Power Doesn’t Just Attract Mean and Stupid People — It Makes Them That Way

In “Empire of the Rising Scum,” Robert Shea observed that, regardless of their ostensible mission, hierarchical institutions tend to be headed by people whose primary skills are careerist climbing and bureaucratic in-fighting. As I’ve said before, you simply cannot become a President of the United States, or a Fortune 500 CEO, unless there’s something fundamentally wrong with you. The same is true of the intellectual capacity of those who manage to advance upward within hierarchies. Being a team player, engaging in groupthink, demonstrating an ability to shut off critical thinking when evaluating the communications of a superior — these are qualities that authoritarian institutions select for.

But in addition to selecting for stupidity and meanness, such institutions impress those traits even on those who didn’t previously possess them. Hierarchies are systematically stupid. No matter how intelligent the people running them are as individuals, the internal dymanics of the hierarchy make them functionally stupid. That’s because power distorts communications, rendering them incapable of conveying accurate information. The reason, as R.A. Wilson pointed out, is that nobody tells the truth to someone with a gun — or with the power to fire them, or any other kind of unaccountable and unilateral power over them. The result is one-way communication flows, the utter isolation of institutional leadership from accurate feedback about the effects of their decisions. When an individual’s perceptions are so distorted that she receives no accurate feedback on the effect of her actions on her environment, she’s mentally ill. And hierarchical institutions, likewise, are functionally psychotic.

Authoritarian institutions tend to be governed by “best practices” and management fads based entirely on what their leadership hears from the leadership of other authoritarian institutions — people who are as clueless regarding the actual effects of these practices as they are. The reason is that the people at the tops of the pyramids — in the C-suites — communicate much more effectively with people at the tops of other pyramids than they do with those at the base of their own pyramid.

As organization theorist Kenneth Boulding said, those at the tops of hierarchies tend to live in almost completely imaginary worlds. Hierarchies are mechanisms purpose-evolved to tell naked emperors how great their clothes look.

A similar process, based on the distorted incentive structure when one possesses unaccountable authority over others and can externalize unpleasantness on subordinates while appropriating rewards for oneself, takes place in the ethical realm as well. Many simulations of authority relationships — perhaps most notably the Stanford Prison Experiment — have shown the nasty things that happen when subjects are randomly divided into those with and without authority. People who are randomly assigned the role of guard or master, and put into a position of exercising unaccountable authority over fellow subjects assigned the roles of prisoners and slaves, quickly grow into their role. The “guards” in the Stanford Prison Experiment, given authority to impose unpleasantness and otherwise make decisions affecting others without the latter having any feedback, soon so dehumanized the “prisoners” and so enjoyed brutalizing them that the two-week experiment had to be terminated after only six days.

So if you wonder why your CEO has no qualms about collecting a $20 million bonus while downsizing half the workforce and increasing the workloads of everyone else, the answer is simple. On an emotional level, she’s long ago convinced herself that you aren’t even human. People in authority, in their organizational roles, tend to experience the functional equivalent of a psychotic break with reality, and to act like sociopaths toward their subordinates.

Power over others, by its very nature, degrades those who wield it, turns them into monsters, and poisons their every relationship with their fellow human beings. There’s no “reform” that can change that, short of abolishing authority itself. And that’s what we anarchists want to do.

Translations for this article:

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory