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Should power go to the people who want it?
In a philosophical moment after Twitterers voted for his ouster, Elon Musk tweeted, “Those who want power are the ones who least deserve it.” Musk’s statement exemplifies modern society’s desire for a Tolkienic Hero, a figure who reluctantly holds the reigns of power to change the course of history. As Tanner Greer pointed out in his essay introducing the idea, this heroic ideal is popular today, but was an aberration in the past. How did this vision of leadership imprint itself in our minds, and how should we evaluate it?
As Greer discusses, the slow collapse of the Ancien Regime in the 19th through 20th centuries prepared the way for the new Tolkienic ideal. But, while his literary innovation may seem vaguely liberal or left-wing, Tolkien himself was a more of a nostalgic conservative. And Tolkien’s perspective was likely inspired by the famous aphorism of his fellow Catholic Englishman Lord Acton, that “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” In fact, the origins of this idea goes back further still, to Tory statesman Edmund Burke. In Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke argued that inherited property and hereditary titles of nobility bestow an inertness and benevolence upon their ungrasping recipients:
Nothing is a due and adequate representation of a state that does not represent its ability as well as its property. But as ability is a vigorous and active principle, and as property is sluggish, inert, and timid, it never can be safe from the invasion of ability unless it be, out of all proportion, predominant in the representation. It must be represented, too, in great masses of accumulation, or it is not rightly protected. The characteristic essence of property, formed out of the combined principles of its acquisition and conservation, is to be unequal…. The power of perpetuating our property in our families is one of the most valuable and interesting circumstances belonging to it, and that which tends the most to the perpetuation of society itself. It makes our weakness subservient to our virtue, it grafts benevolence even upon avarice. The possessors of family wealth, and of the distinction which attends hereditary possession (as most concerned in it), are the natural securities for this transmission. With us the House of Peers is formed upon this principle. It is wholly composed of hereditary property and hereditary distinction, and made, therefore, the third of the legislature and, in the last event, the sole judge of all property in all its subdivisions.
Thus, a Tory conservative could argue that pre-modern societies unintentionally placed power in the hands of those who did not ask for it, whereas modern societies idealize empowering those who do not seek power, while actually empowering those who do seek it. Rene Girard theorized that kingship evolved out of sacrificial victimhood. According to this theory, sacrificial victims were pre-selected to be killed in case of misfortune, and in the meantime were given kingly responsibilities. While such a practice was likely not universal, archeological evidence, most notably from the “bog bodies” of Ireland, suggests that the phenomenon was real. Another interesting historical example of “Tolkienic heroism in practice but not in theory” would be how the Early Church sometimes bestowed the bishop’s staff upon unwilling individuals like St. Augustine and St. John Chrysostom.
These are interesting examples, because hereditary parliaments, sacrificial kingships, and compulsory bishoprics are all things that are basically unthinkable today. It should surprise you that the spread of the Tolkienic Ideal has coincided with its becoming unthinkable in practice. Which is the cause, and which is the effect? And what should we make of this?
One possible explanation relies on the distinction between stated versus revealed preferences. Societies have become more democratic in the last centuries. People think they want a ruler who isn’t too keen on power. But when the populace actually encounters someone like “low energy” Jeb Bush, they don’t vote for him. And in the corporate world, high-energy employees don’t want to work for a company with a CEO who feels uncomfortable with power. For example, in Jack Dorsey’s Twitter, his hands-off approach made it a less desirable employment destination for top engineers, who voted with their feet to work under Mark Zuckerberg’s more energetic leadership at Facebook.
Another possibility is that modern society has more competition and complexity. Complex societies need more competent leadership, and competence depends on being actually passionate for the job. The competition and warfare between nation-states favored countries with energetic, passionate leaders like Napoleon, Gladstone, Disraeli, and Bismark. Hereditary monarchs tended to be bumbling and incompetent — lovable losers at best. In simple, zero-sum tribal societies, great leaders were those with the best intentions. In complex countries or companies, especially those facing internal discord or external competition, people care less about character and more about winning. Whereas modern democracy was the explanatory variable in the previous explanation, modern meritocracy is the causal factor for this hypothesis. Political competition and polarization in Britain attracted the impressive likes of Gladstone and Disraeli into politics. Internal competition for promotions and leadership roles at Twitter meant that, given Dorsey’s hands-off approach to moderation and everything else at the company, the vacuum was quickly filled by power-loving staff.
A third possibility is that in contemporary cultures, people who do not want to be burdened by power are able to more easily avoid it. This hypothesis has two sub-hypotheses. Firstly, many people who sought power in the past possibly did not actually want the power, but maybe the access to more women, the fineries of life, and shiny metal objects. In the modern era, these perks of power can be attained in other ways without the stresses of power. Jeff Bezos could have more power if he had taken over Twitter or taken an active interest running The Washington Post. But he seems happier with a new yacht, a new wife, and a newly impressive physique. Secondly, for those who do have power, but don’t want it, abdication is less shameful and more safe. We lack a way to force or shame people to be leaders if they don’t want to, leading to uniquely modern stories like those of King Edward VIII, Princess Mako, and Prince Harry. And when Victoria and Elizabeth II gradually reduced the British Crown’s political influence over their tenures, they were rewarded with admiration. It’s also safer to abdicate today. Pope Emeritus Benedict has lived for nearly a decade after retirement; at the time of Pope Alexander VI, this survival would be rather improbable.
I believe all the above explanations are at least partially true, but there is another possibility, which flips the cause-and-effect relationship. What if, partly due to the spread of the ideal of the Tolkienic Hero, the nature of power has itself changed? According to this hypothesis, the Tolkienic Hero ideal has encouraged us to shift power towards bureaucratic procedures and memetic processes, in the hope of preventing the emergence of Tolkienic Villains. This shift precludes people as individuals from holding power, which prevents the emergence of heroes, Tolkienic or otherwise.
Where power is bureaucratic, then power offers different pleasures from where it is personal. In the latter, there is the joy of experimentation and adventure. In the former, the only pleasure is the pleasure of participating in power, by acting as an invisible cog in a machine. The bureaucratic positions which participate in power attract the type of people who want to participate in power but who also want to avoid the self-perception of power, because they adhere to the Tolkienic view of power. These bureaucratic organizations also attract empty suits who want the prestige of formerly-powerful offices, without the glories and burdens of power itself. In stark contrast to Gladstone and Disraeli, short-lived PM Lizz Truss reportedly left Downing Street with the words, “I'm relieved it's all over... at least I've been Prime Minister.”
Where power is memetic, then power also offers a different experience to those it recruits to participate in it, catering to different tastes. Here, power does not seem like power at all, but more like influence. You “like” and “share” but you don’t feel like you’re in charge. Your role in wielding power is very visible, but feels virtual and fake and spontaneous, so you do not need to worry that you have become a Tolkienic Villain.
However, these two modern (perhaps post-modern) systems for accommodating the Tolkienic critique of acquisitive power are very different from the older pre-modern forms of bestowed power. Most importantly, these systems are fundamentally impersonal. Bad individuals, acting as bad individuals, are not in charge. Good individuals, acting as good individuals, are not in charge. People are not in charge.
What does all this imply about the Tolkienic heroic ideal? It means that Tolkien, while he recognized an underappreciated feature of pre-modern power structures, missed the more important question facing modern and post-modern societies. We should not be asking whether power should go to people who want it, or to people who don’t want it, because neither is exactly on the menu today. Rather, we should ask whether power should go to people in the first place. Having answered and acted upon this more existential question, perhaps in the future we will be able to resolve the lesser questions raised by Tolkien’s work.