John “Global Guerrillas” Robb interviewed

Regular readers will know I follow John Robb’s Global Guerrillas blog quite closely; Robb cropped up yesterday as an interviewee on Boing Boing, restating his case for turning our backs on our governments (who have, in many ways, turned their backs on us) and building grass-roots “resilient communities”:

BB: Do you see a diminishing role for the state in large-scale governance? Does this compel communities to do it for themselves?

JR: Yes, large scale governance is on the way out. Not only are nearly all governments financially insolvent, they can’t protect citizens from a global system that is running amok. As services and security begin to fade, local sources of order will emerge to fill the void. Hopefully, most people will opt to take control of this process by joining together with others to build resilient communities that can offer the independence, security, and prosperity that isn’t offered by the nation-state anymore. However, this is something you will have to build for yourself. Nobody is going to help you build it.

Robb’s is a potentially grim vision (and he appears to rather revel in that grimness from time to time, like any good gadfly); some commenters have pointed out to me that a pinch of salt added to Robb’s posts is a sensible precaution, and I’d agree, but I still think there’s a lot of useful stuff in what he has to say. That said, it’s good to question received wisdom, especially when it confirms what you already believe to be true… so via Technoccult, here’s a critique of Robb’s last book at Reason:

… Robb claims global guerrillas can successfully wage strategic war on nation-states. But a successful strategic war is one in which a guerrilla group attains its strategic goals. If global guerrillas really just want failed states, the world has no shortage, and Robb is correct. If they want the things guerrilla groups have always wanted—regional autonomy, a greater share of the economic pie, dominion over ethnic or sectarian rivals, an end to foreign occupation, social revolution, national control—it’s much harder to say that any global guerrilla group has yet been “successful.”


What most of the global guerrilla groups have managed so far is to not lose. It’s a truism of counterinsurgency that “guerrillas win by not losing,” but successful guerrilla movements eventually win by winning. It’s much harder for global guerrillas to “win” than Robb thinks, because most of these groups have larger goals than he acknowledges.

These peer-to-peer networks of resistance would be pretty easy to hijack, I suppose; we’re rather attached to hierarchies as a species, though whether that’s a predisposition or a psychological artefact is beyond my knowledge. So, what starts as a scattering of people who think of themselves as freedom fighters can be corralled together and steered by another group with a wider agenda and more resources… or maybe just a bigger axe to grind. But perhaps I’m naively assuming that most small insurgencies start as a valiant resistance to some sort of oppression. More research needed (my hourly mantra).

Still, Robb’s points about having to look out for ourselves as nation-states decline and stability decreases ring pretty true, even if they have a Mad Max-esque vibe of dramatic overstatement to them. Security can be offered to you (in exchange for taxes, or whatever else, and not necessarily delivered on when it comes to the crunch), but resilience you must make for yourself. Resilience can fail as well, of course, but then you can blame no one but yourself… perhaps that’s why we’re all so resistant to the idea?

2 thoughts on “John “Global Guerrillas” Robb interviewed”

  1. While I think Mr. Robb is an intelligent guy with interesting ideas I tend to side with Technoccult. Robb seems to be decent at creating interesting tactical ideas, but oddly extreme on his strategic ideas. Not that his strategic ideas are wrong, but he does seem to run too far with them. Considering that the Great Depression bookended by WWII were magnitudes larger and more destructive (physically, mentally, ecnomically, etc.) than our current mess I find it hard to believe we will see his doomsday scenario occur or that millions of city-states will spring up in a few years.

  2. Damn, where did I put those bootstraps…

    The only thing we have to sell is shock-rock fearmongering itself?

    Despite the irrational exuberance of the current pessimism-bubble inflamed by the fall of US irrational exuberance, we do still have a real economy underneath all that collapsed financial sandcastle. Diminished by the financial vampires, yes, but nowhere near Argentina, Greece, Spain, or Iceland, all of which are not in the state of anarchic, every-village-for-themself dystopia suggested in the article.

    The global economic system has always been “predatory and deeply unstable”. The shell games of the past 30 years’ superbubble are all collapsing now, but this doesn’t mean that people stop designing the next iPad and trying to cure diseases and amiably, resiliently “taking your order”. And let’s have some faith in the American entrepreneur to build the hi-tech, hi-touch and green economy of the future.

    As long as Iraq or some other foreign power doesn’t start occupying us (a tough sell, even for a Bush administration), and the aforementioned economy doesn’t vaporize and people start having to get nasty and brutish on each other to survive, I’m not sure how any significant insurgency with the exception of McVay-esque wackjobs ever emerges. The wealth and possibility of future wealth in the US is a buffer. You really need to have almost nothing left to look forward to to decide to pick up some guns and bombs and start trying to take things down. Losing fifty thousand off your 401k to the kleptocracy hurts, but it’s endurable. You’re not going to die of scurvy or have your limbs blown off on the way to work. Hell, even being at poverty level in the US is a million times better than living in many other countries in the world. Why the hell would everyone be trying to get *in* the US? The truth is, the financial messes happened in part because things didn’t actually suck enough in the US for people to get off their reality TV-watching asses, put down the curly fries, and demand their leaders stop screwing things up.

    “Democracy will wither away”? Real democracy has long withered away in the US into an oligarch/money-ocracy, but we get along.

    I think the part about going local with regards to things like food may take off, which is a good thing, but without this whole Mad Max vibe.

    “Every shocking, amazing future is someone else’s boring, mundane present.”

    –William Gibson

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