Summary: Super-empowered individuals are a cutting-edge debate in some circles. But individuals are always powerful, able to shape their human and physical terrain — alter history. If there are such a thing, the big question is if they are good development — or bad? Following Godwin’s Law, this ends with a discussion of Nazi’s and Hitler.
Super-empowered individuals in fiction and history
Thomas L. Friedman coined the term “super-empowered” individuals, and many have run with the concept — notably John Robb and Thomas Barnett. Zenpundit gave a fine introduction to the concept here (excellent graphic!). However, individuals have always been empowered — in the fundamental sense of able to alter both the physical work on a large scale and the history of nations.
Although set in the future, Captain Kirk is an old-fashioned super-empowered individual. For example, see the Star Trek episode A Taste of Armageddon. The Enterprise visits two planets locked in a never-ending war, and they threaten to destroy the ship. Kirk discusses the situation with planetary leader Anan 7″
Kirk: I can destroy this entire planet.
Anan 7: That is why I don’t let you contact your ship.
Kirk: I do not need my ship.
Anan 7: All by yourself, with just a disruptor? I had no idea you were so … formidable.
By the end of the show Anan 7 is a broken man, but with a new-found appreciation for both the desirability of peace and the power of an individual. But we do not need science fiction to show this this. There are illustrations enough in real history.
First, even before technology an individual could shape the physical terrain. The always interesting War Nerd describes one method by which empowered individuals change shape their world: starting large fires. Simple, basic, almost irresistible. Burn, Malibu, Burn — Fire: the most effective, unused weapon in the world.
Second — and more important — an individual can powerfully shape the human terrain. The deaths of Julius Caesar, Lincoln, and John Kennedy changed history. How might the death of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, FDR, or Churchill altered events?
Research into the most common kind of super-empoowered individual
The National Bureau of Economic Research a May 2007 paper on this very topic: Hit or Miss? The Effect of Assassinations on Institutions and War, by Benjamin F. Jones and Benjamin A. Olken (hat tip to Matthew Yglesias). They say…
Assassinations are a persistent feature of the political landscape. Using a new data set of assassination attempts on all world leaders from 1875 to 2004, we exploit inherent randomness in the success or failure of assassination attempts to identify assassination’s effects. We find that, on average, successful assassinations of autocrats produce sustained moves toward democracy. We also find that assassinations affect the intensity of small-scale conflicts. The results document a contemporary source of institutional change, inform theories of conflict, and show that small sources of randomness can have a pronounced effect on history.
A new paper on this is The Political Consequences of Assassination by Zaryab Iqbal and Christopher Zorn of the University of South Carolina. (ditto, Yglesias) They say…
The assassination of a political leader is among the highest-profile acts of political violence, and conventional wisdom holds that such events often have substantial political, social, and economic effects on states. We investigate the extent to which the assassination of a head of state affects political stability, through an analysis of all assassinations of heads of state between 1952 and 1997. We examine the political consequences of assassination by assessing the levels of political unrest, instability, and civil war in states that experience the assassination of their head of state. Our findings support the existence of an interactive relationship among assassination, leadership succession, and political turmoil: in particular, we find that assassinations’ effects on political instability are greatest in systems in which the process of leadership succession is informal and unregulated.
Perhaps the debate of the empowered individual looks at things through the wrong end of the telescope. Considering what individuals can do, the question is not about the potential for individual action — but why there are so few examples of it in history? Are we sheep, unwilling to act except when in a herd — except for the extraordinary individual, able to act by himself (or herself — real-life equivalents of Jael putting a tent spike in Sisera’s head).
Consider Hitler. The conspiracy against Hitler — the Schwarze Kapelle, the Black Orchestra — reached to the highest levels of the German officer class. In his magisterial book Bodyguard of Lies Anthony Cave Brown shows that they were unable to stop or kill him. Why? I make a guess in a December 2005 essay:
The German General staff was as perfect a system as we can ever devise, but it could not compensate for the moral flaws of the officers who comprised it. By 1943 Hitler’s insanity was obvious. Germany’s senior officers should have drawn straws, with the loser to walk up and shoot Hitler. After which would follow his trial and execution for murder and treason. A bad end for him, but the salvation of the Wehrmacht and Germany. Instead, the small minority that had the will to act undertook assassination attempts suitable only for comic opera. All, of course, were unsuccessful.
The Wehrmacht and Germany were almost destroyed by the cowardliness of the Army’s leaders, the inexcusable flaw in an officer. Scharnhorst and von Moltke the Elder would have despaired to see their descendents’ failure.
Now, the concluding question: are empowered individuals — acting on their own judgement and initiative to change history — a good thing (we need more) or a bad thing (may God preserve us from these hot-heads)? Would it be a better world if Greens burned down the suburbs they so greatly hate? Would America be stronger if every President widely hated by a minority died in office — such as FDR, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, Bush Junior?
After answering this we can now move onto to the subject of super-empowered individuals, on another day.
For More Information
Would you like to become a super-empowered individual, the old-fashioned way? Get started by buying your own underground fortress. Only $1.5 million, available now on Ebay. Some work required, as the site is in bare-bones condition.
Thomas Friedman has continued to run with the concept of “super”-things. In his new book, Longitudes and Attitudes: Exploring the World After September 11, he speaks of the super-story, super-states, super-powers (like the USA, not the man in the blue tights), super-markets (Wall Street, Hong Kong, London, and Frankfurt — not grocery stores).