Sunday, October 08, 2006

Time and Tide Wait for No Man

Last time, I made a point that I didn't have time to elaborate on, but I probably ought to. It's not necessarily obvious, and it bears some reflection.

I said: "They (meaning revolutionary movements like al-Qaeda) have about ten years before they either (a) win, or (b) metastasize into fairly conventional criminal syndicates."

It's a pattern we've seen before, in organizations as diverse as the IRA in Northern Ireland and FARC down in Colombia. Both groups started as hard-core revolutionaries, both are now pretty well consumed with self-preservation. And most of that self-preservation takes the form of criminal activites that make their daily bread. And that's not the only place this trend is evident. You can also see it in labor unions, your local PTA, or NASA.

It's called the Iron Law of Bureaucracy.

I can't take credit for it, of course. Credit for this observation belongs to Jerry Pournelle, whose site I link above. But I'll restate it here:

Any organization has two kinds of people working for it. The first kind work for the intended aims of the organization. The second kind work for the organization itself. While organizations tend to be founded by the first kind, eventually they always end up being run by the second kind.

My observation above is a logical extension of this principle.

Any organization, any at all, needs its "organization" men. They're the ones who keep your books straight while the "true believers" are hard at work doing whatever it is that they're supposed to be doing. We've been treated to some stunning pictures from Mars this last week, from a pair of rovers that have far outlived their design lifetimes. Those would never have been possible without the efforts of the men and women who do the scut work of NASA, lobbying Congress for funding, reminding our representatives why their work is important.

But it's important to remember that the scientists and engineers don't run NASA. The bureaucrats do.

No organization is immune. And this has some interesting consequences for revolutionary movements.

Revolutionaries have a sticky problem. In order to overthrow the existing regime, they need the wherewithal to do it: guns, bombs, recruits, facilities. To get those, they need to have people on staff who can get that stuff for them, and manage it. In short, they need Organization Men.

While the movement is young, the original founders are still in charge, and their hand-picked men are in all the important leadership spots. So, all's good. And if they win, they will all move on to posts in the new order, so it's all still good. But if they don't win ...

That's when things get interesting. Revolutionaries have a way of coming to bad, violent ends. So, who ends up getting promoted, when the alter Kampfern start getting fitted for English hempen neckties?

You guessed it: the Organization Men. And why not? They've proven their ability to handle affairs, haven't they?

But here's the problem: they work first for the organization, then for its goals, in that order. Once you have a critical mass of Organization Men in the upper ranks, most of the activity of the group becomes geared towards support and maintenance, with only lip service being paid to the "real" cause.

I mean, what is FARC today but a glorified cocaine cartel? And when was the last time the IRA was politically meaningful? For most of the men in those groups, it's a paycheck, not about changing the world. Not anymore.

And absent a major victory, al-Qaeda is headed down the same road. It's an inevitability. And they're farther down the track than many Americans realize. Remember, they got their start in the early '90s, right after the first Gulf War. Say, fifteen years of organizational history.

And, in the last five years, they've suffered fearful losses amongst their True Believers...

You know, when I consider the amount of paperwork it takes to do anything really worthwhile over here, I can almost feel sorry for them.

Then again, not really. They are welcome, and more than welcome, to as much self-induced agony as they can muster. I wonder if anyone's ever translated Robert's Rules of Order into Arabic? That ought to put a couple of handfuls of sand in the gears...

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