Power (Over) Corrupts

Power CorruptsThe pedophile priest scandal in the Catholic Church over the past 25 years is just one more example of the societal axiom that “power corrupts”. The phrase is actually a bit too simplistic, not all forms of power necessarily corrupt. I would say more specifically that power exercised from the top down (what some delineate as “power-over”) inevitably leads to some form of corruption if the people subjected to this form of leadership are not involved in the governance process and/or do not have comparable power of their own to check the actions of their leaders. This was a key factor motivating the American Revolution (e.g. “taxation without representation”), the French Revolution and many other similar insurrections… part of a larger trend in the world to move from authoritarian toward more egalitarian models of governance. This other idea of power flowing from empowered consent of the group is what is delineated as “power-with”.

Many of us and our forebears through the centuries have fantasized about all the great things an “enlightened despot” could get done, rather than have to go through the messy “sausage making” of the democratic process. A recent case and point is the difficult path to passage of American health care reform legislation. If I had despotic power I would enact a single-payer system for the U.S. like Canada’s. Others might be convinced that this approach would be a disaster, and if enacted by dictatorial fiat (rather than by majority agreement) it probably eventually would be.

I have read extensively about Napoleon Bonaparte, perhaps the world’s most famous enlightened despot, and the milieu in which he rose to power, initially through popular consent but then transitioning to virtual dictatorship. The French republic of the early 1800’s (recently formed by violent revolution) that he rose to power in, was besieged on all sides by the remaining monarchies of Europe that feared the contagion of republicanism (plus the British who had their own set of issues with the French). As Napoleon quickly demonstrated his ability to lead armies to victory and expertly build progressive national infrastructure (in his country and conquered territories throughout Europe), the majority of the French people (in their desperation) willingly granted him his despotism, an act of at least initial consent of sorts.

Ultimately he did not succeed in making peace (through strength of arms) with France’s powerful neighbors and adversaries, but instead was “corrupted” leading to his misguided attempt to militarily subdue all the major continental monarchies of Europe, including a disastrous invasion of Russia. Whether it was ego, hubris, desperation or too narrow of a perspective, Napoleon did not have the empowered consent of his very able generals to perhaps advise him otherwise.

Fast-forwarding several centuries, look around the world today and see the corruption of power-over hierarchies, whether authoritarian national governments (like Iran or China) or hierarchical organizations (religious, educational, etc) within politically democratic countries. I continue to be troubled by our own education system’s hierarchical “command and control” bureaucracy that seems to me more like the old Soviet Union than an effective institution for preparing our youth to be active citizens in a democratic country.

And returning to religious denominations, see how the ones that are the most top-down in their governance structures tend to be the ones most subject to corruption. As I mentioned at the top of this piece, look at the troubles the very hierarchical Catholic governance structures are facing. If the goal is maintaining organizational continuity, and there are no checks and balances (including feedback from an empowered laity), then incidents of corruption (in this case child abuse) tend to be “managed” without transparency toward that goal of continuity and maintenance of the power structure.

In Iran, another hierarchical power-over theocratic structure continues to corrode what attempts this proud and long-lived country makes to reinstate more progressive governance institutions. Iran is no Yugoslavia or Iraq, countries cobbled together with disparate ethnic enclaves by imperialist Western countries. The United States was involved in setting up what was essentially an attempt at an “enlightened despotism” in the rule of the Shahs in Iran after World War II. The corruption of that regime led to revolution and the replacement of secular despots by a theocratic order that maybe had the approval of the majority of the people initially, but with its power-over model led inexorably to a new corrupt despotism.

I find it of note how Judaism has generally avoided high levels of corruption. With the destruction of the Temple thousands of years ago, its governance model transitioned from the original hierarchical priesthood to a much flatter, more egalitarian model of rabbis and minions exercising a more facilitative power-with model, without a strong central authority akin to the Catholic archdioceses and Papacy. The Protestant Reformation introduced flatter, more egalitarian religious structures within Christianity, which can be argued were precursors of the more egalitarian secular governments in the West that followed.

I am less familiar with the branches of Islam, Hinduism, and other religions centered more in Asia, but note the apparent egalitarian governance of Buddhism, and its continuing role as an ethical conscience (and challenge to corrupt authoritarian regimes) in many parts of Asia.

Even our country’s recent financial meltdown has the hallmarks of power-over corruption. Big financial firms were essentially operating without checks and balances, creating new finance products that were not sufficiently understood by most investors, and lost their sense of balance, being corrupted by the possibility of huge financial returns.

Frequently this sort of power-over situation exists between adults and youth (think kids with their parents and kids in school for two key areas). As a society, and in our laws, we tend to put the adult in the (often difficult) position of being completely responsible for one or more non-adult human beings. The adult is expected (by law and/or custom) to make all the important decisions, and by those same conventions, allowed to do so without the consent or even the consultation of the youth under their charge. For some adults, who are not well versed in developing good relationships with young people under their purview, it can become an exercise in simple enforcement of adult-mandated rules “by any means necessary”, which can involve an inordinate amount of power-over control and coercion.

Just like any other institution where power-over control is exercised, the adults (parents, school staff, etc) in positions of authority over youth put themselves in the position of being vulnerable to the inevitable corruption.

But what forms does the “corruption” take in the adult-youth interaction? I see it when I am out and about, particularly in a store, restaurant or a mall where a certain amount of decorum and restraint is expected, and kids (unlike perhaps in parks) can’t just “run wild”. I see the parents saying “stop that!” to their kids and/or threatening some punishment, the words spoken with an undercurrent of anger which feels like a projection from something repressed. Perhaps the angry parent is venting rage from some previous interaction with another adult (spouse, boss, etc) where the situation or social convention (or personal shyness) prevented them from confronting the real source of their directly.

The convention is that parents can “discipline” their own kids however they see fit, as long it doesn’t cross some abstract line into overt “child abuse”. This amounts to a nearly unmitigated power-over relationship between parent and child, and for the parent who perhaps does not know better, a situation where they can vent or dump stresses from other situations on a young person who really has not good means of redress. I have been guilty of this at times with my own kids along the way. Some of us adults learn to consistently speak respectfully to young people (even when we are very angry) like we would with another adult. Some of us don’t.

But the temptation is always there to dump on your kid… no one is likely to rise to their defense. Where conventions of hierarchical control still hold play, like they mostly do in parenting (and in the surrogate parenting in schools), even we parents who consider ourselves more “enlightened” will have the occasion to vent or dump on our kids inappropriately. Kids generally assume that they are somehow at fault, that their bad behavior justifies all this rage directed upon them. Or else they “suck it up” and instead dump on a younger sibling or years later on their own kids.

What I believe is at play here are remnants of ancient patriarchal wisdom, perpetuated for thousands of year from generation to generation (see my previous posts on “Defining Patriarchy” and “Defining Adultism”). The wisdom of hierarchical power-over control is to do as you will with your “charges” just as long as you ensure they behave appropriately for their “station”. We have done so much as a world to move away from this unequal relationship between people, but obviously we still have a long way to go.

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