The Madness of Power: Bafflement Essay #2
‘Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.’ Abraham Lincoln
In this Bafflement Essay I am going to addresses the problem of Power Gone Mad.
During this crisis, I’ve watched the leaders of the Western world change as they exercise more and more power, some morphing into people I hardly recognise. How has that lovely Angela Merkel (well, I liked her) – the one who welcomed all those Syrian refugees – Mama Europe, uninterested in political theatre and money-making, become the politician who has overseen the changing of the German constitution and introduction of a new system of social segregation?
As I’ve given up broadcast news for health reasons, I see such announcements in short clips on social media. I’ve watched incredulously as a political leader I previously considered liberal, reasonable, maybe a trifle dull, reveals an entirely different personality. I’m talking about Justin Trudeau announcing that ‘the unvaccinated’ will no longer be permitted to leave the country, and Jacinda Ardern confirm smilingly that, yes, New Zealand will henceforth be a two-tier society. Watching Macron launch the trend of vaccine passports in July 2021, turning the civilised country I knew well into a divided, unequal and unfree society, was a visceral experience. For the first time in my life I experienced the reality of the expression ‘my blood ran cold’.
In the early days of Australia’s developing tyranny when I didn’t know who Dan Andrews was, I was utterly baffled. How could elected politicians talk to the people who’d elected them like that?
These days, it’s gloves off in what I call the Coercion Countries. Observing the relish of leaders announcing tyranny after tyranny has given me the most eye-widening, jaw-dropping moments of my life. These are not the tyrants of history or despots of some far-off land. These are elected leaders shaping – in some cases, ruining – the lives of millions in of Western democracies, right now.
In a democratic age we’ve long been fascinated by the power-mad leader. There’s more than a bit of modern superiority as we contemplate Ozymandias lying in the sand, reduced to rubble in a fallen civilisation. Such a ruler would never happen to us. Dictators we know about, but there’s a tendency to assume that, like mass murderers, they are psychopaths, aberrant humans governing in an exceptional way. In a sense, they’re The Other of democracy.
In the modern West, our leaders are people like us, granted a lease of power to make decisions on our behalf because most of us have neither the desire nor the time to run a country. It’s been a struggle to get to that point – even after monarchy gave way to democracy, the view that elected leaders must have a certain status persisted. In nineteenth-century Britain, you had to be monied and male to have the vote, while other countries have at times limited suffrage to the white folk.
Latterly, with representative government firmly in place, we tend to believe that tyrannical rule is behind us. Given this democratic confidence, the extent of the power our leaders have felt entitled to wield over us in 2020 and 2021 is baffling. Politicians who have governed in a reasonable, Dr Jekyll-like fashion for years have, over a very short period, become political Mr Hydes. Something Has Happened.
The ‘power paradox’ may go some way to explain this phenomenon. There seems to be a gap in research where political psychology is concerned, but studies of the corporate world have found that leaders do indeed change once they’d made it to the top. According to Dacher Keltner, a psychologist at the University of California, people behave cooperatively on their way up the greasy pole, with those who become successful known for their likeable personalities. But that changes once people have won the power they crave: ‘When you give people power, they basically start acting like fools,’ he says. ‘They flirt inappropriately, tease in a hostile fashion, and become totally impulsive.’ He compared the effect of having power to brain damage, likening those with a lot of power to neurological patients with a damaged orbito-frontal lobe, an area of the brain crucial for empathy and decision-making.
Another recent study found that the acquisition of power tended to heighten self-interested behaviour and diminish the capacity for moral reasoning.
Such findings are consistent with the maxim that power corrupts, something long observed anecdotally in many different societies and situations. Its truth seems to be confirmed by the Stanford Prison Experiment of 1971, a piece of empirical research which took twenty-four Americans, carefully selected for their qualities as upstanding citizens, and allocated them the roles of prisoner and prison guard. Within hours, the guards were abusing their authority, waking the prisoners up in the night to make them recite the numbers that had replaced their names. As time went on, the guards became more contemptuous and the prisoners more submissive. The experiment had been intended to run for two weeks but was terminated after six days due to the emotional breakdowns of the prisoners and the abusive behaviour of the guards. Many years later, the psychologist leading the experiment admitted that he had been drawn into thinking more like a prison governor than an academic.
More recent research suggests that power doesn’t so much change as reveal character. The journalist Adam Grant, talking to corporate leaders at the World Economic Forum about their first-hand experiences of life at the top, found this view repeatedly confirmed. The acquisition of power, Slack founder Stewart Butterfield said, doesn’t make you an c$*)t: ‘It just makes you more of who you already were.’
Power, Grant points out, is a disinhibitor: if you feel powerful, you are more likely to do what you really want to do, and if those inner desires turn out to involve dominating others, your authority provides you with the means to exercise them. And it turns out that the influential Stanford Prison Experiment unwittingly incorporated a bias: in recruiting volunteers for ‘a study of prison life’, the project had attracted characters with a pre-disposition for authoritarian behaviour: ‘Power didn’t corrupt ordinary people. It corrupted people who already leaned toward corruption.’
So how might these insights apply to leaders in the Covid crisis?
A few weeks ago, as it was becoming clear that a new darkness was descending on Western Europe, I happened to be having dinner opposite a German activist. ‘So what’s happened to Merkel?’ I asked, mindful of the fact that the outgoing German chancellor had spent her first thirty-five years as a good East German in a totalitarian society. ‘Is it because she’s basically GDR?’
‘Yes, she’s GDR,’ replied my dinner companion. Merkel was on record, he went on, as having suggested that an autocratic political system was better suited to dealing with a pandemic than a democracy. (1) He added that the German leader was easily won over by praise – it might just take a phone call from someone influential saying she was doing a great job to persuade her to take a certain course of action.
Human, all-too-human. I am put in mind, amid all this talk of the myopia of power, of hearing the First Minister of Wales Mark Drakeford on the radio, defending his decision that supermarkets would not be allowed to sell items he deemed ‘non-essential’. The exact words are lost in the mists of audio, but it went something like this: ‘I won’t be needing any new clothes over the next two weeks, so I don’t imagine anyone else will either.’
Of course politicians don’t operate in a vacuum.
And here the first part of the answer to the question at hand must be that politicians, too, are swept up by the phenomenon of mass formation that I explored in my first Bafflement Essay.
Gustav Le Bon, the arch-thinker of the crowd, didn’t spare politicians with his acerbic observations on the psychology of the masses:
‘The general characteristics of crowds are to be met with in parliamentary assemblies: intellectual simplicity, irritability, suggestibility, the exaggeration of the sentiments and the preponderating influence of a few leaders … Simplicity in their opinions is one of their most important characteristics … they are always inclined to exaggerate the worth of their principles, and to push them to their extreme consequences. In consequence parliaments are more especially representative of extreme opinions.’
It’s enough to put you off democracy! Hannah Arendt, in her monumental study of Nazism and Stalinism, points to the shared vision uniting the rulers and ruled:
‘The leader has most often started as one of the led. He has himself been hypnotised by the idea, whose apostle he has since become. It has taken possession of him to such a degree that everything outside it vanishes, and that every contrary opinion appears to him an error or a superstition.’
Add to this our more recent understanding of the effects of stress on the brain, how it can limit attention to a single, proximate threat and impede decision-making that takes into account a full range of considerations, and you start to see how leaders also fall victim to the madness of power.
In this pertinent post from Germany, Eugyppius charts Merkel’s evolution from a calm, pragmatic Western leader intending to follow established approaches to managing infectious disease to an anxious woman putting the entire population under house arrest. Mass formation is an academic term for modern anxiety gone widespread. And here we can perhaps feel some sympathy for our beleaguered leaders, tasked day after day, month after month, with dealing with an ongoing, unpredictable crisis. Outside the government offices are The Crowd – your electorate, and the guardians of your political legacy. Inside (in person or online) are the scientists, the modellers, the health service people prophesying doom and warning, always warning. They never stop showing you data and spreadsheets are not your thing. This is not what you came into politics for.
Recent correspondence from the UK confirms that anxiety is rife in British government. My correspondent had spent some time with an official at the heart of the decision-making process in Downing Street, and realised with alarm that his companion was so stressed that he had lost his sense of perspective. Like many working in Whitehall over the past two years, the official concerned lacks a home life and neither eats nor rests properly. People liked lockdowns, he said, and spoke of the next phase of the crisis in a tone of ‘hushed terror’.
Anxiety. You can see it in the broadcasts in which leaders announce the latest measures, in the taut, tense lips, the furrowed brows. Almost all of us will have had at least one teacher like that in our schooldays. You knew instinctively, years before you could even spell ‘psychology’, that Miss or Sir was not quite right, not grounded in life in the way you and your friends – normal people – were.
But we should also – and here I’m less inclined to feel sorry for politicians – remember the intoxicating qualities of power. Think of a leader who came into power unexpectedly, perhaps just for a term, and didn’t seem to be enjoying it much. And then he’s going for election again, and the one after that. He can’t let go. Power can be addictive.
So perhaps a couple of pieces in the jigsaw have been put into place. You are in power and for the most part, you govern moderately, in keeping with the political culture of the country. And then Something Happens and you’re caught up in the popular mood – after all, your position depends on it – and you’re swept along on a powerful tide of fear-driven, short-term reactions. The people shout MEASURES! You give them RESTRICTIONS! They call for MORE! And the cycle continues, briefly interrupted by periods of rest and the odd word of protest, a kind of looping, mutually re-enforcing spiral of panic which takes everyone onwards and downwards into a flight from the world and each other. All the while there are people close by telling you you are taking the right course of action – well, almost right – catastrophe is looming, so you need to do MORE – and these people have levels of knowledge and money that far exceed what you’ve ever been able to muster in your climb to the top. They prophesy disaster if you don’t do what they tell you, and point out that the consequences of Not Doing will be Your Fault. And they couch their arguments so fully in the terms of the values of the age – safety must come first, nothing is more important than saving lives – that you, the leader, find yourself almost powerless to resist.
But if the above fully explained things, nearly two years after the appearance of a new respiratory disease wouldn’t we now be seeing in Western society a gradual calming of that panic, a sense of the emergency ending and a new, more constructive period beginning? Governments which had entered that phase would focus on the future health and flourishing of society. They would be prepared to invest more in the capacity of health services – now would be an excellent time to have the public debate about the costs and trade-offs. And they would be interested in promoting ways of life that build the immunity, well-being and resilience of the population.
This is not happening.
Instead what we are seeing, towards the end of this second year of Covid, is a drive towards greater and greater control in the Western world. Lockdowns have been added to the vaccines that were supposed to end the lockdowns that were initially introduced as a temporary measure. Vaccine passports are widespread and there are calls for mandatory vaccination. The ‘unvaccinated’ have become the scapegoats for an endemic disease and, with three or four shots a year needed to maintain protection, you don’t have to look very far into the future to see growing numbers of people being allocated to that category. Meanwhile, a new restrictive trend is emerging, with the requirement for testing on top of vaccination to access public places and countries. (2)
Western Europe is following Australia and Canada into a new form of authoritarianism based on a narrow conception of public health and its role as the organising principle of society. The European Union is proposing to introduce a framework from March 2022 which would make travel within the EU ‘fully dependent on the status of the traveller, and not on the country of departure’. Only vaccinated travellers updated with boosters that are ‘EU-approved’ will be allowed to make ‘non-essential’ trips. (That’ll keep the Africans out.) Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is openly planning a future of ongoing restrictions in Ireland: in between times, he suggests, ‘we should try to have periods of freedom and give people a break.’ In Australia, the thinking is well ahead of evidence about disease transmission or vaccine efficacy, with the prospect of masks and boosters for ‘many years to come’.
In recent weeks, the wheels of control have been spinning faster and faster. Aided by their ongoing emergency status, the governments of Europe have been announcing new measures every few days. Absurdities and contradictions multiply, and the growing numbers of voices pointing to alternatives based on countervailing evidence are ignored.
It is all quite baffling.
At this point, I’m moved to consider an aspect of power that is widely ignored. I am talking about its apparently impersonal nature, the way power appears to have a force of its own that exceeds the individuals and institutions which wield it. Replace a leader with someone promising change, and the same problems and policies repeat. Look to an organisation that claims to be different, and see it enact the failings of the mainstream. In this respect, the thinker of the moment, this unfolding of the end-of-an-era in the Western world, has to be Michel Foucault.
Beginning his career in the wake of Stalinism, rooted in philosophy but influenced by thinking across the humanities and social sciences, Foucault became preoccupied early on with what he called ‘the problem of power’. Through a set of highly specific, historical analyses covering madness, criminality and sexuality, he identified the emergence of a new form – a ‘modality of power’ – in the West. In modern society, he argued, power is not something a monarch or an emperor exercises over a population that would otherwise be free; it is rather a network of relations, a systemic force operating throughout the social fabric. It’s also a constitutive force, bringing behaviours, identities and discourses that have not previously existed into being. Thus the modern judicial system creates new categories of crime and criminals, while inside the modern prison (exemplified by Bentham’s panopticon) inmates become self-disciplining, obeying the norms of the prison regime without the need for external coercion:
‘If power were never anything but repressive, if it never did anything but to say no, do you really think one would be brought to obey it? What makes power hold good, what makes it accepted, is simply the fact that it doesn’t only weigh on us as a force that says no; it also traverses and produces things, it induces pleasure, forms knowledge, produces discourse. It needs to be considered as a productive network that runs through the whole social body, much more than as a negative instance whose function is repression.’
Foucault’s analysis was a radical departure from the conception of power standardly held in political theory, one that eschewed the quest for ‘essence’ that had characterised much of the philosophical tradition. Multi-disciplinary to the point of defying categorisation, his work was highly psychological, and focused on internal coercion, the ways in which modern people participate in their own oppression. His distinctive approach resonated with readers in many areas of life: while Discipline and Punish (published in 1975) was presented as a history of confinement, it was received as a commentary on contemporary society with its increasing forms of control and surveillance. It spoke to a deep anxiety about life in the modern West. Are we as free as we think we are? How far are democratic societies inoculated against the kinds of oppressive forces that de-humanise and destroy?
Foucault’s response in an interview about whether power differs in totalitarian societies and democracies addresses this lurking anxiety:
‘In Discipline and Punish, I tried to show how, in the West, a certain type of power brought to bear on individuals through education, through the shaping of their personality, was correlative with the birth not only of an ideology but also of a liberal regime … You can place it in the USSR or in a Western country, as you wish; that’s your business.’
The answer, while not reassuring to those wanting an easy opposition between democracy and authoritarianism, is liberating when it comes to getting a better understanding of power. If you follow the direction of Foucault’s thinking, with its forensic examination of the dynamics and forms of power, truths and insights that would otherwise remain in the shadows come to light. In focusing on the effects of power rather than the intentions of leaders, it’s an approach that frees you to ask the important questions: what is going on? Do I like it? What does it mean for society and for the future?
Trust the tale, not the teller.
Just look at what is.
If we accept that there are dynamics at play which we modern people have barely begun to understand, we’re perhaps a step closer to understanding the phenomenon of the leader gone power-mad. Politicians act within this context; they only have the power they do because of the wider culture that creates and enables their authority.
But the colour of that authority varies; not all countries and all leaders are susceptible to the seductions of over-weening power to the same degree. The role of culture in shaping responses to Covid in particular countries and continents must be left to another Bafflement Essay, but the question of what makes particular personalities more power-hungry than others is germane to this one.
‘What is it that creates in men an insatiable lust for power?’ asked Erich Fromm, having fled from Hitler’s Germany. A psychoanalyst teaching psychology in America, Fromm wanted to understand the ‘human problem’ behind the rise of fascism in twentieth-century Europe, the psychology that lay beyond the economic and social conditions. In The Fear of Freedom he describes, Freudian-style, the elements that make up the authority personality, the sadistic and masochistic drives underlying ‘the longing for submission and the lust for power’. Most of his analysis concerns the masochistic side, the psychological reasons why the majority of the members of a democratic society were so easily persuaded to sacrifice their needs and rights for a murderous regime. But in his chapter on Nazism, Fromm turns his attention to the leadership form of the authoritarian personality.
Hitler’s psychological need to subjugate others is quite explicit in his own commentary on the project of Nazism: ‘It seems that in the morning and in the day men’s will power revolts with highest energy against an attempt at being forced under another’s will and another’s opinion. In the evening, however, they succumb more easily to the domineering force of a stronger will,’ he writes in Mein Kampf. Under the conscious rationalisations of the Nazi worldview lay a fundamental love of power: the exertion of power was its own justification. Those most lacking in power were to be despised and disposed of, while the masses must be made to submit to the powerful. Orwell articulates the same worldview with horrifying clarity in 1984. O’Brien tells Winston: ‘The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power – pure power.’
It’s important to remember that the Hitlers of the world are rare. And here we come back to the inadequacy of the ‘evil dictator’ to explain why political elites often behave despotically.
This was the problem that Hannah Arendt confronted in her report of the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1961. It was widely expected that the trial of the man who had been central to the deportation and death of millions of Jews would expose a murderous, sadistic personality. But his character baffled the experts:
‘Half a dozen psychiatrists had certified Eichmann as “normal.” “More normal, at any rate, than I am after having examined him,” one of them was said to have exclaimed, while another had found that Eichmann’s whole psychological outlook, including his relationship with his wife and children, his mother and father, his brothers and sisters and friends, was “not only normal but most desirable.”’
In the controversial report for the New Yorker that became the book entitled The Banality of Evil, Arendt wrestled with this psychological puzzle. Sitting in on the trial week after week, she heard how Eichmann’s responses effortlessly deflected the judges’ questions, how he could not remember things that did not support his own point of view. Recalling life as a leading Nazi, he expressed elation at his professional successes and aggrievement at his lack of promotion; the effects of his actions on others did not feature. At one point he recounted meeting a former colleague in a concentration camp – a man begging for release, who was subsequently shot – as if it were a pleasant encounter with a fellow countryman abroad. There was simply no adequation between what his judges, expressing the horror of the world, were presenting and Eichmann’s inner world.
Arendt ended up rejecting the idea that Eichmann was motivated by the radical evil she had identified at the end of The Origins of Totalitarianism. She posited instead an extreme case of a common psychological condition, coining the phrase ‘the banality of evil’ to capture an undramatic inability ‘to think from the standpoint of somebody else’.
Many were displeased by what they saw as Arendt’s failure to condemn evil in a tone of outrage and, for the next few years, she often had cause to explain her position. In one essay, she elaborated: ‘It was his thickheadedness that was so outrageous, outrageous, as if speaking to a brick wall. And that was what I actually meant by banality. There’s nothing deep about it – nothing demonic! There’s simply resistance ever to imagine what another person is experiencing.’ (4)
You can see how this assessment of Eichmann might be troubling. Instead of providing the key to the problem of human evil, something to help us to isolate and eradicate it, it brings the question home, back to ‘the darkness of the human heart’ in which we all have a share. Arendt’s ‘banality of evil’ thesis suggests that the elements which make up the power-mad leader are very much a part of human nature.
In the 1950s, a BBC interviewer asked Carl Jung about the possibility of a third world war: working with patients in 1930s’ Germany, the psychologist had foreseen the Second World War. Jung couldn’t say about the next one, but there was one thing of which he was sure:
‘We need more psychology. We need more understanding of human nature. The only real danger that exists is man himself. He is the great danger, and we are pitifully unaware of it … His psyche should be studied, because we are the origin of all coming evil.’
If, in this crisis, the leaders of the democratic world have gone mad, that has profound implications for the way we think about government and society. Assuming the Western world moves out of its current authoritarian phase and onto something more in keeping with the realities of the human condition, we need, as a first step, to start seeing politicians as people like us. I mean this in the deep, not the technical sense that in a representative democracy the leaders are the delegates of the electorate. Such a change would involve a profound psychological shift to the recognition that politicians, like us, are deeply fallible, capable of misjudgements, making mistakes and of doing evil. Hand in hand with that recognition would come an acknowledgement that governments can only do so much to alleviate suffering and limit death, especially where natural disasters are concerned.
Taking politicians off their pedestals as the fixers of the world would mean, secondly, recognising that when things have gone badly wrong, a different leader or political party alone won’t bring about change. Two-party democracies such as the United Kingdom and United States have long turned on a version of hero-worship in which disappointment in one President or Prime Minister is soothed away with the hope that ‘the other guy will save us’. Often, during this crisis, I’ve heard in modern electorates the voices of small children screaming at their parents. They come from both ‘sides’ of the Covid divide, from those calling for measures to make Covid go away and from those calling for an end to measures. One side carries an element of the demanding child determined to get his own way; the other that of a distressed child hoping that, with enough crying and begging, the parent will finally listen. Both responses suggest that part of what is driving the current situation is a transference of authority in which, at an unconscious level, political leaders are put into the role of parents.
If things are to be different in future, we need to rethink our relation to authority, to let go of our idealisations of politicians and our expectations that they can fulfil the role of supreme protectors against a difficult and changing reality.
At that point, the task is to resist the temptation to opt out and give way to cynicism. ‘You can’t change anything’, ‘politicians are all the same’, ‘politics is a waste of time’ are common expressions of a longstanding malaise. Recent years have seen many people opt out of the democratic system, with some channelling their social passion into single-issue activism while others have retreated into spiritual concerns or family life. But you cannot permanently ignore the rest of the world. This is a path which, while it might lead to a pleasanter part of the forest, ultimately allows the juggernaut of Power to roll on. Unchecked, that juggernaut will eventually get to your part of the woods too.
Instead – perhaps the third step, if we’re still counting – is to stop handing over all the power to the perceived grown-ups and to move into political adulthood. This would mean sharing responsibility for human fallibility and being prepared to see when leaders are losing it, to speak out and step up. It would mean creating a place between excessive trust and cynical detachment. Ultimately it probably means a different form of governance, something beyond voting (or not) every now and then. I don’t know what it would look like, this more mature form of self-government, what structures and processes would be involved. But I do know that the beginnings of a post-Peter Pan democracy lies in the maturing psyches of individuals, starting now.
For that, we need to address the widespread reluctance, even refusal, to think, when power spins out of control. And that will be the subject of the next Bafflement Essay.
1. ‘The open democracies would have had a harder time than the autocratic systems.’
2. In Portugal, for example, you now need a vaccine certificate and a negative test to enter a bar after 10.30 pm, or remain in one if you entered earlier. Unless you have a pizza, in which case the bar is not a bar.
3. I love this picture. But I take care not to look at it for too long for fear of falling into the abyss. It captures something of the mesmerising quality of totalitarian control, the fascination and the temptation that humans – both victims and oppressors – seem to have to give over their life spirit to another human power.
4. Hannah Arendt, Thinking Without a Banister: Essays in Understanding