Deconstructing Power (Part 2)
TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 16 Apr 2018
16 Apr 2018 – A passing reference was made to schoolyard bullying in Part 1 of this article. Indeed, in a schoolyard there is much to observe of human behavior – provided of course that one resists playing the role of “teacher” or “parent”!
We know that a schoolyard bully invariably gathers around himself or herself a cheering and fawning group of hangers-on. We can assume that the psychological ingredients which go into the making of a typical schoolyard “gang” would be the usual suspects – desire for attention and thrills, insecurity, lack of judgment, dislike of studies, possibly also dislike of teachers … et cetera.
We may also assume safely that, in each such “gang”, all the power is centered on the “gang-leader” – as there is only one place “at the top”.
There is no reason to believe that, in the ordinary course of life, human behavior changes substantially as a person grows into adulthood. The innermost traits of a person become more or less fixed in place roughly over the first three years of his or her life. Later – during studies, working life and family life – these same basic traits are exhibited under different environments and situations.
However, over the years, a person does become better and better at dealing with the situations of life – and therefore, depending on the situation, also of hiding his or her true feelings and of feigning. Indeed, much of what we consider “civilized behavior” requires this capability – given that within any group of people the members’ inner feelings would usually be hugely at variance.
Some “grown-ups” are also good at dissimulating and manipulating – but quite possibly that skill also makes its first appearance at a younger age. Becoming aware that they face a challenging environment rather than a nurturing one, “grown-ups” become very cautious about accepting other peoples’ claims. Thus the young may be naïve or idealistic, but most “grown-ups” are not.
Following up logically on our observations of schoolyard bully gangs, we now wonder: Are similar traits observed in “gangs of grown-ups” too?
But of course they are! Indeed, we observe those traits all the time!
Note: It should be noted that the observations made above apply even to a so-called “primitive” society – that is, one in which the economy has not specialized and differentiated much. Clearly however, our focus is mainly on our own highly differentiated and globalized society – because it presents a far, far greater potential for violence and destruction than any simpler society.
We have noted in Part 1 that the psychology of violence is also the psychology of power. Therefore we may benefit hugely from analyzing the psychology of power; that may in turn help in preventing a breakout of violence or war.
Based on history, current events and observations of human behavior, we assert that psychology of power is rooted in the psychology within and between “gangs of grown-ups”. In other words, “intra-gang” dynamics, rivalries and ambitions are as important as “inter-gang” dynamics and rivalries.
[It is a commonplace nowadays that a “leader” in one country may stir up a kerfuffle abroad to “out-maneuver” his or her adversaries at home.]
So how do our earlier “schoolyard observations” about human nature help us in our analysis?
A basic premise of this analysis – well-supported by both observation and study – is that almost every “gang of grown-ups” has dynamics similar to that observed in a typical “schoolyard gang”. Differences lie mainly in the more refined defense mechanisms, cunning and caution which “grown-ups” have developed.
Indeed we encounter “gangs of grown-ups” both in history and in present-day life. Examples: Feudal lords and their hangers-on; kings, queens and dictators – along with their courtiers and “executives”; “top managements” of companies, political parties and labor unions; criminal gangs … and so on.
Beyond a certain size, a “gang of grown-ups” gets organized into “sub-gangs” which deal with various specialized activities, such as procurement, marketing, finance, propaganda, legal matters and – of course! – “security”.
These observations apply to human behavior around the world – regardless of any meaningless labels which we may choose to apply to a region, such as “first world”, “second world” or “third world”. A “gang of grown-ups” working with laptops is, in a basic sense, similar to one working with machetes.
What then is a “community”, a “country” or an “empire”?
Are these also no more than elaborate and well-organized “gangs of grown-ups”? Or perhaps, depending on size, several inter-acting “gangs of grown-ups”?
Not necessarily – although it is certainly possible for a “community”, a “country” or an “empire” to degenerate into little more than “gangs of grown-ups”.
This is the critical point at which our schoolyard analogy calls for an important refinement – that is, the addition of a crucial ingredient to the mix.
Let us assume that there is something real known as “wisdom” which a “grown-up” may develop – but which we would not expect from a school-going child. Of course those who are familiar with the consistent message of sages over millennia do believe in the reality of “wisdom”. Nonetheless, we shall leave it here as an assumption, keeping in mind those who might be skeptical in this matter.
Clearly no one doubts that “self-interest” is real. After all – by definition – the experience of “self-interest” sticks with a person throughout life! A problem only arises in attempts to reconcile “self-interest” with “wisdom”.
When buttressed by a preponderance of power, “self-interest” gains a quick and easy victory over “wisdom”! The latter stands absolutely no chance; and “self-interest” may even go berserk to the extent of harming “the self”!
The possibility of “wisdom” does bring about the possibility of “wise” policies being put into effect in a community, in a country, or even over an empire. For a definition of “wisdom”, we shall fall back on Buddha’s teachings:
That is “wise” which leads to diminution of dukkha; in other words, “wisdom” lies in human welfare.
Today we are living through the “Age of the Great Deception”. “Ideologies” and “doctrines” are instruments of deception. By Buddha’s simple criterion, however, it becomes clear that “ideologies” and “doctrines” are distinct from “wisdom”.
Wise policies would aim at human welfare, and would be “pragmatic” – rather than “dogmatic” – in the sense that specifics would depend on circumstances and on correct understanding of human nature. The fact that violence does not add to human welfare would also be clearly recognized.
Of course history does provide examples of periods of wise policies, but they seem to be exceptions rather than the rule. Paroxysms of internal and external violence are encountered much more often.
Flowering of literature and the arts can be used as an indicator of human welfare in a country in a given age. Self-confidence, creativity and optimism should inspire policies – rather than insecurity and cynicism. The reigns of Elizabeth I in England, emperor Akbar in Delhi and Sayajirao III in Vadodara may be cited as examples.
Elizabeth I uttered these words upon becoming queen at the age of 25:
“… that I with my ruling and you with your service may make a good account to Almighty God and leave some comfort to our posterity on earth. I mean to direct all my actions by good advice and counsel.”
It is hugely instructive to compare these words with those of a typical scheming demagogue of today – and especially of the current leader of the pack!
The achievements of any society must be measured only on the scale of human welfare. A society should not be judged on the basis of propaganda, mastery over media, style, cunning, weaponry – or even GDP. As for the last of these, it seems that, beyond a threshold, GDP may not even truly reflect human welfare.
However, by far the larger part of history shows us only cynical and cruel games of power played by “gangs of selfish grown-ups”. Human welfare is paid only lip service – or sometimes not even that. In these cruel games, the part reserved for “toiling masses” is that of serfs and cannon fodder.
In the present age, mankind is organized – or divided? — into a couple of hundred countries, some of which are grouped into a few “power blocks”. Wise policies and “raw power” are both on plentiful display around the world.
Not surprisingly, “raw power” frequently degenerates into violence. For the present, the possibility of “mutually assured destruction” ensures that the strong pick only on the weak – and also that the strong use the weak as cat’s paw.
Our concern is with diminution of dukkha, which is closely related to diminution of violence. “Raw power” being the prominent cause of violence, we hope to bring to light the psychology of “raw power” – and expose the rapacity, fear, deception and delusion which lie underneath. In that process, we shall see that the outward language and narratives of power merely serve as disguises.
Keeping the above objective in mind, we shall make a few general observations about the way in which “raw power” is exercised in a society. It is hoped that the observations, being grounded in human nature, are applicable to any society.
- In spite of their deliberate and cunning smoke-screens and obfuscations, “power mongers” are ordinary human beings. They and their untold number of courtiers and minions are no different from schoolyard gangs – motivated by fear, greed, insecurity, frustration, jealousy, revenge, lust – and so on.
- “Power mongers” are quite intense, focused and ruthless in how they apply their intelligence towards their goals. Sadly, their application of intelligence is misdirected – being based on wrong understanding of human nature and human welfare. Naturally, consequences are in keeping with the faulty premises.
- The true “levers of power” are usually kept hidden. This is the first rule of the preservation of power. After all, people cannot overthrow – or question – what they cannot see or understand; hence the reliance on utmost secrecy.
Paid mouthpieces and puppets are employed for the projection and application of power in public. If the need arises, as it often does, a mouthpiece or a puppet can easily be sacrificed “in public interest”.
- “Power mongers” seem hooked on the strategy of “doubling down”. In a time of rising fortunes, this strategy ensures rapid growth and maximized returns. In a time of declining fortunes, this strategy probably reflects a death wish.
- In an environment permeated with “raw power”, independent scholarship is not appreciated; it may even be feared. After all, there is always the risk that an independent scholar may ferret out and reveal the truth to the masses.
Of course pliable “experts” are needed badly to generate “cover stories” – and they are usually in plentiful supply.
- A claim of “superiority” of some kind – based on caste, race, religion, “god”, education, family, tribe … or whatever – is indispensable to “power mongers”. In other words, there is always a strongly-felt need to justify to all and sundry the self-proclaimed “rightful assumption of power”.
Suppose for a moment that “the emperor with no clothes” had decided to rule on boldly with precisely that non-existent “royal attire”. Then a tribe of fake-experts would surely have proceeded to prove that an emperor of that race – or caste, or family … or whatever – had a “divine right” to precisely that “royal attire”!
Here we may paraphrase Hamlet, a prince himself:
There is more bull***t in the words of the power-mongers than can ever be dreamt of in your philosophy, Horatio!
- Behavior observed in schoolyard gangs can also be observed in the “games of thrones” played out by “power-mongers”. This would typically include – excessive show of power; the presence of minions and hangers-on; intolerance of other views; constant fawning, jostling, rivalries, scheming … et cetera.
But there are crucial differences. Compared to schoolyard gangs, we see in “gangs of grown-ups” a much higher degree of desperation, cynicism, cunning and duplicity – and far less of “joy of life” and spontaneity. This is not at all surprising, is it? After all, the young have their whole lives ahead of them – while “grown-ups” are locked into positions and also running out of time!
[To be continued …]
Dr. Naresh Jotwani is a semi-retired academic living in India and a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment. Apart from part-time engagements in engineering education and consulting, he engages in an in-depth, personal exploration of how Gautam Buddha’s profound discoveries and teachings can be applied to the acute problems of modern life.
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 16 Apr 2018.
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