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Legalism for beginners

This is John Henry Calvinist's second piece for Webdiary. His first was the satirical, Apotheosis of John Howard. John's own blog is here.

by John Henry Calvinist 

“I should bury the way of love.” (Han Fei)

When it comes to genuine power politics - totally shorn of all other considerations - there’s only one real place to turn. And, no...it’s not Machiavelli - or Hobbes - given that neither were willing to advocate the suppression of all other aspects of life in pursuit of power. Nietszche was also remiss in certain ways here, being - in the final analysis - far more interested in the development of potential than in power as a (pure) end in itself:

“People who stay unmoved by reward or praise, and remain undaunted by punishment or injury are intransigent in spite of the employment of the four means. They should be exterminated.”  (Han Fei)

No...for the real logic of power - and (by implication) the potentially psychotic consequences for all who get inextricably caught up in its workings - we need to turn back to the ancient Chinese Legalists...the scholar/administrators behind the First Emperor (and his ceramic bodyguards) - you know, the one who burned all the books - because, here, at last, we can see just exactly what we’re up against:

“Those who detract from command should die, who add to command should die, who do not  implement command should die, who fail to communicate command should die, and who do not obey command should die. These five categories of death sentences should never be pardoned.”  (Han Fei)

Still, as you can see, recommending the Legalists - outside of China, still the best-kept secret in realpolitic - is a bit like slipping crack into a baby's bottle...hence, I feel rather...uncertain about this essay. People in the West are so used to thinking of The Prince as basically the last word in power politics, that it seems almost a shame to disillusion them. But...then, I just remind myself that a quarter of the world's population has been controlled via their approach for nigh-on two & a half millennia - even if under a Confucian mask (the truism in Chinese governmental history has always been "outside Confucian, inside Legalist" (wairu neifa), but always (and only) about earlier dynasties  - and that it's only rampant sinophiles who've prefered to ignore them in favour of the pretty pictures...

“The intelligence of the people, like that of the infant, is useless.”  (Han Fei)

So, here’s Han Fei yet again - universally acknowledged as the greatest of the Legalists - with the extended & genuinely chilling piece of advice which first introduced me to these particular monsters:

“The ruler, wise as he is, should not bother, but let everything find its proper place; worthy as he is, should not take things on himself, but observe closely his minister’s motives; and courageous as he is, should not be engaged, but let every minister display his prowess. So cast off the ruler’s wisdom, then you will find the minister’s intelligence; cast off the ruler’s worthiness, then you will find the minister’s strength....

Thus, the intelligent ruler does nothing, but his ministers tremble all the more. It is the Tao of the intelligent ruler that he makes the wise men exhaust their mental energy and makes his decisions thereby without being himself at his wits end; that he makes the able men exert their talents and appoints them to office accordingly, without being himsel at the end of his ability; and that in case of merit the ruler gets the praise, and in case of demerit the ministers take the blame, so that the ruler is never at the end of his reputation. Therefore the ruler, even though not able, becomes the master of the able, and even though not wise, becomes the corrector of the wise men...

Be empty and reposed and have nothing to do. Then from the dark see defects in the light. See but never be seen. Hear but never be heard. Know but never be known. If you hear any word uttered, do not change it or move it, but compare it with the deed and see if word and deed coincide with each other. Place every official with a censor. Do not let them speak to each other. Then everything will be exerted to the utmost. Cover tracks and conceal sources. Then the ministers cannot trace origins. Leave your wisdom and cease your ability. Then your subordinates cannot trace your limitations.

Keep your decision and identify it with the words and deeds of your subordinates. Cautiously take the handles of power and hold them fast. Uproot others’ want of them, smash others’ thought of them.... Be too great to be measured, be too profound to be surveyed.”  (Han  Fei)

The logic is inescapable...once you are willing to let absolutely nothing - including your own need for human contact - stand in the way. From below, everyone assumes that you - the ruler - want to keep and extend your power - but they don't know anything else about you at all...since you deliberately offer no clues. This forces them to compete viciously in all ways and, as all compete for the same turf, they literally have no real ground for collaboration - dependency is total.

“To trust men is to be controlled by men.”  (Han Fei)

So...what you're really delegating isn't power, but uncertainty, as it's only advice that's sought - power to act is not delegated to any real extent, and advisors and subordinates seem to be both self-policing as groups, as well as spied on constantly by another group, whose sole role is as internal spies! Oh, and the spies spend much of their time spying on each other, by the way...

“Those of the same status and unified interest cannot be allowed to check on each other.
The former kings instituted mutual guilt by association to foster conflicting interests and contradictory harms. Thus, under excellent governance, spouses and friends cannot conceal crime and misdeeds for each other.”
  (Lord Shang)

“Any ruler who wants to govern his state must eliminate the formation of groups.... If they are not wiped out, then people will congregate into crowds.”  (Han Fei)

Now...I'd suggest that rather than delegation - the Legalists had actually solved this one - their genuine problem was the ensuing insanity of all that were high-ups in the system, as well as the difficulty of remaining totally inscrutable...

Because...any ideology or preference apart from realpolitic can be exploited to turn the system back upon the ruler. He needs (therefore) to remain totally isolate and unpredictable as to methods - ends are purely power and nothing else. In short, he has to be a complete psychopath, even more than his subordinates. Social animals are much saner than this, however nasty & power-hungry they can be at times... Rather than Swift & his Yahoos, therefore, I'd see Orwell as the Westerner closest to understanding this model - because...if you read 1984, it’s pretty much a worm's eye view of a Legalist culture & society, especially the total emotional isolation...

“Scholars, freelance politicians, independent aristocrats, people with connections to senior officials, and merchants and craftsmen are the vermin of the state. If the ruler does not exterminate these...it is not surprising that there are states that break apart, and dynasties that decline and go to extinction.”  (Han Fei)

There are thus no "real" supporters, as nothing is real except power - and, if Foucault had been a genuine scholar, not (mostly) a faker, he might have written a great book on the Legalists, as his notion of power was v. close to theirs. It's not the "real" world - no social group, however small & elite, could function long-term w/such a fully-blown psychopathic approach - but it's a hell of a cautionary model to help explain elite power-craziness at its worst:

“Among the myriads of things in the world, there is nothing more valuable than personal glorification, supreme status, greatness of the ruler’s authority, and the momentousness of his power.”  (Han Fei)

“Within the state of a wise ruler, there are no books.” (Han Fei)

“There is nothing constant to rule over the people. Any decree conducive to governance is the law.” (Han Fei)

And, remember, (from the scientific camp) game theory predicts that in many types of one-on-one repeated interactive games, the best strategy is randomisation.... Don't think Von Neumann read the Legalists (bloody difficult to tell w/a great thinker who’s that broad-ranging), but he - also - clearly reinvented that wheel from first principles. So...you should (definitely) read 'em, if only for (perverse) amusement...  And, because - as J.G.A. Pocock so aptly remarked - all the others have problems - the Legalist ruler is the problem...

“It is inappropriate to rule the world by humaneness and justice.”   (Lord Shang)

“A well-governed state has many punishments, but few rewards.”  (Lord Shang)

Who - by the way - was torn to pieces between chariots...a punishment he devised, after being captured (whilst fleeing from fabricated evidence) due to the close surveillance of the very police state measures he had introduced. This is not the only such tale...Han Fei himself met his death due to the trumped-up charges laid against him by an old school “friend” who feared for his own position in the First Emperor’s court, and later suffered a similar fate in yet another internal scuffle...

“A wise man creates laws, but a foolish man is controlled by them; a man of talent reforms rites, but a worthless man is enslaved by them.”  (Lord Shang)

Reaction against their policies was so extreme that it soured the Chinese on materialism permanently - well...until recently, on the mainland, at least. What the Han (the next dynasty) did here was particularly interesting. They rescinded the book ban - but then banned the Legalists!  Even bigger joke is that the Legalists had insisted that all non-purely practical books be banned - even/particularly their own, as only the ruler actually needed to have access to policy advice/ideas, and the rest should be kept in the dark... Feeding them bullshit (the watered-down Confucianism that the Han made official) was the Han innovation, and it (obviously) had real staying power. The ban was only lifted during the Cultural Revolution, when Mao, in his dotage, declared they were the real forebears of Chinese Communism, and had them taught in the schools...

“The wise ruler employs the law to eliminate the private interest; hence the state is rid of vermin.” (Shen Dao)

So, regimes were "justified" by Confucian ideals, "official" countercultures were Taoist and Buddhist, but Legalist ideas underpinned Chinese realpolitic - it was a sort of "secret mandarins' business"... And, I'd buy this interpretation...as there are far too many Legalist manuscripts around - dating from various periods too - for comfort. As to what they created...well, most of this material speaks for itself, no matter what sort of comforting gloss people may try & put upon it:

“During the Warring States period, the Han state appointed Master Shen, and the Qin state recruited Shang Yang. They established the statute of guilt by association and the punishment of execution of the three branches of relatives. They increased corporal punishments and capital execution, including the punishments of drilling through the head, pulling out the ribs, and boiling in water.”  (Ban Gu)

As to why we should study them carefully, well...I’ve already touched upon their (eternal) relevance to the inherent logic of total power - and recurring elite patterns of psychopathy - but I’ll just finish this little primer w/two juxtaposed quotations...and leave you to draw what conclusions you will...

“The real threat to democracy comes not from overmanagement, but from undermanagement.... Vital decision-making...must remain at the top.”
(Robert McNamara, in 1968, whilst “managing” the Vietnam War)

“People who cannot be shepherded are outside the pale; those outside the pale should be exterminated.” (Han Fei)

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power revisited

Thank you John for this most stimulating appraisal of the legalistic approach to preserving power from the masses. So democracy is all a ploy. I thought as much which is why I am an anarchist. Well, if one is going to go down, it may as well be for real sedition rather than a trumped up charge.

As for power, one only has to look at Howard to see what really sustains ambition. Certainly not ideology because that's about passion and personal sacrifice for a cause greater than one's self. Howard has none of that. What he does have is a driving ambition to be seen to be right and that stems from something much deeper than an ideological commitment. In the end, all ideologies falter for they are created by people in contexts that change. If Howard were a mature individual, he would have been the first to acknowledge that his ideas had changed over the years and grown as he, himself, should have grown. No such luck.

And I think Jay's comment "For example, I suspect that Bush is now more interested in creating a legacy than in consolidating greater power" is a bit off beam. Bush has the aspirations of a Viking. He wants fame to follow him down the annuals of history - bards and all. That is real power for it has, as it's intent, the desire to cast a shadow beyond the grave and thus defeat death. Perhaps he sees himself as sitting at the right hand of Glory. Where Robert McNamara nows lives in the fame afforded him by the legacy of wholescale destruction visited upon millions in South East Asia.

The analysis of power

Thank you, John, for introducing what I believe is one of the two most important topics we should be concentration on.  Bertrand Russell said, “.. the fundamental concept in social science is Power, in the same sense in which Energy is the fundamental concept in physics”. As such, not topic in this site provides adequate insight unless it includes a strong analysis from the perspective of power.

Unfortunately, I have yet to come across a good methodology for analysing power. What we have are lots of tips on how to act powerfully or how to diffuse power. 

BTW, I’d argue that the legalist proposals presented here won’t work for at least two reasons. Firstly, it presumes that one person has absolute power. This is never true.  These rules are not a very effective or efficient way to create an organization, and organizations created with these rules that compete with a more open organization will lose.  The US, for example, operates a more open society internally, and thus had the strength to apply “legalist” strategies to others. Saddam who applied it internally, could not compete.

Secondly, the “Legalists” were colour-blind.  Freud called sex the principal driver. Marx said it was wealth. Maslow proposed a hierarchy.  For us to fixate on power will create its own truth. For example, I suspect that Bush is now more interested in creating a legacy than in consolidating greater power.

One sheep calling

Hey John, I've written this three times and lost it on trying to post it so it is with hope that I try again. I'll copy before entering this time.

What Han has written is clearly the original script(s) for Yes Minister and is also used as a training aid for politicians, political parties and senior bureaucrats today and throughout the centuries too.

It's a real bugger though John, trying to think about an article and I would ask you to desist as it hurts my hard coded brain. OK?

Seriously, doesn't it sicken you to know that such a high proportion of "leaders" use very similar tactics and strategies without being told what to do. It seems to be natural to some. To be able to cowtow, brown nose and accept abuse without flinching are the qualities it seems most organisations want in their senior management or poiticians. Organisations do not use their correct title. Sycophants. Senior Sycophant Grade 1 and so on. That would make it much easier for those of us who don't play that way. Most people see that rubbish from afar and just wonder what makes people take such a path but they do, every day, everywhere.

I've been one of those sheep mostly I guess as to me the stench of bullshit and the depth of it always overwhelmed me when I have been close to it. It eventually caused me to speak and act against such practices and got the old Coventry, derisions, redundancy, legal ties to shut me up. After a time the anger is still there but the need to avenge myself on such people has gone. Curiously though some of the people in authority in that place at that time have had sad lives. I think of them as deserving pity really most days as they have chosen to live and work with that method.

Delegate, avoid responsibility, find scapegoats, bully, lie, brown nose and anything else it takes, They'll do it.

Of course there are many who join organistaions or go into politics with a strong heart, noble aspirations and good intentions but time and the organisation pounds them into shape and forces them to compromise their principles sufficiently for them to just sigh and join the mob upstairs. Or go pear shaped and leave in one way or another. Guilt pangs, maybe, action against, nil.

McNamara's statement is clearly what most senior management teams use today, and maybe always have. Above all, don't let those you are administering actually have any control over the actions and policies of that group. Certainly let them think they do, as long as the reality is the opposite. Hawke's "consultation" was a classic version of that. Invite them all in, let them have a say, promise to consider all aspects and then throw down the policy he first wanted.

As for the sheep John, why would anyone want to be singled out from the flock? When you do so in an organisation you quickly start hearing words such as redundancy, reassignment, retraining, discipline and more. A quick toeing of the line ie then required before the toecutters arrive. I lost some of mine.

Methinks Barnaby's toes are under threat.

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