The Nature of Power, Part 2

The management of power requires personal authority.
The Power of Personal Authority

Much of this post, as with part 1, is a precis of The Parable Of The Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution by Andrew Schmookler (1984). For me, the book is a brilliant summary of our current cultural stuckness.

If an expanding society willingly stops where its growth would infringe on others, it allows death to catch up and overtake its population [it must become stable . . . to birth and death!]. With no natural order . . . to prevent it, some will surely choose to take what belongs to their neighbors rather than accept the limits that are compulsory for every other form of life.

The Parable of The Tribes

The parable suggested by Schmookler is that of a group of tribes living within reach of one another. They could all choose peace, but what if one is ambitious for expansion and conquest.

The others must respond! Their options are:

  • defeat and destruction,
  • defeat and absorption,
  • fleeing to another location (likely temporary, as well as loss of homeland),
  • successful defense by adoption of their own patterns of aggression

“No one can choose peace, but anyone can impose upon all the necessity for power. . . . Power is like a contaminant, a disease, which once introduced will gradually and inexorably become universal in the system of competing societies. . . . A selection for power among civilized societies is inevitable.”

“What is viable in a world beset by the struggle for power is what can prevail. What prevails may not be what best meets the needs of mankind. . . . Power therefore rules human destiny.”

There will be a selective advantage to those who hunger for power. Power is a selective process that gains its potency from being cumulative over time.

What Determines Societal Development

But power is not the only factor determining societal development, merely an important one. Thus there can be other social forces such as the desire for humanizing values, for compassion and beauty, but power competes! And competes in major ways [as evident by our cultural history and our current political environment.]

“Since the rise of civilization, there has been a strong note of torment in the human condition,” monstrous perhaps, evil perhaps. But Parable is not an indictment of human nature — all that is required is the creative development of culture to a certain point of freedom, plus the human capacity of movement towards aggressive behavior (but not the necessity). It is an inevitable stage of human development.

Parable also points out that the parable of the tribes is present both between external groups, and within any one group. The internal processes are what create the benefits and the deficits of governance and of the judiciary system. The dynamics of power can subvert the internal systems just as effectively as the external.

We need to be alarmed about our destructiveness as a species and of our current culture , but it is a simple consequence of our creativity, a tragedy representative of the inevitable options for power. Yet the fall of the tragic hero is the opportunity for humility and recovery.

We Must Manage Power

There is “no way to return the dangerous djinni of human power back into the bottle.” And perhaps mankind will evolve to “control the actions of all to the degree needed to protect the well-being of the whole.” The development of the global village offers this possibility.

Thus Schmookler ends the introductory chapter with the quote I provided in the last post:

The laws of man require power, for power can be controlled with power. The challenge is to design systems that use power to disarm power. Only in such an order can mankind be free.

To all this, I would add the following:

  • Cooperation and authenticity are the necessary vehicles for designing a more mature culture. But they are not sufficient conditions — the transmutation of power is needed.
    • And to be authentic is dangerous. If you have power already you can probably manage the danger but if you do not you are in major trouble. Historically that meant you were killed — in modern times you’re not likely to be killed; we have simply become more subtle in how we threaten people. The movie Trumbo, the story of the blacklisting of Dalton Trumbo during the McCarthy era, is an excellent example of how this is done.
  • It is said that darkness cannot hide in the light. But it can hide! It can hide where there is the denial that darkness exists. This is the current dilemma of global warming, hiding in disinformation.
  • There are many who advocate that we just need be kinder to each other.
    • I am not convinced; we are capable of aggression and viciousness. Attempting to suppress this feature of humanness does not work.

What we need is maturity. We need to be able to do something else, something that includes our tendency to aggression! A fundamental need when stuck is to do something else that transcends and includes. This is the fundamental basis I offer in my anger management program.

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