Getting Rid of Your Center of Gravity
A beaten wing which is put out of joint decides the fate of all that was connected with it. Von Clausewitz’ On War
But what is the center of gravity for an insurgency or any guerrilla movement? In Iraq, on which joint does the rest hinge? I would assert that they don’t have one. Maybe because they are not a “they.” It’s like saying “what’s the center of gravity of capitalism?” Marx said it was the means of production. That you could seize them and the system would crumble. What he didn’t understand is that factories and private property, those are all just expressions of capitalism, not capitalism itself. For insurgents in Iraq, there is no center of gravity. And it’s why they are an enemy we can hardly understand, let alone defeat.
That’s the parable facing newspapers as they try to fight blogs and the internet. “How can we undercut them?” THERE IS NO THEM. What you’re fighting isn’t a group with ideas or a vision or even a goal, you’re fighting progress. You’re fighting people; people who have an inevitable drive towards power, status and wealth. People act on that impulse. Corporations do not. if you read Gonzo Marketing, he really drives that home. A corporation can’t care about a cause, or love or hate something or even want to make money. A corporation wants nothing but to exist. People, obviously, want more than that. So as you get further from that core, efficiency diminishes.
Maybe it’s because in an office or in a company, you become less concerned with your position in the world as a whole and entirely focused on your position within that microcosm. You lose the forest for the trees–and big movements and change can’t work that way. For instance, I spent pretty much all of yesterday trying to find a bathroom key so I wouldn’t piss myself and pondering why it needs to be locked in the first place. That doesn’t happen at my house. A terrorist in Iraq doesn’t focus as much on rank or stars or procedure, it’s about killing, going home and then killing some more.
What is so fundamentally revolutionary about the internet is that it has made it possible to scale without size. (Or have a military without mass) You can have the reach of a huge company without the politik and the strife and the stupidity that comes with the whole ‘a person is smart but people are not ‘concept. What technology does it is allows for individuals to wield the power and force of thousands but by themselves. It harnesses individuality and collective strength at the same time. Military Intelligence stops being an oxymoron.
Over the last two thousand years, guerrilla warfare has continually shown itself to be the most efficient of all military strategies. It’s not the highest form, it is formlessness. Without a center of gravity, there is nothing to attack. That leaves the enemy with two options: Withdraw or Engage on the new plane.
Both personally and strategically, how do you remove your center of gravity? Simply being aware of them is not enough. Hierarchical decentralization is the worst of both. Howard Dean was this, not big enough for mass but concentrated enough that a scream decimated him. For many companies I think that is going to mean an utter restructuring of the business or in most cases, dying and then starting over. More relevant to us, how does a decentralized company refrain from the pressure to centralize?
It is actually the same question. And that’s what Tapscott meant when he said that companies become ossified in their own success. Today, in the newspaper analogy blogs are not a thing and bloggers are not a they. It is just the force of progress and innovation, something that is impossible to defeat. But as it develops and certain models because successful, people who take the easy route will imitate and follow. That is, they will become the enemy–dependent on a single stream or the status quo. They will form around a center of gravity. They will no longer be part of an amorphous, decentralized network and become corporations or armies. They commit strategic suicide.
The smartest people I know are trying to avoid that. I think you probably should to.
I check your blog every day and once again I see something that inspires me and changes the way I think. Keep up the influence!
Great post Ryan!
Although I’ve been thinking many of the same thoughts lately I hadn’t yet reached this level of clarity hence not been able to express it very well. Until now, that is.
Isn’t the strength and weakness of guerillas the court of public opinion? Without the support of the people or funding from Iran/Saudi Arabia, they cannot function.
When you have a problem with crime and thugs in the street, the best solution isn’t necessarily to break some heads, but to make home a better place. NYC made a determined effort to get the utilities (water, electricity) going, ensure better housing inspection and to increase the number and quality of after-school programs. That helped create the crime drop of the late 80s and 90s.
Public opinion is only one part of the strength of a guerrilla movement.
As with your crime example, bigger things had a significantly larger impact on the problem. Namely, abortion.
Yes, like Freakonomics says, abortion was a significant factor, but there were/are all kinds of things happening concurrently, that Dubner and Levitt don’t point to, that affected the crime rate.
With the rate of attrition as high as it is, how does a guerilla squad operate without new recruits? How do they get martyrs without sympathizing imams and madrasas feeding and “educating” the poor?
Look at Sgt. Carver on The Wire. He made inroads with the hoppers and corner dealers, which blunted Marlo’s influence and cash – somewhat.
I agree with amphibian and would point out that all guerilla warfare rests on the court of public opinion in some form whether it be the internet or insurgents
In surgents usually use rule 7 of the 33 strategies and turn their wars into moral crusades. Evidence is given through osama’s own words by calling this a jihad. It however is not hard to use fear as another agent of motivation for your cause. Ultimately though people have to buy into your rhetoric or else you have no one following your cause and have no new members to recruit.
The internet is similar in that while everyone can manage a small worldwide company….. EVERYONE CAN. This means you have to constantly and consistently be in high favor with the public to remain relevant as someone is already gearing up to replace you.
So from this it stands to reason that in guerilla tatics the center of gravity is their message. if they can get people to believe then they have something to work with. all you have to do is discredit their voice int he eys of the people and they are done for.
You guys are thinking too narrowly. At the end of the day, a guerrilla’s center of gravity exists only in your own reaction. They don’t care about public opinion or a message or anything for that matter, YOU do.
It’s like saying that a dog is dependent on barking when it uses it to get your attention. And then attempting to attack its vocal chords to make it stop. If it was incapable of barking it would claw at the floor or shit on your bed or whine. The Center of Gravity is not in the dog at all–it is in you.
This is innately different than military combat because that exists only in a single sphere. If your ground troops are require artillery support than you can render the entire machine useless. Guerrilla Warfare is ALL spheres and thus it has no center of gravity.
Getting rid of your center of gravity … isn’t that an oxymoron?
It doesn’t matter if the guerilla’s don’t care about public opinion. Public opinion still effects how the guerilla’s can operate.
You are right, you can stop the dog from barking and he’ll find some other way to get your attention, but if you knock enough legs out from the table, eventually it will fall.
I guess it depends how you metaphorically apply a “center of gravity” definition to a terrorist organization. They have pillars of power that they are supported by and you can attack that to hurt them. There may be no magic spot that you can fire a missile at to blow up the death star, but they are not some mystical force acting outside the laws of nature either.
But I don’t completely understand what you are trying to say here:
“Guerrilla Warfare is ALL spheres and thus it has no center of gravity.”
I’ve probably read this from Robert Greene…the analogy of martial arts where you use the opponents momentum and efforts against them to easily bring them down with minimal force (like the throws in Judo). I’m just hypothesizing, but maybe al qaeda will blow up the wrong person, someone who is endeared world wide or they’ll commit some other atrocity that just goes too far which will spur a revolt against them. I’m trying to say we’ll “win” the war like that, but I’m just trying to show how we could conceivably use their weight against them. I do think the tolerance of the public has an enormous amount to do with our success/failure.
Even if the ‘mass’ is spread around evenly and there is no clear cut spot to aim for, a cg does exist.
They are not a THEY. The insurgency in Iraq, for example, is made up of hundreds of smaller movements. Some are common criminals, some are massive drugdealers, some are bored teenagers, some are religious fundamentalists, some are mercenary troops, some are Saddaam loyalists. THEY don’t have a center of gravity because THEY only exist in our imagination.
Al-Queda is but a tiny fraction of a larger, more amorphous trend–individuals now have the ability to scale without size. They can conceivably take power for themselves and they don’t want to be part of a larger group anymore (unless they are in charge).
It’s like saying you’re going to use the weight of the Industrial Revolution against itself.
Do you think the Dean example is a little bit different?
The main idea here seems to be that a hierarchy cannot effectively fight a network. Granting that the Dean phenomenon was a hybrid of centralized and decentralized structures, I think a key takeaway is that it was a hybrid structure — mainstream news — that slew the uprising.
Some stuff I’ve read on this topic also presents the theme that conflicts evolve in the following pattern: hierarchy vs. hierarchy; hierarchy vs. network; network vs. network.
But an interesting perspective it presents is that there can be hybrid structures that can benefit from both forms. The means of this is the “global command” — like an operating system patch pushed out from Microsoft — originating from a centralized structure but also taking advantage of being connected to the network. Mainstream media in the Dean case can be seen as issuing such a global command, i.e., that Dean is no longer a viable choice because of the scream. Even though the content of the command is not connected with reality (as defined by the aggregate opinion of the network of people engaged with the election process), it is still is effective as a weapon because of its emanation from an authoritative source and enhanced propagation through the network.
Al-Qaeda is an example of this, too. I don’t think the network form is the bottom line of its power; there’s the fact that if a message can become part of the “Al-Qaeda line” it facilitates its propagation and implementation throughout the network.
The lack of equilibrium in the hybrid form prevents it from succumbing to the weakness of hierarchy. For example: If, suddenly, bin Laden had an open communication channel to the network and everything coming from that channel was the only authoritative message, Al-Qaeda would definitely lose power.
I realize this argument contradicts itself, probably more than once, but I guess the bottom line of it is that it’s too reductionist to say the network form always wins — in this age or others past or future.