Like many of you, I have found myself drawn to the slow motion car-crash that is the Ivorian election crisis. You don’t need a recap from me, but suffice to say a comically-stolen election has created enough tension to power a hundred Mexican soap operas.
It is also a reminder that some people steal elections so incompetently that certain dictators are probably spinning in their graves as I type this. If I was feeling generous, I would give Gbagbo points for the sheer half-heartedness of the effort.
But the crisis got me thinking along different lines. Why exactly is the human compulsion to wield great political power so strong? Why do so many people do whatever it takes to get it? Why do they grasp it tighter than one would hold their true love? After all, old men don’t just steal elections for fun, like a twisted version of MTV’s Punk’d. If you are going through all that trouble, you are not catering to a hobby.
Being power-hungry makes a certain economic sense. With greater power, comes potential for greater monetary benefit. But there reaches a point where the accumulation of power is so great that it removes the necessity for you to actually be in power to achieve its vast monetary benefits. In fact- as I elaborate on two paragraphs down- the costs are high enough to make the entire enterprise a very tricky affair. Clinging onto power to remain rich is, therefore, an inefficient use of that person’s resources.
Of course power-hungry leaders, the world over, don’t just stay in power for the money. The fact is, power matters in and of itself. Countless films, plays and books have been written about the allure and pull of power (The play Macbeth is an obvious example). It has been a key theme in fiction precisely because it has been such a powerful theme in real life. Quoting Frederick Nietzche is usually a sign of impending dementia, but in his writings, he saw the will to power as the main driving force in man. With that interpretation, it is perhaps surprising that society hasn’t descended into a sort of anarchy.
I think there is such a pull to power because it is a primal instinct- our desire to be different from the rest and to feel a sense of purpose and uniqueness taken to its logical conclusion. It is basically man’s attempt to achieve a God-like status. It is the tower of Babel all over again. It is no coincidence that trappings of power often come with the quasi-religious phenomenon of the cult of personality.
And one must weigh the sheer effort it takes to stay in power once you have ‘won’ an illegitimate election or dispensed with elections altogether and simply taken power like a spoiled child snatching a lollipop in a playground.
Staying in power under those conditions is pretty hard work, no matter how much repression or cunning you can throw into the equation. If you weigh up the costs with the benefits, it is not a straightforward win for the ‘staying in power’ option. After all, not only do you have to be either extremely brutal or unusually cunning and manipulative, but you are acutely aware that applying either–or both–of these options is also increasing your odds of a violent end. From a practical and rational point of view, proximity to power makes more sense than being at the apex of power.
You can approach power from many different perspectives, but at its core it remains a strange idea even if you demystify it.