Friday, July 21, 2006

The 48 Laws of Oppression

A friend recently forwarded me an article in the Los Angeles Times about the hip hop community’s embrace of The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene. I had heard of the book but never had any interest in it. When it comes to books about how to handle my business, I’m more interested in titles like Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline and even Don Miguel Ruiz’s The Four Agreements. I strive to be a holistic person, and books such as these possess sound advice about how to live one’s life to achieve wealth beyond that which is material.

Journalist Chris Lee wrote, “. . . [A]nd now, largely as a result of rap artists' growing sense of themselves as an entrepreneurial warrior class, [The 48 Laws of Power] is finding new life as the bible for behavior in the hip-hop world.”

Wanting to stay in the know about the things that capture hip hop’s imagination, I seek out The 48 Laws of Power on my latest trip to the bookstore. After I fail in my attempt to locate the book on my own, I enlist the help of a sale associate. As he leads me to a table at the front of the store, he asks over his shoulder, “Now are you just interested in The 48 Laws of Power because Greene also wrote The Art of Seduction and The 33 Strategies of War.”

I think I already don’t like this fuckin’ book. But I don’t take out my rising disgust on the friendly sales associate. “Nah,” I say. “No more war. Too much damned war as it is.”

He laughs sympathetically, and we arrive at the table. I pick up The 48 Laws of Power and start to browse. Running almost five hundred pages and using a small font, the book is thick and dense. Greene does not merely state the supposed law, explain it in simple language and provide a contemporary scenario that exemplifies its application as one might expect in a typical business tome. Rather he goes to great lengths to anchor the law in historical context both by quoting other strategic minds (such as Sun-Tzu who penned The Art of War, another favorite among hip hop heads) and offering multiple examples from how Ivan the Terrible “disappeared” for a month to make Russians appreciate his dictatorial reign when he returned to how Count Victor Lustig used “selective honesty” to dupe five grand out of none other than Al Capone.

My interest in this book is fading fast. No wonder heads are all over this, I think. It’s more of that gangsta shit. But I have to check myself. After all, it’s just not gangsta rappers who have adopted this book as their business bible. According to Lee, The 48 Laws of Power first circulated among music industry executives such as Lyor Cohen, Kevin Liles and Chris Lighty. It then trickled down into the hands of hip hop artists. For example, artist LG claims that his manager gave him the book to give him a tactical edge in contract negotiations. Even Kanye West – who spoke truth to power in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and took a stand against homophobia – devoted lyrics to the manifesto.

So I begin to randomly scan the actual laws, and my stomach starts to churn. Even though I always suspected that The 48 Laws of Power would be less like Stephen Covey and more like Niccolo Macchiavelli, my discomfort surprises me. Then I realize it’s because I’m reading the laws, applying them to my own experiences and having thoughts like:

Yeah, we’re doing that now. Keeping shit close to the vest. That’s probably why he hasn’t been able to fuck us over.

Damn, why didn’t I do that? ‘Cause I was trying to be real with her, that’s why. Oh, well. So far, no drama. Hopefully, things’ll turn out all right anyway.

Seem dumber than your mark? That might work for a man, but. . . OK, actually that can work for a woman, too. Maybe even better because they expect inferiority from a woman.

And then I recall a situation in which I violated Law # 3: conceal your intentions.
According to Greene, it should’ve been a wrap for me. But the truth was that the results were nothing but positive. By being transparent, I bonded more deeply with someone who proved time and again since to be a true ally, disempowered and even exorcised a cancerous individual from my life, and most important of all, kept my reputation in tact which, after all, is Law # 5: guard your reputation with your life. And not only has that served to draw other people of integrity to me, it has also inoculated me from some poseurs who recognize that my honesty and candor keeps the lights on, so to speak, making it difficult to hide their maneuvers in the shadows.

Upon this reflection, my stomach takes a violent flip, and it hit me why The 48 Laws of Power made me sick to my stomach.

This is a manual for oppression.

The underlying assumption of every law is that man’s strongest and most natural impulse is to destroy and dominate. Life is constant warfare in pursuit of material ends. In a world that operates along The 48 Laws of Power, there is no such thing as healing, peace, community, justice or even love. Some laws need no explanation to demonstrate this.

Law # 7: Get others to do the work for you, but always take the credit.

Law #27: Play on people’s need to believe to create a cult-like following.

Law #14: Pose as a friend, work as a spy.

In fact, the assumptions and values that drive many of these “laws” have been used throughout the history of humankind to justify and execute all kinds of domination and exploitation including imperialism, slavery, and even genocide.

Law #37: Create compelling spectacles i.e. use “striking imagery and grand symbolic gestures” to create “an aura of power.” The Ku Klux Klan and Nazis had that on lock.

Law #17: Keep others in suspended terror: cultivate an air of unpredictability. This is how terrorists of all stripes operate be they a racist police force to Al-Qaeda –

Law # 4: Always say less than necessary. The name of George W. Bush immediately should come to the mind of any independent-thinking American. The examples from his administration are endless, but I’ll offer just one: the humongous lie upon which we invaded and continue to occupy Iraq.

Granted, the back cover boasts, “The bestselling book for those who want POWER, watch POWER, or want to arm themselves against POWER.” Theoretically, the emerging “entrepreneurial warrior class” comprised of mainstream hip hop artists could be turning to The 48 Laws of Power in an effort to learn how oppression functions in order to protect themselves against it. But let’s be real. We all know that’s not their agenda. They don’t study this book with the intention of disarming the ruling class never mind defeating it.

They embrace this book because they want to join it. And in order to become a member of the ruling class, one must become an oppressor. Should this hip hop warrior class succeed and rise to power, who are they supposed to oppress?

It sure as hell ain’t going be Lyor Cohen.

It sickens me that of all the classic and contemporary literature that men of color in hip hop can embrace as guides for prosperity, happiness and, yes, even revolution, they repeatedly submit to the same oppressive ideologies that have been used against them and their communities time and again. And more often than not, these ideologies and their applications are developed, perpetuated and executed by patriarchal, white supremacist males. When will the brothers learn that, as Audre Lorde wrote, the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house?

Then again, probably few if any hip hop heads know who that sister was even though she did more for the liberation of Black people than any business guru of the month.


AfroSaxon said...

Hmm...I own The 48 Laws of Power and have read half of it. I never thought of it as a tool of oppression. Thanks for giving me another perspective through which to view it. -- T.

Anonymous said...

What an interesting perspective--thank you for your thoughts. I also think many of the laws are cut-throat; however, they offer the less cut-throat among us lessons in what power-hungry people will resort to to get what they want. I find it especially interesting to note how celebrities regularly apply these principles to direct their image/career.

colored one said...

I've enjoyed reading your view on the 48 laws book. I myself have not read it yet. I was unsure whether or not to waste my money on it or check it out the library. I think I just might be going to the library instead. love your blog

Unknown said...

Kiastar, thank you for the James Allen recommendation. I had never heard of it unitl you mentioned it. I'll check it out.

Unknown said...

Nemesis/T, as you continue to read the book with this perspective in mind, I hope you'll share your final assessment of it. I'm thinking of organizing some kind of project where we as a communithy can not only cull our history for examples of how these "laws" have been used to dominate and destroy, but also to create some of our own laws or principles to counter them. After all, if this is how oppression functions, then by what principles or laws should we live by in order to not be defeated by it?

Unknown said...

Colored One, I'm glad you enjoy reading my blog and hope you'll continue share your views on what I've written. I would say that, yes, people should read this book with this perspective in mind, but, no, do not line this man's pockets, LOL! Borrow it from the library. When I was in college, I had to read "Leviathan" by Thomas Hobbes and "The Prince" by Niccolo Miachiavelli, and this is just a modern-day rehash of the same oppressive philosophy. This is the kind of thinking that leads to facsism, nihilism, despotism. . . just pick your "ism!" One of the assumptions driving all these "laws" is Darwinism. No way can you believe that we are all created equal and live like this. And we all know the role that Darwinist thinking played in the oppression of Black people. This is why it breaks my heart that so many Black men are subscribing to it without a second, critical thought.

Unknown said...

Anonymous, if you think celebrities are bad in their quest to live according to these laws, imagine the heads of states!

Anonymous said...

I completely understand how one could be ethically turned off by this book. It should be noted that the book isn't an ethical treatise but is rather a book about what WORKS in terms of acquiring power. To completely follow the 48 laws is truly to be a bastard. It is, however, undoubtedly the mindset that many successful people have used to get where they are and I definitely feel that it is helpful as a means of protecting one's self. Knowing the mindset of the enemy is extremely helpful when arming against him.

This book CAN be helpful. Just becaue Jaz-Z and Kanye choose to use it as an explicit guide to governing their business behavior doesn't mean that the book is without worth.

Unknown said...

Thanks for sharing your perspective, Benjamin, and I hear what you're getting at. In fact, I think we ultimately agree. In writing this blog, I wanted to challenge folks to think that there are other ways to acquire power that do not require having power OVER others. We can have power WITH them. But in order to stand a chance, we must understand exactly how the Power Over folks think.