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When the Pentagon Wants to Predict Unrest, It's Time to Be Unpredictable

A multi-million dollar DoD research project assumes civil breakdown and works to contain dissent. It's time to think outside the box.

by Natasha Lennard
Jun 14 2014, 1:20pm

Photo by Jason Hargrove

It's an attractive time for accelerationism — the brand of Marxism which believes that the collapse of capitalism will inevitably follow from pushing the worst vagaries of the system to their furthest extents — a deterministic faith in both the worst and best case scenarios.

In our crisis-burdened epoch, the popularity of active accelerationism is unsurprising.

While I strongly reject the suggestion that we should worsen current conditions as a prerequisite for radical change, I appreciate that our context provides ample fodder for this worldview. Take, for example, the news this week that the Department of Defense (DoD) has invested since 2008 in a multi-million dollar research program called the Minerva Research Initiative. This spans across universities to monitor global civil unrest, including non-violent political activism.

As international security reporter Nafeez Ahmed noted in the Guardian, one Minerva project at Cornell University aims to determine "'the critical mass (tipping point)' of social contagians by studying their 'digital traces' in the cases of 'the 2011 Egyptian revolution, the 2011 Russian Duma elections, the 2012 Nigerian fuel subsidy crisis and the 2013 Gazi park protests in Turkey.'" Essentially the project wants to know how to better surveil social media and digital communications to monitor unrest.

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As Ahmed points out, one of the more troubling aspects of this research is the inclusion of radicalized but peaceful activists as a focus of observation. "The project explicitly sets out to study non-violent activists," Ahmed noted. Minerva projects have also looked at civil unrest likely to emerge due to climate change. The Pentagon's interest, of course, is not simply observational. The data gleaned from these projects will go towards future efforts to contain social unrest. Under that old canard of national security, the DoD is gathering the tools to contain domestic social unrest and the global resonance of dissent. Each Minerva project has a specific remit, but in sum the initiative aims to provide a full picture of the flows of civil breakdown.

Professor David Price, a cultural anthropologist at St Martin's University in Washington DC, commented for Ahmed's article: "When you looked at the individual bits of many of these projects they sort of looked like normal social science, textual analysis, historical research, and so on, but when you added these bits up they all shared themes of legibility with all the distortions of over-simplification."

The Pentagon plan seems both reactive and predictive: These are restless times and material conditions are getting no better. It almost invites a vulgar yet compelling accelerationism. Even the US military thinks things are getting so bad that unrest is inevitable.

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I'd say times are bad enough already to merit widespread dissent. But efforts like Minerva deserve our attention as possible ripostes to any determinist notions of revolution. Yes, we are hurtling towards environmental crisis and every continent currently plays host to profound political volatility. But the US military is also pouring millions of dollars into research about controlling unrest.

There is something interesting, too, about projects like Minerva insofar as they not only perform a research function, but a control function too. They do the political work of making sure that activists, even explicitly non-violent ones, know that they are of interest to the government. Minerva, since it relies on surveying social movements, prompts obedience (surveillance always does).

Those of us with an interest in spreading dissent might wonder what can be done if millions of DoD dollars are being used to trace, predict and thus control unrest. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, a French philosopher and psychiatrist respectively, proposed a concept of political resistance that might be of use here. It seems plausible that the US military could develop a finely tuned apparatus for containing civil breakdown. But no authority, however powerful, can predict what it cannot trace.

As Price noted, Minerva is predicated on finding "themes of legibility." Deleuze and Guattari, then, suggest that resistance should be about occupying spaces that are illegible to the state. They coined the term "nomadic war machine" to designate that which cannot be pulled into or controlled by the logic of the state, and so is dangerous to it for that very reason. It's a complicated idea, especially in an age where activism is so often based around fighting to be seen, recognized, and heard.

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It is beyond the purview of these paragraphs to address the problematics of political legibility versus illegibility. Suffice it to say, though, that in an age of totalized surveillance, there is an obvious advantage to the sort of dissent that cannot be tracked. What such a "nomadic war machine" might look like is quite impossible to explain: If I could explain such a thing, it too would be politically transparent and therefore researchable by Minerva. Monty Python had it sort of right: "Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition! Our chief weapon is surprise!"

Deleuze and Guattari wrote of the state that "it needs [its subjects] preaccomplished, for people to be born that way, crippled and zombie-like." Their work is a call to experiment with ways of living, relating, and dissenting outside of current frameworks. It might seem esoteric and impractical for times of high-material need and suffering. But when the Pentagon is working on the very same assumptions as determinist Marxists, it might just be the order of the day to put energy into unpredictable types of political disturbance.

Follow Natasha Lennard on Twitter: @natashalennard

Image via Flickr