“Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”
Everyone has heard and read this phrase many times over their life. Many stand by this supposedly deeply true and meaningful common phrase, and some of you reading this as well surely believe in the truth of this statement. It sure seems true, after all look at all the terrible things that people have done over history when given great centralized power: Hitler, Genghis Khan, Robespierre, and people like Obama today, our terrorist in chief. These people had and have great centralized control, power, and use it to subdue opposition as well as outright kill, but what is power?
Power is, like many terms used in regular language, one of those terms that everyone uses a lot yet know very little about. Power appears in the common usage as a near mystical term, evoking in mind the likes of wizards and witches who can destroy and bend reality to their whim. We say of such fantastic imaginary beings that they are powerful, full of power. We say of a fire wizard that they have the power of fire, or of voodoo witches that they have the power to curse someone, and we say of politicians that they are powerful people. What does power mean? Though it’s clear that very few people think of it, in common usage power means simply the capacity to do. Don’t believe me? Look it up in a dictionary, it would certainly help a lot of people.
If power is simply the capacity to do, the great myth that power corrupts and should not be sought falls apart. Power is a good thing, we as human beings always want more power. We want to increase our capacities to do anything. There is the power of art, the capacity to create art. There is the power of charisma, the capacity to move people to action etc. the list goes on. In our personal lives we want power, all the power we can possibly be get, be given, and develop ourselves. Power is how we actualize anything we want to make or do. Our family, friends, colleagues, society, are all sources of power for us as well as against us in many ways.
Now, the power that is targeted by the phrase “power corrupts…” is a specific kind of power: power over people, i.e. social power, however this is not enough of qualification to make sense. People like Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi (he wasn’t that nice), Lenin all had this kind of power, and in great quantity and we generally look upon these people with some kind of reverence, well not so much in our corner of the left. So to make sense of the phrase it is also a qualification that a specific use of social power is what is being referred to: social power through ‘negative’ force of violence of some form, or fear of something else induced to make people give one power. Here people generally lump the likes of Hitler and Stalin as proofs of the phrase, though this is done with idealist abstraction from some serious differences between these two.
So now that it’s clarified what the phrase refers to and very vaguely really wants to say, does it hold true? No. Martin Luther King Jr. at the height of his place in the Civil Rights Movement in the US could have called for a revolution of the Blacks and would have gotten it had he done so. Gandhi likewise could have called upon the Indians he had influence over and called for the violent overthrow of the British, and likewise would have gotten it. In the case of Lenin, well, we know what he did. These individuals had great power, yet we generally, except for Anarchists who hate Lenin, think they did not abuse this power.
“Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” is false. Power, as it is what it is, allows the actualization of what already inheres in people. That most people become unethical and begin to treat people as cogs as extensions of their will given the chance only reveals what most people wish people really were. Power does not corrupt, it reveals who people really are. The state of our world just shows that people who seek and are given power happen to be psychopaths, sociopaths, and narcissists who put on a human face when they need to. The way money concentrates and moves power just makes the complexities of it that more mysterious for people to see. Some people are as persons not endowed with power to move others, but with money even idiots like Trump can move mountains and gain adoration.