Power? The word sounds horribly antiquated in the year 2015. Though Henry Kissinger once said, “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.”
But real power? That’s something Genghis Khan or Alexander the Great might have possessed, as they commanded armies, conquered empires and subjugated people. These days, even wannabe absolute dictators like North Korea’s Kim Jong-un are nothing but caricatures of their own quest for power.
While we, as representatives of Western values, cannot take such dictators seriously, his people certainly have nothing to laugh about.
And that’s exactly what our colleagues at the Paris satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo were doing – fundamentally and constantly questioning any form of power. And that's the only way power can maintain its legitimacy.
The attackers storming the offices of the small magazine on Wednesday shot and murdered with their weapons – but they had no power, even when such terrorists always seem to believe they will bomb and kill their way to victory. But in the end, they can extinguish people’s lives, but never ideas and values.
It’s exactly these values that make us the individuals, nations and societies that we are. The history of Europe has been one long, multifaceted debate about power – and its control – going back to Aristotle.
The philosopher defined political power back in antiquity as the rule of the free over the free, who would constantly swap the roles of ruler and ruled. A temporary division of power. This school of thought is represented throughout Western philosophy from Plato to Michel Foucault.
The philosophical debate about power and control influenced America’s founding fathers, as they fashioned European ideas into a political system of checks and balances.
One of the early epiphanies of my political science studies was the realization that might does not make right. Jean-Jacques Rousseau didn’t just claim that, he proved it in less than one page of a book. That is because physical strength is something relative and changing, while what is just remains constant.
His potent work “The Social Contract” from 1758 set down the foundations of state authority and made Rousseau a harbinger of both of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution.
The philosophical debate about power and its control influenced America’s founding fathers, as they fashioned European ideas into a political system of checks and balances first anchored in the U.S. Constitution. This rigid division of power now plays a central role in almost all democratic societies. There is not just a government and an opposition, but also a vigilant and moderating judiciary and media.
The checks and balances aren’t just for politics, of course, but also the business world. Twentieth century American oil tycoons like John D. Rockefeller were hopefully the last entrepreneurs who could brutally advance their economic interests free from judicial or political control. Even Mr. Rockefeller was eventually forced to break up his empire.
And today? Businessmen and bosses of global conglomerates are constrained by a tight network of regulation and supervision. They answer not only to supervisory boards, shareholders, analysts, unions and regulators – the media and the digitally empowered public is also watching.
This sort of control is not about thwarting power. It’s necessary and creates room to shape society. The old anarchist saying, “No Power for Anyone,” might be quaint in modern democracies, but it’s no roadmap for politics. With power must come responsibility. This applies for businesses as well as politicians.
“No man is good enough to govern another man without the other's consent,” said Abraham Lincoln once. He abolished slavery as the 16th president of the United States, making the country’s modernization and eventual rise to the world’s dominate power even possible.
Lincoln died almost exactly 150 years ago. He was assassinated. Just like the twelve terror victims in Paris.
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