Keith's NO EMPIRE Blog

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Thursday, September 06, 2007

Ruthless Ambition

In many ways, history is a depressing continuum of human abuse of humans. Endless wars, imperial conquest and brutal subjugation, slavery and torture. Death and destruction of such an ongoing, recurring nature that it seems to be part of human nature. The way things have always been. And the way things will always be? The answer is obviously yes. And no.

Anything which has re-occurred with such regular and depressing consistency clearly reflects “normal” human behavior. Therefore, unless some change occurs in human social-organizational dynamics, we may expect warfare and other destructive activities to continue indefinitely, or until nuclear warfare ends the human experiment. For those advocating peace and justice, it is critically important to identify what factors may be causing this recurring cruel and destructive behavior, and, hopefully, what can be changed to minimize it.

In looking at social reality, two things seem particularly significant in regards to social behavior. The first is the degree to which power becomes concentrated in the hands of a relatively small group of self-serving elites (the nobility, the oligarchy, the corporate aristocracy, etc). The second is the degree to which the elites impose their outlook and goals on society as a whole. In short, society traditionally reflects the outlook, goals, and world-view of it’s elites.

By simple logic we may infer that warfare, exploitation, and other forms of abuse have occurred and continue to occur because the elites perceive that it is in their interests to cause society to engage in these types of activities. Warfare and violence seem to be a means both to facilitate internal social-organizational control and, if successful, to gain control over external resources. Additionally, there seems to be some perverse psychological gratification to arbitrary ruthlessness and cruelty.

Of course, men of ambition are not found only in powerful nations and great empires. The quislings, compradors, and satraps are usually comprised of the men of ambition of the subjugated states. The self-starters whose power-lust is best pursued by service to their imperial sponsor. They are an essential component of successful empires, providing the necessary local compliance with imperial designs, for which they are richly rewarded. Indeed, no empire can long endure without their opportunistic ambition.

If one thinks about it for even a little while, it should be clear that continually engaging in vile, reprehensible and destructive behavior for the sake of power accumulation is perverse. Men of ambition with an overwhelming desire to succeed, and who don’t let anything stand in their way. Their lives devoted to domination and control, they seek to destroy the competition, and react to resistance and opposition with vengeful and vindictive fury. The type of person capable of putting an entire city to the sword or carpet-bombing defenseless civilians. Or inducing mass starvation through neo-liberal structural adjustments. These are the shakers and movers our social mythology praises, yet who, on close examination, are psychologically unbalanced sociopaths from whom society needs to be protected. The depressing reality is that the people (mostly men) calling the shots are humanity’s biggest problem.

I feel justified in referring to “men of ambition” rather than “people of ambition” because the will to power appears to be a predominantly male obsession. While limited numbers of women engage in the historically intense struggle for power, the history of humans and the study of chimpanzees strongly suggests that intense power-seeking activity is primarily among the males. A certain degree of power-seeking seems to exist in most humans, however, the intensity seems to vary among individuals, with truly pathological intensity concentrated in a relatively small number of males. Individual will to power seems to be influenced by circumstances. Power corrupts. Men who acquire power tend to want more, and to put much more emphasis on power-seeking than on other considerations, such as morality, decency, and the common good. In the extreme, power-seekers are myopic, ruthless, and ultimately destructive.

While power corrupts even relatively “normal” people, many positions of power come to be occupied by people who had a strong power-lust to begin with. In the long run, positions of power tend to be occupied by those who strive to achieve power, and who focus their energy on achieving their power goals. This is manifestly the case in the more open societies where hard work, political skill, obsessive striving for power, and ruthlessness are common characteristics of the business and governmental elites. In the olden days, “weak” kings were either dominated by “strong” underlings (the power behind the throne), or overthrown, or perhaps conquered and subjugated. Nowadays, the competitive nature of “success” (power accumulation) virtually guarantees that most positions of significant power will eventually be filled by someone consumed with power lust, a man of ambition.

It should come as no big surprise that these men of ambition are much admired in our society. Since the powerful are the primary shapers of social mythology, it is only natural that these myths reflect the elite worldview. It is quite common to admire people who are “successful” in the materialistic sense of the term. People who acquire high status positions (corporate executive, high ranking military, upper echelon politicians, etc.) and who make a lot of money. A good example of this is Alexander of Macedonia who is known as Alexander the Great, even though his primary accomplishment was warfare and mass-murder. The Roman Empire is also much admired, even though the “Pax Romana” is a misrepresentation of the successful, brutal suppression of subjugated peoples. In short, our elite oriented social mythology tends to present as exemplary people and situations which in reality are reprehensible and dysfunctional. One consequence of this is to obscure the reality that warfare and most other social dysfunction is a direct consequence of the social concentration of power, and the virtually inevitable wielding of that power by the more-or-less sociopathic men of ambition.

From a social-organizational standpoint, the problem is relatively straight-foreward. Concentrated power needs to be reduced or eliminated to the greatest extent possible. Stated another way, power (particularly economic power) needs to be distributed much more broadly. At the least, we need to cut the super-rich and mega-corporations down to size. No easy task, nonetheless essential. Local autonomy, rolling back corporate globalization, progressive taxation on income and assets for individuals and organizations are necessary steps. We need to strengthen the political system while weakening government, particularly the imperial military. Unless we make significant changes to how society is run, the future is truly bleak.

What must be kept in mind is that in our capitalist society, money is the primary instrument of social control, which is wielded by the financial elites and corporations who more or less impose their will on society through their control of the media, the government, and through market mechanisms. In this regard, it should be noted that the market always favors the rich over the poor, and is a most effective means of social control. Marxist claptrap about ownership of the means of production is delusional at best. Replacing the oligarches with commissars achieves nothing, and could possibly be counterproductive.

The key is to understand that the primary issue is how society deals with the issue of power, and with the socially dysfunctional, sociopathic men of ambition who lust after it. In any society striving for peace, justice, and the common good, power needs to be relatively diffuse, with strict safeguards against significant power accumulation. All other factors are secondary. Once power becomes significantly concentrated, the more powerful men of ambition will seek to destroy the competition and consolidate their positions of power. Then, all will be as it has always been, and society will continue to be driven to death and destruction by mad-men who are consumed with power-lust. Make no mistake, unless we successfully deal with the empire builders, humanity faces the very real possibility of extinction.

Seattle Keith