Small Wars Journal

The Constrained and Unconstrained Visions and Resistance Groups

Fri, 11/15/2019 - 2:58am

The Constrained and Unconstrained Visions and Resistance Groups

Daniel Riggs

Who Should We Support?

One of the more provocative concepts in Unconventional Warfare (UW) study is the Feasibility Assessment (FA).  The FA is a means to decide whether a resistance group in a foreign country merits US Support.  While it is somewhat malleable, the Army’s UW Manual, ATP 3-05.1, does provide some rough guidance and criteria to judge whether to support a resistance group.  The FA examines a resistance group’s strategic importance, weighs its effect on the balance of power, the inherent risk of the operation, the specifics of the geography and demography of the contested area, and whether networks have been established (ATP 3-05.1, 2013, 34).  It also implores planners to consider the possibility of contact, capability of leadership and guerilla force, and further examines risk and reward (ATP 3-05.1, 2013, 45).  The FA determines whether we can.  However, it does not indicate whether we should.  While doctrine does discuss examining shared goals and cooperation between the provider and the resistance, neither of these necessarily provide an insight into the nature of a movement.[i]  Planners should care about this.  Scandalous resistance groups receiving US support reduce the ability for international cooperation, regional trust, and the ability of future policy makers to support worthy causes. 

One means to quickly ascertain the nature of a resistance movement is whether they possess a constrained or unconstrained vision.  It is a concept articulated by Thomas Sowell in A Conflict of Visions, and it helps to identify the trajectory and motives of a person or movement.  In the book Sowell explains the two visions, how they contribute to political change, and how they compete with one another.  The following will argue groups with the constrained vision are suitable for US support as their objectives and subsequent governance will be limited, concrete, and understandable, in contrast to the unconstrained.  It will further argue this grounding helps to prevent the chaos often seen from revolutionary groups who possess an unconstrained vision. 

What Visions are and Why They Are Important

Sowell defines visions as a pre-analytical cognitive act serving as the foundations upon which theories are built (Sowell 2007, 4).  They are the starting point for any further analysis to include theory development.  They serve as the initial causal and cognitive azimuth check, but they are not the outcome of analytical thought.   Instead, in Sowell’s words, they are the initial hunches upon which theories are subsequently developed.  It is from an initial vision that we determine how we conceive of the world, the problems within it, and how we might solve identified problems.  Visions are a part of all human understanding and academic disciplines with Sowell providing examples in the hard science (e.g., Einstein and his theory of relativity) in addition to the soft sciences. 

To see how this manifests consider two of political sciences’ major theorists: John Locke and Karl Marx.  Both started with their respective perceptions/hunches of the world order and their subsequent writings articulated these visions culminating in their respective theories of classical liberalism and communism.   Their works defined visions of how we ought to govern (i.e., a social vision).  While there is a great deal of originality to these two, both men are echoing a version of the same debate occurring before and after their writing.  It is a debate that will continue after our own lives: should we follow a constrained or unconstrained visions?   

The first of these visions, the constrained, falls in line with the previously mentioned John Locke and other classical liberals.  It asserts human nature is flawed and fixed and the question is (1) how do we erect institutions to contain our flaws and (2) how do these institutions permit us to live in the best possible society given the fallen character of human nature[ii] (Robinson, 2008).  It takes as a given we are at a bit of an aptitude deficit.  The problem to overcome is how do we operate within this set of given biological, evolutionary, and epistemological constraints. 

The question may arise how do those with a limited vision of man assume any change is possible or even feel compelled to act?   If one were to travel to the absolute extreme end of the constrained vision, then one would find people believing no choice exists.  But, this is the extreme and not representative of the majority of those with the constrained vision who do not argue for the absence of action.  Those involved in rebellions, insurgencies, and resistance groups are not inherently unconstrained despite the fact they are looking to create change.  One who possesses a constrained vision does not mean he is content with the status quo.  Nor does it preclude them from planning and being involved in social improvement (Sowell 2007, 71).  The notable conservative Edmund Burke, who was skeptical of man and what man could deliver via its governing bodies, stated a government without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation (Sowell 2007, 72).   The constrained vision’s central principle is evolution (Sowell 2007, 72) but an evolution guided by historical precedent, tradition, and fallibility. 

The unconstrained is the opposite.  Whereas the constrained version sees itself affected by pre-existing restrictions the unconstrained doesn’t.  It posits human nature is malleable, and people’s lack of wisdom and nobleness (Robinson, 2008) are the cause of suffering.  This vision doesn’t believe preexisting conditions (e.g. man’s nature) are the reasons for current inefficiencies.  Human nature and the evolutionary inheritance are not as binding as we think they are.  The problem is not the game (i.e. human nature) but the player (i.e. unrefined man).  The solution is to put the right people in charge to create the right institutions, and all these problems should dissipate (Robinson, 2008).  The solution of empowering intelligent technocrats and engineers carefully dictating decisions from on top will be the key to solving problems bedeviling society.

Ultimately why should the ideas of visions concern us?  Sowell claims these visions have manifested themselves in the ruling inclinations of leaders, revolutionaries, technocrats, politicians, etc. for centuries.  If this is true, then policies based on a certain vision of the world have consequences which spread through society and reverberate across generations; they would set the agenda for both thought and action, and fill in large gaps in individual knowledge (Sowell 2007, 7).  For Sowell any manifestation of political change or action is going to follow one of these visions (or a slight variant of one).  The reason to understand these should be apparent as they provide a predictive capability of possible future action of resistance and an understanding of what motivates those in in a resistance group.  While the visions are opposite, both serve as guides to disaggregate complexities of the world (Sowell 2007, 1) and provide a glimpse of insight into the way the world works and how people act.

Why We Should Prefer a Constrained Group

To flesh out this idea of visions and their consequences consider the different outcomes of the French and American Revolutions.  They were a few years apart, and tossed off the yoke of monarchical rule.  Both employed Thomas Paine, and liberal writers and philosophers informed both.  Yet France degraded to such a point the Third Estate, those whom the revolutionaries sought to liberate, constituted two thirds of the victims during the Reign of Terror (Llelywn and Thompson).  Episodes like the Drowning at Nantes, where thousands of suspected royalists including many priests, nuns, and children, was commonplace.  In contrast, the years following the American Revolutionary War were not close to the chaos France experienced.  So why was the American experience more civil than the French?  The explanation is the constrained vision provided a tempered approach to inform the founding fathers. 

The initial strength of the constrained vision is its starting point.  The constrained understand attaining utopia is impossible and the process for getting there tragic (e.g., Killing Fields, Holocaust, Soviet Class War, etc).  A constrained movement is more realistic.  There is no social deliverance or expectation of creating conditions for it.  It will not promise (nor seek) utopia. It is avoids utopian traps of the unconstrained movement whose end goals and tactical operations to achieve amorphous ends inevitably obscured by a lack of clarity (e.g., French Revolution to achieve liberty, equality and fraternity, War on Terror to eliminate terror, etc.).  The constrained vision avoids wading into areas of ambiguity and instead focusses on human nature.  The managing political unit may require change through violence; however, following victory the goal will be the rejection of the intentional planning of the whole system (Sowell 2007, 72).  Instead of an intentionally planned system with prescriptive measures for all daily conduct, the system in place will focus instead on setting up rules/laws and institutions guarding against our baser selves.

In practice this would be the implementation or re-codifying of judicious rules and procedures informed by historical precedence (i.e., this is what has worked in the past) and limiting man.  It understands man’s nature is predisposed to temptations of avarice, wrath, pride, etc.  Given an opportunity, many in power would manipulate systematic flaws allowing wide sweeping change for nefarious ends or for great intentions that fail to pan out.  Instead the focus is forming defined political bodies and articulating limited roles and responsibilities for the governing to avoid abuses.  The mechanisms to enforce this can be a separation of power, elections, constitutions, and other manner of legislative limitations intended to restrain the worst of the worst (Robinson, 2008).  The goal is making sure rulers, legislators, and those in power are restrained in what they are able to do (Robinson, 2008).  The constrained project is built around a basic skepticism of human nature and man’s capability.

The figures behind the American Revolution articulated this vision as well as any group in history.  They proposed the establishment of institutions and laws to mitigate the abuses inflicted upon them by a legislative body with a blank check.  They didn’t necessarily view the British as exclusively the problem.  The problem was the unconstrained role of the British Parliament.  Columbia trained historian Dr. Tom Woods (2019) identifies the following end states for the Revolution and it strongly echoes the constrained vision:

  1. No legislation without representation.[iii]
  2. Smaller units of governance are within their rights to withdraw from a larger one when the constitutional contract is not honored.[iv]
  3. Articulation, development, and publishing of a strict constitution.[v]

These guiding principles were specific, concrete, and attempted to limit the ambitions of those with a scientific or sociopathic desire to perfect man or create utopia.  A bonus was each principle could be clearly and concretely explained to colonists to build support during the conflict.  Most critically, following the conflict the execution of these goals was realistic.  It understood limited man and sought to work within this construct.    

The Unconstrained Vision: Mad Scientists Working in the Their Labs

If the constrained is preferable, what makes the unconstrained inferior?  Should we desire to rise above our base selves and not assume our nature is constant?  This hurdle does not deter the unconstrained, and the intention of their political project specifically is to overcome it.  Often it starts from a noble place to give hope and purpose to the dispossessed.  However, even with pure intentions, unconstrained movements and missions place themselves into impossible positions at the outset thereby setting conditions for economic stagnation and societal disorder we see with these efforts movements (e.g., Operation Iraqi Freedom and the Neocons, Lenin and the liberation of Russia, etc.).  The reasons are the following: the goals can be vague and aspirational, the leaders often fail to account for human failings (thereby allowing their baser selves to arise or inviting in sociopaths who take the reins of the movement), and the individual psychology of the unconstrained does not allow for the humility necessary to improve what is wrong.  The starting point for the unconstrained vision is a good point as any to see why these movements often go off the rails.

Utopia, not alteration, is at the end state of these unconstrained efforts (e.g.. Khmer Rogue).  After all they are trying to raise man above his base self.  The problem with utopia is it something imagined, highly contingent on certain probabilities lining up, and requires no oppositional pushback for success.  Oftentimes these utopian constructs presuppose an idealization of a particular ideology (religious or political which has never existed or has been postulated for purpose of a thought experiment) and try to manifest it on earth.  Consider resistance movements promising a new society where there will be an equitable distribution of resources and outcomes while supported by collective ownership coupled with a command-and-control economy.  This will “inevitably collide with a ‘natural-born desire for autonomy,’ individual freedom and choice and natural differences in ability, interests and preferences within any group of people (which) leads to inequalities of outcomes and imperfect living and working conditions that utopias committed to equality of outcome cannot tolerate” (Shermer, 2019). Inevitably, conflict and terror arise due to these inequalities.  This would also be the case with any religion attempting utopia.  After all the machinations, these unconstrained groups end further behind from where they started, and their road to utopia ends up being paved with the bodies of “the wreckers” and class enemies.

Goals aside, the tendencies of those leading unconstrained movements is as critical to examine.   To Sowell, the unconstrained believe their vision to change man is obvious and if one is standing in the way of it, either he is incredibly stupid, utterly uniformed or simply dishonest; it borders the impossible for someone to have reached a different conclusion (Robinson, 2019).  To the unconstrained the problem isn’t human nature.  It is a scientific problem.  All that needs to happen is to control all variables.  Unfortunately, these variables are the human beings and long standing institutions of a society.  The opposition becomes precipitation wiped off the beakers during the experiment, not human beings. [vi] They are an annoyance.  The opposition becomes easily other-ed, dehumanized, and thrown away as the unfortunate consequences of progress.  To the unconstrained, what sensible person would stand in the way of progress and a better life?  The explanation is only a rabid animal or a societal reprobate.   To them it would be the same as someone walking on stage during a piano recital and mashing the keys while the pianist was attempting to bring joy to the audience.   

In this experimental vein previous utopias failed, because the engineers did not have the right technique or variable for that time and space.  Or they believe failure is because they were not the ones managing the process; had they been in charge outcomes would have been different (Sowell-Interview).  It does not seem illogical Lenin felt the same way about Marx, Mao felt the same about Lenin, Castro felt the same away about Mao, Pol Pot felt the same way about Castro and so on.  The previous practitioners were wrong because they didn’t possess the modern insights they possessed.   

These groups are also oriented in a way that precludes knowledge of the past and practices inherited from tradition.  This “home renovation” knocks down the load bearing walls which provide the glue (i.e., mores, traditions, customs) holding a society together.  To many of them (see the writings of Mao and Lenin as examples) the country they are overpowering and its adjacent customs are irrational and stupid (Woods, 2018) because they are part and parcel, one and the same.  The personal is the political and detangling the two is impossible.  The only solution is demolition.  Unfortunately, this mindset takes for granted (and dismisses) the presumptive authority of the past and that moral norms can be substituted for the pure reason of progress (Woods, 2018) and its complementary ideology.  They fail to realize the inheritance from the past might be the result of trial and error and not mere superstition which has morphed into oppression.  The unconstrained vision, even with the best of intentions, is an effort doomed to repeat the tragedies of prior utopian experiments. 

Polish Solidarity and the Constrained Approach

The US has done well when it has supported groups with a constrained vision.  The most recent and successful example of this was Solidarity in Poland during the 1980s.  This was a group that may have done more than any other to defeat the Soviet Union.  Emerging in 1980 under the leadership of Lech Walsea Solidarity stood in firm opposition to the USSR and its satellite states.  It argued that the individual as a moral person was the source of integrity and conscience, and these protesters and workers (i.e., the proletariat) in a Marxist system didn’t need the tutelage of the communist party (Kreisler, 2000).  It was the existential and philosophical threat to the Soviets. 

One of the Reagan Administration’s most enduring contributions to the world was the support to this group that paved the way for the end of the Soviet Union and emancipation of half the world.[vii]  It was a movement that wanted freedom from abuse, representation, and contractual obligations between the governing and the governed.  It was not a group seeking utopia.  Lech Walsea, stated his desire not to remake society but provide a realistic solution to exercise basic human rights: “We do not want to overthrow the government, we do not want to push the party aside…undermine our country’s alliances.  We want to improve our condition within the framework of pluralism” (Jones 2018, 173).  The demands and overall narrative echoed something John Locke or Alexander Hamilton might have written.  Most importantly it was a group an American audience could support easily as it reflected their own views and experience (e.g. American Revolution and its constrained vision).  The American audiences were not being asked to support a Fascist or Theocratic movement but one that was repeating their own Creation Story.

The aftermath of Solidarity’s victory ushered in the peaceful return of self-determination to countless Eastern and central European states over the next few years.  The streets of Warsaw were not Paris of the 1790’s.  It was prosaic.  It was not mayhem, nor was it utopia.  The image of Walsea being carried on the shoulders of Poles in 1989 was a moment and a victory for free people worldwide.  Poland was an infinitely better place following the success of Solidarity and may have provided the unintended start to end the worst totalitarian state of the 20th century. 

Moving Forward

No support to resistance will ever be perfect.  But identifying groups who pose the best means for not only success, but stability as well is crucial.   Decision makers and planners should not be content with finding a group to just achieve strategic ends.  In world affairs, nothing appears to provoke as much ill will and long term disdain towards a foreign country after they have provided less than intelligent support to a resistance movements that turn totalitarian or towards carnage.  The nation receives a black mark in the international community, damages any moral standing, and may make it difficult for future leaders to agree to support by resistance movements.  In a world dominated by narratives it is critical to formulate narratives showing the United States is measured and moral in their assistance, not visceral and malignant.  Groups becomes feasible when they are constrained. 

End Notes

[i] Consider the example of US support to certain Syrian groups.  While they have met certain strategic criteria, they were certainly not worthy of US Support. 

[ii] Sowell does not couch this in religious terms.  

[iii] Smaller, localized bodies were more responsive and empathetic.  In addition the smaller, local bodies would be far more accountable than Parliament in far off London.

[iv] It is critical to note here the word contractA contract is an inherently limiting document clearly articulating exactly what is to be expected from each party.

[v] The colonists were weary of the unwritten constitution in England.  In practice, they were subject to the will and act of Parliament, not prescriptive and documented duties of the state.  

[vi] This has been adapted from a similar analogy used by public intellectual Michael Malice

[vii] Ken Jowitt in an interview with Harry Kreisler articulated this brilliantly.  While the whole interview is worth the time the following excerpt encapsulates this idea: “And I think that was the undoing of communism, its inability to recognize in moral terms and in political terms the individual.  You had Lech Walesa and an Adam Michnik. And what did they stand for? What's even more remarkable is that the Soviet Union could never have been defeated. There are two points to that. There was no inevitability that the Soviet Union had to fail at that particular point in time. It could have gone on for another twenty years. It had the world's third largest economy, thermonuclear weapons, second strike, all of these magical things.  It wasn't SDI [Strategic Defense Initiative], it wasn't the failure of the economy, It was terminal rot.”


“Conversations with History: Ken Jowitt.” Interview by Harry Kreisler.  Conversations with History. 2000.  Accessed September 20, 2019.

Jones, Seth. A Covert Action: Reagan, the CIA and the Cold War Struggle in Poland.  New York, NY: W.W.Norton and Company, 2018.

Llewellyn, Jennifer, and Steve Thompson. "The Reign of Terror." Alpha History. August 18, 2018. Accessed August 07, 2019.

"Thomas Sowell and A Conflict of Visions." Interview by Peter Robinson. Uncommon Knowledge. October 27, 2008. Accessed July 10, 2019.

Shermer, Michael. "Utopia Is a Dangerous Ideal: We Should Aim for "Protopia"." The Big Think. June 28, 2019. Accessed August 07, 2019.

Sowell, Thomas. A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggle. Revised ed. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2007.

United States of America. Department of Defense. Headquarters. Army Techniques Publications 3-05.1 Unconventional Warfare. Washington, DC: Department of the Army, 2013. 1-210.

Woods, Thomas E. Comment on "Ep. 1271 Are Democrats and Left-Liberals Smarter Than You." The Tom Woods Show (audio blog), October 29, 2018. Accessed July 15, 2019.

Woods, Thomas E. "They Don't Dare Tell You the Real Point of July 4." E-mail. July 03, 2019.

About the Author(s)

Sergeant First Class Daniel Riggs serves as the S-3/5 for the Psychological Operations Courses at USAJFKSWCS in Fort Bragg, NC.   SFC Riggs has previously completed Psychological Operations deployments to INDOPACOM and CENTCOM. He holds a M.S.c in International Relations from the London School of Economics and a B.A. in Political Science from the University of California, Los Angeles.  Before joining Psychological Operations, he served as an Infantryman with the 101st Airborne Division deploying to Afghanistan in 2010. 



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