Nineteenth Century Anarchism and Modern Social Science

In his essay ‘The State and Marxism’ Michael Bakunin notes that:

Nothing is more dangerous for man’s private morality than the habit of command. The best man, the most intelligent, disinterested, generous, pure, will infallibly and always be spoiled at this trade. Two sentiments inherent in power never fail to produce this demoralisation; they are: contempt for the masses and the overestimation of one’s own merits.

(Michael Bakunin, Marxism, Freedom and the State, London: Freedom Press, 1998, p.37.)

In his excellent book, How Power Corrupts: Cognition and Democracy in Organisations, Ricardo Blaug notes how social science research has confirmed Bakunin’s claims about ‘the two sentiments inherent in power’. He quotes David Kipnis, who concludes from one study that ‘the successful use of influence transforms the influencing agent’s view of self and others’. Those  who are persuaded come to seem less worthy to those who persuade them. (Ricardo Blaug, How Power Corrupts: Cognition and Democracy in Organisations, Palgrave Macmillan: Houndmills, 2010, p.12)

Meanwhile, Dacher Keltner concludes that:

High social status stimulates the perception that subordinates are chronic shirkers of responsibility who require constant supervision and motivation.

(op. cit., p.12)

And, citing research by Fiske and Depret, Blaug suggests that ‘high status individuals are more likely to use stereotypes in their judgments of others’ (op. cit., p.18).

(The poor are often chastised for their racism. In fact they are less likely to be racist than their powerful accusers.)

So much, then, for the idea that a privileged caste of guardians can be trusted to boil out the fat of stereotypical thinking from their understanding of the world – Walter Lippmann’s love letter to the privileged and power-mad bigots of his day. Power is a drug that deludes. And as the intoxication grows, so too does the scale on which our diseased imagination can work. Becoming powerful deforms our understanding, until we want to improve a world that doesn’t exist, on behalf of people we misunderstand and despise.

Note that the successful use of influence transforms ‘the influencing agent’s view of self’. Power gives confidence to those who exercise it. There is plenty more to be said about the transformative effects of power, influence and persuasion. But for the time being it is enough to note that social science confirms Bakunin’s assertion; the powerful hold the powerless in contempt and they overestimate their own merits.

Perhaps social scientists should pay a little more attention to Michael Bakunin, given his proven ability to preempt their findings by more than a century.

Indeed, imagine the rapid progress that science could make, were it to put aside its distrust of anarchism.


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