The Power Game

According to psychotherapist Morgan Scott Peck, neurosis is where we take on too much responsibility (where we take on an unrealistic degree of responsibility) whilst sociopathy is where we take on too little (or more often, none at all). This might sound a little over-simplistic on first hearing but it turns out to be a very useful way of thinking about things. It can give us a way of understanding how society works. A closely related psychological dichotomy would be to contrast people who have a tendency to blame others in times of difficulty and those who automatically blame themselves instead. When we blame ourselves for everything then we are clearly taking on too much responsibility and if on the other hand it is never our fault, no matter how damning the evidence, then obviously the converse is true.

In the most general terms this comes down to our style of dealing with pain – either we displace it onto other people (or onto the world in general) or we internalise it or swallow it down ourselves. This corresponds to Chogyam Trungpa’s dichotomy of ‘acting out’ versus ‘repressing’, which are the ego’s only two ways of dealing with pain. These are our two conditioned ways of dealing with pain that are – actually – not ways of dealing with pain! If we are considering the dynamics of society as a whole we can say that society must therefore consist, to a large extent, of [1] people who take on pain that doesn’t really belong to them and [2] people who pass on (or try to pass on) pain that is legitimately theirs, and which they won’t ever own. To give a very simple example, in the first case if I am having a run of bad luck and nothing is working out for me then I assume that I must be a flawed or defective person and that I just don’t deserve good things to happen to me, and if I have the other style of dealing with pain then I’m convinced that it’s someone else’s fault instead and get angry with them about what I think they’re doing. I want to find a scapegoat in other words, whereas in the first case I will make myself into the scapegoat.

We can see this dichotomy very clearly in abusive relationships – the fuel for the abuse – so to speak – is that I as an abuser have a lot of emotional pain that I am absolutely determined to take no responsibility for and so what I want to do is find someone who will take on the job feeling the pain for me, so I don’t have to. None of this can be transparent however – I can’t let myself know that I’m making you take on pain that is rightfully mine and not yours because this in itself would be a painful awareness and my whole orientation is towards avoiding pain or displacing it elsewhere. Because this is my orientation I have to really believe that it’s your fault, I have to be convinced that it’s your fault, and for your part, you have to be convinced – if possible  – that it really is you who is to blame (maybe not because of anything specific that you have done, although very often of course it is) but simply because you are a crappy worthless person who deserves to take the blame. I will tell you this over and over again, just to make sure it sinks in. This is what abusive relationships are all about, as we all know.

Abuse happens all the time of course – it’s a big part of life, whether we realise it or not. ‘You’re a crappy person,’ we say, hoping that this will stick, hoping that our target won’t ‘turn it around on us’ and send the label back to us with even more force that we put in it. This is what a row is – two people each trying their best to be the one dishing out the shit rather than the one who has to take it. Someone has to take the blame, someone has to take the negative kudos, and so we have to struggle to make sure it isn’t us. We have to struggle to be the winner and not the loser. This is no minor psychological oddity that we’re talking about here, therefore; what we’re looking at is the basic human game – the power game, the game of one-upmanship. This is why society – any society – is always based on a power hierarchy – as is well known by everyone, the higher up the hierarchy we are the less shit we have to take! If we make it to the very top then we don’t take any shit from anyone – we don’t take it, we give it. And – by the same token – if we are right at the bottom of the power pyramid then everyone can take a dump on us; everyone can shit on us because we have no status and so there’s absolutely nothing we can do about it. We can’t even displace it onto someone else because there’s no one below us – we just have to suck it up.



If we say that society (any society) is a power hierarchy, underneath all the gloss, then this makes it plain what the game is here, this makes it clear what our motivation to play the game is – we want to (spuriously) validate ourselves by climbing as far up as the ladder as we can. This is why those of us who make it to the upper levels of the power structure – the aristocrats, so to speak – look so pleased with themselves. It is almost inevitably the case that we will assume that our position is the result of our own virtue, our own worthiness, our own innate ‘superiority’ (if we get to get right down to brass tacks) and so this is why we feel so good about ourselves. It’s not the case that we are at the top of the power hierarchy because of our innate superiority however, but rather it is the case that we get to feel superior because we are now in the position of being able to downwardly displace all of our angst and insecurity down to the lower levels. It’s the other way around – we’re not at the top of the pyramid because of our any special virtue that we might possess, but because our elevated position allows us to get away with defining ourselves as being especially worthy, especially deserving of the comfortable position we are in. We feel superior because we are able to define all those below us in the hierarchy as being unworthy, feckless, lazy and generally undeserving. It is this trick that allows the crude game of capitalism to remain respectable.

It might be imagined that we cherish power for lots of reasons but, as Nietzsche says somewhere, power is all about allowing us to say what the truth is. This is what we are ultimately playing for. When we’re at the top of the pyramid then we get to be the one who defines reality and we will do this to suit ourselves, naturally enough. We create the game that everyone else has to play and this game is invariably rigged in our favour; we say that the game is ‘fair’, but actually it’s anything but. It is said that ‘power corrupts’ but the corruption doesn’t lie in the temptation to use that power to gain material benefits – although this of course comes into it – but to use that power so as to be the one who says what reality is.  This means we are always going to come out on top; we are always ‘right’ and anyone who disagree with us is always going to be ‘wrong’. This is what happens in all social groups (all organisations, all institutions, etc) – the powerful say what is true and what is not true so that the only way to ‘get ahead’ is to play the game that has been given to us to play, which means that even if we win (especially if we win) we’re winning against ourselves. When sociologists say that ideology is the invisible prison that we ourselves constructed and maintain, this is what they mean. In society, it is always the case that we keep ourselves prisoner – we ourselves put in the work to do this, no one else. Or as Carlos Castaneda puts it, the strategy of the predator is to give us its own malign mind, and this way we are defeated whatever we do. Our very winning is losing.

Games don’t offer us the possibility of winning (which is what they claim to do) they are the way in which we get to be ‘trapped in someone else’s reality’, which is a situation that is never going to work out for us. Most of us want to ‘do the right thing’ and so our motivation is not malign, the only thing here however is that we never think about who it is that has said what ‘the right thing’ is, and this is our downfall. As Philip K Dick says, this is ‘service in error’ – it’s not enough that we are essentially goodhearted and genuinely want to do the right thing in life, we also have to be curious about what is going on and question the authorities which we serve. The only problem here is that ‘the authorities’ inevitably define ‘questioning’ as ‘a very bad thing’!







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