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Give me the Power!

November 27, 2017

Stories to illustrate the concept of power abound. Yet, let me begin this time, with one from the animal kingdom. In his brilliant Our Inner Ape, de Waal describes the terrifying experience of having learnt that chimpanzees might be as driven by power as some humans are too (2006). While working in a zoo in the Netherlands, the colony of chimpanzees with which he worked, was ruled by a chimpanzee called Luit. Luit got to power by dethroning two chimpanzees that ruled in partnership, as a coalition. One day the dethroned partners decided to stage a coup d'état to recuperate power. Masterfully, de Waal describes how these two chimpanzees carefully planned an attack on Luit, while avoiding getting caught before. It was, simply put, a Machiavellian political manoeuvre, which ended up resulting in the ambushing and assassination of Luit. The novelty of this story, of course, is that this time it was not humans succumbing to the temptation of power, but chimpanzees.

            De Waal’s true story evidences that there are things to which we are enslaved that are engraved in our nature. For instance, it could be possible that our obsession with power is not something that we build, but that is already built into our brains. Incidentally, Delton similarly argues ‘That concepts [e.g. power, kin, family] exist because they (or the systems that generated them) were designed by natural selection to serve a purpose’ (2014, p. 119). In other words, we all know that we –humans– are the product of evolution through natural selection (Dawkins, 2006); and, that in evolution those who survive and continue reproducing to become dominant, do so because they have certain advantages (Wagner, 2014). For example, one could assume that we –humans– have become such a dominant animal on Earth, because we have various features that allow us to survive and reproduce successfully. One, out of many, could be the advantages bestowed on us from the fact that we are bipedal or that we have opposable thumbs. Now, if the physical features that we have, have been selected because they are useful, then, could it not be that our ways of thinking and things we think about, have also been hardwired in our brains and selected because they confer an advantage?

            Many authors nowadays argue precisely that we are not born as a tabula rasa, but that a lot of the concepts, ideas, and thoughts that we have, have not been necessarily socially learnt, but come with us biologically hardwired (Kurzban, 2010; Wilson, 2014). For example, psychologist Paul Bloom claims that, based on his research on babies, ‘certain moral foundations are not acquired through learning…; they are instead the products of biological evolution’ (2013, p. 15). In a word, that we are born with some prewired conceptions of morality (Kauffman, 2008). The same could be said about our concept of power. Now, if the latter turned out to be true, this would redefine our conceptualization of those who allegedly hold power.

            According to many scholars, powerful people control our destinies. For instance, in Marxism a ruling class manages to impose, through ideology, a false consciousness on the oppressed, so that they come to conceive their submission as natural (Eagleton, 1991; Harris, 1976; Marx & Engels, 2000). The same could be said of the Gramscian term of hegemony, where an unconscious subjection is developed through culture (2006; Levy & Egan, 2003). Most important of all, within this topic, would be Niccolò Machiavelli. For Machiavelli the concept of powerful tyrants that rule society is essential, and the way that the now adjective Machiavellian has evolved, entails that ethos behind Machiavelli’s writing of elites being able to control intentionally society, sometimes in the most despicable ways. In sum, what matters here is this idea that powerful people possess some sort of extraordinary intelligence, which allows them to anticipate, plan, and control everything around them. Nothing could be farther from the truth (see, for example, Abreu Pederzini (2017b)).

            In a complex and chaotic world, to assume that a group of people are so powerful that could truly be our puppet masters is farfetched. ‘Something that is clearly evident in the many cases of apparently powerful leaders that ended up falling, including people like Margaret Thatcher or infamous Drug Lord Pablo Escobar’ (Abreu Pederzini, 2017a, p. 10). About this, MacKay and Chia argue that at most, allegedly powerful people, can have an unowned control of the world. In short, the powerful could try to master the world and make all sorts of decisions to accomplish the latter. Yet, ‘every decision made and every action taken are necessarily partial and hence bring with them the possibility of unintended consequences occurring in the longer-term future’ (2013, p. 212). Just think about the 2008 financial crash. The so-called powerful and wealthy promoted for years the ideology of free-markets and small government intervention (Chomsky, 1999; Steger & Roy, 2010), saying that free competition would push up productivity and the global economy overall. Of course, once they partially got what they wanted, through the deregulatory trends of 1980s and 1990s (Akerlof & Shiller, 2009; Centeno & Cohen, 2012), they had to prove that the tenets of their theory were true. Thus, it was not surprising that the banking sector –and overall the private sector– would start focusing on the ridiculous ideology of short-termism, in order to prove the claim of how productive qua-free-markets are. Many other things, hence, happened to the corporate culture of countries like the US or the UK, which pushed people to compete at all costs, to live in a constant state of anxiety for survival, excess, egotism and materialistic obsession. So that ‘Once the crisis was triggered however, bankers were quickly overwhelmed by forces they had not anticipated and were revealed as almost Slaves of the Markets they had helped create’ (Bell & Hindmoor, 2015, p. 2).

            Let me summarize it like this: there is no ruling class, only slaves of their most primitive drives. As I argued at the beginning of this post, it is possible that power is a concept that comes already prewired in our human repertoires. So that we have the natural tendency to be moved by what Nietzsche called the ‘will to power’ (2005, p. 4). Thus, instead of seeing those who are supposedly powerful as some sort of masters of humankind who through hegemonies, ideologies, coercion, money, and influence control the world, we should start seeing them for what they are: slaves. Slaves of one of their most inner instincts: the will to power. The question that remains unanswered so far, is then, what is the advantage or usefulness that having power hardwired in us could have for us? That, however, I am afraid is a topic for another post.

 

References:

Abreu Pederzini, G. (2017a). Leaders, Power, and the Paradoxical Position. Journal of Management Inquiry, 1–14.

 

Abreu Pederzini, G. (2017b). The senior management sensemaking paradox. Journal of Strategy and Management, 10(3), 360–371.

 

Akerlof, G., & Shiller, R. (2009). Animal Spirits. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press.

 

Bell, S., & Hindmoor, A. (2015). Masters of the Universe but Slaves of the Market: Bankers and the Great Financial Meltdown. The British Journal of Politics & International Relations, 17(1), 1–22.

 

Bloom, P. (2013). Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil. New York: Crown Publishing Group.

 

Centeno, M. A., & Cohen, J. N. (2012). The Arc of Neoliberalism. Annu. Rev. Sociol.

 

Chomsky, N. (1999). Profit over people: Neoliberalism and Global Order. New York: Seven Stories Press.

 

Dawkins, R. (2006). The Selfish Gene: 30th Anniversary Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

de Waal, F. (2006). Our Inner Ape. UK: Granta Books.

 

Delton, A. W., & Sell, A. (2014). The Co-Evolution of Concepts and Motivation. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 23(2), 115–120.

 

Eagleton, T. (1991). Ideology: An Introduction. London: Verso.

 

Gramsci, A. (2006). State and Civil Society. In A. Sharma & A. Gupta (Eds.), The Anthropology of the State. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

 

Harris, M. (1976). History and Significance of the EMIC/ ETIC Distinction. Annual Review Anthropology, 5, 329–350.

 

Kauffman, S. (2008). Reinventing the Sacred. United States of America: Basic Books.

 

Kurzban, R. (2010). Why Everyone (Else) is a Hypocrite. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press.

 

Levy, D. L., & Egan, D. (2003). A Neo-Gramscian Approach to Corporate Political Strategy: Conflict and Accommodation in the Climate Change Negotiations. Journal of Management Studies, 40(4), 803–829.

 

MacKay, R. B., & Chia, R. (2013). Choice, chance, and unintended consequences in strategic change: a process understanding of the rise and fall of Northco Automotive. Academy of Management Journal, 56(1), 208–230.

 

Marx, K., & Engels, F. (2000). The German Ideology. marxists.org: Marxists.org.

 

Nietzsche, F. (2005). The Anti-Christ, Ecce Homo, Twilight of the Idols, and Other Writings. (J. Norman, Ed.), Cambridge. Cambridge University Press.

 

Steger, M., & Roy, R. (2010). Neoliberalism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

 

Wagner, A. (2014). Arrival of the Fittest. USA: Penguin.

 

Wilson. (2014). The Meaning of Human Existence. New York: Liveright publishing corporation.

 

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