Theory of Power

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A Theory of Power. Jeff Vail. 2004


An examination of rhizomatic vs. hierarchical power, and how to get from the latter to the former.


By Dave Pollard, [1]:

"Jeff Vail's short, free online book A Theory of Power begins with a series of provocative theses:

  • The best representation of our world, of what 'is', is not matter, but the connections between matter.
  • These connections define 'power-relationships' -- the ability of one entity to influence the action

of another.

  • The 'law' of evolution can therefore be restated as: if new patterns of forces can survive

their impacts with one another, if they tend to hold together rather than tear apart, they then represent a stable collection of power-relationships which survive, self-replicate, and mutate into further new patterns which are in turn subject to the same law.

  • This law applies to physical (matter), biological (gene) and cultural (meme) patterns; all matter and life and consciousness, and their evolution, are 'creatures' of their/our material, genetic and cultural constituents, created for the perpetuation of these patterns and sustained through their stable power-relationships.
  • Because of the evolutionary success of memes (due to their ability to adapt and change much more quickly and successfully than genes), culture has come to play an increasingly dominant role in our planet's power-relationships.
  • Most significantly, the advent of agriculture, which was provoked by climate change (the ice ages) brought about a necessary power shift from the individual to the group in the interest of memes' survival, to the point the individual became largely enslaved to the culture, and the survival of the civilization culture now outweighs in importance the survival of any of its members or communities.
  • A consequence of that has been the advent of the codependent cultural constructs of market and state, and, as agriculture has enabled exponential growth in population and created new scarcities, egalitarian societies of abundance have given way to hierarchical societies of managed scarcity.
  • This hierarchy has been further entrenched with the cultural evolution of technologies that enable even greater self-perpetuation of the memes that gave rise to it, and have led to the 'efficient' subjugation of the human individual to technology -- that's the power-relationship that most supports the survival and stasis of the culture, and under it even those at the top of the hierarchy become slave-hosts to the memes and culture.
  • These memes and culture can now self-perpetuate and thrive more effectively with technology and the artificial constructs of market and globalizations than they could with inefficient and unreliable human hosts, so technology growth is now even outstripping human growth, to the point that humans are becoming commodities and could even become redundant.
  • So: if we are now becoming slaves to the machine-powered perpetuation of memes that are outgrowing their need for us (to the point that although catastrophic global warming and human extinction now seem inevitable, this is not something our meme-culture 'cares' about) can we, the human slaves, thanks to the genetic and memetic evolution of self-awareness, 'liberate' ourselves and defeat the meme-culture before it destroys us? In other words, can we consciously, collectively take control for the first time over power-relationships, and establish new power-relationships that put the genetic survival of the human race (and, hopefully, the survival of all other life on Earth on which that genetic survival depends) ahead of the reckless survival of the Frankenstein 'civilization' culture we have created?

Vail's answer to this final question is a qualified 'yes'. He argues that the way to establish power-relationships that put our genes' interest ahead of memes' is to "confront hierarchy with its opposite -- rhizome -- a web-like structure of connected but independent nodes", borrowing from successful models in nature of such structures. The working units (nodes) of this 'revolutionary' structure are self-sufficient, egalitarian communities, and the concept of 'ownership' in such communities is eliminated to prevent the reemergence of hierarchy.

Rhizome-based structures need to be developed and then institutionalized from the bottom up to replace hierarchical ones, Vail argues, in all areas of our society -- social, political, economic, educational etc. to entrench the power and sustainability of self-sufficient communities and render them invulnerable to re-expropriation of that power by hierarchies. In practical terms, he says:

Power remains distributed to the level of the individual rhizome node through local, functional self-sufficiency—a modern equivalent to the Domestic Mode of Production. In other words, functional self-sufficiency means the ability to produce at the household level at least the minimum necessities for day-to-day existence without relying on outside agents or resources. Self-sufficiency removes the individual rhizome node from dependence on the standard set of outside suppliers. It does not eliminate exchange, but creates a situation where any exchange exists as a voluntary activity. The commodities that each node must provide for itself include staple foodstuffs, energy for heating, basic habitat and small group interaction.

Self-sufficient energy coops, and local permaculture-based food movements are examples of rhizome structures. Such networks are also the most effective means for the dissemination of information on how to make rhizome activities even more effective -- they have much less signal loss than hierarchical methods that require information to flow up and then down controlled and constricted paths. Rhizomes are also, while less 'efficient', more effective and more resilient than hierarchies.

Next, Vail argues that, once established, to defend against attacks from vestiges of hierarchical systems, rhizome networks need to adopt asymmetrical methods -- by reducing the desire of hierarchy to re-achieve power (e.g. by making it difficult or unrewarding to do so on its own terms) and by becoming 'invisible' to the hierarchy (e.g. dropping out quietly and not taking part in the hierarchy's social, political and economic activities). Vail concludes:

A new vision, with individual freedom to pursue arts and spirituality, above the pettiness of bickering for power, may prove possible if we learn to control the powers that have dominated us throughout history. In the spirit of this vision, the message will ultimately fail if forced upon others. Only through personal example, by showing that a realistic and preferable alternative exists, will these concepts succeed on a large scale. We will act as pioneers, who will begin to create diverse rhizome nodes, each one representing an individual’s struggle to solve the problems of hierarchy and human ontogeny. The more we learn and break free from the control of genes and memes, the more success these pioneers will have. Effective tools and practices will spread, and the rhizome network will grow and strengthen. As this network evolves, it will provide a realistic, implementable alternative to hierarchy—an alternative that fulfills our genetic ontogeny and empowers us as individuals. Nature has shown us that the structure of the rhizome can compete with hierarchy and stratification. When combined with an understanding of reality and humanity that makes us our own masters, we may finally learn from the events of the past…and gain control of our future." (


From chapter nine at

The relationship between hierarchy and ownership

The abstract notion of ownership serves as the single, greatest perpetuator of hierarchy. When one steps back and examines the notion of “owning” something, the abstraction becomes readily apparent. Ownership represents nothing more than a power-relationship—the ability to control. The tribal institution of “Ownership by use” on the other hand, suggests simply that one can only “own” those things that they put to immediate, direct and personal use to meet basic needs—and not more. A society crosses the memetic Rubicon when it accepts the abstraction that ownership can extend beyond the exclusive needs of one individual for survival. Abstract ownership begins when society accepts a claim of symbolic control of something without the requirement of immediate, direct and personal use. Hierarchy, at any level, requires this excess, abstract ownership—it represents the symbolic capital that forms the foundation of all stratification. In the simplest terms, in order to destroy the engine of hierarchy, we must destroy the mechanism of ownership. Proposing to destroy ownership may seem impractical, but societies have achieved similar feats before—such as the !Kung tribe’s aversion to status. If a society accepts that hierarchy fails the needs of human ontogeny, then one can argue that ownership—the engine of hierarchy—acts detrimentally to human needs. Like the !Kung taboo on status, a taboo on ownership would represent a serious defeat for hierarchy and all that it represents.

Hierarchical distribution of information is inefficient

Hierarchies become inefficient at information processing as they intensify because the number of close-proximity relays that information must cross to reach from the bottom to the top of the hierarchy quickly mushrooms. Furthermore, Wilson’s SNAFU principle states that the one-directional power-relationships of hierarchy introduce additional, intentional distortion at every relay: underlings skew information to tell their bosses what they want to hear. This process repeats again and again as information works its way up the ladder until eventually the top of the hierarchy has no clue what happens at the bottom. This results in forcing hierarchies to dedicate an ever-larger share of available resources to maintain internal communications, as anyone who has ever worked for a government or large corporation can readily attest.

Establishing Self-sufficiency

“Power remains distributed to the level of the individual rhizome node through local, functional self-sufficiency—a modern equivalent to the Domestic Mode of Production. In other words, functional self-sufficiency means the ability to produce at the household level at least the minimum necessities for day-to-day existence without relying on outside agents or resources. Self-sufficiency removes the individual rhizome node from dependence on the standard set of outside suppliers. It does not eliminate exchange, but creates a situation where any exchange exists as a voluntary activity. The commodities that each node must provide for itself include staple foodstuffs, energy for heating, basic habitat and small group interaction. With necessary items secured, the node has freedom to pursue a vision without being dependent on external, self-motivated entities.

Rhizomatic structures of information distribution

With a foundation of self-sufficiency established, a node can take advantage of a second strength of the rhizome pattern: network. Loose network connections, such as those in rhizome structures, actually demonstrate far more efficiency at information transfer and processing than the close, authoritarian connections of hierarchies, according to complexity theorist Mark Buchanan. The more intense, closely held connections within hierarchy prevent information from quickly spreading among large or diverse groups. The weaker, more distributed connections of a network can more quickly disseminate information to a much broader audience.

Networks of small, independent nodes introduce far less attenuation or distortion in information processing, compensating for their inability to stratify or exert command-and-control to the same degree as hierarchies.

In order to leverage the strength of network, we must undertake voluntary communication and information exchange, partnership-based exchange in locally specialized commodities and services, as well as broader cultural interactions between networks of rhizome nodes. Such interaction can provide many of the benefits of traditional hierarchal economies and political entities without relegating the participant nodes to a subservient relationship. They participate voluntarily, as equals—a status maintained due to the self-awareness of each node regarding the dangers of abandoning their rhizome structure in favor of stratification and hierarchy. Self-sufficient, local nodes, in combination with a few weaker, long-distance links to other nodes create information-processing and economic powerhouses—not recognizable in the contemporary, industrial sense, but instead as vibrant beacons of human potential and fulfillment. Modeled after the same architecture that makes the human brain so powerful, such a system does not represent a return to the Stone Age. Rather, this mirrors the exact architecture, the “small world” theory of networks that cutting edge economists and management gurus would love to implement—if only they could figure out a way to keep the benefits flowing into the hands of the favored few. Rhizome economies, in contrast, utilize this “small world” theory to maintain efficiency and information flow while keeping power concentrated in the hands of the many.

Addressing the issue of physical power though invisibility

We can address physical power in one of only three fundamental ways. One can prevent another power from dominating due to their 1) lack of relative physical strength, 2) lack of desire to dominate, or 3) failure to recognize the opportunity to dominate. The first solution, being stronger than all potential dominators, remains unrealistic for the immediate future. Semi-rhizome structures, such as the American militias of the 1770s can defeat a powerful hierarchy like the British army. This approach, however, requires a readiness for physical confrontation and mobilization of a large rhizome structure. Historically, the mobilization of rhizome polities (American militias, Gallic tribes, etc.) to defeat a state resulted in the amalgamation of this rhizome into the same kind of hierarchal state structure that they were fighting, defeating the purpose of their coalition. In the example of the American Revolution, it seems likely that the second solution, lack of desire to dominate, may have finally decided the conflict. Had the British Empire decided to mobilize all resources, at all costs, to defeat the colonists, a far different outcome may have resulted. This more “diagonal” tactic, addressing the desire of an outside power to dominate, exists as a highly effective solution to the problem of power. Many of today’s remnant hunter-gatherers have stumbled upon this solution. Their inhabitation of marginal territory, such as the tribes of the Kalahari Desert, creates a situation where no outside power wants what they have. Finally, it remains possible to prevent domination by making the rhizome invisible to an outside power. If the sensory apparatus of a state or other power fails to detect something, it seems far less likely to succeed in dominating it. Examples include the Romani gypsies of Europe and North America, 1960’s ‘Back to the Land’ communes, individuals who operate exclusively in a cash economy, etc. Hakim Bey, self-described “guerilla ontologist”, has proposed a variety of “Autonomous Zone” concepts, from temporary festivals to permanent settlements, which explore the invisibility of some structures to the eyes of the state. The approach of invisibility may represent the most realistic solution to the problem of power, at least until the size of a rhizome network provides enough political or physical power to make the other options realistic. In his last, and perhaps finest novel, Island, Aldous Huxley provides a powerful warning to those who would work to foster rhizome: physical power is the Achilles Heel of any society that wishes to work within the bounds of human ontogeny—we must not ignore this lesson."


Clay Spinuzzi:

"Vail makes an unusual argument that is made more unusual because it uses the concept of rhizome in a way that I think directly opposes Deleuze and Guattari's intention. If you've read my review of A Thousand Plateaus and my book Network, you might have some inkling of how startling it is to read Vail's declaration that he'll use the rhizome concept to "illuminate the fundamental clockwork of our minds, bodies, and societies, revealing principles of power-relationships that govern all aspects of what we perceive as reality, from the environment and economics to politics and psychology. It will unravel the bonds that hold humanity in slavery to the patterns of history - and ultimately provide the key to our freedom" (p.3). Vail reads A Thousand Plateaus and sees a foundationalist account of reality. This foundationalist account, like Engels' version of dialectics, characterizes the whole of reality: "The same concept of power-relationships that defines sub-atomic structure also seems to define the larger world we live in - ecologies, societies, and economies. It acts like opening a watch to reveal the works inside" (p.5).

Vail contrasts two "fundamental methods of organization," which are "hierarchy and rhizome" (p.7). And in contrast to Deleuze and Guattari's caution that a rhizome is an antigenealogy and an antimemory (see D&G p.11, 21), Vail takes "a developmental, historical approach in the deconstruction of our world" (p.8). His Chapter 3 provides a brief history of the world, drawn primarily from Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene (which I haven't read). Here, the argument goes something like this: The gene uses organisms to reproduce itself; we organisms are the junior partner in this power relationship, then, controlled by the gene (p.9), evolving in order to ensure the gene's survival. Group entities, or cultures, are meta-individuals - but here, following Dawkins, Vail says that the controlling power is the meme, "the cultural equivalent of the gene" (p.11). And just as genes control organisms to ensure their self-reproduction, memes control cultures to ensure their own replication (p.11). Genes and memes coevolve, but memes are more rapid, flexible, and adaptable; nevertheless, memes interact strongly with genes, triggering genetic functions (p.12). (Although Vail doesn't use the term, the relationship sounds quite dialectic in an Engelsian sense.)

With writing, memes could expand "beyond the linguistic confines of their human host" (p.16). Vail cautions: "We must not, however, forget that memes do not serve humanity - rather, they use us for their propagation" (p.16).


In Vail's account, the evolution of memes led to agriculture, which "ended the genetic evolution of humanity as it existed for millions of years, and finally completed the transition of power over human action from the gene to the meme" (p.19). In agriculture, the meme controls food production and therefore the individual (p.20). Under agriculture, evolution switched from individual to group selection, and "the makeup of our genome froze in the Pleistocene era of hunter-gatherers" (p.21). Technologies, as memes, also "follow a hard-wired path" of "selfish interest" (p.30) - and here Vail tries to be radically symmetrical, but comes across as a technological determinist.

At this point, Vail argues: "The understanding that self-awareness exists to serve the meme breaks that bond of servitude - it acts as the realization of enlightenment. Reread that last sentence," he orders. Have you done that? Great. From a theoretical standpoint, I am extremely dubious. But the good news is that this is the turning point of the monograph, because Vail turns from overarching (and arboreal, in the Deleuzean sense) theory to the more practical question of constructing resilient communities via networked organization.

Vail forges on to describe an alternate arrangement: "The path to stability and sustainability in human society lies in the conscious manipulation of memetic control structures" (p.40), and here he turns to the rhizome, which is hierarchy's "opposite" (p.40). According to Vail, "Rhizome acts as a web-like structure of connected but independent nodes, borrowing its name from the structures of bamboo and other grasses" (p.41). It is incompatible with hierarchy (p.41). (And here, when Vail says "rhizome," I hear "network" in the Ronfeldtian sense.) At the same time, Vail declares that "Rhizome structure has no inherent instability, but it will quickly reorder into hierarchy if we do not address the institutions within our society that serve to perpetrate hierarchy" (p.41). He goes on to discuss rhizomes as the basis for what John Robb would call resilient communities.

At this later, less theoretically ambitious portion of the monograph, Vail is actually describing a particular kind of networked organization. And here, if we set aside the Snow Crash style historical narrative, we can realize some gains. Vail draws on diverse examples to describe how a "rhizomatic" (networked) community focused on individual empowerment might look. The result is a cross of John Robb's resilient communities, Bobbitt's entrepeneurial market-state, and vintage Heinlein. Then again, I think Arquilla and Ronfeldt's work does a much better job of examining the same sort of phenomenon in more qualified, better theorized ways." (