Friday, November 26, 2004

Power and Greed

While my CBIP shows that I am currently reading Selwyn manning's I Almost Forgot About The Moon, I've been neglecting it in favour of other books over the past few weeks. One of these has been Philippe Gigantes' Power And Greed.

Gigantes' central theme is the clash between individual freedom and the need for rules to prevent that freedom from descending into a Hobbesean nightmare. But rather than examining this as a question of political theory, Gigantes looks at it through the lens of history - and specifically, the history of our rulers. Gigantes calls our rulers the "Grand Acquisitors", those who "always want more, and hence... disturb the social order" who he compares to the dominant male in a pride of lions:

The rest of the pride does all the work to get a kill; the dominant male gets the best share of the meal, all the sex, and he does the serious roaring. The dominant lion has the power, and he has the greed.

According to Gigantes,

grand acquisitors, in their need for freedom to achieve their desires, wage war on society's need for order - a war that often has a determinant effect on history

(Lest anyone think the portrayal is purely negative, Gigiantes also points out that the acquisitors are "creators as well as destroyers", and that they have given us the industrial revolution, railroads, and much of modern society's infrastructure. Power and greed is a powerful motivating force...)

The first part of the book looks at our most influential rulemakers - those who have generally established the social order the grand acquisitors struggle against. Most are religious - Moses, Jesus, Mohammed - but there are also several secular rulemakers, particularly Solon and Plato. The former is praised for establishing the rule of law and open government, and for giving political power to the masses so they could check the powerful; the latter is reviled for laying the foundations of totalitarian oppression. Brahminism also comes in for heavy criticism for its caste system. The overall message? Sometimes the rules can serve the powerful.

However, by far the longer and more interesting section is a short history of the world from the rise of the Roman Empire to the global vilage, focusing on the grand acquisitors. Agrippina, Justinian and Theodora, Cortez and Pizarro, and Napoleon all feature in a long history of conquest, torture, rape, looting, and pillage. But the picture is not entirely dim; Gigantes gives credit where it is due, praising moderate rulers such as Henri of Navarre and pointing out that while the British Empire fought two wars to enable its businessmen to sell opium to Chinese peasants, it also ended the global slave trade and transplanted democratic values to India. He also praises the United States for its constitution enshrining the principle that the people were sovereign and that their delegated power could be revoked. While it has not always lived up to those values, they are there, "a sort of immune system eating away at political disease", corroding the power of grand acquisitors everywhere.

I'm not fond of the "great man" theory of history - I prefer to think that there are only ordinary men in great situations, which magnify both their virtues and their flaws. But while Gigantes focuses on the grand acquistors, he's not focussing on their uniqueness (an essential part of great man theories). Instead, he is stressing their essential similarity, in being ruthless monsters driven by power and greed.