One thing we never properly understand is the true function of the power differential in society. We can of course observe, as did Alfred Adler, that there is this drive to obtain and exert power (which Adler derived from Nietzsche’s subtler concept of the ‘will to power’) which effectively incentivizes us to climb as high as we can up the social hierarchy. There are obvious benefits to this – from the biological point of view, having a high social status means (for males, at any rate) that we will have a better chance of passing our genetic material on to future generations, which is of course what the basic biological game is all about. In societies all across the world there are male hierarchies of power but the incentive to compete for a place in them is clearly not about having the precious opportunity to father more babies than lower status males can! That old-fashioned biological imperative obviously doesn’t apply to us – it might be true for baboons but it isn’t particularly the case for humans anymore. There is however another benefit to being ‘high status’ and that is the psychological one of feeling better about yourself, of having a ‘positive image’ of yourself. This is of course the ‘lobster effect’ spoken of by Jordan Peterson.
But we can go deeper than this and (following Nietzsche) argue that the greatest benefit of being high up in the power hierarchy is that we get to be the one who says what is true and what is not true. We get to be ‘the one who defines reality’ in other words and this can (obviously enough!) bring many benefits. The cliché is that ‘power corrupts’ but it would be more accurate, and more telling, to rephrase this as ‘the ability to define reality corrupts’! If I have the power to define reality than I am pretty much untouchable; if I have the power to say what reality is and what it isn’t then I can get away with just about anything. How can I get caught out when ‘everything I do is right’ (or when ‘everything I do is eminently justifiable’) and you can be sure that everything I do will be excused in this way if I’m the one in charge of the ‘official validation procedure’!
We all know that totalitarian regimes stay in power or consolidate their power by ‘saying what is true and what is not true’, so as to always paint themselves in a good light (no matter what atrocities they may have committed). This is familiar territory – we need only to think of the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. It is a low-down dirty trick to redefine reality so that you can’t be seen as the scoundrel you are, and is also a trick that no dictator, no ruling elite, has ever shied away from! When you are in charge of what is true or not true it’s very hard not to abuse this power. What makes this so tempting is that when we distort reality to favour ourselves we believe in the distortion just as much as everyone else does. We never have to see that there is any ‘distorting of the truth’ taking place. ‘Telling a lie’ and ‘believing in the lie’ become one and the same thing.
This power of being able to distort the truth and straightaway believe our own distortion isn’t reserved for those at the very top of the social hierarchy of course – we all have this power, and we all use it. We are all ‘corrupt dictators’ when it comes to our own private reality bubble and if we think otherwise then that’s simply because we’re naïve. The difference is however that whilst we might be able to fool ourselves readily enough in any given situation, we are unlikely to be able to fool very many other people. Things change when we get up to the top of the hierarchy however; it all becomes remarkably effortless then – we are automatically on the right side of history, so to speak. We are automatically validated just by our very position, and this allows us to get away with a great deal – if we want to that is, and we almost certainly do!
We might argue with this by saying that, whilst it probably true that those right at the very top of the pecking order can get away with more, if they want to, this hardly explains the existence of power hierarchies in society and everyone’s need or desire to compete for the best possible position in them. We obviously can’t all ‘make it to the very top’ and most of us have no such ambition, but there is another dimension that comes into this and that is a dimension that we are – for one reason or another – particularly blind to. It’s not just that our self-esteem and confidence ‘go up when our social status is high’, that’s just a small part of it; there is another factor here that we are most unlikely to spot and that has to do with our ability to ‘pass on’ our own acknowledged existential pain and insecurity. The idea that this should be a significant (or maybe even an essential) factor in everyday human psychology is rather foreign to us – it’s not really part of our understanding with regards to the question of ‘how people interact’. Naturally it isn’t – if it was then this would compromise the mechanism by which we ‘pass on’ (or ‘displace’) our angst onto the people around us.
This is not something we focus on, and – as we have just said – this isn’t an aberration or an accident. There is a self-serving mechanism right at the core of ‘the everyday self’ that we never read about in any psychology textbook and that is the mechanism for getting rid of our inner pain without us knowing about it. It doesn’t make sense to us that we should have to have such a mechanism because – unsurprisingly enough – we see the situation of ‘being self’ as a perfectly legitimate state of affairs. It isn’t, though – it is on the contrary an artificial situation that has to be constantly propped up. Another way of putting this would be to say that the everyday self is an inherently insecure kind of ‘virtual entity’! When I have identified with ‘the idea that I have of myself’ (and the idea everyone else has of me too) – which is almost always – then I inevitably have to be doing something to ‘keep myself propped up’. I need to be continually validating myself in other words, and this is a job that I simply can’t get away from. I may not see what I’m doing (in fact it won’t work if I see what I’m doing) but this doesn’t mean that I’m not doing it.
Our assumption is that the self doesn’t need continually propping up, that it doesn’t need to be validating itself time and time again, and the reason we think this is because – as we have just said – we think that the idea which we have of ourselves isn’t a construct (just like all the other ideas that we have). To see this would constitute a total revolution in the way we perceive the world and our resistance to encounter such a radically new way of seeing things is of course always going to be maximal. Straightaway, therefore, we can see that there is some kind of ‘secret strain’ or ‘secret tension’ going on and that this tension itself is pain that needs to be promptly displaced if the integrity of the game is to be preserved. This might be said to constitute the type of ‘core existential pain’ that is contingent upon our conditioned mode of being in the world, but this is only the beginning. Just to cover up the awareness of how the self is being artificially presented to us not as a construct, but as an independently existing entity in its own right, isn’t good enough – the self-concept just can’t exist as some kind of ‘neutral player’, so to speak, it needs to be ‘head and shoulders above all the other players’, if possible. Or, alternatively, it needs to be head and shoulders above the environment that it finds itself in, which is to say, it has to be calling the shots and not the environment. The self-concept has to be ‘winning at its game’, in other words, whatever that game might be.
As Alan Watt says, the ego constantly has to be playing the game of ‘one-upmanship’. It has to do this in order to offset its ‘central weakness’ which is that it needs to be special in order to exist, whilst actually it isn’t special at all! The mind-created sense of self can never get away from this need to compete – even when it tries to be ‘humble’ and ‘unassuming’ it tries to be better at this task than anyone else! Essentially, it is the case that the mind-created image of ourselves is always aggressive (or rather we are always aggressive when we think that we are the self-image or self-concept). The self-image can’t not be aggressive because that is how it sustains its very existence, and this necessity is what no one seems to understand. We imagine that it must be possible for us to cooperate and be essentially peaceful and non-judgemental beings, when this is actually incompatible with our ‘identified’ nature, our nature as ‘conditioned beings’! On the surface of things, it appears that we do cooperate in society, for the most part, anyway; we not all out on the street fighting each other, at any rate (although that can easily happen if we have too much to drink). We may easily imagine – therefore – that humankind’s basic aggression has been sublimated and long last been turned into something more ‘productive’.
As we keep saying however, the type of aggression that we looking at here isn’t biological in nature – it’s psychological. Is the invisible aggression of projecting the thinking minds outwards onto the world and trying to make the world ‘be what we think it ought to be’ and ‘mean what we think it should mean’. This is the fundamental invisible and unacknowledged aggression of rationality. There’s still plenty of old-fashioned aggression around of course, but it is not so much ‘out in the open’ for the most part; when we look around us therefore, it does seem perhaps that the basic biological aggression has been sublimated into socially accepted channels. If we think that the aggression is gone however we’re very much mistaken; it’s merely been turned into the ‘manipulation of meaning’! We can’t see anything particularly forceful or coercive going on in the public arena perhaps, but that’s simply because everyone is perfectly happy to buy into the officially-manipulated version of reality – we are all quite docile in that respect. The tremendous homogenisation that’s taken place in the Western world with respect to culture is evidence of very great aggression; via the systematic manipulation of meaning, life has been turned into purely generic affair and the life of the autonomous individual doesn’t count for anything. Nothing ever happens that has not been programmed to happen, no one ever thinks what they are not supposed to be thinking.
Psychological aggression (as we have said) is where we control reality without admitting that we are doing so, which is something that’s going on a scale ‘hitherto undreamt of’. The question is therefore – who is manipulating reality, who is calling the shots with regard to all this control? This is – needless to say – a question that gets asked an awful lot; it’s a ‘classic conspiracy-type’ question, and anyone in this world who is even a little bit alert can smell a conspiracy going on somewhere. This isn’t an unfortunate mental aberration either – it’s just basic intelligence. Someone, somewhere, is cooking the books! Whole sections of potential reality been closed off to us on a permanent basis and no one is admitting to this. Something fishy is going on with the reality supply and anyone talks about it gets treated as if there’s something wrong with them; anyone talks about it is treated as if they’re mentally unwell. The official line is always that there is no funny business going; the official line is always that realty isn’t being tampered with. The official line, by definition, is always that ‘what we see in front of us the only reality that is’…
We could – if we wanted to – focus on the vexed question of who is at the very top of the power hierarchy. Who are the elite, who are the sinister manipulators? This is always a fascinating matter to think about for sure, but it’s much more fruitful to consider the uncomfortable question of ‘what’s in it for us‘. The point is that as far as most of us ‘invested players’ are concerned it doesn’t – in any practical way – matter who is at the top of the pyramid of power just so long as someone is. As long as someone is in charge then there will be such a thing as a tightly-organised hierarchy, and as long as there is such a thing as a tightly-organised hierarchy then we will be able to jockey for an advantageous position within it. This line from the film Sin City is rather pertinent here, where Senator Roark states that power comes from-
….lying big, and gettin’ the whole damn world to play along with you. Once you got everybody agreeing with what they know in their hearts ain’t true, you’ve got ‘em by the balls.
As long as we have a good position in the power hierarchy then we will be ensured of being able to invisibly displace our acknowledged existential pain on those who are either below us in the pecking order, or on the same level. We will do this of course at the same time as ‘sucking up’ to those above us – we fawn on those with more power and demean those with less. The times when we actually see this sort of thing going on however only makes up the very tip of the iceberg – we can see when a bully is doing their bullying (if the matter is brought to out in the open) but what is far harder to spot is the way in which this very same thing goes on in all ‘mechanical or role-based interactions’ between people. To exist within the hierarchy is always to displace pain (and also to have pain displaced onto us, if we not at the apex of the food chain).
This doesn’t mean that people never genuinely ‘kind’ to each other – we can meet with kindness wherever we are (although it’s more commonly encountered on the lower strata of society, where people are less concerned with status and have less to lose therefore by ‘dropping out of the game’) but when this happens it’s always because the people concerned have dropped out of the game and are responding autonomously, not as they have been told to respond by their social conditioning. Unless we disregard the rules of the game and become our true spontaneous selves, there is no way that we can be kind; unless we are being our true spontaneous selves then we are inevitably ‘passing on pain’. If we remain ‘plugged into the system’ (and continue to believe in the basic structure that is provided by society) then we are always going to be imposing that structure on everyone we meet, everyone we interact with, and this is an act of aggression. I aggress you and you aggress me – we both keep ourselves in our respective boxes, and the only real ‘winner’ therefore is the system itself. By seeking personal advantage all that happens is that we strengthen the machine (or the game) even more.
So much of what passes for ‘communication’ isn’t anything of the sort – it’s just control, it’s just ‘the use of power’. Communication can only take place between those on an equal footing. Anything we say that places any kind of constraint (or expectation) and the person we are talking to (when they are unacknowledged assumptions that are being imposed) is aggression, this control, and control is in itself paint displacement. The imposition of structure is paint displacement – this is obviously the case since there’s always an immediate penalty’ once we fail to accord with the structure that’s being presented to us. If we get it ‘wrong’ we are blamed’, in other words. If we disobey we get punished, and this is paint-displacement pure and simple. Those at the top of the pyramid are always right, whilst those at the very bottom are always wrong!
Even though we’ll never admit it to ourselves, being part of a determinate structure always creates pain (which is equivalent to saying, as we did earlier, that ‘being conditioned creates pain’, or that ‘being identified involves pain’). We have surrendered our actual autonomy after all, and the loss of autonomy is pure pain. We might as well say that ‘the loss of who we really are’ is pure pain; obviously it is – what could be a greatest source of suffering than this? The result is therefore that there is all this ‘free-floating’ pain in society and that is why we have to be so competitive, that is why we always have to be playing games. That’s why we have a top and a bottom to society; that’s why there has to be a hierarchy. This way we get to have ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ and the losers get to carry the pain for all the rest of us! The hierarchy (or game) is a pain-displacement mechanism, therefore! The ‘losers’ don’t really deserve the pain that is being put on them of course but if the pain-displacement mechanism is to work someone has to be nominated as being worthy of blame, someone has to be seen worthy of ‘negative judgement’! Our ‘social hierarchy’ is all about pain displacement therefore, is just that we not accustomed to seeing things this way.
The significance of there being a hierarchy of power in society is therefore to a large extent a psychological one therefore in that it allows us to define ourselves, and ‘defining ourselves’ is how we keep the insecurity of our basic undefined situation at bay. If I am fully-defined then so too is the world around me fully-defined since I define my world and my world defines me, and so this leaves no ‘uncharted corners’ anywhere to worry about. Everything is neatly taken care of – too neatly in fact, because a completely defined situation is a highly uncomfortable one. It is a profoundly inhospitable one – there is irreducible suffering in it, as we keep saying. This sets up another problem therefore – we started off with the problem of ontological insecurity and then when we solve this we found that we had another problem in its place which is the existential pain of conditioned existence (the existential pain of ‘pretending to be who we aren’t’) and so – with great ingenuity – we solved this by creating a structure that has a top and a bottom! This way we can play the game of one-upmanship that Alan Watts talks about and those who do well in the game will obtain game. Opting for the safety of conditioned or defined existence inevitably brings about pain but we have found a way of using that pain (or the need to avoid it) as currency in a game, a game that has no end, a game that has no ‘happy resolution’…