In anthropology there is a concept known as historic fatality. What this means is that occasionally there emerges a certain idea, a certain way of doing things that is so immensely seductive to human beings that eventually it spreads around the globe and forever changes our way of life. One of the greatest examples of this would have to be agriculture. It was centered on a simple idea–instead of constantly searching for new food sources, humans could raise their own food in settled locations. As this took root in several places, it led to the formation of villages, towns, cities, city-states, entire civilizations.
With this came all kinds of institutions such as civic government, social organization, warfare, culture on a new level. It created the concept of surplus and leisure time. Slowly, sometimes by force, it conquered the world. Mostly it conquered because it contained an idea that was deeply seductive to human nature–a desire for settlement, for roots, for consistency and familiarity. Once it came into being, it was fated to spread everywhere.
Now, in The 48 Laws I lay out what I consider to be another historic fatality–the evolution of power from something heavily concentrated, to something more and more diluted. I like to imagine this as kind of a mathematical equation. Let us imagine a tribe of some 1000 people in some place in ancient times. We could say this tribe had a certain amount of power, based on its wealth and resources. The majority of this power, the control over it, was in the hands of one man–the ruler, the king. He might, in this case, depend on a small cadre of people to assist him, but he largely determined the roles they could play.
Let us say, with success and prosperity, this tribe grew to a size of some 10,000. Now, such supreme concentration was too difficult. The ruler would have to bring in others–advisors, generals, high priests. He could keep this number relatively limited and the percentage of power was mostly in his hands, but now ever so slightly diluted. If this town evolved into a city of some 100,000, suddenly there came a qualitative change. The complexity of ruling such numbers grew exponentially. Power at this moment had to be genuinely distributed in order to maintain a sense of control. Now there were teams of ministers, the military, the growing aristocracy and its court. To service this administration, bureaucracies had to evolve. Power remained concentrated, but with a different scale of distribution.
We can make three generalizations at this point. When a group of people is given power, it forms a power center. This means, for instance, that a team of military leaders tends to think in two directions–how to promote the interests of the ruler, while also advancing its own agenda. Things now become political, as their interests will clash with other power centers. The ruler must now manage this growing complexity. The power environment becomes increasingly dangerous.
Second, once people have been given power on this level, they do not want to give it back or return to an older way of governing. They work to keep what they have and extend their power base. And finally, once power becomes diluted and divided this way, it tends to keep on dividing, like a split atom. More and more people must be brought in to keep the whole functioning. And so over the course of centuries, power slowly became less and less concentrated.
Two events in history sped this process along. First, after the Middle Ages, the birth of modern capitalism and a merchant society. This meant the emergence of a middle class and new power centers in business that began to wield more and more influence. The second were the great political revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries, creating a new power center among the citizens of that state. To a lesser degree we could talk of modern media as another power center that came to prominence in the 20th century, which in turn acted to dissolve and dilute previous concentrations of influence.
We could look now to a country like the United States in the present, and see an almost extreme point of development–networks of hundreds of power centers crisscrossing each other: from within political parties, for instance, all kinds of niche groups, pushing their own agendas, making governance almost impossible.
Of course there remain concentrations of power and wealth in the world today. But on the other hand, there is no denying the remarkable evolution and dilution of power from that time millennia ago when it was mostly in the hands of one man.
From this position in the present we can project into the future a period of even greater dilution, as more and more people around the globe feel the right and necessity to have more control over their lives. In 100 or 200 years we can imagine a point of complete division. This is not so much about particular political or economic systems, but rather about something deep within human nature. The need to have such power has an inexorable appeal to us. Once the process began it cannot be stopped until it reaches its logical conclusion. It is because of this that we can talk of this division of power as a great historic fatality, perhaps on the level of agriculture or even greater in my opinion for its far-reaching ramifications.
Stay tuned for the next installment, or read The Descent of Power as an ebook.