Unchecked Power Destroys People, Powerful and Powerless

Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton

or was it Thomas Jefferson?

Every   few weeks in Books section, WSJ publishes  “Five Best: A Personal Choice”.  The last choice was by Sara Paretsky on bearing witness to the unspeakable.

Book one:  “Life and Death in Shanghai” by Nien Cheng, about the Cultural Revolution in China under Mao.

Book two:  “Goodnight!” by Andrei Sinyavsky, about terror in Russia under Stalin.

Book three:  “Survival in Auschwitz” by Primo Levi, survival of Hitler’s concentration camp.

Book four:  “Grey is the Color of Hope” by Irina Ratushinskaya, about live in Soviet gulags.

Book five:  “A Miracle, A Universe” by Lawrence Weschler, on the human tragedy of life under the power of the military junta in Brazil in the 60s and 70s.

All these monstrosities happened under totalitarian regimes and all during the 20th century.

How do the people come to power?

A long, long time ago, power was given to a person because he was the oldest in the tribe, had the longest and the whitest beard and hopefully was the smartest.  Obviously, he had respect of his people.  Later on, his sons were anointed, presumably because of good genes.  Sometimes it worked.  And when it didn’t, they got the job anyhow.

The Greeks invented democracy, but excluded women, children, slaves and illegal aliens. Aristotle thought of democracy as a rule of the mob (uninformed voters) and preferred oligarchy (rule of a few, properly educated, usually affluent people).

Roman kings had almost absolute power.  The position was not hereditary, and the new king was elected by the Senate.  When Tarquinius’  son attempted to usurp the power, he was kicked out of the country.

Roman Emperors again had an unlimited power. Starting with Augustus, they were able to put their own kin on the throne. Some were good, but some were terrible.  Intrigue was rampant and quite a few of them were assassinated. Imperial Rome lasted 1500 years and the last Emperor, Constantine XI, got killed fighting Ottoman Turks invading Constantinople.

For medieval kings, the way to justify their power was to tell their subjects their power comes from God.  Therefore they tried to be crowned or at least recognized by Popes.  The title of Holy Roman Emperor was the best prize.

But regular folks began to see through the plot and didn’t like the enormous power of the ruling class and wealth disparity in their countries.  This led to the French Revolution and the beginning of terror of the masses.  “Off with their heads” was heard a lot, and one was lucky if he lost only his earthly possessions. It didn’t last very long, since common people didn’t know how to rule the country and themselves in particular.  Monarchies were back, but with increasing participation of regular citizens in the government.  Then came the Russian Revolution, and the monarchy as we know was no more.

Democracy with the power of the people was the next step in the development of the government.  Each country had its own idea how to do it.  The good thing was their leaders were elected, the bad thing was their powers were unchecked. The natural progression was the evolution to the totalitarian system.  Those were popping up everywhere.  And they still exist.  When you combine demagoguery with unlimited power and terror, then anything is possible.  And it is really sobering that there is still a segment of the population in Russia which wants to bring Stalin back.  Those people feel they were properly taken care of.

This brings me back to these five books listed at the beginning of this blog.  The one missing is a report from North Korea, but I know eventually it is coming.

How come systems like these flourished in the 20th century?  The answer is: unchecked power and deception. Charismatic and unscrupulous leaders. Misinformation or blatant government propaganda was designed to feed the masses with controlled opinions. Quite a few people in Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany didn’t know of massive killings being done in their countries, and if they did, victims were portrayed as “enemies of the people”.  Democracy only works, when voters are fully informed, and that’s why Aristotle didn’t like this system.

There is something addictive to having power.  Not many leaders give up their positions voluntarily.  To the contrary, quite often this has to be taken away from them, rarely ever peacefully.  Therefore political systems, which provide for an orderly transition of power, have to be appreciated.  Good examples are comparison between the collapse of the communist system in Europe and the Arab Spring in the Middle East and Africa.

The United States has one of these systems.

And one more thing.  Many people think that the government is not doing enough for them.  Coming up with new rules doesn’t always signify progress.  Some of the old rules are good, time established and proven.  The same is in medicine.  The newest, recently discovered medications and operative procedures with flashy, catchy names are not necessarily better than the older, tried ones.

And the real power is not how many divisions do you have.  True power belongs to the person, who possesses the largest bookshelf, not a gun cabinet or wallet (Anthony J.D’Angelo).  And that’s why educated voters are crucial to a properly functioning democracy.


  • Yes, I absolutely agree that education is crucial. But this is not that simple since today, students attending university generally want jobs, careers and money, and not knowledge that would nourish their minds and give them necessary tools to understand themselves as human beings and the world they live in. As a professor, whether at University of Montreal or at York University in Toronto, I have been trying to share my knowledge and experience of totalitarianism. Do you know what kind of feedback I have been getting year after year in teaching evaluation? “This professor is talking about communism, about her own country, but I live in Canada, and really do not feel concerned by things like that!” And the worst comment I have never get goes like that: “She talks about Eastern Europe. This is waste of time and most importantly waste of my money that I am paying to get my degree.” No comments. But I won’t give up and I know perfectly well for what reason I have been doing this!

    • Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it.
      George Santayana

      There is a natural tendency amongst young people to be optimistic and idealistic. Their ideas about the world sound quite good, but more often then not do not survive a test of time. This is a reason why liberal views are so popular in our colleges and universities. Then students get older and suddenly realize and are surprised that world has changed so much. This is another reason why so many Russian spies were recruited from the communist supporters in intellectual elite of Oxford and Cambridge before WWII. Totalitarian system is an extreme, but does exist in the world even as we speak. For Americans it sounds as an exaggeration, but they have to know what is there around the corner.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.