Thinking about Warlordism

Nothing guts a thought so much as apologetic blahblahblah stuck at the beginning, letting all and sundry know that you can’t stand by what you’re about to say without establishing all your escape routes ahead of time. But there you go…

i’ve spent (wasted?) too many hours over the past week trying to put together some thoughts on warlordism. The basic problem i realized yesterday is that i have a bunch of nifty quotes explaining the concept, and a strong sense of how a warlordism should play out (at least in my imagination), but really not much more. For me, the exercise is abstract to the point that it’s more like an intellectual jigsaw puzzle than any kind of sharing of political insights. & while nobody should have anything against the sin of Onan, intellectual masturbation on a blog seems a bit… unseemly…

Warlordism is an all too real problem in lots of people’s lives, and as an easily-manipulable force (kind of like fire) it’s a tool which has been used by the State all over the world, but as for me personally… i’ve never had to worry about it in any real intimate kind of way. Hells Angels, street gangs, and such have not been a factor i’ve had to navigate in my daily life, never mind parastates or rogue militias. This has a lot to do with class, a lot to do with gender, and probably something to do with nation, too.

So there’s a flashing neon sign in my mind’s eye screaming “SHUT THE FUCK UP” -

- and i would, but -

the issue is that, clueless as i know i am, there seem to be a whole lot of folks at least as clueless as i who are putting forward ideas that not only boggle my mind, but make me worry. Not so much for the the folks putting forward these ideas today, but more about where those ideas are going to go and where they’ll end up tomorrow.

What i’m talking about is this difference i seem to be sensing between insurrection and revolution. This idea that what we should be all about is destroying that which exists first, and either wait til later to worry about creating something new (the weak version of this argument) or else actively oppose the creation of anything new from our side, instead embracing the transience of any “free space” (the strong version).

In the past, i used to advocate this position too – i remember selling an anarchist newspaper on the street and having “regular” people repeatedly ask me a very sensible question: “What do you propose putting in place of the State?” And like a moron i’d say “I just trust people to be able to build their own communities and handle issues on their own once the State is driven out.” Cute, but dumb.

But cut to the present. While they may or may not be intended literally, these lines from Tiqqun are representative of what many are thinking – and not only “insurrectionists”:

Bodies aggregate. Breathe again. Conspire.
Whether such zones are condemned to be suppressed militarily really
does not matter. What matters, each time, is to preserve a sure escape
And then re-aggregate
(How Is It To Be Done?, p.14)

This “it does not matter if you’re suppressed militarily” is an implicit, and sometimes explicit, theme in a lot of rad left theory, and not just of the romantic-insurrectionist variety. It is there in focussing on “the attack” and ignoring the question of how to liberate territory, but i think in another form it was also there even in classical foco theory, where provoking military repression was integrated into guerilla strategy. And of course it’s there is subconscious form in all those left currents which simply feel entitled to not think in military terms, as if military struggle were some condiment they could simply choose not to squeeze onto their burger. “Would you like armed struggle with that insurrection, sir?”

i think one part of the appeal of insurrectionist ideas is simply a realistic appraisal of what happened in the 20th century – where nobody managed to maintain liberated territory, where every revolution was either integrated into capitalism through economic/military defeat or by its own new State – and also an understandable reaction to the fact that with all the State’s technology and material resources tying yourself (or your “war machine”) to the defense of a specific piece of territory seems suicidal. Because while the enemy may be vulnerable anywhere, he is equally able to able to impose himself anywhere, and with force unprecedented in all of human history.

So in a very simple form, this constitutes a reflection of the times, an adaptation to the fact that

Sliding around the government pre-occupation with “more important” crises, moving and hiding amidst the chaotic clash of different players, the oppressed learned that in the physics of this new political universe we really can do much more than we thought we could – while others, don’t forget, can do the same to us. (Night-Vision: Illuminating War and Class on the Neo-Colonial Terrain, by Butch Lee and Red Rover, p. 172)

So in that sense the embrace of fluidity, anonymity and “zones of opacity” all represent a step forward. Nevertheless, Tiqqun’s “does not really matter” line is maddening – military occupation is no fun for those who are stuck in an area, who were not in on the plan, who have no “escape route”. We know that as in all “regular” wars, most of these casualties, these “third persons” – those who fail to make it out the escape hatch – will be women and children. As always.

But that’s not what i want to zero in on. Rather, what i want to focus on is what else can happen in that “chaotic clash of different players”, for Tiqqun and many others, for all their claims to have broken with the past, seem to still think that there are only two possibilities – the State takes an area, or else it’s a liberated zone (tho of course they’d have a more poetic name for these alternatives). “Military occupation” will come in the form of the enemy we know, with its armies or cops. That’s their assumption – and i think they’re wrong. What i want to think about is something hinted at when Lee and Rover warned us that “others, don’t forget, can do the same to us.”

There is an organic tendency towards warlordism in communities that have tasted capitalism and patriarchy and colonialism. Even oppressed communities. Many years ago, in a form that probably seems dated to some of today’s rebels, Butch Lee provided a useful definition of this term:

Warlordism is a society without any real civil government, a chaos where gangs and armies of armed men not only have a free run but are the only true authority. It’s what you see in much of the Third World [...] or, increasingly, in New Afrika. Warlordism is created in the social vacuum when an oppressed people have thrown off colonialism or made direct colonial rule impossible, but do not yet have national liberation and effective self-rule. It is a natural form for neo-colonialism. 

And as explained by L.B. in their 1999 essay “Some Preliminary Notes on Class Structure” in the 8th Route Readers Club maozine:

Warlordism is a phenomenon that arises in times of social instability and transition, when the former methods of social control and “legitimate” state power have been weakened. It consists of groups of armed men who forcibly fill the power vacuum left by the weakness or withdrawal of the state’s army or police forces. Although warlord groups may at times have popular support, they are inflexibly authoritarian formations, usually organized around personal military and nepotistic loyalty to a single leader.

Drive out “the oppressor” and its State and you don’t necessarily have “freedom” or even a “secessionist constitutency” (to use some flowery term), all you’re guaranteed is a power vacuum. Perhaps a community or society which had not been integrated into capitalism yet would be able to fill this vacuum organically with communism or matriarchy or anarchy, and things would proceed nicely… perhaps… but where do you know of such a society? More often than not, capitalism corrupted societies with missionaries and traders and patriarchy before conquering them militarily. But regardless, for us its a moot point, we certainly don’t inhabit any such organically classless communities.

So what happens in a power vacuum? It gets filled. The 20th century overflows with examples of how bad things can get when we fill it – “real existing socialism”, anyone? – but learning this doesn’t mean we’ve solved the problem. Not nearly. And a blithe dismissal of the question is neither radical nor farsighted, it simply reveals the continuing appeal of naivete.

For some people at some points in their lives, “the attack” and the psychological liberation it sparks may be the real point of it all, communities and issues and casualties all being props in this essentially internal drama of self-liberation. This may be snotty of me to say, and i know this isn’t where most are at, but it does seem to be a logical corollary to the obsession with violence and riots as ends-unto-themselves that one can find in some insurrectionist texts. It is worth remembering what Crimethinc stated in their critique of insurrectionism, namely that

Resistance to oppressors is praiseworthy in itself, but much resistance takes place in support of other authoritarian powers. This is all too familiar in other parts of the world, where illegal violence on the part of fascists, paramilitaries, gangs, drug cartels, mafias, and authoritarian revolutionary movements is an essential aspect of domination. Aspiring authoritarians often take the lead in attacking reigning authorities precisely in order to absorb and co-opt popular unrest. Rioting per se is not always liberating—Kristallnacht was a riot too. (Say You Want An Insurrection, Crimethinc Ex-Workers Collective)

And as Alex Gorrion notes in their extensive critique of the “Invisible Party”:

Much of the antisocial violence in public space, violence which is romanticized in several Tiqqun texts, is not so much a rebellion as an autonomous attempt to impose hierarchies in miniature. It may well be that the majority of casualties in this global civil war are the bodies that have fallen in the civil war being fought within the ranks of the Imaginary Party. (A cartography of The Coming Insurrection, Tiqqun, and their Party)

This “autonomous attempt to impose hierarchies in miniature”, when allowed to develop in a zone temporarily abandoned by the State, takes the form of warlordism. Rule by local mafia, by religious cultists, by the toughest guys on the block. Don’t think Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Disposessed, that’s several stages away – our next chapter will look a lot more like Octavia Butler‘s Parable series.

This poses a challenge which i have not seen answered anywhere on the radical left, namely how to drive out the State and suppress organic tendencies towards warlordism all the while not erecting a new structure of exploitation or repression. A century ago German anarchist Gustav Landauer stated that “The new topia arises to save the utopia, but actually causes its demise,” and insisted that this was unavoidable, part of an eternal historical cycle of moments of freedom alternating with ages of despair. Perhaps. This would seem to go along with insurrectionary pessimism regarding liberated territory.

But warlordism ups the ante, implying that even if no new “topia” is created to save the “utopia”, that ambitious groups of men will come together to profit from an open field – and then just watch how quick utopia can become dystopia. Insurrectionism as it exists, i would suggest, is not nearly pessimistic enough.

While it is true that no one on the left has solved this problem, i actually think insurrectionist naivete is worse than many other approaches, because it seems ideologically predisposed to deny there even is a problem. As it exists at present, insurrectionary anarchist thought thinks away from how to deal with a power vacuum, because its an insurrectionist axiom that creating such vacuums is the entire point. Furthermore, the methods proposed – violence that is intended to be attractive to and imitated by people who do not necessarily have to be anarchists themselves or even aware of insurrectionist ideas – seem particularly fitted to a strategy that does not wish to see further than the first victorious battle with the State.

Just as capitalism has a “natural” ideological form – bourgeois democracy – which it tends towards even though it often fails to get there, warlordism also has a natural ideological form. And it isn’t insurrectionary anarchism.

Fascism is warlordism’s natural ideology. Not the fascism of the Third Reich, of mass society and the Volkswagen, but a fascism that still has place in its heart for an Auschwitz or a Kristallnacht. In their book Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort, authors Matthew Lyons and Chip Berlet pointed out that for many on the far right the goal of a decentralized “social totalitarianism” now held place of preference over the strong State commonly associated with their tradition. Social totalitarianism would be “administered mainly through local governments and private institutions such as the church and the family, rather than the classical fascist goal of a highly centralized nation-state.” (249)

They observed:

While such decentralist policies may seem incompatible with full-blown fascism, we see them partly as defensive adaptations and partly as expressions of a new social totalitarianism. Industrial-era totalitarianism relied on the nation-state; in the era of outsourcing, deregulation, and global mobility, social totalitarianism looked to local authorities, private bodies (such as churches), and direct mass activism to enforce repressive control. (267)

Such “social totalitarianism” may be how the warlord’s power appears in his own eyes, and those of his crew, his church, his business franchise. At “best” this might resemble a high-tech version of euro-feudalism, with a warrior caste living off of a subjugated populace – at worse it seems like a barely-updated version of those white invaders who settled beyond the borders of their colonial states, carrying out their own grassroots genocide off the books and on their own.

Again, Parable of the Talents and Parable of the Sower, gifts from the late Octavia Butler, may be helpful to see what is being talked about. But we don’t need science fiction, such examples abound in this world, right now, and have for some time now. Warlordism is what both fed into and was suppressed by the Taliban in pre-911 Afghanistan. Warlordism is the Lords Resistance Army carrying out genocide in Uganda. Warlordism is Indigenous communities being temporarily abandoned to gangster elements, until people are so desperate that they welcome the colonial police back as the lesser of two evils. And warlordism can exist enmeshed in cities in the heart of the beast, without disrupting capitalism at all – as J. Sakai recounted some ten years ago:

The old Black industrial working class has been largely wiped out, and warlord armies and gangs given informal state permission to rule over much of the inner city at gunpoint. A few years ago i  went home with a comrade. When we got off the bus, all the passengers started walking home down the middle of the street. My friend explained that all the sidewalks were “owned” by one or another dope gang or dealer, reserved for their crew and customers.  You  walked in the street or you got taken down by a 9mm. While the new Black middle class takes itself out of the game, flees the old communities and disperses itself into the suburbs. Why would capitalists need fascism? (When Race Burns Class: Settlers Revisited)

Capitalism may not need fascism, but as i have said, fascism is the ideology warlordism tends towards. With its wild warrior ethos and its scorn for “feminine” bourgeois civility, warlordism has always been the social myth that traditional fascism has dangled before its men – both as an enticement and also as a threat aimed back on “their” women.

While insurrectionism may be at the opposite end of the political spectrum, no two forms of human thought are so unalike that they cannot be affected by one another. Subjectively fierce opponents of fascism can nevertheless produce and promote ideas that objectively are politically entangled with the far right.

Twenty years ago, former Klan chief Louis Beam popularized the concept of “leaderless resistance” within the North American far right. Beam explained at the time that he was in his turn drawing on an article written thirty years earlier by Colonel Ulius Louis Amoss:

the question arises “What method is left for those resisting state tyranny?” The answer comes from Col. Amoss who proposed the “Phantom Cell” mode of organization. Which he described as Leaderless Resistance. A system of organization that is based upon the cell organization, but does not have any central control or direction, that is in fact almost identical to the methods used by the Committees of Correspondence during the American Revolution. Utilizing the Leaderless Resistance concept, all individuals and groups operate independently of each other, and never report to a central headquarters or single leader for direction or instruction, as would those who belong to a typical pyramid organization. 

The far right had the wind in its sails at that time, and some anarchists were so ignorant of history and mesmerized by a klansman promoting the autonomous affinity group model that they declared leaderless resistance to be “one of the most radical and revolutionary concepts ever imagined by a white man” (“Chiapas and Montana: Tierra Y Libertad”, James Murray in Race Traitor #8, Winter 1998). While this was not a common view amongst anarchists, it was not completely isolated, either, and it resonated even with some of those who could not stomach Murray’s proposed alliance with the far right. The naive faith that “collapse” or “chaos”, the breakdown of federal or central state power, will naturally serve the interests of the oppressed is what i’ve been trying to call attention to in this post, dealing with insurrectionists who are really a young tendency today in 2010. But an anterior echo of this naive embrace of “ungovernability” can be found in Murray’s musing from twelve years ago that,

The militias’ grass-rooted nonorganization makes it impossible to believe they could agree amongst themselves long enough to ever set up any revolutionary government structure above the county level. All the better, we have no need to fear an(other) Aryan Republic. The militias will never overthrow the government in the vanguardist style. However, it is within the realm of possibility that they could very well make large portions of North America ungovernable. Whether one would favor such a nonstate of affairs depends to a large degree on how much one has to lose. The residents of Starr County, Texas, south central Los Angeles and north Idaho might agree it would be an improvement.

Needless to say, Murray’s undifferentiated populations of “Starr County, Texas, south central Los Angeles and north Idaho” have no gender, no nation, no “race” or class divisions amongst themselves, or at least none worth mentioning. They’re as anonymous, as identityless, as the ideal subjects (or nonsubjects, or “whatever singularities”) of some insurrectionist texts. But we know that in real life such zones of “ungovernability” are not really ungoverned, they’re just governed in a lawless, arbitrary manner, by whomever has the biggest guns and – more importantly – the most effective social organization – and this latter is often the product of collective identities and power.

There’s an interesting point made in the recent Crimethinc retrospective, which provides an up-to-date corollary to Beam’s aping of the affinity group form. They note that

Even fascists are trying to get in on decentralization and autonomy. In Europe, “Autonomous Nationalists” have appropriated radical aesthetics and formats, utilizing anticapitalist rhetoric and black bloc tactics. This is not simply a matter of our enemies attempting to disguise themselves as us, though it certainly muddies the waters: it also indicates an ideological split in fascist circles as the younger generation attempts to update its organizational models for the 21st century. Fascists in the US and elsewhere are engaged in the same project under the paradoxical banner of “National Anarchism”; if they succeed in persuading the general public that anarchism is a form of fascism, our prospects will be bleak indeed.

What does it mean if fascists, the foremost proponents of hierarchy, can employ the decentralized structures we pioneered? The 20th century taught us the consequences of using hierarchical means to pursue supposedly non-hierarchical ends. The 21st century may show us how supposedly non-hierarchical means can produce hierarchical ends. (Fighting in the new Terrain: What’s Changed since the 20th Century, Crimethinc Ex-Workers Collective)

Such “using non-hierarchical means to produce hierarchical ends” is one way of looking at the kind of exploitation and oppression that can coexist with zones of crisis and with horizontal tactics of social disruption. If this is a spreading phenomenon, it’s because old-style colonialism and imperialism tried to keep a finger in every pie, maximum penetration of every struggle, because if your nation-state wasn’t be there, another would be. This was simply further enhanced in the Cold War era, when Soviet and Chinese imperialism went toe-to-toe with one another, and with the United States. But that was then – while national economies still exist, they’re no longer the corporate homes they once were; production spans continents, and the old national reality of colonialism has given way to neo-colonialism. As capital has imagined itself unmoored from territory, so have the dreams of rebels left and right. As Butch Lee and Red Rover explained:

The previous capitalist world order was bi-polar, with everyone visible massed around opposing poles of oppressor vs. oppressed. It was colonialist vs. colonizer, white vs. black, invader vs. indigenous. But at it’s essence, the growing chaos of the neo-colonial world order is that many different peoples – armed with conflicting capitalist agendas – have been loosed to fight it out. As transnational capitalism hides behind & backs first one side and then the other – or not – to indirectly use the chaos they see no class interest in containing. (Night-Vision: Illuminating War and Class on the Neo-Colonial Terrain, 161)

Or as L.B. explained,

Warlordism is on the rise today because neocolonialism is reshaping the global social order: breaking down national boundaries, “de-settlerizing” settler states, replacing colonial administration of the Third World with local neocolonial structures, raising up new middle classes in the periphery, etc.  (“Some Preliminary Notes on Class Structure” L.B.)

Viewed from the inside and from below, warlordism exhibits all the features of primitive accumulation, of new ambitious classes bootstrapping their own ascent through outright theft and murder. Their dream, of course, is not exodus from the system, but integration into capitalism on more favorable terms.

While warlordism is a particularly raw form of social control, it is actually just a local, mobile prototype of state power. Successful warlords can and do become the rulers of nation states. It is a relatively small step from neo-colonial warlord to neo-colonial dictator when imperialism decides it needs to regularize social life in a particular part of the world. For instance, the Taliban started as a warlord organization, but is now [written in 1999, pre-911! -ST] treated as a national government, praised by some capitalists for bringing commercial “stability” to Afghanistan.  (“Some Preliminary Notes on Class Structure” L.B.)


The rise of warlordism does not imply loss of control by imperialism–far from it. It reflects, instead, adoption of a different type of control, overall more sophisticated than the old colonialism’s relatively-static micro-management of the colonial world. Imperialism is learning that it is much more efficient, and profitable, to let local and regional forces compete for control of markets, for resources and for imperialist approval. There’s nothing like “grass roots” initiative by local oppressors to expedite the extraction of profit. And warlords, grounded in the details of local conditions, have proven their effectiveness in breaking down “obsolete” regimes, or repressing radical activity. (“Some Preliminary Notes on Class Structure” L.B.)

Catch that – from one point of view (that of its victims), warlordism is a “particularly raw form of social control”. But from the point of view of imperialism, of Shell Oil or Blackwater/Xe or the IMF, warlordism is a “more sophisticated” way to extract profit from a world that can no longer be micromanaged.

That newer elements of fascist ideology parallel some of the recent developments in anarchist thought is of course provocative. i can just imagine what turds like Morris Dees would make of this. But rather than suggest any underlying unity between insurrectionists and the “social totalitarianism” of the far right, i think what is revealed are organic attempts by both traditions to grapple with changes in the relationship between capitalism, nation-states, and territory. The fact that people on our side are also thinking this way is good, but the fact that they remain so deeply mired in naive romanticism is a serious deficiency. & as i said before, it worries me.

These notes and this blog post have been fairly choppy, and have relied mainly on quotes drawing attention – perhaps repetitively – to the relationship between neocolonialism, fascism and warlordism. i have failed to include nearly enough real-life examples, and as i said at the beginning, this discussion (on my part, as i believe on the part of most insurrectionists) is divorced from much personal experience. Nevertheless, if you’ve made it this far (and i’m sure most haven’t!) hopefully the above observations, and related texts, will provide some basis for further discussion.


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