Power and the Psychology of Submission
How the powerless take the fall for the powerful
While watching the execution of Anne Boleyn during a netflix binge of The Tudors, I was completely blown away by Anne’s final speech to the crowd. For thems who watch less internet-TV than me, Anne Boleyn was the second wife of King Henry VIII of England. She and the king had some sort of affair-like-thing, he divorced his previous wife to marry Anne (splitting off the Church of England from the Catholic church in the process) and created a massive 16th century scandal. However, the king then soured on Anne and executed her so he could shack up with someone else.
So, like, to re-iterate, this woman was killed by her husband, for basically bullshit reasons, so he could fuck someone else. Ok. So, Miss Manners etiquette time: what is the correct thing to say in this situation?
Here’s what Anne said: “I pray God save the king and send him long to reign over you, for a gentler nor a more merciful prince was there never: and to me he was ever a good, a gentle and sovereign lord.”
Ok, she said a bit more than that, but that’s the part that caught my eye. I was just like… Jesus Lady, this man just sentenced you to death and you refer to him as a gentle and merciful prince? What is wrong with you? Fuck, if that’d been me, I would have cursed him out as long as they let me, then chucked a Molotov cocktail into the crowd.
Like, seriously, she had nothing left to lose — why the hell did she go out like that? I was so shocked I researched it on the internet to see if the show had bastardized her lines. But, no, as far as we can tell (and, it’s not 100% because records from back then were not perfect) that seems to be what she said.
And, I puzzled on this for a while. Why would she say that? Like, did she hope by appealing to him she could be spared? There’s no way, cuz he’d never even hear her lines until after her death — if ever. Did she hope to win over the crowd? Possibly, but like, why go in that direction? Why not just ask for their prayers and not say anything about Henry? Was this answer mis-recorded by the people who watched her die? Maybe, but if anything, the people recording her would probably have more to gain from vilifying her than championing her.
Eventually, the final answer I decided on as to why she said it, is that she probably believed it. These were her final words, why would she lie? Who wants to go out spouting bullshit? I think, Anne Boleyn probably believed every word she said, she probably really believed Henry was a good and gentle king, despite her impending demise at his command.
You know that phrase, power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely? Well, what happens to those subjected to absolute power?
Thing is, we don’t really have power anymore — not like Henry VIII had power (thankfully, because that shit stain was responsible for something like 50k executions.) But, while historically we’ve been fascinated by the effect of power on the powerful, we rarely question the effect of power on the powerless.
Of course, a few people have questioned this in certain forms. Frantz Fanon wrote on the psychology of people who had been colonized by Europeans in his book Wretched of the Earth:
The gaze that the colonized subject casts at the colonist’s sector is a look of lust, a look of envy. Dreams of possession. Every type of possession: of sitting at the colonist’s table and sleeping in his bed, preferably with his wife. The colonized man is an envious man. The colonist is aware of this as he catches the furtive glance, and constantly on his guard, realizes bitterly that: “They want to take our place.” And it’s true there is not one colonized subject who at least once a day does not dream of taking ing the place of the colonist.
The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon
Unlike Anne Boleyn, the colonized subjects seem to despise their oppressors. However like Anne Boleyn, they maintain complete fidelity to the system of their own oppression. They seek only to come out on top rather than to fundamentally change the rules of the game. They wish to take the place of their oppressors, but to take the place of your oppressors, you must maintain the same value system that they do. This is the insidious nature of falling victim to the power of others; you become obsessed with the type of power someone has over you, usually in ways that increase their power.
A few years ago, I had an ex who kept refusing to make time for me to go pick up my shit from his place. After two months of getting put off, I completely lost my marbles about the whole situation. Our mutual friends thought I was kind of insane and totally over-reacting, but the experience of coming up against my own powerlessness to get my stuff back was deeply infuriating.
If you want to guarantee that your ex-girlfriend will keep sending you insane text messages at 3am, don’t give her back the necklace she’s had since 8th grade. Instead of moving on, which I’m usually pretty good at, I got temporarily obsessed — at least, until I got a mutual friend to go get the necklace for me. When there’s something you need from someone, something that you can’t access without their approval, it does some weird shit to your psychology.
I alternated between a kind of impotent rage and a desperate desire to please or placate this person, and at every moment, each reaction felt authentic. I’d alternate between being like “hey, how’s it going? Just wondering what’s up :)” and “FUCK YOU, I know you were in town last weekend, WHY’D YOU BLOW ME OFF AGAIN?” And, it wasn’t really conscious, and I didn’t have deep awareness of the mechanisms at play. I’d just feel amicable toward my ex and send him a nice text, then I’d feel angry at him and send him a mean one.
But eventually when I got my shit back and when this person no longer held any power over me, I stopped having these strange obsessions. Why do we live in a world of crazy ex-girlfriends? I’d guess it’s because we more often grant men power over women, and that women end up being more subject to the psychology of powerlessness in relationship situations.
And, there are basically two typical reactions to power: collusion or replacement. When I was feeling friendly, I was colluding, and when I was being mean I was drifting into more of a “replacement” mindset. However, it’s worth noting that both of these reactions work to reinforce the systems of power.
Something we soon realized in Africa when local people rebelled and overthrew their colonialist oppressors, is that they generally set up repressive regimes themselves. This is the true and deep damage of colonialism; European powers imposed a new value system upon their conquests that far outlasted their governmental regimes.
When we experience power used against us we will tend to naturally perpetuate that system, either by mentally cozying up to our oppressors (like Anne Boleyn) or by trying to become our oppressors (like the colonized.) In a more simplistic example, I gave my ex more power over me by freaking out. Now, he not only had control over my belongings, but also over my psychology. To get out of the trap, I had to break out of the system, but that is not always possible.
I believe the reason we tend to drift into an emotionality of either collusion or replacement, is that unconsciously, we are acting out in ways most likely to get our needs met. The more powerful a system we are in, and the closer to the source of that power, the more likely we are to support it. If a system is less powerful, or if we receive very few of the benefits, we are more likely to rebel and want to replace it — but, these are not rational decisions. Anne Boleyn supported her oppressor even after it didn’t benefit her, because this was the mechanism which she had operated in all her life and was the innate emotionality she drifted into. It was her unconscious reaction to being on the losing end of power; suck up to that which smote her in an attempt to win back its affections.
And, frankly, it usually worked for her — except at the end.
This is an issue we’re seeing now, especially with white women. Often, women of color complain that white women seem to support the patriarchy, and I believe this is correct. In fact, I wrote about it two years ago. What it boils down to, is that white women will perpetuate the patriarchy because accessing privilege through white men is a quicker path to power than toppling the patriarchy. This is why white women went for Trump in the last election. It’s not about white women being brainwashed; it’s about the patriarchal bargain. It’s about human nature, and to some degree, it’s not conscious.
And it’s this unconscious nature that really interests me.
We see it between women and men when sex is involved, but I also see it man to man in organizational structures. One example I frequently bring up, because it was the first time it clicked for me, was at my Zen center when one of the male teachers for a group I was in was accused of improper relationships with one of his students. The abbott set a punishment for the teacher, and many of the male students were very angry, and directed their anger toward the female members of the group. Although the woman wasn’t named, many people expressed their anger at “whoever she was.” I believe this was completely toxic, because it was the abbott who decided the teacher’s behavior was inappropriate, and the abbott who set the punishment.
When I brought this up with the group, people said things like “yeah, well, in today’s society, the abbott basically had to punish the teacher.” No he didn’t. He was the person with the largest amount of power in this whole situation, and yet people were inclined to make excuses for him. No one made excuses for the girl, no one said things like “even if the punishment was extreme, she didn’t know what the abbott would do,” or “she was probably confused and needed someone to talk to, and the abbott was a reasonable choice.”
And, this brings us to the particularly nasty part of power collusion which is that when we are instinctively allying with power for our own benefit, we have a tendency to blame the powerless for injustices they didn’t cause.
Another instance of this, which I have written about, is with affirmative action in universities. Often, people believe that — say — people of color, or women or whoever don’t deserve their places at university because of affirmative action. And, sure, now if you’re — say — a working class white dude, it’s fucking impossible to get into Harvard, but the problem isn’t the affirmative action admits. It’s that a huge percentage the white men who go to Harvard are legacy admits now. People of color going isn’t the problem; its that highly privileged people get a massive leg up in Harvard applications, and that highly privileged people tend to be white so they take up all the white spots.
But, instead of blaming the extremely privileged white men who get unearned places, the natural tendency is to blame the people of color or women, because a white man feels like he has a better chance of winning against these groups. Think about it; if your #1 goal is to go to Harvard, at any ethical cost, you want to attack the weakest link. So, who is weaker? Whose place are you more likely to get — the place of a wealthy white student who is the beneficiary of generations of legacy power, or the place of first time black kid, who may be individually smart, but whose family knows basically nothing about ivy league schools?
In situations of power collusion, the people with less power tend to vie it out with each other in an effort to improve their station with minimal criticism of over-arching power structures. And, this vying tends to take on the form of a deep rage as people create narratives that support a fabricated viewpoint that justifies whatever behavior they need to take to benefit themselves personally.
This is the thing about narratives; they’re not about finding the truth. Their main purpose is to spur people to action, and people basically always generate narratives that advance their personal agenda. This narrative is often used to build up rage, which is a highly motivating emotion. This is why people are so pissed off nowadays; they believe their own bullshit because it helps them advance in life. Unfortunately, it fucks over a lot of other people too.
So, what to do, what to do?
The simplest answer, if possible, is that you must leave power systems that you can’t advance in. Don’t try to figure out a way up, just stop investing in them as much as possible. It may be obvious, but if everyone left destructive power systems, those systems would no longer be conduits of power.
Umir Haque describes a kind of capitalist “stockholm syndrome” that, white men especially, tend to have. Essentially, many people who are squished by our capitalist excesses are staunch defenders of it:
The really strange thing about today is that most of the people who leap to capitalism’s defense fastest and most furiously…aren’t capitalists. And they never will be. They can’t be. Just 10% of America owns stocks, and even less owns bonds. Even less — maybe 1%, if that — make enough money from capital to call it their main income. And their incomes are shrinking, at a record pace. … They don’t send their kids to school with capital gains. They don’t pay for skyrocketing healthcare bills by liquidating trust funds. They’re just average wage-earning schmoes, like the rest of us. And yet despite the fact that they’re not capitalists and never will be, they’re also exactly the ones who defend capitalism most.
Does America Have Capitalist Stockholm Syndrome? by Umair Haque
This actually makes complete sense to me, given my current understanding of power. These white men are “Anne Boleyning” it up. Effectively, white men are close enough to the “nexus of power” (because of their gender and race) that they instinctually prop up the current system, subconsciously, because on some level they feel that they’ve gotten a better deal if the current system succeeds than if it fails. Though, as Anne Boleyn also demonstrated, it’s possible to hold this instinctual ideology far past the point of rational benefit.
I think, one of the best things you can do if you realize you’re losing end of the “capitalist game” is invest in systems that are existing outside of capitalism. The main examples of this tend to be churches and religious institutions. Yes, they have their own problems, but you’re way more likely to get soup from the nice ladies from your Church when you’re old and sick than you are to get a pension from your employer.
Stop investing, either emotionally or financially, in institutions that are fucking you over (most usually, it’s your employer.) Sure, sometimes, we have to engage with oppression to survive, but for god’s sake don’t believe it. Don’t believe there is merit in it. There is nothing innately valuable about being a good employee or hard worker, despite what those who hire you would have you believe. I mean, you can work hard — I have no objection to hard work — just realize it is not innately good. The feeling that you are good if you work hard is your instinctual desire to collude with power, and it’s bullshit, and harmful, and part of your own investment in your own oppression.
That said, if you need more money and want a promotion, or want to impress your coworkers, or would like to blot out the pain of thinking about your ex by staying in the office til 10, like by all means, work your ass off. Just be sure that the work you do is to serve another goal that is to your personal benefit.
Because, this is the innate nugget of oppression that touches all of us; when we feel something is good or we feel like we are good people for doing something without having a concrete sense of how that “something” will benefit us, this is generally a sign that we are not helping ourselves, but rather doing things that hurt us for the benefit of those above us. For instance, if you are a woman who wears makeup “to feel good about herself” you are colluding with the patriarchy. You are decorating yourself, for the pleasure of men, without reaping any benefits yourself. However, if you are a woman who wears makeup because you realized that superficial men will do things for you (for free!) if you look nice, or because you want to get laid, or because you in some way want to exert influence over how people respond to you in a way that you plan to benefit from, well then, you’re just making a rational decision.
Not that I believe a person always has to be maximally self interested, but that when you choose to do something that will benefit someone else, I think it’s good to know who you will be benefitting. Would you rather spend your time helping your CEO get a second corporate jet, or volunteering with kindergarteners? I mean, no judgement either way, just be sure you make the decision for yourself. Because, fundamentally, the opposite of oppression is agency, and recovering from oppression is reclaiming agency.
And, we’re all recovering from oppression, even white men, because so few of us have true agency. The first hurdle we have to clear to reclaim our agency is to overcome the oppressive patterning in our own mind.