Thursday, November 10, 2011

Five books on holding power to account

Heather Brooke is a journalist and freedom of information campaigner. Her books include The Revolution Will Be Digitalised.

One of her top five books on holding power to account, as told to Daisy Banks at The Browser:
Animal Farm
by George Orwell

Your first choice is George Orwell’s allegorical Animal Farm.

It was a toss-up between Animal Farm and 1984. I picked Animal Farm because it is an allegory about power and its seductive and corruptive influence on people regardless of their initial good intentions. As one moves up the ladder and accrues power, the tendency is to forget principles – instead the ends come to justify the means. Once principles are cast aside, however, it is a short way towards becoming exactly the thing one fought against. What you see in Animal Farm is an imaginative depiction of exactly how this happens.

There are two main characters – the pigs Napoleon and Snowball – and they lead an animal-liberation revolution on the farm: “Two legs bad, four legs good”. They write a declaration of rights on a wall and the main tenet is equality, but soon a power struggle develops and Napoleon ditches these principles to focus on concentrating power in himself. He does so primarily through the manipulation and control of information. By the end of the story, the pigs are no better than the humans they deposed.

I have seen this in politics quite often. In my latest book I looked at Wikileaks, and the dynamics of that organisation offered a living example of this book. It was bizarre to see how Julian Assange, a supposed campaigner for truth, manipulated information to build up a cult of personality around himself – and also to see how many people fell for it. It seems a lot of us are looking for a saviour, someone who will do the hard work of making society just. We want to outsource the hard graft of democracy and then we wonder why that person fails to live up to our expectations. It’s because they are fallible human beings, as everyone is.

The main problem is they start to believe their own hype. If you look at any dictator, most started out from a position of powerlessness. They desperately crave power, but even when they have it they can’t shake that internal feeling of powerlessness, which is why they covet more power and will do whatever it takes to keep it. It is that kind of dynamic which makes power so seductive and dangerous.

How can we hold people like that to account?

The main point is that power – when concentrated – is dangerous, and the only way to counter that danger is to build into a political system a series of checks and balances that are constantly monitored. For that monitoring to be effective, there need to be robust laws on freedom of speech and of information.
Read about the other books Brooke tagged.

Animal Farm is one of Chuck Klosterman's most important books; it appears on John Mullan's list of ten of the best pigs in literature and Charlie Jane Anders and Michael Ann Dobbs's list of well-known and beloved science fiction and fantasy novels that were rejected over and over.

--Marshal Zeringue