Resisting Power & the Curse of Greyface
- News & Views for Anarchists & Activists:
Resisting Power and the Curse of Greyface
by Marcel Votlucka
Exclusive to STR
June 15, 2009
Money is not the root of all evil, power is – or at least, the desire
for power. As an activist, I see that many of the injustices we face
can be clearly traced back to that.
A fat cat Wall Street banker can gamble away millions of people's
financial futures, a racist pig can deny you a job, an insane President
can murder Iraqi and Afghan children, your community can shun you or
make you and your same-sex partner into second-class citizens, your
spouse can betray you – all these things and more are examples of how we
allow people much power over us in our lives. You might object, “But
power can be used for good as well as evil! We just need to correct
abuses of power!” Sorry to burst your bubble, but power tends to
corrupt us and we cannot hold faith that it can somehow be “reformed.”
The problem of power and its solution is a far deeper psychological and
spiritual issue at its heart, rather than merely political.
Psychoanalyst Erich Fromm defined power in two ways. The first is “a
sadistic striving for domination” to compensate for one’s complete
impotence and weaknesses. This means political, economic, and social
power wielded by one person or party against others. His second meaning
is potency; a person’s ability “to realize his potentialities on the
basis of freedom and integrity of his self, where he does not need to
dominate and is lacking the lust for power.” When I refer to “power”
here I mean more along the lines of Fromm’s first definition – political
or social domination, control, force, and the lust for it.
Where does it come from? Fromm and his colleague Alfred Adler agreed
that the wish for power is a rational response to one’s insecurities and
inferiorities, among other factors. Power ultimately arises from desire
– a desire to get what you want and to keep what you have, a desire to
stay “on top” in relationships and in life itself, but also a desire to
shape the world in a way that pleases and fits your ideals. We see
things in terms of power especially when we talk of solving problems and
effecting change through politics, elections, mandates, movements and so
on. You can dilute power, try to channel it in a positive direction,
but history is pregnant with story after story of power corrupting
people and movements. We see the same privilege, exploitation, and New
World Orders rising from the ashes of the old.
How do we escape this brutal cycle?
I’m reminded of a story in the Principia Discordia revolving around a
fictional figure named Greyface who preached that we should preserve
Serious Order and eradicate spontaneity and even play at any and all
costs: “Greyface and his followers took the game of playing at life
more seriously than they took life itself and were known even to destroy
other living beings whose ways of life differed from their own.” The
Discordian “Curse of Greyface” refers to a psychological and spiritual
imbalance that results from these beliefs: “This imbalance causes
frustration, and frustration causes fear. And fear makes for a bad
trip. Man has been on a bad trip for a long time now.”
While we do not function well in total chaos, our lives are punctuated
by spontaneity, free will, and free thought. Even the most totalitarian
institutions cannot kill them off, so this balance of order and disorder
marks even the most rigidly controlled society. But orthodoxy, acts of
oppression, other things that kill it off – all are fueled by power-lust
so that some can fulfill their desires to stay “on top” in life, or in a
political movement. This is all begat by the Curse.
More importantly, the Curse ties into a poisonous social psychology that
has seeped into all facets of our society and culture, like acid
rainwater leaching into the soil. Question the Established Order and
wait how long it takes for someone to call you “crazy” or “naïve” or
“unrealistic.” Watch the ten o’clock news and its endless litany of
bloodshed, depravity and woe that can magically be corrected by someone
with power. Go to your polling place next election and watch people’s
faces as they contemplate voting for the “lesser of two evils” as they
approach the booth. Read history books or even the Scriptures and see
the horrors and crimes and nastiness that arise out of raw power. We
see a psychology of storm clouds and catastrophes, of complacency and
passivity, of suspicion and helplessness in the face of the world’s
challenges, of Lois Lane awaiting her Superman. We see blind faith and
reliance in power and a fragile status quo imposed from above.
But power is at its worst when we take it for granted. After a while,
we grow used to the idea that some should wield power over the rest of
us, that power itself should even exist. It makes us into monsters if
we struggle for it, it makes us into pitiful robotic Greyfaces when we
take it too seriously, and history shows that it backfires on us despite
our noblest intentions.
The Curse of Greyface, then, is a metaphor for this psychology that we
have to reject in order to flee our physical and spiritual shackles.
So, how do we save our souls?
“Zen is discipline in enlightenment. Enlightenment means emancipation.
And emancipation is no less than freedom. We talk very much these
days about all kinds of freedom, political, economic, and otherwise, but
these freedoms are not at all real. The real freedom is the outcome of
enlightenment. When a man realizes this in whatever situation he may
find himself, he is always free in his inner life, for that pursues its
own way of action. Zen is the religion of self reliance and self being.”
This passage by Daisetz T. Suzuki in Zen and Japanese Culture evokes the
kind of mindset change we could all use. One needs an appropriate
mindset to counter power and the Curse of Greyface before hoisting signs
and writing propaganda and placing a ballot to deal with the systems
fueled by it. I mean fostering a holistic, almost spiritual anarchism
and not merely a political and economic one that people might find dull
and irrelevant. If we treasure a vision of man without need for rulers
or institutions of power, then it follows that the self-empowerment,
self-reliance, and self-being Suzuki mentions, are elementary parts of
what I would call a “libertarian mindset.”
Suzuki continues, “Zen has no special doctrine or philosophy, no set of
concepts or intellectual formulas, except to stress to release one from
the bondage of birth and death. It is generally animated with a certain
revolutionary spirit, and when things come to a deadlock – as they do
when you are overloaded with conventionalism, formalism, and other
cognate ‘isms’ – Zen asserts itself and proves to be a destructive force.”
I think this Zen mindset has something to offer those of us who work for
progressive, radical change. The simplicity and overall “stripped-down”
nature of Zen complements the basic ethos of libertarian ideals: No one
has the right to be anyone’s master and no one has the right to be
anyone’s slave. Man should neither need nor desire rulers,
unaccountable control or raw power. Liberty is his natural state of
being. Think of the amount of factionalism among libertarians (and the
Left in general), and the endless quarrels over strategy leading to
increasingly obtuse theories that never seem to get us anywhere. We
hardly know who “we” are anymore. And just who is winning in the end?
The more we appreciate that ethos and the less we formalize it, the more
willing we’ll be to listen to each other without confrontation and the
more effective we’ll be.
Zen, and Buddhism in general, emphasizes detachment from earthly desires
and concerns and complications that tie down the spirit: the lust for
power, the desire to succeed in a meaningless rat race, the need for
someone to save us from all our problems, the hope for order and things
being in their “proper place” to make us feel better and more secure in
ourselves and the world. It emphasizes inner freedom. If we have free
will, it means that we reinforce power-psychology with the internalized
boss, policeman, and society within each of us. If you want to escape
the Curse of Greyface then you can’t fight it on its own terms; instead
you have to detach yourself from the desire and need for power and also
stop taking it and everything that comes with it so seriously. Not even
your own self.
You could be hit by a bus tomorrow despite all the wealth and power and
influence you have in the world. How important are any of these things
in the end?
You could say that life is a game where you end up being dominated by
those with a hold over your life energies. If you take power too
seriously and show too much deference to it, you’ll always be a loser, a
pawn, and a sheep in the eyes you allow to be arbitrarily “on top.” If
you take the game too seriously, you’ll lose sight of the values that
are really enriching in life. Learn to detach yourself from “the game”;
learn to laugh at it! Laugh at power itself! The comedians get it; the
fools understand it implicitly. Some of my biggest influences have been
people like George Carlin, Margaret Cho and Penn Jillette, and books
like the Principia Discordia, all of which challenge and undermine
power, institutions and authority figures by laughing at then, making
them absurd, lowering their status in our minds.
Of course we laugh with them on the TV or in the theater, but when we
take their words seriously and honestly suggest that we could really do
without the power-mongers, folks freak out incredulously.
Kerry Thornley puts it best in his pamphlet Zenarchy: “The deeper
fruits of this union, speaking at least with reference to the Anarchist,
are yet to be realized. What Zen has most to offer Anarchism is freedom
here and now. No longer need the Anarchist dream of a utopian
millennium as he struggles to outwit the State – for he can find freedom
in the contest, by simply knowing that freedom is everywhere for those
who dance through life, rather than crawl, walk, or run.” Indeed, a
sense of spiritual freedom “here and now” is what one should seek before
thinking of any active strategy to counter or resist oppression, while
pursuing alternatives to the State, Organized Religion, Capitalism, and
Psychological studies have shown that wealth doesn’t make people happy
in the long term. So it is with power. Power relies on a negative and
rotten psychology to sustain it, one that is hostile to liberty, goes
against our better nature, and can snuff out one’s soul. But resisting
the Curse of Greyface and prevailing over the temptations of power and
the psychology sustaining it, involves a more subtle and introspective
strategy than you’re likely to find in the literature –
self-transformation. It means searching within and freeing ourselves
from the desire for power over us and others; it means refusing to see
people as tools or “the proletariat” or experimental subjects for policy
and a pre-planned revolution, and instead seeing them as equals who have
the same dignity and ability to govern their own lives as you. We do
not wish to be ruled; we wish to rule nobody. We do not wish to serve;
we do not wish for others to serve us.
Is not the desire for power self-defeating for anyone who yearns for a
free, fair and prosperous society? Free your mind and your spirit first
and the political and cultural reality will follow. Only this can stop
Greyface in his tracks.
Marcel Votlucka writes from Brooklyn NY. His work focuses on the
connections between psychology, culture, and anti-politics. Visit his
new website at http://marcelvotlucka.wordpress.com/
My collected fiction: _The Unspeakable and Others_
(Wait for the new edition: http://hplmythos.com/ )
Lord Weÿrdgliffe & Necronomicon Page:
News & Views for Anarchists & Activists:
Skipper: Professor, will you tell these people who is
in charge on this island?
Professor: Why, no one.
Skipper: No one?
Thurston Howell III: No one? Good heavens, this is anarchy!
-- _Gilligan's Island_, episode #6, "President Gilligan"