Monday, 12 March 2018

Disabling Self-Service

Posted by Sifiso Mkhonto
The idea that gaining power, maintaining power, maximizing power, and wielding power are central to restructuring the functions of a democratic society is a dangerous one to swallow. It does not cure the disease of oppressive and unjust government, but endorses it. With this in mind, I survey both the ideal and the reality of political power.
The ideal of political power is deliberately misconstrued. It is not the ability to control people, but the ability to instill in them the practice of altruism. By altruism I refer to the person who is motivated by the power of putting the needs of others ahead of their own happiness—I shall call this their moral purpose. Ironically, as they do, people seek to differentiate themselves from others—thus the same moral purpose is uncommon to all, and selfishness becomes common.

The reality of political power, in most nations, is that politicians are self-serving—not because of pressure from a corrupt populace within, or corrupt governments without, but by their own, false moral purpose. Tragically, the world over, as political power promotes the practice of selfishness—and thereby favours the selfish—it becomes a vehicle to deliver the product of despondency, as many in society are cast aside by the selfishness of others. While there are some who have a more altruistic view of power, they tend to be the exception rather than the rule.

The reality of political power attracts corruption as a flame attracts moths. This bears evidence to the famous words of Niccolò Machiavelli, ‘Politics have no relation to morals’. Yet not only does political power instill in people the practice of selfishness. Political power is itself selfish, to a point that the moral purpose of many politicians has resulted in patronage and corruption as the norm. A preeminent example is the South African ‘State’ which is deemed to have been captured for the benefit of a wealthy family for the personal enrichment of all involved.

In such an unbalanced society, is it possible then to overcome a self-serving tendency—as people, and as politicians? Yes, it is, through a different moral purpose, and through excellence. The moral purpose I speak of is, in philosophical terms, moral realism and moral motivation—a moral purpose which is grounded in the nature of things. The excellence I speak of is service to the people with no exceptions to venality and patronage. In other words, we have a wellspring of virtue within us, but we may permit it to be poisoned by external influence.

People easily fall to the weakness of taking care of themselves before the other, yet through altruism, which is the ideal of political power, that tendency can change. One can disable the intent to self-serve—which is the tendency to take care of oneself first—and one can change those false values instilled in society by politicians, which only serve the interest of those who identify with that political ideology. Certainly, it would be a miracle for the whole world to reach this point, yet many people believe that the miracle is possible—if not through philosophy, then through their religious conviction, which deeply believes not in human nature, but in the unseen.

If morality and excellence had triumphed in the ‘State’ of my birth country, South Africa, the State would not have been ‘captured’. We would have had leaders with integrity—leaders who could reflect on the nature of human community and government, and the relations between the collective and the individual, and could cast off the habits of exploitation and colonialism. It is hard to be in power and to act with a different moral purpose to that of selfishness, but it is possible.

What is needed is that politicians act only from benevolence and a sense of obligation. The reason to overcome the tendency to self-serve is simple. Doing what is right for the right reasons brings positive progress in society. The definition of political power, I said, is deliberately misconstrued. It is not the ability to control people. It is the ability to instill in them the practice of altruism. I now conclude that the reality of political power which is self-serving, when it is transformed and renewed, becomes the ability to instill right values in society, through the right values it holds itself.

4 comments:

Martin Cohen said...

This is really an issue for our ties, isn't it? And I am intrigued by your assertion that polticcal power has to be like this, or at least tends to be like this.

"The reality of political power attracts corruption as a flame attracts moths"

Maoism in China asserts the need and obligation for those in power to constantly seek confirmation and support from the populace via direct interaction - village meetings originally. And we have seen how this has morphed into a congress of party appratchiks voting Xi's immunity from even the most modest limits on his power. In the US, Trump openly uses his office to advance his (and his family's) business interests... But Sifiso, I'm increasingly wondering if the European Union model may offer an alternative. Here, the usual self-seeking politicians are obliged by a complex institutional framework to put aside narrow self-interest in order to achieve consensus.

'Ironically', just this week, the attempt by Martin Selymar, one of the EU civil servants to place himself in power showed how all systems tend to become corrupt - however much the designers hoped to avoid it.

Thomas Scarborough said...

Philosophers -- of the kind who occupy a rarefied philosophical atmosphere -- would say there is a technical problem in this post. The need for altruism is simply posited. Why not posit, say, education, or controls, or religion, or LSD, or anything under the sun.

But actually, I detract from what seems to me to be quite a robust post.

Keith said...

An interesting discussion, Sifiso, of a big subject. The hard part, I imagine, is how individual politicians, no matter in which country they practice their craft, move the needle from abstract notions like ‘benevolence’, ‘sense of obligation’, ‘doing what is right’, ‘positive progress’, ‘altruism’, and ‘right values’ to the concrete, sometimes messy business of national and local policymaking. Even, let's assume, in the authentic absence of corruption. In developing policy, each politician can be expected, I believe, to make the leap — from the abstract to the concrete to the application — differently . . . and to do so based on genuine, reasonable philosophical and ideological differences. Such as, for instance, between liberals and conservatives — though reality is, of course, far more subtle than those simple, crude divisions. And yet, in the doing, a politician might still regard his or her efforts as in the best interests of the people — as, say, benevolent and doing what is right. As you suggest, how culturally and historically predisposed politicians are in staying that course of altruism and right-minded obligation differs quite dramatically among nations, and might even shift with time.

sifiso mkhonto said...

Thank you Martin, Thomas and Keith.

Martin, this is truly an issue in our ties. I personally have not yet familiarised myself with the European Union model however I will look into it. You may share with me via email some content to read and I will engage you on it. The first thing I will do is to compare the European Union model with the African Union model.

Thomas, sticking to technicalities often does not allow for the robust point to flourish in a post. However I have noted the suggestion for the future.

Keith, an interesting view you have shared. I think it raises the question of benevolent dictatorship which many African nations practice however greed tends to overcome that practice.

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