"Nip the shoots of arbitrary power in the bud, is the only maxim which can ever preserve the liberties of any people. When the people give way, their deceivers, betrayers, and destroyers press upon them so fast, that there is no resisting afterwards. The nature of the encroachment upon the American constitution is such, as to grow every day more and more encroaching. Like a cancer, it eats faster and faster every hour. The revenue creates pensioners, and the pensioners urge for more revenue. The people grow less steady, spirited, and virtuous, the seekers more numerous and more corrupt, and every day increases the circles of their dependents and expectants, until virtue, integrity, public spirit, simplicity, and frugality, become the objects of ridicule and scorn, and vanity, luxury, foppery, selfishness, meanness, and downright venality swallow up the whole society." ~ John Adams
Resisting Power and the Curse of Greyface
Exclusive to STR
June 15, 2009
Money is not the root of all evil, power is -- or at least, the desire for power. As an activist, I see that many of the injustices we face can be clearly traced back to that.
A fat cat Wall Street banker can gamble away millions of people's financial futures, a racist pig can deny you a job, an insane President can murder Iraqi and Afghan children, your community can shun you or make you and your same-sex partner into second-class citizens, your spouse can betray you -- all these things and more are examples of how we allow people much power over us in our lives. You might object, "But power can be used for good as well as evil! We just need to correct abuses of power!" Sorry to burst your bubble, but power tends to corrupt us and we cannot hold faith that it can somehow be "reformed." The problem of power and its solution is a far deeper psychological and spiritual issue at its heart, rather than merely political.
Psychoanalyst Erich Fromm defined power in two ways. The first is "a sadistic striving for domination" to compensate for one's complete impotence and weaknesses. This means political, economic, and social power wielded by one person or party against others. His second meaning is potency; a person's ability "to realize his potentialities on the basis of freedom and integrity of his self, where he does not need to dominate and is lacking the lust for power." When I refer to "power" here I mean more along the lines of Fromm's first definition == political or social domination, control, force, and our lust for it.
Where does it come from? Fromm and his colleague Alfred Adler agreed that the wish for power is a rational response to one's insecurities and inferiorities, among other factors. Power ultimately arises from desire -- a desire to get what you want and to keep what you have, a desire to stay "on top" in relationships and in life itself, but also a desire to shape the world in a way that pleases and fits your ideals. We see things in terms of power especially when we talk of solving problems and effecting change through politics, elections, mandates, movements and so on. You can dilute power, try to channel it in a positive direction, but history is pregnant with story after story of power corrupting people and movements. We see the same privilege, exploitation, and New World Orders rising from the ashes of the old.
How do we escape this brutal cycle?
I'm reminded of a story in the Principia Discordia revolving around a fictional figure named Greyface who preached that we should preserve Serious Order and eradicate spontaneity and even play at any and all costs: "Greyface and his followers took the game of playing at life more seriously than they took life itself and were known even to destroy other living beings whose ways of life differed from their own." The Discordian "Curse of Greyface" refers to a psychological and spiritual imbalance that results from these beliefs: "This imbalance causes frustration, and frustration causes fear. And fear makes for a bad trip. Man has been on a bad trip for a long time now."
While we do not function well in total chaos, our lives are punctuated by spontaneity, free will, and free thought. Even the most totalitarian institutions cannot kill them off, so this balance of order and disorder marks even the most rigidly controlled society. But orthodoxy, acts of oppression, other things that kill it off -- all are fueled by power-lust so that some can fulfill their desires to stay "on top" in life, or in a political movement. This is all begat by the Curse.
More importantly, the Curse ties into a poisonous social psychology that has seeped into all facets of our society and culture, like acid rainwater leaching into the soil. Question the Established Order and wait how long it takes for someone to call you "crazy" or "naive" or "unrealistic." Watch the ten o'clock news and its endless litany of bloodshed, depravity and woe that can magically be corrected by someone with power. Go to your polling place next election and watch people's faces as they contemplate voting for the "lesser of two evils" as they approach the booth. Read history books or even the Scriptures and see the horrors and crimes and nastiness that arise out of raw power. We see a psychology of storm clouds and catastrophes, of complacency and passivity, of suspicion and helplessness in the face of the world's challenges, of Lois Lane awaiting her Superman. We see blind faith and reliance in power and a fragile status quo imposed from above.
But power is at its worst when we take it for granted. After a while, we grow used to the idea that some should wield power over the rest of us, that power itself should even exist. It makes us into monsters if we struggle for it, it makes us into pitiful robotic Greyfaces when we take it too seriously, and history shows that it backfires on us despite our noblest intentions.
The Curse of Greyface, then, is a metaphor for this psychology that we have to reject in order to flee our physical and spiritual shackles. So, how do we save our souls?
"Zen is discipline in enlightenment. Enlightenment means emancipation. And emancipation is no less than freedom. We talk very much these days about all kinds of freedom, political, economic, and otherwise, but these freedoms are not at all real. The real freedom is the outcome of enlightenment. When a man realizes this in whatever situation he may find himself, he is always free in his inner life, for that pursues its own way of action. Zen is the religion of self reliance and self being."
This passage by Daisetz T. Suzuki in Zen and Japanese Culture evokes the kind of mindset change we could all use. One needs an appropriate mindset to counter power and the Curse of Greyface before hoisting signs and writing propaganda and placing a ballot to deal with the systems fueled by it. I mean fostering a holistic, almost spiritual anarchism and not merely a political and economic one that people might find dull and irrelevant. If we treasure a vision of man without need for rulers or institutions of power, then it follows that the self-empowerment, self-reliance, and self-being Suzuki mentions, are elementary parts of what I would call a "libertarian mindset."
Suzuki continues, "Zen has no special doctrine or philosophy, no set of concepts or intellectual formulas, except to stress to release one from the bondage of birth and death. It is generally animated with a certain revolutionary spirit, and when things come to a deadlock -- as they do when you are overloaded with conventionalism, formalism, and other cognate 'isms' -- Zen asserts itself and proves to be a destructive force."
I think this Zen mindset has something to offer those of us who work for progressive, radical change. The simplicity and overall stripped-down nature of Zen complements the basic ethos of libertarian ideals: No one has the right to be anyone's master and no one has the right to be anyone's slave. Man should neither need nor desire rulers, unaccountable control or raw power. Liberty is his natural state of being. Think of the amount of factionalism among libertarians (and the Left in general), and the endless quarrels over strategy leading to increasingly obtuse theories that never seem to get us anywhere. We hardly know who we are anymore. And just who is winning in the end? The more we appreciate that ethos and the less we formalize it, the more willing we'll be to listen to each other without confrontation and the more effective we'll be.
Zen, and Buddhism in general, emphasizes detachment from earthly desires and concerns and complications that tie down the spirit: the lust for power, the desire to succeed in a meaningless rat race, the need for someone to save us from all our problems, the hope for order and things being in their proper place to make us feel better and more secure in ourselves and the world. It emphasizes inner freedom. If we have free will, it means that we reinforce power-psychology with the internalized boss, policeman, and society within each of us. If you want to escape the Curse of Greyface then you can't fight it on its own terms; instead you have to detach yourself from the desire and need for power and also stop taking it and everything that comes with it so seriously. Not even your own self.
You could be hit by a bus tomorrow despite all the wealth and power and influence you have in the world. How important are any of these things in the end?
You could say that life is a game where you end up being dominated by those with a hold over your life energies. If you take power too seriously and show too much deference to it, you'll always be a loser, a pawn, and a sheep in the eyes you allow to be arbitrarily "on top." If you take the game too seriously, you'll lose sight of the values that are really enriching in life. Learn to detach yourself from the game; learn to laugh at it! Laugh at power itself! The comedians get it; the fools understand it implicitly. Some of my biggest influences have been people like George Carlin, Margaret Cho and Penn Jillette, and books like the Principia Discordia, all of which challenge and undermine power, institutions and authority figures by laughing at then, making them absurd, lowering their status in our minds.
Of course we laugh with them on the TV or in the theater, but when we take their words seriously and honestly suggest that we could really do without the power-mongers, folks freak out incredulously.
Kerry Thornley puts it best in his pamphlet Zenarchy: "The deeper fruits of this union, speaking at least with reference to the Anarchist, are yet to be realized. What Zen has most to offer Anarchism is freedom here and now. No longer need the Anarchist dream of a utopian millennium as he struggles to outwit the State -- for he can find freedom in the contest, by simply knowing that freedom is everywhere for those who dance through life, rather than crawl, walk, or run." Indeed, a sense of spiritual freedom here and now is what one should seek before thinking of any active strategy to counter or resist oppression, while pursuing alternatives to the State, Organized Religion, Capitalism, and so on.
Psychological studies have shown that wealth doesn't make people happy in the long term. So it is with power. Power relies on a negative and rotten psychology to sustain it, one that is hostile to liberty, goes against our better nature, and can snuff out one's soul. But resisting the Curse of Greyface and prevailing over the temptations of power and the psychology sustaining it, involves a more subtle and introspective strategy than you're likely to find in the literature -- self-transformation. It means searching within and freeing ourselves from the desire for power over us and others; it means refusing to see people as tools or "the proletariat" or experimental subjects for policy and a pre-planned revolution, and instead seeing them as equals who have the same dignity and ability to govern their own lives as you. We do not wish to be ruled; we wish to rule nobody. We do not wish to serve; we do not wish for others to serve us.
Is not the desire for power self-defeating for anyone who yearns for a free, fair and prosperous society? Free your mind and your spirit first and the political and cultural reality will follow. Only this can stop Greyface in his tracks.