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Dangers and difficulties

There are a many dangers associated with the wielding of power. Here I want to explore three; personal wellbeing, adverse reactions, and keeping it going.

Personal wellbeing

Most people educated in the UK will have heard the saying that “All power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely” (Acton).  The implication here is that it is addictive or that by ignoring consent the user becomes more and more worn down by the dangers from others. Both Robert Harris and Armando Iannucci paint a vivid picture of Stalin, afraid to go to bed keeping his henchmen up all night lest they use the time to plot against him(Note: Portraits of Stalin).

In 2009 David Owen and Jonathan Davidson published Hubris syndrome: An acquired personality disorder? After making a study of US Presidents and UK Prime Ministers over the last 100 years try conclude; 

 “We believe that extreme hubristic behaviour is a syndrome, constituting a cluster of features (‘symptoms’) evoked by a specific trigger (power), and usually remitting when power fades” (Owen and Davidson)

Actions cause reactions

An action will cause a reaction. The utility of power is reduced by the adoption of tactics that elicit (opposed) reactions. Those exercising power have to calibrate it by anticipating the reaction. Get compliance where commitment was needed and in due course when power changes policies will be reversed. Get the calibration wrong and it can lead to a deadlock or escalation.

By relying on parliamentary majorities that are not backed up by majorities within the electorate the current political system has a source of illegitimacy built into it. Add to this the institutional notion that the (loyal) oppositions job is to oppose and it is easy to see how we can never settle any issue (Note: Elected Dictatorship)

It may not work, or may not work for long

Every one of the ways of exerting power can come unstuck;

  • Lies and deception can be discovered
  • Social constraints will not hold the contrarians and dissidents
  • Coercion may be resisted resulting in the need to escalate
  • Force and terror can be met with the same

Because maintaining compliance against an unwilling subject requires constant attention it either gets expensive in either time or effort (an authoritarian regime has to maintain power) or is domed to be reversed when power changes hands. In either case it cannot be said to be efficient or a recipe for good governance.

Nothing is more difficult than using military power. The discussion above on ends and means advocated a more honest assessment of the likely reaction. Military practitioners, understand this (they know the reality). A very famous practitioner and theorist was Carl von Clausewitz. He served in the Prussian army during the Napoleonic Wars and used his experiences to develop the theory of war. His most famous saying is (often abbreviated) is  “we maintain…that War is nothing but a continuation of political intercourse, with the admixture of other means” (Clausewitz p402). In other words the use of force to gain a political objective.

Two of his other insights are I think equally worth consideration here. He recognised that war was risky and put this down to two factors, the role of chance and the idea of friction. On chance has says "war is the province of chance" (Clausewitz p140) because it leads to uncertainty and hesitation and because the emery is actively seeking to thwart you, because of this embarking on war means entering into the realm of chance. Friction is akin to saying if it can go wrong it will but because the stakes are so high it is much worse "activity in war is movement in a resistant medium" (Clausewitz p165), there are myriads of small things that can be disrupted and fail, the simplest things become difficult.

So war in particular will almost certainly not be over by Christmas, it will most likely cost a lot more of blood and treasure than we think. Not something to be entered into lightly.