On power and politics

1

A certain notoriously nefarious fictional character once said, “There is no good and evil. There is only power.”

As a child, I was incredulous at Lord Voldemort’s chilling words. I believed that there must exist a clearly delineated moral dichotomoy – the good and the evil separated like black and white pieces on a chess board. Watching crime or tragedy on the news, I always thought that victim and perpetrator were two completely separate entities, and that the ‘bad guy’ could be found, picked out from behind a twoway mirror and trudged away in handcuffs, with a head bowed and hands red.

But growing older, I realized that there is no such thing as an ethical binary – ‘right’ is only ever a direction, opposite to left. Interestingly, this made life a lot more simple – instead of wrangling with the abstract concepts of good or evil, I was left with one more or less concrete determining factor for the actions of mice and men: power. Multifaceted as it may be, power is far easier to grasp than any nebulous notion of virtue, or infamy – by itself, it is amoral. As Michel Foucault posited in his discussion of power, “the field has nothing to do with guilt or innocence.”

By its simplest definition, power is the ability to execute your will, a means to an end. A head of state, or any political position, has certain powers – the power to legislate, to veto, to declare war. Power is a vehicle for control, of people or of circumstance. It should be nothing more. Unfortunately, however, power – the study of which may be called ‘politics’ – often becomes an end in and of itself, and leaders use the means at their disposal to gain more control for its own sake. This leads to a vicious cycle of oppression, uprising, and merciless retaliation, for one’s justification for gaining power is never stronger than when said power is threatened.

The Arab Spring exemplifies the corrosive effects of concentrated power on a country – in particular, Egypt’s perpetual political instability proves that ideals and policies, the personalities and proclivities of leaders, do not matter: it is the scope of the power they wield, and their desire to maintain it, that instigates uprising. Was Morsi, and his Muslim Brotherhood, bad for Egypt? Was he good? Is Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, who spearheaded the campaign to overthrow the latter, better?

Qualitative judgments are pointless, ceaselessly re-interpreted with no concrete solution. What determines apt governance is quantitative – the amount of power granted, the boundaries and limits to arbitrary action. An appropriate amount of power is difficult to establish, but I believe that it is generally one that allows for its own erosion – a successful leader is one who accepts change when it is necessary even if it attenuates his influence, who does not pursue power as an end but as a means to improvement and progress.

This may seem like an untenable ideal – as I write, thousands of protesters are streaming onto city streets, from the crumbling asphalt of Caracas roads to the fiery, Molotov-strewn squares of Kiev. They march against their government’s monopoly of power, its refusal to delegate decision-making to the people – they yell and struggle against opacity, the barrier that separates them from the ability to bring about their well-being. It is difficult to claim that Yanukovych and Maduro are bad people – they are merely greedy, and they are afraid. In the case of the former, political power did not prevail, and popular dissent managed to force a head of state off of his perch on the backs of the Ukranian people.

Power gluttons tend to stick together, though, and with the overthrow of Yanukovych came an implicit threat to a neighboring autocrat: this could happen to you. Across the Atlantic, Venezuelan leaders are struggling to maintain the status quo – loss of power means change, uncontrollable and most likely disadvantageous. Yet how can we reconcile these two conflicting ideas, of men that have human emotions and fears – fear of loss, of the unknown – that drive them to commit and condone inhumane treatment? Of men that are not bad, who do not wish harm, yet whose desires are incongruent with good?

Power is not easy to wield, but it is far harder, it seems, to relinquish. Sometimes we need to wrest it from the hands of those who grip too tight, whose hands have grown used to the weight of power and seek to hold more, to build the muscle of authority. But we must not unduly condemn those who have swelled with power – rather, we must educate them, and the generations to succeed them, on the dangers of power, and build mechanisms to protect leaders from gorging themselves. Power, like sugar or fat, is good and necessary to a certain extent, but to excess is unhealthy, and breeds a variety of illnesses, both in the individual and society. There is no good or bad – there are only good and bad amounts of power. No matter how benevolent, a man cannot do good with absolute power.

1 COMMENT

  1. Let’s not oversimplify the stance of leaders, however, assuming that their position of power automatically puts them at this self-perpetuating strive for power. Interestingly you mentioned Maduro, who is largely the prolongation political image of Hugo Chavez. Hugo, ironically, was the antithesis of this power-accumulating leader that you paint in your analysis; he was the greatest creator of direct channels of political participation history has seen. As though corruption (which is pervasive in the Venezuelan political scenario) distorts this reality, Hugo made his country the place with the most recurrent direct public consultations (from referendums to plebiscites) globally. So as power was attributed to him, he reallocated–to an unprecedented extent–to the hands of those who historically have been powerless. His government was marked by his capacity to “delegate decision-making to the people”, which brings into question your apparent hypothesis that leaders are inherently prone to power-accumulation. And if they are not inherently so, then other factors will determine how much they seek for power (which ultimately tackles your uni-dimensional approach at understanding people).

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