Saturday 11 June 2016

Saturday Evenings: Stay In, Sit Up and Switch On

In a previous post about my past life in Havana I mentioned a lecturer I had in uni who loved nothing more than to roll up his sleeves slowly in the manner of a butcher whenever he tested us. All the time he made eye contact with us, his students, enjoying our fear-struck reaction to his well-studied gestures. His was an absolute display of power.

This image was certainly in my mind recently after reading an excellent article in the latest issue of 1843 (if, like me, you were subscribed to Intelligent Life, this is its reincarnation). Under the title “Does Power Really Corrupt?”, Radio 3 presenter Matthew Sweet explored the notion of power and its causes.

There was much I agreed with in Matthew’s column. People who feel powerful are less likely to be empathetic; they cheat more in games and are driven more by individualistic self-interest than collective-friendly attitudes.

Unsurprisingly, this is not a view that is shared by the 1%. For one it tilts the balance in favour of the poor. They are more giving and share more apparently. This means that the traditional scapegoat, those pesky, inferior working-class folk, cannot really be blamed for society’s ills. After all, they are not the ones scamming the nation of its funds.

What about acts of philanthropy, then? Do they not count for anything? Millionaires making donations to museums and arts centres or well-off politicians getting behind a worthwhile cause might turn this “power = nastiness” theory on its head.

Matthew expands on this. There have been two significant, ground-breaking experiments in social psychology and he refers to both. The first one gave substance to the notion of power as an isolationist and quasi-misanthropic phenomenon. The second one is more recent and it has met strong opposition. It postulates that in reality powerful people are bound to be more generous than those less well-off. They are more likely to donate to charity and to do voluntary work. Opposition to the latter study came mainly from people in the other camp, the one that dictates that the powerful are corrupt to the core. As usual, the presence of small “p” politics can be felt heavily throughout the debate.

Who are you calling corrupt?

Without having read the full results of both studies and going only by Matthew’s article, I am of the opinion that power does have a built-in corruption problem. It is almost as if it had a button which you can choose to press or not. The way to deal with this – in my view, destructive – presence is by erecting a strong wall around it. Let us call it the accountability wall. For power to triumph the institutions that hold it to account (our judiciary, the police, parliament, to mention three) must be in cahoots with it. This happens, we all know that, but my point is that it needn’t happen. Charity is not a replacement for taxation, nor should it be seen as mitigation for tax evasion. Philanthropy is an individual choice not a way to run a country’s economy.

As I wrote before, I agreed with most of what Matthew Sweet had to say. However, in my opinion, power is not necessarily always money-related. Yes, a lot of rich people behave despicably (many of them are men, so there is also a gender issue here) but so do a lot of working-class folk. The first example Matthew uses, the near-miss experience of Professor Dacher Keltner’s (the author of one of the studies) whilst commuting to work on his bicycle is a case in point. I am, sadly, exposed to the same scenario almost every day on my two-wheeler. But it is not just a black Mercedes that barrels through a right of way at an intersection and puts my life in danger, but also a white van, a Ford Fiesta or a lorry. The toff, the hedge fund manager and the plumber are indistinguishable when it comes to imposing themselves on the road.

This is one of the reasons why it is difficult to hold power to account. We tend to look at demographics and ignore individual patterns (although as I remarked earlier, those who enjoy displaying power to the max happen to be mainly men). Consciously or unconsciously, the students deployed by Professor Keltner on the traffic islands of Berkely were looking to match the drivers behaving selfishly on the road to the one behind the wheel of the Mercedes that almost killed their teacher. In so doing they might (I am speculating here) have “forgiven” slight misdemeanours committed by drivers of little, old bangers. Unfortunately, power does not work like this. Wherever you go, from the US to Russia, from Cuba to Germany, if you let absolute power grow unchallenged you will have an uphill struggle in your hands to rein that beast back in.

This is not to let rich, powerful people off the hook. The wealthier someone is, the more distant they will feel from hoi polloi. At some point our commonly shared rules of social etiquette stop applying and the individual makes up their own ones. The 1% does live in a different world to ours. The solution, in my view, is more accountability, better judiciary, a more effective police force and a corruption-free government. Perhaps the side effects will be more empathy and gratitude. Worth fighting for, I say.

© 2016

Next Post: “Living in a Multilingual World”, to be published on Wednesday 15th June at 6pm (GMT)


  1. Everyone should be held accountable indeed, no matter the rich lawyer they can afford. But yeah, not just the super rich who cheat and steal and such over the little guy.

  2. Agreed. However, in your example of vehicle (Mercedes, Fiesta, van) vs. bicycle, it is indeed the four-wheel vehicle that possesses the power, regardless of dollar value of their ride, over the two-wheeler. They're all able to elbow aside the weaker on the road.
    I'd also add that philanthropy by check is very different from one-on-one acts of compassion.

  3. I often wonder about the charities supported by mega-rich people. Few donate anonymously and most d so for tax credits. I won't tar all philanthropists with the same cynical brush, but I think there's more than a little truth in Balzac's statement that behind every great fortune there's a great crime.

  4. Accountability, responsiblity and empathy. If nourished and nurtured these 'simple' things could make for a better world...

  5. An interesting discussion. Would love to hear your views on Trump, lol. I have never been so scared about an election.

  6. if you got loads of money it is easy to give. Cost you nothing but gives you a good reputation.

  7. I echo Elephant's Child's comment.

  8. Who is that standing by my car !?!? Never mind me; I am just trying to be funny.

    To be "cute" with words a bit longer, I am an "absolute" believer that power corrupts most individuals to one degree or another. Not everyone, but most. It is quite evident, from my experience, for instance, in the military and in a prison setting, both among staff and inmates, and has nothing to do with money there. Often, abuse of power is obvious among intelligent/clever, but poorly educated people.

    In government, it frequently is the staff of elected officials and, even more so, career bureaucrats, who form the "bully" class because they have been "enriched" by more authority than they can handle. In terms of money, I strongly believe people like Donald Trump, and Bill and Hillary Clinton, vividly demonstrate that exorbitant money begets exorbitant abuse of power. They truly are the "bad guys," but too few recognize it in the Clintons because they pick your pocket with a smile and polite words.

    A thought-provoking post, CiL.

  9. Within the 1% there is another 1%, that would be those who feel an inner responsibility to examine their conscience in the realm of their moral responsibilities regarding their wealth and their fellow mankind. They're there, but they are hard to find. Buffet? maybe. Gates? maybe. But if so, I think they've passed through a small opening to get there. The majority of rich people are narcissists. They have to be. There simply is little way to earn that kind of money, gain absolute power, unless you put yourself and your ambitions before all other things, where the end game never really has an ending because there is always more to be had.

    It's my humble opinion that the solution of more accountability, better judiciary, a more effective police force and a corruption free government can only be achieved (and of course, it will never be completely achieved) through revolution. I don't mean the kind with guns...I mean the kind like the sexual revolution: when a vast populace, in unison, collectively and with unabashed determination - fights. (as you say) How do I define fight? I have do idea. I don't think anyone really does. I think we are so tired, disillusioned and maybe even, in shock, that we don't know where to start or what that would look like. So, we do it on an individual basis in whatever way we can. - it has little effect. But if you want these things and you have even a little bit of hope, then you, your own little self, have to do what you can. Or what's the point of it all?

    Do I think things will ever really change? No. Do I hope things will ever really change? Yes.

    It's a jungle out there, so be extra cautious on your bike - I'd kinda miss you and all your ponderings :)

  10. So true! And once someone gets the taste for power, they don't want to let it go either...

  11. Hi ACIL - so well written - we can all be leaders at the level we're at ... setting examples, doing our best and doing it right ... being kind, and empathetic to others ... generally not thinking of the "I" ... but others - thanks for these thoughts - Hilary

  12. I agree that anybody can behave badly - but when the wealth and powerful do it, it becomes a public issue - and the media pay far less attention to wealthy people who behave well and with integrity. The man who springs to mind is Tony Benn - a rich man who lived my his principles; I'm struggling to think of someone who is still alive (Bob Geldof? Lenny Henry?) who uses their money and position in the public eye for the common good. Maybe the media doesn' help, as they love pointing fingers.

  13. Great post! It is indeed worth fight. There has been an appalling case here in the states involving the so-called "Affluenza Kid" who killed four people in a car crash and claimed his privileged upbringing prevented him from caring about others. After receiving no jail time, the little degenerate took off for Mexico where he was arrested along with his mother. This is the worst form of corruption.

  14. So true...who will take responsibility, after all?

  15. Good post. Everything has been said by others and I too would be interested to hear your view on Trump.

  16. As usual, a thought provoking topic, especially as it relates to the current political circus here in the States.

  17. I'm raising a glass to this post. Yes, more empathy and accountability is a must. It's a troubling time in the USA right now. My heart is at half mast, but your words and music have raised my spirits. Thanks!

  18. Good post, more accountability and responsibility must be taken by all.

  19. Very true...and it always sets alarm bells ringing when I see someone wielding more power than they are morally able to utilize...:/

    Another great post, CiL.
    Many thanks. :)

    Greetings from Hampshire.

  20. Thoughtful argument. Power can be used positively or destructively and, rich or poor, a little humility goes a long ways.



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