Monday, September 21, 2015

217. How power can destroy itself

Power seems attractive but when excessive can turn against itself, in several ways.

Excessive power can breed excessive distrust, to the point of paranoia. This appears to have happened to Stalin, for example. If one has absolute power, people have no other option than to obey, resign and submit. But trust is meaningful only when there is freedom of choice. When there is no option for people but to obey, the powerful one becomes suspicious of trustworthy behaviour: aren’t people only obeying because there is no alternative, out of fear rather than loyalty, while in fact they are not to be trusted? Everyone becomes subject to suspicion.

When people fear to criticize, the bearer of power lacks opposition, which is needed to correct errors, and sinks away in delusion.

A similar problem arises for the rich or beautiful: one suspects being liked for that rather than for one’s self.

If in entering a new, foreign field of action, one can impose one’s familiar views and practices, without the need to adjust to local views and conditions, then one robs oneself of the opportunity to learn by adopting and incorporating local ideas or practices. The path to innovative ‘novel combinations’ is blocked.

This has happened, for example, to Western firms in the early development of China, where they had the power of offering superior technology, design, employment and access to markets, which enabled them to impose their conditions. 

Imperialism can cripple itself.

In item 206 of this blog I asked whether this also happened, perhaps, when the EU imposed its will and regime on Greece.

A second way in which power can destroy itself is the following. Nietzsche defined will to power as the enjoyment of overcoming resistance. That can also turn against itself. Nietzsche proposed that the will to power of the losers, the weak, the oppressed (the ‘slaves’) can command pity and a morality that restrain the powerful (‘the masters’), and then the will to power of the latter, failing to get purchase on the surrounding weak, may turn in upon itself, devouring itself in guilt.

I think this is what Ayn Rand[i] had in mind with her Nietzschean plea for the masters not to give in.

However, turning will to power inside, against inertia, resistance in oneself, may also yield a mastering, a transformation, transcendence, growth of the self, as Nietzsche (but not Ayn Rand) recognized. But where would one get the insight, the material for that? How does one know towards what to transcend, and how? For this, I have argued in this blog (item 60) that one needs opposition from others, to make manifest how one’s ideas and practices fail and in what direction one might find a way to change them. So, here also power fails unless it opens up to others.  

This connects with the distinction between negative and positive power. In negative power, one restricts access of others to opportunities, including access to oneself, to criticism against oneself, thus locking oneself up in oneself. Positive power opens up opportunities, including opportunities to criticism and deviance, which can enrich oneself, opening opportunities for oneself.

Beyond individual power, how about power embodied in social systems of knowledge, positions, relations, dependence, authority, and institutions, discussed in preceding items in this blog? System power can also turn against itself, in similar ways, getting mired in distrust and paranoia against the outside world, robbing itself of challenges to adapt.  

Here also, one needs to open up to influence, to variety of outside views. That, after all, is the virtue of democracy.

Hopefully, the financial sector will catch on to this, before it destroys itself from its own power.

[i] Author of ‘Atlas shrugged’ and ‘The fountainhead’.