Our Long-Entangled Insurgency: Part Six

One of the illusions of thinking that very local actions by opposing insurgencies wash each other out is the underlying assumption that canceling out equals, “we don’t need to consider them anymore”. But even the components of our simple model of the entangled insurgency are not symmetric as this assumption suggests.

We also polarize political movements in our thinking to simplify our judgment of them, largely for short term political or personal gain. We pay no attention to potential long-term effects because they don’t have current meaning for us (see The Long Southern Strategy: How Chasing White Voters in the South Changed American Politics). Thus, by our short-term efforts to defeat some action or organized agenda from some insurgency, or to defend our own political assets, we guarantee the survival of those long-term consequences.

Asymmetries in the Right and Left Insurgencies, and the Asymmetric Competition in our Elites

Our Political, Social, and Financial Elites have managed their own internal conflicts for as long as they have existed. But the CAS that is our Elites now is becoming increasingly brittle. That doesn’t mean that collapse is imminent, but it does mean that their management of the macro-CAS is less effective, and there isn’t any way short of transformation that will alter this trend of degrading control. Presumably there will be more collapses like 2008, because brittle complex adaptive systems will eventually simplify themselves through various degrees and kinds of collapse.

There is also a level of threat to the Elite concept of stability that is growing every day. Groups that are internal to the Elite CAS can effectively negotiate improvement in their own status by threatening the Elite CAS itself with collapse. This has only become clear recently (from the “sort of accidental” economic disaster that was 2008). But the efforts by Elite subcommunities to bolster political and radical insurgencies of various kinds show the first steps in making existential threats a daily part of the ongoing Elite power dynamic (not threats to individual members or small groups that are part of the Elite, but threats to the ability of the Elite CAS to effectively continue its purpose). My guess is that the Elites will make choices to control these threats that will be less than optimal for the rest of us, and will continue to increase the brittleness of the Elite CAS.

Our entangled right and left insurgencies are also driven by an ongoing effort to build asymmetry into the macro-dynamic as a way of negotiating power and status. But the right and left versions do not approach this in the same way. The asymmetry in action reflects real differences in the dynamic of the insurgencies, and these differences also occur in sub-communities of the insurgencies. (The purpose of a CAS is what it does, not what it thinks it does.)

Right Insurgency Asymmetries

The Right drives mobilization by demanding an ideological commitment as a badge of movement and community membership. All right ideologies are organized around some idea of purity/righteousness as the source of community and personal power. Even when mobilization of this insurgency is successful, it is subject to fracture if its ideological basis of the action publicly fails, and the mobilization is more limited because of the sheer, if partly overlapping, diversity of right ideology.

The effect of such an approach is most clearly expressed in the enormous difficulty that the right insurgency has in breaking out of purely short-term tactical actions as their path forward. Trump’s election campaign was a tactical move of this sort, which became accidentally strategic because he won. We are now seeing how such a poorly framed strategy plays out. However, this failure doesn’t dismantle the local organizing and partisan build-up that has been the right insurgency model for the last half-century.

I think the right insurgency will fall back on its strength (organizing locally among the committed and building up from there) to try to preserve the mobilization it has worked so hard to build, or at least defend what it won in the last few years. As the left and elites come to believe that they have taken the oxygen out of the right insurgency’s strategy, they will fall back into the pattern that got the left (and the elites) into their current state of strategic confusion and relative ineffectiveness.

 Exactly the same dynamic happened one generation after the Civil War, when the North came to ignore the South. The KKK, White Citizens’ Councils, and Jim Crow Laws started the South back up the hill in their apparently never-ending effort to control and exploit all who aren’t young white male aristocrats.

Left Insurgency Asymmetries

Left insurgent ideologies are organized around identities and the CAS that is Intersectionality. Such an approach requires continuous negotiation and entanglement of the various sub-communities without any consensus on ideology; the negotiation isn’t aimed at eliminating difference. Ideally, negotiation would create mutual trust and respect.

The left insurgency views the community as the source of power, seen as an ideal community of mutually respectful and mutually supporting members. This mutuality is aspirational, and must be constantly negotiated and renegotiated as each sub-community develops culturally, and uses that deeper understanding to deepen negotiation, until mutual respect and trust is part of the bones of the macro-community.

I believe that this negotiation is fractal, which is to say, going on at every level of social organization all the time, including inside each individual. Although the negotiation has no end, and causes mobilization problems for the left insurgency, it is a remarkably resilient dynamic, and allows the left insurgency to expand its reach regardless of the particulars on the current political, financial, and social situation, the behavior of the other insurgencies in the simple model, or the superficial calculus of power that pervades our media as exemplars of Elite political fashion of the day.

Mutual Interpretation of Others by the Insurgencies

The Elites and the Insurgencies interpret their opponents according to their fundamental assumptions about themselves.

Our Elites continue to use the trope of “let them eat cake”, and generally ignore the insurgencies, as long as their wealth, reputation, and power aren’t notably affected. When they are affected, they do the least they think they can get away with (because doing anything more soaks up resources that could be better spent on enhancing elite wealth, reputation, and power), so as to preserve and defend what they have. They view all of us as incompetent versions of themselves, largely beneath their notice.

The left insurgency interprets the right as driven by a single identity (white supremacy) and as a poor cousin of the Elites. The left views the ideology as no more than a tool to privilege one identity.

The right insurgency interprets the left as a single movement driven by a common ideology (Antifa right now). This “ideology” is no more to the right than an effort to steal the assets and resources of the right insurgency and the Elites.

(Note: It doesn’t matter if these perceptions by any insurgency of others are accurate to any extent. They will fail to support effective decision-making because they are too superficial, and very poor guides to the change choices made by the various insurgencies.)

These interpretations of opponents have the effect of attributing symmetry to the struggle, when that symmetry does not exist. The dynamic of the whole CAS is not these perceived symmetries in motivation, but the actual asymmetries of their interests and the impact that it has on day-to-day decision-making and the evolving dynamic of the macro-CAS.

Part Six: Where has all the empathy gone? Long time passing….

Our Long-Entangled Insurgency: Part Five

Relentless Sabotage

The result of the four dynamic characteristics of the Macro-CAS, the dynamism of the metaphors for the evolving web of meaning, and the simple ongoing reality of insurgency, including insurgency within the centrist elites, is relentless sabotage:

  • Highly granular individual acts, and small group acts, undermine the coherence of the Macro-CAS (which includes the centrist elites and all the insurgencies), and disrupt its ability to reproduce what it has done in the past.
  • These same acts undermine the ability of the Macro-CAS to repair the damage. Instead of repair, the Macro-CAS adapts, as best it can, to recover what it was doing before disruption. This adaptation always leaves some trace of the disruption as the Macro-CAS moves into its future. Over time, this impact accumulates to alter the CAS dynamic.
  • There is no need for an organized larger scale political community representing any of the insurgencies and sub-insurgencies to keep things changing. Such communities will come and go. The real index of the long-term impact of insurgencies is whether there is an increase in the disruptive habits of individuals who are willing to sabotage the centrist elite system and the various insurgency systems and subsystems. Violence and similar acts come and go, but the drive to sabotage expands incrementally at a low level of granularity, and more or less irreversibly.
  • Sabotage becomes a habit, almost automatic, as experience and the expansion of meaning (beliefs, principles, sheer habitual actions becoming more and more automatic, etc.) associated with that sabotage experience, becomes more and more a part of the daily life of the individual, and an influence on others who might be temporarily socially synchronized (i.e., part of some community).
  • Sabotage reflects its immediate motivation and isn’t necessarily positive or negative. Rather, all sabotage is an attempt to perturb the system or insurgency of focus and cause some change in it.

It would be a fair statement that most people in our society practice sabotage daily in their respective communities. This reality is ignored because of the belief that such small acts wash out their impact on the Macro-CAS quickly.

I believe that the relentless nature of the sabotage, however futile each act’s immediate consequences might seem to be, has an impact on the long-term disposition of the Macro-CAS and its future states.

Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four

Part Six: How do the insurgencies relate to one another in their relentless sabotage?

Part Four: The Macro-CAS as a Turbulent Web of Meaning

The idea of a web of meaning as a more realistic vision of how a CAS evolves has been gaining depth beyond the obvious metaphor for a number of years.  A web of meaning is more like a field in which novel possibilities arise than, for example, some deductive rules-based model or an ideological approach to understanding a CAS.

Here the word field isn’t used in any scientific way. Rather, a field of meaning is one where unseen interaction produces novelty and disruption as a normal part of its dynamic. You can think of novelty as a variation that pops up, maybe disappears (like virtual particles), or may dynamically impact the ongoing evolution of the field.

In addition to the metaphor of a field, the flow of a river gives some insight into the evolution of a web of meaning.

As anyone who has watched a river in spring knows, the apparent chaos of the river’s flow is deceptive. The turbulence seems unknowable at first glance, but there are rough patterns for eddies and other forms of turbulence. In fact, people who embrace the extreme sports of travel in river turbulence become adept at navigating the apparent chaos. (There are lessons from the development of rough water expertise for our efforts to change that I leave for a later post.) If we think of meaning as illustrating the dynamic flow in a CAS, the patterns of meaning in the turbulence take on changing possibilities and changing roles in the understanding of our Macro-CAS of sabotage.

Turbulence in a river represents the large-scale correlation of water molecules acting as roughly coherent, if temporary, flows. The turbulence is not made up of static parts, obviously. But we often treat it as though it is when we talk about it. The same is true of the insurgent turbulence.  Simple conversation can ignore the reality of flow, but if we persist in “objectifying” turbulence for conversational convenience, we will make many bad choices in trying to alter the flow of the insurgency CAS.

The point of this post is really to get us to see the need for engaging those flows, to develop in our systems change efforts the intuitions and skills that are second nature to rough water sports enthusiasts in their engagement with turbulence. The context of the further posts in this series is this understanding of turbulence and our need to engage it if we wish to have some say over the direction of the evolving Macro-CAS.

Part One
Part Two
Part Three




Our Long-Entangled Insurgency: Part Three

We all have a learned bias that the purpose of an insurgency is to overthrow an existing political process or governance entity. Certainly, that is the focus of real-world, leadership-driven insurgent action. But it is not their purpose.

Their purpose, as examples of CAS, is what they do, not what they say they do.

And what do they do?

They sabotage the particular system that is their focus (SOF). Because of the entanglement, they also sabotage the other systems which they ignore.

While some insurgencies try to do much more, it is the purpose of sabotage, in all its many dimensions, that maintains an insurgency over long periods of time, and allows it to recover from defeats. Sabotage is the core of insurgent resilience.

How does this sabotage-based resilience express itself?

  • Insurgencies are fractal
  • Insurgencies are micro-diverse
  • Insurgencies are entangled
  • Insurgencies are possibility-spaces


A fractal system, such as an insurgency, has roughly the same amount of agency and complexity at every level of the system, even though it seems that the lower the level, the less the scope of sabotage. This principle violates the ordinary assumptions we use in understanding the nature of social reality. With the advent of global social media, we have discovered this principle in the reality that our local social communication has no boundaries, reaching far beyond what we intended or what we believe is safe.

Our notions of scope are also subject to this fractal principle. Think of looking out over, or listening to, a vast field in the distant parts of a visual or auditory scene. They will be lacking in detail. If you use binoculars, you will be able to see greater detail. If you use a hearing device, you will be able to identify the nature of the sounds you are hearing. If you move closer, more understanding is apparent.

An insurgency is like this idea of scope, distance, and detail. As you get closer to the “lower” levels of the insurgent system, you will see greater detail and a more nuanced impact from the insurgent activity than you could see at the so-called “higher” level.

As an example of how fractal models operate, think of the current pandemic, often described as a single event or process (with identifiable surges, for example), but actually consisting of an extremely large number of local epidemics that start, rise and fall off with a lot of foggy independence and boundaries, and an only apparent overall coherence.

It is an illusion to think that an insurgency can be defeated by focusing effort on the highest levels of leadership, their orchestrated violent acts, their methods for funding themselves, their ideologies. As the repeated elite success in accomplishing the defeat of these highest levels shows, any insurgency continues to boil below, and will break out again with a new set of leaders, ideologies, and violent acts when enough energy to do so has built up. This energy can simmer through very local, very granular sabotage by individuals and small groups that are not immediately controlled by any hierarchy.

The centrist elite CAS (whose job it is to preserve the elite CAS by defeating the large-scale insurgent action) believes, as it does in so many other areas, that defeating the management of the insurgency (their leadership, ideology, and large-scale acts) is the same as defeating the insurgency. Elites must believe this, or face very difficult questions about their ability to gain and hold wealth, power, and reputation. See “How tech’s richest plan to save themselves after the apocalypse”.

But any action (like the ones described above) that doesn’t directly undermine the resilience of an insurgency will only solve some immediate short term political problem. It won’t affect the continuing small incremental changes in the elite CAS and other insurgencies that result from the relentless sabotage arising at every level and across the insurgent universe.

There is simply no way to eliminate sabotage, which is the unstated impossible goal of the relentless search for more control that has been the implicit mission of social elites (along with the explicit missions of ever-increasing wealth, fame, and power). This is the deep weakness of the goal of “managing” insurgencies.


All CAS that function in the real world are micro-diverse. For our purposes, this means that they create many small variations as part of their CAS dynamic, and they auto-create more variation over time without explicit plan or external control.

Variation and micro-diversity are not only unavoidable, but are an important part of any CAS’s resilience. This clearly apparent in the resilience of insurgencies.

For example, “Lone-wolf terrorism” is one weak, appallingly limited, recognition by the elite CAS that micro-diversity in insurgencies is a real and difficult problem. For the elite CAS, micro-variations must always be cognitively and politically washed out by one another, so that only the problems important to elites remain and, thus, can be “managed”.

The trend of incrementally increasing CAS disruption through this uncontrolled variation has no place in such an elite strategy. Supposedly, important variation can’t happen at low level, or at least not very often, only ignorable or controllable variation.


Micro-diversity means that neither the insurgencies nor the elite CAS can be pure, in any meaning of that word. For example, each member of an insurgency has a partially overlapping but different set of beliefs and a different background-basically, a huge and ever-growing micro-diversity that includes various beliefs from the centrist elites’ and the other insurgencies’ lexicons. Management of this unavoidable and continuing variation is part of the leadership challenge in the elite CAS and in the right and left insurgencies. But the variation will continue to spread, no matter how leadership tries (say, for example, through annual webinars, codes of conduct, office posters, and marketing the importance of alignment, or cultish, downward control over belief) to eliminate it.

If you follow social media accounts of actual people (not bots), you will find posts that do not track their current matrix of troll-triggering tropes, but that contain actions and values from the centrist and the various insurgencies. If we could follow these individuals more carefully, we would find that the variation is a lot more than appears on the surface, and that it is constantly shifting in small ways. Variation doesn’t need explanation; rather, the effort and energy unavoidably necessary to assure ideological, financial, and consistency of control is what needs to be explained.

So, for example, an election result, requiring as it does a forced choice, is not an indicator of the actual variation in the system of focus. Everyone knows this, but the temptation to “eliminate” the real variation by projecting a category on all those who pick one of the forced choices seems unavoidable. I blame elites for this illusion, and the illusion is becoming less and less usable as a tool of control.

Evolving in a Possibility-Space

Every intention by individuals, groups, or collectives, like insurgencies, creates a possibility space for its realization. This space does not contain simple causal link paths from intention to realization (like a logic model), but rather is a kind of disposition possibility space in which many choices are “superimposed” as it were. We feel for some direction from initial intention to realization through a unique path (See Dynamics in Action: Intentional Behavior as a Complex System by Alicia Juarrero for a wonderful and deep dive into this).

In any apparently collective intention, the possibility-space will also include flows that go against the apparent intention. For example, insurgencies create their own antitheses through their current members. But they also create a large variety of other active enabling and disruptive paths from the original intention. The thing to understand about this evolution is that it can’t be predicted in any detail, and not being able to grasp this results in surprising and unintended consequences.

All four of these dimensions interact with one another as well, producing together an evolving Macro-CAS whose path is very uncertain. However, this CAS can be embraced as a disposition of its evolution in an entangled Web of Meaning.

Part One
Part Two

Part Four: The Macro-CAS as a Turbulent Web of Meaning

Our Long-Entangled Insurgency: Part Two

People often believe that models can be made more useful by increasing their complexity, so that the model better imitates the “real” thing.

Untrue. Making a model more complex will lead to it being increasingly useless as a tool for understanding, or a guide to changing the real thing.

So, here is a deliberately simple model:

Imagine a core of social, political, and financial communities that populate our elites, their entourages, and the centrist organizations and subcommunities of our society. (The Macro-CAS or Complex Adaptive System).

Now imagine two insurgencies, one on the right and one on the left, that struggle with the centrist core and each other.

Taken together, these various communities are The Macro-CAS or Complex Adaptive System.

This is the base model. It is different from other models of political/social insurgency in that it points to a variety of interacting insurgencies, rather than the simpler version of a centrist social state and various specific politically motivated insurgencies.

But it is still pretty simple. Here are a few deeper notions:

  1. There are financial, social, and political insurgents in the core elites. Sometimes they tie themselves to the right and left insurgencies, and sometimes they just sabotage their elite competitors. And sometimes they switch back and forth as their operational plans for supremacy confront the uncertainty of the future.
  2. Obviously, there are diverse sub-insurgencies within both the right and left insurgencies, and they too evolve.
  3. This variety of insurgencies and elites most resembles the endlessly diverse evolution of single-celled organisms, and the ecosystem of viruses, chunks of DNA and RNA, proteins, hormones, and other various forms of biological detritus that was the energetic and volatile soup of ocean life 3 billion years ago.
  4. So, as was the case in the primordial soup, all of us have within us bits and pieces from many of the regions/possibilities of the basic model. Because our environment elevates, in a more or less chaotic way, different trends which resonate with these different bits and pieces, we might seem to see that “members” of one insurgency have suddenly moved to or from another. This is one of the meanings of the word “entanglement” in this post series title.
  5. We try to make it easier to understand the dynamics of the simple model through the use of traditional simplifications of reality, such as “you are only a member of one part of the model”. Doing this only means we will be constantly surprised by the actual dynamic evolution of the entangled reality.
  6. “Surprised” doesn’t just mean that we are wowed or scared (the social media definition). It also means that, as much as we relentlessly try, we are ineffective in meaningfully altering the dynamic, and we may make the dynamic even more surprising by our efforts to control it.
  7. Our attempts to alter the CAS produce unintended consequences reliably, some of which make what we are trying to change worse than it is now.
  8. While I’m focusing on the last half-century, the basic model has been operating at least since the first states, with growing complexity. (Maybe 7,000 years ago?)

In the past, we treated the unintended consequences of our efforts to improve the common challenges of our Macro-CAS as “new” problems popping up out of “nowhere”, and we would then come up with ways to solve the “new” problems. That approach is no longer tenable because of the acceleration and expansion of both novelty and disruption in The Macro-CAS. We no longer have the time to delude ourselves with our solutions. They become failures much faster than they used to. They become myths to believe rather than guides to effective change.

Well, if we can’t use past problem-solving techniques, and we can’t even count on the consistency of the struggling parties in our model, what do we do?

Part Three: First, We Have to Understand why Insurgencies are so Effective in Disruption…

Read Part One in the Series

Our Long-Entangled Insurgency: Part One

First in a multi-part series about the complex flow deep in our entangled society…

“There is no such thing as security for any nation — or any individual — in a world ruled by the principles of gangsterism.” – President Franklin Roosevelt, in a “fireside chat” to the nation after the Pearl Harbor attacks, and a first take on insurgency.

In my senior year in high school (1964–65), I got my first glimpse of our common entangled insurgencies, though I didn’t know it at the time. Our local John Birch Society gave a copy of “None Dare Call It Treason” to every member of my senior class. This amounted to somewhere around 650 copies.

I suspect I was one of the few Social Justice Catholics in our class to read it. Most copies of it had been tossed everywhere around the school campus and in various places on the many routes to our family homes.

I asked a classmate who was more familiar with right politics than me what this distribution was about. He told me that local JBS members had decided that they needed to begin advancing their beliefs in a more organized way after the much earlier collapse of McCarthy, and the impending defeat of Barry Goldwater in the presidential campaign, through what were viewed as the lies and manipulations of political advertising (isn’t all political advertising manipulative?). This book was published so that it could be distributed widely during the 1964 presidential campaign.

All I thought at the time: “All our parents are weird”, with the typical adolescent roll-of-the-eyes.

Looking back, if you changed the core villain from the communists to the various yellow, brown, and black enemies that are now the targets of right hate, and updated the names of the villains to the current ones in roughly similar jobs and social classes, you could republish it today with a few other changes. To me, that means the framework of NDCIT is mythic in its meaning, and can and will be applied to whatever is going on currently by those who are entangled in the myth.

But back then, I used the balm of young obliviousness to the outside world to dismiss the idea, and it faded from my consciousness.

Something must have stuck though. I began to notice stuff from the right that I had never paid attention to before.  My deepest ignorance was my lack of understanding of insurgencies, and how they operate as flows of meaning.

My ignorance had two dimensions:

  • I didn’t see my catholic social justice value system, socially just action, and our larger social justice community as an insurgency. I thought it was a nice way to be a human being.
  • I couldn’t see the birth of a much larger right-wing insurgency in the  expanding number of similar local organizing initiatives going on across roughly all rural areas and college campuses of the US, because I was simply unaware of them, or I consigned them to some dustbin of irrelevance.

Over the decades since then, I’ve tried to resolve my ignorance as best I could, and I have deepened my understanding of insurgencies.

I experienced insurgency first hand as a combat soldier in Vietnam, known people who participated in our American cultural entangled insurgencies and those who fought insurgencies in our overseas wars and our home-spun revolutionary movements, learned the history of insurgency through reading, board games, and video games, and, most critically, learned about systems theory, especially the theory of, and change in, complex adaptive systems (CAS).

These experiences and learnings helped me see the dynamic of our entangled insurgencies as a flowing shifting evolution with a broad disposition, if not a game plan. I want to pass on something of that observed flow in the stories in this series.

Part Two: So, How are We to Understand what Our Long- Entangled Insurgencies are?

An Example of Dark Triad Corruption of the Authenticity of An Important Support Mission


Below, I will give an extended overview of some aspects in the evolution of the SSI (Supplemental Security Income) program since 1974 (when it was first implemented) as an example of how the purpose of a support system becomes corrupted over time.

I was working for Michigan Protection and Advocacy Service as the SSI program rolled out in its first years, and saw first-hand just how deep the corruption of the eligibility determination process became. It has only worsened since.

SSI eligibility determination has embraced a purpose of denying eligibility unless there is a political downside. Given the vulnerability of recipients of SSI, this is tantamount to condemning a large number of people with severe disabilities to additional medical problems, debility, and death.

The Supplemental Security Income System


Wikipedia has a decent review of the history and thinking that went into the SSI program, but the article is bloodless. It doesn’t reflect the efforts of the SSI system and advocates in their mutual struggle to (on the one hand) reduce the number of claimants or make it so difficult to get or be on SSI that the claimant despairs and leaves the program, and (on the other) to correct failings of the system, expand eligibility, and due process protections.

  • During the early part of the Reagan administration, large numbers of people who were currently eligible for SSI were tossed off the program. In Michigan this amounted to 50-60 thousand individuals.  Marsha Katz (the most knowledgeable expert in Michigan at the time) and other advocates created a curriculum which several hundred advocates embraced to more effectively respond to this wholesale attack on the lives of people with severe disabilities. With capable representation in the fair hearing, many people were able to become eligible for benefits again. The cases I had were all individuals with developmental disabilities, whose disability was clear. I think we all became convinced by our experience in these hearings that there was no due process review that resulted in the huge number of denials, but a simple arrogant process of tossing as many people under the bus as the administration could.
  • The Statute that defines the purpose and goals of the SSI program is more or less clear about eligibility for the benefit. I may not agree with the definition of eligibility, but it is clear. The procedural framework that is used in initial disability determination and first-reconsideration for disability determination is not the statutory standard. It is a hodge-podge of procedural barriers designed to produce automatic triggers for denial. The result is that roughly twice as many people are denied eligibility as would be the case if the statutory standard was used. This is not simply bureaucratic obfuscation. It has real world consequences. The number of denials begins to result in appeals that create waiting lists as long as 2 years for a hearing that might actually look at eligibility under the statute. There is also an empty and deliberately useless process called an in-office reconsideration step that uses up time but seldom results in a change in the initial eligibility determination result. SSA whines that it needs more money to solve this waiting list “resources” problem when it could easily free up an enormous number of resources by making its initial eligibility standard reflect the statute. It won’t do this. The administrative structure is deliberately framed to deny the maximum politically safe number of people with severe disabilities it can.
  • There are a huge number of procedures that are “gotchas” (they seemed to have multiplied during the pandemic) in the decades of the program’s development. It is impossible to mention them all. They are designed to require a level and sophistication of response from people on SSI (who have very severe disabilities, and whose income is WELL below the poverty level) that makes it certain a large number of appeals will simply not be made, and another recipient will “bite the dust”. The one that has been used with the most venomous intent is the overpayment reimbursement requirement. While repayment of overpayments is abstractly reasonable, I would ask you if the following scenario is reasonable (this response is especially spiteful and shows the contempt that SSI has for its recipients)? A person on SSI has a small, part time job whose income is paid out every two weeks. The person dutifully reports the income to SSA each time it is received. Because it is possible for more than two paychecks to be given in a single month, the person may go over a threshold in one month while not actually ever being over the threshold for the year. In SSA ‘s reality this is an overpayment, and SSA must terrorize the recipient with threats to recoup their lost riches. Now, I still wouldn’t think it was fair to cost the person a month of their Medicaid or a month of financial eligibility, but at least that would be transparent. Instead, SSA doesn’t take any responsibility for notifying the person that this situation exists in anything you or I would see as a realistic time frame. There was an extreme example recently, in which SSA demanded the repayment of 2 cents from 15 years ago. SSA never has any responsibility to be transparent, and they exist in a timeless universe where 15 years is the same as no time at all. Advocates have struggled against such procedural evil across decades, but the fight is a loser. The reality is that the SSI bureaucracy pays their employees an enormous amount of money specifically to come up with gotchas. These employees don’t have to struggle because of poverty or lack of health insurance. In the truest sense of the concept, such policies live off the backs of people with severe disabilities, and can’t even claim they are doing this for the “good” of the person with the disability. Instead, their purpose is to implement more and more complex ways of forcing people off benefits without causing political pain to their superiors.

I hope I’ve given the flavor of this ongoing effort to reduce or slow the growth of the number of SSI recipients without creating political problems. In my view, this is corruption in every sense of that word.

Other examples of programs that started out with good intentions and ended up with bad:

  • The Spend Down Program under Medicaid
  • SSDI waiting periods for financial support and health insurance
  • Mental Health Severity Thresholds and the way they are gamed
  • And many, many more examples.

Ask an advocate you know for examples from their own experience. They are endless. Corruption is part and parcel of every support system in government as it evolves over time. This corruption is a form of sabotage, the ongoing, step-by-step, corroding of the purpose of the system.

Sabotage exists as a ubiquitous form of corruption in every aspect of the American experience. While I think most people are well aware of financial corruption as a basis of policy in governmental systems, there are less obvious and more common forms. I’m going to do a series of posts on this invisible sabotage of life possibilities next.

Some Resources

Supplemental Security Income Advocacy
Stuck in Time: SSI Desperately Needs Updating
Social Security: Know Your Rights

Next: The Long-Entangled Insurgency: Part One


Evolving Toward the Abyss: How We Blunder into Inauthentic Purpose

I’ve discussed why well-intentioned systems begin to embrace a financially/politically driven purpose rather than the value-driven purpose of The Mission. I think it is helpful to understand how such an embrace creeps up on a system and changes every aspect of its evolution.

In an earlier post, I gave a short overview of the kinds of changes that take place in the first few years after support and advocacy systems are formed. Below is a more nuanced and much expanded version of the long term:

Phase One:

  • Initially, Board, managers and staff are recruited from a community that already has a purpose related to The Mission.
  • Keeping the door open seems tedious and unrewarding, and is often thought to be unconnected to The Mission, or even destructive of it (irony abounds in this evolutionary process).
  • Financial disaster, Board and Staff turnover, small time embezzlement, and other results of not having adequate financial controls produce relentless anxiety in managers and board, who are, after all, legally/politically responsible.
  • They shift their priorities to financial or political incentives that seem to offer more stability.
  • The system settles into a pattern where most time and resources at the managerial and board level is focused on money and marketing.

Phase Two:

  • The focus on money and marketing often produces real growth in available resources of all kinds. Salaries increase, reputation in the larger community (whatever that community might be) becomes noticeably improved, the ability to recruit Board members with enough standing that they can help with keeping the doors open, and operational improvements in managing funding, become part of the ongoing evolution  of the system.
  • New staff join the organization because of a combination of commitment to the Mission and the perks of effective financial/political sophistication. These twin motivations shift to favor perks over time.
  • Managers shift their priorities to accommodate the stability and comfort  of effective financial/political sophistication, and The Mission gradually becomes more abstract in managerial/governance work (losing its depth, becoming a meme).
  • Managerial initiatives become targeted to “efficiency” using the ridiculous assumption that you can do the same thing for less money if you just punish people enough. This results in everyone gaming the constraints (eventually including those who came up with the indicators that are now being gamed). In effect, the constraints no longer focus on the Mission, but on various indicators of control (control/power is not Mission-Critical except for managers who no longer think much about The Mission), wealth, and reputation (again, not Mission-critical).
  • People who are part of the system begin to appropriate its resources for themselves because there are more resources and the efforts to produce efficiency result in the actual Mission-Critical Tasks having less and less meaning or connection with the indicators. They become viewed as part of the exploitable system.
  • This cannibalization of The Mission begins to produce more and more behavior that is either clearly exploitation or of such poor quality that the people whose lives depend on The Mission increasingly call out the system.
  • The system responds, not with changes in  its operations, but more sophisticated marketing.
  • The overall result of Phase Two is to make the system more and more brittle (i.e., unable to robustly change in response to crisis). The system response to crisis instead becomes various methods of avoidance, like public relations and lawyers.

Phase Three:

  • At some point, as the twin forces of increasing resources and dwindling connection between resource use and The Mission become generally obvious, the system will begin to attract Board Members, Managers, and Staff who are willing to use the functional versions of the Dark Triad model to enhance their control and rewards without having to pay any attention to The Mission, if they think they can get away with it. This includes the possibilities of direct exploitation of those who are supposed to benefit from The Mission, as in sexual or financial predation.
  • It is at this point that I view the system as a zombie. The system has become a gangster syndicate even if no violence is involved, and the vast majority of people in the system aren’t participants in Dark Triad behavior. The zombie system is much harder to break down than the Mission-Critical one ever was. For example, look at city corruption and ask yourself if the kickback amounts go down when the city has a financial decline.
  • Any stress that effectively threatens the rewards or power that benefit system members will cause its collapse. After all, if you remove money, reputation, and power, there will be nothing left of the system, its Mission having faded into oblivion a long time ago.

These phases are not some script or program. Rather, they are a scaffold to help you grasp why good missions eventually disappear. The reality is that any human organized system (start-up, corporation, public agency, non-profit, soviet style bureaucracy, western public bureaucracy) that values money, reputation, and/or power will follow the contours of this evolution, though the details will change, and the kind of functional Dark Triad tactics that are successful will differ. This does not mean that we can’t do anything to preserve The Mission. It means that we can’t count on system evolution to protect that Mission. (Later, I’ll post on mission-supportive actions.)

See the Wikipedia article on Zugzwang for more insight into the drivers of this kind of malignant evolution.

Next: An Example about Dark Triad Corruption of the Authenticity of The Mission


How the Dark Triad Corrupts Support and Advocacy Systems

The dark triad of Machiavellianism, Psychopathy, and Narcissism arise in complex adaptive systems (and our specimen support and advocacy organizations) as threads of meaning in the evolution of the system. They are not separate paths, but can express themselves varyingly, and perhaps are best seen as a coherent interactive bundle of meaning that shifts in impact with change in the context.

They can be consciously fostered by leadership and governance ideologies, or can operate as system attractors without seeming to have any coherent conscious awareness.

I will use a meme as a placeholder for the meaning of each thread:

  • Machiavellianism: The meme is “gaslighting”. This thread is the use of strategic deceit to secure advantage for the system.
  • Psychopathy: The meme is “hyperrational self-interest”. This thread is the ignoring (to the point of obliviousness) of the consequences for people, animals, plants, and artifacts of actions to achieve system advantage.
  • Narcissism: The meme is “arrogant self-interest”. This thread sees the meaning of the contextual incentives narrowly in terms of the system’s advantage.

As you can see, these threads are deeply connected to one another. While there may be value in parsing the distinctions between them for the diagnosis of personality disorders, it makes more sense here to view them as available interactive heuristics that the support and advocacy organizations (or any complex adaptive system) may use to privilege system advantage over The Mission. This use of these tools is a dramatic step in the corruption of any organization and often entirely unnoticed until its impact is deeply embedded in the dynamic of the system. In effect, the system being considered no longer has a meaningful Mission.

I tend to imagine systems drifting (purposely or otherwise) into the realm of dark triad decision-making as zombies. In fact, the mythos of zombies in the arts and media is vivified (if that is the word) by corruption as its core characteristic. Instead of brains, the single-minded driver of such organizations is system advantage.

This overview needs to be fleshed out (those zombie tropes just keep surfacing) through a specimen example of the path followed in the Dark Triad evolution of the system, and system examples of how the Dark Triad corrodes the ability of a system to authentically pursue its Mission.

Next: Evolving toward the Abyss: How We Blunder into Inauthentic Purpose


The Dark Triad of Evolving Bureaucratic Systems

In addition to what I described as the typical bureaucratization of support and advocacy systems in my last post, there is a darker path that any system development can take in a facilitating context. We can understand this path by using a metaphor borrowed from a social media trope about personality characteristics called the Dark Triad:

  • Machiavellianism
  • Psychopathy
  • Narcissism

We aren’t going to view these as part of some continuum of personality disorders. Instead, we will look at them as corrupting forces driven by larger socio-political environments that aren’t necessarily connected to the personalities of people in the system. Rather, the forces are incentive-driven contexts for decision-making by actors in the system, actors who wouldn’t qualify under the criteria of the DSM as persons with these disorders.

In a word, the forces create “functional” versions of the disorders, guiding and enforcing decisions that mimic the kinds of decisions persons with these disorders might make. Because these are not medical concepts, but enabling and governing constraints in systems, we will use simple abstractions to define them. We don’t need to meet the DSM criteria to understand how such decision-making affects the evolution of support and advocacy organizations.

Next: How the Dark Triad Corrupts Support and Advocacy Systems