Chapter 1: I thank David Mercer for helpful discussions and Mary Cawte for obtaining reference material about Lord Acton.
Chapter 2 is adapted from “Beyond mass media,”
Chapter 3 is adapted from “Against intellectual property,”
Chapter 4 is adapted from “Antisurveillance,”
The section in chapter 5 on Bauman’s treatment of the Holocaust is adapted from my column in Whistleblowers Australia’s newsletter
Chapter 6 is adapted from the leaflet “Defamation law and free speech,” first published by Whistleblowers Australia in September 1996. For extensive advice and comment on drafts, I thank Richard Blake, Sharon Callaghan, Michael Curtis, Don Eldridge, Chris Fox, Judith Gibson, Mary Heath and Mick Skrijel.
The boxed points in chapter 7 are adapted from “What should be done about higher education?”
For helpful comments on the entire manuscript, I thank Lyn Carson, Richard Gosden, Wendy Varney and Danny Yee.
1. Power tends to corrupt
Acton’s aphorism has outlasted his other contributions because it captures an insight that rings true to many people. Power certainly seems to corrupt quite a few politicians. Early in their careers, many of them are eager to change the system. They want to help the poor and disadvantaged and to root out corruption and unjust privilege. Yet when they actually get into positions of power, it’s a different story. The old slogans become memories. Instead, it becomes a higher priority to placate and reward powerful bureaucracies in both the government and corporate sectors. Most of all, it becomes a priority to increase the power and wealth of politicians themselves.
In the 1960s the so-called “new left” demanded power to the people. But how to achieve it? Some activists advocated the “long march through institutions” — in other words, left-wingers should work through the system to get into positions of power, climbing the ladder in government bureaucracies, corporations, political parties, professions and universities.
The idea that power tends to corrupt has an intuitive appeal, but is there anything more to it? A few social scientists have studied the corrupting effects of power.
Pioneering sociologist Robert Michels studied the tendency of political parties to become less democratic. Even in the most revolutionary parties, the leaders have gained greater power and become entrenched in their positions. The party organisation becomes an end in itself, more important than the party’s original aim. Michels concluded that every organisation is affected by these tendencies.
Pitirim Sorokin and Walter Lunden examined the behaviour of powerful leaders, such as kings of England. They found that those with the greatest power were far more likely to commit crimes, such as theft and murder, than ordinary citizens. This is striking evidence that power tends to corrupt.
But why does power corrupt? For the answer, it is worth consulting the excellent work by David Kipnis, a psychology researcher at Temple University.
For a person to be autonomous is widely considered to be a good thing. It is a feature of being fully human. When a person exercises power over others, the powerholder gains the impression that the others do not control their own behaviour or, in other words, they are not autonomous. Hence, they are seen as less worthy. In short, a person who successfully exercises power over others is more likely to believe that these others are less deserving of respect. They thus become good prospects to be exploited.
Kipnis organised numerous experiments to explore such dynamics. In one experiment, a “boss” oversaw the work of “subordinates” in a simulated situation. The experiment was contrived so that all subordinates did exactly the same work. But the subordinate who was thought to be self-motivated was rated to have done better work than the subordinate who was thought to have done the work only under instruction. As well as laboratory studies, Kipnis examined the effects of power on the powerholder through studies of couples, managers and protagonists in Shakespeare’s dramas. The results were always the same.
Kipnis followed through the implications of such evidence in a number of areas involving technology, including medical technology, workplace technology and the technology of repression. For example, technologies for surveillance or torture serve to control others: that is the obvious effect. But in addition, the psychology of the powerholder is changed when the technology promotes the reality or impression that others lack autonomy. Those subject to the technology are treated as less worthy, and any prospects for equality are undermined.
Kipnis also deals with tactics of influence, use of rewards, inhibition of the exercise of power, motivations for power and other corruptions of power. This work is extremely valuable for better understanding the psychological dynamics of power.