Speculations: Command and Control Ecologies

Global warming and climate change will change how US military trains and goes to war

Political groupings and executive authorities appear to be totally incapable of understanding the full implications of these issues. Despite having recently initiated a partial realization of the most obvious dangers that threaten the natural environment of our societies, they are generally content to simply tackle industrial pollution and then from purely technocratic perspective… [i]

Some of the earliest ruminations on what we now call the ‘age of the Anthropocene’ entered directly into popular culture and scientific thought from within elements of capitalism’s organizations of power themselves. This would be the book The Limits of Growth[ii], commissioned by the Club of Rome – first congregated by the leadership of FIAT -and funded by the Volkswagen Foundation. The book, co-authored by MIT’s Donella and Dennis Meadows (among others), reported the processes and findings of a study carried out on the World3 computer modeling program; adopting the complex logistics of systems dynamics, the program balanced series of interlocking systems such as agriculture and food production, industrial dynamics, rates of population growth, levels of non-renewable resources, and the introduction of pollutants into global ecosystems. The outlook was stark: World3 seemed to anticipate global collapse coming from the fallout of overextended patterns of growth. The solution, the Meadows and their co-authors argued, was a new paradigm of “de-growth” or even “zero growth” capitalism that allowed industrial systems to maintain an equilibrium with the ecosystems of the planet. “Capitalism seemed,” Tiqqun noted, “to have made its own critique.”[iii]

Systems dynamics is a cybernetic analytic framework that allows the study of behavior in evolving, complex systems over periods of time. While such processes appear on the surface to be nonlinear and utterly nondeterministic, bound in states of chaos, systems dynamics deploys the methods of feedback loops first identified by Norbert Wiener in his fire-control work during World War 2; it combines these with mobile diagrams of “stocks and flows”. Here, two feedback loops are positioned together in a system called a “casual loop diagram,” which allows a mapping or modelization of all the elements and actions taking place in a given system. Stocks are introduced into this model as the shifting amount (either accumulating or depleting) in a system, where the flow measures the change in these stocks. The result is a shifting computational cartography that seeks to anticipate the semi-autonomous action of actors, either human or nonhuman, in the system as a way to provide better decision-making processes and planning. Just as the cybernetic feedback loop itself originated in belly of the war machine, so too did these systems dynamics: the models of stocks and flows were first innovated by Jay Forrester, emerging from his work on the Whirlwind computer at MIT’s Servomechanisms Laboratory at the behest of the US military.

The purpose of Whirlwind was to serve as the informatic infrastructure for the Semi-Automated Ground Environment (SAGE), a command-and-control machine that would make rapid-paced decisions for anti-aircraft batteries by inputting mass torrents of data from the environment. Forrester’s work on Whirlwind would jumpstart much of the innovations in the field of digital computing, while it also the underlying systems for the military’s Operation Igloo White in Vietnam, which used networks of environmentally-sensitize sensors distributed across the terrain to detect the movements of enemy troops and respond with precision-targeted bombing in kind (this program, however, would ultimately be a failure and was actually sabotaged by the Vietnamese fighters, who simply goaded the US into bombing areas that were empty). It would propelled Forrester into the world of business, adopting the logistics of balancing interacting variables in a system to the needs of corporations. This was industrial dynamics, applied to both the complexities of supply and demands rates and managing the labor force itself. It was for this reason that Forrester was hand-picked by the Club of Rome to conduct studies in world dynamics, and he had in turn selected the Meadows and others from MIT to carry out the study. The World3 program itself used the DYNAMO programming language, written at the behest of Forrester at MIT’s Computation Center to better grapple with the stocks and flows of industrial dynamics.


A machine isn’t reducible to the nature of its origins; simply because it emerged from the military or was put to use streamlining the efficiency of managerialism or global trade doesn’t negate the possibilities inherent in its processes. Yet the predominant application of systems dynamics, and its corollary, models and simulations themselves, must be viewed as what Foucault called “governmental technologies” or “governmentality,” control through an “ensemble formed by institutions, procedures, analyses and reflections, calculations, and tactics… that has population as its target, political economy as its major form of knowledge, and apparatuses of security as its essential technical instrument.”[iv] Cybernetics and the later systems dynamics are a governmental technology taken quite literally: it gave new means for security apparatuses to operate (as in Whirlwind or Operation Igloo White), provided new modes of efficiency for the political economy (industrial dynamics, the rise of digital computing and computer modelization and simulation), and came to concern itself not simply with a notion of “the population,” but life itself (the genetic “code” as informatics object, reflexivity and neural mapping are just some of these wide-ranging applications, which finds their governmental zenith in things like the Human Genome Project). It served to unify political economy with political governance: one needs to look no further than Talcott Parsons, with his uses of systems thinking to contribute to modernization theory – a framework that insulated market economies and liberal government from critique by positing that they were high stages in linear paths of historic development (these notions would serve as an ideological motive behind much of the actions taken by the US in Latin America and Southeast Asia in the 1960s and 70s). Following in the wake of Parsons was Karl Deutsch, whose 1963 book The Nerves of Government: Models of Political Communication and Control[v] envisioned governance as a complex system operating through feedback loops that allowed its institutions to act “as error control regulators that were designed to achieve the sometimes-complementary needs of country residents and maintaining public order.”[vi]

An eco-conscious paradigm geared towards a limited-growth capitalism would require a massive retooling of governmental apparatuses on a grand scale – nothing short of managerial system indelibly linked to incalculable systems of modelization and these maps taken for territories. Following the introduction of cybernetic technology and system dynamics capitalism itself underwent a similar reconfiguration that transformed governing structures in the markets image – fluid, flexible, and opened-up; in short, what we call neoliberalism, the abstract machine, is an interlacing system of physical machines oriented certain around simulated codices. What would replace neoliberal governmentality would be an eco-governmentality, a green simulacrum, one that would require not the elimination of capitalist enterprise but an incredible regulation of it and the bodies captured it has captured. This regulatory technocracy would be unmatched by its predecessors during the years of Fordist-Keynesian capitalism, which saw disciplinary governance carried out on a national level; it would instead be networks of supranational institutions capable of transnational regulation, a globalized form of governance that would make physical and material the fluid and immaterial hyperobject that we have called, perhaps reductively, “Empire”.

One could see these regulatory bodies operating as the environmental counterparts of the “security communities” envisioned by Karl Deutsch. These are byproducts of the imaginal machine of the state, existent whenever “states become integrated to the point that they have a sense of community, which, in turn, creates the assurance that they will settle their differences short of war.”[vii] These would include large combines like NATO, the European Union, the now-defunct Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). But while each of these approached international relations with peace and harmonious equilibrium as their goal, their actions have always been built upon the bedrock of their benefactors and participant’s ideological coordinates. NATO’s expansion, initiated in the Cold War, has followed a path designed to open up former Soviet bloc countries to the world market, while the EU, in conjunction with the IMF, has pursued violent and destructive policies of austerity to better allow the continuation of neoliberal policies in the wake of the financial crisis. In Asia, meanwhile, the strategic alignments of SEATO proved essential for Western action in the Vietnam War, and the more contemporary ASEAN organizes economic integration and interdependence through free trade agreements and tariff reduction obligations.

By remaining tethered to the ideological basis, the security that security communities promote in no way violates ‘politics as usual.’ Likewise, the governmental regime ushered in by limited-growth capitalism presupposes the fundamental superiority of the capitalism modes of production and accumulation, deviating only slightly to confront the pressing priorities of environmental limitation (one wonders, however, what will happen when capitalism finally overcomes the barriers of the atmosphere itself and opens up space, in a feat of exocolonization). Such a paradigm calls on exactly that which accelerated the crisis to fix it; it not only calls for the full restoration of disciplinary modes exemplified by command-and-control technology and governmental policy, but presupposes, once again, the capability of the human to master the elements. Systems dynamics follows a logic of being able to know all to the extent of being able to predict what will come; in its applications in the current marketplace it becomes a logic of surveillance, collection of data, and feedback in order to target on a molecular level the taste and habits of the individual consumer. In postmodern warfare it comes in the guise of complex tracking meshworks that enable drone strikes and the rapid, flexible movements of small, specialized combat units (this mode of postmodern combat has been described in Mark Mazzetti’s The War of the Knife and Jeremy Scahill’s Dirty Wars,[viii] though the story from the point of view of technological filiation has remained largely unwritten beyond the military’s own internal documentation) In an eco-capitalist regime these would only be intensified: cybernetic anticipatory seeing would, most likely, lead to attempted feats of Prometheanism, where the planners arrogantly presume a god’s eye view of the market ecology and aim to intervene through the application of techniques honed in the worlds of commerce and war. Struggle as they may, the desire would to become, in the words of Karl Deutsch, a (supra)state governed by the absolute knowledge requirements “of self-steering and autonomous command.”[ix]


These command cybernetics are a reflection the highest degree of what came after Nietzsche’s death of god: man, as an utterly rationalist actor (or so the neoliberals say, with their “rational choice” theories and models), elevated to the status of divinity, the apex of a cosmic knowledge hierarchy. As Tiqqun says, “The whole history of cybernetics has aimed to do away with the impossibility of determining at the same time the position and behavior of bodies”;[x] it is about trying to know all, and being able to master it through the application of captured data. It is the perfect reflection of the neoliberal hypothesis, which posits itself as that perfect and crystalline mediator of every social exchange and experience. From the ecological perspective, it is a continuation of the man-over-nature/nature-for-man paradigm, dressed in the language of man in a state of coexistence with nature. Where, then, can one begin to build a differing praxis, for both action and existence, in the age of the Anthropocene?

A kind of ecological ideal is taking over, an ideal of regulation, of moderate functionality, of solidarity between all the elements of one and the same system, of control and global management of the whole… all terms must remain in perpetual contact with one another, informed as to their respective strategies and that of the entire system because the failure of one term could lead to catastrophe.[xi]

See also: “Pentagon bracing for public dissent over climate and energy shocks” (The Guardian)

“2014 Climate Change Adaption Road Map” (US Department of Defense)

[i] Felix Guattari The Three Ecologies Athlone Press, 2000 (reprint edition), pgs. 27-28

[ii] Donella Meadows, Dennis Meadows, Jorgen Randers, and William W. Behrens III The Limits to Growth Universe Books, 1972. For a critical appraisal of the book, see Robert Golub and Joe Townsend “Malthus, Multinationals and the Club of Rome” Social Studies of Science No. 7, 1977. They situate The Limits to Growth in the framework of Fordist-Keynesian capitalism’s transition to post-Fordist neoliberalism, writing that “during the decade of the sixties, the international economic (and many national financial) systems became increasingly unstable and the systems by which the advanced countries control and dominate the underdeveloped countries were growing more fragile…, at the same time as (and in some cases as a result of) the multinational firms were becoming more significant in the international and national economies. These increasing instabilities and uncertainties made the economic environment more threatening to the multinational firms themselves, and this situation was initially and most strongly perceived by those ‘second rank’ multinationals whose governments were too weak to adequately provide the ‘public functions’ listed by Murray. As a result of this, the Forrester and Meadows ‘scientific’ studies were commissioned as ‘tools of communication and control’ to operate the ‘transmission pulley’ of public opinion in order to force the governments of the industrialized societies to institute a ‘new world moderator’ (with ‘stern rules about voting’) which would have sufficient power to stabilize the international economic situation and ensure a constant supply of raw materials.” (pg. 216)

[iii] Tiqqun “The Cybernetic Hypothesis” http://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/tiqqun-the-cybernetic-hypothesis.

[iv] Michel Foucault Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the College de France, 1977-1978 Picador, 2009, pg. 108

[v] Karl W. Deutsch Nerves of Government: Models of Political Communication Free Press, 1966

[vi] Richardson, John “Crafting System Dynamics Models and Making Them Accessible: Lessons from Forty Years of Practice” 2011, pg. 21 http://www.systemdynamics.org/conferences/2011/proceed/papers/P1368.pdf

[vii] Adler, Emmanuel and Barnett, Michael (eds.) Security Communities Cambridge Studies in International Relations, 1998, pg. 3

[viii] Mark Mazzetti The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth Penguin Books, 2014; Jeremy Scahill Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield Nation Books, 2014

[ix] Karl W. Deutsch Political Community at the International Level Aardvark Global Publishing Company, LLC, 2006 (reprint edition), pg. 4

[x] Tiqqun “The Cybernetic Hypothesis”

[xi] Jean Baudrillard The Ecstasy of Communication Semiotext(e), pg. 21

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4 Responses to Speculations: Command and Control Ecologies

  1. dmfant says:

    Reblogged this on synthetic_zero.

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