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The problem is power, and our failure to learn

A couple of years back a Vietnamese colleague of mine told me how his father had to flee from Vietnam (after the war I believe). I asked about his family, and apart from his father, who was an academic, the rest were all farmers. Curious about how bad things really were in Vietnam before the war, and in so-called 'poor developing nations' in general, I enquired about the standard of living of his farming relatives, in particular his uncle - whom we were discussing. The first question was "Did he ever go hungry?". The answer was a no, hunger was never really an issue. The next question was "How hard did he work?" Here I was imagining dawn-to-dusk drudgery in the fields. My friend's reply was 'about four hours a day". At the end of this conversation life as a peasant farmer in Vietnam didn't seem too bad, debt free, and no (or little) risk of hunger or unemployment.

However, I was suspicious if this was true generally. So I asked my uncle - who fought in Vietnam - telling him everything that I had heard. "Rubbish" was effectively his reply. Ah hah - I thought, now I will get to hear about the poverty and misery and long hours of drudgery. But my uncle continued on to say, "The men did no work, the women did it all".

I was recently discussing Vietnam again with another Vietnamese colleague, and I mentioned how terrible the war was and his reply was, suprisingly, that it had good effects as well. This stunned me somewhat. He continued on to explain that the war helped clarify the priorities of the Vietnamese. After some further discussion I suddenly felt I understood something quite profound. I will try and explain what struck me, and I may be quite wrong about some aspects, so please do feel free to correct me where I am, however, I still feel the fundamental problem of human society today is the one I identify: which is essentially about our inability as a global human society to deal with issues of power.

The problem in Vietnam was that women seemed to be oppressed by the men, who took advantage of their willingness to work. The men in turn, were unhappy with their own situation and felt that they were in some way oppressed and sought to rectify this in a bid (maybe well justified) to correct the power imbalance. Of course, this power imbalance was caused by the imperial ambitions (power hunger and greed) of colonising nations, and so the cycle continues. What struck me was: the men were quite aware of their own oppression, yet acting oppressively themselves. What a human failure this is, and it is not an institutional problem at all: it is individual failure on a massive scale, as this lust for power (often with a good dose of greed) underlies all our problems today. The 1% keep getting richer and richer, despite having more than enough money to satisify every possible need, so the drive to continue accumulating more wealth and influence seems to come primarily from a lust for power.

Our problem as a society, and perhaps the huge change in consciousness we now need, is to deal with power not by setting up institutions to check power - as after thousands of years of attempts we are are now seeing that the best institutions that 'enlightened' minds can create are still open to corruption - but rather in each of us as individuals. This problem of power underlies many of our major problems from low-level workplace and school yard bullying (which causes as much misery as any misuse of institutional power), of stamping on peoples' rights and ignoring their concerns, and has led, in the end, to governments and nations desperately spying on everyone (their own citizens included) and provoking wars, all to maintain power and influence.

The traditional attempts to solve this problem, although they have helped somewhat, have not struck at the root of the problem, and consequently suckers continuous appear from this noxious weed. The feminist movement addressed many injustices, but still women are objectified - perhaps now even more than ever - with 'twerking' etc, things that would have been unthinkable even in the decadent 70's. The idea of the female 'vamp' is still prevalent today, again a seeking of power over others based on sexuality. Thus the feminist movement is perhaps an example of an attempt to stamp on power imbalances only to have desire for power pop up in new forms (and old ones again) here and there. And we only have to look at the history of nations to see how various power struggles have ended up only creating misery. And in the end perhaps - like Vietnam - offering at best only some temporary relief before the same problems resurface again (Vietnam like all nations is now subject to a process of global oppression through trade pacts, and 'race-to-the-bottom' inter-nation wage wars).

So what is needed? This is a problem for our whole community to address, and it seems to me that this will logically follow the change of consciousness that nearly everyone is now experiencing as we watch local and global power battles unfold. I think we will soon learn that power is not to be sought for its own sake, and if it is obtained, it is to be moderated - not by relying on outside institutions, but by the very people who hold it. By people controlling themselves. By every citizen's own deep understanding of power and its obligations, and by their own self-discipline.

Thus I feel we are beyond 'institutional' fixes for our problems. We now know that no political system will survive for long before it is corrupted by power. The answer instead lies in each of us, in how we raise our children, how we teach them, how we model the use of power to them, and how society and all the individuals in it develop a culture in which power is seen for what is, and is wielded with caution, respect for others, and with wisdom.

I personally think our children are up for this, and that this one change would go a long way to fixing the horrors we now see everyday through the internet and on TV and for many in our schools, workplaces and online. We cannot hide from this issue any longer. Such a change in human consciousness seems a necessary and inevitable part of our development as a human race.


A part of tackling abuses of power (and bullying in general) is by focussing on the role of bystanders.

If there are people watching a bully, and saying nothing, that actually encourages and empowers the bully. But if one person speaks up often that weakens the bully, two or three people and most bullies would certainly stand down.

Schools are on to the power of the bystander, and it is part of what children are now taught about bullying. Of course, standing up to bullies requires some amount of courage. It would be much easier if we had a culture whereby speaking out was common, and then people could feel supported. This is part of working together as a community and supporting each other. Australia however has a somewhat distorted ethos of 'independence', whereby people are supposed to be able to 'hack' a bit of a ribbing, thus many subtle bullying activities are laughed off. Changing this requires a cultural mind shift whereby we don't think of ourselves as 'rugged individuals' who can 'hack' anything, but rather as a community of people who support each other. Note also, that the notion of 'rugged individualism' sits nicely with neo-liberal ideas around 'lifters' and 'leaners' and isolationist, self-centred, individualistic concepts.

But the real challenges for our society are around recognising subtle bullying behaviours and then having a culture of speaking out. Whilst physical bullying is easily recognised, psychological bullying is much harder to spot so easily. Spotting it early requires empathy - i.e being aware of how others might be feeling. I must confess, I was a 'bystander' to a psychological bullying event, at a club function where the public speaker started picking on a woman who was taking notes. At the time I thought what was happening was strange, she also defended herself quite well. Only later did I realise how vulnerable and picked on she must have felt, despite her brave face. And I realise also what a difference it would have made, if I, or anyone else in that large audience, had stood and said only a couple of words in her defence. It was a sheer power trip by the speaker at the expense someone he thought was vulnerable. I have never seen her come back to that club.

Thus the need to: 1) Be able to quickly identify psychological bullying and 2) speak up - even just a few words. 1) requires being more aware of others and how they are feeling.

The other type of bullying, that is critical to our society, is bullying to get one's way. We are now dealing at the level of politics. As a culture we also need to 1) identify this early (i.e as it happening) and 2) speak out against it - and not just one person but a whole crowd of people.

An example of this is the recent AMA dinner where it is claimed that George Savvides suggested that Medicare patients should get priority in emergency rooms (see The Age Article on this). If in these situations, the whole crowd was to vocally and vehemently speak out against this, the moment it is raised - people like George might start to think more carefully about raising their selfish ideas and their selfish agendas (apparently the AMA doctors were appalled at this suggestion). And then we well the track to fixing our problems.

From:,6834 an article by Rodney Lever about Murdoch's power hunger:

"Ambition has him by the throat now and he cannot help himself. Only his own death will stop him. He is enough of a realist to see that, but is too possessed by his own ego.

His ambition now is levelled at monopolising world television"

Rodney also points out:

"The philosophy of capitalism is simple if you devote your life to it.

As CNN founder Ted Turner once said:

“The game is monopoly. You need to control everything. You need to be like Rockefeller, the oil fields, the filling stations, the pipelines and the trucks to get the fuel to the stations. They broke Rockefeller. The game’s over when they break you up. You know you’ve won when the government stops you.”

The business of business is business!"