Empowered individuals — and super-empowered ones!

Summary:  Super-empowered individuals are a cutting-edge debate in some circles. But individuals are always powerful, able to shape their human and physical terrain — alter history. If there are such a thing, the big question is if they are good development — or bad? Following Godwin’s Law, this ends with a discussion of Nazi’s and Hitler.

Super-empowered individuals in fiction and history

Thomas L. Friedman coined the term “super-empowered” individuals, and many have run with the concept — notably John Robb and Thomas Barnett.  Zenpundit gave a fine introduction to the concept here (excellent graphic!).   However, individuals have always been empowered — in the fundamental sense of able to alter both the physical work on a large scale and the history of nations.

Although set in the future, Captain Kirk is an old-fashioned super-empowered individual. For example, see the Star Trek episode A Taste of Armageddon. The Enterprise visits two planets locked in a never-ending war, and they threaten to destroy the ship. Kirk discusses the situation with planetary leader Anan 7″

Kirk:  I can destroy this entire planet.
Anan 7:  That is why I don’t let you contact your ship.
Kirk:  I do not need my ship.
Anan 7:  All by yourself, with just a disruptor?  I had no idea you were so … formidable.

By the end of the show Anan 7 is a broken man, but with a new-found appreciation for both the desirability of peace and the power of an individual.  But we do not need science fiction to show this this.  There are illustrations enough in real history.

First, even before technology an individual could shape the physical terrain.  The always interesting War Nerd describes one method by which empowered individuals change shape their world:  starting large fires.  Simple, basic, almost irresistible.   Burn, Malibu, Burn — Fire:  the most effective, unused weapon in the world.

Second — and more important — an individual can powerfully shape the human terrain.  The deaths of Julius Caesar, Lincoln, and John Kennedy changed history.  How might the death of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, FDR, or Churchill altered events?

Research into the most common kind of super-empoowered individual

The National Bureau of Economic Research a May 2007 paper on this very topic:  Hit or Miss?  The Effect of Assassinations on Institutions and War, by Benjamin F. Jones and Benjamin A. Olken (hat tip to Matthew Yglesias).   They say…

Assassinations are a persistent feature of the political landscape. Using a new data set of assassination attempts on all world leaders from 1875 to 2004, we exploit inherent randomness in the success or failure of assassination attempts to identify assassination’s effects. We find that, on average, successful assassinations of autocrats produce sustained moves toward democracy. We also find that assassinations affect the intensity of small-scale conflicts. The results document a contemporary source of institutional change, inform theories of conflict, and show that small sources of randomness can have a pronounced effect on history.

A new paper on this is The Political Consequences of Assassination by Zaryab Iqbal and Christopher Zorn of the University of South Carolina.  (ditto, Yglesias)  They say…

The assassination of a political leader is among the highest-profile acts of political violence, and conventional wisdom holds that such events often have substantial political, social, and economic effects on states. We investigate the extent to which the assassination of a head of state affects political stability, through an analysis of all assassinations of heads of state between 1952 and 1997. We examine the political consequences of assassination by assessing the levels of political unrest, instability, and civil war in states that experience the assassination of their head of state. Our findings support the existence of an interactive relationship among assassination, leadership succession, and political turmoil: in particular, we find that assassinations’ effects on political instability are greatest in systems in which the process of leadership succession is informal and unregulated.

Perhaps the debate of the empowered individual looks at things through the wrong end of the telescope.  Considering what individuals can do, the question is not about the potential for individual action — but why there are so few examples of it in history?  Are we sheep, unwilling to act except when in a herd — except for the extraordinary individual, able to act by himself (or herself — real-life equivalents of Jael putting a tent spike in Sisera’s head).

Consider Hitler.  The conspiracy against Hitler — the Schwarze Kapelle, the Black Orchestra — reached to the highest levels of the German officer class.  In his magisterial book Bodyguard of Lies Anthony Cave Brown shows that they were unable to stop or kill him.  Why?  I make a guess in a December 2005 essay:

The German General staff was as perfect a system as we can ever devise, but it could not compensate for the moral flaws of the officers who comprised it.   By 1943 Hitler’s insanity was obvious. Germany’s senior officers should have drawn straws, with the loser to walk up and shoot Hitler. After which would follow his trial and execution for murder and treason. A bad end for him, but the salvation of the Wehrmacht and Germany.  Instead, the small minority that had the will to act undertook assassination attempts suitable only for comic opera. All, of course, were unsuccessful.

The Wehrmacht and Germany were almost destroyed by the cowardliness of the Army’s leaders, the inexcusable flaw in an officer.  Scharnhorst and von Moltke the Elder would have despaired to see their descendents’ failure.

Now, the concluding question:  are empowered individuals — acting on their own judgement and initiative to change history — a good thing (we need more) or a bad thing (may God preserve us from these hot-heads)?  Would it be a better world if Greens burned down the suburbs they so greatly hate?  Would America be stronger if every President widely hated by a minority died in office — such as FDR, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, Bush Junior?

After answering this we can now move onto to the subject of super-empowered individuals, on another day.

For More Information

Would you like to become a super-empowered individual, the old-fashioned way?  Get started by buying your own underground fortress.  Only $1.5 million, available now on Ebay.  Some work required, as the site is in bare-bones condition.

Thomas Friedman has continued to run with the concept of “super”-things.  In his new book, Longitudes and Attitudes:  Exploring the World After September 11,  he speaks of the super-story, super-states, super-powers (like the USA, not the man in the blue tights), super-markets (Wall Street, Hong Kong, London, and Frankfurt — not grocery stores).



16 thoughts on “Empowered individuals — and super-empowered ones!”

  1. One of the most important incidents in the 20th century was the crossing of the TaTu bridge.

    During the Long March, Chiang’s Nationalist forces were in hot pursuit of Mao’s Communists. It was by no means certain that Mao would escape.

    Mao’s forces were proceeding along one side of the TaTu River. A Nationalist column was pursuing them along the opposite side. This area was precisely the region where the last of the T’ai Ping’s had been trapped and wiped out a century before. To the best that we can calculate, had Mao been trapped here, he too would have been wiped out. QED: No Chinese Revolution.

    To escape, Mao’s forces needed to cross the TaTu Bridge, a Tarzan – like rope affair. Mao did manage to get men across it and to secure it fifteen minutes before the Nationalists arrived. Upon this thread literally hangs a major portion of 20th Century history.

    We can further assume that other such threads exist which, however, are more difficult to discern.

    QED: to understand 20th Century history, your system needs to be able to account for the deployment of random Nationalist Chinese units to a level of precision of plus or minus fifteen minutes.

    Unless you can do this sort of thing, you might be able to make a big splash; but you aren’t going to be very empowered.

  2. Hmmm. Is water good or bad? That depends on whether you are thirsty, or drowning. Is empowerment good or bad? No. Trick question. Life is like a box of chocolates. It has more than two flavors.

  3. Reading the comment by ‘dckinder’- I thought towards the end of story of Mao’s crossing of the TaTu Bridge, that it would say “and they burned it”. I must have been still thinking about the “Burn, Malibu, Burn” article. The essence of the story being, I suppose, “The vector for fire is humans. You use people to start fires. And people, like I keep telling you over and over, are the only essential weapon for an irregular force.”

    So, I believe the point is not one of is it “good or bad” or, “making a big splash” or whether, it’s a bic lighter or, one of these but, rather that there is nothing greater than that good ‘ol “super-sense” of “empowerment” and the liberation it can bring.

  4. Upon further reflection, perhaps the real question is “What prevents us from embracing this liberating ‘super-sense’ of empowerment”?

    Is it a lack of motivation? or is it as, Fabius Maximus, has obeserved in his article “Forecast: the Death of the American Constitution” that the “predominate reaction of the Romans to the death of the Republic was resignation” ?

    What more ‘motivation’ does one need than this: “If the people knew what we had done, they would chase us down the street and
    lynch us” – George H.W. Bush There you have it: The verdict is in. Admission of guilt by one of their own. Case closed. They have even provided “The People” with both a reason and method. How thoughtful. What are we waiting for?

    Is it perhaps, that the State “every day renders the exercise of the free agency of man less useful and less frequent; it circumscribes the will within a narrower range and gradually robs a man of all the uses of himself.” and then “After having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp and fashioned him at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.”
    -What sort of despotism democratic nations have to fear, Chapter VI, Section IV, Volume III, Democracy in America, by Alexis de Tocqueville.
    aknowlegement to Paul Woodward at War In Context

  5. Is empowerment good or bad? (Comment by mikyo )

    Exactly, In as much as Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, amoung others were vastly empowered. Followed through to logical extreams, that scale empowerment falls, and crushes under it’s own weight of human frailty. See also Shakesphere.

    I irronic how the founding interests of the United States saw that clearly, and experienced it first hand, and did thier best brilliantly to try and prevent it from ever happening to thier decendents. It was a beutifull attempt at it, and perhaps the finest mankind has ever mounted. Too bad they didn’t quite make it.


  6. fabiusmaximus2000

    The usual meaning of individual empowerment refers to acts of indivuals acting alone — not as leaders. Hitler is not an empowered individual in this sense; Lee Harvey Oswald was. A personing poisoning a city reservoir is super-empowered, as is a person starting an epidemic or crashing a national telephone exchange.

  7. “Definition of empowerment solely by criminality ?
    That’s empowerment ?”

    I never thought of it in that way, but it probably is true. If the act of empowerment had ethics, then the person standing next to you would be on your side, or in other words, team. Of course, it is not that the act itself might not have ethics, it probably just has the ethics of the actor and not those who the actor is empowered against.

    On the other hand, it you noticed a burned-out light bulb on a dangerous stairway and you empowered yourself to change it, that would not be very “super” though, would it?

    A case in point would be Hans Rosling http://nigeriawhatisnew.newsvine.com/_news/2007/11/15/1099372-hans-rosling-receives-jubilee-prize
    I would say he was super empowered, but I would not say his effort was an individual effort. It might have started out that way, as an idea, but it quickly grew to be much more, I suspect. Super empowerment that is noncriminal, connects; super empowerment that is criminal, disconnects.

    Then we would have to look at individuals like Mao and Stalin, who seems to be super empowered but connected. Were they individuals? They represented a single OODA loop that, through induction, represented many people. I suppose it is a matter of ethics whither they were criminal or not. Inside that OODA loop they were obviously not considered criminal. Outside that loop it was probably a different story.

  8. fabiusmaximus2000

    Exactly. Rules exist largely to *prevent* unauthorized individuals from altering the group’s course. That is the job of it’s leaders, and even they are usually hedged about with restrictions.

  9. Pingback: zenpundit.com » Blog Archive » Recommended Reading

  10. The context of this discussion was originaly intended to be a definition, appreciation or understanding of empowerment in the context of 4th generational warfare.

    Knowlage, gifted insight, experience and the abilites that bestows
    are a good definition of empowerment.

    Albert Einstien was empowered, by his imagination, and practiced ability to reason and percieve. Was he born any better than anyone else ? Who can say for sure ? However, Conciquently, he was also naturaly attracted to and associated with some the best and bightest of his, the the preceiding generation, (Earnst mach etc,,) this helped inspire him, and build confidence to raise the bar on the littany of what he went on to eventually achieve.

    Somewhat Similarly, John Boyd kept company amoung several of the best and brighest in his world, and characeristicaly avoided, and had a short tollerence for the company on fools.

    Masoud the legendary gurellia warfare leader of the Moudjha Hadine,(SP?)
    was very definately empowered, in the sense that FM is trying to get across.

    Like Micheal Jordan, Tiger Woods, or Micheal Schumacher, these pepole elivate the bar, in thier own, and eventually and to a degree, everyone else’s own games. They participate on a whole new level, outside the box, so to speak.

    To rise above mediocrity, to take things to a whole new level.

    If you ask me, instutionalised Medicocrity and lack of vision amoung politics and the military is a big problem right now, in America.

    Nefarious interests have taken advantage of that situation in advancement of thier own agenda, and coming at almost everyone else’s dire and excallating expense.

    Finnaly, Americans have only themselves to blame, for ultimately at the root of the current situation is thier indifference, complacency, and ingrained cultural penchant, even almost a religious conviction of avoiding taking any responsibility.


  11. A little more on “the subject of super-empowered individuals”

    “Is this going to be a stand-up fight, sir, or another bug hunt?” – Private Hudson, Aliens.

    I love the smell of long-chain monomers in the morning. It smells like… new plastic. I love the super, double- secret feel of empowerment, it gives me. Previously, after going off on the concept of “super-empowerment” – like a Blackwater Protective detail working State (what’s the per-diem, there anyway?) – Without contemplating it in any real great depth, I decided to delve into it a little further.

    Starting with a simple Google image search – “Iraqi prostitutes in Syria” led me first to:
    Tdaxp, Dan at Tdaxp is the man! (to see) apparently and in this case, our featured provider is named “Nora” from Morocco and currently practicing her trade in, Paris. Close enough to “Iraqi prostitutes in Syria” for the purpose of our “Super-empowered” 5th generation warfare experts, it would seem. (but, I digress) Anyhow, it was then a fairly routine matter of just sitting back and watching the trail for a while. Following their droppings led to most, of the rest. Tdaxp, Thomas P.M. Barnett, Purpleslog, Arherring, Zenpundit, Phatic Communion, etc. A possible example of an autopoietic machine. Zenpundit seems to be leading the chorus with “TheSuper Empowered Individual” refrain. I’m getting the sense, I think, that what is meant by “The super empowered individual” is not a someone like this, with magical symbols of empowerment, a rifle and quaint sentiments like “Leaveour land now while you can or, die in it” or some other ‘mere’ 4th generational warfare practical exercise but, rather something else, more abstract, ethereal, intellectual or theo-semiotic. Perhaps, it’s “poetry”.

    In my perusal of the various ‘blogs’ related to my search terms “Iraqi prostitutesin Syria” I really liked “Dreaming5GW”. There are the posts on “superempowerment” and such but, the best post by-far, that I came across, is the commentary and excerpt from, William Gibson’s, “Pattern Recognition” as a definition of, 5GW. Now, I began to see. I was in familiar territory. “I just kept waiting for a black guy in derecontextualized Doc Martens to show up and muse about the whereabouts of Stephen King’s Wang” I can hardly wait for the analysis of “Spook Country”

    A desk is a dangerous place from which to watch the world. — from The Honorable Schoolboy (LeCarré, 1977: p. 84).

    The concept of “Super-empowerment” and it’s place in “5th generation warfare” speculation are not, I think, thoughts of people who actually crawl around in stinking, snake-infested, swamps or, garbage-strewn alleys, smelling of human feces (and worse), looking for candidates to rape, torture, or, kill. At least, I hope not. Not literally anyway. Nor probably, is it their family, friends or loved ones who are coming home in bits and pieces or, in body bags. Nor, I suspect are they the ones who suffer the most from the consequences or, effects of their ideas, concepts, policies, etc. (unless, paying higher prices to fill that SUV or, letting little ‘Junior’ play with toxic toys, or unknown chemicals in the food chain counts?)

    The greatest danger they face on daily basis is probably, I believe, spilling their lattes on their keyboards as they beat out the rhythms of “Super-Empowerment” and “5GW” from the safe distance and comfort of their homes, cubicles, desks or, laptops. Perhaps, as, William S. Lind, in his article on 5th Generation Warfare, observed “honest attempts to discover a Fifth Generation suggest that their authors have not fully grasped the vast change embodied in the Fourth Generation” and perhaps, have fallen prey to the temptations of “technological hucksterism: coming up with Madison Avenue slogans to sell new weapons programs *by claiming that they fundamentally change warfare. This kind of carnival sideshow act lies at the heart of the so-called “Revolution in Military Affairs,” and it dominates all discussions of national defense in Washington. Every contractor who hopes to get his snout in the trough claims that his widget “revolutionizes” war.

    As the framework of the Four Generations spreads, you can be sure that the Merchants of Death will claim that whatever they are trying to sell is an absolute necessity for Fourth (or Fifth) Generation war. It will all be poppycock.” *(or blogs, books, speaking tours, etc.)

  12. I agree that the conceptalisation of a 5th generation of warfare is bogus or at best premature and poorly defined to an extent of being absurd. WWW or not,,,.

    There’s an awfull lot of shallow mindedness, to go round in Amerika, and the ROW these days. Advertising and mass media culture that gravitates, panders, and dumbs down to the lowest common denomitator.

    In a recent Creveld article posted on DNI, he mentions that most of the 4GW and bogus 5GW* (*my assertion, backed up by your post) is written and formulated by pepole who have never, EVER WON at 4GW. In other words, losers, and yes Virginia, Christmas is coming, so is Santa, and “losers” or those that have never ever won at 4GW includes the acclaimed US General Patreaus.

    Apart from all that though and the tanking economy, the US is doing just great. Happy Tanksgiving one and all.

  13. Pingback: Building Snowmobiles: The Attack By Fire and the Super-empowered Individual | Feral Jundi

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll to Top