Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Contesting "Human Nature": The Psychology of Power

By James Curcio art by Eugenio Rucuenco.

The Occupy Wall Street movement has taken aim at “the 1%,” but so far there has not been a great deal of consideration given to the culture or psychology of power.

Countering the charged, idealistic cry of the protesters comes the more cynical stance that “there will always be a 1%.” That, perhaps, it is human nature to claw our way to the "top of the pile," to slay the sitting King and take the throne. Certainly, that is a model we see mirrored in the heroic myths of antiquity.

As a result of our nature, are we forever cursed to live out a narrative of master / slave, of fascist dictator, of oppressor and oppressed? Should we resign ourselves to the "grim meathook future" that seems the inevitable outcome of the myth of the Leviathan, supposing no agents of chaos destabilize the true obsession of fascism? Not control as an end in itself, but rather control as the means to order and homogenization. This is the true face of the New American Century: one of peace secured through violence, possibly tooled atop a myth of racial purity.
The “natural” claim of the will to power—in the sense of "nature" rather than "nurture"—is the first that should be considered. There is no absolutely solid, demonstrable proof that the inclination to power is a natural human instinct rather than a culturally re-enforced or selected one, or that power "always" corrupts. There is a high burden of proof for such claims, and investigation of such questions tends more towards myth-making than the method of science.

Nevertheless, the stance of an inherent "will to power" seems to be supported by Neitzsche's stance, that even survival is of lesser concern to animals than this drive. Due to his aphoristic style it is particularly easy to misrepresent Neitzsche's position on anything, but it is possible his love of the heroic myths that do center on the will to power, versus the "slave" mythos of Christianity, makes the role of the will to power seem like a force of nature. Certainly in one way or another, many uphold myths about human nature and the nature of political power that have their origin in treatises many hundreds of years old.

Let's look at some of these myths, even if only in passing, and consider what we can know, and what is cruel conjecture, beginning with research mentioned in a recent Alternet article looking at today's plutocrats:
The first revelation came from Dr. Nassir Ghaemi of Tufts University. In his recent book, "A First-Rate Madness," he went beyond merely restating the old adage that anyone crazy enough to run for public office probably shouldn't occupy that office. Instead, the book sheds light on what Ghaemi calls an "inverse law of sanity," whereby tumultuous times like these actually reward and promote political figures who are "mentally abnormal (or) even ill."

Now comes a new study from Switzerland's University of St. Gallen showing that the most successful of the global financial elite probably pose more of a menace to society than known psychopaths."
To summarize, the problem isn’t necessarily that power “always corrupts,” as it could be equally true that those obsessed enough with power to pursue it with the kind of monomaniacal fixation required to succeed may also be thereby artificially "selected" to otherwise be fucking bonkers. A causes B; B causes A.

Though, as with most mammals I’m aware of, there are clearly some innate power structures hard-wired, you might say, I’ve yet to see any clear proof that a pyramid model of power is innate to our nature. There's been some argument made that we have somewhat conflicting impulses in regard to cooperation and competition, and to our aid in creating an easy to grasp dialectic, the bonobo gallantry struts into the picture, as contrasted with the more violent chimpanzee. (And then promptly gets distracted by the lure of group sex and honey on a reed straw.)
The origin of human aggression and warfare remains hotly debated. Until now, this debate has been dominated by what chimpanzees do and how this compares with our own species. It is little known, however, that we have an exactly equally close primate relative, the bonobo. This species makes Hobbesians very uncomfortable, so they do everything to marginalize it. One anthropologist seriously suggested that we should ignore bonobos, because they are close to extinction, not realizing that by the same token we should also ignore "Lucy," "Ardi" and all those other ancestors that bit the dust. Others treat bonobos as a wonderful afterthought, a great curiosity, but irrelevant to where we come from. (Scientific American, Waal.)

In fact, the "common sense" analysis that warfare is natural to humans because we've "always done" it has come under a great deal of scrutiny from some anthropologists, such as Marvin Harris. For example,
For explaining warfare, theories of innate aggression seem to me to have as little merit as they do for explaining sexism. Innate, aggressive potentials must surely be part of human nature in order for there to be any degree of sexism or warfare, but cultural selection wields the power that activates or inactivates these raw potentials and channels them into specific cultural expressions. (Or shall we believe that the !Kung San have genes for peace and equality, while the Sambia have genes for war and inequality?) 
The point is that the "us" / "them" mentality underlying tribal power structures is certainly a part of our makeup, but it's a bit like the wild conjecture of Hobbes or Rousseau to take that several steps further and make claims about what that singular "human nature" is.
Rousseau criticized Hobbes for asserting that since man in the "state of nature . . . has no idea of goodness he must be naturally wicked; that he is vicious because he does not know virtue". On the contrary, Rousseau holds that "uncorrupted morals" prevail in the "state of nature" and he especially praised the admirable moderation of the Caribbeans in expressing the sexual urge." (In Rousseau, Discourse on Inequality, 72–73)
To summarize, Hobbes felt that it was the purpose of a controlling state to protect man from himself, whereas Rousseau saw the state itself as the source of “evil.”

Let’s try to take a less polarizing view. What is our reason to believe that there is a singular nature innate in us in regard to power? Regardless of how we are raised or who we are, the truism goes, "absolute power corrupts absolutely." I would propose that instead of a singular, innate "will to power," it is more likely that, like with genes, we have many possibilities provided but only several which are activated by chance and circumstance.

I'd still stick to my claim that the appearance of the psychology of power is actually the psychology of a particular "type" (or several) which are most prone to take power. Then consideration of power becomes a study on fascism, not human nature at large. We can look outward at the social structures that support the growth of the fascistic tendency in our own nature, the tendencies against which we should be vigilant if we don't want to live under the yoke of such restriction. These types are greatly supported not only by our own culture, but also by the vast majority of state-cultures in our recorded history. It is not merely a Western phenomenon, for surely we can look to the history of ancient China or Japan and see the will to power manifesting itself in a totalitarian manner.

Regardless, we don’t need to be co-opted by the myths that support this power structure. We can begin within the “one square foot of real estate” of our own mind. However, as Jefferson said, “the price of eternal freedom is vigilance.” Resisting and restructuring such power structures is not at all easy.

The issue, in regard to democracy, is that the best leaders would be those who are not entirely excited about the idea of being in such a position. Those whose every impulse is to lead by force (psychological or otherwise) would in best cases be kept far away from political office. (Put them in charge of MMORGs or something.) It seems to me that Greek philosophy arose, among other things, hand-in-hand with the demands of their democratic system. If you're going to try to take the senate floor, you'd best learn rhetoric.

Our shared history seems to support the premise that the end result of any over-reaching state is either collapse, domination by another state, or totalitarianism. This is the "result" we judge the human will to power from.

But—to dodge what would otherwise easily become a long dissertation on world history that I'm ill-equipped to provide—we are missing the full picture if we make an evaluation based only from results, even if they have been repeated time and again. The results that seem to imply a "human nature" of power and dominance are in fact the result of a matrix of circumstance, opportunity, and evolutionary selection processes that favor certain dispositions. It's not a given, it's not "nature"—as a fundamental change of the social mechanisms themselves would change that "nature." e.g. It isn't innate.

To support this, we can refer back to that Alternet article,
Obviously, these results reflect the not-so-surprising fact that the extreme nature of the modern political process and of today's casino economy inherently self-select for certain kinds of traits.

As the website Newser reported, the researchers "pitted a group of stockbrokers against a group of actual psychopaths in various computer simulations and intelligence tests and found that the money men were significantly more reckless, competitive, and manipulative." Even more striking, the researchers note that achieving overall success was less important to the stock speculators than the sadistic drive "to damage their opponents."
These selection processes (or the end result of them) can make it seem that "humans in power are always X way" but it's actually a systemic effect not an innate one. So, the salient question then becomes whether we can create sustainable social and economic systems that self-select for the traits that we actually want in our leaders and fellow citizens.

That is the question that we need to be asking, and it is the model that we need to build our social mechanisms from, or else we will be doomed to repeat the same pattern time and again, and it won't matter a bit if its source is innate or conditioned.

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  1. Would it be okay if I printed copies of this out and posted them up at the local Occupy?

  2. ALWAYS feel free to distribute material from this site so long as it is attributed, and when possible, a link to www.modernmythology.net is provided.

  3. A more complete / edited version of this appears in Apocalyptic Imaginary: Best of Modern Mythology 2011. (See Amazon.com)



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