This is the story of power.
In the beginning, there is the community. At first there’s no real differentiation between members, each doing whatever work seems to need to be done as it occurs to them to do it. One of the simplest and most universal joys of being a person is in being helpful, being useful to fellow people, to the community. As time passes people gravitate towards the kind of work they like the most and have the most personal aptitude for – in most cases, these two things, aptitude and enthusiasm, are the same. Eventually, someone needs to take on the job of figuring out what job everyone ought to be doing, of allocating labor effectively, and the community has its first leader.
The first leader has, like everyone else, taken on the job due to aptitude and interest in the work. However, being a leader offers a kind of de facto power, since everyone is doing what you tell them to do. Now, they’re doing that because that’s in their best interest, because it’s your job to make it in their interest, but it’s still power. Inevitably, there will be people that envy that power over others – so, over time, the position of leadership will attract those who are interested in the position rather than the work.
Power is appealing to us not in spite of our love of the community, but because of it. We all have this desire to be useful to the community, and when this desire is unchecked, it grows into something else: The need to be useful becomes the need to be indispensable, then the need to be central, integral, synecdochal, the point at the center that becomes representative of and that is inseparable from the whole. Power acts like a cancer in the community, the cells performing their functions too well and in a misguided way, and leading the whole towards destruction.
Nevertheless the second leader, even if they’re motivated by lust for power, will probably still largely model themselves after the first leader – while they want the power, they recognize it comes with a job and will perform the job. With each successor to leadership, though, the understanding of the job drifts further and further away from actual interest in the work of leading, and closer to sole interest in having the power of leadership.
This is the fundamental flaw of community, and has plagued us for the lifespan of our species. Those who seek power tend to find it, even when the desire for power for its own ends ought to be disqualifying in its own right. This isn’t necessarily a human flaw, one mired in our limitations as a species, but a flaw emerging from the organizational systems of having a society. Animals, aliens, artificial intelligences, any group of individuals who build towards community would eventually have to contend with this problem.
The process of power supplanting leadership takes a long while in terms of a human life-time, but relative to the span of history is almost instantaneous – that is to say, while this is a form of corruption and will eventually lead to the downfall of whatever community or society it happens in, it’s really just a precursor for the actual problems. After those who seek power find it, they seek to monopolize it – power is only powerful, after all, to the extent which it is uncontested. Those who are most motivated by power seek to undermine all competitors, but particularly will set out to destroy those who are motivated by communal good – because being motivated by things besides pure power is very confusing and threatening to them.
They say that power corrupts: Myself, I am of the opinion that corruption seeks power. Or perhaps it’s that power corrupts, not in the sense of an individual being corrupted by the power they have acquired, but that society is corrupted by the existence of a power structure.
Once power is consolidated under those who seek it, they then seek to exercise it. What’s the point of having power if you can’t demonstrate it? How would you even know you had it? This is why ostentatious displays of wealth that serve no practical purpose, why needlessly tormenting your subordinates, why working to deprive society of generalized good are all historically popular pursuits of the powerful – because you can only see that you’re a have if you have a crowd of have-nots to contrast yourself against. If you want to accumulate power, everything is relative: Sometimes it’s easier to dig away the ground than to build a taller tower, sometimes it’s easier to hurt everyone else than to heal yourself.
When you have this much power it’s easy to define the lens through which people understand the world. Moral good is defined by those traits which the elite readily possess: Royal heritage becomes “divinely ordained”, massive wealth and income become the “merit” in meritocracy, exclusive social networks become “highly educated” – The King, The Church, The Party, The Rich, these all become entrenched with different forms of moral justification for their vaunted place in society. The powerful are not just in the position to control your life through greed and happenstance, but, seen through this lens, their position atop the heap of screaming bodies is the ultimate expression of morality. Might makes right – not just in terms of what can be materially enforced, but in terms of what is seen as justice.
After a little while of this, people will start to figure it out, start to question this frame work, and start to get angry at the empowered elite who have mistreated them. This is the point where anyone in power will gently explain that it’s not the elite that’s responsible for this terrible mistreatment, it’s someone else – a neighboring country, some immigrant or ethnic group, agitators against the current exploitative power structure, or if all else fails perhaps evil spirits or aliens.
Eventually, either the power structure will get toppled by direct action from beneath or it will merely rot out its supporting infrastructure, and the entire society will collapse underneath it. Heads will roll, a power vacuum will form, and someone will step into it – maybe a leader, or maybe just another boss. Either way, the process is set to repeat, again and again, until eventually, as perhaps it has now, the power structure becomes so massive and so corrupt that it takes the entire species down with it the next time it falls.
Democracy was invented as a method to curtail or even prevent this process. In order to divest power from the exclusive control of those who seek it, we set laws in place stating that all people have equal share of the power, and leadership decisions are only made with broad agreement in place between these people. This has at least slowed the consolidation of power – but is at best an incomplete solution. There are two flaws in this design: First, if power is equally divided among the people, it then becomes in the best interest of power to redefine who counts as a person. Those who do not have access to power are routinely excluded: Slaves and women originally, now convicts and immigrants and other political exiles. It might not be enough to maintain power in itself, but this litigation of personhood is a thumb on the scales. The other flaw of democracy is that it requires all voters to be informed, and whoever has the most power they wish to protect then has a stake in preventing information and propagating misinformation. Information is prevented by hamstringing the budgets of educational institutions and discrediting experts, as well as demanding so much time and effort for survival rations that workers have little time to collect and process information on their own. Misinformation is propagated by control of the most popular outlets for news and entertainment – sometimes directly, but most often just by making sure they know what side their bread is buttered on. As long as method and incentive exists to control these flows of information, democracy will be compromised.
I would prefer to believe there’s a way out of this feedback loop. I would like to say that there’s a way to solve the fundamental problem of power. I used to dismiss anarchy entirely as a solution – because, after all, if you dismantle power structures that then just leaves a vacuum in place for new power structures to form, leaving you to dismantle them again. Perhaps that’s what’s needed, though: An eternal struggle to dismantle power whenever it seeks to emerge. That will just lead people to seek power in the ranks of those who dismantle power, though.
Whatever the solution is, we’d better figure it out fast. The tower has grown too tall, and the next time it collapses I fear we may all lie under its ruins.
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