Partial Awareness

One of the most troubling symptoms of corruption by power is the loss of awareness by those afflicted. While some progressive distortions of perception are noticeable, the corrupted leader is genuinely bereft of insight that they suffer from any such thing. Indeed, it is precisely this blindness that prevents them learning from the advice of friends, the criticisms of political adversaries or treatment by psychiatrists. This narcissistic lack of awareness thus results in the corrupt leader having to be removed by force. Yet awareness itself comes in degrees - of both depth and of duration. There is much between perpetual unconsciousness and stunningly conscious clarity, not least pre-consciousness (where a thought is out of mind but can be accessed if required), partial awareness and occasional wondering. The lack of awareness can be total, as in the utter absence of empathy of the sociopath for his victim, or partial, as in the suicidal patient, where one part of the self wants to die and another, perhaps momentarily overwhelmed, still hopes to live and be helped. The fact that a small part of the self remains oriented to life gives raises the hope of more positive change. It might, therefore, be possible that even the most corrupt of leaders retain an occasional crack of light, a chink that is sometimes visible, from certain angles, or perhaps in communication with certain individuals.

The presence of a part of the self that continues to contradict a dominant inner voice of course constitutes an internal conflict. The utterly corrupt may be unclouded, but if such a conflict rages within, even if only in part or occasionally, it can result not in positive change but, conversely, in the intensification of the corruption. Here, there is a dissenting part of the self to drive down, to repress and obliterate in the self, so that external actions might gain power and energy precisely form the need to win this inner conflict. The torturer who is occasionally aware that he does wrong might, therefore, be more vicious than he would be if completely free of moral feeling. This kind of argument is common around notions such as homophobia, where the presence of homoerotic thoughts seems to drive still greater violence against those who stimulate them. This, surely, is the danger of denial, for it is a defense mechanism that always threatens to find and persecute its external object, its cathexis, its scapegoat.

Corruption by power is characterised by a loss of awareness of that corruption, but also by an inflated self, an unreasonable contempt for subordinates and a growing isolation from others. Partial awareness of their corruption may, therefore, afford the possibility of learning, but the internal conflict it occasions by no means insures a positive outcome. Surely, though, any possibility of recovering from corruption by power must pass, from a state of no awareness, through one of partial awareness and thus inner conflict.

Or perhaps this is not how recovery from corruption occurs, if it ever does. There might be a Damascene Road, a sudden realisation, perhaps a troubling dream, a piece of news, a personal or military defeat. David Owen has provocatively suggested that the hubristic George W. Bush has now, surprisingly, recovered, that he has become, again, ordinary. Certainly he is a man capable of sudden collapse, for just this ‘negative capability’ was already apparent in his face when news of 9/11 interrupted his reading to school children. But we can never forget that he went on to even greater heights of perceptual corruption, fuelled by other, more traditional tyrants, such as Chaney and Rumsfeld.

For the most part, the only way to recover from hubris is by nemesis. Here, the leader confronts a straightforward narcissistic collapse, an implosion of what is suddenly revealed to be a hollow shell of a self. Nemesis takes many forms: the dragging from a horse for the stabbing, the tears of Mubarakian outrage, the blanched features of Saif Gadhafi, the open mouth of Hussein, the dangling body of Mussolini, the whimpering of Michael Gove. This is how it always ends: with the suddenly empowered populace wide eyed and shouting.