Machiavellian Strategic Concepts IV (Conclusion)

11. Hierarchy

The application of subordination to superiors who have their own subordinates creates hierarchy. It may seem obvious that an institution should have a hierarchically defined command structure, but this is not strictly necessary; some institutions have subordination at lower levels but are governed by consensus at higher levels, for example. Stranger organizational forms (for example, where the chain of command is intransitive or context-sensitive) are possible.

But for an institution to be ready for a strategic conflict, subordination at the micro-level isn’t enough; the whole institution needs to be reliable in the same way, so that higher-level pursuit of the overall goals of the institution is possible. In particular,

  1. Personnel with responsibility of deliberating on or analyzing the overall strategy of the institution, formulating general orders, or representing/speaking for the institution as a whole must know whether they control the institution or are subordinate to a superior who controls them. This is important for anyone who acts in a “general” capacity, but doubly so in any situation where the actual leader delegates control to one of the institution’s general officers.
  2. The institution must not permit bottlenecks in the institutional hierarchy (for example: general commands mercenary captain, who commands his lieutenants, who command various mercenary units) unless it can ensure that the subordinates below the bottleneck are loyal to the institution rather than the officer who occupies the bottleneck, and that the officer(s) in the bottleneck has no interests independent from those of the institution.

In other words, there can be no question about who is to be master in the middle of a war. Among many other serious problems, institutions with unstable or ambiguous hierarchies are as destabilized by winning wars as other institutions are by losing wars! If various factions within an institution have incompatible ideas about who should control it or only a loose attachment to the institution itself, then the prospect of collaborating against an external enemy may be all that binds them together.

As a result, winning is the most dangerous time for the leader of such an institution. If he had simply had the foresight to bungle the conflict and remain locked in a stalemate, everything would be okay; but the moment where the external enemy is vanquished and his institution’s power is at its maximum is the perfect moment for a subordinate who effectively runs the institution to turn on him, assert the independence of his followers, and seize control of the other parts of the institution and the spoils of victory at the same time. Thus do rulers who graft powerful external institutions onto their state because they are afraid of losing a war end up losing their throne, as well.

A leader who anticipates this will purge potential internal enemies on the eve of a victory. Lieutenants who anticipate the purge will strike first! Leaders who anticipate the first strike (whether they actually are planning a purge or not) will start to hamstring their lieutenants as victory starts to look likely, and the lieutenants reciprocate by undermining their leader before he can start to hamstring them.

This is a disastrous version of the basic challenge of insubordination: the precise moment when the leader can no longer reliably anticipate the reactions of his immediate subordinates is when his strategy is bringing them close to victory. The entire point of a strategy is to move closer and closer to victory!

The solution is structure the institution to avoid any obvious internal fracture-points which facilitate this kind of revolt, whether those that divide a subordinate part from the top or those that divide it into two mutually estranged halves (of which one could turn on the other). Furthermore, anyone with a position of responsibility in the organization should owe his loyalty and his status to the institution and its leader rather than to (a) his own abilities, (b) his own subordinates, or even (c) his immediate superior.

If he owes his status to his own abilities, then it is typically very easy for him to convince the part of the institution he leads to go rogue. If, for example, he has recruited, trained, and led his own army before, it is very easy to believe he could do it again; if his current subordinates were originally organized as an independent army and later followed into his current allegiance, it is easy to believe they will follow him out again; having previously been offered a powerful role by one regime, it is easy to believe that he will find the same opportunity with another.

Furthermore, his subordinates are likely to think they are successful because of his strengths, not because of the overall value of the institution. His credibility with his subordinates makes it easy for him to order them to turn on erstwhile comrades (which in turn further reinforces the belief within the unit he leads that the unit’s strength comes from the men’s loyalty to him, not from their loyalty to the institution). An officer who owes his status to his subordinates is in a similar position, in that his subordinates follow him because of something he does (and expect everyone else to continue following him if he continues to do it) rather than out of institutional loyalty. The only difference is that “what he does” is cater to their whims.

When an officer owes his position to his superior the risk is that he will turn his subordinates against the institution on behalf of his superior. The more independent a given officer is, the more critical it is that his immediate lieutenants are more loyal to the institution than to him. In a sense this is a corollary to the concept of centrality, and has broader ramifications.

The more central an institution’s chain of command is to its internal system of communication, the more salient superiors’ orders are to subordinates as possible solutions to coordination problems. In general, this helps the institution get things done and promotes subordination. But deciding whether to revolt is also a coordination problem! That is, for any realistic distribution of loyalty to the institution, loyalty to factions within it, and independent interests, whether a member of the institution decides to join a revolt is a question of numbers. If he expects everyone else to revolt it would be suicidal to oppose them, and it would be suicide if he stood up to revolt and no one joined him.

In fact as we know from coordination problems, the will is not enough if it is impossible to coordinate on the way. Perhaps all the subordinates are in favor of a revolt! All they need to do is choose a day to storm HQ and read their manifesto over the intercomm. But if they don’t have a way to choose a day…

Ideally (from the institution’s point of view) the plotters would have no way to communicate about the day they plan to storm HQ. But institutions need some communication if they want their members to do anything: they must, at a minimum, allow superiors to send messages to subordinates so they can give orders. But this would be a plotter’s dream! Even if all of his subordinates have lukewarm feelings about staging a coup, if they have no way to learn that anyone else is uncertain they may see no choice but to storm HQ at the announced time.

If all the subordinates are in communication, on the other hand, this can have a paralyzing effect on their ability to coordinate a coup. When to storm HQ; who should lead the revolt; who should be in, who should be out; what the purpose of the revolt is: an institution would prefer that its members hear zero answers to such questions. But if they hear any, one is the most dangerous number! Better that they hear five, or ten, or ten dozen — loose talk about sedition can’t be good for morale, but it also means that a willing rebel simply can’t find a coup to join. He hears new rumors every day, he doesn’t know which of them to believe, the rumors always turn out to be false… and as time goes on he learns to ignore the rumors and settle down to do his job.

But compare this carefully to what I said in the original discussion of centrality. Permitting a free flow of information in all directions paralyzes subversion when subversion requires decisive coordinated action. When no one act of subversion or insubordination is decisive, when different factions within an organization want to negotiate to find common interests, to trade favors, to gradually gain power within the institution: in these situations the problem is about reciprocity, not coordination, and it is lack of information about potential partners rather than lack of a single salient plan of action that paralyzes cooperation. The difficulty hindering both kinds of subversion at the same time may be part of the underlying explanation of Conquest’s Third Law:

The behavior of any bureaucratic organization can best be understood by assuming that it is controlled by a secret cabal of its enemies.

* (Note)

Conventionally one examines the strategy of an agent or institution through the lens of what it needs to do win rather than what it needs to do to lose. This is true whether one is devising one’s own strategy or attempting to anticipate an opponent’s. However, any strategic analysis can be inverted to derive a failing strategy from a winning strategy.

For example, all of these Machiavellian concepts describe how institutions can achieve the unity and coherence to accomplish its goals in strategic interactions. But if the reader were affiliated with an institution whose goals he did not share, he would still apply all the same concepts — but in an inverted form — to achieve a rather different result.

Part of a series on Strategic Concepts:

  1. Basic Strategic Concepts
  2. Machiavellian Strategic Concepts I: Subordination
  3. Machiavellian Strategic Concepts II: Centrality
  4. Machiavellian Strategic Concepts III: Drilling & Disengagement
  5. Machiavellian Strategic Concepts IV: HierarchyYou are here
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