The Problem of Power

Since humanity began its odyssey out of Central Africa millennia ago, hierarchy is the only consistently adopted structure for distributing power within a social system. This structure holds intact the social system in which it exists. To do so, it exercises three roles:

  1. Define “boundaries” – territorial, birthright, and behavioral – that determine who’s in and who’s out
  2. Provide security that protects the boundaries, preserves the lineage, and maintains the behavioral guidelines
  3. Respond to changing circumstances so that the primary social system persists

Hierarchy is easy to install since it begins when one person assumes a dominate position relative to another. It is efficient. The dominant one sets the boundary conditions and subordinates operate within them. When coupled with fear of consequence if one does not stay within the boundaries and the promise of reward if one meets or exceeds expectations the vast majority of members comply with the dictates of the hierarchical social system.

Members of hierarchical social systems participate in governance, free enterprise, and non-governmental affiliations. The rulers set the parameters in which members operate so that government has the resources to assure security, enact rules of conduct, ownership, and commerce, and provide a system of jurisprudence in the event that members do not follow the rules or violate the rights of members. Property owners, business owners, and those who contribute their skills, time, and energy are compensated, pay some percentage of their profit and income to government so that it can function, and voluntarily give to community-based organizations that benefit the commonweal and care for those who cannot contribute. It is a system of cooperation, choice, and commitment that is simple and elegant.

Hierarchy is a structural “tool” for managing social systems. It is the integral framework upon which all institutions – governmental, business, or non-governmental / not-for-profit – are built. As such, it becomes a common denominator that cuts across society in all its endeavors. Like any tool, it is neither good nor evil. How people use hierarchical structure within their institutions and throughout their social system is what imbues it with certain characteristics of morality, ethics, and fairness and places it on a continuum of social justice ranging from barely evident on one end to being a matter of course on the other.

The driving force that shifts a social system along the scale of social justice is the use, or abuse, of power. Hierarchical social systems concentrate power in the hands of a minority number among the overall population. As Lord Acton stated, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” In other words, when holding a dominant position, some are seduced by the power they have over others. This prompts them to do the following:

  1. Stay in their positions of power
  2. Keep the hierarchical social system intact so that the positions of power they hold are preserved
  3. Curtail affiliation among those who are disenfranchised by the system so that the threat of insurrection is quelled.

Basically, people who are so affected are drawn by the possibility of extracting even more profit or garnering more control. They limit choices for subordinates and force compliance to rules and conditions that are not beneficial to members. In addition, they attempt to keep the system as it is so that their gain is consolidated and ideally, continues to grow.

As an example, approximately 50% of the world’s population earns less than $2 / day per capita through subsistence agriculture. The hope of a higher quality of life is dashed each day eking out an existence under the harshest of circumstances. Leadership in these countries is averse to mechanize and modernize agriculture because those displaced would venture to cities in an effort to find work. This would overburden the already congested and over-stressed infrastructures in these urban areas elevating discontent and unrest. Better to keep people where they are so they are contained having to care for themselves. Meanwhile, the economies grow and the top echelons gain wealth.

Another example: according to an article in The Open AIDS Journal entitled, “HIV Infection and AIDS in Sub-Saharan AfricaUNAIDS report,” Sub-Saharan Africa is home to 70% of all people afflicted with HIV in the world. This area holds some of the world’s richest natural resources, yet the population is in grave peril, health-wise, including leaders. In fact, that is the point. The world has known about AIDS / HIV in Africa for nearly 30 years and has only in the last five mobilized efforts to do something. All indications suggest it is too little, too late. Millions have died from AIDS already and millions more will do so over the next two generations as the endemic unfolds. Sub-Saharan governments are rendered ineffective due to a lack of competent, experienced leadership, citizens are not able to care or fend for themselves, economies slow their growth, and property ownership and control shifts to foreigners. Colonies once lost due to revolution are reclaimed – without firing a shot.

As yet another example, consider genocide. In his 1994 book, Death by Government: Genocide and Mass Murder since 1900, author R.J. Rummel defined and documented “democide,” e.g., atrocities committed by governments on their citizens. Of the nearly 170 million who died at the hand of their governments during the 20th Century, 130 million, over 75%, were victims of four regimes: Soviet, Communist Chinese, German, and Nationalist Chinese. This does not include Rwanda in 1994. And genocide continues as the people from Darfur have borne witness every day this year. A weakened population becomes weaker. Those who hold the most power in the world act as though they are powerless as these horrific injustices go unchecked. The reality is there is nothing to be gained by intervening and much that could be lost if circumstances go awry. The people of Darfur, like the millions before them, are collateral damage in an economic power struggle of global proportions.

In his unsettling essay, “Waiting for the Lights to Go Out ,” published in the October 16, 2005 edition of The London Times, Bryan Appleyard posits a rather grim future wherein civilization is doomed to return once again to the Dark Ages. The central theme of his essay is the meltdown of society as we know it due to our insatiable addiction to oil, the inevitable depletion of oil reserves, and our woefully inadequate and untimely response to that eventuality. At the heart of his thesis is that human nature has not progressed very far since we began our migrations throughout the world from our African origins. Appleyard states, “Our aggressive, tribal nature is hard-wired, unreformed and unreformable. Individually we are animals and, as animals, incapable of progress. The trick is to cage these animal natures in effective institutions: education, the law, government. But these can go wrong.” Not particularly encouraging!

Rulers enact laws that are increasingly restrictive, militaristic, and draconian or become arbitrary in their decisions. Owners pull more profit, become more risk averse, and offer fewer benefits. Having less voice and impact, non-governmental organizations become more fanatical and close-minded; their ratios of administrative overhead to pay-out increase, and beneficiaries receive less real assistance.

In summary, the thirst for power and the specter of losing it becomes a corruptive force that undermines the fundamental tenets of a system that is given to efficiency and effectiveness if used honorably. People suffer for lack of true justice. Is there any way institutions, no matter how well-intended, can escape the slippery slope into corruption and injustice? Or is this simply the dark underbelly of hierarchy which must be accepted until people have more distance in time from their early violent struggle for survival as Homo sapiens? What is your opinion?

Originally posted to New Media Explorer by Steve Bosserman on Monday, December 12, 2005

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