The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

The Duty Of The Good Is To Be Powerful

There is no more important line in all of the humanities and the social sciences than this one from the Melian dialogue:

the strong do as they wish, while the weak suffer as they must

We have a system which requires those who wish to be powerful to perform evil acts. It is difficult to become powerful without having been vetted, without having “made ones bones.” To be sure, if you want power in a corporation or as a politician or in an organization like the World Bank or IMF, your killing and your torture of people is sanitized and done at arm’s length, but that doesn’t make it any less real.

You must prove you can make the “tough” decisions, which apparently means hurting other people while paying yourself very very well.

So tough.

Some few may make it thru to the bottom rungs of power, they, like AOC, are socialized into the requirements of power. First a politician who has noted that Israel is an apartheid state, for example, is made to bow before Israel, then step by step they are lead to vote for or at least abstain on votes they know are evil.

A manager is made to lay people off or fire them even as executive salaries increase, or to steal wages, or to force overtime. They are made to enforce policies they know are wrong.

In either case, after a time they become evil because we become what we do.

The good tend to be repulsed by power, because they see how it is abused, and they believe that power corrupts. There is some truth to this, of course, when you’re powerful you don’t have to care what other people think, or who you hurt, because they can’t retaliate. The weak are very well aware that if they hurt someone, that person may hurt them back.

Thus you never truly know if someone who is weak is truly good, it is power that reveals a person’s soul because true goodness is not a result of fear or bargaining.

But Thucydides was right: the powerful do as they will and the weak suffer what they must. The only way to create a good world is for the good to be powerful, and to create a system which filters out the evil and does not allow them to become powerful. When they do make it thru, and some will, just as very occasionally a good person gains power in our world, they must be forced out.

But if we want a good world, the good cannot run from power. They cannot disdain it. They must seek it, while understanding that it appears evil now because it is controlled by those who are evil.

If the good do not seek power, and if the good do not fight for it and if the good do not fight to keep the evil away from power, then we will always live in Hell.

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Week-end Wrap – Political Economy – June 18, 2023


Jewish, Israeli & Zionist Are Three Different Things


  1. Richard Holsworth

    In the most recent weekend wrap up, Tony cites a story about Patrick Deneen who appeals to theocratic Right-Wingers. He provides them with a sort of roadmap to taking power. They, of course, are certain that it’s their duty to take power— because they are “good.”

  2. Ian Welsh


    Judge them by their fruits.

  3. Feral Finster

    One of your better and more insightful works.

    This is how organizations can turn people sociopathic. How, for example, you could take a mid-level functionary in H.M. Colonial Office during Victoria’s reign, a man who in his private life was educated, forthright, principled, noble, even. A devoted husband and kindly father.

    And the requirements of that man’s job meant that he would order monstrous things to be done. And if he refused, there were plenty more willing to take that man’s place.

  4. Feral Finster

    Also worth mentioning is how some political forces (*cough* Green Party *cough*) seem to actively avoid getting any kind of real power. Because with power comes responsibilities and tough choices.

    You can’t immediately get all of your constituents everything they want, so you will have to prioritize, and some of them will get the shit end of the stick. Your constituents may have incompatible priorities, so you will have to choose which to support. Unless you are God, you can’t rule by absolute fiat, so you will have to seek out allies and make compromises, sometimes with unseemly characters (“Oooh, Team R! So gross!”)

    Far easier to stand back on the sidelines and kvetch.

  5. Willy

    In my own travels amongst the dark evils of the corporate white-collar world, what struck me the most was the amazing level of cowardice.

    There were no stern warnings out in the parking lot, no veiled threats, or even the anonymous “Listen sucker…” post-it notes found in the morning. Whenever I tried to confront somebody I’d caught red-handed trying to screw me, they’d weasel and/or run away. Even if I met with the boss in private and asked clearly what it was that he wanted me to do, after I’d done everything else as well as they’d publicly requested and excelling by their own metrics, he’d do basically as Henry Hill described in Goodfellas, pretend that everything was just fine before having me whacked.

    And no, I’m not some gigantic well-armed asshole intimidator. Just a regular guy.

    And then saying good-byes to the actual “good people”, I’d get the shamefelt downcast eyes, the “I’m sorry this happened to you”s, the “if only we didn’t have these managers.”

    I did a study of the others who got whacked. There was a large blowhard, a little lady expert, a stern workaholic, a class clown… The only rhyme or reason was that they all seemed to compete honestly and ethically. So it seemed that the best and brightest were being culled from that system. Or maybe more accurately, being allowed to be culled by the remaining cowards.

    It’s hard for somebody trying to do good while navigating such a fucked-up system. Evil systems are always about the food chains, where successful players believe that stuff like promises, agreements and honor are bullshit, that the only thing that matters is: “So what have you done for me personally which enhances my own wealth and power?” That’s why I admire the AOCs and Bernies of the DC world. No matter what the criticisms, they’ve got courage.

  6. Eric F

    Thanks Ian. This is a well argued post, and I can’t find any way to disagree with it.
    I won’t claim to be good, but power over other people repels me, and I’m repelled by people who would exercise power over me.

    So maybe we can say that to the extent that there is concentrated power available in society, then we want good people directing that power.
    But we will endeavor to minimize the amount of power available to leaders.

    Which has the added benefit of being philosophically opposed to just about all industrial activity.

    I know it’s unrealistic…

  7. StewartM

    Richard Holsworth

    Insofar as Deneen’s work is concerned, it’s a fraud. Even if it could be implemented, the “common good” envisioned by progressives is above elevating the condition of everyone, and sympathy for all who are needlessly suppressed, regardless of who or why they are oppressed. Ergo, you can’t philosophically square throwing gays and women under the bus to help socially-conservative working-class whites get better pay and working conditions.

    The inconsistency isn’t with us. It’s with them. Deneen is just changing who the ‘privileged’ groups should be. Moreover, if capitalism itself isn’t changed, then whatever gains working-class whites might make will be taken away when no longer advantageous.

  8. GlassHammer

    The competitors in power games need to believe that everyone around them thinks and operates exactly as they do because otherwise the there is no game/strategy involved at all. You couldn’t make moves and counter moves consistently if one out of every ten players acted chaotic and sought only to break the games structure at every turn.

    Chaotic people are always ejected from the game first. Good people and bad people can be made to conform to the games structure for the simple fact that they have patterns that they will adhere to. But chaotic people are a nightmare because they are intentionally without pattern even to the point of making sub-optimal moves intentionally. And if a chaotic person gets deeply embedded into a power game the whole game might have to reconfigure itself to remove them.

  9. different clue

    A problem with many Kumbaya Liberals is that if you suggest that they use the enemy’s proven methods against the enemy, they say: ” That would make us no better than they are.” To which I say: ” I don’t care about being better than they are. I care about being just as bad as I have to be against them to get something for me/us at the enemy’s expense.”

    To which they say: ” You are a very bad person.” To me an exemplar of that Pacifist Depravity was Joan Baez. She had a lovely voice and sang beautifully, but in the service of pure masochist surrender-monkey evil.

    ( By the way, I see that Turcopolier Blog is still inaccessible. When I link to it from this public library computer as against the workplace computers at my place of work, it still just sits there and grinds till it says ” this site can’t be reached.” Has the site’s new chief blogger . . . The Twisted Genius . . . shut the blog down for a while without entirely taking the link itself away? Is it still under some kind of powerful attack? Was it penetrated and destroyed from within by enemy action? I just don’t know.)

  10. mago

    Power—its acquisition, the use and abuse thereof—I’ve often thought about it.

    In the conventional realms of governance, business and bureaucracy power is usually wielded in petty vindictive ways.

    Spiritual organizations follow the same form, which leads to corruption in all ways. Examples abound. One needn’t look far.

    On the personal level in my professional life as a “boss” and manager I was always challenged by the staff no matter how benign or informed my intentions and policy.
    (Talking about the food world here.)

    In the spiritual world it’s the same dynamic despite expectations of more enlightened conduct. The challenges and corruption may be worse given heightened expectations. Hypocrisy is naturally ramped up given the disparity between aspirations and actions.

    Power. It’s acquisition, it’s use and abuse is beyond a blog comment, but we do what we can as best as we are able.
    Not claiming clarity and insight here, just talking.

  11. Mark Level

    Hi, a couple of comments. Since the 1980’s when NYC Artist Seth Tobocman spread the graffito “You Don’t Have to Fuck People Over to Survive”, I thought he shared a good point. If you’re unfamiliar, link here– . . . And just 2 responses to the plethora of good responses (typical of this site): 1. This is one of the times I like most of what Willie says, and spending the last 32 years of my career in education, the power sociology of relations there was not very much different from what Willie shares. When I started out, Neoliberal Doctrine hadn’t totally undermined public service but by the time I retired 2 years ago (after the Bush & Obama privatization & charter school scams, federal No Child Left Behind (No Child’s Behind Left), “Faith-based” religious “education” (sic) subsidies & increasing explicit adoption of Corporate HR scams to discipline & frighten teachers, advertising in the schools (since the public “evil government” support was evaporating), etc.– well, you get the picture, Evil was openly embraced in workplace relations, even though we still were encouraged to instruct the young that “America is good and free, there is equal justice under law, the world is getting better (per Stephen Pinker), richer, freer . . . ” Well, maybe true to a tiny minority, but not many if any of the students I taught in a working class, mostly non-white NorCal school system. But hey, where I dissent from Willie is on the claim that AOC or Bernie are at this point “good” or on the side of the oppressed!! I donated to Bernie in 2016 & 2020, now feel foolish. He did do genuinely good things many times when in Congress for many years. His sheepdogging for Zombie Joe (his “friend”) and the corporate Dems while they spit all over him is pathetic, like many political figures his late career choices destroy much of an earlier positive legacy. As to AOC, she is purely performative and has never materially benefited most of her constituents or anyone not “comfortable” already. Wearing a super-expensive dress with phony populist slogan added thereon to a Vogue gala with the 01% to “shock” somebody (okay, Taylor Greene might get triggered by that red flag to a bull, not many others would) is just silly and irrelevant. She’s done less for the common good than pretty much anyone, she is entirely Evil-Power captured at this point, Brown Kids in Cages was Monstrous when Trump did it, but when Zombie Joe continues it, Nothing to see here folks!! Move along!! 2. Responding to DiffClue– thank you! I have had exactly the same take on Joan Baez as you for quite some time, & “pure masochist surrender-monkey evil” is a dead-on take of her late work & ethos!! She had a bit of an edge and I think was cool and somewhat down when she had Dylan to riff off of (he was at that time evidently the “Angel” on her right shoulder), she turned really rancid quite quickly with success. As a Recovered Catholic (no AA 12 steps were needed, I threw that stinking mess of guilt, superstition and Sky-God Daddy worship in the trash with no 2nd thoughts, cleaned it entirely out of my system in no time flat) I recall hearing her sing some pure, Angelic Good Girl phony Lib “we love the poor & afflict the comfortable” (not really, though) drivel & just wanted to barf!! Some people (Newt Gingrich, Charlie Kirk, Joan Baez) should imho crawl under a rock and never afflict humanity with their spew now and into eternity.

  12. Willy

    I had a PhD level conservative once tell me that “leftism is all about the envy”. I had to respond back “…which implies that modern American conservatism is all about the cowardice”. He angrily went into red pills and blue pills, as if only the brave conservatives are red-pilled. So I reminded him that those brave men who’d invented the concept of “red pills and blue pills” now consider themselves to be women.

    Sigh. Of course, that PhD was so saturated with tribalism, rationalization, being on-the-“good”-teamism (not to mention all the sunk cost fallacy), that he dared not proceed further. It takes real courage to know that the world is a dangerous place and you’re demanding that there be nothing your government should ever do about it. It’s easier to focus energies on the trannies.

    I once stated that neolib/neocon were two sides of the same global corporate domination coin, that greedy plutocrats are using a cultural divide and conquer strategy to divert attentions and energies from that. But nobody’s ever offered ideas about how to get “the other team” to realize this, let alone debate over legal strategies against. And so we wind up with Biden being the most progressive president of our generation, as pathetic as that is, and Trump taking a couple weak steps towards the mildly economically-patriotic paleoconservatism of his youth.

    Mark Level, It’d sure be more convincing if you could clearly itemize all the actual policy things AOC voted wrong, especially anything which directly contradicts promises made without her explaining why. Then we could make a more informed decision about the degree to which she, like so many others in DC, have been “bought”. Hey, maybe that’d be a good metric on which to judge our so-called representatives… Corporate sycophancy or some better term.

  13. Purple Library Guy

    All right, time for one more kick at the can of outlining my ideas about political economy, because they are deeply entwined with the problem of leadership.

    The problem is not just that power tends to corrupt, although it does. The problem is that “being a leader” is a very different situation from being an ordinary person, not just in terms of your personal interests, but also in terms of your environment–physical, informational, social. You have access to information average people don’t, but also do not get information ordinary people do–what comes to you is filtered. Your life is spent around other leaders, not around working people. You probably don’t have money worries any more, or at least not the same kind. You will tend to start finding you have more in common with those other leaders than you do with the people you are representing.
    So when leaders start doing things that are good for leaders and lobbyists, it’s not just about cowardice (although that is there) or just about greed (although that is there) it is about acculturation to a different viewpoint. Basically, I agree with the Participatory Economics people that “co-ordinators” as they call them form a distinct class with its own interests and viewpoints; under capitalism they kind of work for the capitalists, but in the Soviet Union they became the ruling class and that wasn’t particularly better.

    And so the big political problem isn’t just that there are evil people being leaders and everything would be fine if we just picked some good people to be leaders. The problem is with leadership itself. Yeah, sometimes you can get a good leader who has such a strong will and vision that they can keep hold of a people-centred vision over a long time in leadership. Hugo Chavez is an example. And they can do great things. But to take that Hugo Chavez example, the greatest things he did were precisely to help bring some power to the people–the communal councils, the movements towards communes, the empowering constitution, the land reform. The social programs were great, but once the Americans started really turning the screws on sanctions and other financial warfare those social programs foundered for lack of money. But what has continued in Venezuela is the people’s struggles to establish communities with the power to work for their people’s welfare, to produce co-operatively and autonomously, and what has endured of Chavez’s efforts is the things he did to enable that and make it harder to stop. In short, the greatest leaders are the ones who make leadership itself less necessary and important. Both because that’s a good thing in itself, and because they can be sure very few other leaders will resist the tendency to join the “leadership class”. On average if they do good things for the people that DON’T give them power, their reforms will just be reversed by the next few leaders, so the only way to be effective is to give the people the ability to get what they want for themselves.

    Now what I want to be really clear I’m NOT saying is that good leaders shrink the state or the public sector or such. The public sector is very important–or at least, its functions are. The issue is who controls it. If it is a top-down operation it will become paternalistic at best, downright vicious and counterproductive at worst.

  14. Purple Library Guy

    So this all sounds like an argument for Anarchism, and in a way it is. But there’s a big problem with Anarchism: As typically conceived of, it cannot win and if it somehow did it could not stay in charge. Whether we like it or not (I don’t), the fact is that different political/economic systems will in effect compete. And what makes a system win is not whether it does the best things for most of the people in it. What makes a system win is its ability to effectively muster resources for societal projects—projects that push the goals of the political unit and its system as a whole, such as projects dedicated to reproduction of the system, increased productivity within the system (eg infrastructure), or expansion of the system (eg by conquest). Anarchism is usually conceived as extremely decentralized, with each little community effectively autonomous. So, it can’t do any of that stuff. So, it loses to capitalism, or even to feudalism or pretty much any other system that’s ever ruled a substantial chunk of territory. If Anarchism comes into contact with practically any other political/economic system, it gets eaten alive. It’s good for actual people, but that doesn’t matter if it can’t maintain its existence (and, it has limitations even in its advantages for people—how do you get a railway together if every stop has different ideas about rail gauges?).

    This leaves every left project, or even any project hoping for systems that are defined mainly by being good for the people in them, in a cleft stick. Go Anarchist and the people will be empowered, free, and able to make decisions for their own good, but not for very long because capitalists will nobble them, so it’s kind of pointless. If they won it would be good, but they can’t win.

    Go for more centralized, hierarchical power setups and the good guys can potentially “win” but they still can’t genuinely win. The problem of leadership will result in decisions being made for the benefit of some ruling class rather than the benefit of the people, most of the time, even if the proclaimed ethos is socialist or “civic republicanism” or whatever. If the system is capitalism, the ruling class benefiting will be capitalists, and the nominal leaders will be capitalists or get an escalator into their ranks; if it’s not capitalism, the ruling class will be the leaders themselves—but either way, the people will not be the beneficiaries of decisions. Sometimes it will take a little while and some good things will be done before leadership are co-opted by capitalists or start ruling for themselves, but the tendencies are pretty inexorable.

    So what does that leave? In the traditional view, nothing. But I think there are possibilities.

  15. Purple Library Guy

    OK, if anyone is still reading, the problem facing good people is, how to make a horizontal system, controlled by the people, directly democratic–which is also capable of scaling to large size and mustering social resources to defend and reproduce itself effectively?

    I think most people have traditionally just assumed tacitly that this is not possible. So leftists who like winning went for more centralized socialism, while leftists who hate victories that leave ashes in the mouth went for decentralized anarchism, both of them at some level uneasily aware that their model had some basic problems, but feeling that just giving up was not an option given the evils of capitalism, imperialism and so on.

    And it may be that such a system was unworkable for most of history. Technology changes the political options available. It’s hard to run a big country, or big organization of any kind, without some kind of communication between the bits. The better the communication, the more fine grained you can get. Democracy is a thing that needs more communication than autocracy. The deeper the democracy, the more and better communication you need. And this is true both in technology level and in technique, like models for how discussions happen and how voting is done. Robert’s Rules of Order is getting long in the tooth.

    Well, we’ve got the internet now. It enables an awful lot of communication, but the “technique” side sucks, mostly because it is happening on platforms controlled by capitalists, and the point is to get people to buy things (or better yet, pay money for essentially nothing, as in NFTs and Gacha games); the point is most emphatically NOT to empower people to get together and make decisions. People have with ingenuity sometimes managed to do that kind of thing on Twitter or Facebook or whatever anyway, but that’s not what their makers want. However, the potential is huge. You could totally run an effective large scale Anarchism-esque thing on the internet we have today, the software would be almost trivial.

    But how would it work? Well, the core problem of both horizontal and hierarchical large organizations is, any one person cannot assimilate all the information and make decisions about everything. So you can’t have a model where either a single person (like an autocrat) or everyone (in an anarchy) is involved in every decision; get past a pretty small scale and it’s totally unworkable.

    Hierarchical organizations have spent amazing amounts of resources and thought and money and time trying to overcome this problem, trying to effectively control very large organizations without micromanaging. They’ve never been completely successful, but successful enough that multinational corporations are huge and are massively wealthy and powerful, so, you know, pretty good–and they keep trying. Hence all the masses of project management software, business administration schools, business books about effective organization and management, blah blah blah blah.

    Anarchists have not, they’ve never really been interested in being big, and frankly they’ve never had enough success to run into the problem much. Other horizontal-minded organizations have also rarely been big enough to have to start thinking about it. So I think a lot of the reason scalable direct democracy is vaguely assumed to be impossible is that nobody has tried or even really thought about the problem.

    The fundamental need is to break with the idea that everyone can be involved in every decision. So, then you need to distribute decision making. Lots of little groups handling different issues. But then you have the problem that the little group doing foreign policy controls foreign policy–there could be lots of little choke points, with little cliques controlling important things and not letting anyone join. So, two principles. First, although it’s impossible for anybody to be involved in ALL decisions, everybody has the right to be involved in ANY decision. People can join any decision making group they want and the group cannot stop them. Second, little groups on a topic are not the final word. The system is nested; there are umbrella groups that include all the people in the related groups under that umbrella, and bigger umbrella groups including a few smaller umbrella groups, until at some point you get to the umbrella group of “the whole country”. If people don’t like the decision a small group makes, or think it is too broad in its impacts for just that small group to decide, they can kick it out to a wider group. Eventually, very important decisions could end up as a referendum for the whole country. Bigger votes trump smaller votes because it’s democracy.

    Those are the most fundamental angles; I have more details, like how decisions are structured. In the small groups, anyone can initiate action; nobody has literal control over the agenda. Nobody presents a proposal for a course of action, to be then voted yes/no. Instead, you bring up an issue, and people propose different actions, which after a time-limited discussion people vote on with a ranked ballot. All of this is facilitated through an online platform. Everyone in a polity with this system is expected to be in a few decision-making groups, some which they choose, plus a couple they are assigned to randomly as a public duty, so as to make sure groups don’t get too insular. A certain size of minority vote can push a decision out to a wider umbrella group; how big would need to be tweaked based on practice–enough to usually stop cliquey abuses, not enough to clog people with decisions they’re not interested in because losers couldn’t accept stuff. So on and so forth.

    I think a system like this would be capable of running a big polity and mustering resources for large projects including self-defence, but would also operate to keep the people in control, with its operations dedicated to their welfare.

  16. different clue

    I do remember that AOC was somehow involved in forcing Bezos to drop his plans for a big Amazon Warehouse in her district. I don’t know how much involvement she had in that local districthood effort. But stopping the Amazon from invading the neighborhood and causing rents to rise high enough to drive thousands of borderline-poor people out of that area was certainly an accomplishment on somebody’s part.

  17. Willy

    The problem is that the people best at acquiring power are also the most selfish amongst us, willing to do whatever it takes to acquire power. Temporarily posing as “socialists” or “anarchists” or innocent nobodies offering to make all of your wildest dreams come true if you just vote for them, is not off the table for them.

    (Personally, I wished there would’ve been a Napoleon Dynamite 2, where after Pedro got elected he revealed himself to be a psychopathic asshole with an endless supply of gangster cousins enforcing his evil sex, drugs and Tejano music whims)

    Anyways, we must also consider the masses, who despite being warned repeatedly that it’s all about the behaviors and not the words, stubbornly remain susceptible to those baby-kissing, glad-handing, podium-pounding psychopathic assholes.

    Not trying to be a party pooper, but any system devised must consider the intelligent management of those two kinds of people who usually ruin it for the rest of us, when given the chance.

  18. Trinity

    My experience growing up with a narcissistic mother was this: the nicest among us, the ones who were trying to do good things, the ones who were kind and gentle and didn’t need to attract attention or put others down were the targets, constantly maligned (forever) and therefore stripped of any power whatsoever. Effectively muzzled for all time.

    As long as they exist, they will always remove anyone who threatens their power by doing good things. At this point, we’ve seen it happen over and over. Even when the good are removed, they are maligned or ridiculed for the rest of their lives.

    PLG, one alternative I’ve posited here is the example from the Native Americans: leadership changes depending on need and context. There is no one Supreme Leader for all time, just time slices where someone who knows what needs to be done gets it done. We could use a switch right now, followed by further switches to start addressing all the problems we are facing.

    It’s ridiculous to expect any single person to adequately address all the different complexities anyway, even if they are good, kind people.

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