Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Anarchy and the will to power

Humans, as social primates, are sensitive to power differentials that are always present in group situations. The fact that all humans possess this natural sensitivity, the fact that human history since the agricultural revolution (that is, all of “history”) has been a protracted tale of violence and conquest, and the fact that modern-day consumer capitalism follows an amoral “dog-eat-dog” prime directive, suggests to many only one possible conclusion: humans are driven by a will to power. We are power-hungry both as individuals and as a species.

I would like to suggest a slightly different perspective. The will to power, rather than reflecting an entrenched feature of human nature, reflects instead a response to the social architecture of the technological order and the direct threat to personal autonomy posed by its systems of authority and control.

At least two million years of (largely) egalitarian and (mostly) peaceful society preceded the post-agricultural power-orgy with its chronic warfare and genocide, widespread slavery and oppression, and perpetual political intrigues. Lust for power can’t exist in any meaningful sense until a power structure is in place. This is commonsense logic. Without the division of labor, the isolation of knowledge, and a hierarchical organization of authority, we are left with a severely limited notion of power.

Power implies an operative system of authority. Sure, you might be bigger and stronger and have more friends, but in an egalitarian society, without the ability to permanently restrict my access to needed resources or my ability to provide for my own life needs (or my ability to sneak up and kill you with a poison arrow when nobody is looking), you might be able to temporarily affect my comfort, but you can have no real power over me. It is only with the emergence of artificial hierarchy, when I become dependent on the operation of technology that itself depends on the hierarchical ordering of social relations, that I can be subject to another’s power.

And the will to power itself, according to this view, is a reaction to the absence of egalitarianism, not a latent drive to control other people. It reflects a desire to maintain personal autonomy in the presence of those who would limit it. I want to be the boss, not so that I can enjoy some kind of pleasure in the power to boss other people around, but so that I can be free from having to obey the commands of others.

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