On April 5th, 1887, Lord John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton proclaimed, ‘Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’ Obviously, we could poke fun at the evident contradiction of the prestigious position Lord Acton held and the intent and meaning of the quote, and if we were to get into Lord Acton’s politics, it would be incredibly difficult to take his word seriously when speaking on the subject of power. However, this isn’t about Lord Acton, this is about the truism that power corrupts. Yet in contemporary discourse, not everyone sees it as a truism. It is still a highly contested claim in many circles, and I’d like to attempt to settle the issue if I can. I’d like to examine some of the early conceptualisations of consciousness and psychology in the field of philosophy and relate that to current discoveries in modern science. I’d then like to loop back around to show how this is all relevant when considering the claims that have been consistently made by anarchists for as long as the political philosophy has existed.

Over 200 years ago, a philosopher by the name of G.W.F. Hegel sought to encapsulate the dialectical development of self consciousness in an individual through social interaction. This self-consciousness, as Hegel describes it in The Phenomenology of Spirit, is a sense of being aware of oneself as an object to another subject as well as being a subject perceiving another as an object. This stage of understanding doesn’t happen instantaneously. It is only manifested after a course of developments. The first stage of this development is recognising ‘the other’ that is separate from the self. This is recognizing another subject or human being, but it is not initially clear that the other is a subject. They appear, at first, to be simply an object. The next stage is recognising that the other is not only a subject, but that they recognize you. Now you become aware that you are not only a subject, but you are another’s object. You become self-conscious.

The example that follows is what Hegel is most famous for: the master-slave dialectic. This state of mutual recognition has both subjects concerned about their independence because both of them realise they want to control the other for the purpose of satisfying their desires, but they can’t kill the other because it will deprive them of the recognition they need. So one makes the other their slave and secures their independence; however, the recognition they receive from the slave isn’t the same as the recognition they would receive from another independent self-consciousness because the slave is dependent and made to recognise the master against their will. The master unintentionally robs themselves of the recognition needed to become fully self-conscious.

The slave, forced to work for the master, objectifies themselves in the labour they perform because the labour is an expression of themselves. Being both an object of another and an object to themselves, the material conditions the slave finds themselves in forces them to become fully aware. They reject the world they are a part of and become a pure self consciousness. If you have read Marx and this seems familiar to you, it is because this is what inspired Marx’s dialectical materialism and his theory of alienation. In both, we can witness the subtle intuition they had about the nature of power in the context of social relations and how it influences human psychology.

Marx rejected the idealism of Hegel in which Hegel believed that the material world was merely a construction of human consciousness, but he saw the potential of Hegel’s dialectic as a vehicle for a historical materialist analysis of social relations. It’s important to note that this isn’t a simple materialist analysis; in fact, Marx criticised how traditional materialist conceptions ignored the human subject’s influence on the development and perception of the world. Marx takes the master-slave dialectic and applies instead a dialectic of class relations: the capitalist and the worker. In Hegel, the relationship between the master and slave develops their self-consciousness in different ways giving the slave the distinctive advantage over the master (in terms of self-consciousness). In Marx, the relationship between the capitalist and the worker influences their material interests and shapes their consciousness in that way. The capitalist is driven to exploit the worker because it benefits them. The worker, alienated from their labour due to the fact that it has become a commodity that is sold to and then owned by the capitalist, and receiving only enough pay in return to cover basic necessities, has no choice but to become revolutionary. To put it succinctly, Marx states:

‘...men, developing their material production and their material intercourse, alter, along with this their real existence, their thinking and the products of their thinking. Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life.’

There is no doubt a lot of truth behind Marx’s historical materialist conception of social relations and how they affect the attitudes and behaviors of the human beings involved; however, we can take this understanding a bit further.

The interesting thing about recent research is how it expands Marx’s understanding and contributes to breaking down the classic dichotomy of materialism versus idealism. We now know that there is a constant reciprocal interactive dynamic between the subject and the environment. Not only does the material environment shape the subject’s consciousness in the way it is claimed by materialists, but one’s conceptual framework (along with the limitations imposed by one’s sensory receptors) can shape how one perceives the world much like what is claimed by idealists. Paulo Freire outlined the implications of this process well, which I outlined in my last article. He established how one’s ability to conceive of their oppression can be obscured in his book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. N.R. Hanson argues along similar lines in his essay, ‘Observation.’ He proposes several thought experiments and empirical examples that show how the act of observation is inseparable from interpretation:

‘Disparities in (Kepler and Tycho’s) accounts arise in ex post facto interpretations of what is seen, not in the fundamental visual data.’

Later he continues,

'There is a sense, then, in which seeing is a ‘theory-laden’ undertaking. Observation of x is shaped by prior knowledge of x. Another influence on observation rests in the language or notation used to express what we know, and without which there would be little we could recognize as knowledge.'

To clarify what Hanson means, we can take into consideration one of his examples. What do you imagine a child would see if they were to look at the words I’ve written before they had learned to read? They certainly wouldn’t see what you or I see. They wouldn’t be able to discern the words let alone any symbolic meaning. They would only see various lines and shapes assorted in particular patterns. It isn’t until they learn how to read that they are able to interpret the shapes and patterns as words imbued with meaning. Another peculiarity to note is that once a person learns how to read, the interpretation isn’t something that can be experienced as a process. When you look at this sentence, the interpretation is immediate upon observation, and it isn’t something the subject is made aware of. This is true of almost all observable phenomena.

Now that we have the preamble out of the way, you might be wondering what this has to do with power and hierarchy. Well, we are about to not only see how the material and social influences of one’s position in society can corrupt, but how it simultaneously shapes the conceptual framework, and how the conceptual framework reinforces the way they understand, perceive, and shape the world around them.

In the field of neuroscience, there is a phenomenon called ‘motor resonance. Motor resonance is when the subject observes an action being made by another subject, and the same corresponding neural network normally active during the performance of that action activates in the observer. The neural system responsible for this function is known as the ‘human mirror system.’ In the study ‘Power Changes how the Brain Responds to Others,’ Jeremy Hogeveen, Sukhvinder S. Obhi, and Michael Inzlicht ran an experiment to determine how power would affect motor resonance. They primed 36 participants to experience a state of high power, neutral power, and low power, and proceeded to show them a video of a hand squeezing a ball to determine if the corresponding neural network would activate in their brains. The authors conclude:

‘Despite these possible limitations, the main results we report are robust and strongly suggest that power is negatively related to motor resonance. Indeed, anecdotes about the worker on the shop floor whose boss seems oblivious to his existence, or the junior sales associate whose regional manager never remembers her name and looks straight through her in meetings. Perhaps the pattern of activity within the motor resonance system that we observed in the present study can begin to explain how these occurrences take place and, more generally, can shed light on the tendency for the powerful to neglect the powerless, and the tendency for the powerless to expend effort in understanding the powerful.’

It is clear from the results of this study that the state of mind resulting from a position or feeling of power can disincentive empathy or even the effort to understand another human being. One of the interesting aspects of this study is that it also discusses similar results from several other psychological studies, as well. So what do these papers have to say?

The psychologist Dacher Keltner has worked along with several others to publish a large body of work on the psychological effects of power. In the study ‘Social Class, Contextualism, and Empathic Accuracy,’ Michael W. Kraus, Stéphane Côté, and Dacher Keltner among them, took 200 participants, separated them in terms of their social class, and gave them several tests to determine how well they were able to judge emotions and interpret the facial expressions of others. Their results were as follows:

‘In three studies that tested this hypothesis using measures of both objective and subjective socioeconomic status, lower-class individuals, relative to their upper-class counterparts, scored higher on a measure of empathic accuracy, judged the emotions of a stranger more accurately, and inferred emotions more accurately from subtle expressions in the eyes.’

The psychologists involved determined that the reason for the differences in empathic accuracy between lower-class and upper-class individuals is the material circumstances they find themselves in. Lower-class individuals, due to their economic precarity and lack of control, are forced to be more aware of their external material and social context. To them, it’s a matter of survival that they are able to navigate through their lack of resources with the support of social networks. Upper-class individuals simply do not have the material and social incentive to care.

In an article written by Minha Cho and Dacher Keltner titled ‘Power, Approach, and Inhibition: Empirical Advances of a Theory,’ they account for the results of 16 years of research into the effects of power. In addition to the results of the two studies mentioned previously, there are accounts of power causing individuals to be implicated in sexual assault, sexual harassment, overperceiving sexual interest, being overconfident and risky, dehumanizing others, being more willing to sacrifice the welfare of others, prioritising self interest, being more likely to commit planning fallacies, being more likely to stereotype and be prejudiced towards others, more likely to be aggressive, more likely to commit sexual infidelity, and more likely to ignore or violate ethical norms. As you can tell, being in a position of power heavily incentivises negative or anti-social behaviour.

Utilising these studies as examples, we can already see how these modern scientists have already in a way rediscovered principles put forward by Hegel and Marx. They merely took the master and slave and recorded empirical evidence not only of the effect of material conditions, but also of the effect of their relationship to one another radically altering the very constructs of their consciousness. We can also see how the constructs of their consciousness radically change how they perceive the world. In what other ways does hierarchy affect us? How about our health?

Robert Sapolsky is a popular neuroscientist who authored quite a few studies on the effects of glucocorticoids (cortisol in particular, which is the hormone most associated with stress) on the health and brain development of various organisms. The one study I’ll focus on here is the study that was popularized by the documentary, Stress, Portrait of a Killer. Sapolsky was studying the behaviour of several baboon troops and analysing the levels of cortisol in their bloodstreams. His observations led him to the conclusion that the baboons with the highest levels of stress were the baboons that were the lowest in rank in the context of the baboon hierarchy. Also of particular interest was the fact that those baboons suffered all sorts of mental and physical health detriments that led to a dramatically lower life expectancy, and one of the more consistent behaviours of baboons at the top of the hierarchy was the abuse they inflicted on the other members of the troop. This behavioural dynamic is much like the human hierarchical relationships in the previously mentioned studies.

Sapolsky wasn’t alone in his endeavours. Behavioural neurobiologist Carol Shively conducted a similar study on hierarchy and its effect on the stress levels and health of macaques titled ‘Social Inequalities in Health in Nonhuman Primates.’ After 30 years of study, she noticed the same patterns of behaviour and the concomitant impacts of hierarchy on stress, and subsequently, she noticed the same impacts of stress on overall health. Lower ranking macaques were more likely to develop coronary heart disease, depression, cancer, and were more likely to have shorter lifespans, and Shively compared this to research concerning humans that expressed data that was identical. In the paper, on the subject of human society, she writes:

‘Socioeconomic status is inversely associated with level of chronic social stress. Several decades of research, spanning basic science to epidemiological levels of analysis, have repeatedly identified a sense of control over the environment and social supports as important moderators of the physiological impact of stressful life events.’

In continuation of aggregating information about the effects of hierarchy on human health, Sir Michael Marmot conducted several studies, two of which I will discuss here. In 1978, he compiled data from what was known as ‘The Whitehall Study’ in the paper ‘Employment Grade and Coronary Heart Disease in British Civil Servants.’ The data was collected from 17,530 civil servants in London, and in the study they found, much like the previous studies, that health had an inverse relation to the grade of employment. Administrators had the best health, then executives, then clerics, and everyone with occupations on the bottom of this hierarchy experienced the worst health mostly in the form of coronary heart disease that led to shorter lifespans. The researchers were able to rule out dietary factors and factors related to levels of physical activity; however, they didn’t make the connection to work stress and cortisol until the following study known as ‘Whitehall II,’ which can be read about in the article ‘Work Stress and Coronary Heart Disease: What are the Mechanisms?’ That study, started in 1985, looked at the stress levels of 308 male and female civil servants in London, and I’m sure you could guess the results.

In each of these papers, there are several references to many other studies that had the same exact results and came to the same conclusions. It really is no mystery. There are several objective problematic implications concerning power and hierarchy. You would think that with all the information we have available to us, something would have been done about it already, but that’s the nature of power and hierarchy when it is cemented into our very systems of organisation and governance. It is woven within the very fabric of our institutions and workplaces. It has infected everything up to our value systems and social relationships. What can be done?

Well, there is a bit more to talk about on the subject of Sapolsky’s baboon troop. There was an area within the baboon’s territory where nearby human settlements would dump their garbage, and within this garbage happened to be materials tainted with tuberculosis. One of the aspects of baboon hierarchy is that the baboons at the top of the hierarchy get first access and the most access to food, and this just so happened to result in all the dominating baboons dying off. The only baboons left were lower ranking males and females. Sapolsky assumed that a select few of the lower ranking males would replace the ones that died at the top of the hierarchy, but this never happened. Almost overnight, the baboon troop became egalitarian. Every baboon had equal access to grooming, and subsequently, stress levels decreased while overall health increased. Unfortunately, adolescent males from other baboon troops would stumble into this group due to the fact that it is common for adolescent males to go off searching for their own troop to dominate. Surprisingly, this troop managed to preserve their new social system and persevered in spite of this. Whenever a male would come along to dominate, they would simply exclude that baboon from all social activities, and, getting the hint, the baboon would adjust their behaviour in order to successfully integrate, thereby sustaining the new egalitarian status quo. What can we learn from this? Luckily for us humans, not that much more than what we already know. There has been a political philosophy fighting for this type of social organisation for quite a long time, and it goes by the name of anarchism.

Anarchists have always had an intimate understanding of the ramifications of power dynamics. Like socialists and communists, they understand the power dynamics implicit in class stratification in the economic sense. They understand that the domination the capitalist has over the worker is unjust, but they also know that this isn’t the full extent of oppression, and they know that power itself is an issue, and that we must oppose all hierarchy. Anarchists have not merely opposed power, but they have understood that its influence corrupts. They understand the material analysis of Marxists, but they take it a step further. Not only is it merely a matter of economic conditions and the relations of production, but it is also the conditions of your social and political environments that shape your attitudes and behaviours much like what the evidence of the previously mentioned studies suggest. As Lucy Parsons, a key figure of nineteenth and twentieth century anarchism, once said:

‘All political government must necessarily become despotic, because all government tends to become centralized in the hands of the few, who breed corruption among themselves and in a very short time disconnect themselves from the body of the people.’

In this quote, taken from ‘An Interview with Lucy Parsons on the Prospects of Anarchism in America,’ she clearly foretells the results of the neuroscientific and psychological studies conducted to inquire on the nature of power. Power concentrated in the hands of the few very quickly breeds corruption and disconnects those in power from the greater body of the people. What we saw in ‘Power Changes how the Brain Responds to Others,’ ‘Social Class, Contextualism, and Empathic Accuracy,’ and ‘Power, Approach, and Inhibition: Empirical Advances of a Theory’ was that power quite literally disrupted motor resonance and the ability to understand and empathise with those of a lower standing. We also witnessed multiple accounts of how this detachment led to committing acts of ethically dubious behaviour, of which would fit neatly into how we would define and use the term corruption in this particular context. In addition to the psychological influence, there are other systems of incentive that motivate unethical decisions once one takes power. In ‘The Principles of Anarchism,’ Parsons writes,

‘I learned by close study that it made no difference what fair promises a political party, out of power, might make to the people in order to secure their confidence, when once securely established in control of the affairs of society that they were after all but human with all the human attributes of the politician. Among these are: First, to remain in power at all hazards; if not individually, then those holding essentially the same views as the administration must be kept in control. Second, in order to keep in power, it is necessary to build up a powerful machine; one strong enough to crush all opposition and silence all vigorous murmurs of discontent, or the party machine might be smashed and the party thereby lose control.’

This is a process that we see happen repeatedly throughout history when power changes hands. This was written before the Bolshevik revolution, and yet Parsons was able to foresee what the outcome would be, and within this quote is inscribed the poor fates of the anarchists that were deemed a threat to Lenin’s seizure of power. A similar struggle would befall the anarchists during the Cuban revolution as well. Parsons sums this up well also in ‘The Principles of Anarchism’ by stating:

‘For all who are at all familiar with history know that men will abuse power when they possess it.’

Lucy wasn’t the only luminescent female anarchist voice at that time. There was also the fierce and compassionate Emma Goldman. Well-read, experienced, and armed with the appropriate tools of analysis, Goldman’s intuitions and notions of the mechanisms of power were as astute as those of Parsons. In the book Anarchism and Other Essays, Goldman roots out power as it expresses itself in various aspects of society. In terms of property relations, she writes:

'The only demand that property recognizes is its own gluttonous appetite for greater wealth, because wealth means power; the power to subdue, to crush, to exploit, the power to enslave, to outrage, to degrade. America is particularly boastful of her great power, her enormous national wealth. Poor America, of what avail is all her wealth, if the individuals comprising the nation are wretchedly poor?’

Here again we see the connection between systems of power and the behaviours they incentivise. In this case, Goldman specifies the consequences of private property ownership under capitalism. Capitalists are privy to exclusive ownership of private property and have sole access to the wealth it produces. This wealth gives them power, and this power enables them to protect their interests through the use of subjugation and domination to further exploit the poor working class of America. Continuing on the subject of the behaviours that power incentivises, but this time focusing on the state and government, Goldman writes:

‘That governments do not maintain themselves through such harmonious factors is proven by the terrible array of violence, force, and coercion all governments use in order to live.’

Interestingly enough, this particular fact wasn’t recognized by anarchists alone. Most sociailist revolutionary theorists of the time knew this, as well.

‘In fact, there is hardly a modern thinker who does not agree that government, organized authority, or the State, is necessary only to maintain or protect property and monopoly. It has proven efficient in that function only.’

In this sense, I believe she might have actually been speaking of Marx. In many of his writings, Marx had described the bourgeois State in this way, and the end goal of communism since its inception was to be stateless because both Marx and Engels were aware of the state’s function in protecting capital and private property. The main difference between anarchists and Marx was their understanding of the influence that the state apparatus would have on one’s psychology in the case that the working class seized it and wielded it for their own purposes, and even Marx vacillated on this issue throughout his life. According to Goldman:

‘One has but to bear in mind the process of politics to realize that its path of good intentions is full of pitfalls: wire-pulling, intriguing, flattering, lying, cheating; in fact, chicanery of every description, whereby the political aspirant can achieve success. Added to that is a complete demoralization of character and conviction, until nothing is left that would make one hope for anything from such a human derelict. Time and time again the people were foolish enough to trust, believe, and support with their last farthing aspiring politicians, only to find themselves betrayed and cheated.’

Power, the specific case being the process of politics that Goldman mentioned, demands that you conform to its mode of operations if you wish to utilize the state machinery to achieve your goals. By the time you’ve managed to climb the ranks and reach the top, the primary concern you are then confronted with isn’t human liberation and well-being. It is the concern of protecting what you have worked to achieve as well as preserving the power you’ve accumulated at all costs, and that cost just so happens to be human liberation and well-being. I’ve noticed a similar pattern in the behaviour of small business owners. They may be well intentioned at first, but being in a situation where you are competing with well established corporations and needing to maintain a level of profit to keep the business running, workers rights become less than a secondary concern. They might even try to justify wage theft if they are even paying you at all to begin with.

I hope that in compiling the copious amounts of thought and research dissecting the various aspects of power and hierarchy, we can finally put to rest the myth that it is somehow a necessary and benign factor of the natural world. It is clear that there is a process of development of one’s consciousness that is both shaped by the material circumstances, the social relationships of the network of people that surround and are connected to them, and the general environment that they are submerged within, and this simultaneously alters how they engage with and interpret the world around them. We know that power is much like a drug that physically changes the way the brain functions, and we know that the consequences of this alteration of brain function are detachment, abuse, and unethical behaviour. We know that hierarchy and the excessive stress it causes are a serious health risk to lower class individuals and others at the bottom of those hierarchies. If we feel fit to promote campaigns about the risks of smoking, why not that of hierarchy as well? The very structure of society rests on a foundation of the blood of those who have died of coronary heart disease and other stress related causes. We no longer have an excuse for continuing to live the way we do. We have known for hundreds of years that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Certain groups of people, as well as our ancestors thousands of years prior, had an intuitive awareness of this fact as well. It is in our best interest to stop the proverbial cycle of destruction of the ouroboros. For too long have we been eating ourselves, and if we continue, it will not be long until we are no more.


Image from Wikimedia Commons.

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