, WMDs confer great power while being deniable, and the response to a WMD assault begins an escalating cycle of violence that could be devastating in the extreme.

The position in general is that of the existing political-economic powers in a position of damage control and firefighting, reactionary, while rebels are free to strike when, where, and as they wish, setting the rules, tempo, etc.

Tradecraft and Tools

Rebels start fresh, and starting fresh, can adopt the most modern of augmentation, processes, and tools to benefit their enterprise. Of particular modern impact are advanced organizational tools in the C4I categories--command, control, communication, computers, and intelligence.

Rebels are far less bureaucratic (or if bureaucratic, of a greater level of efficiency than that of their opposition); modern technology allows rebels to be non-local (from command to support or fundraising), autonomous (in the extreme, potentially being a solo operation), support minimal dependencies (as long as operations are kept within their own means), have personal leadership, and being oriented around an intent, they have a vision. Few political economies are protected by elements who can honestly answer in the affirmative to these points.

The pendulum of intelligence has also once again swung back toward the individual (from the space-based observation platform). Intelligence gathering in open societies, with open sources (in particular, electronic open sources) leaves few secrets--what data cannot be directly gathered can likely be derived from data which can. Analysis, from a shear computing power basis, is essentially unlimited--there is computer power for the taking, idle, all just a network connection away. Cognitively, rebels have the real edge--creative, non-conventional individuals are outsiders, unlikely to fit long or well into hierarchical organizations; the truly gifted are unlikely to be recruited into the opposition, not being able to receive the necessary security clearances. If the best and the brightest aren't with the rebels, they almost without a doubt won't be working for the establishment.


Conflict is an essential process (how viability is tested) and effect (the phenomena manifest from the process)--without conflict, there would be a long, dark period of stasis as nothing would change. Free societies are based on conflict--markets decide, and markets mean having options and a freedom to select among them.

This is why rebels are more effective--they have a 'free'-er market, one with more potential selections. Organizations of the opposition have an unfortunate number of draw-backs: a bureaucratic momentum, already headed in a set direction, and unwilling or unable to change because of the implications of such change (being perceived as incompetent, massive shifts in resources and control, etc.); couple this with the fact that such organizations can't or won't 'opt' back into the 'free market' of potential action because of the inherent constraint/restraint of their position, and thus effectiveness is lost.

Rebels have many edges, numerous ways to be effective--coherent and cohesive unity of intent, evolutionary pressures to force continual improvement, leverage or ontological judo to take advantage of the operations of their opponent, the ease of destruction, the attraction of the new or alternative social contract, different moral positions, the ability to set the rules and choose the circumstances of the conflict, and the tools with which it is waged. On the whole, it isn't surprising that longevity of social systems, powers, or empires is so short--the rebel has the upper hand.

Except that success contains the seeds of eventual failure--as the winner takes on the position, authority, and responsibility of control, so does the cycle start anew. It may merely be the replacement of one 'leader' and his/her cronies, leaving the bureaucracy intact, or a truly new start. One thing is certain--the overall historical trend is always 'up' to greater effectiveness, which thankfully has translated into improved selections, for high and low alike. How can that be bad?


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