by Lucio Caracciolo
Originally published on Limes, n. 11/2023, «Le intelligenze dell’intelligence»
1. Geopolitics is just one of the tools at the disposal of intelligence services. It was formerly ignored or put aside, at best concealed as a stowaway in the third-class carriage. Nowadays, it is frosting smeared on analytical cakes made for the powerful to taste. Because really applying intelligence requires vision. It’s the connection of contradictory points of view, the specific contextual evaluation of capabilities and intentions guided by sentimental intelligence and not subservient to artificial-statistical shorthand aimed at confirming (hypo)theses.
Unlike geopolitical analysis, the work of the services involves a political client who expects to be told not so much what is happening – he usually presumes to know – but how it will end. His is practical curiosity. If he has an idea of where he is heading, the powerful will gain a competitive advantage that interests him: to remain powerful and expand his field of influence.
Anticipating is what intelligence in services is all about. So defined because they serve, or should serve, to guide the choices of decision-makers. The problem is: but how do I anticipate if I don’t know what is of interest to the client, who in the best case will glance at the proposals page, reduced to distributing the probabilities among three scenarios? The reflex of the obliging, non-serving analyst is to play it safe, saying that any outcome is possible. That way, you avoid the risk of being proven wrong and enjoy the certainty of always having been right.
Finally, the problem of problems: the indeterminacy of the national interest. This is an acute deficit for Italian services – even more so for the Germans, since they operate in a defeated and guilt-ridden State, and are thus deprived of strategic autonomy. As for the third Axis link – Japan – the impression is that, refractory to the stigma of guilt, the Japanese are is immune to the disease.
2. One can excel in precise operational analysis, but if an intelligence agency lacks strategy, then it also lacks the parameters to evaluate what it produces. It can foil attacks or adverse penetrations in the industrial, financial, and technological systems, and it can counter threats in cyberspace. Then again, the practice prevails whereby each takes care only of their own problems, to protect oneself against incursions from the neighbour next door, as it were. To say nothing of the ‘allies’ who, except for the close Anglosphere family of the Five Eyes (US, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand), exchange less than the bare minimum. One wonders why the Five Eyes are not Ten Eyes, as the statistically confirmed rule would have it that every human enjoys double vision. Deep Throat has this to say about monocular services: ‘We only need one eye, the one that serves to count the suspect’s resources. It is better not to bet on what he intends doing with them, in order to avoid ruining our careers with wrong predictions’.
No wonder then that among intelligence analysts the fittest are the standard-bearers of capacity, tending to expand its semantic sphere beyond the banal arithmetic of resources. The so-called new technologies offer them formidable advantages while masking their shortcomings. The computational approach reassures – whoever has the best semi-automatic machine wins the race to fish in the great sea of information. But the more you have, the harder it is to interpret and classify what you have. Especially if you lack the frame of reference, and the unit of measurement to evaluate it.
In the world of intelligence, there is no Sèvres standard, no universal yardstick. For this reason, those who think they embody that universal yardstick suffer, being overwhelmed by the mass of data erupted by the various applications on the Net and the flood of (a)social media. There is little left that is truly secret, and that little is not secret to millions of authorised eyes, especially American ones, who are overflowing with data that they do not know how to connect. The accumulation of information about the capabilities of others shrouds the intentions of those others in fog. The Italians grieve for themselves, seeing with both eyes that their security is totally dependent on the American system, even if the ecumenical tic inherited from Holy Mother Church steers them towards neutralist shores.
The Italians compensate for the modest volume of information they are privy to with their innate talent of reading into the hearts and minds of others. They offer themselves as friends of the suspect. This method works well on the threshold of Chaosland, between the Arabias, Turkeys and other Levants that inhabit it. The speciality of the house is served behind and inside the house: Italian-style HUMINT, that even other Latin species are unable to imitate. Human intelligence in Italian sauce is much sought after by Italy’s competitors dressed as partners, but it is rarely reciprocated. In the intelligence market, the use value of the Italians dominates over exchange value. It’s the fault of the strategic deficit that devalues the Italians.
3. Intelligence analysis proceeds by questions and answers, with the emphasis falling on questions. It’s better to have intelligent questions and stupid answers than the other way round. The wrong answer can be corrected, the off-centred question drowns you. Well-posed questions skim and help to order the data, to deliberate the gist that counts. Beware, however, of the excess of right answers confirmed over time. They induce laziness. They kill the imagination, until shock wakes you up.
Intelligence is human, and therefore relative. There is no ever-winning, wild-card algorithm. We Westerners know something of this, having been surprised by strategic events that were neither foreseen nor intended – above all, the suicide of the USSR heralded by the opening of the Berlin Wall. This opening has been attributed to the slip of a distracted local regime leader while it was nothing more than the predictable dummy point in the binary scheme of the Cold War, too elegant to conceive of its fatal tear. The rule discouraged off-the-cuff questions. It was dangerous to indulge in thinking out of the box, which for the adventurous practitioner resulted in box-breaking within the apparatus. From this point of view, the spy world remained the same.
The trouble is that after the pragmatic short prayers, we hastily shoved ourselves into another box, that of the Washington consensus and the liberal-democracy paradigm of humanity. The end of History, the world is flat, and all that. Then we discovered that the planet is full of wrinkles. It mocks our certainties. And that it is, if anything, the West that is flattening out, plunged into a crisis of meaning that will disrupt its culture today and its structure tomorrow if we do not have the courage to denounce and fight the drift that is taking away our culture.
Intelligence does not inhabit a monad. It is hypersensitive to the environment, its amniotic fluid. When culture degrades, the first victim is the collective intelligence within which that special instrumental branch that is State intelligence lives or survives.
The hegemonic transition from one order to another, normally a phenomenon that takes place over centuries, this time seems vertical. America is shaken by an identity crisis not because of the siege of a potential successor but because such a successor does not exist. Chaosland extends in space and time. So much so that we have moved from the ‘global world’ to the ‘global South’. From the fantasy of omnipotence to the unbridled oxymoron that a part makes the whole. It is the dawn of a new surrealism, unfortunately not artistic but existential. The future of the West will depend on our ability and intention to cope with the collapse of our values on the world market and to adapt to the lane change forced upon us by the pressure of the robust, adolescent humanity knocking on the door of home, where the custodian of senility resides. We will have to make intelligent compromises with the global South in order to save what remains of the heritage of knowledge and wonders hoarded over centuries of Western hegemonies. What other strategic mandate could motivate the services, that are still the sediments of culture as well as the force orientating action?
The cultural degradation of the West starts at the top, from American universities. These are already the greatest producer of culture, hence of power, of the now disoriented American empire. Not too many years have passed since the best of science and technology germinated in the fruitful exchange between Europeans and North Americans. Today this has turned toward the East.
For too long the lofty peaks of the Ivy League have been erupting ashes. Defensive dystopias such as political correctness or the cancel culture crush present, past and future on a single time that by definition obscures the future from view. From the surfeit of utopias, we have precipitated into self-flagellation due to sins that are incapable of expiation – be they racism, slavery, or colonialism – all attributed to the Western White Man, who seems not to have developed from Aristotle onwards. It’s a tragic leap, a wholly subjective reality. What are we to make of intelligence, of any intelligence, in this round of recriminations? Perhaps it’s not the stupidest of questions.
We propose an ambitious response: to reverse the decadence, we must investigate the intersection between the crisis of cultural supply and the decay of demand. Where the mania for the mathematical model transferred via copy/paste from the hard sciences to the supposed social sciences meets and embraces woke ideology. ‘Science’ and anti-science: here the use or omission of inverted commas matter as they signal that in Model Land – to borrow Erica Thompson’s phrase – there are not concentrations of reality in mathematical form but different ideas of society and power relations, of which wokeism is an extreme version. Model Land and wokeism force (un)thinking into a sealed box: a fatal crasis. These become unbreakable truths, protected by the paroxysmal normative infusion that shields their superior morality from the assaults of reality. Mutual fertilisation incites the destruction of knowledge and the humiliation of intelligence.
We state in advance that we do not believe at all in the indissolubility of the odd couple, especially in the eternity of woke culture, foolishly attached as we are to the pleasure of culture and the erratic march of history.
4. We take our cue from Model Land, that is, from the simplification of reality via mathematical formalisation intended to predict the future. It’s a scintillating temptation for the practical analyst nestled in the Deep State. In Thompson’s definition, ‘If data is the new oil, then models are the pipelines – and they are also refineries’. Above all, they offer comfort to those who wield them as these models tend to reproduce the sometimes unconscious assumptions that underlie the values of those who make use of them, values that are incommensurable by definition. Each revelation of the model is valid within its own sphere. Thompson states: ‘More than predicting the future, they help to create the future as active participants in a social thinking process. Models have power’. That is why they attract. But there are exceptions.
At the Office of Net Assessment, a practical intelligence laboratory directed by the legendary Andrew Marshall aka Yoda between 1973 and 2015 and empowered by the Pentagon to think outside the box, computers were forbidden. For Yoda, mathematical models are deviant because they comfort the user’s cherished assessments, and they cannot take into account the intangible variables that fuel real conflicts either. Beginning with the unknown unknown that derails proud scientific equations. Paul Bracken, a scholar of ‘net assessment’, explains: ‘There seem to be two kinds of people in the world: those who build mathematical models, and those who focus on the world. The two groups usually don’t talk to each other. Each plays to a different audience. The modeler gains status by impressing other modelers and giving lectures at professional societies. Those who focus on the world usually don’t go to such meetings’.
When applied in the context of human power relations, models turn the subjective into the supposedly objective. They dress up as ‘science’ evaluations induced by the group culture of this or that technocracy. Too bad that ‘the social and political content of models is at least as important as their mathematical and statistical content’. No computer can (yet?) produce models that take into account the emotional degree of rationality, differentiated according to context. How do you quantify, for example, the assumption ‘love your enemy’? The laws of physics apply ceteris paribus – everything else being equal. This is the opposite of historical reality, which is eternal flux. Like squeezing a film into a frame. We geopolitical analysts are strictly Heraclitean, aware that we can never bathe in the same river twice. We are happy to be so, because specificity – difference – is the colour of life. Only death makes us equal, but the model to express it is not ready yet.
The smart analyst’s objection: fine, but now there is artificial intelligence. It is an autonomous system: let it decide, I have nothing to do with it. Really? Patterned algorithms incorporate the preferences of those who wish to use them. They do not cover the uncanny that dominates fluid social relations and marks the border between Model Land and Reality Land, spaces that never coincide. Rather than worrying about Intelligence approaching human intelligence, we should prevent our intelligence from descending to the artificial degree – a degree that is nothing but inferior.
From the Weapons of Math Destruction – algorithms and models, according to Cathy O’Neil – to woke religion. From the supply of certainties from above to the demand of certainties from below. Always definitive and self-confirmed in their respective communities, these certainties neither require verification nor tolerate refutation. The two vectors intertwine halfway, perhaps without realising it. They are equally culture-degrading and dogmatic, and therefore fanatical. In the case from of supply from above, fanaticism is silent – it is the arrogance of the scientist in Model Land. In the loud case of demand from below, decibels count in the disputes of everyday reality. We would not be surprised if this turned into civil war, given the strong degree of intolerance shared by both supergroups.
5. Wokeism is the karma of the suicidal West. A lemma introduced from the African-American vernacular, it stands for ‘awake’. It spread through the Black Lives Matter movement. Perhaps it has deeper roots in the Americanised Protestantism of the seventeenth and eighteenth century, that of the Great Awakenings, calls to conversion, pledges of redemption. Instead of promoting assimilation, the current ‘awakening’, which arose in America from progressive quarters, has distilled by heterogenesis an ultra-identitarian synthesis that divides society into tribes based on skin colour or self-determined gender, in zero-sum competition. It is self-segregation by race or ethnicity. Even in primary schools, where blacks stand with blacks (in vindication), whites with whites (in atonement), Hispanics with Hispanics (in search of authorship), while the mestizos are left to their own devices. They call them ‘affinity groups’. We would call it ‘apartheid’. One in which the discrimination is carried out by the discriminated against.
Race re-emerges as a criterion for social and personal classification. Occidentalist universalism is cast aside, while micro- or macro-communitarianism triumphs. Group identity – gender, race, lifestyle – reduces the individual to a member of his or her community, to stateless potential. Communication is all within the tribe. Comforting one another is done among like-minded people, through slogans, without exaggerating in humour, if anything exaggerating in censorship and self-censorship. From US universities, the fashion is spreading to Europe, much less or not at all elsewhere. From being an agglutinative protest movement, this peculiar tribalism is becoming a geopolitical marker. From Africa, China or Russia, the woke wave engulfing America is seen with bewilderment mixed with malignant glee at yet another confirmation of the superpower’s will to impotence.
French scholar Olivier Roy has diagnosed the crisis of the notion of culture, expressed by the end of utopias and the paroxysmal extension of normative systems: ‘Today’s protest movements are all defensive. Everyone lives as belonging to a threatened minority whose rights and protected spaces (safe spaces, gated communities) must be defended. The great universalist utopias are dead or survive in radical forms of despair – terrorisms of all kinds. […] Millenarianism has turned into Apocalypse. The fight against climate change is no great utopia at all, but only an attempt to curb the Apocalypse, which others await under other names. The only thing that fills this emptiness of hope little by little is a system of rules, prohibitions and bureaucratic procedures that the “Internet miracle” has only displaced by making everyone into a bureaucrat and a little censor of oneself and others. The alternative is not to exist.’
The variations on the theme – political correctness and cancel culture – strike, via going viral on social media, at the humanistic foundations of Western civilisation, assuming it exists (and resists). The Greco-Roman heritage (white supremacism avant la lettre) is under fire. The different types of humanism in general too. The distance from the American departments of Classics to Europe’s own academia is indeed short. Material cancellation (cutbacks in funding, compression of teaching) is cutting an unprecedented rift in the homeland of classicism that is already dividing generations. Micro-identities destroy historical identity. Farewell Civis. We will no longer be able to say, like T. S. Eliot did in 1957, that ‘we are all […] still citizens of the Roman Empire.’
In the flattened West committed to cancelling its cultural heritage, exercising loving intelligence is the exception. We are getting used to communicating between those who think alike while excommunicating those who see things differently. It is difficult to love the enemy if one does not love oneself. It is impossible to compose meaningful analyses if one is self-centred to the exclusion of all that is the Other. The real is no longer the whole. Better, the whole is abolished.
Intelligence agencies do not inhabit Mars, even though Elon Musk would like to send them there. They breathe the air of this time, suffer from it, adapt to it, rarely rebel against it. In times of Big War, the mixture of modelling and wokeism can prove deadly.