The problem with power is that people believe the fable that they can control it. The truth is that power, like a habit-forming drug, corrupts the best of us, transmuting us into blind brutes surrounded by sycophants who reinforce our self-serving delusions.
As a child my father told me bedtime tales, and many of the first stories I heard were written by a Dane rumoured to be the illegitimate son of King Frederick VI. Over the years Hans Christian Andersen’s tales took residence in my being, and as I matured they continually revisited me and helped deepen my understanding of the issues we struggle with as humans.
A favourite is “The Emperor’s New Clothes” which academics say Anderson wrote in ridicule of the Danish bourgeoisie because of the bitter hypocrisy he experienced after being exposed to the corruption in those flawed social ranks.
The story of the invisible robes was to have ended with the emperor’s subjects admiring their naked ruler, but when this tale was at the printer Andersen changed his mind. An experience the “bastard” had when he saw his supposed father King Frederick VI in public convinced Andersen that an innocent child denouncing the emperor’s fraud would be more impactful.
As the procession passed and Andersen saw his father, the king, for the first time he is said to have exclaimed: “Oh, he’s nothing more than a human being!” His mother retorted by asking the storyteller whether he’d gone mad.
“The Emperor’s New Clothes” and the back story about how Andersen came to write it beautifully exemplifies how people who are essentially “nothing more than human beings” lose themselves to power, and how power has the potential to corrupt even the best of us.
The naked truth about power is that “those who think they are in the possession of power are not in possession of power. Power is in the possession of them.” That’s what the former minister of defence of Iraq told me when I interviewed him a number of years ago. Ali Allawi had just received global acclaim for his book “The Occupation of Iraq: Winning the War, Losing the Peace” when I called him in London and we talked about power. At the time the book was heralded as a blue-print for peace in Iraq, and lauded because of its critical examination of America’s mismanagement of that country.
When we spoke Allawi told me that the greatest illusion of power is that you think you can control it. “Power at the level of state and politics is the ability or capacity to dominate,” said Allawi. “I have learnt that power in a state or government context has a life of its own and always seeks to expand and extend itself. Unless you can break up the concentration of power and the state condition, power tends to dominate those who wield it. It is because power has a dynamic that feeds on itself and wants more. Those who are put in charge of power think they can control it, but in reality it dominates them. They become grist to its mill.”
A senior fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, Allawi’s most recent book “The Crisis of Islamic Civilization” was selected as one of the best books of 2009 by The Economist. Allawi was appointed Iraq’s first post-war civilian minister of defence in 2004 and became minister of finance a year later. He held this position until he returned to private life in 2006.
Allawi said for the most part power-hungry leaders, particularly those in government, cannot develop foresight or the ability to ensure their actions are in the collective interest, not just their own self-interest. “You cannot develop this when you are exercising power. You have to have this before you are given the opportunity to exercise power. Once you are in power it is like a Leviathan.”
An ever growing machine that becomes an insatiable hungry beast, the only way to deal with this power was to continually seek to fragment it, he said. “The only thing that can balance or contain power is the division of power,” Allawi said.
I have always appreciated the lessons about power I learnt from Allawi, who made me believe that the only panacea for power is the fragmentation of it. He has led me to understand that power has a self-serving nucleus that makes people blind and filled with denial. That the only defence of power is to continually weaken that power, to break it down and make it less.
The problem with unchecked power is that it often renders even the best of people Machiavellian. Or as Dacher Keltner, professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, states: “Unfortunately, having power renders many individuals as impulsive and poorly attuned to others as your garden-variety frontal lobe patient, making them prone to act abusively and lose the esteem of their peers.”
The South African political landscape is studded with abusive “emperors” who have seemingly lost the best part of their humanity – their wisdom, hubris, compassion and their calling to serve – assuming they had these characteristics to begin with.
Knowing that absolute power renders the best of us brutish and blind, isn’t it time for the creation of new models of power that inherently include mechanisms of fragmentation so that our country’s narrative isn’t perpetuated by stories of self-interest, cruelty and greed? DM
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Mandy de Waal is a writer who reports on technology, corruption, science, the media and whatever else she finds interesting. She loves small stories and human narratives, and dislikes persistent evangelists, bad poetry and the insane logic that currently passes for political rhetoric. Back in journalism after spending time in the corridors of corporate greed, de Waal has written for Mail & Guardian, Noseweek, City Press, Rapport, MoneyWeb, Brandchannel (New York) and a number of other good titles. She now writes for The Daily Maverick because it’s the smart thing to do.
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