It is stated that John Edward Acton, the first baron, expressed an opinion in his letter written to Bishop Mandell, written in 1887, that, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” However, it seems that the meaning of the quote is older, and that the English politician, William Pitt the Elder, Earl of Chatham and former Prime Minister of England from 1766-1778 originally said in the parliament that “Unlimited power is apt to corrupt the minds of those who possess it.”[i]
Having been fortunate enough never to have had absolute or unlimited power, I have managed not to be corrupted absolutely, but having had limited power, I am aware of the pitfalls associated with high positions. There used to be an assumption, which persisted despite regular disappointment, that people of principle behaved like “gentlemen”. Lord Acton and William Pitt seem to have experienced that this is not true, and anyone who has ever held power knows the lure of having everyone obey you. Those who deny this have probably been seduced all the more. It seems far too easy to suppress arguments through injunctions though it is often not the best solution.
In human history, “survival of the fittest” may have been the way primitive man lived his life, but at some point, he realised the folly of his behaviour and the value of the protection of the tribe. This did not change the way men regarded women and children, who were demonstrably smaller and weaker and therefore inferior in the mind of the brute man, but women satisfied other needs and children grew to be stronger. Strangely enough, this relationship has only recently changed in Western Europe, albeit only slightly, and women and children still suffer from abusive relationships. Men tend to exploit the power they have, even if it is only power over their family. The social fabric of men still revolves around power, although power is a relative concept and the manifestations of power vary greatly. Weak men are usually treated with contempt, even by women and children who have suffered violence, which shows that the primitive power structures are still in place.
In the last century, especially after the world wars, a change began and men generally became gentler, but only when conditions were suitable. Under stress, men still struck out, even if they were only hurting themselves, and if it was not possible to be physical, other means were sought. Men have retaliatory thoughts, even if they appear calm on the surface. This is true for the lower earners and even more so for the higher earners, who usually also have more power. No wonder, then, that men are prone to retaliation in companies or in politics where they can wield power. This “lack of judgement”, as I would call it, is also the reason why they become corruptible if not controlled and called to reason.
It is for this reason that democracies were built on a principle of checks and balances, and separation of powers. The typical division is into three branches: a legislature, an executive, and a judiciary. Coincidentally, considering the current crisis, the first constitutional document to establish the principle of the separation of powers in government between the legislative, executive, and judiciary branches are said to be Pacts and Constitutions of Rights and Freedoms of the Zaporizhian Host written in 1710 by Ukrainian Hetman Pylyp Orlyk.[ii] This goes against what the West has perceived as ascribed to Montesquieu, but instead seems to have been earlier.
Since political corruption, as we have seen, has been acknowledged long ago as an unfortunate fact of life, a responsible free press is an additional essential check and balance in our democratic society. However, in America and elsewhere in the West, both governments and civil litigants are trying to force reporters to reveal their sources so that they can expose the “troublesome” leaks of government work – information to which every citizen has a right. The result is that Western countries, which are supposed to be beacons of human rights and democracy in the world, are trying to coerce journalists and punish them for informing the public about their government’s business.[iii]
For a while I followed several investigative journalists, notably John Pilger and Robert Fisk, who observed the West’s involvement in the Far East and the Middle East respectively and were concerned about the continuation of an imperialist and colonialist agenda that America had inherited from the former European imperial powers. They were concerned that the West, in its supposed fight against communism, was making the situation worse instead of acting as a beacon of human rights and democracy with its interventions in these countries. It was easy to dub them both as socialist or worse, as communists, but it was about upholding the principles of a free world that was their worry.
Pilger and Fisk were obviously also critical about the USSR, that was also trying to gain influence in these areas, and the spread of Communism, also of Pol Pot, but Pilger was also critical of the treatment of indigenous Australians. It was however the fact that the West was telling one story to the public and carrying out policies that contradicted them. One was the story of the destruction of Indonesia’s sovereignty by the IMF and the World Bank, and Sukarno’s policy, internally and externally, to make policies centred on a philosophy of equilibrium/balance. Indonesia is a land with an immense variety of cultures and Sukarno attempted to keep the different factions in his country in balance, allowing the Communist Party to gain 16.4% of the vote, which was too much for the West. The USA backed internal rebellions that sought to destabilise Sukarno, but he survived, and they loaded the country with debt. When Sukarno reacted to the British proclaiming the Malaysian Federation without consultation, and left the IMF and WB, this provoked a coup d’état with General Suharto launching a massive repression against the left-wing parties. He chose the PKI as his prime target, accusing it of fomenting a Communist putsch. Suharto succeeded in taking control with the army and physically destroyed the PKI. Between 500.000 and 1 million civilians were assassinated merely for belonging to the PKI or sympathising with it.[iv]
I was in Malaysia when this happened, and we were told a different story of course, but to hear the story from other sources, and the high death toll, I became convinced that whilst there can be no doubt of the pain, suffering and casualties of communist intervention, the West was keeping its own interventions secret. Then even more stories became public, and I realised that the problem isn’t with particular regimes, but the power struggles any of them bring. I am a sceptic, if you like, of anyone wielding power. The West, not just Russia and China, has corrupted the ability of countries to choose their political future, and in their fight against communism, they also wiped out the moderate socialists, leaving the field open for militant Islam. What moderate socialism can bring is evident in Europe, where the rights of workers are the highest whilst still having a high productivity, which is why it is a thorn in the side of rampant capitalism and authoritarian regimes.
One of the cornerstones of democracy is a free and independent press and freedom of expression. It makes governments accountable and allows voters to actively participate in our democracy. We must protect the press as an institution from attacks by public officials. Nothing is more important for a functioning democracy than an informed, engaged public. But we must also recognise the “client press” that acts as an organ of a political party, pursuing its own political agenda and aiming to undermine the respectability of a free press. We must be vigilant because it has become obvious that there are forces in this modern world, for whom a liberal and free society is a thorn in its side.