Power Corrupts, and Absolute Power...

"Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power."
Abraham Lincoln. 
I read recently in a book by the journalist Jon Ronson (who, incidentally, also authored "The Psychopath Test", on which I based a previous post entitled, "Do Psychopaths Run the World?") that the genius film director Stanley Kubrick had a great distrust of those in power. After talking to Kubrick's widow, Christiane, Ronson states that the couple's "great principle in life" was to "always be suspicious of people who have, or crave, power". I have to say that I think I share Kubrick's point of view, and as I watched "The Politician's Husband" on BBC2 the other day, the first scenes of which depict David Tennant's character's failed bid for power, I began to wonder just what makes people want such power, and what does it do to them when they get it?
To use a contemporary example, it was recently the funeral of one-time Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. I grew up under Thatcher's leadership and the birth of a right-wing revolution in politics, the ramifications of which we are still feeling today. But, what interested me perhaps most about Margaret Thatcher was her apparent love of power. It may have just been my own perception, but when Thatcher gave a speech, it was as if she were possessed by something. And, to me, that something, that slightly crazy glint in the eye which I seemed to see, was the love of power. When she was eventually deposed, with all the drama of a Shakespearean denouement, I think I remember her saying, "it was treachery, with a smile on its face". Later, apparently, according to the one time Russian leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, she remarked that really, she wouldn't mind being back in charge again. Even the Russian leader said that this showed a rather too vigorous attachment to power.
All the same, this doesn't really answer my previous questions - what makes people want power? and what does it do to them when they get it? Perhaps if we look at a couple of psychological experiments some sort of answer can be found.
From 14th to 20th August 1971, an experiment was conducted by a team of researchers led by psychology professor Philip Zimbardo, in which 24 male students were selected to take on randomly assigned roles of prisoners and prison guards in a mock prison set up in the basement of Stanford University's psychology building. Known as the Stanford Prison Experiment, it was designed to show the psychological effects of becoming a prisoner or prison guard. What happened during the study was truly disturbing. Those assigned the role of guard began to enforce authoritarian measures and eventually subjected some "prisoners" to psychological torture, while prisoners appeared to passively accept psychological abuse and also, at the request of the guards, harassed other prisoners who tried to prevent such treatment. Even Zimbardo himself, in his role as "superintendent" of the experiment, was affected, allowing the abuse to continue. Not surprisingly, the experiment was abruptly stopped after only six days.
In the Milgram experiment, Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram set up a scenario to test, in his own words, "just how much pain an ordinary citizen would inflict on another person simply because he was ordered to by an experimental scientist". The experiment, then, which began in July 1961, took the form of one person being ordered to give another increasingly powerful electric shocks. To the surprise of even other psychologists, an astounding 65% eventually administered a massive (and quite possibly fatal, if it had been real) 450-volt shock. The people being ordered to administer the shocks were unaware that they were not real, and although many were uncomfortable and obviously had doubts about inflicting such pain, the presence of a figure of authority (the scientist) meant that they simply obeyed instructions to do so.
So, both the Stanford University Prison Experiment and the Milgram Experiment seemed to prove that when people are given even a little power, they are prone to abuse it, and also that people seem overwhelmingly to conform to instructions from those in power, even when those instructions lead to harm. Much has been made of how both these experiments explained how tyrannical forms of power come to be.
Perhaps, though, the most chilling description of the abuse of power comes from literature, in George Orwell's "1984". Orwell shows how power can become not a means to anything, but rather an end in itself, the character of O'Brien stating: "But always, there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler... If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face - forever."
It would seem, then, that some simply love power and nothing else, and to return to Thatcher for a second, I remember that she cried upon leaving Downing Street for the last time. Someone once said to me that at least this showed that she had feelings, but to my mind, didn't it just show that she was leaving something behind which she had come to love - power? And, perhaps, as Gandhi said, until the power of love replaces the love of power, this will never be a peaceful place.            


Dixie said…
Dear David,

You've put the raw in elegant form. You haven't wrapped it or covered it in flowery phrases. Too often that is what we get... sugar-coated explanations from those "in power"... on why they need more.

Persons like Lincoln, Kubrick, yourself are ones I appreciate and agree with. Those experiments you shared are not much surprising, but I only say that based on this past year's experiences. Unfortunately for some like me, that's what it takes to comprehend what real insanity is. Living is a teacher of many things.

Often I mute the sound on the telly or computer and watch the faces of those who would "master" me. They harbor the same glint you spoke of; it is like possession, but by what?

This is a powerful post, David. I've reread it several times. It speaks to what/who I am, and what/who I wish to avoid becoming. Lastly I think I've found a couple things to take with me to help do battle against those power-hungry individuals that are so nearby.

Kudos, David.


David said…
Hi Dixie,
Thank you for your appreciation of what I've written. I'm extremely glad if, in any way, this blog helps you or others who might read it.
Very Best Wishes,
Your blogging pal,
klahanie said…
Dear David,

Apologies in such a delay in commenting. And now, in an exhausted state, I shall leave but a brief comment.

We discussed your article over the phone and indeed I mentioned I was aware of the experiment you allude to in your article.

Let me just add one dimension. Perhaps some people who crave power are actually insecure people who need the rush of power to convince themselves they are something better than others. Just a thought. Intriguing and I've decided I'm going to rule blogland!

Talk soon, my friend.

David said…
Hi Gary,
Thanks for your comment, no matter how belated it may be!
I see what you mean about those who crave power actually being quite insecure. Maybe it fills some kind of void in their own lives.
Anyway, Gare, it seems to me that you're well on the way to taking over blogland, what with your army of adoring followers! Sorry, my jealousy of your blog success is once again painfully obvious.
Take care, Gare (oh, that rhymes!) and I'll speak with you soon.
Very Best Wishes,

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