On Goons and Rhizomes

A Tale of the Internet Age

In one of a series of significant talks over the weekend by the world’s foremost Internet freedom activists, Julian Assange spoke on MSNBC about the central “battle” of the Information Age:

On the one hand, we are in many ways heading towards a transnational dystopian total surveillance society the likes of which the world has never seen . . . and on the other, people are coming together. Whenever people can communicate, they develop new values and a new consensus and a new polity. That is something that all young people are exposed to.

In other words, the Internet is the new central terrain of human discourse and conflict, encompassing the full range of human personalities, from the authoritarian to the radical to the entirely banal. That these tendencies have endured the development of new communication technologies is not particularly noteworthy. What is quite interesting is that this new terrain does not generally conform to rigid geographical, social or cultural structures. Information does not flow in one direction, but in any direction, or many directions at once. It is “rhizomatic” in nature. In their seminal work on the subject, “A Thousand Plateaus,” Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari explain:

A rhizome has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo. The tree is filiation, but the rhizome is alliance, uniquely alliance. 1

As Assange references in his interview, previous geopolitical structures have been reformulated or even reversed: activists and journalists now seek refuge FROM the United States, fearing the fate of Chelsea Manning et al. The fact that Snowden finds himself in exile on the other side of the Iron Curtain is especially telling of this. America is now the nucleus of the goon state, encompassing its broad network of security and police forces as well as its army of spooks: the effective antithesis to the rhizomatic realm of near-infinite possibility.

It is not that Russia is any less authoritarian than the United States, but that Putin has no incentive to hand Snowden over, and this is a man frozen in the world of realpolitik. His American counterpart, meanwhile, functions from within the liberal tradition: another dinosaur of a bygone era, desperately seeking to maintain control of a world slipping out of his grips. He has been repeatedly outflanked by Putin on the diplomatic front, because the amorphous blather of bourgeois liberalism stands little chance against stern Slavic nationalism, at least when the latter is the honest broker.

Meanwhile, there is no room for window-dressing in the battle for the Internet. Whether politicians call themselves liberal or conservative, they derive their legitimacy from the support of the victorious villains of the last major technological era: the digital age. It was here that finance capital was revolutionized by the heightened capacity to run complex algorithms and models on arcane investments, giving bankers and hedge fund managers more ways to make money, and also more incentive to skirt regulations by hiding behind the wall of complexity. Meanwhile, the pace of atomization increased dramatically, as union membership plummeted and the country became less community oriented. Traditional gathering places like bowling alleys and bingo parlors began closing en masse, political participation fell, and the public commons were privatized and commodified. Arboreal linkages disappeared all around, and the behemoth banks obliterated the isolated nomads beneath them.

Finance capital won the Battle of the Digital age, with the top 1% realizing some 95% of wealth gains from 2009-2012. A precarious population of baby boomer children rose to fruition, steeped in egregious student debt, facing an economy of permanent precariousness, and then a freshly emergent threat. As digital communication gave way to a nearly universal Internet, at least in wealthy countries, the propensity for a thoroughgoing intelligence and surveillance capacity emerged. J Edgar Hoover’s fantasyland had arrived. The goon component of government and its private counterparts could now gather information on everyone, everywhere. It could squash a radical idea before it had the chance to germinate. It could fire a drone on alleged terrorists from the comfort of a command center. The goon state could entrap defiant political leaders in scandal, like Hoover did, but much more ruthlessly and efficiently. It could strike fear into the young and aspirant, by making quick example of activists peacefully assembled in public parks and pavilions.

At the same time, the Internet allows for transmission of information heretofore unimaginable. It has made the sharing of ideas and political propaganda so seamless that meeting in person seems superfluous. It has allowed for the development of solidarity networks across international borders, and afforded us the opportunity to see through the fog of corporate press bias by permitting access to a broader range of viewpoints and analytical perspectives. The goon state sees its eroding relevance, as the semiotic associations between the state and authority are punctured by little truths the world can access without filter. Deleuze and Guattari say:

Language] misconstrues the nature of organizations of power, which are in no way located within a State apparatus but rather are everywhere, effecting formalizations of content and expression, the segments of which they intertwine. 2

Here we see why Internet freedoms are so terrifying for the antiquated sources of power: the use of signifying language is much more difficult to control where the Internet is un-policed. Both the rigid realm of realpolitik and the glossy ideals of western liberalism become less viable. The state is faced with a crisis of legitimacy unseen since the end of World War II. It has been placed on the defensive alongside those that finance it and prop it up. Its reaction has been brutal crackdowns in the physical space of public gatherings, and total surveillance in the rhizomatic realm of cyberspace. It has, meanwhile, used old religious and political signifiers to drum up paranoia for public support: “our” way of life is threatened by a plethora of “others.”

But an increasingly desperate human population seeks any alternative, with the rallying cry “another world is possible.” In fact, there are numerous other worlds that are possible. To speak of just “one” is antithetical to progress: it is falling back into the dialectical trap of there being a magical panacea. Other worlds are always inevitably coming in and out of existence, as technology drives fundamental changes in economy and society, which then fuel adaptations in political structures. The United States, a child of the British Empire, surpassed the latter as preeminent superpower during the age of television: a veritable empire of images. It was eclipsed in kind by its own Frankenstein’s Monster during the digital age, as the financial behemoths came to reign. Now we have the nebulous age of the Internet: the era of instant communication in all directions, and yet also of thriving goons and spooks.

It is not just in cyberspace, but also real physical space that one sees ascendant goonism. The United States sports the highest incarceration rate in the world, as well as a private security industry that is booming through the recession. But the goon state is broader than specific structures: it runs right to the core character of the country. Witness the ageism of resentful baby-boomers, who treat fully grown young adults with a brash authoritarianism, sloughing them off as dumb “kids.” Their counterparts in blue give a more brutal treatment, crashing billy club to skull whence civically engaged young people populate public parks.  The quip as one stands picketing on a street corner is “Go get a job!,” despite an economy specifically designed to offer few lasting employment prospects. The idea is to mold these upstarts into the stereotypical American: boorishly proud, a fan of all things violent, especially his football, stubbornly  determined in his way: the very face of hubris.

In the foreign policy realm, the American prime directive has been the transmission of goon-ism everywhere and anywhere. It runs a worldwide rendition program, special-ops wars in all corners of the earth, and a robust drone program of extrajudicial slaughter of supposed terrorists and their associates. The goon state is America’s great contribution to the culture of the world. From Chile and Guatemala to Egypt, Ukraine and Georgia, and many places betwixt and between. It has become an Empire of the crude and vile: a relentless dance with the devil in the muckiest of mucks.

We can only hope that goons don’t do well with rhizomes. Already we have seen the goon state try to persecute Julian Assange, and yet he is able to participate in forums, and deliver speeches to crowds on other continents. Ditto for Glenn Greenwald , Edward Snowden and Laura Poitras: all marooned to varying degrees by the goon state, yet virtually free in the rhizomatic realm of the Internet. Of course, we are still restrained by the hard realities of physical space, and the residual arboreal linkages that exist therein. We still find ourselves in a terrible economic predicament, left over from the looting and trashing committed by the financial elite during the digital age. We still face hardship as a human population, with poverty, hunger and climate change presenting unprecedented peril to this precious species. Yet, in our war with the goons, we may just be at an advantage.

  1. Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Felix. A Thousand Plateaus : Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Minneapolis, MN : University of Minnesota Press, 1987, 25. []
  2. Ibid. p.68 []

Matt Reichel is a writer currently living in New Orleans. He can be reached at: mereichel@gmail.com. Read other articles by Matt, or visit Matt's website.