The power and the glory


Human beings are eminently social creatures. Our religions remind us to love one another and our laws require us to consider each other’s needs. One’s self-image depends on the good opinion of others and on status—comparative standing in a pecking order. Like other primates, human society is hierarchical. One strives to be better than others—in one’s own eyes and in theirs. Things that serve as symbols and visible trappings of status are a primary form of wealth. On the other hand, we also seek comfort and ease, and wealth consists of things that make our lot better. We are a masterful species not content to live in the abject condition of other creatures, nor content with our natural limitations and dependency on nature. We seek power to define and control our environs—collectively to make a specifically human world, and individually to improve our physical well-being and social standing within it.

The other side of wealth is economic dependency. And the other side of status is psychological dependency. Status and power over others complement each other, since status is essentially power that others have over us. There are those who achieve their relative economic sufficiency by exploiting the dependency of others, just as there are those who rely on the opinions of others for their good opinion of themselves. Independence means not only self-sufficiency (of food production, for example) but also immunity to the opinions of others. There are people for whom material ease and social approval are not paramount. Yet, even they might not be able to defend against others who would compel them with the threat of violence. On your own plot of land, it is possible to subsist and thumb your nose at others trying to buy your services (which provides you no means to control others). But, even if you are food-secure, someone with weapons—or who can pay someone with weapons—can force you to do their bidding or take away your land. When very few own the land required to raise food, most are in an awkward position of dependency.

Control of the physical environment and control over other people dovetail when both can be made to serve one’s purposes. This requires the ability to command or induce others to do one’s bidding. How does this power over others come about? In particular, how does the drive for status mesh with the drive for wealth and the ability to command others? Power must be merited in the eyes of society, and the justification is typically status. How separate can they be? Certainly, we honor some individuals who are not wealthy in material possessions or politically powerful. On the other hand, we may be awed by individuals we despise.

Power can take different forms in different societies. It can be a competition to determine status: who is best able to rule by virtue of their perceived qualities. Leaders are then obeyed out of loyalty to their personal charisma, or because they somehow represent divine authority in the imagination of others. God represents human ideals of omnipotence, omniscience, and benevolence; so does the monarch, ruling by divine proxy, symbolically represent these ideals in society. On the other hand, bureaucratic power is rule by impersonal law. Yet, even its ability to require obedience may have originally derived from divine authority, later replaced by institutions such as parliaments and courts of law, enforced by arms. Like values in general, once considered unquestionable because divinely sanctioned, authority becomes secularized. As the individual’s subjectivity grew more significant in society, so did individual responsibility to endorse ruling authority—through voting in elections, for example. As arbitrary and absolute authority gave way to institutions, equality of subjects under God or king gave way to equality under law. To replace the (theoretically absolute) authority of the monarch with the limited authority of elected representatives changes the political game: from common acceptance of a transcendent reality to a spectator sport of factions supporting competing mortal personalities.

A basic problem of social organization is how to get people to defer to a will that transcends the wills of the individuals constituting society. Just as siblings may bicker among themselves but defer to parental authority, so people seek an impartial, fair, and absolute source of authority—a binding arbitration, so to speak. That is a large part of the appeal of God or king, as givers of law who stand above the law and the fray of mere humans. (Psychologically, the very arbitrariness of royal whim points to the transcendent status of the ruler as above the law, therefore the one who can invest the law with absolute authority.) This is the background of modern deference to codified civil law, which was originally the edict of the king or of God. On the other hand, tradition has the authority of generations. Especially when expressed in writing, precedent has an objective existence that anyone can refer to—and thus defer to—though always subject to interpretation. This too explains the willingness to abide by the law even when in disagreement, provided the law has this explicit objective existence preserved in writing. It may also explain the authority of religious texts for believers.

Effective rule depends not only on charisma but also on delegation of authority to others, to tradition, and to institutions such as laws and bureaucracies. The appeal of law and administration over the whim of rulers lies in its equal application to all: fairness. A law or rule that does not apply to everyone is considered unjust. The other side of such uniformity is that one size must fit all: it is also unfair when individual circumstance is not considered. Acceptance of authority can grow out the success of a triumphant player or out of the rule of law through tradition and bureaucracy. When it fails, it can degenerate into either agonistic populism or bureaucracy run amok—or both. Either way, when authority breaks down, politics degenerates into a popularity contest among personalities mostly preselected from a privileged class. Indeed, that is what ‘democracy’ is, as we have come to know it! A true democratic system would not involve election at all, but selection by lottery—a civic duty like jury duty or military service.

Wealth has the dimensions of status and power. It consists of some form of ownership. In our society, every form of property is convertible to cash and measurable by it. Money has universal value by common agreement, to purchase what is needed for comfort, to purchase status, and to command others by purchasing their services. The rich enjoy the use of capital (property used to gain more wealth), the ability to command a wide variety of services money can buy, and the status symbols it can buy: artworks, jewelry, luxury cars and boats, villas maintained by servants, etc. Yet, most people have little capital and their wealth is little more than the momentary means to survive.

In general, money is now the universal measure of value and success. It also enables the accumulation of capital. Yet, status and power may well have been separate in societies that did not use money as we do. Without money as a medium of exchange, possessions alone cannot serve to command others. There must also be the ability to get others to do one’s bidding by paying them or by coercing them by (paid) force of arms. Without money, as a standard quantized medium of exchange, trade must be a direct exchange of goods and services—i.e., barter. All dollars are created equal (just as all people are, theoretically before the law). But the universal equality of units of money only led to its unequal distribution among people. In that sense, money is the root of economic inequality, if not of all evil. If only barter were possible, it would be difficult (short of outright theft) for one person to accumulate very much more than another. Money promotes plunder, legal and otherwise, by its very intangibility and ease of passing from hand to hand.

We are used to the idea of respecting property ownership and obeying the law, and to hierarchical structures in which one follows orders. Some indigenous societies simply rejected the idea of obeying orders or telling others what to do. Status was important to them, but not power over others. Or, rather, they took measures against the possibility of institutionalized power relations in their society. We tend to project modern power relations and structures back upon the past, so that the quest to understand the origins of power presumes current understandings and arrangements. This can blind us to alternative forms of political process, to real choice we may yet have.

Hardly anyone now could disagree with Plato’s idea that only a certain type of well-motivated and wise individual is truly qualified to lead society. That would mean someone unmotivated by status, wealth or power. But there does not seem to be a modern version of his Academy to train statespersons. (Instead, they graduate from business schools or Hollywood.) There are think tanks, but not wisdom tanks. If the political task is to plan humanity’s future, it might better be done by a technocracy of experts in the many disciplines relevant to that task, including global management of population and resources. They would make and enforce laws designed to ensure a viable future.

Such a governing committee might operate by consensus; but society as a whole (potentially the world) would not be ruled by democratically elected representatives. Instead, staggered appointments would be drawn by lottery among qualified candidates. The term of office would be fixed, non-renewable, and only modestly paid. This arrangement would bypass many of the problems that plague modern democracies, beginning with de facto oligarchy. There would be no occasion to curry favor with the public nor fear its disaffection, since the “will of the people” would be irrelevant. Hence, the nefarious aspects of social media (or corporately controlled official media) wouldn’t touch the political process. There would be no election campaigns, no populist demagoguery, no contested voting results, no need for fake news or disinformation. (Validation of knowledge within scientific communities has its own well-established protocols that remain relatively immune to the toxic by-products and skepticism of the Internet Age.)

Admittedly, members of this governing committee would not be immune to bribery or to using the office for personal benefit (just as juries and judges are sometimes corrupted). Spiritual advice before the modern age was to be in the world and not of it. Taking that seriously today may be the only cure for humanity’s age-old obsession with power and glory. Still, technocracy might be an improvement over the present farce of democracy.

[Acknowledgement: many of the ideas in this post were inspired by The Dawn of Everything by David Graeber and David Wingrow, McClelland and Stewart, 2021—a challenging and rewarding read.]